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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Acts 7

 

 

Verse 1

VII.

(1) Then said the high priest, Are these things so?—The question was analogous to that put to our Lord. The accused was called on to plead guilty or not guilty, and had then an opportunity for his defence. On that defence we now enter.


Verse 2

(2) Men, brethren, and fathers.—The discourse which follows presents many aspects, each of special interest. (1) It is clearly an unfinished fragment, interrupted by the clamours of the by-standers (Acts 7:51)—the torso, as it were, of a great apologia. Its very incompleteness, the difficulty of tracing the argument as far as it goes, because we do not see how far it was meant to go, are indirect proofs that we have a true, though not necessarily a verbatim, report. A later writer, composing a speech after the manner of Herodotus and Thucydides, would have made it a much more direct answer to the charges in the indictment. And this, in its turn, supplies a reasonable presumption in favour of other speeches reported by the same author. (2) Looking to the relations between St. Luke and St. Paul, and to the prominence of the latter among the accusers of Stephen, there is a strong probability that the report was derived from him. This is confirmed by some instances of remarkable parallelism between the speech and his later teaching. (Comp. Acts 7:53, Galatians 3:19; Acts 7:48, Acts 17:24). (3) The speech is the first great survey of the history of Israel as a process of divine education—the first development from the lips of a human teacher of principles that had before been latent. As such, it contains the germs which were, in their turn, to be afterwards developed, on the one hand, by St. Paul in the Epistles known to be his, on the other hand by Apollos, or whoever was the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. (4) The speech is also remarkable as bringing together within a comparatively small compass a considerable number of real or seeming inaccuracies in the details of the history which is commented on. Whether they are real or apparent will be discussed as we deal with each of them. It is obvious that the results thus arrived at will form something like a crucial test of theories which men have formed as to the nature and limits of inspiration. (5) As Stephen was a Hellenistic or Greek-speaking Jew, it is probable that the speech was delivered in Greek, and so far it confirms the inference which has been drawn from the Aramaic words specially recorded in our Lord’s teaching—“Ephphatha,” “Talitha cumi,” and the cry upon the cross—that He habitually used the former language, and that this was the medium of intercourse between the priests and Pilate. (See Notes on Mark 5:41; Mark 7:34.)

The God of glory.—The opening words are an implied answer to the charge of blaspheming God. The name contained an allusive reference to the Shechinah, or cloud of glory, which was the symbol of the Presence of Jehovah. That was the “glory of the Lord.” He, in like manner, was the “Lord of glory.” (Comp. James 2:1.)

Before he dwelt in Charran.—We come, at the very outset, on one of the difficulties above referred to. Here the call of Abraham is spoken of as before he sojourned in Haran, or Charran, west of the Euphrates. In Genesis 12:1 it is first mentioned after Abraham’s removal thither. On the other hand, Genesis 15:7 speaks of God as bringing him “from Ur of the Chaldees”—i.e., from Mesopotamia, or the east of the Euphrates; and this is confirmed by Joshua 24:3, Nehemiah 9:7. The language of writers contemporary with Stephen (Philo, De Abrah.; Jos. Ant. i. 7, § 1) lays stress, as he does, on the first call as well as the second. Here, accordingly, it cannot be said that the statement is at variance with the Old Testament narrative. The word Mesopotamia was used by the LXX., and has thence passed into later versions, for the Hebrew Aram-Naharaim, “Syria of the two rivers” (Genesis 24:10; Deuteronomy 23:4; Judges 3:8), and, less accurately, for Padan-Aram in Genesis 25:20; Genesis 28:2; Genesis 28:5-6; where our version retains the Hebrew name.


Verse 4

(4) From thence, when his father was dead.—In Genesis 11:26; Genesis 11:32, Terah, the father of Abraham, is said to have died at the age of 205 years, and after he had reached the age of seventy to have begotten Abram, Nahor, and Haran; while Abraham in Genesis 12:4 is said to have been seventy-five years old when he departed out of Haran. This, primâ facie, suggests the conclusion that he lived for sixty years after his son’s departure. The explanations sometimes given—(1) that Abraham may have been the youngest, not the eldest son of Terah, placed first in order of honour, not of time, as Shem is among the sons of Noah (Genesis 5:32; Genesis 6:10), though Japheth was the elder (Genesis 10:21); and (2) that the marriage of Abraham’s son with the granddaughter of Nahor by the youngest of his eight sons, Bethuel (Genesis 22:22), suggests some such difference of age, and that he may therefore have been born when Terah was 130, and so have remained in Haran till his father’s death—though probable as an hypothesis, would hardly appear so natural an explanation as that the memory of St. Stephen or of his reporter dwelt upon the broad outlines of the history, and was indifferent to chronological details. It is remarkable that like difficulties present themselves in St. Paul’s own survey of the history of Israel. (See Notes on Acts 13:20; Galatians 3:17.) A man speaking for his life, and pleading for the truth with a passionate eagerness, does not commonly carry with him a memoria technica of chronological minutiœ. This seems, on the whole, a more satisfactory explanation than the assumption that the Apostle, having a clear recollection of the facts as we find them, brought them before his hearers in a form which presented at least the appearance of inaccuracy.

He removed him.—The change of subject may be noted as more natural in a speaker than a writer, and as so far confirming the inference that we have probably a verbatim report.


Verse 5

(5) And he gave him none inheritance.—The apparent exception of the field and cave of Machpelah (Genesis 23:9-17) was not a real one. That was purchased for a special purpose, not given as an inheritance.


Verse 6

(6) And that they should bring them into bondage . . .—Here again there is another apparent discrepancy of detail. Taking the common computation, the interval between the covenant with Abraham and that with Moses was 430 years (Galatians 3:17), of which only 215 are reckoned as spent in Egypt. The Israelites were indeed sojourners in a strange land for the whole 430 years, but the history shows that they were not in bondage nor evil entreated till the Pharaoh arose who knew not Joseph. The chronological difficulty, however, lies in reconciling St. Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:17 with the language of Genesis 15:13, which gives 400 years as the sojourning in Egypt, and Exodus 12:40, which gives 430, and with which St. Stephen is in substantial agreement. St. Paul appears to have followed the LXX. reading of Exodus 12:40, which inserts “in the land of Cannan,” and in some MSS. “they and their fathers,” and with this the Samaritan Pentateuch agrees. Josephus varies, in some passages (Ant. ii. 15, § 2), giving 215 years; in others (Ant. ii. 9, § 1; Wars, v. 9, § 4), 400. All that can be said is, as before, that chronological accuracy did not affect the argument in either case. It was enough for St. Stephen, as for St. Paul, to accept this or that system of dates, as they had been taught, without inquiring into the grounds on which it rested. Such inquiries were foreign to the Jewish character generally, and above all to that character when possessed by the sense of new and divine realities. Round numbers were enough for them to mark the successive stages of God’s dealings with His people.


Verse 7

(7) And after that shall they come forth.—The verse combines the promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:17 with a free rendering of the sign given to Moses (Exodus 3:12), which referred not to Canaan but to Horeb. What St. Stephen does is to substitute with the natural freedom of a narrative given from memory the words “they shall serve me” for the simpler phrase, “they shall come hither again,” of Genesis. The whole context is at variance with the assumption that St. Stephen meant the last words of the verse to be taken as applying to the mount of God.


Verse 8

(8) And he gave him the covenant . . .—Here we trace an indirect reference to the charge that he had spoken “against the customs.” He does not deny the specific charge that he had said that Jesus of Nazareth should change them. He probably had taught that the change was about to come. He does assert (1) that the covenant of circumcision followed on the promise to Abraham, and therefore was not the ground of his election, and so lays the foundation for St. Paul’s argument in Galatians 3:17; (2) that, though part of a provisional, not of a permanent, system, it came from God’s appointment, and therefore was to be spoken of with all reverence, and so he clears himself from the charge of blasphemy.

The twelve patriarchs.—On the meaning of the word see Note on Acts 2:29. Here it is applied to the sons of Jacob, as being, each of them, the founder of a patria, or family.


Verse 9

(9) The patriarchs, moved with envy.—This, interpreted by what follows, is the first step in the long induction which is to show that the elect of God had always been opposed and rejected by those who were for the time the representatives of the nation. Envy had actuated the patriarchs when they sold Joseph; envy had led their descendants to deliver up Jesus (Matthew 27:18). But man’s evil will had not frustrated God’s gracious purpose. Joseph was made ruler over a kingdom. A greater glory might therefore be in store for Him who had now been rejected by them.

Sold Joseph into Egypt.—The objection that Joseph’s brethren sold him not into Egypt, but to the Midianites and Ishmaelites (Genesis 37:25; Genesis 37:28), may well be dismissed as frivolous. They knew the trade which the Midianite slave-dealers carried on, and where their brother would be taken. So Joseph himself says of them “ye sold me hither” (Genesis 45:5).


Verses 11-14

(11-14) Now there came a dearth . . .—So far as we can trace the sequence of thought, there seems the suggested inference that as those who, in the history of Joseph, had persecuted him, came afterwards to be dependent on his bounty, so it might prove to be, in the last parallel which the history of Israel presented. In the coming famine, not of bread, but of sustenance for their spiritual life, they would have to turn to Him of whom they had been, in purpose and in act, the betrayers and murderers.


