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Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon. Stephen was the first Christian to be put to death for his faith. No, it's not as fun as hopping along in outer space (getting crushed to death with rocks never is), but Stephen's martyrdom takes him from ordinary disciple to Christian mega hero. See, dying isn't all bad.
Stephen makes his first appearance when he's chosen to be one of the seven guys who will oversee food distribution in the community (6:5). Aside from this, he's also pretty good at performing "great wonders and signs" (6:8) and out-debating some of the Jewish naysayers in Jerusalem (6:10). This Stephen kid is a real go-getter!
Not so fast. When you cross bad guys, sometimes they get mad. Really mad. The naysayers drag Stephen before the Sanhedrin (or Jewish council) and accuse him of blasphemy. Stephen responds by calling them "stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, [who] are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do" (7:51). Um, probably not your best move, guy.
The crowd gets pretty enraged and ends up stoning Stephen. That's right. A group of people took rocks and hurled them at another person until he was dead. It's not a pretty thought.
Stoning is actually mentioned quite a bit in Jewish scripture. You could get stoned for disobeying your parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), not being a virgin when you were first married (Deuteronomy 22:13-21), and adultery (Deuteronomy 22:23-24). You probably want to go ahead and thank your lucky stars you weren't walking around while the Bible was being written.
Even today, in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Sudan, Iran, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, and Nigeria, stoning is still considered an a-okay and totally legal way to execute someone. Might want to cross those places off your travel list. Or at least make good and sure not to break any laws while you're there.
Even though he was killed in a super cruel way by an angry mob, Stephen really earns his "saint" title as he's dying. He goes out praying "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (7:60) and forgiving his murderers. Maybe that's what Luke means when he says Stephen has "the face of an angel" (6:15).
Stephen is the first in a long line of Christians who are put to death for sticking firm to their faith in Jesus. Like the other heroes in Acts, he sets an example for all believers. This is the length you should be willing to go to for Jesus. No backing down. Even in the face of really sharp rocks. Paul was clearly impressed… even though it was a little too late (22:20).
There are a few perks for being the first Christian martyr. Stephen is a saint in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Darn right. He even gets a primo spot with his feast day. It's celebrated the day after Christmas (which is known as Boxing Day in some countries and Let's Return This Sweater from Aunt Edna Day in others).