St. Stephen, First Martyr for Christ
The saint whose name leads all the rest who have sacrificed their lives for Jesus Christ is Stephen, the first martyr of Christendom because he would have been the last to deny him.
Stephen was one of the seven deacons of the original Church of Christ in Jerusalem, sharing his duties with six others - Philip, Prochoros, Nikanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas.
It was the function of the deacons to assist much as they do today in such matters as communion but with the additional responsibility of spreading the new faith and at the same time being ever on alert for the imminent danger that came with being a Christian in those early days.
Before entering the service of Christ, the young Stephen had studied under the renowned rabbinical tutor Gamaliel, who had been the mentor of the great St. Paul.
Not unlike Paul he was a qualified religious scholar who once sought to discredit the Saviour, until he came to know Jesus Christ and to embrace him as Paul did in that dramatic confrontation on the road to Damascus.
The full attention he had been giving to the Law of the ancient covenant he now directed to the new faith with zeal equal to that of those who enjoyed the company of the Messiah. There was no hint that he would be the very first casualty in the cause of the Nazarene, but each and every one of the missionaries was aware of the danger involved and chose to ignore it in their anxiety to serve.
Stephen seems to have confined his missionary work and preaching to the city of Jerusalem, the city in which he had prepared himself under the Pharisee Gamaliel for quite another career.
Well versed in the Scriptures, he used the Old Testament to full advantage in promoting the Messiah, citing the passages that were ample evidence out of the mouths of the ancient prophets of God that a Saviour would be born and that the Saviour was among them even now in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
It was with considerable anger and frustration that the men who had studied with him under Gamaliel now viewed the defector from their ranks, being particularly piqued when Stephen boldly challenged them in the synagogues.
He must have done this several times and, in all probability, been unceremoniously ushered from the premises more than once, but there came an occasion when he addressed himself to an extremely hostile Council of elders whose anger drove them to more than just having Stephen put out.
The mob that turned on Stephen worked itself into such a feverous pitch that by the time he had been seized and dragged into the street a cry went up for his blood and grew into a crescendo demanding his death. Dragged to the gates of Jerusalem and stoned him to death.
The gallant young Stephen died a brutal death at the hands of those with whom he had grown up. In the Book of Acts there is an account that Paul was among the onlookers who made no effort to save Stephen.
The early Christians buried Stephen in a small chapel in Jerusalem which was dedicated to his memory and was known as the chapel of St. Stephen the Protomartyr (First Martyr).
The Holy Protomartyr Stephen the Archdeacon
The Holy Protomartyr Stephen was a descendant of Jews living abroad, that is outside the borders of the Holy Land and in a Hellenic milieu. Those Jews were called the Hellenians as they were notably influenced by the Greek culture dominant in the Roman empire of those times. After the Holy Spirit descended onto the Apostles, the Church began growing rapidly and it became necessary to take care of the orphans, widows and poor people in general, who were baptized. The Apostles suggested that 7 righteous men be chosen to take care of the needy. Those seven men were ordained deacons (which means helpers, votaries). The Apostles made them to be their immediate assistants. Faithfulness and eloquence made Stephen outstanding among the deacons, he was the first of the seven deacons ordained for the service. That is why he was called the Archdeacon — the first, or chief, of them. Soon, in addition to helping the poor, the deacons began to take an active part in giving sermons.
Stephen preached the word of God in Jerusalem substantiating his words with presage signs and wonders. The wicked Jews disputed with him, but were always confounded by his wisdom and the power of the Spirit who acted through him. He was very successful in propagating the Faith, so the Pharisees, who were overseers of the Jewish law, hated him. They arrested him and brought him to Sanhedrin – the Supreme court of the Jews. There the Pharisees slandered Stephen, saying that he had blasphemed against God and against Moses, and quickly found false witnesses who supported their assertion. To justify his cause Stephen told the Sanhedrin the history of the Jewish people. He spoke of God’s manifold works and marvels, performed in the past for the People of Israel, and of the people’s manifold transgressions and opposition to God. He especially denounced them for the slaying of Christ the Lord, calling them ‘betrayers and murderers’ (Acts 7:52). And he supported his recount with illustrative examples of how they sinned against God and killed the God-sent prophets. Listening to him, the members of Sanhedrin were gnashing their teeth at him and could hardly contain their rage.
When Stephen stood before the people, all saw his face ‘like the face of an angel’: that is, his face was illumined by the light of grace as was the face of Moses when he talked with God. Stephen looked up and saw the heavens open and the glory of God, and spoke to the Jews of what he saw: ‘Behold, I see the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God’ (Acts 7:60). On hearing that the members of Sanhedrin became furious. Plugging their ears they threw themselves onto Stephen and dragged him out of the city. There according to their law, the witnesses who were the first to accuse Stephen started stoning him. A young man Saul guarding the clothes of the murderers was a witness to Stephen’s being stoned and he approved of the murder. Falling down under the hail of stones Stephen cried out, "Lord Jesus receive my spirit, do not hold this sin against them!" Evangelist Luke in the Book of Acts of the Apostles described both this event and Stephen’s speech at the Sanhedrin, chapters 6-8. At that time, the most holy Mother of God was standing on a rock at a distance with St. John the Theologian, and witnessed the martyrdom of this first martyr for the truth of her Son and God, and she prayed for Stephen. St. Stephen’s body was taken secretly and buried by Gamaliel in his own ground. He was a Jewish prince and a secret Christian.
Thus the Archdeacon Stephan became the first martyr (Protomartyr) for Christ in the year of 34 and this happened exactly a year after the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. After that event the persecution of Christianity began in Jerusalem and Christians had to flee to other parts of the Holy Land and to neighboring countries. So the Christian Faith began to spread and reach other parts of the Roman empire. The blood of the Protomartyr Stephen was not shed in vain. Shortly after that event Saul, who had approved of St. Stephen’s death sentence, turned into a faithful Christian believer himself, was baptized Paul and became a famous preacher of the Gospel, one of the most successful evangelists and missionaries. Many years later on Paul’s visit to Jerusalem, he was also seized by a crowd of infuriated Jews who wanted to stone him to death. In his conversation with the crowd Paul reminded them about innocent Stephen’s murder and his own participation in the event (Acts, ch.22).
Troparion, Tone 4: