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And in those days … there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews.
Trouble the lot of the Church
The Church on earth has always trouble; if it is not persecuted from without, disorders arise from within which is still more dangerous. (Starke.)
The poor the treasures of the Church
1. They stir up its spiritual gifts.
2. They exercise its brotherly love.
3. They are its ornament before the world.
4. They bear interest to it in eternity.
When Laurentius the martyr was commanded by the Roman governor to bring out the treasures of the Church, he led forth the poor of the congregation. (K. Gerok.)
The ancient bond between poverty and Christianity a blessing to both
I. To poverty. Only in Christianity, in the kingdom of Him who became poor that we might become rich--
1. Is the Divine right of the poor recognised.
2. Has the Holy Ghost awakened a genuine care of the poor.
II. To Christianity. In the care of the poor.
1. It has from the beginning developed its most Divine powers--Love, compassion, patience, self-denial, contempt of death, and trust in God.
2. It has proved before the world its right of existence in the world. (K. Gerok.)
Dissatisfaction in the primitive Church
There never has been a perfect Church, and never will be this side the Lord’s coming. There is much here which has been reproduced in modern times. Consider--
I. The occasion and character of this dissension. The local association of believers was composed of men separated by various nationalities and degrees of culture. There was much freedom and simplicity, for under the influence of a first creative enthusiasm the need of order and discipline had hardly become apparent. Whenever that declined, dissension was inevitable. Christianised human nature is long before it shakes itself free from petty ambitions and other ignoble sentiments. That the outbreak came soon need awaken no surprise. Men need to be trained for a life of free self-government. The causes were here ready to manifest themselves whenever the occasion presented itself. There were two chief parties--Jews, born in Palestine, of narrow views and restricted sympathies; and Jews or proselytes born in other lands, who had been affected by the refinement, art, poetry, and beauty of Greek culture, and who spoke the Greek language. These differences were sure to provoke collision. But the predominating influence was Jewish, and the Jewish officers were blamed by the Grecian portion of the community for neglecting Grecian widows in the daily administration. A small thing suffices for a great disturbance when latent differences already exist. Sectarianisms and divisions of Churches have often arisen from matters of the smallest importance. Watch the beginnings. Church dissensions are created by wrong feelings much more than by the maintenance of great principles and sacred interests. But few will bear looking at from the Saviour’s Cross or in the light of the Saviour’s throne.
II. The expedient resorted to.
1. This was a new stage in the development of a complete Church life. What was demonstrably lacking was supplied. The Lord did not furnish His Church with an apparatus of government already complete. But He gave His Holy Spirit by whom it was to be guided according to the emergencies and needs of the times.
2. Here is a plain manifestation of apostolic initiation and of Church co-operation. The apostles proposed a plan which the members freely accepted, a procedure natural, seemly, orderly, and most efficient. This may be regarded as the charter of Church rights. The apostles consulted the laity to ascertain their opinions and desires. At the same time there is nothing of lawlessness here. Power was not wholly in their hands. The apostles actually appointed and ordained the seven Hellenists whom the people selected. The principle is of the first importance, for it is exactly what we know as constitutional government.
3. Here is the principle of division of labour, as essential to Church efficiency. As those already engaged in the daily administration were not equal to all the work, others were associated with them. It was enough for apostles to do their proper work in founding churches, preaching the Word, praying, seeking the supply of the Spirit, exercising spiritual and miraculous gifts, leading the Church in the ways of the Lord. Other men could and must do what was merely secondary and secular. In free Christian society the specialty of each is needed and is to be employed. There is room for all who have a mind to work; but none for idlers. Division of labour in this case prevented schism. A Church active and consecrated will keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.
4. What a solemnity was attached to even the meanest work for the Lord in His Church! The deacons are presented to the apostles, who pray for them, and lay their hands on their heads, setting them apart to such duties. Prayer sanctifies all Christian endeavour. Work for Christ is never to be thought of in a mean spirit. It should be associated with what is best and highest in Christian life, and be done ever “as under the great Taskmaster’s eye.” (W. H. Davison.)
Hellenist and Hebrew
From the first the Church had held within its bosom two opposed tendencies. So long as its numbers were not too large, and its enthusiasm had not spent itself, this underlying division created no difficulty. A moment, however, was reached when the jealousy of Hellenist and Hebrew began to give promise of that deep schism which ended only by the extinction of one of the divisions (the Hebrew) altogether.
