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The scope and design of St. Stephen’s defence before the council will be better understood, if it be properly analyzed. The rulers construed his defence to import, that the glory of their temple should wane; that the institutions of Moses were about to be superseded; and that the rulers did always resist the Holy Ghost.
First, he describes the state of Abraham while he dwelt in Haran, as a state of uncircumcision when he received the promise of the Messiah, that in his seed all the families of the earth should be blessed.
Secondly, in this state of uncircumcision he believed in God, and became heir of the righteousness which is obtained by faith. Then follows the events which happened to him, and to his seed in the land of Canaan, and during their residence in Egypt, where they were nourished with bread and multiplied.
Thirdly, the faithfulness of God to his promise when he appeared to Moses at the burning bush, and declared himself still to be the God of Abraham, and the defender of his children.
Fourthly, he notices the successive revolts of their fathers, both in Egypt and in the wilderness, when they worshipped the calf, and the hosts of heaven.
Fifthly, Stephen being full of the Holy Ghost, could restrain his spirit no longer, but told the council that like their fathers they were stiffnecked, and uncircumcised in heart and ears, always resisting the Holy Ghost. This roused the murderous enmity that slumbered in their hearts. They demonstrated the truth of his words by interrupting his defence, and stoning him instantaneously. Now, the mounds of restraint bursting on every side, they poured a flood of vengeance on all the churches of Judea, as stated in the eighth chapter.
Acts 7:2 . The God of glory appeared to Abraham. Genesis 12:0. First in Haran, and next before he left the fine country of Mesopotamia, the land where his ancestors were born. Judges 3:8. Stephen’s commencement with the call of Abraham was proper to prove that Christ had descended in the line of that patriarch, and of David, to whom the promises were made.
Acts 7:5 . He gave him no inheritance in the land of Canaan: and Abraham was content to be a stranger on earth, and to seek a better country. He differed from other patriarchs in not building any city, because he looked for a city which had the rock of ages for its foundation. In this he is a perfect pattern for us to follow.
Acts 7:6 . Four hundred years, from the birth of Isaac, as stated in Ruth 4:0. and 1 Kings 6:1. These years are reckoned from the first call of Abraham to his entrance into Canaan, amounting to five years. To the birth of Isaac, twenty five years. To the birth of Jacob, sixty years; who went into Egypt at the age of a hundred and thirty. The residence of his descendants in Egypt during two hundred and ten years being added, make the exact number of four hundred and thirty years, as stated in Genesis 15:13. The thirty years had elapsed before the Lord appeared to Abraham at sacrifice in the promised land.
Acts 7:8 . He gave him the covenant of circumcision, as in Genesis 17:12.
Acts 7:14 . Threescore and fifteen souls. The Chaldaic and Josephus follow the Hebrew, and read seventy, as in Genesis 46:27, and Deuteronomy 10:22. How is this reconciled with the Greek, which reads seventy five? The LXX add the five grandsons of Joseph, in the line of Ephraim and Manasseh. Other conjectures of the critics are offered, but this alone is generally received.
Acts 7:15-16 . So Jacob went into Egypt and died there, he and our fathers, and were carried and laid in the sepulchre that Abraham bought of the sons of Emmor. That is, in the sepulchre called Macpelah. There Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were buried, believing in the resurrection of the dead. The difficulty in Genesis 33:19, that Jacob bought a piece of land of Hamor, Shechem’s father, is fully removed by numerous instances from the Greek and Latin authors, that children in patriarchal society are called by the more honourable name of any of their forefathers, and sometimes the name of the father is put for the name of the children.
Acts 7:20 . Moses was born, and was exceeding fair: αγειος τω Θεω , divinely beautiful.
Acts 7:22 . Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. They studied geometry, and were the first nation to build temples. They understood the zodiac, or twelve signs of heaven. Languages, eloquence and poësy were cultivated there. Occult sciences were the lowest of their studies. Moses was learned in the art of war; he accompanied the army through the deserts of Numidia to Ethiopia, as related by Josephus. In a word, he had a princely education.
