St. Stephen, and true martyrdom.

The second day of Christmas honors the first martyr.

St. Stephen’s Day falls on 26 December, the second day of Christmas. Not that we know Stephen died on this day; it’s just where western tradition happened to put it. In eastern churches it’s tomorrow, 27 December. (And if they’re still using the old Julian calendar, it’s 9 January to us.) In some countries it’s an official holiday.

You may remember Stéfanos/“Stephen” from the Acts 6-7. Yep, he’s that St. Stephen.

In the ancient Hebrew culture, tithes weren’t money, but food. Every year you were to take 10 percent of your firstfruits and celebrate with it; Dt 14.22-27 every third year you were to give it to the needy. Dt 14.28-29 Apparently the church took on the duty of distributing tithes to the needy, but they were accused of favoring Aramaic-speaking Christians over Greek-speaking ones. Ac 6.1 So the Twelve had the church elect seven Greek-speakers to take over the job. Ac 6.2-3 Stephen was first in the list, and Luke, the author of Acts, pointedly called him full of faith and the Holy Spirit, Ac 6.5 full of God’s grace and power. Ac 6.8 In other words, a standout.

At this point in history, the church still only consisted of Jews. Christianity was still considered a Jewish religion—with the obvious difference that Christians believed Jesus is Messiah, and their fellow Jews believed Messiah hadn’t yet come. Otherwise Christians still went to temple and synagogue. And it was in synagogue where Stephen got into trouble: The people of his synagogue dragged him before the Judean Senate, accusing him of slandering Moses, the temple, and God. Custom made slandering Moses and the temple serious, but slandering God could get you the death penalty. So Stephen was brought before the Senate to defend himself.

Unlike Jesus, who totally admitted he’s Messiah, Stephen defended himself. His defense was a bible lesson: He retold the history of Israel, up to the construction of the temple. Ac 7.2-47 Then he pointed out God doesn’t live in a building, of all things. Ac 7.48-50 And by the way: They’re a bunch of Law-breakers who killed Christ. Ac 7.51-53

More than one person has pointed out it’s almost like Stephen was trying to get himself killed. Me, I figure he was young and overzealous and naïve, and had adopted the American myth—centuries before we Americans had adopted it—that if you’re on God’s side, no harm can ever befall you. That you can bad-mouth your foes, and God’s hedge of protection will defend you when they turn round and punch you in the head. That you can leap from tall buildings, and the angels will catch you. You know, like Satan tried to tempt Jesus with. Mt 4.5-7

Well, that’s not at all how things turned out.

Stephen’s martyrdom.

Seeing a vision of Jesus at God’s side, and utterly tone-deaf to how he’d infuriated the senate, Stephen shared this vision. Ac 7.54-56 But shouting and plugging their ears—yep, exactly like a little kid who does this and yells, “Nah nah nah can’t hear you!”—they rushed him, dragged him out of the senate chamber, dragged him out of the city, and illegally stoned him to death. Ac 7.57-58

I say illegally ’cause the Romans had made it illegal for anyone but them to enact the death penalty. That’s why the senate had to go to Pontius Pilate to get Jesus executed. Jn 18.28-32 But angry mobs don’t tend to care about the laws. Likely there was later hell to pay with the Romans, but Luke never got into that.

In a stoning, the usual practice was to drop the victim off a cliff, then throw heavy rocks down onto the body below. Seems the fall didn’t kill him, because Luke recorded Stephen’s last words: “Master, don’t hold this sin against them.” Ac 7.60 Christians tend to self-righteously figure Stephen was in the right, so this was an act of grand forgiveness on his part. Me, I figure Stephen realized some of his own culpability in his death. Either way he died.

Stephen’s death triggered the first serious persecution of the Christians. It drove most of them out of Jerusalem, where they were then headquartered. They began to spread Jesus wherever they went, and his movement quickly became worldwide. Plus it brought Saul of Tarsus into the story as a persecutor—and after Jesus got hold of him and repurposed him into an apostle, we better know him by his Greek name Pávlos/“Paul.”

