Stephen’s Final Prayer

Stephen was the first Christian martyr. His final recorded words were a prayer directed to his Savior. This narrative contains some rich truths.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

Stephen is widely known as the first Christian martyr. He is mentioned initially as one of the seven servants who ministered to the Grecian widows in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:1-6). These Grecians were Jews born outside of Palestine who frequently returned to the Holy Land in their declining years to die and, there, be buried.

Beyond exercising his benevolent talents, this servant of Christ also proclaimed the gospel and debated with the Jews in their synagogues (Acts 6:8-9). His strong advocacy for Jesus and his religion demonstrates that Christianity is not a passive system. It engages the opposition.

However, it also frequently arouses opposition, and such was the case in this instance. Hostile “witnesses” were solicited to testify falsely against this courageous preacher in a malevolent plan to shut his mouth.

The leaders of the Sanhedrin and the people generally were aroused into a state of frenzy. They rushed upon the man of God and brought him before the assembled council. False witnesses testified that Stephen spoke against the holy place (the temple) and the law. The evangelist was permitted to defend himself, the record of which is found in Acts 7. For a discussion of his defense, see my Commentary on Acts (2005).

Eventually, the Jews had heard enough. They were “cut to the heart” and, in anger, ground their teeth furiously (Acts 7:54).

Luke records that Stephen was “full of the Holy Spirit,” perhaps meaning the Spirit emboldened him. He was permitted to look into heaven, where he saw a manifestation of divine glory and Jesus “standing” nearby at God’s “right hand” (a unique expression). The courageous brother exclaimed: “Look, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God” (v. 56).

It is important to note that Christ is designated as “the Son of man” (v. 56) and “son of God” (cf. Acts 9:20). Though the Lord was back in heaven, the Savior retained his identity with humanity (cf. Phil. 3:21; Col. 2:9; Heb. 2:11).

This is an essential biblical truth. Christ’s authority to render final judgment depends on his nature as “a son of man” (Jn. 5:27).

The furious mob rushed him, dragged him from the city, and stoned him. This was no legal execution. It was a lynching!

Observing this bloody scene was a “young man named Saul,” who was “consenting” to the murder (v. 58 b; 8:1 a). This event would later hang over him like a dark cloud (Acts 22:20).

As the mob prepared to execute him, Stephen called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He humbly kneeled and exclaimed loudly, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had uttered these words, he fell asleep (i.e., he died; vv. 59-60 ESV). The prayer was brief but remarkable from several vantage points.

Calling upon the Lord

Luke states that Stephen was “calling upon” the Lord. The verb “call upon” (epikaleo) is a present tense, middle voice form in this passage. There are several points worthy of note:

The term means to make a request. The context must determine its specific disposition. It is a “prayer” (Mounce, 2006, 93). Campbell designated it as an “invocation” (1858, 51).

The present tense suggests the petition was repeated, while the middle voice reflects the intense personal need felt at this crucial moment, hence “to call upon for one’s self” (Thayer, 1958, 239). The term frequently is employed as an “appeal to God in prayer” as here (Kittel & Friedrich, 1985, 396).

Several recent translations render the expression, “he was praying” (cf. NIV, Williams, Goodspeed, Weymouth, McCord).

The expression “Lord Jesus” is Stephen’s acknowledgment of Christ’s deity and his Master’s authority. Both titles are in the vocative case, which means it is a direct address. It is “unquestionable” that Stephen is praying to Christ (Vincent, 1972, 240).

Robertson wrote, “Stephen knelt before him in worship and called on him in prayer” (1930, 3.99). In his Commentary on Acts, H. Leo Boles, one-time editor of the Gospel Advocate, referred to Stephen as “praying” to Christ no fewer than five times (1941, 120; cf. Milligan, 1957, 221, 379; Pack, 1977, 62). See Jackson, Prayer to Christ elsewhere on this website.

Some allege it is wrong to speak a word of prayer to Christ today. They admit that Stephen prayed to the Savior, but what usually would be sinful was permitted on that occasion due to the supernatural nature of the vision. However, the reasoning doesn’t hold up. John was the recipient of supernatural revelations on Patmos, yet he was not granted an exemption to worship an angel (Rev. 22:8-9).

“Jehovah’s Witnesses” emphatically deny that prayer can be offered to Christ (Franz, 1971, 1329). Such reflects their repudiation of his deity. In the vain attempt to avoid the conclusion that this was an act of worship, the manipulations of this text sacrifice every particle of exegetical credibility.

