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Great Cloud of Witnesses: The First Martyr

For more on my Lenten Focus, see my Ash Wednesday post. A quick summary is that I am spending Lent fasting and praying for the Persecuted Church, and I invite you to join me.


For Sundays during Lent, I thought I’d look at some of the examples of the faith from Church history. As the author of Hebrews, after listing the the heroes of the faith in Chapter 11, writes in chapter 12, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Stephen was the first martyr after Jesus’ Ascension*.  Stephen was one of the seven men appointed to make sure all those in need were cared for. Acts describes him as “full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” When he was accused of blasphemy, he used his audience with the high priest as an opportunity to preach the gospel, starting with Abraham. Basically, he told the most learned and esteemed men in his culture their own history through the lens of the Gospel of Jesus, condemning them for rejecting Him. It did not go well.
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Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

(Acts 7:54-60 ESV)

A few things strike me as I read through Acts 6 and 7. First, Stephen’s boldness and fearlessness always amaze me. He was bold in preaching and bold when he was brought before the high priest.  Also, he had obviously prepared himself to defend his faith. He gave an orderly, logical defense that was crafted for his audience. That means he had considered the possibility that his activities would result in him being arrested, and knew he’d use the opportunity to preach the gospel.

But the other thing that strikes me is that martyrdom is there at the very beginning of the Church. Especially for the Western Church, we consider persecution to be an anomaly, but I’m not sure either scripture or history supports that view. Rather, it is we who have been living the anomaly. It is the normal order of things that believers would suffer for their faith. Persecution is to be expected, and God gives us instruction on how to respond to persecution and a model to follow in Stephen and others. As we pray for the Persecuted Church, we should pray that they would respond in the manner Jesus has set forth, and we should pray that we would be prepared to do the same.

*One might say John the Baptist was the first martyr of the Church, or even Abel. So I’m just saying he was the first martyr after the Ascension, which is accurate, as far as can be ascertained by the written record.

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