(If this day occurs on the first Sunday after Christmas,
please refer to that devotion instead.)
The Martyrdom of Stephen and the Witness of Us All
On the Church Calendar, December 26 is given to the memory of Stephen, who heads the list of those who are sometimes called the first deacons of the Church. As a Baptist and evangelical at that, I have not given any attention to saints’ days that are so much a part of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox life. But I think this one merits attention, not because he is my namesake, but for what he represents: the first martyr of the Church.
“Martyr” comes from the Greek word which means “to bear witness” or “be a witness.” In our language, it is referred to one who has died for something that he or she believed in. So you see the resemblance. But the simple definition of the word does not necessitate a death on the part of the witness, only that he testify to what he has seen or heard. So you see that all Christians are to be “martyrs,” that is, people who testify to what they have seen and heard. You might respond, “But I wasn’t there at the cross or resurrection. How can I testify?” Listen to what the Apostle Paul said to the Galatians: “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (3:1). Paul made this statement in his argument about how one is justified by faith, a subject which I am not tackling here. What I want to highlight is that the Galatians did NOT see Jesus crucified, a matter of history that Paul would, of course, have known. But because they had experienced saving faith in Christ Jesus in their own lives, and had received the Holy Spirit in their hearts, it was as if they had seen Christ crucified, because of the reality which they knew to be the truth within them. And as a believer in Christ Jesus, you too have seen our Lord portrayed as crucified. So you are and can be a witness to what you have seen and heard.
One more very important point: martyrs are being made today as I write. In both Muslim and Communist countries, Christians are routinely harassed and sometimes abused, raped, kidnapped, or killed. (Please search “Voice of the Martyrs” for a source that ministers to these Christians in need.) This has, of course, gone on for centuries, but the twentieth century marked the bloodiest under the USSR, Cuba, North Korea, and China. And Christians have been persecuted in Muslim countries from the beginning – only now it is worse. We can hardly imagine these things in America. But Hebrews 13:3 tells us: “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” We have no reason to think that the same will never happen here. God may one day call us to bear witness as Christ said (Matthew 10:16-25; also 2 Timothy 3:12, but also Matthew 5:10-11). Pray that we be found faithful.