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St. Stephen's Death
Stephen is the first of whom we read that he died after the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and entered into his glory. The first martyr was now to obtain his crown of life. Now it is a remarkable thing that, with the exception of the death of our Lord Jesus Christ, the death of St. Stephen is the only death about which we have any details in the New Testament Scriptures. We read that Stephen was filled with the Holy Ghost. Now what did the Holy Spirit do for Stephen?
I. It enabled him to see Jesus. This is the precious eye-salve which will enable us to see our Lord. The natural man understandeth not the things of the Spirit of God, but God reveals them to us through His Spirit. When Stephen looked up above all the sorrow and the suffering that was gathering round him, what was it that the Holy Spirit enabled him to see? (1) In the first place, you are told, he saw 'the heavens opened'. (2) He saw Jesus. (3) He saw Jesus 'standing'. (4) He 'saw the glory of God'. This was what a man filled with the Holy Ghost saw. Can we see it when we have to suffer?
II. The Holy Ghost enabled Stephen not only to see Jesus, but to pray to Jesus. It is always when we are most suffering and most tried that we lay firmest hold of the sympathy and love of the Incarnate Christ of God.
III. The Holy Spirit taught Stephen to trust Jesus. 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' He, as it were, gave his spirit over into the hands of Jesus Christ, so that Jesus Christ might do what He pleased with him.
IV. It enabled him also to imitate Jesus. As he died he breathed out the Lord Jesus Christ's own prayer, 'Lord, lay not this sin to their charge'. The Holy Spirit taught Stephen to imitate the forgiving love of Jesus, it taught Stephen to pray for his murderers, even as Jesus prayed. We need not wait till death for the Holy Spirit to teach us those four things.
E. A. Stuart, The New Commandment and other Sermons, vol. vii. p. 57.
St. Stephen's Vision
Let us note one or two lessons for ourselves.
I. We are to see the same Jesus Standing at the Right Hand of God standing with eyes fixed on His servants in their conflict below, ever ready, when need comes, to show Himself to them, to inspirit them by the vision of Himself, to fill them with His own courage, His own calm, His own mind, His own peace. Christ has not gone away from where St. Stephen saw Him. Christ did not do anything for St. Stephen, or in St. Stephen, which He will not do for you, and in you.
II. A Miraculous Calm, a real Supernatural Peace, amid the most Outrageous Catastrophes, Troubles, and Violences, is a Thing which a Servant of God may Pray for in his soul, as much as ever men of old came and asked Christ to work miracles on their bodies. Stephen's dying body lay mangled and smashed on the hard earth; yet his soul was passing away as peacefully as our consciousness fades out in our falling asleep. That was a miracle if ever there was one; a miracle wrought by the power of Christ on the mind and soul of Stephen. And it was written for our admonition, that we may know what miracles Christ is standing ready to work still upon the minds and souls of His people now.
III. Observe how Christ Timed this Visible Manifestation of Himself in His active working and supply of supernatural strength to His suffering servant. Up to this moment, Christ had not openly manifested Himself in His glory and His exaltation. Now, at the outbreak of persecution, He lets Himself be seen. The violent death of the first Christian departure opens heaven, and we see the exalted form of the Victor over death.
The Vision of Christ
The appeal of our faith is not to feeling, but to fact. The Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension of our Lord are facts of history attested by evidence as complete and as satisfactory as can be adduced in support of any other facts of history on record. No more striking illustration of them is afforded in Scripture than by this story of the death of St Stephen, the first on the roll of 'the noble army of martyrs 'of the Christian Church. Here, indeed, was a practical result of the ascension in St. Stephen's vision of his Lord.
I. How did Christ Appear to St. Stephen?
(a) Suddenly. The veil that hides the unseen world was in a moment lifted.
(b) Sublimely. The vision was glorious, the manner of it was glorious. Christ was glorified, and Christ was at the right hand of power. St. Stephen saw the glory of God, he saw an open heaven. If we did but know it, it is the grace of the glorified Christ that we are made partakers of, and it is the privilege of every Christian to live under an open heaven. Blessed is he who can rise above circumstances and trials and see that the living Christ is on the throne. In those dark hours when sorrow and suffering darken your pathway, and when the shadow of death falls upon your home, at such times if you would endure you must see Him who is invisible. To see Him is to be strong.
II. Christ was 'Standing on the Right Hand of God'. Standing is the attitude of
(a) Interest. All heaven was standing up that day. Angels were straining their eyes to gaze. It was the attitude of interest.
(b) Respect and Honour. If we may so express it, Christ stood to welcome His brave warrior to his reward. It was to say, 'Well done, good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord'.
