THE FIRST CHRISTIAN MARTYR
T. PIERCE BROWN
The story of Stephen in Acts 7 is commonly referred to as an account of the first Christian martyr. The word “martyr” in the Greek language simply means “witness” and did not originally refer to a person who died for some cause. Let us examine some of the reasons for the martyrdom of this saint of God and how he responded to it.
One of the reasons for his death was the religious intolerance of the Pharisees who thought they had a corner on all righteousness and knowledge. They were “in charge” of things and jealous of anyone who might gain any prominence. Pilate “knew that for envy they delivered” Jesus to die (Matthew 27:19).
Another reason for his being put to death was rationalistic disbelief of the Saducees who could not stand the pressure of the condemnation of men like Peter and Stephen. They had been told that they had killed Christ, and He was raised from the dead. They did not like that for two reasons. First, although they had said, “His blood be upon us and upon our children” they were afraid that sort of preaching would “bring this man’s blood upon us” (Acts5:28). Second, they did not believe in any resurrection at all so Stephen’s preaching would destroy their cherished opinions.
Jesus had asked in Matthew 15:3, “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?” In verse 6 He says, “Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.” There are two kinds of traditions of which the Bible speaks. One is a tradition that had been authorized of God and should be continued. The other kind is a tradition of man. These may be good or bad. Even the good ones may be used to supplant or circumvent the word of God. We have many traditions in the church which God did not command, but which He authorized. That is, there are some things we do that He allows, but does not demand. They may be changed as conditions seem appropriate.
This closed mind of mere traditionalism and opinion was one of the things that caused Christ to be crucified and Stephen stoned. Those who have closed and prejudiced minds and are willing to split the church over their opinions have a habit of doing things like those who bring accusations against Stephen. Note the mixture of truth and falsehood in their accusations. They said he had spoken against the law. Had he? He had in the sense that he had said, “You do not have to obey the Law of Moses to be saved.”
Suppose I sit down at a table at a restaurant with a Baptist preacher, as I have done, to talk to him about the way of salvation and his false doctrine. One of our “sound” preachers may see sitting there and say, “Brother Brown was having fellowship with the Baptist preacher, and can not be trusted to stand for truth.” Since “fellowship” means “joint participation” and he saw us using the same salt shaker, his accusation might not be a complete lie. It would be wrong and sinful nevertheless.
We have these kinds of accusations made against various efforts to evangelize lost souls. I even read a criticism of my efforts to conduct correspondence Bible studies with 3000 African students because some men who were doing the same thing were rather “liberal” in their viewpoint. How anyone with any Christianity and spiritual maturity could criticize and lie about a man for sending out the saving gospel just because some doctrinally unsound man might be doing the same thing, I do not understand.
There are those who claim to be preachers of the gospel who seem to be unusually adept at this sort of thing. Suppose you came to my house this summer, and I say to you, “Let us go out on the back porch and sit in the shade.” In a month or so you become angry with me, and write, “I went to his house and was speaking very kindly with him and he invited me out of his house.” The expression “invited me out of his house” means, in some cultures, the same as the command “Get out!” It would be very difficult to accuse you of lying, but you would be sinning. I do not know that my brethren who do this kind of thing have to practice it in order to be adept at it, or just do it naturally, but it is very sad when those who are apparently doctrinally sound are spiritually corrupt.
Note the attitude and nature of Stephen in this situation, and especially how it contrasted with theirs. He was a man of good report and full of wisdom. He was not an empty fanatic who enjoyed hearing the sound of his own voice. He was a man of stability, who was neither ashamed nor afraid to preach the word. This did not leave him so restricted that he did not have time for benevolent work. We know some pulpit men who have no time for personal evangelism, benevolent work or visitation of members. They take pride in the fact that they are pulpit men. Stephen was a pulpit man. He preached with grace and power, but he was able to minister to the needs of widows without favoritism. I do not know that he got his name put on the top of the bulletin as The Minister, and received a higher salary for his excellent work. I have my doubts that he was out looking for another pulpit where he could have a wider sphere of influence. He was just a servant who waited on tables, but when he had an opportunity to preach, he preached. He was not looking for some “office” in the church, and thus was given the highest, for Jesus had said, “He that would be great among you, let him be servant of all.” He was indeed a great man, though it is doubtful if he knew it.
Notice his attitude toward his enemies. First, it was his desire to teach them, for it makes no difference what else you may do to or for a man, until he learns the truth he can not be saved. The lifeblood of the church is in its teaching program. This includes teaching from the pulpit, classroom, personal evangelism, radio, or through the mail.
His ultimate purpose in teaching was to glorify God by showing the people that God always had a noble purpose in mind, and that purpose centered in Christ as Savior and Lord. When God called Abraham, Moses or one of the prophets, He had a purpose, and that purpose led to the revelation of Christ as our Savior. He did two things that good preaching always does. First, he taught them certain important facts about the word of God. Second, he applied these facts to their lives in a way that convicted them of sin and lead to their repentance.
There are those connected with the Lord’s church who would give Stephen a failing grade as a preacher. He did not baptize even one person as a result of that sermon. He was a very negative preacher. He made them feel very guilty. They say, “If he had been wise he would have told them the truth, but in such a way that they would feel good about themselves.” He could have said, “I know that you killed Jesus. You made a mistake. We are all subject to errors about things like that. We need to have some dialogue on the matter so I can better understand your position.”
We would do well, whether we preach, or are usually in an audience, to take heed to the kind of preaching that was done by the men of the New Testament who were approved of God. If we are elders of a congregation, we should strive to get men in the pulpit who do that kind of preaching, both with regard to content and manner. If we are members, we should encourage the elders to do that. If we are preachers, whether or not we are encouraged by elders and members to do it, we should strive to please and glorify God by trying to pattern our preaching after that of the approved New Testament preachers.