The story of Stephen (Acts 6.8-7.60) gives a very clear picture of the dynamism which the deacons brought into the church. This ardent soul, radiant with courage, was the first of that vast procession of wonderful men and women whom Christianity was to enroll in the service of her cause and who, having found the bliss of life in Jesus, deemed it quite natural to sacrifice that life for Him. Stephen was a Hellenist, and may even have been of Alexandrian origin. At all events, he was equally at home among either philosophic doctrines or Hebrew traditions, and he was a marvelous personification of the new spirit within the church which was intent upon fresh conversions and which had decided upon certain necessary breaks with the Jewish past. He knew how to talk to the non-Jew better than the Judaizers did but, as a result, he dealt far less gently with the sensitivities of the old adherents of the Torah. Whenever St. Peter preached to the crowds in Jerusalem, he applied himself, first and foremost, to the task of showing them that Jesus had been the Messiah, the ultimate fulfillment of all that Israel stood for. Stephen, however, remembered best the Gospel sentences which said that one could not pour new wine into old skins and that a tattered cloak might not be patched with new material. Pious Jews were quick to grasp his meaning. Here was a more dangerous enemy! The formalists of the diaspora, in particular, were in no doubt of this. “This man is never tired of uttering insults against the holy place and the law” (Acts 6.13).
The Sanhedrin met. Probably the Jewish authorities felt more independent than usual at this particular time, for Pontius Pilate had just been recalled to Rome to account for various recent and over-obvious atrocities and was now defending his actions – not very well – before Caligula. It was the opportune moment to try to smash the growing sect. Stephen was led before the judges. Not for one instant did he desire to save his own head. He was not remotely interested in defending himself, but only in proclaiming his faith so loudly that all could hear him. This was to be the attitude of all the martyrs who followed him. His speech was a magnificent one, its line of argument firm and strong. He linked Christ’s message with everything in the Scriptures which had heralded its coming, and he set it out in terms of a logical conclusion. But, there was more to it than this – his actual courage was superb. He rattled out accusation upon accusation against the predestined, but unfaithful, Jewish nation. And he concluded his long apologia with these damning sentences: “Stiff-necked race, your heart and ears still uncircumcised, you are forever resisting the Holy Spirit, just as your fathers did. There was not one of the prophets they did not persecute. It was death to foretell the coming of that just man whom you, in your times, have betrayed and murdered – you, who received the law dictated by angels, and did not keep it!” (Acts 7.51-53)
This was too much. The Jews answered his provocative speech with howls of rage. Stephen knew well enough what end awaited him. Already, so he told his accusers, he saw the heavens opening and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. Blasphemy! More blasphemy! At this, the exasperated audience fell upon him and dragged him away. The Roman procurator would know nothing of this illegal execution – or, anyhow, there would be nothing that he could do about it. What this impious creature deserved was death by stoning, the supreme penalty for blasphemy. The stones soon began to fly, striking down the heroic deacon, who prayed aloud to Jesus, begging Him to forgive his torturers. A young Pharisee stood in one corner, watching the scene and grinning. His name was Saul, and he stepped forward and offered to look after the executioners’ cloaks. “And now, behold,” Jesus had said, “I am sending you prophets and wise men and men of learning to preach to you. Some of them you will put to death and crucify, some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city…Believe me, this generation will be held answerable for all of it” (Matthew 23.34-39). Thirty years later, when Jerusalem did, indeed, become the “uninhabited house” predicted by the Master, the blood of this first martyr would be dearly paid for in a massive flood of suffering. But, in giving Christianity the first of many witnesses sealed in blood, Stephen’s martyrdom was to contribute a very great deal to spreading the good news far and wide.
From: The Church of Apostles and Martyrs by Henri Daniel-Rops; translated from the French by Audrey Butler (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd./New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1960), pp. 32-34. French original published in 1948. This excerpt is from Volume 1 of the author’s ten-volume History of the Church of Christ (1948-1965).
Henri Daniel-Rops (1901-1965) was a French Roman Catholic historian and author. He was elected to the French Academy in 1955.