Stephen was a deacon and charismatic leader, “working great wonders and signs among the people.” Opponents of the Gospel attempted to debate with him, but “they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.” Stephen was bold and brash – He was a fearless proponent of the good news of Jesus’s resurrection.
Because they couldn’t beat him on the merits of his arguments, Stephen’s adversaries turned to a more barbaric plan. They went to the religious leaders and accused Stephen of publicly blaspheming both God and Moses, a crime punishable by death. They even brought “witnesses” to testify against him. So Stephen was arrested and brought before the Council of the Sanhedrin.
As was customary, Stephen was given the opportunity to defend himself, and went on to deliver a remarkably courageous speech, where he carefully summarized Israelite history, up to and including the building of the first temple in Jerusalem. He connected the ancient rituals of the Mosaic Law to the new order of things brought by Jesus. In short, Stephen alluded to a new way of worshiping God made possible by Jesus’s death and resurrection. This new way was a direct challenge to the authority of the religious leadership he was testifying to.
Incredibly, Stephen did not hold back on delivering the unvarnished truth – even though he knew his life was on the line. He was staunchly direct.
“You stiff-necked people… you are just like your ancestors. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They put to death those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become.” (Acts 7:51-52)
When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and cried out against him. But calmly, Stephen gazed up to heaven…
“Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:56-60)
Stephen was the first person murdered because of his belief in Jesus Christ — what we refer to as a martyr. Being stoned was a slow and cruel death, but Stephen endured it through his bold faith. He even asked God to have mercy on these merciless men, just as Jesus did when dying slowly on the cross.