Verse 14

(14) Threescore and fifteen souls.—Seventy is given as the number, including Jacob, Joseph, and his sons, in Genesis 46:27; Exodus 1:5; Deuteronomy 10:22. Here, however, Stephen had the authority of the LXX. of Genesis 46:27, which gives the number at seventy-five, and makes it up by inserting the son and grandson of Manasseh, two sons and a grandson of Ephraim. With them it was probably an editorial correction based upon Numbers 26:26-37. Stephen, as a Hellenistic Jew, naturally accepted, without caring to investigate, the number which he found in the Greek version.


Verse 16

(16) And were carried over into Sychem.—The words appear to include Jacob, who was buried not at Sychem, but Machpelah (Genesis 1:13). If we limit the verb to the patriarchs, which is in itself a tenable limitation, we are met by the fresh difficulty that the Old Testament contains no record of the burial of any of the Twelve Patriarchs, with the exception of Joseph, whose bones were laid, on the occupation of Canaan, in Shechem (Joshua 24:32); and Josephus states (Ant. iv. 8, § 2) that they were buried at Hebron. This, however, only represents, at the best, a local tradition. In the time of Jerome (Ep. 86) the tombs of the Twelve Patriarchs were shown at Shechem, and this in its turn witnesses to a Samaritan tradition which continues to the present day (Palestine Exploration Report, Dec., 1877), and which Stephen, it may be, followed in preference to that of Judæa. Looking to the probabilities of the case, it was likely that the example set by Joseph would be followed by the other tribes, and that as Shechem was far more prominent than Hebron, as the centre of the civil and religious life of Israel in the time of Joshua, that should have been chosen as the burial-place of his brethren rather than Machpelah. Looking, again, to the fact that one of Stephen’s companions, immediately after his death, goes to Samaria as a preacher, and that there are good grounds for believing that both had been previously connected with it (see Note on Acts 6:5), we may probably trace to this influence his adoption of the Samaritan version of the history. The hated Sychar (Sirach 1:26; see Note on John 4:5) had, from Stephen’s point of view, a claim on the reverence of all true Israelites, and his assertion of that claim may well have been one of the causes of the bitterness with which his hearers listened to him.

That Abraham bought for a sum of money.—Here we seem to come across a direct contradiction to the narrative of Genesis. The only recorded transaction in which Abraham appears as a buyer, was his purchase of the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite (Genesis 23:16). The only recorded transaction in which the sons of Emmor, or Hamor, appear as sellers, was in Jacob’s purchase of the field at Shechem (Genesis 33:19; Joshua 24:32). What we have seen above, however, prepares us for there having been a Samaritan tradition carrying the associations of Shechem to a remoter past. And, assuming such a tradition, there are significant facts in the patriarchal history of which it furnishes an explanation. (1) Jacob gives as a special inheritance to Joseph, “one portion” (in the Hebrew, “one Shechem;” in the LXX., Sikima) above his brethren, which he had taken “out of the hands of the Amorites with his sword and his bow.” Of that conquest—as it is clear that the words cannot refer to the massacre connected with the story of Dinah, which Jacob had severely condemned (Genesis 34:30)—the history contains no record, and to interpret the words as prophetic of future conquests is to strain them to a non-natural interpretation which they will hardly bear. Jacob did not come as an invader, nor had the time for thus taking possession of the whole land as yet arrived. The facts of the case suggest a special right claimed and asserted in regard to this one possession, and that right presupposes a previous purchase by some ancestor of Jacob’s—i.e., by Abraham. This being done and the right asserted, to make the portion larger, and perhaps as a measure of conciliation, there followed the subsequent purchase of Genesis 33:19. (2) Shechem was the earliest settlement of Abraham on his entrance into Canaan, and there he built an altar (Genesis 12:7). But the feeling of reverence for holy places, always strong in the Hebrew race, as seen, e.g., in the case of David and Araunah, would hardly permit a man of Abraham’s wealth and princely nobleness to offer burnt-offerings to the Lord of that which had cost him nothing (2 Samuel 24:24); nor would a devout worshipper be content to see the altar so consecrated in the possession of another, and so exposed to desecration. The building of an altar involved, almost of necessity, as in the case just cited, the purchase of the ground on which it stood. (3) The Samaritans had an immemorial tradition (adopted by Dean Stanley, Ffouikes, Grove, and others) that the sacrifice of Isaac took place on the mountain of Moriah (Genesis 22:2), or Gerizim, which commands the plain of Moreh (Genesis 12:6), or Shechem; and, without now discussing the evidence for or against the tradition, it almost involved of necessity the assumption that Abraham had already an altar there, and with it a consecrated field which he could call his own. (4) Another Samaritan tradition, it may be noted, connected Shechem with the sacrifice offered by Melchizedek. This is enough to show the extent of the claims which were made by the Samaritans on behalf of their sacred places, and, taken together with the statement referred to in the previous Note as to the tombs of the Patriarchs, leads us to the conclusion that Stephen, more or less influenced by his recent associations with them, adopted their traditions. This seems, at any rate, the most probable solution of the difficulty which the statement at first sight presents. To do this in Jerusalem, before the very Sanhedrin, the members of which had reviled our Lord as a Samaritan (John 8:48), required a martyr’s boldness, and, claiming as it did, a brotherhood for the hated Samaritans, the hereditary foes of Judah, had, we may believe, much to do with causing the fury that ended in his actual martyrdom. It may be added (1) that the manifest familiarity of St. Luke with Samaria and the Samaritans would dispose him to accept such a tradition without correction (see Introduction to St. Luke’s Gospel); (2) that the Twelve, some of whom had sojourned for three days at Sychar (John 4:43), were likely to have become acquainted with it, and to have been ignorant of the Hebron traditions; (3) that the well-known substitution of Gerizim for Ebal in Deuteronomy 27:4, in the Samaritan Pentateuch, not less than their addition of a commandment to build an altar on Gerizim to the ten great laws of Exodus 20, shows a tendency to deal freely with the text and the facts of the Pentateuch, so as to support their own traditions as to their sacred places.

Of the sons of Emmor the father of Sychem.—The insertion of the word “father” instead of “son,” which would be (as in Matthew 10:3; Luke 3:23) the natural rendering of the Greek construction, must be looked on as betraying a wish on the part of the translators to meet the difficulty presented by the statement in Genesis 34:2, that Shechem was the son of Hamor the Hivite. It may be noted that it is the only English version that thus tampers with the text—Tyndale giving “at Sychem;” Wiclif, Cranmer, Geneva, and the Rhemish giving “son of Sychem.” A possible explanation of the apparent discrepancy may be found in the very probable assumption that Shechem may have been a quasi-hereditary name appearing in alternate generations. In this instance, however, textual criticism comes in to cut the knot. Many of the better MSS., including the Vatican and the Sinaitic, give the reading “in Sychem,” and so make the name apply to the place and not to a person.

With the exception of Acts 7:43, we have now come to the last of the difficulties, chronological, historical, or numerical, presented by St. Stephen’s speech. They have been approached by writers of different schools of thought in ways singularly, sometimes almost painfully, characteristic. On the one hand, there has been something like the eagerness of a partisan mustering all objections and anxious to secure an adverse verdict; on the other, there has been an almost hysterical alarm and indignation that such questions should be ever raised. Here the effort has, at least, been made to deal with each on its own merits, and not to force facts this way or that to meet a foregone conclusion. Should there be errors of transcription, of report, or even of memory in the record of St. Stephen’s speech, they need not shake the faith of those who have learnt to take a higher view of inspiration than that which depends upon the registers of genealogies or chronological tables. But it may be well also not to assume too hastily that men of average culture and information would be altogether ignorant of the facts which they narrate, and the sacred writings which have been the object of their continual study. And it may be urged that the appearance of seeming inaccuracies, which a moment’s reference to the Book of Genesis would have enabled the writer to correct, is, at any rate, evidence of faithfulness in his report of the speech which he thus reproduces.


Verse 17

(17) Which God had sworn to Abraham.—The better MSS. give, which God promised.


Verse 18

(18) Which knew not Joseph.—The idiom was originally a Hebrew one, for “not remembering, not caring for;” but as the words are quoted from the LXX. they do not affect the question as to the language in which the speech was delivered.


Verse 19

(19) So that they cast out their young children.—Literally, to make their children cast out so that they should not be brought forth alive. The latter verb is used in the LXX. narrative (Exodus 1:17).


Verse 20

(20) Exceeding fair.—Literally, as in the margin, fair to God. The adjective is found in the LXX. of Exodus 2:2, as applied to Moses. The special idiom for expressing pre-eminent excellence is itself essentially Hebrew, the highest goodness being thought of as that which approves itself as good to God; but this also had become familiar to Hellenistic Jews through the LXX. version, as, e.g., in Jonah 3:3, a city “great to God” = an exceeding great city. St. Paul’s “mighty to God” (2 Corinthians 10:4) is probably an example of the same idiom. Josephus, following probably some old tradition (Ant i. 9, § 6), describes the beauty of the infant Moses as such that those who met him turned to gaze in admiration.