I. The distinction between Hellenist and Hebrew. Its origin goes back to the captivity. Previously to this the Jews had dwelt as far as possible alone, but through that catastrophe they were scattered through all the huge empire which stretched from India to the AEgean. The numbers that returned under Zerubbabel, and again under Ezra, fell far short of the number of the dispersed; and it was impossible but that prolonged contact with pagan nations should greatly modify their customs and modes of thought. Especially was this the case during and after the wars of Alexander. 4. new spirit of commercial enterprise awoke within them as a new world opened to their wandering feet, and the ancestral faculty for acquiring wealth which their Palestine life had crushed, developed itself. While the home Jews recoiling from defiling contact with foreigners grew prouder and more narrow, their foreign brethren took on a strong tinge of Greek culture, and the spirit of secular gain broke down the feeling of separatism which had been the very kernel of ancient Judaism. All this tended to modify their religion, and for the better. Cut off from the temple ritual, they carried with them neither priest nor sacrifice; they carried only the Septuagint and the synagogue. What they retained was just what was portable, and what was most portable was most spiritual. When at last Christianity arose it found everywhere in the synagogues its first base of operations. It was from Hellenised Jews that Christianity obtained its first and best missionaries, and it is to them we owe it that the Church grew out of all risk of continuing a Judean sect and became the religion of civilised mankind.
II. The murmuring of the Hellenists against the Hebrews. Being men of higher average intelligence and energy than the villagers of Judea or the small traders of the capital, the former were not likely to acquiesce silently in any neglect on the part of the other. There was always a tendency amongst the Palestine Jews to pride themselves on retaining the purest type of orthodoxy, and to suspect as well as dislike their countrymen who had taken on Greek manners. On the other hand, it came very naturally to the foreign Jew to look down on stay-at-home and old-fashioned Hebrews as bigoted and ignorant. A grave danger threatened the young Church if her members imported into her communion such mutual jealousies as these; and the slight “murmuring” about the widows’ rations meant nothing less.
III. How the murmuring was allayed. The apostles took alarm, for the murmurs reflected on them. The work had evidently grown beyond their power of personal supervision, and now that one side of the Church grumbled about an unfairness some new arrangement was clearly called for. Even the apostles were no autocrats; the Church was an oligarchy which rested on a democratic basis. The supreme legislative power was felt to reside in the “crowd of disciples.” What the apostles did at first was to initiate measures, and at the last to confirm appointments. But the adoption of the measure and the election of the officers were the work of “the whole multitude.” This act--
1. Established certain principles--the right of the Church to transact under Christ its own business; the ministerial, not lordly character of even its highest offices; the subordination of all material interests to its spiritual work; and the ultimate seat of Church authority in the whole body.of believers. Any Church system whose arrangements flatly contravene these principles must be held to have departed from primitive order.
2. Began the severance between the spiritual and temporal work of the Church. It became impossible to combine the serving of tables with the ministry of the Word. A division of labour was called for, and the apostles could not hesitate which side of their double office they should abandon. To bear witness to the saving work of Christ is not a secondary function of the Church, but its one task for which all other things must minister. The Church, however, declined to treat even its secular work as wholly unspiritual, and lifted it out of the atmosphere of mere business into that of worship. The candidates are to be full of the Holy Ghost as well as wisdom, and are set apart with solemn services. The only two among them of whom we know anything are known for the zeal and success with which they preached Christ. Stephen and Philip were a good deal more than almoners.
IV. With the ordination of these seven men a new page of Church history opened.
1. It marked a stage in the Church’s progress towards separate existence.
2. It was the first step towards permanence. The apostles cannot live for ever; but if the new society has the power, under Christ, of founding new orders of office bearers, then it carries within itself the conditions of self-preservation and self-adaptation to changed times and perpetual progress.
3. It brought a new element to the front. The seven bear Greek names, which affords a presumption that they belonged to that section of the Church whose complaints had led to the election. The result, therefore, was this, that, through the murmurs of a few widows, those members of the Church were lifted into office who represented its most free, spiritual, un-Hebrew, and catholic elements. One man especially was thrust forward who was destined to rouse the narrow and ultra-national party of the Pharisees to persecution, as Peter had already roused the Sadducees, and whose death was to be a signal for the scattering of the Church. It was even to lead to the conversion of another man who should one day become an apostle himself and vindicate as an inheritance for Christendom that larger and more spiritual view of Christianity of which Stephen was the first exponent.
V. The story rebukes our short-sighted alarms at the small dissensions and apparent disasters of the hour. We see the divided congregation; we hear its murmuring voices, but we forget to see the hand which guides the Church’s destinies, and causes all things to work together for its good. (J. Oswald Dykes, D. D.)
The first disunion in the Church
I. Its occasion.
II. Its adjustment.
III. Its blessing. (Langbein.)
A picture of early Church life
I. The murmuring in the Church.
1. When it arose. With multiplying numbers, new dangers arose. It was more difficult to keep the unity for which the believers had been distinguished. Many a Church that has withstood adversity has been wrecked by prosperity.