(c) Intercession. Christ stood to plead. He, the great High Priest, was interceding for St. Stephen; it was the attitude of prayer. 'I have prayed for thee, Stephen, that thy faith fail not.' He was praying that he might fight this last battle and win the day.
(d) Interference. We shall not be wrong if we say that Christ stood to restrain the fury of the foe. It was the attitude, not of indifference, but of interference. 'Thus far shalt thou come and no further.' Certainly Christ measured the flight of every stone. The stones rained like hail, but only those struck Stephen that Christ allowed to reach him. As the soldier says, 'Every bullet has its billet.' Do you suppose Christ was not watching every blow that fell on the martyr's quivering frame? He did not stop the stoning, but He certainly controlled it. He would not rob His servant of 'the ruby crown,' and therefore the martyrdom went on; but He would take care that every detail of His death was supervised.
III. What were the Effects of the Vision? It gave St. Stephen:
(a) Courage. He was dying for the Truth and he knew it.
(b) Confidence. He died calling upon the name of the Lord.
(c) Conformity. Was there ever such likeness to the Lord? We remember Christ's words, 'Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do' (St. Luke 23:34 ). And what do we read here? 'Lord, lay not this sin to their charge' (ver. 60). St. Stephen forgave his murderers. That is the highest round in the ladder. There is nothing higher in Christian life than to love your enemies. When we have come to that, we have reached the only Christian perfection which is attainable here.
(d) Calmness. Then there was calmness. 'When he had said this he fell asleep' (ver. 60). If we are Christ's then death is not death; it is sleep.
Martyrdom of St. Stephen
The life and death of St. Stephen, whom we commemorate today, are full of lessons for those who would be faithful, loyal, and true Christian workers.
I. The Qualification for Service. St. Stephen could bear his witness to the Lord in the midst of an ungodly and unbelieving world, where everything seemed against him, because he was 'full of the Holy Ghost'. The great need of the Church today is of men and women who are so filled with the Holy Ghost that they must testify for Christ in whatever circumstances they find themselves placed. No one needs to pray more earnestly than the Christian worker, 'O God, for Jesus Christ's sake give me thy Holy Spirit'. No real effective service for Christ can be done by any of us unless we have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. That is the first and greatest qualification for service.
II. The Inspiration for Service. And as we go on bearing testimony for the Master we need to get fresh strength, fresh inspiration every day. Whence may it be obtained? St. Stephen 'looked up stedfastly into heaven,' and there he saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. No wonder, with that precious vision before Him, he testified more potently than he had ever done, and that when he was stoned he could pray for his murderers. If we want to feel an inspiration for service, if we want to be strengthened for our work, let us always 'look up' even to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith. It is those who keep their eyes on the ground, and contemplate the difficulties and trials of service, who become weak and ineffective. Ever look up! That is one message St. Stephen gives us today.
III. The Reward of Service. St. Stephen had his reward, even though his life seemed a failure. To him was granted the blessed privilege of being the first Christian martyr, and so long as the world lasts so long will his name be honoured. But the greatest of all rewards was that just when the last stone killed his body he 'fell asleep,' and awoke in the Paradise of God. There he saw the King in His beauty. And that reward may be ours. And, oh, the glory and the joy of it! 'The sufferings of this present time,' says St. Paul, whom we may well believe was more or less prepared for the vision that overtook him as Saul on the way to Damascus by what he had seen of the constancy and faith of St. Stephen, 'are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us'. May it be ours so to work for Christ and so to suffer with Him that we may hereafter reign with Him.
Reference. VII. 65, 56. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xiii. No. 740.
I want to ask three questions about this declaration. They are questions that can be answered broadly, definitely, and to those of us who want healing they can be answered most healingly, so as to recover us from the plague of unbelief and send us forth, after, it may be, some deep dipping in God's own river, with our flesh as the flesh of a little child.
I. The first question is, Who saw the heavens opened? It would be a poor answer to reply, The name of the man was Stephen. I do not care for his name; that is not the man of whom I am in quest. His name is nothing to me if it simply be so many letters written on so much paper. If that were the man, then why do not all see the heavens opened? But that is not the man how is he described in the text? 'A man full of the Holy Ghost' That is the keyword. Do not tell me about Stephen or Peter and James and John; these are but so many vocables or mean syllables, having on them, considered strictly in themselves, no morning dew, and there exudes from them, in themselves strictly limited and considered, no fragrance for the inhalation of the whole world. The name is right: but what is the character? Everything depends upon character. Stephen might have been called by any other name, so might any of the Apostles: but what is the inner and permanent quantity? We have the answer in the text: 'A man full of the Holy Ghost'; a man bathed in the Holy Ghost, plunged as if in an infinite ocean of bliss. We want to begin at the wrong end; we want to see the heavens opened, and then we will believe in the Holy Ghost; we want to see the blessed God standing out on some infinite glorious beam of light, and then we will believe in the Godhead. Why should we invert the way of Providence? why should we attempt to make a small turnpike road marked Private No Thoroughfare, which we ourselves alone can tread? The law is laid down; there is no alteration of the terms; 'full of the Holy Ghost' is the condition of all beneficent power.
