It is a little odd that the church calendar has the Feast of St. Stephen on December 26, immediately after Christmas Day. One day, we celebrate the birth of our Savior; it has become THE fun day on the church calendar, especially in terms of how we celebrate it in our society.
The very next day, the church commemorates its first martyr. Talk about contrast: birth, immediately followed by death; shepherds rejoicing in the Good News, followed immediately by religious leaders violently rejecting it.
St. Stephen appears very briefly in the Bible. He is introduced in Acts 6, where he is listed among the first seven deacons of the church. By the end of chapter 7, he is gone: killed by a barrage of stones hurled by an angry mob. This is not the sort of life that we usually celebrate in our society. Modern society would view him as a failure and a loser. In God’s eyes, though, Stephen is a hero of the faith. He is a role model for all believers.
As I read through the account about Stephen, I noticed a few key traits that are ascribed to him:
- He was “of good repute” (one of the requirements for the office of deacon; Acts 6:3)
- He was “full of the Spirit.” The Bible actually describes him this way three times (Acts 6:3, 5; 7:55).
- He was “full of wisdom” (6:3)
- He was “full of faith” (6:5)
- He was “full of grace” (6:8 and 7:60)
- He was “full of power” (6:8); the Bible mentions that he performed “great wonders and signs” among the people. He had the gifting to perform miracles (perhaps healing). It seems as though he had all the skills, gifts, and qualities necessary to be one of the 12 apostles, but not the same office as them.
- He was a man of incredible boldness. Read Acts 7:1-53 to see how a man should preach the Gospel to an angry crowd. He did not mince words or beat around the bush. He said what people needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear.
I am especially impressed with three other observations about this man.
First, we see no greater example of him being “full of grace” than his dying words. His last words in this world were, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). With his dying breath, he forgave his killers, just as Jesus had done previously.
Second, the Bible mentions, in passing, that “Saul approved of (Stephen’s) execution” (Acts 8:1). As we read further in Acts, we find this man Saul spearheading a persecution program designed to snuff out the church. Saul eventually converted to Christianity, and he is better known to us as St. Paul, writer of nearly half of the New Testament, the apostle to the Gentiles. I cannot help but wonder what impact Stephen’s dying proclamation of forgiveness had on Saul.
Finally, just before he was executed, he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). Just a little observation: Elsewhere, we read that Jesus is seated, not standing, at the right hand of God. I read a devotional that suggests that Jesus sat at the right hand of God, but stood up to welcome Stephen into heaven [Northumbria Community, Celtic Daily Prayer (HarperCollins, New York, 2002)].
I admit that I am in no rush to be executed. However, I hope and pray that I can develop more of the character that St. Stephen exhibited. In terms of pages in the Bible, he is a minor character. Yet, his impact is significant. Likewise, even though most of us will never be the subject of an hourlong episode of A&E’s Biography, we can still make a major impact on our community.