And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. (Acts 8:1–5)
These events in these verses take place immediately after Stephen was stoned to death for his faith. Stephen was the first martyr, and the shock was felt deeply in the church. From its earliest days, the church faced persecution and the early Christians often followed the path to execution which had first been followed by their saviour.
In our comfortable age, when churches dot the landscape and bishops sit in the House of Lords, it is easy to think that persecution would be the death of the church. In fact the reality was quite the opposite. One of the great ironies of church history is that persecution brought growth to the church. At the end of the second century Tertullian wrote to the Roman authorities, and boasted: “the oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed” .
The word “martyr” is in fact Greek, and it means “witness”. Stephen’s death was a witness both to his faith, and also to the fact that he was willing to die for it. Something like that grabs the attention of a crowd, and plants questions in their minds. Why would something be as important as that? What can be so precious that you would be willing to lose your life for it? What lies behind such bravery? As Stephen died, he bore witness to the reality and priceless value of his faith. He demonstrated his deep trust in his risen saviour, and lived out the saying: “perfect loves casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
We’ll come back to these verses later this week, but for now perhaps you might dwell on these questions. Martyrs don’t only bear witness to the persecuting crowds, but also to the church. Their faith can be a great challenge and a great encouragement. It is the ultimate example of steadfastness.
It makes you think. Would I be willing …?