St. Stephen, One of the first martyrs
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Saint Stephen is the first Christian martyr of the first century. In the Acts of the Apostles, written by Saint Luke, the Evangelist, his faith and martyrdom is described.
In the days after the Ascension and Pentecost, the numbers of disciples grew so large that the apostles had no time to concentrate on prayer and the ministry of the Word. So they assembled the community and told them to choose seven men to be deacons. These deacons were to control the distribution of alms, food and property, and some of the spiritual needs of the community.
The Apostles ordained the deacons by first praying over them and then by laying hands on their heads. Saint Stephen was one of the deacons chosen. He was already a “man filled with grace and power, who worked great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:8)
Of course, those who had conspired against Jesus and saw him as a threat to the Jewish faith were still in Jerusalem. They were in panic because even though they crucified Jesus, it hadn’t stopped his teaching. The Apostles and the deacons continued meeting in the temple and on street corners, teaching the Gospel. Many people, including priests joined the Christians.
A group called the Libertines, or the Synagogue of Roman Freemen, tried to argue with Saint Stephen. But when they could not win any debates with him, they found false witnesses to accuse him of blasphemy to the Sanhedrin.
At Saint Stephen’s trial, he was given the opportunity to answer to the charges against him. At this point, he could have apologized, told the court that he was wrong and promised to never talk about Jesus again. Instead, he delivered a powerful homily, and witness of his faith.
He showed those assembled that although Moses foretold a new law and a Messiah, and that Solomon had built the Temple, both were temporary and were supposed to fall in order than God might introduce more perfect institutions. This had been fulfilled by the coming of the Messiah. He accused them of persecuting and murdering prophets who foretold the Christ, and finally of betraying and murdering Him in person.
Finally, turning his eyes upwards, he saw the Heavens open and his Saviour, Jesus Christ ready to protect, receive and crown his servant, Stephen. Joyfully, he told the crowd of this vision. This enraged both the Sanhedrin and the crowd so much, that they forgot about the procedures of the court and the sentencing power of the Roman governor and dragged Stephen out of the city.
Soon, they began stoning Saint Stephen. He died crying out to the Lord “Receive my spirit.” and “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”