‘They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” And then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!’ Having said this, he fell asleep.” – Acts 7: 59
On April 9, 2017, as Coptic Christians in Egypt gathered for Palm Sunday, a suicide bomber killed 45 people and wounded 119. Those 45 martyrs lost their lives for the sole reason of following Jesus.
The term martyr goes back to the early church, meaning ‘a witness for Christ.’ It refers to a follower of Jesus who willingly loses their life rather than deny their faith. Stephen was the first martyr in the history of the church. Rather than defend himself when falsely accused by a group of religious leaders, Stephen chose to preach the Gospel of Christ from beginning to end in hopes that some might understand the Truth. Instead, the religious leaders became furious. Their anger and hatred towards Stephen revealed their hearts. Grabbing Stephen, they took him outside of the city – no trial, no formal conviction – and stoned him. It was the same type of scene as in the old South. Many in the white culture had this “lynch mob” mindset towards blacks, whom they felt had gotten out of line.
But it’s not just Stephen’s incredible faithfulness to God even in the face of death that inspires. It’s also the spirit in which he faced death. Stephen’s final words, “Lord Jesus receive my spirit” and “do not hold this against them,” are almost identical to what Jesus said on the cross in Luke 23: 46: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” What we see in Stephen is not just unwavering faith, but a Christ-likeness in his witness – a peace and calm in the face of death. Even though Stephen faced a horrifically violent death by stoning, he was not afraid. Why? Because Christ conquered death and so, too, would he. Just as Christ rose from the dead, so too will His followers.
Stephen faced death with a supernatural peace and calm assurance of eternity with Christ. When you face rejection, discrimination or even persecution, ask God for faith like Stephen.