2. How it arose. By the jealousy of the Grecians. If that was not stopped, there was a great disaster before the Church. How it came about that the Grecian widows were neglected, the record does not say. It may have been unintentional oversight, or the result of a feeling against the Greeks as being foreigners. It is worthy of note that the first two dangers to the early Church, hypocrisy and schism, arose from the distribution of its charities.
II. The harmony of the Church. How was it restored? By the prompt, wise, and magnanimous action of the apostles. They did not wait for the “murmuring” to become a pronounced disaffection. They did not rebuke the murmurers, nor try to justify themselves. They simply asked that the work might be put in the hands of others who could properly attend to it.
1. They made a protest against doing the work at all. They were chosen of Christ to be His witnesses--not to dole out alms. The lower work was encroaching upon the higher. They were liable to be so much engaged in caring for the bodies that they could do nothing for the souls of men.
2. They showed to whom the work should be committed. They directed the disciples to look out seven men among them.
(1) “Of good report”--so that, to begin with, they would receive the approval of every one. The apostles went upon the principle of never putting a doubtful man into aa important office.
(2) “Full of the Spirit”--so that their godliness might be apparent. Men full of the Spirit would not be likely to do injustice through partiality--or become defaulters.
(3) “And of wisdom”--so that the funds would be wisely disbursed. The Church that has a charity fund has to look out that pauperism is not encouraged, that dead-beats are not supported, and that the really needy are generously cared for.
3. They declared what their own work should be. The world was famishing for the gospel more than the disciples for bread. Others could give the bread, but the apostles were chosen especially to give the gospel. First they would get from God, and then they would give to men. There is no giving without first getting. No water can be poured from an unfilled pitcher.
III. The growth of the Church.
1. The choice of the seven. The seven were chosen in accordance with the recommendation of the apostles. Their Greek names show how generously the Church acted in giving “the daily ministration” largely into the hands of the element from which the murmurs had arisen. That made it impossible for Grecian Jews any longer to complain. The suggestion of the apostles “pleased the whole multitude”; for they saw that it not only would do away with dissensions, but would result in the greater efficiency of the apostles. The seven finally were inducted into office with as much solemnity as though they were to preach the Word instead of to serve tables! In those days no work for Christ, it would seem, was unworthy of a consecration.
2. The increase of the disciples. That, naturally, was the result of the increase of power resulting from the new state of things. The Church was a greater power, because in it there no longer was any division. The apostles were a greater power; for now there was no obstacle to giving their whole strength to prayer and the ministry of the Word. Notable among the accessions was the great company of priests that became “obedient to the faith.” The new faith demanded of them so much that in their case obedience meant a great deal more than with others.
IV. The witness for the church. Among the chosen seven there was one especially prominent from the first, Stephen. Observe that he was a witness for the Church--
1. In his endowments. He was “full of faith and the Holy Spirit”--“full of grace and power.” The mere fact that a man is so endowed is a great testimony for the Church.
2. In the exhibitions of his power. He “wrought great wonders and signs among the people.” He showed apostolic power, though he was not an apostle. The layman may be as full of the Holy Spirit and of the power of the Spirit as the minister.
3. In his encounters with adversaries. “They were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spake.” They were cunning, but he was wise. They were learned, but he was inspired.
4. In his appearance before the council. (M. C. Hazard.)
I. The origin of the office.
1. We are introduced to a class of people here called Grecians, who were proselytes to the Jewish worship, and Jews born and bred in foreign countries, whose language was Greek. In Acts 2:1-47. a long catalogue is given us of the countries from which they came. The home Jews, or Hebrews, looked down upon their foreign brethren as having contracted contamination by their long contact with the heathen. As a natural result, considerable jealousy sprang up between them. The Church did not create the division; on the contrary, its direct influence was to merge the two factions into one--they were all of “one accord.” But in process of time the old spirit of rivalry manifested itself. The world often taunts the Church with having within its fold contentious and hypocritical people. But where have they come from? The Church has black sheep; but they were black when they first came in from the world, and remain black in spite of the cleansing influences around them.
2. The Grecians murmured. There was no open hostility, or any unseemly ebullition of temper. You place a shell by your ear, and hear the subdued murmur of the air as it winds its way through the intricate convolutions. That is the comparison of St. Luke--there was a low, half-articulate mutter. This disposition to grumble formed the gravest danger the Church had yet had to encounter. The earth is exposed to two perils--from storms without, and volcanic fires within. Of the two, the last is the most dangerous. Let the winds beat as they will, the earth continues firm. But when the internal fires burst forth, the earth quakes to its foundations. In ,like manner the Church is exposed to persecution in the world. This has attacked the Church repeatedly; but it did not fall, because it was founded upon a rock. But the gravest danger arises from within--the spirit of discontent in the members.
