St. Stephen, Proto-Martyr
First Reading: Acts 6:8-10, 7:54-59
6:8 Full of (God’s) favor and (God’s) power, Stephen performed miracles and great signs among the people. 9 (They) stood up, some from the synagogue called the “Free Men” (consisting of) Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and the (ones) from Cicilia and Asia arguing with Stephen. 10 They were not strong (enough) to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit in what he spoke.
6:9 “...synagogue called the ‘Free Men’...” The synagogue of the “Free Men” (or “Libertines” in Greek) was an assembly of emancipated slaves. There are two sets of nationalities mentioned: one of Cyrenians and Alexandrians, the other from Cicilia and Asia. Clearly the Libertine synagogue contained Africans (Cyrene is in modern day Libya, Alexandria lay in Egypt). The other group mentioned came from modern day Turkey, so were most likely ethnic Greeks. Whether this later group had their own synagogue or were independent is a matter of speculation. Nonetheless, these groups of Jews indicated the cosmopolitan nature of Jerusalem.
7:54 Hearing these (words of Stephen’s testimony), (they felt) torn asunder in their hearts and (they) ground their teeth against him. 55 Being full of the Spirit, having stared into heaven, (Stephen) saw the glory of God and JESUS standing to the right of God, 56 and said, “Look! I see the heavens completely opened up and the SON OF MAN standing to the right of God.” 57 Shouting a great shout, (they) held their ears (closed) and rushed upon him with a single purpose 58 and, having thrown (him) outside the city, (they) stoned (him). The witnesses set their (outer) clothing at the feet of a young man, named Saul. 59 (They) kept stoning Stephen, (who) called out (in prayer) and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
7:54 “...they felt torn asunder...” The Greek verb literally means to “saw in half.” “They ground their teeth...” is a Semitic phrase indicating intense anger, rage, even hatred.
7:55-56 Luke presented the vision of Stephen as an epiphany. Stephen saw the glory of God (like Isaiah did in the Temple; Isaiah 6:1) and Jesus (which Luke equates with Daniel’s “Son of Man”; Daniel 7:13) at the right hand of God. The revelation (opening of the heavens) showed a heavenly court ready to receive Stephen into eternal life. Stephen’s speech acted as a witness to the Jewish leaders.
7:57-58a In response to Stephen’s words, the members of the Sanhedrin shout and cover their ears, then rush upon him to restrain the Christian. Both were reactions to a perceived blasphemy. They did not want to hear the words (hence, the shouting and the cupping of the ears) and they wanted to remove pollution the “sinner” (Stephen) posed from the assembly of the “righteous” (the leaders of the people), and, ultimately, the holy city (Jerusalem).
7:58b-59a In context, the reaction to Stephen’s speech seemed to be more an act of mob violence than the judgement and execution of a blasphemer by the Sanhedrin.
Stephen is called the “proto-martyr,” the first person to die for the faith. The notion of proto-martyr means more than just the first. He was the model for all subsequent martyrs. He was a Spirit-filled believer who spread the faith with signs of “miracles and great signs.” His name meant “wreath,” a term that symbolized the prize given after an athletic victory or sign of royal power; so, the name foreshadowed a glorious afterlife.
These readings cover the introduction and the conclusion of the narrative on Stephen. The missing section included Stephen’s arrest on trumped up charges and trial (Acts 6:11-7:1), then his court speech (7:2-53). The speech included a review of the Abrahamic covenant (7:2-8), a bridge from Abraham to the immigration of Judah to Egypt (7:9-17), the conditions of the people and the Exodus under Moses (7:18-43), a summation of Joshua and Solomon (7:44-50), and a charge of apostasy (7:51-53). Since the verdict of the trial was a forgone conclusion, the purpose of Stephen’s speech was to turn the tables on his accusers. He stressed the revelation to Abraham and Moses (7:3, 30-35) and their faithful responses (7:4-8, 36). He compared these great men to others who rejected the covenants (7:39-43). But they did more than reject the covenants; they rejected the divine presence behind the covenants: the command of the “God of glory” to Abraham (7:3), the revelation to Moses in the burning bush (7:30:-35), the divine presence that led the people (“angel in the wilderness”) and the gift of the Law (“living oracle given to us”; 7:38), the presence that transcended the Temple (7:48-50). In the end, Stephen placed the leadership in the Sanhedrin with the apostates (7:51-53).
We return to the text with a question: why was Stephen martyred? The speech he gave was not unlike that the message Peter preached (Acts 2:14-36, 3:12-26, 4:8-12); so that could not be the reason. The key to answering the question lie in Acts 7:55-56, the epiphany Stephen had. His vision and speech witnessed to the arrival of the Messiah in glory. In the time of the early Church and even afterwards, anticipation of the Messiah was one of the key tenets of Pharisaical Judaism. However, proclaiming the Messiah had arrived was considered blasphemy. By evoking the vision found in Daniel 7:13 with Jesus of Nazareth, Stephen had committed such a sin. That act made him unclean in the eyes of the leadership. Such ritual pollution needed to be cleansed from the holy assembly of elders and the holy city of David. Such a sin deserved execution in their eyes.
Even at the point of death, Stephen made an act of faith. He gave himself up to the Lord. In the meantime, a man named Saul received the tunics of the executioners as a sign of approval.Top of the page
Gospel: Matthew 10:17-22
17 Beware of men; for (they) will hand you over to councils and, in their synagogues, (they) will scrounge you 18 and you will be dragged before leaders and even kings on my account, in testimony (about me) to them and the Gentiles. 19 When they hand you over, do not be anxious what you will say or how (you will say it); for it will be given to you (by the Spirit) in that hour what you are to say. 20 You are not the ones speaking, but the Spirit of your Father, the One speaking through you. 21 Brother will hand brother over to (the penalty of) death, and father (his) child, and children will rise up against their parents and will put them to death. 22 You will be hated by everyone because of my name. But the (one) enduring to the end, this (one) will be saved.
10:17 “...councils...synagogues...” The councils in Matthew 10:17 referred to a group of twenty three elders in charge of keeping order in the local synagogue. Since the Romans preferred to leave the keeping of the peace to local officials (especially among the autonomous Jewish enclaves throughout the Mediterranean), enforcement of local ruling were administered at community centers (i.e., synagogues).
10:21 “Brother...against brother...” Matthew 10:21 spoke directly to the power of witness to Christ. Such witness had the power to disrupt, even destroy the clan, and, so, the fabric of society.
These verses come from the second of five long discourses found in Matthew. As didactic monologues, Jesus taught his disciples in these discourses on subjects from ranging from morality to church discipline. The second discourse spoke to the need, the duty, and the costs of evangelization. These sayings addressed the cost in stark terms.
As the note above implied, evangelization has power. It can bring believers closer to God. It can also inflame the hatred of non-Christians. Christian missionaries were arrested, tried, and executed for spreading the faith. Even the trials of these missionaries were opportunities to share the faith. Evangelization could tear families apart and threaten the social order. In other words, Christian witness was an integral part of the end times; it would inflame the passions of opponents against Christians even within families, and add to the coming tribulation. The ones who remained faithful through the persecution would be saved.
One more point needs to be made. The evangelist cannot prepare for such trials. Instead, they should rely on the Spirit for guidance. In such times, God would act through the believer. The words of witness would be inspired, in the literal sense of the word.