The Request

The verb “receive” is a middle voice form (expressing self-need) and in the imperative mood. In this case, the imperative is a strong request commonly used in prayers (Wallace, 1996, 488).

The Greek term dechomai is unusual in that it has the lingering aroma of classical Greek, in the sense of “welcome” me (cf. Thayer, 1958, 131).

Stephen’s Spirit

The phrase “my spirit” is Stephen’s affirmation that there was a personal entity within his body capable of both emotion and intellect (Dan. 7:15; 1 Cor. 2:11). That spirit, or soul (cf. Mt. 10:28), was about to make its exit to be with the Savior.

This brave servant of Christ was not a materialist. Materialists believe that man is wholly mortal, having nothing more than a fleshly composition powered by an impersonal “life force.”

He was likely reflecting on what he had heard about Jesus’ death. The Lord had prayed, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk. 23:46).

Observe how the “Jehovah’s Witnesses” pervert this lofty truth—both in Luke’s Gospel and in this text in Acts.

“In view of the impersonal nature of the life force or spirit found in man (as also in the animal creation) it is evident that David’s statement at Psalm 31:5, quoted by Jesus at the time of his death (Luke 23:46), ‘Into your hand I entrust my spirit,’ meant that God was being called upon to guard or care for that one’s life force. (Compare Acts 7:59)” (Franz, et al., 1971, 1547; emphasis added).

If the “spirit” is simply an “impersonal animal life force,” why not translate it that way instead of “my spirit” (as reflected in the Watchtower’s New World Translation)? Was Stephen’s death no different from that of a dog?

A common rule prevails in defining words. The definition of a term may be substituted for the word itself in a sentence, and the sentence will still be rational. Consider a couple of passages in which the term “spirit” appears, and see how nonsensical the “Watchtower” definition becomes.

“Let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and impersonal animal life force” (2 Cor. 7:1).

Or this: “The impersonal animal life force of Titus has been refreshed by you all.” (2 Cor. 7:13; cf. 1 Cor. 16:18).

What’s wrong with these renditions?

Everything—they make no sense. The Greek term pneuma, when used for that entity within a person, designates “the rational spirit, the power by which a human being feels, thinks, wills, decides; the soul” (Thayer, 1958, 520; cf. Danker, 2000, 833.3).

Stephen’s Expectation

When Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” he had every expectation and eager longing that when his spirit took flight from his body, it would go to be with Christ, just as the Lord himself anticipated going to the Father in his similar prayer (Lk. 23:46).

It is a mistake to conclude, as some have, that there will be no fellowship with our Savior until after the Second Coming and the Resurrection. The New Testament does not support this view (cf. Phil. 1:23; 2 Cor. 5:8).

Stephen’s Benevolent Heart

Finally, Stephen’s request, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60), is also reminiscent of the Savior’s prayer: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). He emulates his Lord’s example.

This was not a call for unconditional pardon (cf. Acts 2:21, 38). It was a compassionate hope of their eventual conversion. See Paul’s later statement that he received “mercy” because of his conversion (1 Tim. 1:13; Acts 22:16).

Luke’s narrative regarding the final words of the first Christian martyr is a magnificent illustration of how much truth can be packed into such a small area. It also demolishes a litany of theological errors with deadly precision.

  • Boles, H. Leo. 1941. Commentary on Acts. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate.
  • Campbell, Alexander. 1858. Acts of the Apostles. Rosemead, CA: Old Paths Edition.
  • Danker, F. W. et al. 2000. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago, IL: University Press.
  • Franz, Raymond, et al. Aid To Bible Understanding. 1971. Brooklyn, NY: Watchtower Bible & Tract Society. Note: Franz ultimately left the Watchtower Society and was disfellowshipped.
  • Jackson, Wayne. 2005. The Acts of the Apostles – From Jerusalem to Rome. Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications.
  • Jackson, Wayne. “Prayer to Christ” –
  • Kittel, Gerhard & Friedrich, Gerhard. 1985. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament – Abridged. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Milligan, Robert. 1957. The Scheme of Redemption. St. Louis, MO: Bethany Press.
  • Mounce, William. 2006. Expository Dictionary Old & New Testament Words. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Pack, Frank. 1977. The Gospel of John II. Austin, TX: Sweet.
  • Robertson, A. T. 1930. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Nashville, TN: Broadman.
  • Thayer, J. H. 1958. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark.
  • Vincent, M. R. 1972. Word Studies in the New Testament. Wilmington, DL: Associated Publishers.
  • Wallace, Daniel B. 1996. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.