3. The Grecians “murmured because their widows were neglected.” It appears that only the “ widows” received charitable relief, and of course those who were disabled by age or decrepitude. Men able to earn a living doubtless had to go and work. Who were the almoners? The text seems to hint that the apostles had partly delegated their power to certain members of the Hebrew party. The “widows” were overlooked probably by accident, arising from defective organisation. But the Grecians insisted that there was a set purpose in it, and inquired for sinister motives, and, as is always the case, found them! Jealousy always distorts facts to suit its own morbid fancies.
4. The murmurings of the Grecians induced the apostles to “call the multitude of the disciples unto them,” in order to confer together. The Jewish Church was constituted on mechanical principles. God Himself elected His own officers, and the nation was expected loyally to submit. But the Christian Church is a living organism; its functionaries are therefore dependent on the vote of the members. Governments are of two kinds--the parental and representative. The government of the Jewish Church was on the parental principle, the members being, in the language of the apostle, under age. But the government of the Christian Church is representative; it is self-government--its members having attained their majority. And in calling “the multitude of the disciples unto them,” the apostles acknowledged the principle of manhood suffrage. But we must not forget the promise that the “Spirit of Truth” should guide the Church into all the truth of government not less than the truth of doctrine. This promise holds good for us as for the age of the apostles. No doubt precedent has its value, and no conscientious Christian will speak lightly of the past history of the Church. But if webs be woven of it to tie the hands and bind the feet of the Church now living, we make of it a bad and unjustifiable use. The Church of to-day is as free as the Church of the first century, and is in as close communion with its Head as ever it was. But there is a distinction between the scripturalness of a doctrine or usage and the ecclesiasticalness thereof. What is taught by the apostles is not subject to alteration or capable of improvement. What St. Paul taught the Corinthian Church I accept without cavil or objection; but what the Corinthian Church practised I feel at liberty to adopt or reject.
5. Having summoned the “multitude of the disciples together,” the apostles proposed “they should choose from among themselves seven men of honest report” to supervise the distribution, which instantly quelled the discontent. In verse 1 they murmur; in verse 5 they are pleased. Were many in the place of the apostles they would have stood upon their dignity, and ignored the complaint; and the low “murmuring” of verse 1 would have grown into loud and fierce denunciation in verse 5. But kindness, straightforwardness, and discretion at once surmounted the difficulty. Evil had always better be grappled with in its incipient stage. A small injustice is more easily remedied than a great one, and the facility makes the duty more imperative. Thus we are taught that the Church is a growth. It was not launched upon society with all its organisation perfected. Herein again it contrasts strikingly with Judaism. Moses was commanded “to do everything according to the pattern shown him in the mount”--by Divine revelation. The people had to originate nothing--they had to receive everything. But the Christian Church is a living organism--it gradually unfolds from within. It began on the day of Pentecost without any regulations or offices except the apostolate. It was simply a germ, but a germ which had within it the “power of endless life.” By degrees the germ grew and threw out new offices, just as the tree shoots out new branches. Its functions are the healthy outgrowth of its life. The diaconate is instituted when the temporal requirements of the Church urgently demand it, and not a day before. It is, therefore, idle to endeavour to give the Church a rigid, cast-iron shape for all countries and ages. The exigencies of time and place are to determine its outward form.
II. The duties of the office.
1. The “seven men” were elected to “serve.” The noun “deacon” is not used, but the corresponding verb is--“they diaconised.” Is there not a quiet hint to their successors to be more covetous of discharging the duties than of wearing the name? In the Acts we find only the verb; in the Epistles we find the noun. Here we perceive the fundamental law of language and of life; for language and life are at bottom one--first get the thing, next get the name. The probability is that these men were not officially styled “deacons”--they were simply known as the “seven.” Gradually, however, the Church felt a need for an official title, and from the verb it developed the noun. Living in an age noted for its appearances, we go about in the first place to invent names, and care but little about things. All our goods are electro-plate. But the primitive Church was living face to face with stern realities. If it could procure the thing, it let the name take care of itself. A deacon is one who ministers or serves. The same words are used to describe the work of deacons as that of apostles, the object only being different. In each case it was “serving,” “ministering.” A deacon etymologically means one who waits at table, who runs to do service. The very word signifies that diaconal work should be characterised by docility and alacrity. People of imperious temperament are scarcely fit to act as servers of the Church; instead of running themselves, their disposition is to bid others run.
