The First Martyr

Scripture Reading
Stephen, filled with grace and power,
was working great wonders and signs among the people.
Certain members of the so-called Synagogue of Freedmen,
Cyrenians, and Alexandrians,
and people from Cilicia and Asia,
came forward and debated with Stephen,
but they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.

When they heard this, they were infuriated,
and they ground their teeth at him.
But he, filled with the Holy Spirit,
looked up intently to 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 in a loud voice, covered their ears,
and rushed upon him together.
They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him.
The witnesses laid down their cloaks
at the feet of a young man named Saul. 
As they were stoning Stephen, he called out
“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
(Acts 6:8-10, 7:54-59)

 

Scripture Study

Stephen’s discourse is the longest one given in Acts. It is a summary of the history of Israel, divided into three periods—of the Patriarchs (vv. 1–16), of Moses (vv. 17–43) and of the building of the temple (vv. 44–50). It ends with a short section (vv. 51–53) where he brings his argument together.

One thing that stands out is that Stephen does not defend himself directly. He answers his accusers with a Christian vision of salvation history, in which the temple and the Law have already fulfilled their purpose. He tells them that he continues to respect the Mosaic Law and the temple, but that as a Christian his idea of God’s law is more universal and more profound, his concept of the temple more spiritual (for God can be worshipped anywhere in the world). This approach, which respects and perfects the religious values of Judaism (because it probes their true meaning and brings them to fulfillment), is reinforced by the way he presents the figure of Moses. Stephen shows Moses as a “type” of Christ: Christ is the new Moses. Small elucidations of the Greek text of the Old Testament help in this direction: expressions like “they refused” or “deliverer” (v. 35) are not applied to Moses in the books of the Old Testament, but they are used here to suggest Christ. The Israelites’ rebellious and aggressive treatment of Moses, who had a mission from God, is being repeated—much more seriously—in their rejection of the Gospel.[1]

Scripture Reflection

Martyrdom is a supreme act of bravery and of true prudence, but to the world it makes no sense. It is also an expression of humility, because a martyr does not act out of bravado or overweening self-confidence; he is a weak man like anyone else, but God’s grace gives him the strength he needs. Although martyrdom is something which happens rarely, it does show Christians what human nature can rise to if God gives it strength, and it establishes a standard, both real and symbolic, for the behavior of every disciple of Christ.

May the virtues of faith, hope, and love go with you today – DV. 

 

 

[1] The Acts of the Apostles, The Navarre Bible (Dublin; New York: Four Courts Press; Scepter Publishers, 2005), 63–65.