Verse 22

(22) Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.—Better, was trained, or instructed. There is no direct statement to this effect in the history of the Pentateuch, but it was implied in Moses being brought up as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, and was in harmony with later paraphrases and expansions of the earlier history. The narrative of Josephus (as above) and the references in the New Testament to Jannes and Jambres as the magicians who withstood Moses (2 Timothy 3:8), and to the dispute of Michael and Satan as to his body (Jude 1:9), indicate the wide acceptance of some such half-legendary history. The passage is instructive, (1) as an indirect plea on the part of Stephen, like that afterwards made by Clement of Alexandria (Strom. i. 5, § 28; 6:5, § 42) and Justin (Dial. c. Tryph. c. 1-4), for the recognition of heathen wisdom as an element in the divine education of mankind; (2) as having contributed to fix the attention of the more cultivated and scholarly of the early Christian critics, such as those named, and Origen, and Jerome, and Augustine, on the teaching of Greek poets and philosophers, and having furnished them with a sanction for such studies.

Mighty in words and in deeds.—Josephus (Ant. ii. 10), still following the same traditional history, relates that Moses commanded the Egyptian forces in a campaign against the Ethiopians, and protected them against the serpents that infected the country, by transporting large numbers of the ibis that feeds on serpents. The romance was completed by the marriage of Moses with the daughter of the Ethiopian king who had fallen passionately in love with him. This was possibly a development of the brief statement in Numbers 12:1. The language of Moses (Exodus 4:10), in which he speaks of himself as “not eloquent” and “slow of speech,” seems at first inconsistent with “mighty in words,” but may fairly be regarded as simply the utterance of a true humility shrinking from the burden of a mighty task.


Verse 23

(23) It came into his heart.—The distinct purpose in going out to look after his brethren is stated somewhat more emphatically than in Exodus 2:11.


Verse 24

(24) And avenged him.—The Greek phrase is noticeable as identical with that used by St. Luke (Luke 18:7) in reporting the lesson drawn by our Lord from the parable of the Unjust Judge.


Verse 25

(25) For he supposed his brethren would have understood . . .—Better, and he supposed. The Greek conjunction never has the meaning of “for,” and the insertion of that word gives to the act of slaying the Egyptian a deliberate character which, in the narrative of Exodus 2:11-12, does not belong to it.

Would deliver them.—Literally, was giving them salvation, or deliverance; the act being itself one of championship and the first step to deliverance.


Verse 26

(26) Would have set them at one again.—Literally, brought them to peace. The better MSS. give “was bringing them.”

Sirs.—Literally, Ye are brethren, without any word of address. The phrase is the same as “we be brethren” in Genesis 13:8.


Verse 27

(27) Who made thee a ruler and a judge?—The stress laid on this afterwards, in Acts 7:35, shows that it took its place in the induction which was to show that the whole history of Israel had been marked by the rejection of those who were, at each successive stage, God’s ministers and messengers for its good, and that the rejection of Jesus was therefore a presumptive proof that He, too, was sent from God.


Verse 29

(29) Then fled Moses at this saying.—The rapid survey of the history passes over the intermediate link of Pharaoh’s knowledge of the murder of the Egyptian, and his search for Moses.


Verse 30

(30) There appeared to him in the wilderness.—With the exception of the substitution of Sina, or Sinai, for the less familiar Horeb, the fact is stated in nearly the same words as in Exodus 3:2. The reference to this revelation, besides the bearing it had on the main argument of the speech, was indirectly an answer to the charge that he had spoken “blasphemous words against Moses.” Both in the Hebrew and the LXX. the word “angel” is, as here, without the article.

In a bush.—The Hebrew word seneh is used for a species of thorny acacia, which still grows in the wilderness of Sinai. The Greek word, in the LXX. and here, was used commonly for the bramble, or any prickly shrub.


Verse 31

(31) The voice of the Lord came unto him.—The speech agrees with Exodus 3:4 in ascribing the voice to the Lord, the Eternal, while the visible manifestation was that of the angel of the Lord. It hardly belongs to the interpretation of the speech to discuss the relation between the two statements. Speaking generally, it may be said that all, or nearly all, theophanies, or divine manifestations, in the Old Testament addressed to the sense of sight resolve themselves into angelophanies, all manifestations addressed exclusively to the sense of hearing into revelations by the Son, as the LOGOS, or eternal WORD.


Verse 32

(32) The God of Abraham.—It is probable, on the assumption that Stephen had been one of the Seventy disciples of Luke 10:1, that he knew that these words had been cited by the Lord Jesus (Matthew 22:32) as witnessing against the unbelief of the Sadducees. In any case, the fact could hardly have been forgotten by the priestly and therefore Sadducean members of the Council, to whom Stephen addressed his defence. They had then been urged as a new proof of immortality, and therefore of the resurrection. They are now connected with the proclamation that He who then spake had himself been raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God.


Verse 33-34

(33, 34) Then said the Lord to him . . . .—The words are almost a verbal reproduction of Exodus 3:5; Exodus 3:7-8. The citation was in part an implied answer to the charge of disregarding the sanctity of places in which man stands as in the presence of God, partly an implied protest against the narrowing thoughts which limited that sanctity to the Temple of Jerusalem.


Verse 35

(35) The same did God send to be a ruler and a deliverer.—Literally, a ruler and redeemer. The word is not found elsewhere in the New Testament, but is formed from the noun for “ransom” in Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45, and appears to have been chosen to emphasise the parallelism which the speech indicates between Moses and the Christ. In a yet higher sense than Moses, the latter also had been made “a ruler and a redeemer.”


Verse 36

(36) After that he had shewed wonders and signs.—The two nouns are joined together, as in Deuteronomy 6:22, Matthew 24:24. The words express different relations, it may be, of the same phenomena, rather than phenomena specifically different;—the first emphasising the wonder which the miracle produces, and therefore answering more strictly to that word; the latter, the fact that the miracle is a token or evidence of something beyond itself. (See also Acts 2:22; Acts 6:8.)

In the Red sea.—It may be worth while noting that the familiar name comes to us, not from the Hebrew word, which means, literally, the Weed Sea, but from the LXX. version, which Stephen, as a Hellenistic Jew, used, and which gave the word Erythræan, or red, which had been used by Greek travellers from Herodotus onward. Why the name was given is an unsolved problem. Some have referred it to the colour of the coast; some to that of the sea-weed; some to an attempt to give an etymological translation of its name as the Sea of Edom (Edom, meaning “red,” as in Genesis 25:25; Genesis 36:1); some to a supposed connection with an early settlement of Phœnicians, whose name had, with the Greeks, the same significance.


Verse 37

(37) A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up.—The parallelism previously suggested is now distinctly proclaimed, and shown to be a fulfilment of the prediction of Deuteronomy 18:18. The prediction itself is cited freely, as before. (See Note on Acts 3:22.) The definite application of the words by St. Peter determined their bearing here. At this point we may reasonably think of the members of the Sanhedrin as catching the drift of his discourse, and showing signs of excitement, the effect of which is, perhaps, traceable in the greater compression of the narrative that follows.


Verse 38

(38) That was in the church in the wilderness.—The word ecclesia is used, as it had been in the LXX. (Deuteronomy 18:16; Deuteronomy 23:1; Psalms 26:12), for the “congregation” of Israel. Of the earlier versions. Tyndale, Cranmer, and the Genevan, had given “congregation.” Even the Rhemish contented itself with “assembly.” The translators of 1611, acting on the instructions which were drawn up for their direction, did not see any reason for making this an exception to the rule, and so gave “church.” Assuming that ecclesia was so rendered elsewhere, it was, it may be admitted, right, as a matter of consistency, that it should be used here, as presenting the thought, which was emphasised in Stephen’s speech, that the society of believers in Christ was like, in character and in its relation to God, to that of Israel. The new ecclesia was the development of the old. (See Note on Matthew 16:18.)

The lively oracles.—The noun was used by the Greeks for the solemn utterances of the Pythian oracles, and thus came to be used by the LXX. in connection with the Urim and Thummim of the high priest (Exodus 28:30), and so for any answer from God (Numbers 24:4). In the New Testament it appears again in Romans 3:2; Hebrews 5:12; 1 Peter 4:11.


Verse 39

(39) To whom our fathers would not obey.—The historical parallelism is continued. The people rejected Moses then (the same word is used as in Acts 7:27) as they were rejecting Christ now, even after He had shown Himself to be their redeemer from a worse than Egyptian bondage.

In their hearts turned back again into Egypt.—The sin was one often repeated, but the history referred to is probably that in Exodus 16:3. For a later example see Numbers 11:5.


Verse 40

(40) Make us gods.—The speech follows the LXX. and the English version of Exodus 32:4 in giving the plural, but it is probable that the Hebrew, Elohim, was used in its ordinary sense as singular in meaning, though plural in form, and that the sin of the Golden Calf was thus a transgression of the Second, and not of the First Commandment.