2. “They were elected to “serve tables,” to attend to the temporalities of the Church. It was not, however, absolutely necessary that they should confine themselves to this; hard and fast lines are not known in the kingdom of God. Their chief duty is to manage the finances of the kingdom; but, that done, they may extend the sphere of their usefulness. The public mind is confused upon this subject. Preachers are supposed to have no right to meddle with the service of tables; the right they indisputably have, but the expediency may be questioned, except in very rare cases. On the other hand, deacons are supposed to be guilty of presumption when they preach. But they are guilty of nothing of the kind; for Stephen and Philip “preach the Word” with irresistible power and success. Everywhere in the Apostolic Church are traceable the liberty and elasticity of life. “The tools to him who can use them.”
3. The deacons are to “serve the tables” of the ministers. We may rest assured that, whilst waiting on the tables of others, they did not leave the apostles’ table empty. One important object was to relieve the preachers of anxiety and distraction in their own peculiar work.
4. They are to “serve the tables” of the poor. This was about the most impoverished period in Jewish history. Mendicants everywhere flocked the highways. “The poor ye have always with you.” Many of them joined the Church, and the exceptional poverty called forth exceptional liberality. Many, “having land, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” At their feet. Money should always be kept at people’s feet. Many keep it in their safes, and, alas I many in their hearts. In this institution we discover the first germ of the philanthropic efforts of modern civilisation. Judaism doubtless stood alone among ancient religions for the humane feeling pervading it. Nevertheless, its highest result was negative--not to oppress or defraud. Being the first stage of religious culture, Judaism consisted in not doing evil rather than in doing good. The Old Testament dealt in prohibitions rather than in positive injunctions. But the gospel bids you do something. Christ went about doing good. In the text a committee of seven is organised to supervise the distribution of the doles. Occasional outbursts of benevolent impulses were witnessed in previous ages and other countries; now for the first time was a deliberate effort made to reduce impulse into system, and benevolence into an organisation. The “seven men of honest report” constituted, I believe, the first “board of guardians” in the world. Modern civilisation is replete with “boards”--Poor Law Boards, School Boards, Boards of Guardians, and Boards of Health. But they are all natural developments of the board or “table” of which the text speaks, to “serve tables” being precisely the same as to serve boards. In the Gospels we witness the conception, in the Acts the birth of philanthropy.
III. The qualifications for the office.
1. Integrity “Honest report”--men of uprightness and straightforwardness. The funds being entrusted to their care, it is of prime importance that they be men above suspicion. Judas once “kept the bag”; but he was a thief. It is therefore of great consequence that men of strict integrity be put into this office.
2. Piety. “full of the Holy ghost.” The judicious management of money requires the special aid of God’s Spirit. Pecuniary interests occupy the middle ground, and are peculiarly liable to corruption. It is popularly imagined that, if a man is “full of the Holy Ghost,” he cannot attend to temporal duties; that he is only fit to sing and pray. But it strikes me you do not want a very great deal of the Spirit to do that; but you want a great deal of Him to give and collect money. Show me a Church’s collection books, and I can estimate pretty nearly how much of the Holy Ghost that church has. A Church of one hundred members giving fifty pounds a year towards the support of the gospel at home and its propagation in foreign parts, has not much of the Spirit. Wolff elaborated a system to reduce all truths of philosophy into truths of mathematics; and, if I had the leisure, I could invent a system to reduce the truths of theology into truths of arithmetic. A man says, “I have faith.” “Show me thy works,” urges James; the works are the measure of the Faith. You say, “We have had a powerful revival.” I answer, “Show me your collection-books.” A small collection means baptism by sprinkling; a large colleclection--well, baptism by immersion.
3. Wisdom. That a man is honest and pious is not enough. Without wisdom his administration will do incalculably more harm than good. Wisdom is a right application of knowledge (gnosis). But this implies two things. (First, that he possess the knowledge, to be applied. A deacon should be “mighty in the Scriptures.” Ignorance should never hold office in the Church. God does not need our knowledge to carry on His kingdom; but He can do without our ignorance. Second, that he possess tact to apply his knowledge in the pursuit of his official duties. Men require to be managed with great delicacy and discernment. They are very sensitive instruments to play upon; a rude touch may snap the strings, and in vain you afterwards endeavour to get them to “discourse sweet melody.” You have heard of Phaeton, the son of Sol; he was desirous of driving the chariot of the sky. Many persuaded him against the attempt, as he had not the necessary practice to guide with a steady hand its fiery steeds. But he insisted on driving; and he broke his own neck and sent horses and chariot spinning through infinite space. His intentions were good, but his skill was defective. And we have known men taking into their hands the reins of Church govern° recur--upright, pious men enough, no doubt; but for lack of tact they drew upon themselves no end of personal discomfort, drove the Church over the precipice, and plunged it into inextricable confusion. (J. Cynddylan Jones, D. D.)