Acts 7:25 . Moses supposed his brethren would have understood, that God (by vision or dream) had appeared to him, and called him to emancipate the Hebrews. It is quite plain, as in John the baptist’s case, though no particulars are named, that Moses was divinely called to be the judge of Israel. But they might have understood it from his marvellous preservation.
Acts 7:38 . This is he, even the prophet promised by Moses, that was in the church in the wilderness. The God who spake to Moses at the burning bush, is called the Angel of JEHOVAH, and a little afterwards, JEHOVAH. When Moses asked his name, he answered, I AM THAT I AM. And Moses, the prince of prophets, prays for “the good will of him that dwelt in the bush” to be with Israel. Deuteronomy 33:16. The fathers of the church with one consent attribute all these words to Christ, and infer his deity, his preëxistence, and power to remit or punish the sins of Israel. How blind soever the jews might be as to the subsistence of the three hypostases, the scriptures being full of this doctrine, we are bound to hold fast the faith against all modern and ancient apostasy. To ascribe all those powers and titles to any created angel is blasphemy. No angel durst say, “I am Jehovah thy God.” The chariots of angels, countless in number, were in attendance on the Lord, as in Psalms 82:1. “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty, he judgeth among the gods.” This is the faith in which Stephen died: he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
Acts 7:41 . They made a calf in those days. Many divines think that this calf was intended to represent Jehovah, and not Apis the Egyptian idol; especially as the calf was one of the four living creatures which the prophet saw in vision. Ezekiel 1:4, Ezekiel 1:10. This somewhat diminishes Aaron’s sin; and no doubt he acted in some degree of ignorance. Hence his life was spared. But oh what mischief followed!
Acts 7:42 . God turned, and gave them up to worship the host of heaven. They embraced the worship of Sabianism, which was anterior to idolatry, and pervaded the whole oriental world, as stated on Job 1:15.
Acts 7:43 . The tabernacle of Moloch. An Egyptian king was called Moloch, who was idolized after death, and supposed to be represented by Mars. Remphan is conjectured to be the king who elevated Joseph, and to be deified after death, because of his riches, and represented by Saturn. So Dr. Hammond.
Acts 7:53 . Received the law by the disposition of angels. Jehovah, the Christ, came down in the sight of all the people. Exodus 19:11. Not indeed in figure, but in visible glory, and in all the grandeur of celestial majesty. God himself gave the law, but angels attended as servants of the Messiah, and as witnesses of the covenant. Or the law was given to make man partaker of the disposition of angels. Or the law was given, that it might be published by prophets and ministers, who are often called angels. This text should be understood as in Galatians 3:19. See a long note here in HEINSIUS.
Acts 7:56 . I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God, exercising all his regal powers in glory. Psalms 8:5.
Acts 7:58 . The witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. Cardinal Baronius contends that Saul was now thirty five years of age, and in the ministry, “and profited above his equals in the jewish religion.” It appears however that his father had become a Roman citizen, engaged in military service. In stoning a blasphemer, the jewish executioners threw heavy stones upon him, while he lay extended on the ground, which broke all his bones.
In the preseding chapter we have seen the blessed Stephen foremost in the care of the poor, and foremost in defending the faith; now we see him as a choice ram of the flock led to the altar, the first of martyrs, after his Master, and the best of men. His name, which in the Greek signifies a crown, was indicative of the honour that awaited him, and all others who followed in this triumphant road to glory. The fragrance of his sacrifice perfumed the church, and shed the lustre of conquest on all her tears. His colleagues in the ministry became animated by his example, and expecting daily a similar laurel, they lived on earth as the inhabitants of heaven.