Verse 41

(41) They made a calf.—The fact is stated in a compound word which is not found in the LXX. version, and which St. Stephen apparently coined for the purpose.

Rejoiced in the works of their own hands.—The verb expresses specially the joy of a feast, as in Luke 15:23-24; Luke 15:29; Luke 16:19; and is therefore specially appropriate for what is related in Exodus 32:5-6. The tense “were rejoicing” expresses the frequency or continuance of the sin.


Verse 42

(42) The host of heaven.—The word includes the host or army of the firmament, sun, moon, and stars, as in 2 Chronicles 33:3; 2 Chronicles 33:5; Jeremiah 8:2. The sin of Israel was that it worshipped the created host, instead of Jehovah Sabaoth, the “Lord of hosts.”

In the book of the prophets.—The term is used in conformity with the Rabbinic usage which treated the Twelve Minor Prophets as making up a single book.

Have ye offered to me . . .?—Better, did ye offer . . . ? The words are, with one exception, from the LXX. of Amos 5:25-26. The narrative of the Pentateuch is inconsistent with the statement that no sacrifices were offered to Jehovah during the forty years’ wandering; but the question emphasises the thought which Amos desired to press upon the men of his generation, that Jehovah rejected the divided worship offered to them by a people who were all along hankering after, and frequently openly returning to, the worship of Egypt or Chaldæa. Moloch, and not the true God of Abraham, had been their chosen deity.


Verse 43

(43) Ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch.—The verb implies the up-lifting of the tabernacle of Moloch, in the same manner as the ark was borne (Exodus 25:14; 1 Kings 2:26), as a sacred ensign in the march of the Israelites. The Hebrew word for “tabernacle” (Siccuth) is an unusual one, and may have been used as a proper name; the word rendered “Moloch,” being descriptive, Siccuth your king. The prohibition of the distinctive rite of Moloch worship in Leviticus 18:21; Leviticus 20:2, is, perhaps, in favour of the common rendering. In spite of this prohibition, however, it reappeared continually under the kings, both of Judah (2 Kings 16:3; 2 Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 7:31; Jeremiah 32:35) and Israel (2 Kings 17:17; Ezekiel 23:37).

And the star of your god Remphan.—Remphan appears to have been understood by the LXX. translators as an equivalent for the Hebrew “Chiun,” which is supposed by many scholars to be identified with the planet Saturn, of which “Ræphan” (the LXX. form of the name) was the Coptic or Egyptian name. There is no adequate proof, however, that the planet was so known, and the Hebrew may bear the meaning of the pedestal of your images. As to “star,” however, there is no question, and this was enough for Stephen’s purpose, as proving the worship of the host of heaven.

I will carry you away beyond Babylon.—Both the Hebrew and the LXX. give “Damascus”; and we are left to choose between an intentional variation, to emphasise the actual fulfilment of the words as surpassing what the prophet had foretold, or an inaccuracy naturally incident to a quotation from memory. One section of the speech, that which accumulates proof that Israel, had been all along a rebellious people. seems to end here. The next deals with the charge that Stephen had spoken blasphemous words against the Temple.


Verse 44

(44) The tabernacle of witness.—The word was applied by the LXX. to the Tabernacle, as in Numbers 9:15; Numbers 17:7, as containing the Two Tables of Stone, which were emphatically the testimony of what was God’s will as the rule of man’s conduct (Exodus 25:16; Exodus 25:21; Exodus 31:18). It should be noted that the LXX. gives the same rendering for the words which the English version translates as the “tabernacle of the congregation,” e.g., in Exodus 29:10; Exodus 33:7; Numbers 16:18-19.

As he had appointed, speaking unto Moses.—The answer to the charge lay in these words. Stephen admitted and asserted the divine sanction that had been given to Tabernacle and Temple. What he denied was that that sanction involved perpetuity. It is not without interest to note in the thought thus implied the germ of Hooker’s great argument in the Third Book of his Ecclesiastical Polity (c. 11).


Verse 45

(45) Brought in with Jesus.—This is, of course, as in Hebrews 4:8, the “Joshua” of the Old Testament. It would, perhaps, have been better, as a general rule, to have reproduced the Hebrew rather than the Greek form of Old Testament names in the English version of the New. On the other hand, there is, in this instance, something gained in our attention being called to the identity of the two names. It is noticeable that though Stephen was on his trial as a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, that name does not pass his lips as he speaks in his defence, except in this reference to the great captain of Israel. It is possible that under this reticence, there may have been a half-veiled reference to Him who, also bearing the name that marked Him out as a Saviour, had come, after another fashion, “into the possession of the Gentiles.” The word for “possession” is found in Acts 7:5, but not elsewhere in the New Testament. In the LXX. it is common enough, as in Genesis 47:11; Leviticus 25:24; Deuteronomy 32:51.


Verse 46

(46) Who found favour before God.—Again we trace, though still in the form of a narrative, an indirect answer to the accusation brought against Stephen. He was ready to acknowledge without reserve that the Temple was planned by the man after God’s own heart, and built by the wisest of the sons of men. But the question still remained whether it was therefore the symbol of a final and perfect worship, whether it did not bear witness to its own incompleteness.


Verse 48

(48) Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples.—The sequel shows the impression which these words made on the hearers. Stephen had risen to the truth which, though it had been proclaimed before, had been practically dormant. It broke down the thought of any exclusive holiness in the Temple, and therefore placed its downfall among the chances and changes which might be involved in God’s chastisement of the people, and His education of mankind. The inference which we have seen reason to draw as to the probability of some connection, direct or indirect, between Stephen and the Samaritans (see Notes on Acts 7:16 and Acts 6:5), suggests the thought that we may trace here something like an echo of the teaching of our Lord in His dialogue with the woman of Samaria (John 4:21-23). It is a fact of singular interest to note how one who now listened to the words as applied to the Temple of the God of Israel, afterwards embraced them in all their fulness, and used them as his text in asserting the truth they embodied as against the Temples of Zeus and Athenè (Acts 17:24).

As saith the prophet.—The truth which Stephen asserted had been uttered in the very dedication prayer of the Temple (1 Kings 8:27). The builder of the Temple had himself felt that it was the witness not of a localised but a universal Presence. But he turns to what might seem to his hearers a yet higher authority—to the great prophet (Isaiah 66:1-2), who was preeminently the preacher of glad tidings, and who had closed his mission with the utterance of the truth that, whatever glory and greatness might attach to the Temple in Jerusalem, the prayer of him that was “poor and of a contrite spirit” was equally acceptable wherever it might be offered. The words were full of deep meaning in themselves. They were yet more significant as showing that the thoughts of Stephen had been turned to that great close of a great work, and that he must thus have been led to that wider vision of the future when all nations and tongues should be gathered to see the glory of the Eternal; and the work of Israel, especially of those who, like himself, belonged to the Dispersion, should be to declare His glory to the Gentiles, and when they, too, should be accepted as priests and Levites in the true Temple (Isaiah 66:21). Here also we may think of him as anticipating the widest and highest teaching of St. Paul.


Verse 51

(51) Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised . . .—The sudden change of tone from calm argument to vehement indignation cannot be thought of as spontaneous. The excitement of the Sanhedrin, perhaps of the listening crowd also, at this point, would seem to have become uncontrollable. The accused seemed to them to be repeating his offence with defiant boldness, and loud clamours took the place of whispered murmurs. Both the adjectives had been applied to the sins of the older Israel; “stiffnecked” in Exodus 33:3; Exodus 33:5; Exodus 34:9; “uncircumcised” in Jeremiah 6:10. The actual phrase “uncircumcised in heart” had been used by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 44:7) of “strangers.” It was now applied to those who boasted of their exclusive privileges as Israelites, and it is scarcely possible for us to estimate the sharp incisiveness with which it, or its Aramaic equivalent, must have fallen on the ears of the Sanhedrin. It was to them all, and more than all, that “heretic” and “infidel” have been in the controversies of Christians. Here again, in St. Paul’s “circumcision of the heart” (Romans 2:29), we have another echo from St. Stephen’s speech.


Verse 52

(52) Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted?—St. Stephen echoes, as it were, our Lord’s own words (Matthew 5:12; Luke 13:34). Every witness for the truth had in his day had to suffer. The prophet was not only “without honour,” but was exposed to shame, treated as an enemy, condemned to death. 1 Thessalonians 2:15, perhaps, reproduces the same fact, but more probably refers to the sufferings of the prophets of the Christian Church who were treated as their predecessors had been.

The coming of the Just One.—The name does not appear to have been one of the received titles of the expected Messiah, but may have been suggested by Isaiah 11:4-5. It seems to have been accepted by the Church of Jerusalem, and in 1 John 2:1, and, perhaps, in James 5:6, we find examples of its application. The recent use of it by Pilate’s wife (Matthew 27:19) may have helped to give prominence to it. He who had been condemned as a malefactor was emphatically, above all the sons of men, the “righteous,” the “Just One.”

