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Stephen was the first Christian to be martyred. Stephen’s death marked a crucial turning point for the church. Not only was it the beginning of the first great persecution of believers, but it set the stage for Saul—one of the great enemies of the church—to become one of its most important figures.
Stephen was a Hellenistic (Greek) Jew who embraced Jesus as his Messiah and quickly rose to prominence among the believers. He was renowned for his faith and became the first person outside the apostles to perform miracles in the name of Jesus. So Stephen was an obvious choice when the fledgling church needed to appoint godly individuals to oversee the care of its most vulnerable members: its widows. Unique among the seven men who were appointed, Stephen does not seem to have been confined to this task.
He also ministered among the people, proclaiming Christ in public view. This, combined with his knack for debating his opponents into stunned silence, made him an easy target. Soon enough, Stephen was seized and dragged before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council.
Stephen laid the blame for Jesus’ death on the Sanhedrin. At that point, they took him outside the city gates and stoned him to death. Before dying, Stephen caught a glimpse of Jesus—his advocate and his justifier—standing at God’s right hand. Stephen’s martyrdom set off persecution of the church in Jerusalem— but it was precisely this persecution that scattered the disciples and helped spread the gospel throughout Judea and Samaria.
With his final breath, Stephen cried out a prayer reminiscent of the words Jesus spoke from the cross:
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
Indeed, God showed His mercy to one of the conspirators behind the murder of Stephen and the ensuing persecution of the church. Saul (later named Paul) was instrumental in both. Not even one of the greatest enemies of the church was beyond the kind of forgiveness that Stephen prayed for.