That is my first question, and its answer: Who saw the heavens opened? The answer is: 'A man full of the Holy Ghost'.
II. I will ask a second question: When did this man, full of the Holy Ghost, see the heavens opened? The answer is threefold. (1) First, after a great testimony. I do not know where to find the equal of this grand oration delivered by Stephen, the first martyr of the cross. When the people heard Stephen they took up stones to stone him. Here is the double effect of true preaching; the great joy of those who believe in its doctrine, and the mortal hatred of those who are averse to its discipline. We should be rich in our own historians. The great Apostles built themselves upon historical foundations. Wherever the Apostle Paul was called upon to preach, he said: 'Men, brethren, and fathers, I will tell you how the case stands; I was in such and such a place, with such and such a purpose, and such and such was the issue'. Historical, personal, experimental that is the true preaching, to know that though the form may not be autobiographical, yet such fire can only be accounted for by internal conviction, passionate enthusiasm, and personal certitude as to the reality of friendship with God.
(2) And in the next place the heavens were opened to the expiring martyr when he was in apparent defeat. He had delivered his speech, and it would appear almost as if everybody had left his side. The case was going against him; the case, likening it to a written brief or testimony, was torn to pieces before his eyes and thrown away and spat upon before the fire seized it to consume it for ever. It was then the dying martyr saw the heavens opened. Fear not them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do; but fear Him Who can cast or kill both body and soul in hell.
(3) And thirdly, and last of all, it was when heaven seemed to have abandoned him. So the unbelievers have mocked the martyr; so they have said in wickedness: God cared nothing for His martyr.
III. My third question is, What did the great vision for Stephen? It enabled him to offer the finest priestly prayer but one recorded in biblical history. 'And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge'; and then the weary man 'fell asleep'. That was one of the supreme miracles: the stones struck him, the blood flowed, life reeled, and in these last moments the grace of God so operated upon Stephen's heart that he forgave his enemies and asked God to forgive them, saying, 'Lord, lay not this sin to their charge'. It was an echo of the cross, it was the cross glorified. This was a mightier deliverance than if some strong angel had avenged his suffering on the spot and delivered him back to life again, he not having the spirit of forgiveness.
References. VII. 56. S. H. Fleming, Fifteen Minute Sermons for the People, p. 143. W. P. S. Bingham, Sermons on Easter Subjects, p. 204. F. D. Maurice, Sermons, vol. v. p. 59. Ibid. The Acts of the Apostles, p. 85. Expositor (4th Series), vol. iii. p. 31; ibid. (5th Series), vol. ii. p. 172; ibid. (6th Series), vol. v. p. 80. VII. 58. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. li. No. 2948. Expositor (5th Series), vol. iii. p. 343; ibid. vol. v. p. 441.
The First Christian Martyr (St. Stephen's Day)
St. Augustine dwells on the significance of this festival occurring on the day after that of our Lord's Nativity, alluding to the martyrdom of a saint being called his birthday. 'The birthday of the Lord,' he says, 'when He put on the clothing of our flesh, that of His servant, when he laid that clothing aside; that of the Lord when He was made like unto us, that of His servant when he was brought most near unto Christ. For as Christ being born was united unto Stephen, so Stephen by dying was united unto Christ.' Why has the Church assigned to St. Stephen the first place among the three festivals that immediately follow Christmas? Not simply because he was the first martyr. There are other reasons, and they are significant.
I. As an Encouragement to those in the Lowest Station and Office. St. Stephen was a deacon only, a newly-made deacon, and therefore the very lowest in ecclesiastical degree.
II. As an Encouragement to All Believers. Having never known Christ in the flesh, but coming to view as it were after the days of the Son of Man upon earth were ended, St. Stephen may be considered to represent the whole body of believers who have lived since the Gospel.
III. He was the First Believer in Christ who Sealed his Faith with his Blood. He reminds us that the sufferings of Christ's martyrs are very precious indeed in Christ's sight; that the crown of martyrdom brings him who wears it very near indeed to his Lord.