The election of deacons
There is nothing concealed in the action of the New Testament Church. The case of Judas is not covered up nor made the least of. Ananias and Sapphira are not names Withdrawn because of the lies they told. And the murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews is not passed over without reference. The Church is not a secret institution, and was never meant to be a concealed force in society. Christianity abhors all official secrecy. It is a religion which lives in the daylight. Its registers are not hidden away in iron safes; its writing is written as with a pencil of the sun. Who would publish an expurgated edition of the Bible! We undertake to adapt our poets to modern tastes and readers. It is refreshing to belong to a Church that is so open and fearless.
I. How was this difficulty of the early Church adjusted?
1. To-day it would surely terminate in many instances with a secession; but the spirit that guided the Church aright; was the spirit of love. There can be no permanent difficulties where this is supreme. If a Church is only a religious debating society, then we shall determine: many issues merely by numbers.
2. The apostles argue the question out, from the standpoint of a clear conception of apostolic work. Your first conception will generally determine the whole course of your argument. Starting with a noble conception, a man will naturally fall into a noble course, and reach a useful conclusion. The apostles magnified their office. “We will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the Word.” And the apostles could pray! Just lately, in this very story, we heard them pray, and the place where they were assembled was shaken! And the apostles could also preach. They divided their hearers into two classes--friends and enemies. The mere critic could not play his little game at pedantry under the apostolic sermon. It was one of two things--repentance, surrender, crying to Heaven for pardon, or gnashing of teeth, and malignant hatred, the very fire of hell!
3. The apostles, conceiving their work to be of this high and supreme kind, were rather anxious than otherwise to escape the daily ministration of the tables, and gladly seized the opportunity of leaving this necessary routine to others who were ready to undertake it. This supreme conception of apostolic service was itself ennobled by the trust which the apostles reposed in the people. Christianity is the people’s religion pre-eminently. There are those in the ministry of Christ who can testify that they owe all their comfort, prosperity, and influence to their trust in the people. The apostles did not select certain notables; but having to deal with a people’s question, they consulted the people’s instinct, and therein they have set an example to all Christian associations.
4. Whilst this was the case at the outset, it was impossible that the whole Church could constitute a committee of action, therefore the apostles said, “Look ye out seven men,” who shall really be yourselves condensed. Such men as shall themselves be equal to the whole multitude. Large-minded, generous men, who can see every aspect of a case, and deal with noble wisdom with the practical difficulties of life. The qualifications of the seven are plainly stated. They were to be “men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom.” There are no merely secular duties in the Church. Church matters are not merely matters of political system. There is nothing done in Christ’s Church--whether the opening of a door, the lighting of a lamp, or the preaching of the everlasting gospel--that is not to be done under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. A door may be so opened as to affront the Spirit of God; a visitor may be so shown to a seat as to manifest a truly Christian spirit on the part of the indicator. There is no part of our work in any section that is not holy unto the Lord. The ministry is one. I have no doubt that the men chosen in this text were better able to serve tables than the apostles. We have not all the same gifts. We must rid ourselves of the mischievous sophism which teaches us that some kinds of service are menial. There is no menial service in the Church, unless you make it menial by an unworthy spirit.
5. Looked at as a piece of Church statesmanship, can you suggest a single amendment to this policy? Do not the apostles vindicate their apostleship by their noble wisdom and practical sagacity? It is not every man in the apostleship who could have settled a case so. The ancient proverb tells us that “every fool will be meddling.” The reason why some ministers are uncomfortable and unsettled is that they will meddle with things that they really cannot arrange. Impose a duty upon a friend, and show by your manner of doing it that you mean him to reveal his best quality. When this spirit seizes us, all distribution of labour will not be a division of front, but will rather show that the front is more united because the labour is wisely divided. Jealousy kills us all to-day.
II. What was the effect?
1. The Word of God increased (verse 7). A united Church means a world impressed by the noble scene. The Church of Christ is not united to-day. The noble purpose of Christ is marred by certain geographical distinctions and ecclesiastical arrangements, in the making of which Providence had neither part nor lot. The Church must be united before the world will be redeemed. Hence Christ’s great prayer, “May they all be one, that the world may believe.” We want the apostle now who can bring men together, who can magnify points of union, who can show that the Church, though divided on many minor points, ought to realise its vital union, magnify and display it, and thus Christ’s soul would be satisfied.
2. Stephen was brought out (verse 8). They made him a minister of tables, and he became the first martyr. Stephen was developed by circumstances. Being put into this office, he developed his true quality of mind and heart. There are those who cannot be kept in obscurity, and who cannot be limited to merely technical publicity. What if this man had been unintentionally neglected? (J. Parker, D. D.)