The betrayers and murderers.—The two words emphasise, the first the act of the Sanhedrin and the people, and secondly, the persistence with which they urged on Pilate the sentence of death, and which made them not merely accessories, but principals in the deed of blood.


Verse 53

(53) Who have received . . .—More accurately, who received.

By the disposition of angels.—Better, as ordained of angels; or, more literally, as ordinances of angels. The Greek preposition cannot possibly have the meaning of “by.” The phrase expressed the current Jewish belief that angels were the intermediate agents through whom Israel received the Law; that it was their voice that was heard on Sinai. Here also St. Paul, in speaking of the Law as “ordained by angels” (Galatians 3:19), reproduced St. Stephen. Comp. also Hebrews 2:2 and Jos. Ant. xv. 4, § 3, for like statements. The idea rested mainly on the LXX. version of Deuteronomy 33:2, “on His right hand were angels with Him” and “the thousands of angels” as connected with Sinai in Psalms 68:17.


Verse 54

(54) They were cut to the heart.—Literally, were sawn through and through. (See Note on Acts 5:33.) The word describes a keener pang than the “pricked” of Acts 2:37, producing, not repentance, but the frenzy of furious anger.

They gnashed on him with their teeth.—The passage is worth noting as the only example of the literal use of a phrase with which we are so familiar in its figurative application (Matthew 8:12; Matthew 13:42, et al.). Here it clearly expresses brute passion rather than despair. At this point rage and fury—the fury caused by the consciousness that the stern words are true—had become altogether beyond control. They had passed beyond articulate speech into the inarticulate utterances of animal ferocity.


Verse 55

(55) Being full of the Holy Ghost.—There is something suggestive in the fact that this description comes at the close, as at the beginning, of the record of St. Stephen’s work (Acts 6:8). From first to last he had been conspicuous as manifesting the power of the higher life which had, as it were, illumined and transfigured his whole being. The Greek “being full” implies, not a sudden inspiration, but a permanent state.

And saw the glory of God.—Stephen had begun with speaking of “the God of glory” (Acts 7:2). He ends with the vision of that glory as belonging to the Son of Man. The fact was inferred partly, we may believe, from the rapt, fixed expression of the martyr’s face, partly from the words that followed, interpreting that upward gaze. On the word for “looked up steadfastly,” see Note on Acts 3:4.


Verse 56

(56) Behold, I see the heavens opened.—It is manifest that the vision was given to the inward spiritual eye, and not to that of sense. No priest or scribe saw the glory of the opened heavens, and, therefore, the words which declared that Stephen saw them seemed to them but an aggravation of guilt that was already deep. (See Note on Matthew 3:16.)

And the Son of man.—The words call for notice as the only certain instance outside the Gospels of the use of the name which they record to have been constantly used by our Lord in speaking of Himself. (See Note on Matthew 8:20.) As the speech of Stephen was delivered at least some years before any Gospel was written, and as the whole character of the speech reported, even in its apparent inconsequence and inaccuracy, is against the theory that it was put by the historian into the martyr’s lips, its occurrence here is evidence in favour of the Gospel narrative, as showing that the title, which a few years afterwards, for some reason or other, the disciples ceased to use, was at that earlier date familiar. As uttered by Stephen before the Sanhedrin, it had the special emphasis of reminding them of the words which had been spoken by the Son of Man Himself (Matthew 26:64). It was from their point of view a repetition of what they had then condemned as blasphemy. In Revelation 1:14 we have possibly another instance.

Standing on the right hand of God.—Our Lord’s own language (Matthew 26:64), and that of the Church following it (e.g., Ephesians 1:20; Hebrews 8:1), has commonly spoken of Him as sitting at the right hand of God. It was not, we may believe, without significance that He was manifested to Stephen’s gaze as standing in the attitude of one who rises to help and welcome a follower who had shown himself faithful even unto death.


Verse 57

(57) Ran upon him with one accord.—The violence reported presents a singular contrast to the general observance of the forms of a fair trial in our Lord’s condemnation. Then, however, we must remember, the Roman procurator was present in Jerusalem. Now all restraint was removed, and fanaticism had full play. That neither office nor age was enough to guard, under such conditions, against shameful outrage has been seen even in the history of Christian assemblies, as, e.g., in that of the Robber Synod of Ephesus in A.D. 449. The caution in 1 Timothy 3:3, that a bishop should not be a striker, shows how near the danger was even in the apostolic age. The facts in this case seem to imply that the accusers, and perhaps also the excited crowd whom they represented, were present as listening to the speech, as well as the members of the Sanhedrin.


Verse 58

(58) And stoned him.—Literally, were stoning him. The verb is repeated in Acts 7:59, as if to show that the shower of stones went on even during the martyr’s prayers.

The witnesses laid down their clothes.—The Law required, as if to impress on witnesses their solemn responsibility, that they should be the first, if the accused were condemned to death, to take part in his execution (Deuteronomy 17:7). Our Lord, it will be remembered, had applied the rule in the case of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:7). The loose, flowing cloak, which was worn as an outer garment, would have impeded the free action of their arms, and had therefore to be laid on one side.

A young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.—As defined by Philo, on the authority of medical writers, the term thus used extended from twenty-one to twenty-eight years of age. Looking to the prominent position taken by Saul in this matter, and to his description of himself as “Paul the aged,” A.D. 64 (Philemon 1:9), it will be safe to assume that he had nearly attained the later limit. It will be convenient on this his first appearance to put together the chief facts of his life up to this period. He was of the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5), and had been named after its great hero-king. His father had obtained, perhaps as a freed-man, after a time of slavery at Rome, the privilege of Roman citizenship (Acts 22:28). He had settled at Tarsus. The absence of any reference to him or to the Apostle’s mother makes it probable that they were both dead before he appears on the scene. The son of a married sister is found, apparently residing in Jerusalem, in Acts 23:16. At Tarsus the boy would probably receive a two-fold education, instructed at home in the Holy Scriptures daily, and in Greek literature and philosophy in the schools for which the city was famous. Traces of the knowledge thus acquired are found in his quotations from the Cilician poet Aratus (see Note on Acts 17:28), Menander (see 1 Corinthians 15:33), Epimenides (see Titus 1:12), and the Festival Hymn quoted by him at Lystra (see Note on Acts 14:17). At twelve he would become a child of the Law (see Note on Luke 2:42); and showing great devotion to the studies which thus opened on him, was probably dedicated by his parents to the calling of a scribe. This, however, did not involve the abandonment of secular occupation; and after some years spent in Jerusalem, studying under Gamaliel (we may say, with almost absolute certainty, before the commencement of our Lord’s ministry), he returned to his native city, and became a “tent-maker” (Acts 18:3)—a manufacturer, i.e., of the coarse goats’ hair sail-cloth, for which Cilicia was famous. There seems reason to believe that somewhere about this time he became acquainted with Barnabas (see Note on Acts 4:36), and possibly also with St. Luke (see Note on Acts 13:1; Acts 16:10, and Introduction to St. Luke’s Gospel). In the interval between the Ascension and the appointment of the Seven Deacons, he came up to Jerusalem. He finds a new sect, as it would seem, added to the three—the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes—whom he had known before. In some respects their teaching is such as Hillel, the grandfather of Gamaliel, would have approved. They pray and fast, and give alms. They proclaim a resurrection and a judgment after death. They connect that proclamation with the belief that a teacher of Nazareth, who had died a malefactor’s death, was the long-expected Messiah. What is he to think of these startling claims? What were others thinking? Gamaliel, his master, counselled caution and a policy of expectation (Acts 5:35-39); Barnabas, his early friend, had joined the new society (Acts 4:36); Andronicus and Junias, his kinsmen, had followed the example (Romans 16:7). But Saul had a zeal which was more fiery than theirs. He was a Pharisee after the straitest sect, and the teaching of Stephen, more conspicuously, it would seem, than that of Peter, was a protest against Pharisaism, and told of its coming downfall. He, therefore, could make no truce with that teaching, and burst impatiently from the cautions of his master. For good or for evil, he was at least “thorough,” and had the courage of his convictions. Even the face as of an angel and the words of ecstatic joy did but kindle in him the fire of a burning indignation.


Verse 59

(59) Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.—The words are memorable as an instance of direct prayer addressed, to use the words of Pliny in reporting what he had learned of the worship of Christians, “to Christ as God” (Epist x. 97). Stephen could not think of Him whom he saw at the right hand of God, but as of One sharing the glory of the Father, hearing and answering prayer. And in the prayer itself we trace an echo of words of which Stephen may well have heard. The Son commended His Spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46); the disciple, in his turn, commends his spirit to the Son. The word “God,” in the sentence “calling upon God,” it should be noted, is, as the italics show, an insertion to complete the sense.


Verse 59-60

Faithful unto Death

They stoned Stephen, calling upon the Lord, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.—Acts 7:59-60.

