St. Stephen’s Martyrdom

From early Church history, the martyrdom of St. Stephen has been commemorated the day after Christmas. This commemoration is a reminder that Christmas is more than a joyous event about the birth of Baby Jesus. Christmas is about the Incarnation of God into a world full of evil and in need of salvation – costly salvation. 


On the day after Christmas, I sat down to study God’s Word, and I realized that coincidently (or providentially) my assigned reading for the day in my study of Scripture was Acts 7, the martyrdom of St. Stephen. A passage in N.T. Wright’s commentary on Acts caught my attention: 


What is a ‘martyr’? As is widely known, the word technically means ‘witness.’ A ‘martyr’ is someone who gives evidence. Why then do we call people who die for their faith ‘martyrs’? Well, at one level at least, because in being prepared to die for their faith they are showing that they, at least, reckon that this faith is not just a set of ideas, not merely a nice religious glow, but the very living truth itself, worth more than one’s own life.


Yet there is another level. Just prior to being stoned, Stephen was allowed to see into Heaven, and he cried out to his persecutors, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). He testified of what he saw. Wright explains it like this:


The point of being a ‘martyr’, then, a ‘witness’ is not just that giving one’s life to death provides striking confirmation of one’s faith. It may be much more: that the point at which a person stands at the very threshold of heaven and earth, still in earth but called to give up their life for the faith, is the point where they may for a moment be in a position where they can, as it were, see both dimensions of reality, and speak about the normally hidden one to the people who cannot yet see it for themselves. 


Stephen caught a clear glimpse into Heaven and proclaimed it to those who would listen. It must have been an experience of indescribable ecstasy, yet Stephen wanted to communicate it to his audience for their benefit. If his persecutors had had open hearts, they would have understood that his words served as a personal invitation into God’s Kingdom. Yet, their hearts were hardened, and instead of allowing Stephen’s witness of heaven to draw them to God, they “cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him… and stoned him” (57-58). 


And perhaps his most extraordinary example of martyrdom was in his last words that he cried out right before dying. In those words Stephen not only proclaimed what he saw of Heaven, he lived out God’s will in Heaven. Echoing Jesus’ prayer for those who were crucifying Him, Stephen prayed for those who were stoning him, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (60) – the ultimate prayer of God’s love and forgiveness. Even though Stephen’s witness of Heaven and his prayer from Heaven for God’s forgiveness for those who were murdering him seemed to fall on deaf ears, his witness (his martyrdom) remains strong and is proclaimed from generation to generation to all who will listen. 


As I read Wright’s words, I am filled with great joy in realizing in a new way that we can live on earth the way Stephen died – giving witness of the Kingdom of God to those around us! Perhaps our vision of Heaven won’t be as powerful and clear as Stephen’s was, yet certainly we can, by the power of the Holy Spirit and the graces that God has given us here on earth, receive a ‘vision’ of Heaven that we can share with others on earth. As we grow in our understanding, experience, and intentional and purposeful living of the Kingdom of God, we will be witnesses of this Kingdom to others as St. Stephen was.