By  D. M. PANTON, M. A.


The first Christian martyrdom ever to occur, and the only one ever recorded in detail, is put on record with such a fulness, and such a richness of instruction on how (if called to do so) we are to offer our life for Christ, as to make it the model martyrdom of all time.  And the very name of the martyr pours a searchlight on the record.  Stephen’ - of whom we know practically nothing except his martyrdom - means ‘crown’, or ‘crowned’; and the word means not a crown that is inherited, but a crown that is won: it thus singularly embodies our Lord’s assurance to every martyr down all the ages:- "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee THE CROWN OF LIFE" (Rev. 2: 10).* 


[* "Religious persecution began with Christianity.  This is a simple fact of history.  Strange as it may seem, there is no record of earlier times, amid all the cruelty and reckless disregard of the sacredness of human life, which sullied the annals of the old world, of suffering and death deliberately inflicted on account of religious opinions.  Martyrdom, in the strict sense of that word, was an unknown thing when Stephen stood before the council" (Bishop Woodford).]


At once we are confronted with the kind of man that makes a martyr. "Stephen, full of faith and of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6: 5).  "Stones are not thrown", says the proverb, "except at a fruit-laden tree."  No man in the Bible has this particular description - "full of faith": that is, a man of passionate conviction; with so complete a faith in his facts that he can face death fearlessly.  "His obligations to the Throne of Mercy are so great, his deliverance so gracious, his hope so animating, his responsibilities so awful, that one master-feeling holds his mind - a desire to walk worthy of God, who hath called you unto his kingdom and glory" (R. P. Buddicom, M. A.).  So also he is defined as "full of grace" - God’s favour permeating tone, words, thought, bearing - "and power" - the impress of character on action; and all is summed up in a phrase twice repeated, "full of the Holy Ghost" - to a degree, alas, impossible to us¹, for he "wrought wonders and signs".


But a still intenser flash of light shows us exactly on what, and on what alone, a martyr’s faith is to rest.  Stephen’s defence before the Sanhedrin, the fullest record of a single address in the New Testament, is solely Scripture so expounded as to meet the charges against him; an appeal to documents (in this case) acknowledged as divine by his opponents; and the documents which, in any case, are the sole seat of authority.  The model martyr is no fanatic, rushing on death; but a balanced mind, an informed judgment, passionately Scriptural: the martyr is a man whose life-interests are bound up with the truth.  It is for Scripture that he dies.


Two fundamentally different groups of persecutors appear all down the ages, and we do well to master the fact.  The first group is utterly unprincipled.  When the Sword of the Spirit proves unanswerable, and the truth irrefutable, the defeated disputant takes up the weapons of force and fraud: "they seized him, and set up false witnesses".  A twisted, distorted charge - exactly similar to our Lord’s alleged threat to destroy the Temple - with just enough of truth to make it easier to believe by the violently prejudiced crowd, best serves the persecutor; and when even this is silenced, there comes the final resort to violence.  Stephen is charged with a criminal attack on the Temple, and with apostasy from the Law of Jehovah; and this charge is grounded, skilfully, on the Christian prophecy of the destruction of the Temple and the disappearance of the Law of Moses.  So Athanasius was accused of rebellion and murder; the Reformers were accused of lawlessness; Wesley was accused of Romanism and disloyalty; and Niemoller is accused of anti-State preaching.


But there is another group with whom a martyr sometimes has to do. "The witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul; and Saul was consenting unto his death".  There are deeply religious men who confound us, sincerely, with the Tares, and, contrary to the command of Christ, pluck up the Tares in order (as they imagine) to save the Wheat.  A letter has just come to light and been published for the first time.  It is dated August 28, 1572, and addressed to the Presidents and Chancellors of the King of Lille and written by Charles de Martigny, Lord of St. Remy.  "My Lords: Having heard very good news this morning I have felt bound to communicate it to you by the present letter.  In the evening the King of France in person, accompanied by Messieurs de Guise and burgesses of Paris, attacked the Admiral and other Huguenot lords in such wise that he put them all to death.  The Admiral’s head was cut off and his body dragged through the city on a hurdle.  His head stuck on the end of the sword was likewise carried through the city.  The King at once ordered the general massacre of all who held with the Huguenots and in less than an hour 10,000 men were found killed in the streets and more than 1,500 Huguenot women.  Word was sent to all the country towns to do the same.  It seems to me that such news cannot but bring good times.  God be praised for it, - Charles de Martigny."  Not only can an ‘inquisitor’ be sincere, but he may be on the brink of an enormous revelation.  How little Stephen dreamed that the man who was to be the foremost Apostle of all time was not only watching, but assisting in, his murder!  What an encouragement to us!  Satan slaughters a Stephen and gives the Church a Paul.


