The word martyr literally means “witness.” Those who died for their faith in Christ were witnesses to the power of God in Christ. And as the third-century writer Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.” Today’s reading about Stephen, the first Christian martyr, exemplifies the point.
Notice how Stephen’s death at the hands of the Sanhedrin, and especially his final words, were a witness to a life united to Christ. His first sentence proclaimed a vision of the glory of God. Earlier Stephen had proclaimed Christ; now, full of the Holy Spirit, he was blessed to behold Christ “standing at the right hand of God” (7: 56).
His next two sentences revealed his deep identity with Christ’s death. First, he committed his spirit to Christ, much like Christ committed His spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46). And then, while being stoned, Stephen prayed for their forgiveness, much like Christ prayed for the forgiveness of His killers (Luke 23:34). Stephen’s martyrdom (his “witness”) spoke powerfully of an intimate link with the life, death, and glory of Christ.
In contrast, a young man named Saul was also there, approving the death of Stephen. And from that day, with Saul at the helm, “a great persecution broke out against the church” (8:1). Going from home to home, Saul sought to destroy the church, dragging Christian men and women to prison. Notice also the positive effect: in fulfillment of Christ’s commission in Acts 1:8, believers in Jesus began to scatter “throughout Judea and Samaria” (8:1). Christ’s church suffered persecution, but that persecution also spread Christ’s church throughout the world. In His providence, God used the terrible martyrdom of Stephen to advance the gospel mission of the church.