The dictionary defines a martyr as “a person who is killed because of their religious beliefs.”
Jesus wasn’t technically a martyr. Prior to His voluntary sacrifice at Calvary, Jesus said, “I lay down my life so that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to take it up again” (John 10:17–18). At Gethsemane, when the heavily armed men came to arrest Him, He told Peter to put away his sword. “I could … call on my Father, and he will provide me here and now with more than twelve legions of angels” (Matthew 26:53). Nobody took Jesus’ life. He freely gave it!
So, if Jesus wasn’t a martyr, who holds the distinction of being the first Christian martyr? Stephen.
Stephen was ordained as a deacon, a servant in the New Testament church (Acts 6:1-6). Like the other earliest deacons, Stephen was “of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). As the church continued to flourish, “Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). But, “opposition arose” (Acts 6:9) and his detractors schemed and wickedly plotted against him, dragging him before the ruling Sanhedrin.
That he was a powerful preacher with an inspired insight into the Old Testament Scriptures is evidenced by his sermon recorded in the seventh chapter of Acts. Read it! It’s an incredible summation of God’s sovereign purpose and plan among the Israelite people and of the religious leader’s willful disobedience and reckless rejection of God’s gracious activities among them. Stephen’s final words are fearless, direct, and damning. “You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit. As your ancestors did, you do also” (Acts 7:51).
In response to this inditement, “they were enraged and gnashed their teeth at him… They yelled at the top of their voices, covered their ears, and together rushed against him. They dragged him out of the city and began to stone him” (Acts 7:54–58). Guiltless, he was martyred for his faith.
Jesus knew that persecution would occur. “They will lay their hands on you and persecute you” (Luke 21:10), “they will hand you over to local courts and flog you in their synagogues. You will even be brought before governors and kings because of me” (Matthew 10:17-18), you will “be persecuted, and they will kill you” (Matthew 24:9). He reasoned, “if they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:19).
The Apostle Paul said plainly, “All who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Peter, no stranger to persecution, imprisonment, and merciless beating, wrote, “Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you, as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of Christ” (1 Peter 4:12-13). James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote, “consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing… Blessed is the one who endures trials, because when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:2-4, 12).
Those who faithfully endure persecution at the hands of the wicked can expect God’s grace and mercy. Jesus promised, “blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. You are blessed when they insult you and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).
Stephen, the first to face fatal persecution, was ushered into heaven. As the heavy stone projectiles pelted him, “Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven. He saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55), and no doubt, heard the resounding declaration of the Father, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:21). Truly, God’s grace is always sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9).