Ellen G. White Writings

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The Review and Herald

February 23, 1911

The First Christian Martyr

Mrs. E. G. White

Stephen, the foremost of the seven deacons, was a man of deep piety and broad faith. The veil had dropped from his eyes, and he discerned to the end of that which was abolished by the death of Christ. Though a Jew by birth, he spoke the Greek language, and was familiar with the customs and manners of the Greeks. He therefore found opportunity to preach the gospel in the synagogues of the Greek Jews. He was very active in the cause of Christ, and boldly proclaimed his faith. Learned rabbis and doctors of the law engaged in public discussion with him, confidently expecting an easy victory. But “they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.” Not only did he speak by the power of the Holy Spirit, but it was plain that he was a student of the prophecies, and learned in all matters of the law. He ably defended the truths that he advocated, and utterly defeated his opponents.

As the priests and rulers saw the power that attended the preaching of Stephen, they were filled with bitter hatred. Instead of yielding to the evidence that he presented, they determined to silence his voice by putting him to death. On several occasions they had bribed the Roman authorities to pass over without comment instances where the Jews had taken the law into their own hands, and had tried, condemned, and executed prisoners in accordance with their national custom. The enemies of Stephen did not doubt that they could again pursue such a course without danger to themselves. They determined to risk the consequences, and therefore seized Stephen, and brought him before the Sanhedrin council for trial.

Learned Jews from the surrounding countries were summoned for the purpose of refuting the arguments of the prisoner. Saul was present, and took a leading part against Stephen. He brought the weight of eloquence and the logic of the rabbis to bear upon the case to convince the people that Stephen was preaching delusive and dangerous doctrines. But in Stephen he met one as highly educated as himself, and one who had a full understanding of the purpose of God in the spreading of the gospel to other nations.

The priests and rulers could not prevail against the clear, calm wisdom of Stephen. They determined to make an example of him, and while they thus satisfied their revengeful hatred, prevent others, through fear, from adopting his belief. Witnesses were hired to bear false testimony that they had heard him speak blasphemous words against the temple and the law. “We have heard him say,” these witnesses declared, “that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.”

As Stephen stood face to face with his judges, to answer to the charge of blasphemy, a holy radiance shone upon his countenance, and “all that sat in the council, looking steadfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.” Those who exalted Moses might have seen in the face of the prisoner the same holy light that radiated from the face of that ancient prophet. Many who beheld this light trembled and veiled their faces, but the stubborn unbelief and prejudice of the rulers did not waver.

When Stephen was questioned as to the truth of the charges against him, he began his defense in a clear, thrilling voice, which rang through the council hall. He proceeded to rehearse the history of the chosen people of God, in words that held the assembly spellbound. He showed a thorough knowledge of the Jewish economy, and the spiritual interpretation of it, now made manifest through Christ. He repeated the words of Moses, which foretold of Christ, “A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear.” He made plain his own loyalty to God and to the Jewish faith, while he showed that the law in which the Jews trusted for salvation had not been able to save Israel from idolatry. He connected Jesus Christ with all the Jewish history. He referred to the building of the temple by Solomon, and to the words of both Solomon and Isaiah: “Howbeit, the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands.” “Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me? saith the Lord: or what is the place of my rest? Have not my hands made all these things?” The place of God's highest worship is in heaven.

When Stephen reached this point, there was a tumult among the people. He saw the resistance that met his words, and knew that he was giving his last testimony. When he connected Christ with the prophecies, and spoke as he did of the temple, the priest, pretending to be horror-stricken, rent his robe. To Stephen, this act was a signal that his voice would soon be silenced forever. Although in the midst of his sermon, he abruptly concluded it. Suddenly breaking away from the train of history that he was following, he turned upon his infuriated judges, and said: “Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which showed before of the coming of the Just One, of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.”

At this, the priests and rulers were beside themselves with anger. More like wild beasts of prey than human beings, they rushed upon Stephen, gnashing their teeth. The prisoner read his fate in the cruel faces about him, but he did not waver. The fear of death was gone. The enraged priests and the excited mob had no terror for him. The scene before him faded from his vision. To him the gates of heaven were ajar, and looking in, he saw the glory of the courts of God, and Christ, as if just risen from his throne, standing ready to sustain his servant, who was about to suffer martyrdom for his sake. In words of triumph Stephen exclaimed, “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” As he described the glorious scene opened before him, it was more than his persecutors could endure. Stopping their ears, that they might not hear his words, and uttering loud cries, they ran furiously upon him with one accord. “And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”

The witnesses who had accused Stephen were required to cast the first stone. These persons laid down their clothes at the feet of Saul, who had taken an active part in the disputation, and had consented to the prisoner's death.

The martyrdom of Stephen made a deep impression upon all who witnessed it. It was a sore trial to the church, but resulted in the conversion of Saul, who could not efface from his memory the faith, constancy, and glorification of the martyr. The signet of God upon Stephen's face, and his words, which reached the very souls of those who heard them, remained in the minds of the beholders, and testified to the truth of that which he had proclaimed.

No legal sentence had been passed upon Stephen, but the Roman authorities were bribed by large sums of money to make no investigation of the case.

At the scene of Stephen's trial and death, Saul had seemed to be imbued with a frenzied zeal, and afterward he seemed to be angered by his own secret conviction that Stephen was honored by God at the very time when he was dishonored by men. He continued to persecute the church of God, hunting them down, seizing them in their houses, and delivering them up to the priests and rulers for imprisonment and death. His zeal in carrying forward this persecution brought terror to the Christians at Jerusalem. The Roman authorities made no special effort to stay the cruel work, and secretly aided the Jews, in order to conciliate them, and to secure their favor.

Saul was highly esteemed by the Jews for his zeal in persecuting the believers in Christ. After the death of Stephen, in consideration of the part he had acted on that occasion, he was elected a member of the Sanhedrin. For a time this learned and zealous rabbi was a mighty instrument in the hands of Satan to carry out his rebellion against the Son of God, but Saul was soon to be employed in building up the church that he was now tearing down. A mightier than Satan had chosen Saul to take the place of the martyred Stephen, to preach and suffer for his name, and to spread far and wide the glad tidings of salvation through his blood.

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