Stephen’s Service: The Apostles of Acts

Stephen blazes across Acts like a comet, his brief ministry beginning in two chapters that interrupt the story of Peter and form a bridge to the conversion of Paul. Before he falls under the stones of the mob, he leaves a vivid impression as one of the only people other than Peter or Paul given a lengthy speech in Acts.

Stephen’s life begins in service, as one of the first deacons anointed to care for the widows among the Hellenized Jews, and to address the material needs of the Church. All of the men chosen have Greek names, so we can assume the first deacons were drawn from the Greek-speaking community of Jews. (The Hebrews would have spoken Aramaic.)

Here we have an early division of labor between those who tend to the spiritual (the twelve) and those who tend to the physical (deacons). What is so striking about Stephen is that he unites both roles in such a powerful way. His ministry moves through several stages:

  • Corporal works of mercy
  • Wonders and signs (Acts 6:8)
  • Public dispute (Acts 6:8-10)
  • False accusations (Acts 6:11-14)
  • Summoning before the Jewish high court (Acts 6:12-7)
  • A lengthy speech before the council (Acts 7)
  • A vision of God and Jesus just before his condemnation (Acts 7:54-56)
  • The stoning of Stephen, with the assistance of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 7:57-60)

Stephen’s speech before the court in Chapter 7 shows us an extended sample of his preaching. It is a discourse that reads like a summary of an active, highly developed ministry. Clearly, this was more than simply a man set apart to “serve at table.” This was someone with deep theological insights.

When we read the words of Stephen, we feel as though we are hearing echoes from the discourse of the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, when “he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27) Stephen’s speech is a summary of salvation history, tracing the covenant from the beginning to Jesus. It moves through the Old Testament step by step, telling of

  • Abraham and the covenant, with the promise of land and the bond of circumcision.
  • Joseph, who is a precursor of Christ because he is rejected by his people, saved by God, and redeems Israel.
  • Moses, who also prefigures Christ in the rejection/salvation/redemption arc of his story.
  • David and Solomon, who form a link to Jesus, Son of David.

Stephen finishes with a full-throated condemnation of his interlocutors, asking “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?” (Acts 7:52) Indeed, at each stage in the history Stephen has just related, the unrighteous have persecuted the righteous. The Christological themes are embedded in the history he has just recited, but he does not make this point explicit throughout his speech. Rather, he saves it for his final words, identifying Jesus: “the Righteous One, who you have now betrayed and murdered.” (Acts 7:52)

His final vision, which he announces to his murderers, reveals the glory of God in Christ. Everything in the history he has related points to the cross. The cycle of rejection, salvation, and redemption are incarnated in Christ himself. Like a road sign, Stephen’s long story of history leads to this one moment, in Acts 7:56, when he sees “the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.”

And then he is struck down, praying, like Christ, that the actions of his killers not be held against them. At the last, he embraces the cross he has preached. The blood of Stephen will be the first drops shed for Christ, and thus he is joined to all who suffer and die for their faith from his age to ours. It is a blood that will be, in the words of Tertullian, the seed of the Church.

What do we see in Stephen that makes him stand out? There is a growing sense of Christology in his preaching that will become more developed in Paul, who was present to hear (and reject) his final speech. Acts is a book that shows the development of theology in the first generation of Christians, and Stephen played a significant part in that development.

But for us, there is a more pressing lesson in the life and words of Stephen. The dichotomy with which his ministry begins—separating those who preach and those who serve at table—is blurred. Stephens does both. In the words of Pope Benedict, what he shows us is that “charity and the proclamation of the faith always go hand in hand.”

There is a remarkable fullness in the life of Stephen. This is a complete Christian life, unifying words and works, theology and service, preaching and ministering. We can never separate service and faith: one informs and nourishes the other.

And his final lesson is the most powerful: he embraces his cross with joy, rushing into the arms of his savior. After this gift of a beatific vision, how could do otherwise?