I have always understood the word “martyr” to mean “someone who dies for something they believe in.” What a noble thing to die for something bigger than yourself! While this is exactly what the very first Christian martyr, Stephen, does in this passage, that is not the entire definition of the word.
The word martyr actually comes from the Greek and the fuller scope of the definition is “witness.” Why would we call someone who dies for their faith, like Stephen, simply “a witness?” This is because Stephen is a witness to the fact that he believes what he is living and dying for is not simply a nice set of ideals, a comforting religious presence, or a righteous set of rules—Stephen is saying the truth of Jesus Christ is more true than life itself. He believes, with such compelling faith, that the God that he serves is worth dying for. Dying for the His namesake is worth more than life.
We have no doubt that this was the truth that Stephen felt as he offered up his life as sacrifice! But Stephen is a witness on more than one account! When he speaks his peace and they decide he must be stoned (Acts 7:54-58), Stephen witnesses something divine: the heavens open and Stephen witnesses Jesus standing next to the throne of God. As Stephen’s fate is decided here on earth, he is shown the promise of the next life and that his victory over death, in Jesus Christ, is at hand.
We may look at the life of Stephen and say that when we die we want to experience something similar: feeling the Holy Spirit wash over us, seeing the heavens open wide, and “fall asleep” as Stephen does in verse 60. But what we should realize, while we still have breath in our lungs, is that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, these things are promised to us now! The veil has been torn and heaven was opened when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and the Holy and Almighty Spirit abiding within us in that of the Living God’s.
Lord, we pray that while we live in this world we would live as Your children, freed from slavery. We pray that we would not wait until the end of this life to commit it You, but to live every day we have left for Your name and for the furthering of the gospel. Let us be Your witnesses to a watching world. Amen.
Acts 7:54-8:3 (ESV):
54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
8 And Saul approved of his execution.
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. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.