In Acts chapter 6 we read about the first martyr of the New Testament Church, Stephen, one of the seven deacons who was full of faith and power and did great wonders and miracles. Called to serve tables, Stephen was the first among the New Testament disciples to experience death as a result of the preaching of the Gospel.
In Fox’s Book Of Martyrs it is noted that about two thousand Christians, with Nicanor, one of the original seven deacons, suffered martyrdom during the “persecution that arose about Stephen.” When you read about the message (see Acts chapter 7) Stephen preached and compare it to today’s sermons across the land, one can easily wonder “are we preaching the same Gospel?” He was in no way trying to appease his accusers but unequivocally preached to them with Holy Ghost conviction and by the time he was done his audience was cut to the heart and filled with such anger until they gnashed with their teeth and stoned him to death.
A sermon like that today would be considered “mean-spirited”, “angry”, “too hard”, “insensitive”, etc. We’d probably even go so far as to say, “I’m never goin’ back there again.” That message cost Stephen his life. But did he regret it? No. As a matter of fact he prayed for his persecutors. Stephen was the first of many martyrs under the New Testament who died as a result of the preaching of the Gospel. His message was fiery, confrontational, and anointed by the Holy Ghost. Up to that point the apostles and disciples of the New Testament Church were beaten and/or imprisoned for preaching the Gospel of Jesus, but Stephen’s death showed just how far men would go in their attempts to shut down the Church, thus fulfilling the words of Jesus when He said, “Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for My name’s sake.” (Mt. 24:9) Their purpose and intent was to silence or shut down the Church but God turned it around for glory and honor even as Jesus said, “…and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Mt. 16:18)
In the book of Hebrews Chapter 11:37, 38, Paul reviews the faith and patience of those living under the Old Testament in order to encourage the believers of his day. In it the Word of the Lord declares, “They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; 38(Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” This message is to encourage those today, in our time, which have to endure opposition/persecution/hostility as they proclaim the message of Jesus. Our lives may or may not end like those of old, but one thing we should all be willing to do is to preach the same message today as they did in their generation. We are them now. Remember, one body, one Spirit…one Lord, one faith… one God and Father of all… There’s only one Gospel of Christ.