When we read St. Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts we are constantly finding history presented in pictures which live in the imagination and which have been reproduced on the canvas of our great artists. This story of the martyrdom of St. Stephen is one of them. It has been regarded all through the Christian ages as a theme of never-failing and most touching interest. But it is more than this. It has been represented by Christian Art in devotional pictures more frequently perhaps than any subject not immediately connected with our blessed Lord. The few words in which St. Luke has recorded it are full of suggestiveness. In the vision, for instance, which was vouchsafed to nerve Stephen for his doom, we are told that he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God; whereas elsewhere in Scripture our Lord is described as sitting. This, however, is not the posture in which we should wish to find one to whom we went for help in time of trouble and distress. It was doubtless for this reason that when the veil was drawn, Jesus was manifested to His faithful servant as standing, as One who has risen from His seat and is stretching out a helping hand to him in the crisis of his need. The Church of England has been careful to preserve this beautiful idea in one of her most beautiful Collects: “Grant, O Lord, that in all our sufferings here upon earth for the testimony of Thy truth, we may steadfastly look up to heaven, and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed; and, being filled with the Holy Ghost, may learn to love and bless our persecutors, by the example of Thy first martyr, Saint Stephen, who prayed for his murderers to Thee, O blessed Jesus, who standest at the right hand of God to succour all those that suffer for Thee, our only Mediator and Advocate.”

One of the pictures which Tintoret conceived most rapidly and painted with passionate speed is his picture of the martyrdom of St. Stephen. It is in the great Church of St. George at Venice. Entirely ideal, it shares in the weakness which sometimes belonged to this artist’s work when he was painting what was impossible. Not one of the stones which lie in hundreds round the kneeling figure of the martyr has touched him; he is absolutely unhurt. It would have suited Tintoret’s character far more to have filled the air with a rain of stones, and to have sent the saint to the ground with a huge mass crashing on his Shoulder. And he could have done this without erring against our sense of beauty if he had chosen. But he was ordered otherwise; and we have now from his hand the Spiritual idea of martyrdom, not the actual reality.

The picture somewhat fails, because he wished to do it otherwise; but the kneeling figure, with clasped hands and face upturned in ecstasy—its absolute forgetfulness of the wild cries and the violence of death, its rapturous consciousness of the glory which from the throne of God above strikes upon the face—is a concentration of all the thoughts which in many ages have collected around the idea of the sacrifice of life for the love of truth conceived of as at one with the love of Christ.

But this is not all that was represented on the canvas of this thoughtful and imaginative painter. Tintoret, who knew his Bible well, knew that Stephen had won his martyrdom by bold speaking, and that though he prayed for those who slew him, he had not been patient with their blindness to good. So there is in the whole picture a sense of triumph—the triumph and advance of Christianity. “Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” That is the note. The glorious group above in Heaven is dominant. We see the future joy of the martyr in the triumph flashing from the face of Stephen, and the circle of the witnesses seated around in light seem to form an aureole round the dying figure. Not a stone touches the martyr. Nothing is fairer, nothing more victorious than his face.1 [Note: Stopford Brooke.]

This is the only narrative in the New Testament of a Christian martyrdom or death. As a rule, Scripture is supremely indifferent as to what becomes of the people with whom it is for a time concerned. So long as the man is the organ of the Divine Spirit he is somewhat; as soon as the Spirit ceases to speak through him he drops into insignificance. So this same Acts of the Apostles kills off James the brother of John in a parenthesis; and his is the only other martyrdom that it concerns itself even so much as to mention. Why, then, this exceptional detail about the martyrdom of Stephen? For two reasons: because it is the first of a series, and the Acts of the Apostles always dilates upon the first of each set of things which it describes, and condenses the others. But more especially because, if we come to look at the story, it is not so much an account of Stephen’s death as of Christ’s power in Stephen’s death. And the theme of this book is not the acts of the Apostles, but the acts of the risen Lord in and for His Church.

I

Stephen’s Life

i. The Deacon

1. Stephen was originally a Hellenistic Jew. The Hellenistic Jews were made up, partly of men of purely Gentile parentage who were proselytes to the Mosaic Law, and partly of Jews, who, by long settlement in foreign lands, had adopted the language and manners of Greek civilization. To say that a man was a Hellenist proved nothing as to his descent; but it showed that he accepted the religion of Israel, while yet he used Greek speech and followed Greek customs. Stephen’s name, although Greek, does not exclude the possibility of his having been a Jew by birth; and he is said to have had a Syriac name of the same meaning.

2. Of his conversion to the Faith of Christ we know nothing; he is first mentioned when he was chosen one of the seven Deacons. The Church of Jerusalem in the earliest Apostolic age had a common fund, into which its members at their conversion threw their personal property, and out of which they were assisted according to their needs. The administration of this fund must have come to be a serious and complicated business within a few months from its establishment. And as the higher ministries of the Church were ordained, not with a view to carrying on a work of this kind, but for the conversion and sanctification of souls, it was natural that, with the demands upon their time which the Apostles had to meet, the finance and resources of the Church should occasionally fall into confusion. So it was that, before many months had passed, “there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews”—that is, of the Hellenistic against the Jewish converts—“because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.” Probably these widows or their friends may have been somewhat exacting. But the Apostles felt that their time ought not to be spent in managing a bank. The Twelve, who were all in Jerusalem still, assembled the whole body of the faithful, and desired them to elect seven men “of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and of wisdom,” to be entrusted, as Deacons, with the administration of the funds of the Church. Seven persons were chosen; and at their head Stephen, described as “a man full of the Holy Ghost and of faith.” These seven were ordained by laying on of the Apostles’ hands; and the result of this arrangement was that “the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great Company of the (Jewish) priests were obedient unto the faith.”

3. Of St. Stephen’s exertions in the Organization and direction of the public charity we hear nothing; although we may be sure that this was not neglected. We are told, however, that he was “full of faith and power,” and that he “did great wonders and miracles among the people.” No details are given, but his miracles must not be forgotten in our estimate of the causes of his success. His chief scene of labour seems to have been in the synagogue, or group of synagogues, “of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia.” The Libertines were Jews who had been taken prisoners, reduced to slavery, then enfranchised by the Roman general Pompey. Many of them had recently been banished from Rome, and would naturally have had a synagogue to themselves in Jerusalem. At least one synagogue would have belonged to African Jews from Cyrene and Alexandria; and two or three others to the Jews of Cilicia and Asia Minor. These were a very numerous class, and among them the future Apostle of the Gentiles was at this date still reckoned an enthusiastic Pharisee. It was among these Jews from abroad that Stephen opened what we should call a mission; he had more points of contact with these men of Greek speech and habits than had the Twelve. He engaged in a series of public disputations; and although he was almost unbefriended, and represented a very unpopular cause, his opponents “were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit with which he spake.”

4. But the victory which his opponents could not hope to win by argument, they hoped they might win by denunciation and clamour. They persuaded some false witnesses to swear that in their hearing Stephen had spoken blasphemous words against Moses and against God. They combined against him the jealousy of the upper classes and the prejudices of the lower; and they brought him, on trial for blasphemy, before the highest Jewish court—the Sanhedrin.

ii. Before the Sanhedrin

1. “And all that sat in the Council, fastening their eyes on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15). There is one question which we all want to have answered, and it is this: How came Stephen to he thus self-possessed before the frowning Sanhedrin—fearless before an excited multitude in his home-thrusts of truth, brave in the crisis of trial, forgiving at the moment of death? Men are not born thus. As we mentally put ourselves into his circumstances, and try to realize each rapidly succeeding danger, our hearts fail within us, and we feel that no physical courage, no hardihood of mere natural bravery, could sustain us here. There must have come some supernatural change upon him, to have induced at once this undaunted fortitude and this superhuman tenderness of love. Was it a miraculous bestowment, limited in its conferment to the first ages, and to some specially selected and specially missioned men? or is it within the reach and enjoyment of believers in Jesus now? These are questions which are interesting to us, as we dwell upon the developments of holy character presented in the life of Stephen.

2. How are we to account for this boldness? The secret of all the heroism and of all the loveliness is in the delineation of the man. “He was a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost.” He did not leap into this perfect balance of character in a moment—springing at once full-armed, as Minerva is fabled to have sprung from the brain of Jupiter. There was no mystic charm by which the graces clustered round him; he had no mystery of soul-growth—no patented elixir of immortal ripening which was denied to others less favoured. He had faith; it was the gift of God to him, just as it is the gift of God to us. He had the indwelling of the Holy Ghost; which has been purchased for us in like manner by the blood-shedding of our Surety. The only difference between ourselves and him is that he claimed the blessings with a holier boldness, and lived habitually in the nearer communion with God. There is no bar to our own entrance into this fulness of privilege; the treasury is not exhausted; the Benefactor is not less willing to bestow. His ear listens to any prayer for the increase of faith. He waits to shed forth the richer baptisms of the Holy Ghost upon all those who ask Him for the boon.

3. It is not then in physical endowment that we are to find the source of this moral courage. Some of the men who could lead the van of armies in the field—who could fix the scaling-ladder against the parapet and be the first to scale the wall—who could climb the rugged slope that was swept by the bristling cannon—have displayed the most utter cowardice when a moral duty has been difficult, when some untoward disaster has surprised them, or when they have had to maintain the right against the laugh of the scorner. Sometimes, indeed, those who have been physically timid, and who have shuddered sensitively at the first imagined danger, have been uplifted into the bravery of confessorship when the agonizing trial came.