We may also observe, that great talents are to be enjoyed with humility and awe. Stephen refuted and confounded the heads of all the sects in Jerusalem and the jewish church, and thereby exposed himself to their malice and fury: and in the degenerate ages of the christian church, they would perhaps have exposed him to the jealousy and envy of his own brethren.
We see the issue of coming to close quarters with wicked men: and if we do not deliver our own soul in a meek and modest manner, God will surely require their blood at our hand. If men on being closely pressed with truth, and an honest charge of their sins, with all the dire consequences of impenitency, do not yield to tears, they will rend us as the swine. These wicked jewish sectarians became so exasperated, and there can be no greater proof of their being vanquished, as to imitate Jezebel in the sad case of Naboth, and to force accusations against Stephen of blasphemy; for they knew the temper of the council towards the christians. And if the heart be so wicked, how energetic should the ministry be which has to vanquish it.
When the blast is strong it brightens the furnace, and refines the metal. While those wicked men, forced to their last retreat by the power of truth, discovered the character of devils, the face of Stephen shone as an angel of God. The power of his faith and the hope of glory irradiated all his soul; and the emboldening presence of his Master enabled him to stand as a hero on the theatre of the universe.
When Stephen was put to the bar, he was more solicitous of the Messiah’s honour, than of his own safety. Scorning or waving all defence, he endeavoured to draw the attention of the council wholly to the promise made of God unto the fathers. He traced it in a learned line of argument down to Solomon. But on intimating a spiritual worship, as in the fiftieth Psalm, though delicately doing it in the words of Solomon, who confessed that the Most High dwelt not in temples made with hands, the council had no patience to hear him farther. They seem to have interrupted his discourse by outrage and clamour.
This holy confessor and martyr, availing himself of a pause in the vociferations, charged home their wickedness, as uncircumcised in heart and ear against the law and religion of heaven, and as acting in the very spirit of their rebellious fathers who had massacred the prophets. And while he spake these words he was filled with a zeal so holy and pure, that heaven itself could not surpass it in excellence; for indeed, heaven was open to him in vision; and being carried beyond himself, he made the aforesaid piercing appeal against their sin.
Stephen, being thus divinely supported, died bearing witness of the godhead and glory of his Master. He averred, that he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Consequently he saw him as Isaiah and as Daniel had done, clothed with the glory of the Father. John 12:41. This was speaking out, and it was understood as blasphemy; for the doctors stopped their ears, and grinned with their teeth. No matter: Jesus, as Mediator, inherits the glory he had with the Father from eternity; and he shall come again, both in his own glory, as Mediator, and in all the glory of the Father.
But this word standing, may suggest a most consoling idea to the suffering church. In general, Jesus is represented as seated at the Father’s right hand; but here, his servant being ill used, he is represented as rising from his throne to support him, and as ready to receive his spirit, and present it to the Father with exceeding joy. Oh astonishing grace, and unutterable condescension!
Stephen died praying for his enemies, because they might yet be converted, and that would augment his joy and happiness for ever. Here we have the perfection of love: to which St. John seems to allude, when he says, Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of crisis, or judgment, at a human tribunal, because as Christ is, or was, so are we in this world: for Jesus said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear. He that feareth is not made perfect in love. Here we have full proof of a martyr delivered from all anger, and from all indwelling sin. His hallowed breast was not stained with a vestige of malice against the worst of foes. Let this comfort us in all our conflicts against the flesh, and let us pray for the mind which was in Christ. Christ is able to give purity of heart, and to make us meet to see God.
Stephen in dying commended his spirit into the hands of Jesus. This is proof that he believed in his godhead and omnipresence. This is proof, full proof that Jesus Christ is Lord both of the living and the dead; and that he is able to save to the uttermost all who come to God by him. Thus the wicked could kill the body only: the soul of the holy martyr was invincible. He this day by a victorious arm wrested the first and one of the fairest crowns of martyrdom, and branded his enemies with the obloquy of eternal shame.
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Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Acts 7". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29