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stephen Summary and Overview

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stephen in Easton's Bible Dictionary

one of the seven deacons, who became a preacher of the gospel. He was the first Christian martyr. His personal character and history are recorded in Acts 6. "He fell asleep" with a prayer for his persecutors on his lips (7:60). Devout men carried him to his grave (8:2). It was at the feet of the young Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, that those who stoned him laid their clothes (compare Deut. 17:5-7) before they began their cruel work. The scene which Saul then witnessed and the words he heard appear to have made a deep and lasting impression on his mind (Acts 22:19, 20). The speech of Stephen before the Jewish ruler is the first apology for the universalism of the gospel as a message to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. It is the longest speech contained in the Acts, a place of prominence being given to it as a defence.

stephen in Smith's Bible Dictionary

the first Christian martyr, was the chief of the seven (commonly called Deacons) appointed to rectify the complaints in the early Church of Jerusalem, made by the Hellenistic against the hebrew Christians. His Greek name indicates his own Hellenistic origin. His importance is stamped on the narrative by a reiteration of emphatic, almost superlative, phrases: "full of faith and of the Holy Ghost," #Ac 6:5| "full of grace and power," ibid. #Ac 6:8| irresistible "spirit and wisdom," ibid #Ac 6:10| "full of the Holy Ghost." #Ac 7:55| He shot far ahead of his six companions, and far above his particular office. First, he arrests attention by the "great wonders and miracles that he did." Then begins a series of disputations with the Hellenistic Jews of north Africa, Alexandria and Asia Minor, his companions in race and birthplace. The subject of these disputations is not expressly mentioned; but from what follows it is obvious that he struck into a new vein of teaching, which evidently caused his martyrdom. Down to this time the apostles and the early Christian community had clung in their worship, not merely to the holy land and the holy city but to the holy place of the temple. This local worship, with the Jewish customs belonging to it, Stephen denounced. So we must infer from the accusations brought against him confirmed as they are by the tenor of his defence. He was arrested at the instigation of the Hellenistic Jews, and brought before the Sanhedrin. His speech in his defence, and his execution by stoning outside the gates of Jerusalem, are related at length in Acts 7. The frame work in which his defence is cast is a summary of the history of the Jewish Church. In the facts which he selects from his history he is guided by two principles. The first is the endeavor to prove that, even in the previous Jewish history, the presence and favor of God had not been confined to the holy land or the temple of Jerusalem. The second principle of selection is based on the at tempt to show that there was a tendency from the earliest times toward the same ungrateful and narrow spirit that had appeared in this last stage of their political existence. It would seem that, just at the close of his argument, Stephen saw a change in the aspect of his judges, as if for the first time they had caught the drift of his meaning. He broke off from his calm address, and tumult suddenly upon them in an impassioned attack, which shows that he saw what was in store for him. As he spoke they showed by their faces that their hearts "were being sawn asunder," and they kept gnashing their set teeth against him; but still, though with difficultly, restraining themselves. He, in this last crisis of his fate, turned his face upward to the; open sky, and as he gazed the vault of heaven seemed to him to part asunder; and the divine Glory appeared through the rending of the earthly veil --the divine Presence, seated on a throne, and on the right hand the human form of Jesus. Stephen spoke as if to himself, describing the glorious vision; and in so doing, alone of all the speakers and writers in the New Testament except, only Christ himself, uses the expressive phrase "the Son of man." As his judges heard the words, they would listen no longer. They broke into, a loud yell; they clapped their hands to their ears; they flew as with one impulse upon him, and dragged him out of the city to the place of execution. Those who took the lead in the execution were the persons wile had taken upon themselves the responsibility of denouncing him. #De 17:7| comp. John 8:7 In this instance they were the witnesses who had reported or misreported the words of Stephen. They, according to the custom, stripped themselves; and one, of the prominent leaders in the transaction was deputed by custom to signify his assent to the act by taking the clothes into his custody and standing over them while the bloody work went on. The person was officiated on this occasion was a young man from Tarsus, the future apostle of the Gentiles. [PAUL] As the first volley of stones burst upon him, Stephen called upon the Master whose human form he had just seen in the heavens, and repeated almost the words with which he himself had given up his life on the cross, "O Lord Jesus receive my spirit." Another crash of stones brought him on his knees. One loud, piercing cry, answering to the shriek or yell with which his enemies had flown upon him, escaped his dying lips. Again clinging to the spirit of his Master's words, he cried "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge" and instantly sank upon the ground, and, in the touching language of the narrator who then uses for the first time the words afterward applied to the departure of all Christians, but here the more remarkable from the bloody scenes in the midst of which death took place, fell asleep. His mangled body was buried by the class of Hellenists and proselytes to which he belonged. The importance of Stephen's career may be briefly summed up under three heads: 1. He was the first great Christian ecclesiastic, "the Archdeacon," as he is called in the eastern Church. 2. He is the first martyr --the protomartyr. To him the name "martyr" is first applied. #Ac 23:20| 3. He is the forerunner of St. Paul. He was the anticipator, as, had he lived, he would have been the propagator, of the new phase of Christianity of which St. Paul became the main support.