The Sister knew that the whole place was given over to evil purposes. She knew that no help would be given from inside. In case of violence it would be necessary for her to descend to the streets. She was not afraid, but she was conscious of apprehension and a vague alarm. However many policemen may walk the streets outside, it is no easy matter for a woman to face one of these pandars in the seclusion of his own establishment. But Sister Mildred is a saint, and there is no courage like the courage of the saint.1 [Note: Harold Begbie, In the Hand of the Potter, 188.]

It is related that in the Duke of Wellington’s campaigns two officers were once despatched upon a Service of considerable danger. As they were riding together, the one observed the other to be greatly agitated, with blanched cheek and quivering lip, and limbs shaken as with a paralysis of mortal fear. Reining his steed upon its haunches, he haughtily addressed him, “Why, you are afraid.” “I am,” was the reply; “and if you were half as much afraid as I am, you would relinquish the duty altogether.” Without wasting another word upon his ignoble companion, the officer galloped back to headquarters, and complained bitterly that he had been ordered to march in the companionship of a coward. “Off, sir, to your duty,” was the commander’s sharp reply, “or the coward will have done the business before you get there.”1 [Note: W. M. Punshon.]

II

Stephen’s Prayers

1. The two dying prayers of Stephen carry us back in thought to the prayers of our Lord at His crucifixion.

(1) “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”—We are told in the sacred narrative that St. Stephen “kneeled down” while they were in the act of stoning him. The picture fills us with amazement. It is so unlike what we should have expected, that some have attempted to persuade us that this was not a voluntary or deliberate act of the martyr. We are not, it is said, to understand that it expresses the purpose of one who was resolved, despite all the violence to which he was subjected, to spend his last moments in a posture of calm resignation and prayer; that would have been next to impossible for any human being to do under such circumstances. He had no alternative; “another crash of stones brought him upon his knees.” But the Christian conscience will not readily consent to have such a beautiful feature in the scene explained away. It shows us the dying martyr gathering up his failing strength and all the energy of his expiring life for one last, one crowning act of homage to his Lord; and a record of it Stands on the sacred page, to teach us what the greatest saints have felt about the value of external forms or bodily postures in expressing the worship that is due from the creature to the Creator. Then let us hear his prayer: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” What an echo it is of his Master’s dying words!—“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Not the slightest thought of vengeance in the prayer, but an unreserved entreaty that their sins may never be remembered against them.

A generous prayer is never presented in vain; the petition may be refused, but the petitioner is always, I believe, rewarded by some gracious Visitation.1 [Note: Robert Louis Stevenson, The Merry Men.]

I saw an angry crowd

Gathered about a youth, that loud

Were crying: Slay him, slay,

And stoned him as he lay.

I saw him overborne by death,

That bowed him to the earth beneath:

Only he made his eyes

Gates to behold the skies,

To his high Lord his prayer outpouring,

Forgiveness for his foes imploring:

Even in that pass his face

For pity making place.2 [Note: Dante, Purg. xv. 106–114, trans. by Dr. Shadwell.]

(2) “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”—We need not dwell now upon the fact that here we have a distinct instance of prayer to Jesus Christ, a distinct recognition, in the early days of His Church, of the highest conception of His person and nature, so that a dying man turns to Him, and commits his soul into His hands. Passing this by, though not overlooking it, let us think of the resemblance, and the difference, between this entrusting of the spirit by Stephen to his Lord, and the committing of His spirit to the Father by His dying Son. Christ on the Cross speaks to God; Stephen, on his Calvary, speaks to Jesus Christ. Christ, on the Cross, says, “I commit.” Stephen says, “Receive,” or rather, “Take.” The one phrase carries in it something of the notion that our Lord died not because He must, but because He would; that He was active in His death; that He chose to summon death to do its work upon Him; that He “yielded up his spirit,” as one of the Evangelists has it, pregnantly and significantly. But Stephen says, “Take!” as knowing that it must be his Lord’s power that should draw his spirit out of the coil of horror around him. So the one dying word has strangely compacted in it authority and Submission; and the other dying word is the word of a simple waiting servant.

2. How was Stephen strengthened for the trial? What were the manifestations granted to him, and which sustained him through the bitterness of martyrdom? You find these recorded in the preceding part of the chapter: “But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus Standing on the right hand of God.” We may not pretend to explain what Stephen saw in seeing the glory of God. We can only suppose that, as with St. Paul caught up to the third heaven, it was not what human speech could express, for it is very observable that when he asserts what he saw he makes no mention of “the glory of God,” but confines himself to the opening of the heavens, and the manifestation of Christ at the right hand of the Father. It is not for us to speculate where the martyr is silent. We can only suppose that “the glory of God” that was shown to him was some special display of the Divine presence calculated to reassure the sufferer.

To stretch my hand and touch Him,

Though He be far away;

To raise my eyes and see Him

Through darkness as through day;

To lift my voice and call Him—

This is to pray!


To feel a hand extended

By One who standeth near;

To view the love that shineth

In eyes serene and clear;

To know that He is calling—

This is to hear!

3. The supreme thought which these prayers suggest is the great possibilities that lie in faith in Christ. We see the soul of the suffering disciple leaning on the Lord who had suffered. We see that the secret of strength in all trials lies in appealing to the love and power of the blessed Jesus. In the death-struggle St. Stephen had faith to hang upon his Lord, and his Lord bore him through the agonies of that hour. This is what we are most likely to think of in reading of the martyr’s death. But was this the greatest proof of St. Stephen’s faith? Was his greatest trial in this world? Did it not lie beyond this world? The life was nearly crushed out of him. The pains of death were Coming thick and fast upon him. But was death the end? What was awaiting him after death? He was entering on the unseen state. All was dim, unknown, untried before him. And if his spirit passed away, to whom would it go? It must return to God, who gave it. It must go before God, meet Him, and give up its account to Him. It is such thoughts as these which add so wonderful a power and force to those words, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” I know not where I go; all nature seems to open out into vast untried depths beneath me; take me, hold me in Thine everlasting arms; I am safe with Thee. I know not who may attack me, how the powers of evil may gather against me; take me, guard me. I know not how to meet the Judgment. I know only that I have been dear to Thee in this life. Thou hast loved me, died for me, kept me. Take me now; to Thee do I commit my cause; “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Here is indeed a strange, calm faith in the power of our blessed Lord to keep and bless the soul in that unseen world. One who could speak thus must have felt that our Lord had conquered in that world, as in this, and emptied it of its horrors. He looked, as it were, through the mist and darkness that was gathering around him; he pierced with the steady gaze of his mind through the veil that was drawn between him and the state on which he was entering, and there he saw his Lord waiting and ready for him. Or rather, with a surer faith, though he did not see, he felt certain that the Lord was King in that realm of the departed, and he was ready to pass into it, because he knew that the Lord had power to keep and uphold him there. It may be that we shall never know the full force of those calm words of St. Stephen till we are on the edge of that unseen world ourselves.

4. His faith was faith in Christ, in the crucified Lord Jesus Christ. Observe the words of the prayers. While they stoned Stephen St. Luke says, according to the Authorized Version, that he was “calling upon God.” In the original text the Person upon whom he called is not named. The Authorized Version has supplied what seemed to be wanting, “God,” intimating that it was the First Person of the Trinity. But the last Revisers have substituted “The Lord,” to indicate that it was the Second Person: and this is certainly more in accordance with the prayer that follows: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

The Revisers were anticipated in their interpretation by Bishop Cosin, who, in view of perpetuating another characteristic feature of St. Stephen’s martyrdom, has addressed his Collect to God the Son. With very rare exceptions (there are three others only in our Prayer Book) Liturgical Collects have always been addressed to the Father, because they form part of an office in which the Son joins with the Church in presenting to the Father the Memorial of His own Sacrifice. It seems, therefore, to introduce an incongruity to appeal at such a time to Him who is acting as Priest. It was for this reason that certain of the Early Councils directed that “when we are officiating at the altar, prayer should always be addressed to the Father.”1 [Note: H. M. Luckock.]

5. And now, one great lesson rises out of all that has been said. If God has given us but little clear knowledge of the state of the departed, if we have been obliged to guess at what passes in that State, and are not able to speak with absolute certainty, one thing at least is clear and certain. Every hope of the soul as it passes from the body centres in our blessed Lord. So then, if He is to be our hope and stay after death, He must be our hope and stay now. We must live in close, earnest, true communion with Him. We must live with Him as our Friend and Guide, our heart’s inmost life. If we wish to feel that we can commit ourselves to Him, and lean upon Him, when our spirits shall have to venture forth at His call into the dim, uncertain, untried world beyond the grave, then we must familiarize ourselves now with His love, His power, His gifts, His might. If we hope to say with the calm, undoubting trust of St. Stephen, at that last moment, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” then we must learn such trust beforehand by commending our spirits to Him now.

Beloved, yield thy time to God, for He

Will make eternity thy recompense;

Give all thy substance for His Love, and be

Beatified past earth’s experience.