IV. St. Stephen was a Martyr both in Will and Deed. The Holy Innocents underwent martyrdom in deed but not in will, and the Evangelist St. John in will but not in deed.
The Martyrdom of Stephen (St. Stephen's Day)
The early martyrs were affectionately revered by the members of the early Christian Church because of their sincere and lasting devotion to the cause of their glorified Lord. Hence, among others, the anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Stephen, which occurred in the thirty-fourth year of the Christian era, was duly and meetly observed. Some have spoken of him not only as the first of Christian martyrs, but as the greatest of all Christian martyrs.
I. His Character. He was a man of good repute. This is evident from the office he sustained in the Apostolic Church. He was elected to be a deacon in it; and, according to the Fathers, he held the primacy over the other deacons. He was also a man of strong faith. It is Divinely said that he was 'full of faith'. This kept the eye of his soul fixed on Jesus, fitted him for earth, and matured him for heaven. He was likewise a man of deep piety. St. Luke affirms that he was 'full of the Holy Ghost'. Full of light and love because full of Deity, his peace flowed like a river. He was a man of great courage. The advocacy of the truth as it is in Jesus exposed him to fierce persecution, but he stood up nobly for it. And when he exclaimed with rapture, 'Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God,' they stopped their ears, and with one accord fell upon him, cast him out of the city, and stoned him.
II. His Martyrdom. The tragic punishment they inflicted upon him was one legally denounced against notorious criminals. This was the punishment of a blasphemer, and to this awful kind of death St. Stephen yielded himself. Yet how fiendish the conduct of the men who accomplished it! But this death, albeit inhuman and diabolical, was met with prayer. No better proof could be given of the power and goodness of the religion of Jesus Christ. Death, though it came to Stephen in this merciless way, was but a sleep. This beautiful representation is indicative of rest and peace. Stephen had done his work, had accomplished his warfare. 'Absent from the body,' he was 'present with the Lord.'
In the midst of the acute bodily pain which he endured during that night and the succeeding morning, he expressed his resignation and confidence chiefly in the language of Scripture, and often repeated favourite sentences from the Psalms in Hebrew.... Perceiving nature to be nearly exhausted, his friends requested him to give them a token that he departed in peace; upon which he repeated the last words of the martyr Stephen, and breathed gently away.
McCrie's Life of Andrew Melville, vol. ii. p. 440.
References. VII. 59. J. Hartill, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlix. p. 116. R. W. Hiley, A Year's Sermons, vol. iii. p. 155. S. Baring-Gould, Village Preaching for Saints' Days, p. 26. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xlv. No. 2644. VII. 59, 60. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xx. No. 1175. VII. 60. H. J. Wilmot-Buxton, Notes of Sermons for the Year, pt. i. p. 33. VIII. Expositor (6th Series), vol. vi. p. 118. VIII. 1. Ibid. (7th Series), vol. v. p. 203. VIII. 1-4. Ibid. vol. ii. p. 388. VIII. 2-5. R. F. Horton, The Hidden God, p. 127. VIII. 4, 5. F. D. Maurice, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 96. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxiv. No. 2044. VIII. 5. E. J. Boyce, Parochial Sermons, p. 143. VIII. 8. R. H. Baynes, True Revival, p. 42. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xl. No. 2352. VIII. 10. Expositor (5th Series), vol. vii. p. 276. VIII. 12. Ibid. (6th Series), vol. v. p. 45. VIII. 14. Ibid. vol. iii. p. 351. VIII. 16. Ibid. (4th Series), vol. x. p. 249; ibid. (6th Series), vol. v. p. 43. VIII. 17. E. A. Stuart, His Dear Son and other Sermons, p. 145. VIII. 18. Expositor (4th Series), vol. ix. p. 83. VIII. 21. B. Fay Mills, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlix. p. 378. H. Allen, Penny Pulpit, No. 1592, p. 131. VIII. 22. W. Forster, Penny Pulpit, No. 1649, p. 233. Expositor (7th Series), vol. vi. p. 274. VIII. 26. A. G. Mortimer, The Church's Lessons for the Christian Year, pt. iii. p. 55. T. F. Crosse, Sermons, p. 9. VIII. 26-38. J. Bush, Joseph Bush: A Memorial, p. 138. VIII. 26-39. E. Bersier, Sermons in Paris, p. 152. VIII. 26-40. C. Perren, Sermon Outlines, p. 375. Expositor (6th Series), vol. ix. p. 127. VIII. 27, 28. H. Jones, Christian World Pulpit, vol. 1. p. 92.
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Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Acts 7". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany