Stephen has the honour, as far as we know, of being the first Christian martyr. In the centuries since then, he has been followed by millions who have suffered the same fate from hostile foes, including many in our own country. As we think of the death of a hero, we have to ask, in addition to what cause he died for, in what attitude did he die?
Luke tells us that Stephen died in the same way that he had lived, full of the Holy Spirit. The consequence was that he received from God an experience that is usually not possible in this world. Stephen saw beyond the barrier between earth and heaven and saw right into the throne room of God. He may have been before an earthly court receiving an unjust sentence, but he was allowed to see another courtroom where he was being defended.
Luke records for us Stephen’s description of the august atmosphere of the heavenly courtroom – it was full of the glory of God. The imminent martyr saw a splendour that he had never seen on earth, light so bright that it conceals as well as reveals. Whatever adornments may have decorated the location where the Sanhedrin met, it paled into insignificance in comparison with the glory of heaven.
Stephen mentioned more than the wonder of heaven’s magnificence. He also saw standing there his Saviour, whom he calls the Son of Man, standing at the right hand of God. Why is Jesus depicted as standing? Often the answer given is that he stands up in order to welcome Stephen into heaven. That answer may be true, but I suspect another answer is a better interpretation. Jesus is standing there as the Advocate of Stephen. In the courtroom of earth, Stephen had no one to stand and defend him. In heaven, however, he had. His defence was in the hands of Jesus. Here we have an example of what John describes: ‘But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous’ (1 John 2:1).
Will his Advocate be heard in heaven? The answer to this question is given in the title of Jesus – the Son of Man. This title says far more than that Jesus is human. It is taken from Old Testament prophecy where the title was used to describe the Messiah receiving universal authority in heaven (Dan. 7:13-14). Of course, he will be heard because all power is in his hands. Jesus defends his servant Stephen with full authority. We have here an example of Jesus’ promise in Luke 12:8: ‘And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God.’
Perhaps Stephen was given this vision of what was taking place in heaven in order to strengthen him for the ordeal he was about to endure. His claim to have seen Jesus led to a furious assault by the council (they did not wait for Roman permission to execute Stephen, but took the law into their own hands). His death was a terrible ordeal because stoning could last for quite a while. How did Stephen behave during this onslaught? Did he maintain his character? We find that he made two requests of Jesus: first, he asked Jesus to receive his spirit and, second, he asked Jesus to forgive those who stoned him. Stephen in his death was very Christlike and even used petitions that were very similar to those that Jesus had prayed. The Saviour had asked the Father to forgive the soldiers engaged in the act of crucifixion and he had committed his spirit into the hands of the Father.
Did Stephen, who lived like a hero, die a hero? Yes, he did because he had learned to imitate an even greater Hero, Jesus Christ. He imitated him in life and death. Stephen had discovered how to become a hero by following Jesus Christ.