The First Martyr
By Andrew Gueruis
Today, I will take you on a journey in the life of one of my favorite saints. This saint was a young man who was filled with the Holy Spirit, faith, and power. His life is very unique and it shows us how we should be as Christians, and how our lives will be filled with joy and peace when we know God. By now you are probably saying to yourselves, “but isn’t this all saints,” well in generalization about saints, yes, however this saint is different. His story is written, even in the Bible and documented in the Book of Acts and the Synaxarium of the Church. Hopefully you know who this saint is, if not, allow me to tell you. The story of St. Stephen takes place when the number of the disciples was multiplying and they chose him to serve. “Then the twelve summoned a multitude of the disciples and told them ‘It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word’” (Acts 6:2-4)
In the story of St. Stephen, we see that Our Lord Jesus Christ does great things through His saints and servants, who love Him and serve Him with all their hearts and with all their strength and ability. St. Stephen was a young man who was filled with the Holy Spirit and faith. In the Book of Acts, it says, “And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:8) Surely then a man like this will be subject to torment and false accusations. In fact he was and even in the beginning of his service he was hated for who he was and what he said. From this we can learn that, as Christians, we are always subject to persecution. How then do we fight? Simply… by prayer and being an example of Christ, just like St. Stephen was.
The story of his persecution begins right away in Chapter 6 in the Book of Acts. “Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.” (Acts 6:9-10) How amazing is this verse that says, “They could not resist the wisdom and Spirit by which he spoke?” This means that he spoke by the Spirit of God and not of his own, and he had wisdom from the Holy Spirit. I’m sure if we were able to ask him “what did you say that even these people who disputed against you couldn’t speak?” he would reply saying, “I’m not the one who spoke, but it was Christ and the Holy Spirit that spoke through me and for me.” Remember the verse, “But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.” (Matthew 10:19-20) I am sure St. Stephen was comforted by this saying and had his faith in God and didn’t fear these evil men. But lets continue reading about his story and just see how amazing this young man truly is!
“Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council. They also set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.’ And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.” (Acts 6:11-15) Wow! How amazing, that even his enemies saw his face like an angel! Surely this man must be filled with the Holy Spirit and the love of God was in his heart. Words cannot explain how I feel about St. Stephen, for I wish I could have just an ounce of his faith and wisdom.
But this isn’t even the full story of how St. Stephen showed his wisdom and faith to the people who persecuted him. For even when he was brought up to the high priest he rebuked them with love and also with strength and courage, because he was filled with the Holy Spirit. But these men who persecuted and charged Stephen with false accusations, didn’t know the Holy Spirit or the Power of the Holy Spirit.
St. Stephen rebuked them for this saying to them, “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.” (Acts 7:51-53) So what does this mean, what is St. Stephen talking about? Simply put, he is rebuking these priests and scribes because they do not know God or the power of God or the Holy Spirit. We can then remember the words Our Lord Jesus Christ said when He was rebuking the Scribes and Pharisees. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’ “Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt. Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell? Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.” (Matthew 23)
Surely we can say that St. Stephen used the same manner of speech when he rebuked the scribes and high priest, and maybe this is why they hated him more and only wished to lay their hands on him and murder him. This is why he received the crown of Martyrdom and why he became the first Marty in the Christian faith. Let us then end this journey my beloved by reading about his martyrdom and what he felt, and what he said, and what he did even during the time he was being stoned and killed.
“When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:54-60)
Wow! I’m speechless at this saint’s love, faith, humility, and strength. Truly this is a true confessor, martyr, saint, and wonderworker! Truly we can learn from his life story and learn to be like him; patient, wise, filled with the Holy Spirit and the love of God, and faith and total trust in God. My beloved, let us all learn from St. Stephen and pray like St. Stephen and speak like St. Stephen. In the current events in Egypt, let us not say “I wish I can go to Egypt and fight the enemies and give them a taste of their own medicine.” Let us not have hate for our enemies, but let us have love. Let us be patient with our enemies and pray for them and say the words of St. Stephen, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin!” Let us always remember to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and bless those who curse us. For it is the command of God given to us by Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ when He said “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5)
Surely my beloved we can learn from St. Stephen many things and understand that Our Lord Jesus Christ gives us His Holy Spirit in the time of our need and in the time of our hardship He comforts us and sends the Spirit of Comfort! May God grant us the spirit of St. Stephen and the faith he had and the wisdom and love he had for his service, and for those around him! Let us ask God to keep us, comfort us, strengthen us, and grant His grace and His Spirit of Comfort, to comfort us throughout all times in our lives and to keep His land of Egypt safe and guarded by the Holy Spirit. Through the intercessions of St. Mary and the prayers of St. Stephen. Amen.