But to their annoyance, persecutors began to discover how even though you kill Christians, we just keep spreading. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” was a famous statement of second-century church father Tertullian of Carthage. Getting killed for Jesus makes heroes of us. People admire heroes.

Stephen’s death was a big deal because Stephen was a big deal. He “did wonders and great signs among the people.” Ac 6.8 People knew him as a strong, dedicated Christian. His death made an impact because people knew his character. He wasn’t just somebody who made a last-minute confession before getting murdered; he didn’t have nothing to show for his life other than his dying declaration of faith. Dying for Jesus requires us to live for Jesus. The life makes the witness. The death only draws attention to it.

Not everybody understands this, however.

Bad martyrdoms.

Y’see, throughout Christian history we have examples of really bad martyrs. People who didn’t live for Jesus whatsoever—or who were Christians, but really lousy Christians. But they assumed, as many Christians still do, that if we die for Jesus it makes up for all our rubbish. Hey, we gave our lives for the cause. Should count for something, right? Should earn us heaven, right?

True, getting killed for any cause—even a wrongheaded or evil cause, as we see with suicide bombers—means some people are gonna see you as heroes. So don’t assume martyrdom automatically makes a Christian right. It doesn’t in the least. Loads of Christian martyrs didn’t die for Jesus so much as die due to their own ignorance, stubbornness, arrogance, and stupidity. Some of ’em were even mentally ill.

We see some of this in certain church fathers. They pursued death for Jesus’s sake. They sought out persecutors; they did nothing to stop ’em from killing them. Sometimes ’cause they decided a quick death was far better than being sold into slavery, which was the usual punishment. Or—if they were old and gonna die anyway—they figured it was best to go out in a blaze of glory for Jesus. In some cases the Holy Spirit legitimately forewarned ’em they weren’t gonna survive their arrest, so they made peace with the idea and accepted it.

But ordinarily? Those who wanna get martyred have a screw loose.

The words martýr and mártys are Greek for “witness.” Your martyrdom isn’t significant because you died for Jesus. It’s because—same as Stephen—before your death you lived for him.

Look at Stephen. He testified he knew Jesus, saw Jesus, and recognized Jesus as an important influence in his life. What made Stephen’s death relevant was how his short life reflected this relationship. Now, if you weren’t known in life for having anything to do with Jesus—if in fact you were a rotten bastard, and were hoping a glorious death in his name cancels out all the bad behavior—it won’t. People may not recognize hypocritical martyrs for their hypocrisy, but God certainly does. Means nothing to him.

Yep, it’s a mockery of martyrdom, just like the suicide bombers who think blowing themselves up in God’s name will make up for a lifetime of sin, and get them into heaven.

And we don’t even earn heaven! Even Islam, which those ignorant suicide bombers think they’re dying for, teaches this: We’re saved entirely because God is gracious. You want heaven? He’ll give you heaven. You don’t have to die for it; Jesus already did that.

Another phenomenon I’ve seen recently is when Christians unexpectedly lose a loved one—a kid, a parent, a good friend, whatever—and try to convert their death into a martyrdom. The kid gets murdered, and the parents begin to claim—sometimes with evidence; sometimes not—that the murderer was an antichrist and their kid died “standing up for Jesus.” Or the parent’s on vacation with some church friends, die in a traffic accident, and because they were all Christians it’s somehow spun as a “mission” of some sort, and they died “in the field.” As happens every time someone dies, all their good deeds are eulogized, all their sins are forgotten, and they’re made to sound as saintly as possible. True, the death was tragic, but swapping real people for fake versions and mourning that? People grieve and seek comfort all sorts of ways, but lies and delusion is hardly a healthy method.

Well. You don’t have to be killed for Jesus in order to be a martyr. Remember, the word means “witness.” Live for Jesus. Share your testimonies. Demonstrate his work and teachings in your life. And if our lives for Jesus happen to irritate others for no good reason, and get us killed, that’s a proper martyrdom.

Working people up till they kill you in a fit of rage? Arguably Stephen wasn’t a proper martyr either. But he’s our first, and he was otherwise a good guy, so he merits a day on the calendar.