stephen in Schaff's Bible Dictionary

STE'PHEN (crown), usually known as the first martyr, was one of the seven men of honest report who were elected, at the suggestion of the twelve apostles, to relieve them of a particular class of their labors. Acts 6:5. He was a forerunner of the apostle Paul. He is described as a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost. Acts 6:8, 1 Kgs 16:10. He argued for the new faith with convincing power. It was to stop lips so eloquent that he was arrested and placed before the "council," the Sanhedrin. But as he realized his position the prospect of testifying in that assemblage of the chief of his people to the love and work of Jesus so wrought upon him that his spirit rose within him, and his face had such beauty and purity, such thoughtfulness and manliness, that he awed his judges, for on him, their victim, they beheld the angel-face. His defence was a calm historical proof of the two points: 1. God had not limited his favor to the Holy Land or to the temple; 2. The Jews had always opposed to this free spirit of their God a narrow, bigoted spirit. How long he would have spoken none can say, but the manner in which these quiet and truthful words were received caused him to break off" abruptly into fierce invective and reproach; but so direct was its appeal to the consciences of the populace that they were excited to madness, Acts 7:54, and fell upon Stephen like wild beasts, shouting and stopping their ears; and after they had forced him beyond the walls of the city, they stoned him to death, Saul being present and conspicuous in this tumultuous transaction. The last breath of the martyr was spent, like that of his divine Master, in prayer for the forgiveness of his murderers. It is worthy of remark that this prayer of Stephen is directed to the Lord Jesus, or rather it seems to be a continuation of the prayer respecting himself which was addressed immediately to Christ, as the word "God" in v. 59 of our translation is an interpolation. The date of Stephen's martyrdom was about a.d. 37. His blood was the seed of the Church, and was soon followed by the conversion of his bitterest persecutor.

