All agree that the first martyr of the Christian Church was Stephen. I do not think we ponder this man or his sacrifice deeply enough. Stephen’s story of dying for the faith is recorded, of course, in Acts 6 and 7. This story follows immediately the account, in the opening verses of the chapter, of how the Jerusalem leadership chose seven men "who [were] known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom" (Acts 6:4) to care for administrative matters in the congregation. Stephen was one of these men.
These seven, who may have been the prototype of the office of deacon, were chosen to free up the apostles, who were in effect acting as the elders in that church. This was done so the apostles could give themselves to the Word of God and prayer. Stephen, one of the seven men chosen, was obviously a gifted speaker. This in itself is interesting. Here a man is chosen to do what we might think of as a "menial" task yet he is clearly a gifted preacher as well. The early church had a minimum of organization and a maximum of grace and power. They acted in rather simple ways but they knew what God wanted them to do and how to do it. Gifts were given and employed with little fanfare it seems.
Stephen is referenced several times by Luke in the Acts account as "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6:5) and then again as "a man full of God’s grace and power" (Acts 6:7). I think Luke’s language clearly warrants us to say these phrases are parallel here. To be full of faith is to be full of grace and to be full of the Holy Spirit is to be full of power. This is a simple observation but one worth noting. The text also says people tried to stand up to Stephen and argue with him but "they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke" (Acts 6:10).
It was this man, Stephen, that Luke wanted to highlight in his narrative since he then devotes the rest of this chapter and all of the next chapter to his martyrdom. When Stephen died he had a powerful vision of Jesus. Luke writes: "But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:55). This is quite a remarkable statement. He saw the "glory" and he also saw the man Christ Jesus standing at the right hand of God! Generally, Jesus is pictured as "seated" on a throne in the New Testament but here he is standing and welcoming Stephen into his presence. You can readily see why early church tradition saw so much in this text and how this influenced its view of martyrdom.
Martyrdom and martyrology became very important to the earliest Christians and to the liturgical developments over the first few centuries. Martyrology is the official register that was kept of the Christian martyrs. These were collective in their structure and the earliest records were kept as calendars by which the death of the martyr was remembered. A custom developed of associating martyrs with the feasts of the church so that their lives would be remembered as testimonies to God’s gifts and graces. Sadly a lot of myth grew up around some of this and as a result the Reformation led to a break from the importance of martyrdom. Surely we could at least begin to reform our modern practice by the clear biblical account of Stephen. I, for one, think the story of martyrs would give the younger generation a great deal to live and die for and challenge them to a whole concept that the boomer generation removed for all intents and purposes.