Stephen was the first Christian martyr. A martyr is a person who dies for his beliefs, and a Christian martyr is a person who is killed because of his or her witness to Jesus Christ, which is what the word “martyr” actually refers to. Martyr comes from the Greek word martys, which means “a witness” or “one who bears a testimony.” Stephen was an outstanding witness for Jesus Christ, and it was because of his witness that he was put to death.
Before we look at Stephen’s speech in its particulars, it will be good to look at it in general, thinking about some of its characteristics.
In the first place, it is not actually a defense. That is, Stephen is not dealing directly—at least not point by point—with the accusations that had been made against him. When Peter had been called before the Sanhedrin, Peter answered his accusers directly. They demanded to know “by what power or name” Peter had healed the crippled man. He had replied, “If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and everyone else in Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you completely healed” (Acts 4:7-10). That was a direct answer to the accusation. Stephen does not follow Peter’s procedure. It is true that he answers the accusations against him indirectly, as he goes along. But on the surface, he seems rather to be giving a review of Jewish history.
Second, this speech is not like the sermon of Peter at Pentecost. When Peter spoke at Pentecost he quoted a verse of Scripture, explained what it meant and how it had been fulfilled, then quoted another verse of Scripture and explained what that meant, and so on. He did this with such balance that when we add up the verses we find that the sermon is about half Scripture and half explanation. Stephen’s address is different. It is not that he is not biblical. In a sense, he is entirely biblical, since he is retelling the Old Testament. But he is not quoting Bible verses as he goes along, nor is he explaining them. It is only toward the end that he begins to bring in some specific texts, quoting first from Amos 5:25-27 and then from Isaiah 66:1-2.
Something else is noticeable when Stephen’s speech is contrasted with Peter’s. Peter preached Jesus throughout. He preached the resurrection. We do not find that in Acts 7. In Stephen’s speech Jesus is not mentioned at all until the very end, and even then He is not mentioned by name as Jesus or Jesus Christ. He is called “the Righteous One” (v. 52). Again, Stephen does not mention the resurrection, the doctrine that was so prominent earlier.
This sermon has a number of easily identifiable parts. Verses 2-8 deal with Abraham. Verses 9-16 deal with Joseph. A major section, verses 17-43, deals with Moses, followed by a section that contrasts the wilderness tabernacle with the temple in Jerusalem (vv. 44-50). Finally, there is a summation in which Stephen makes bold accusations against the Sanhedrin (vv. 51-53).
This is a fairly straightforward recital of Jewish history, as I said. But if we read it carefully, we discover that the section that deals with Moses actually answers the first of the charges that had been made against Stephen (that he had blasphemed against Moses) and his discussion of the tabernacle answers the second charge (that he had blasphemed against God).
We should remember that Stephen was from the Greek-speaking portion of the early church. That is perhaps why he spoke so differently from Peter, who was Jewish. What Stephen seems to have perceived, with a brilliance that surpasses that of the apostles and anticipates the keen insight that was later given to the Apostle Paul, is that the old order of things was passing away and a new order was coming. This becomes particularly clear when he talks about the temple. It was cherished by the Jews. But it was destined to pass away, and Stephen seems to have sensed that. This means that his speech is a transition speech that paves the way for opening the door of the Gospel to the Gentiles, which begins in the very next chapter.