stephen in Fausset's Bible Dictionary

The first of the seven appointed to minister as a deacon in distributing alms, so that the Grecian widows should not be neglected while the Hebrew widows were served (Acts 6; 7). (See DEACON.) His Grecian name (meaning "crown"; by a significant coincidence he was the first who received the crown of martyrdom) and his anti-Judaistic speech indicate that he was a Hellenist or Greek speaking foreign Jew as contrasted with a home born Hebrew speaking Jew. frontGRECIAN.) "He did great miracles and wonders among the people," in confirmation of the gospel. He was, like the rest of the seven, "of honest report, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom"; also "full of faith and power," so that the disputants of the synagogue of the Libertines, Cyrenians, Alexandrians, Cilicians, all like himself Grecian Jews, "were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spoke." So they charged him before the Sanhedrin by suborned witnesses with speaking against Moses and God, the temple and the law, and asserting that, Jesus of Nazareth should destroy the temple and change the customs that Moses had delivered. Doubtless, he showed that Jesus really "fulfilled" the law while setting aside that part of its letter which was designed to continue only until the gospel realized its types. His Hellenistic life away from the temple and its rites made him less dependent on them and readier to comprehend the gospel's freedom from legal bonds. The prophets similarly had foretold the superseding of the legal types and the temple by the Antitype (Jeremiah 7:4; Jeremiah 31:31-34). His judges looking steadfastly on him "saw his face as it had been the face of an angel," like that of Moses after talking with God on the mountain (Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Ecclesiastes 8:1). They were at first awestruck, as the band that fell backward at Jesus' presence in Gethsemane. Then the high priest appealed to Stephen himself as Caiaphas had to Jesus. His speech is not the unconnected narrative that many suppose, but a covert argument which carries his hearers unconsciously along with him until at the close he unveils the drift of the whole, namely, to show: (1) That in Israel's past history God's revelation of Himself was not confined to the holy land and the temple, that Abraham had enjoyed God's revelations in Mesopotamia, Haran, and Canaan before he possessed a foot of the promised land; so also Israel and Moses in the strange land of Egypt, and in Midian and Sinai, which was therefore "holy ground" (Acts 7:33), and in the wilderness 40 years. (2) That in their past history from the first the same failure to recognize their true friends appeared as in their present rejection of the great Antitype Messiah and His ministers: "ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Spirit, as your fathers did so do ye"; so the brethren toward Joseph, the Israelites towards Moses (Acts 7:9; Acts 7:35; Acts 7:40), and worst of all toward God, whom they forsook for a calf and for Moloch. (3) That God nevertheless by ways seeming most unlikely to man ultimately exalted the exile Abraham, the outcast slave Joseph, and the despised Moses to honour and chiefship; so it will be in Messiah's case in spite of the humiliation which makes the Jews reject Him. (4) That Solomon the builder of the temple recognized that which the Jews lose sight of, namely, that the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands, as though His presence was confined to a locality (1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chronicles 2:6; 2 Chronicles 6:18), and which Jehovah through Isaiah (Isaiah 66:1) insists on. Therefore spiritual worship is the true worship for which the temple was but a preparation. The alleged discrepancies between the Old Testament and Stephen's speech are only in appearance. He under the Holy Spirit supplements the statements in Exodus 7:7, Moses "fourscore years old" at his call, 40 years in the wilderness, 120 at his death (Deuteronomy 29:5; Deuteronomy 31:2; Deuteronomy 34:7), by adding that he was 40 at his visiting his Israelite brethren and leaving Egypt for Midian, and stayed there 40 (Acts 7:23-30). Also he combines, as substantially one for his immediate object, the two statements (Genesis 15:16), "after that they shall come here (to Canaan) again," and Exodus 3:12, "ye shall serve God upon this mountain" (Horeb), by Acts 7:7, "after that they shall come forth and serve Me in this place" (Canaan). Israel's being brought forth to worship Jehovah in Horeb, and subsequent worshipping Him in Canaan their inheritance, were but different stages in the same deliverance, not needing to be distinguished for Stephen's purpose. Moses' trembling (Acts 7:32) was a current belief which Stephen endorses under the Spirit. Again as to Acts 7:15-16, "Jacob and our fathers were carried over into Sychem, and laid in the sepulchre that Abraham bought of Emmor," Stephen with elliptical brevity refers to six different