St. Stephen, and true martyrdom.

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 Στέφανος/Stéfanos “Stephen” from Acts 6-7. Yep, he’s that St. Stephen.

In the ancient Hebrew culture, tithes weren’t money, but food. Every year you took 10 percent of your firstfruits and celebrated with it; Dt 14.22-27 every third year you gave it to the needy. Dt 14.28-29 Apparently the first Christians 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 this list, and Acts’ author Luke 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.

The first church still consisted only of Jews: Christianity was still considered a Judean religion—the obvious difference being Christians believe Jesus is Messiah, and other Judeans believed Messiah hadn’t yet come. Otherwise Christians still went to temple and synagogue. 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 hauled 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: The senate was 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 adopted it) that if you’re on God’s side, no harm will ever befall you. You can bad-mouth your foes, and God’s hedge of protection will magically defend you when they turn round and punch you in the head. You can leap from tall buildings, and 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!”) the senators rushed him, dragged him out of the 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 Romans 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 lynch mobs don’t care about law. 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, and that would usually kill you. Then they’d drop heavy rocks down on the body to finish the job. It wasn’t like the movies depict it, where people just throw fist-size rocks at you till one of ’em finally cracks your skull.

Seems the fall didn’t kill Stephen, because Luke recorded his last words: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” Ac 7.60 KJV 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 Christians. It drove most of them out of Jerusalem, where the first church was headquartered, and they began to spread Jesus wherever they went. 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 Παῦλος/Pávlos, “Paul.”

To persecutors’ annoyance, they began to discover how killing Christians didn’t stop us from 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 great wonders and miracles among the people.” Ac 6.8 KJV People knew him as a strong, dedicated Christian. His death made an impact because people knew his character.

Contrast this to how people presume martyrdom works. They figure the big deal, the huge impact, comes from making that dying confession; of claiming to trust Jesus right before some gun nut shoots you, or bravely defying the antichrists who threaten to torture the skin off you. Stephen wasn’t any such person. He laid down his life for Christ Jesus a long time before his martyrdom.

’Cause dying for Jesus requires us to live for Jesus. The life makes the witness. The death only draws attention to it.

Bad martyrdoms.

But the easy way out is the dying or defiant declaration. You can actually go your whole life long without following Jesus whatsoever, and because you confess him on your deathbed, you imagine this’ll gain you sainthood.

And Christians with this kind of rotten, cheap-grace attitude are largely the reason we have some really rubbish martyrs throughout Christian history. We got irreligious, may-as-well-be-pagan, lousy Christians who didn’t live for Jesus whatsoever, who assumed (as Christians still do) when we “die for him” it’s like a billion karma points, and makes up for all our evil. Hey, we gave our lives for the cause, so it 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 certain people are gonna see you as heroes. But 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 actually see some of this in certain church fathers. They pursued death for Jesus’s sake. They sought out persecutors. They did nothing to stop pagans from killing them. Sometimes ’cause they decided a quick death was far better than being sold into slavery, which was the more common punishment. Or—when 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 stepped into it.

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

The words μαρτυρέω/martyréo and μάρτυς/mártys are Greek for “witness.” Your martyrdom isn’t significant because you died for Jesus. It’s because before your death you lived for him.

Same as Stephen. Look at him: 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 aren’t known in life for having anything to do with Jesus—if in fact you’re a rotten bastard, and were hoping a glorious death in his name redeems you—it doesn’t; 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, free. You don’t have to die for it; Jesus already did that!

So too many Christians figure we can be jerks and our testimony makes up for it. Doesn’t work that way at all. Anybody remember Samson ben Manoah as a great man of God? Nope; we remember him for having long hair, for being strong and violent, and for being horny and stupid. You want history to remember you as a jerk? Your testimony only makes the inconsistency between what you say and what you do way more obvious. Or, if you’re truly dedicated to Jesus like Stephen was, not.

Another phenomenon I’ve seen is when Christians unexpectedly lose a loved one—a kid, a parent, a good friend, whatever—and try to convert the loved one’s death into a martyrdom. The kid got murdered, so the parents begin to claim (sometimes with evidence, sometimes with none whatsoever) the murderer was only out to kill Christians, and their kid died “standing up for Jesus.” Or a Christian’s on vacation, dies in a traffic accident, and because she’s a Christian in a foreign land somehow this gets bent into “she was on the mission field” somehow, and died “in the field.” As happens every time someone dies, all good deeds get eulogized, all sins get forgotten, and they’re made to sound as saintly as possible. True, deaths can be 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 at least merits a day on the calendar.