Millions of Christians are persecuted across the world today. Pastors are imprisoned or killed for proclaiming the gospel. Young people flee for their lives when their families discover they have converted to Christianity. Believers are beaten, tortured, pursued. They are falsely accused, threatened, abused, starved, maimed and harassed. Their homes and churches are burnt down, their Bibles confiscated, and their businesses destroyed. They are expelled from school, fired from their jobs and forced to meet in secret.
History and tradition say that the apostles (except for John) had violent deaths. Only two are mentioned in the Bible – Judas betrayed Jesus and hanged himself, while James the son of Zebedee was beheaded by king Herod (Mt. 10:2; Acts 12:2). But it gives some details of the first Christian martyr (Stephen).
Jesus Christ and Stephen are two significant characters in the Bible. They have many similarities and some differences. Stephen lived in Jerusalem and was an active member of the early church who was godly and wise (Acts 6:3,5).
Some examples of the similarities of the two are as follows:
– Both preached to the Jews and performed miracles (Acts 6:8).
– Both influenced people; Jesus trained the apostles and Stephen’s testimony would have influenced Paul (Acts 22:20).
– Both were opposed by some of the Jews (Acts 6:9-10).
– Both were trialed in front of the Sanhedrin – the highest Jewish court of law (Mt. 26:59; Acts 6:12).
– Both were questioned by the Jewish high priest (Mt. 26:62-63; Acts 7:1).
– Both were accused of blasphemy – speaking against God (Mt. 26:65; Acts 6:11). Blaspheme is the opposite of praise.
– Both had false witnesses testify against them (Mt. 26:59-60; Acts 6:13).
– Both spoke on the destruction of the temple (Mt 26:61; Acts 6:14).
– Both spoke of the Son of man at the right hand of God (Mt. 26:64; Acts 7:56).
– Both faced their trial and death with boldness.
– Both were killed (martyred) outside the city (Heb. 13:12; Acts 7:58). Stephen probably died at Calvary. That’s where criminals were executed.
– Both forgave the sins of the persecutors and prayed for them (Lk. 23:34; Acts 7:60).
– And both called out, “Lord, receive my spirit.” (Lk. 23:46; Acts 7:59).
Some examples of the differences of the two are as follows:
– Jesus was crucified, whereas Stephen was stoned.
– Jesus prayed to God the Father, whereas Stephen prayed to Jesus Christ (Lk. 23:46; Acts 7:59-60).
– Stephen died because of the action of cruel men, whereas Jesus gave Himself up to die as a sacrifice for our sins.
– Christ’s death was followed by the start of the church due to the giving of the Holy Spirit; and Stephen’s death was followed by the spread of the church due to persecution (Acts 1:4-5; 8:1, 4; 11:19-21).
– Stephen’s body is still waiting to be resurrected, whereas Christ’s body was resurrected back to life on the third day after He died.
– And Stephen was a human being like us, whereas Jesus is the unique Son of God who is both human and divine. This is the difference that counts. Jesus was not an ordinary man.
The main point is that we can admire great Christians like Stephen or Paul, but like us they are just servants of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, Jesus is unique and on the cross He took the penalty for our sin.
Our God and Father, we thank you for raising up men of great faith like Stephen. But most of all we thank you for Jesus Christ who was their Savior and is our Savior as well. We acknowledge that our sin separates us from yourself. We thank you for addressing that sin by sending Jesus to die in our place – to be our substitute as a vicarious sacrifice. Amen