chapters, summing up in one sentence, which none of his hearers could misunderstand from their familiarity as to the details, the double purchase (from Ephron the Hittite by Abraham, and from Hamor of Shechem by Jacob: Genesis 23:16; Genesis 33:19), the double burial place (Machpelah's cave and the ground at Shechem), and the double burial (Jacob in Machpelah's cave: Genesis 50:13, and Joseph in the Shechem ground of Jacob, Genesis 50:25; Exodus 13:19; Joshua 24:32). The burials and purchases were virtually one so far as his purpose was concerned, namely, to show the faith of the patriarchs and their interest in Canaan when to the eye of sense all seemed against the fulfillment of God's promise; Stephen hereby implying that, however visionary Jesus' and His people's prospects might seem, yet they are as certain as were the patriarchs' prospects when their only possession in Canaan was a tomb. These seeming discrepancies with the Old Testament are just what a forger would avoid, they confirm, the genuineness of S.' s speech as we have it. So as to other supplementary notices in it as compared with Old Testament (Acts 7:2 with Genesis 12:1; Acts 7:4 with Genesis 11:32; Acts 7:14 with Genesis 46:27; Acts 7:20 with Exodus 2:2; Acts 7:22 with Exodus 4:10; Acts 7:21 with Exodus 2:10; Acts 7:53 with Deuteronomy 33:2; Acts 7:42-43 with Amos 5:26). The fascination with which at first Stephen's beaming heavenly countenance had overawed his stern judges gave place to fury when they at last saw the drift of his covert argument. Perceiving their resistance to the truth he broke off with a direct charge: "ye stiffnecked (with unbending neck and head haughtily thrown back), and (with all your boast of circumcision) uncircumcised in heart and ears (which ye close against conviction!), ye do always resist the Holy Spirit" (compare Nehemiah 9:29-30); with all your phylacteries "ye have not kept (efulaxate) the law," of which you boast. They were cut to the heart (Greek: "sawn asunder") and gnashed on him with set teeth. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit," strained his eyes with steadfast look into heaven" (atenisas, the same word as describes the disciples' look after the ascending Saviour: Acts 1:10). There he saw "standing (to help (Psalm 109:31), plead for and receive him, not as elsewhere sitting in majestic repose) the Son of man" (a phrase used elsewhere in New Testament by Jesus Himself). The members of the council, remembering probably the use of similar language by Jesus when on trial before them (Matthew 26:64), being at all events resolved to treat as blasphemy Stephen's assertion of the divine exaltation of Him whom they had crucified, cried aloud, stopped their ear's (unconsciously realizing Stephen's picture of them: Acts 7:51; Psalm 58:4), ran upon him with one accord (contrast "with one accord," Acts 4:24), and cast him out of the city (as was the custom in order to put out from the midst of them such a pollution: 1 Kings 21:13; Luke 4:29; Hebrews 13:12) and stoned him, all sharing in the execution, the witnesses casting the first stones (Deuteronomy 13:9-10; Deuteronomy 17:7; John 8:7), after having stripped off the outer garments for greater ease in the bloody work, and laid them at the feet of Saul who thereby signified his consent to Stephen's execution (Acts 8:1; Acts 22:20). The act was in violation of Roman authority, which alone had power of life or death, a sudden outbreak as in John 8:59. Like Jesus in his recognition of the glory of "the Son of man," he also resembled his Lord in his last two cries, the second uttered on bended knee to mark the solemnity of his intercession, "Lord Jesus (as Jesus had invoked the Father), receive my spirit." "Lord lay not this sin to their charge" (Luke 23:34; Luke 23:46). Thus Stephen was laid "asleep" (the term for death after Jesus' pattern: John 11:11, compare Deuteronomy 31:16; Daniel 12:2; 1 Corinthians 15:18; 1 Corinthians 15:51). Devout proselytes, a class related to the Hellenists to whom Stephen belonged, carried him to his burial and made great lamentation over him. His holy day is put next after Christmas, the martyr having the nearest place to the great Sufferer. It is the Lord's becoming man to die for man that nerves man to be willing to die for the Lord. The gate opening on the descent to the valley of the Kedron is called Stephen's gate. Stephen was first of the earliest Christian ministry, "the archdeacon," as the Eastern church calls him. To Stephen first the name "martyr" is applied (Acts 22:20). The forerunner of Paul, whose conversion was the first fruit of his prayer for his murderers; among the pricks of conscience which Saul vainly strove to resist (Acts 9:5) the foremost was remorse at the remembrance of the part he took in the last touching scene of the holy martyr's execution. The first martyr foreran the first apostle of the Gentiles; Stephen anticipated that worldwide universality of spirit which Paul advocated everywhere in opposition to the narrow prejudices of Judaism.