Now before the martyr has uttered a word, and before Theophilus, significantly the son-in-law of Caiaphas, has even challenged the prisoner, an extraordinary fact emerges.  After the bribed witnesses have been heard, and the fictitious charges formulated, all eyes are turned on the prisoner in the dock; and "all that sat in the council, fastening their eyes on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel."  God’s eagles soar highest in the storm, and His stars are brightest at midnight.  The perfect saint and an angel are brothers.  But why exactly did his face at this moment shine?  The shining face, a face radiant in the act of dying, is spoken alone of Stephen in the New Testament, presumably because the martyr alone is sure of the Kingdom.  Death, for us ordinary Christians, can have deep shadows, for our heart trembles over our life’s record; the martyr, on the contrary, knows that the Prize is within his grasp.  "He that loseth his life for my sake," our Lord says (Matt. 10: 39), "shall find it," that is, in the first resurrection.  "And I saw thrones; and I saw the souls of them that had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, and they lived [rose from the dead] AND REIGNED WITH CHRIST A THOUSAND YEARS" (Rev. 20: 4).  But the glory does not save the martyr.  Men saw the face of an angel, and crashed out the glory with the stones.  The world would kill God if it could.


A very precious revelation follows.  In the vast crowd there was not one friendly face, so God - allowing no burden to be greater than we can bear - opens Heaven, and shows Stephen the only Face that matters, in radiant sympathy.  "He looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God."  The help may not always be thus miraculous.  When John Huss of Bohemia was on his way to the stake, an old friend stood forth from the throng of onlookers and gave him a powerful grip of the hand.  It was a courageous act, for it might easily have meant death to befriend the ‘heretic’.  Huss turned and said that only God and himself knew how much that hand-clasp had meant to him in his supreme hour of trial.  Stephen saw Jesus standing.  Sixteen times the Lord Jesus is stated to be at the right hand of God: thirteen times He is described as seated at the right hand of God: here alone He is standing.  So Caiaphas and the murderous Jews are to see Him sitting on the right hand of power, as the Judge; the martyr sees Him standing, having risen, and pressing forward in eager sympathy with His martyr child.  The Lord Jesus will be our perfect sufficiency in the moment of martyrdom.


It is extraordinary proof that this is the model martyrdom, that on the dying lips are two of the very utterances that closed Calvary.  Our Lord’s death was so much more than a martyrdom that it could not properly be our model; but, like all else in our Lord’s life, it is the model, as Stephen’s dying utterances show.  Being stoned, he cried, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit"; then "he kneeled down and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge".  When death comes, whither does the spirit travel?  What guide escorts it? what gate opens?  Therefore how blessed the prayer: - "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit".  Our Saviour’s hands are the blest of all homes for our soul.²  Then Stephen prays:- "Lay not this sin to their charge".  The fearless witness, charging home awful truth - "Ye have become betrayers and murderers of the Righteous One", and equally ( for "ye do always resist the Holy Ghost") about to become murderers of himself* - yet, in the next breath, and his last, he asks God to clear them of the monstrous crime, exactly as our Lord did on the Cross.


[* Here is decisive proof that the strongest language, in controversy, may be in perfect keeping with the mind of God.]






[1. There is nothing in Scripture, as far as I can see, which states that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not available for us today!  If we do not believe they are for us, then it is certain we will not ask God for them: "Ask and you will receive," is our Lord’s word of instruction to all His disciples.]


[2. The human spirit and soul are not synonymous.  At the time of death both parts of man return to very different places.  The animating ‘spirit’ must return to God, the Giver of life, (presumably in heaven); and the ‘soul’ – the person – descends into Hades, (Acts 2: 27).  "So shall the Son of man – (immediately after He surrendered His ‘spirit’ to His Father) - be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth," (Matt. 12: 40).  "He [David] foreseeing spake of the resurrection of Christ, that neither was he – (as a disembodied soul) - left in Hades" (Acts 2: 31).  "Because thou wilt not leave my soul in Hades" (Psa. 16: 10; Acts 2: 27) etc.  Our Lord Jesus Christ was the first to rise “out from the dead,” leaving the rest of the dead, in the place of the dead in Hades/Sheol until the time of resurrection: and all who fail to ‘attain’ unto the “First Resurrection” will most assuredly miss reigning with Christ during the Kingdom Age, (Luke 20: 35).]