The Grammar of a Martyr


Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you. 

Jesus, I belong to you.

I lift up my heart to you.
I set my mind on you.
I fix my eyes on you.
I offer my body to you as a living sacrifice.

Jesus, we belong to you. 

Praying in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen. 

Acts 7:1–10 (NIV)

Then the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these charges true?”

To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’

“So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Harran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. He gave him no inheritance here, not even enough ground to set his foot on. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. God spoke to him in this way: ‘For four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ God said, ‘and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.’ Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs. 

“Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt. So Pharaoh made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace.


“Are these charges true?”

Simple question, right? Yes or no answer? Not a chance.

Stephen does not defend himself. He does not blame someone else. He does not in any way seek his own vindication, nor does he play the victim. In fact, he does not reference himself at all.

Stephen answers the question with a story.

It’s worth making a few observations about how a biblical storyteller works.

First, Stephen appeals to his hearers not as adversaries but as “Brothers and Fathers.” He steers clear of the “You brood of vipers” approach of John the Baptist. He greets his hearers with grace.

Second, he begins with the shared foundation on which they stand; the grounds of their relationship: Abraham.

Third, and most significantly, he tells the story from a decidedly God-centered point of view. Note how he begins:

“The God of glory appeared to Abraham . . .”

Now watch this. If you want to see how a biblical storyteller works you must get down into the grammar. Who gets the verbs? God or Abraham?

By my count (and I’m counting from the English translation and not the Greek), God gets eight verbs across these first eight verses. Abraham gets one.

The God of glory . . . appeared, said, sent, gave, promised, spoke, punished, gave.

As for Abraham’s one verb: He left.

I cannot over emphasize the significance of this simple grammatical observation. Storytelling is all about the verbs. Whoever gets the verbs . . . that’s who the story is about. The biblical story regularly includes people in dramatic fashion, but the story is always about God.

The next time you are in church, pay attention to who gets the verbs in the sermon. Even better, note who gets the verbs in the songs. Is God the central actor or are we, the people, the stars of the songs and prayers and sermons?

And a word to my fellow songwriters: pay attention to the voice of the verbs. We give God way too many passive verbs these days (am, are, is, was, were). We don’t so much take God out of the story as we make him a passive object instead of the active subject.

The way we tell stories and the way we hear them shapes our memory and stirs our imagination. As you work your way through the Bible, pay attention. We will pick up where we left off with Stephen’s storytelling tomorrow.


Lord Jesus, I am your witness. 

I receive your righteousness and release my sinfulness.
I receive your wholeness and release my brokenness.
I receive your fullness and release my emptiness.
I receive your peace and release my anxiety.
I receive your joy and release my despair.
I receive your healing and release my sickness. 
I receive your love and release my selfishness. 

Come Holy Spirit transform my heart, mind, soul, and strength so that my consecration becomes your demonstration; that our lives become your sanctuary. For the glory of God our Father, amen. 


What do you observe about the storytelling of Stephen so far? Why do you think Stephen is telling the people their own story? Why doesn’t he instead launch into a defense of himself and the allegations? What do you think is going on here? What can be learned from it? 


Our hymn today will be announced on the recording. Stay tuned. 

For the Awakening,
J. D. Walt

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WHAT IS THIS? Wake-Up Call is a daily encouragement to shake off the slumber of our busy lives and turn our eyes toward Jesus. Each morning our community gathers around a Scripture, a reflection, a prayer, and a few short questions, inviting us to reorient our lives around the love of Jesus that transforms our hearts, homes, churches, and cities.

Comments and Discussion

2 Responses

  1. JD, first of all, thank you for this deeper way of searching the scriptures. In answer to your question about why Stephen employs this method of response to the charges leveled against him: he is setting the stage for bringing them and himself into the Big Narrative. In this way he’s testifying to God’s covenant relationship to his people. He’s about to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it is they, and not himself who should be on trial in God’s court.

  2. Stepehen was charged with continually speaking “against the law” (the religion of the Pharisees) and saying that Jesus wants to change things. Rather than directly answering “the charges,” Stephen began to boldly testify and proclaim God’s actions in the history of Israel. He ended his “defense” by telling the Pharisees, that they murdered Jesus, “the Righteous One.” He declared: “You have received the law that was given through angels, but you have not obeyed it.”

    Stephen faithfully proclaimed God’s life-giving story to those who considered themselves to be its experts. He boldly rejected their lifestyle and religiosity and the way they sucked the life out of God’s story and how they turned it into dry religious formalism and self-righteous legalism. His “defense” made the experts of the law so furious that they covered their ears and yelled at the top of their voice and then stoned him to death. But Stephen looked beyond the outward circumstances and saw “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

    As Christ-followers we need to look beyond Christian experts who often spin God’s story to make people comfortable. We need to look to the living Jesus, “the author and finisher of our faith.” We need to know the story directly from the Bible like Stephen did and let it burn within us. We need to be able and willing to tell it from our heart, not from a religious curriculum or from sermon notes. We need to look beyond religion and behold the risen Lamb of God “who takes away the sin of the world” and to bask in and proclaim Christ’s glory regardless of the outward circumstances.

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