While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. Acts 7:59-60

Stephen is described in the book of Acts as “a man full of God’s grace and power” who “performed great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). His preaching of the Gospel brought him into conflict with Jews from his own Greek-speaking background. But those who argued with him “could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke” (Acts 6:10).

Consequently, they had him accused of blasphemy against Moses and God, had him brought before the Sanhedrin and produced false witnesses against him (Acts 6:11-14). Stephen gave a powerful speech (Acts 7), outlining the heritage of God’s people rejecting His appointed leaders, and concluded fearlessly:

You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute?

They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him – you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it. (Acts 7:51-53)

This enraged the assembly, but Stephen was encouraged by an awesome vision of heaven opened and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. He was subsequently dragged out of the city and stoned.

As they were killing him, Stephen, following the example of Christ, responded mercifully, praying that the Lord would not hold this sin against his murderers (Acts 7:54-60).

The martyr Stephen’s eagle eye
could pierce beyond the grave;
he saw his master in the sky
and called on him to save.
By zealots he was stoned to death
and, as he knelt to pray,
he blessed them with his final breath –
who follows them today?
Reginald Heber (1783-1826)

Dr Patrick Sookhdeo is the International Director of Barnabas Fund and the Executive Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.