The first election of deacons
I. The reason of their election.
1. The temporal necessities members of the Church. “Widows” are especially mentioned, in all communities the most deserving of aid. The Bible, therefore, particularly commends them to the compassion of the benevolent. “Pure religion and undefiled,” etc. It is the duty of the Church to attend to the temporal as well as the spiritual necessities of its members. In this Christ has left us an example. The gospel is more a record of His beneficent acts than of His doctrinal ideas.
2. The absorbing work of the gospel ministry. This the twelve referred to as a reason. The deacons were elected not to rule, as some arrogant modern deacons fancy, but to relieve the preachers; so that, undistracted, they might give themselves wholly to their proper work.
II. The method of their election.
1. The Church had its part--to look out the seven most suitable men, a work requiring inquiry, good judgment, and responsibility.
2. The apostles had their part.
(1) They originated the election. The suggestion for new officers came from them, not from the members; and they, not the members, called the Church together for the purpose.
(2) They directed the election, describing the character of the men to be elected.
(3) They confirmed the election. The men the Church elected were set before the apostles for ordination. Had they not, however, been up to the standard, the apostles had assuredly the right of rejection.
III. The qualification for their election.
1. Unblemished reputation.
2. Eminent godliness.
3. Practical sagacity.
IV. The result of the election (verse 7). The election operated--
1. By quelling the spirit of contention, which would obstruct the advancement of the Church.
2. By the augmented agency of the Church. Seven noble men set to work.
3. By enabling the apostles to give themselves entirely to the preaching of the gospel. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The first deacons chosen
In the beginning of the preceding chapter, we had a sad account of an act of fraud and falsehood on the part of some that contributed to this common fund among the disciples in Jerusalem; and now we have an account of the murmuring of some of those who received it. The first was the offspring of great depravity; this is the result of human imperfections. The one was met by a very strong measure; this is met by conference, by advice, by calling into exercise the principles of common sense and the feelings of their common Christianity.
I. The narrative. Notice--
1. The increase of the disciples. In spite of the persecution which the Church was continually meeting with, we have continual statements of its prosperity and increase. I have no doubt that by this time the number of Christians in Jerusalem was ten thousand.
2. When you think about these ten thousand people, you see at once that this common fund cannot mean that all these people had given up all their property, and that there was a distribution made to every one of this whole multitude. What! had they given up their trades? had they left their workshops, their farms, and merchandise? No; they were going on, I suppose, fulfilling their daily duties. Then did they bring all their wages and profits, throwing all this into a common fund, and taking back every day what was required, more or less according to their circumstances? You cannot suppose any such thing. Why, if they were to call the whole ten thousand together every morning, and give them only a shilling each, there would be five hundred pounds wanted every day. We must look at this fund as just a provision for those who were in necessitous circumstances.
3. Now things went on for some time, till at last “there arose a murmuring,” a dissatisfaction. Some began to feel that there was not proper attention paid them, and it reached the ears of the apostles, who proceed to make the arrangement here mentioned. You will see at a glance that previous to this somebody must have done this work. The thing had been done before. In Acts 2:44-45, it is said, “All that believed were together, and had all things common, and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need”--i.e., each one at first distributed his own benevolence. The advance upon that you have at the end of the fourth chapter. The first rude idea was for every man to act for himself, and come with his hands full and his heart full, and just dispense according to the impulse of his feeling; and the first modification of that was, for all to bring what they had to give, and lay it down at the apostles’ feet, and so there would be something like regularity in the distribution, and investigation, and examination of the particular case and circumstances; whereas in the other way it could not be done, and one might be receiving from many. And that goes on, the apostles (I suppose) trying to do it. But not, I apprehend, without assistance from the hundred and twenty, who would probably all be Hebrews. But here were the Grecians; and there might be a feeling rising up, with no foundation, that there was a neglect of their widows in the daily ministration. So difficult it is, you see, even under the guidance of the Divine Spirit, and with the first love and strong affection of the early Christians, to get rid of all those party prejudices and suspicions which rise up in society and array class against class. But the murmuring comes to the ears of the apostles, and something must be done to meet it.
4. “Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them,” Does that mean the whole ten thousand? Supposing there were not ten thousand? Could five thousand men transact business? Any of you that know anything about business, know how difficult it is to get anything done even in a large committee. In order to get through business, you must have a few heads, with strong hearts and hands connected with them, that will really do something. I cannot, therefore, feel myself warranted in stating that this is really to be taken positively and literally. I do not know where they would meet in Jerusalem--so many of them. I know that, afterwards, when Peter was in prison, “prayer was made without ceasing of the Church,” meeting in a private house--in the house of the mother of John Mark; and I dare say there were little knots of such all over the city. I think, in this case, the principal part of those they would call together would be Grecians--the principal persons of that party--and it would be a full meeting, and open for any to attend who felt interested in the matter; but we cannot suppose that there was the whole, or anything like the whole, of the mass of Christians in Jerusalem. When they were come together, the apostles said, “It is not reason that we should leave the Word of God and serve tables,” which may mean, “The thing does not work well, does not give universal satisfaction; we are doing the best we can, but it is not reasonable that we should be exclusively devoted to this thing; we have had our heads and our hearts full of anxiety about this matter, and we find it is not reasonable that we should ‘serve tables,’ for we feel that in doing so we must ‘leave the Word of God,’ and we must not do that; and therefore, as we have already made one departure from the first rude idea to a better, we must try now to get a best, and we propose now that seven men be looked out for this duty.”
