THE MODEL MARTYRDOM
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.
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
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
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.
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
is extraordinary proof that this is the model martyrdom, that on the dying lips
are two of the very utterances that closed
[* 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).]