St. Stephen is usually hailed as the first Christian martyr, but he is more than that. His death was also a boundary, and the blood which flowed from his body as the stones hit him became a river, one which separated the faith of the Christians from the religion of Judaism. For unlike the martyrs which followed him, Stephen was not killed by the pagan Romans, executed under a law which forbade Christians to exist. He was lynched and killed by his co-religionists, his brother Jews. What was it about Stephen and his words that inflamed them to the point where they could no longer allow him to live?
In their minds and in the testimony of the witnesses against Stephen at his trial, Stephen “never ceases to speak words against this holy place [i.e. the Temple] and the Law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs which Moses delivered to us” (Acts 6:13-14).
Despite the garbled form of the testimony, there was a kernel of truth in what these witnesses said. For although Jesus never spoke against the Temple or the Law, He did clearly regard them differently than did His Jewish adversaries, and this was the main message of Stephen. For Judaism, nationhood and Temple and Law were paramount, and Jews could not do without any of them. The Messiah was thus subordinate to the Temple and the Law; his Messianic task was to undergird them and support them. Stephen’s point (as was apparent from his defense in Acts 7) was that the Temple was never paramount in the history of God’s people. From the days of Abraham onward, they were to be a pilgrim people, a people on the move—hence the portable tent shrine established under Moses. Israel did not have the Temple after Moses. It did not even have a temple during David’s reign. That immense and immovable structure only came with Solomon.
The movability of the original tent shrine revealed God’s intention that His people be ever moving and ever open to new truth—such as the new truth in Jesus. In Jesus God was revealing a new phase of Israel’s pilgrimage through history, a phase in which Temple and Law and City were no longer needed. In Jesus these old realities had been radically relativized and made subordinate to Him. Jesus did not say that He would destroy the Temple, but He did act in such a way that the Temple was not necessary: when He spoke to the Samaritan woman, for example, He said that neither on her Mount Gerizim nor at the Temple in Jerusalem would men worship the Father (Jn. 4:21f). Times were changing, and the Father would now be worshipped in the Spirit and in the truth (i.e. the truth of the Gospel). Men would still enter the Temple to offer sacrifice (compare the practice of the apostles in Acts 21:23f), but these sacrifices were now of more cultural significance than covenantal. The definitive Temple, the locus of sacrifice and praise and salvation, was Jesus. Judaism as a religion had been transcended, and was to give place to Christianity. Messiah in this new understanding was not subordinate to Judaism with its Law and Temple; rather they were subordinate to Him.
This understanding struck at the heart of all that the Jewish adversaries of Stephen valued. For them, faith in God was unthinkable without Law and Temple as ultimate realities. The Jewish state and its capital at Jerusalem existed to protect the Temple and keep it secure. Stephen’s words therefore threatened their whole world. For them, Stephen was subversive, a dangerous revolutionary whose words were making new converts all the time for the Jesus Revolution centered around the apostles. Those apostles appeared to be too popular to touch (Acts 5:13), but Stephen was another matter.
Those who lynched and stoned Stephen to death that day began to learn the truth that (as one Christian writer, Tertullian, would later say) the blood of the martyrs is seed for the Church. Far from hindering or stopping the Christian movement, Stephen’s death furthered its progress. For on the day of his death “a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem and they were all scattered”—not just throughout Judea and Samaria, but ultimately to the ends of the earth (Acts 8:1, 1:8). Stephen died a revolutionary for the Jesus revolution, shedding his blood for the truth that Christianity was not just another Jewish sect. Rather, the Christian Faith was a fountain, a living fountain gushing living water, giving life not just for the Jews in their Temple, but for all the children of men throughout the wide world.