Serve Him in bonds, until He set thee free;

Serve Him in dust, until He lift thee thence;

Till death be swallowed up in victory

When the great trumpet sounds to bid thee hence.

Shall setting day win day that will not set?

Poor price wert thou to spend thyself for Christ,

Had not His wealth thy poverty sufficed:

Yet since He makes His garden of thy clod,

Water thy lily, rose, or violet,

And offer up thy sweetness unto God.1 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti.]

III

Stephen’s Death

1. “They stoned Stephen.” Our ordinary English idea of the manner of the Jewish punishment of stoning is a very inadequate and mistaken one. It did not consist merely in a miscellaneous rabble throwing stones at the criminal, but there was a solemn and appointed method of execution which is preserved for us in detail in the Rabbinical books. And from it we gather that the modus operandi was this. The blasphemer was taken to a certain precipitous rock, the height of which was prescribed as being equal to that of two men. The witnesses by whose testimony he had been condemned had to cast him over, and if he survived the fall it was their task to roll upon him a great stone, of which the weight is prescribed in the Talmud as being as much as two men could lift. If he lived after that, then others took part in the punishment.

2. “And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” How absolute the triumph over the last enemy which these words express! When men court slumber, they banish from their hearts all causes of anxiety, and from their dwelling all tumult of sound; they demand quiet as a necessity; they exclude the light and draw the curtains close; they carefully put away from them all that will have a tendency to defeat, or to postpone the object after which they aim. But Stephen fell asleep under very different circumstances from these. Brutal oaths, and frantic yells, and curses loud and deep, were the lullaby which sang him to his dreamless slumbers; and while all were agitated and tumultuous around him,

Meek as an infant to its mother’s breast,

So turned he, longing, for immortal rest.

The evident meaning of the words is that death came to him simply as a release from suffering—as a curse from which the sting was drawn—so mitigated in its bitterness, that it was as harmless and as refreshing as sleep.

The image of sleep as a euphemism for death is no peculiar property of Christianity, but the ideas that it suggests to the Christian consciousness are the peculiar property of Christianity. Any of you that ever were in the Vatican will remember how you go down corridors with Pagan marbles on that side and Christian ones on this. Against one wall, in long rows, stand the sad memorials, each of which has the despairing ending, “Farewell, farewell, for ever farewell.” But on the other side there are carved no goddesses of slumber, or mourning genii, or quenched lamps, or wailing words, but sweet emblems of a renewed life, and the ever-recurring, gracious motto: “In hope.” To the non-Christian that sleep is eternal; to the Christian that sleep is as sure of a waking as is the sleep of the body. The one affects the whole man; the Christian sleep affects only the body and the connexion with the outer world.1 [Note: A. Maclaren, Last Sheaves, 248.]

There is none other thing expressed,

But long disquiet merged in rest.

“He fell asleep.” Repose, safety, restoration—these are the ideas of comfort which are held in the expression of the text. Take them, and rejoice in the majestic hopes which they inspire. Christ has died. He, dying, drew the sting from death; and, properly speaking, there has been no death of a believer since that day. What says the Scripture? “He that believeth on Jesus, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in him shall never die.” What fulness of consolation to those who are mourning for others—to those who are dying themselves! With the banner of this hope in hand, the believer may return with a full heart from the grave of his best beloved, “giving thanks unto the Father which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light,” and may march calmly down to the meeting of his own mortal foe.2 [Note: W. M. Punshon.]

Sleep, little flower, whose petals fade and fall

Over the sunless ground;

Ring no more peals of perfume on the air—

Sleep long and sound.

Sleep—sleep.


Sleep, summer wind, whose breathing grows more faint

As night draws slowly nigh;

Cease thy sweet chanting in the cloistral woods

And seem to die.

Sleep—sleep.


Sleep, thou great Ocean, whose wild waters sink

Under the setting sun;

Hush the loud music of thy warring waves

Till night is done.

Sleep—sleep.


Sleep, thou tired heart, whose mountain pulses droop

Within the Valley cold:

On pains and pleasures, fears and hopes of life,

Let go thine hold.

Sleep—sleep.


Sleep, for ’tis only sleep, and there shall be

New life for all, at day;

So sleep, sleep all, until the restful night

Has passed away.

Sleep—sleep.1 [Note: S. J. Stone, Lullaby of Life.]

IV

The Result of Stephen’s Martyrdom

Such was the first martyrdom. How soon did the martyr’s blood become the seed of the Church! He had met his death for declaring the universality of God’s Kingdom, that Christianity was destined to spread the blessing of salvation far beyond the Jewish race, even over the whole world; and his dying prayer was answered by the conversion of one, who, as the Apostle of the Gentiles, helped most to preach the Gospel to “every creature which is under heaven.” St. Augustine said, “If Stephen had not prayed, Paul would never have been given to the Church” (Sermo ccclxxxii., De sancto Stephano). It is true the answer was delayed. There are some, however, who believe that the effect was immediate, and that the wild fury of the persecutor, which broke out with such violence, was only a desperate attempt to stifle the convictions which arose in his mind. Painters have caught up this idea and expressed it by the strongest contrast between Saul’s face and the faces of the others who witnessed the end. It may have been so; it may be that a foregleam of the coming dawn did touch him even then; but whether it came at once or only in after days, no one will think of denying that there is an eternal link between the martyr’s prayer and the Apostle’s conversion.

Why was it that in the ten years after Livingstone’s death, Africa made greater advancement than in the previous ten centuries? All the world knows that it was through the vicarious suffering of one of Scotland’s noblest heroes.

Why is Italy cleansed of the plagues that devastated her cities a hundred years ago? Because John Howard sailed in an infected ship from Constantinople to Venice, that he might be put into a lazaretto and find out the clue to that awful mystery of the plague and stay its power. How has it come that the merchants of our western ports send ships laden with implements for the fields and conveniences for the house into the South Sea Islands? Because such men as Patteson, the pure-hearted gallant boy of Eton College, gave up every prospect in England to labour amid the Pacific savages and twice plunged into the waters of the coral reefs, amid sharks and devil-fish and stinging jellies, to escape the flight of poisoned arrows of which the slightest graze meant horrible death, and in that high service died by the clubs of the very savages whom he had often risked his life to save—the memory of whose life did so smite the consciences of his murderers that they laid “the young martyr in an open boat, to float away over the bright blue waves, with his hands crossed, as if in prayer, and a palm branch on his breast.” And there, in the white light, he lies now, immortal for ever.1 [Note: N. D. Hillis, The Investment of Influence, 79.]

A patient minister was he,

A simple saint of God,

A soul that might no longer be

Bound to this earthly clod;

A spirit that sought for the purer breath

Of the land of life, through the gates of death,—

The path all martyrs trod,

That lies through the night of a speechless shame,

And leads to the light of a deathless fame.


Stoned to his death by those for whom

His soul’s last prayer was sped

Unto his God, “Avert the doom

That gathers o’er their head”;

And the stones that bruised him and Struck him down

Shone dazzling gems in his victor’s crown;

And as his spirit fled,

A light from the land where the angels dwell

Lingered saintly and grand where the martyr fell.


’Tis but a history in these days—

The cruel and final test

Of those who went life’s rugged ways

For faith they had confessed;

Yet the God who spake to the saints of old

Lacks not to-day in His mystic fold

Doers of His behest:

There are servants of men and saints of God

Who will follow, as then, where the Master trod.1 [Note: P. C. Ainsworth, Poems and Sonnets, 45.]

Faithful unto Death

Literature

Brooke (S. A.), Short Sermons, 141.

Jerdan (C.), For the Lambs of the Flock, 404.

Liddon (H. P.), Christmastide Sermons, 157.

Luckock (H. M.), Footprints of the Apostles as traced by St. Luke, i. 195.

M‘Cheyne (R. M.), Additional Remains, 189.

Maclaren (A.), Expositions, Acts i.–xii. 226.

Moore (E. W.), Christ in Possession, 113, 124.

Punshon (W. M.), Sermons, i. 303.

Randall (R. W.), Life in the Catholic Church, 272.

Wordsworth (C.), Primary Witness to the Truth of the Gospel, 104.

Christian World Pulpit, xxiv. 99 (Stevenson).


Verse 60

(60) Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.—Here again we cannot help finding proof, not only that the mind of Stephen was after the mind of Christ, but that the narrative of the Crucifixion, as recorded by St. Luke, was, in some measure, known to him. The resemblance to the prayer of Christ, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), could hardly have been accidental. We may well think of the prayer as having for its chief object him who was the foremost of the accusers. The old words of Augustine (Serm. 314-318), that we owe the conversion of Saul to the prayers of Stephen, may be accepted as the expression of a great spiritual fact. This prayer, like that which preceded it, was addressed, it will be noted, to the Lord Jesus.

He fell asleep.—The thought and the phrase were not altogether new. (Comp. John 11:11, and Note.) Even a heathen poet had said of one who died the death of the righteous—

“When good men die, it is not death, but sleep.”

—Callimachus, Epig. 10.

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Acts 7:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/acts-7.html. 1905.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, October 14th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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