5. “And the saying pleased the whole multitude; and they chose Stephen,” etc. It is remarkable that all these names are Greek; and this was probably done to satisfy the Grecians. Or if, in “the multitude of the disciples,” there were included some of the principal persons among the Hebrews, then this marks also the kindly and liberal feeling among them, arranging that from that party and that class that complains, every individual of the seven was chosen. “Whom they set before the apostles.” We do not know how they chose them. There was some meeting of the brethren--the more distinguished and influential, I think; and these individuals were fixed upon, and they were presented to the apostles.
6. “And when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.” I think this was just the solemn and public representation before the eyes of the people that they parted with so much of that power which they had hitherto exercised in relation to this business, and that henceforth these men were to be held responsible for the exercise of it.
7. There was peace restored to the Church; no longer divisions, or heart-burnings, or jealousies; and then, as the result, one might think, we immediately read again that “the number of the disciples multiplied greatly.” Just as you find in the beginning of the fifth chapter, that when purity was restored, then as the result there was a great increase of the Church, so now peace and purity are favourable to all those affections and feelings and activities by which an increase of the body may be expected. The Word of God increased and prevailed in two ways.
(1) With respect to the number of the disciples.
(2) With respect to a particular class of person; so that some of the most unlikely men;--“a great company priests, Were obedient to the faith.” Some people can hardly believe this; but “why should it be thought a thing incredible with us,” that in those days of miracle and the pouring down of the Divine Spirit, there should be manifested the power of the faith and grace of Christ upon these men?
II. The lessons. Now see--
1. How difficult it is, even when men’s hearts are in the right place and in a good state, to prevent jealousies and misunderstandings among a large body of people.
2. How a liberal, open, manly, common-sense pilicy, under the blessing of God, may meet and allay this sort of thing; when men will calmly look at it, and observe that something must be done, and endeavour in an open and honest spirit to do it.
3. What an admirable opportunity this would have been to mention something about priesthood! There are some men that are very fond of getting priests into the Christian Church; but here was a great number of real priests actually brought into the Church, and we hear nothing about them. They stand as simple disciples. Standing there upon the common floor of the Christian temple, they had a greater, purer, more elevated priesthood than that which they had sustained as the offspring of Aaron.
4. Have we the origin of the office of deacons here? They are not called deacons. The word, indeed, from which “deacons” comes, is used in the account two or three times. It is used with respect to the apostles’ “giving themselves to the deaconship of the Word”; and then these men to “the deaconship of tables.” The word “deacon” is a very general term, signifying ministry or service, occurring a great many times in the New Testament. It is applied to the apostles, to Timothy, to Jesus Christ. But yet it did come to a technical and an official sense, and to signify a particular officer in the Christian Church, as the Church began to grow. And I think that this was the origin of the office of the deacon; though, perhaps, that office, in the course of time, took some degree of modification, as distinct from the one thing for which these men were appointed; for they were chosen with a very limited duty with respect to this particular thing. (T. Binney.)
Dissensions and precautions
I. The inner life of the primitive church.
1. The election sprang out of the multiplying, and the multiplying begat a murmuring. Increase of numbers does not always mean increase of happiness and true spiritual life. God has made all things double one against another; and when He bestows such notable increase, He adds some counterbalancing disadvantage to keep His people humble.
2. The distribution of alms is always attended by jealousies and disputes, rendering the work one of the most unpleasant tasks which can be undertaken. Fretting and worry, weary days and sleepless nights, are often the only reward a Christian philanthropist receives. But here comes in the Acts of the Apostles to cheer. The apostles themselves did not escape the accusation of favouritism, and we may well content to suffer what they were compelled to endure.
3. The primitive Church was no ideal communion, but a society with failings and weaknesses and discontentent, exactly like those which exist in the Church of our own times. The apostolic Church did not disdain a mere economic question.
II. What lay at the basis of this murmuring, and of the jealousies thereby indicated? If we wish to understand the course of events in the Acts, we must refer to the books of Maccabees, where is told the romantic story of the struggle of the Jews against the Greek kings of Syria, who tried to force them into conformity with the religion of Greece, which then was counted the religion of civilisation and culture. The result was that the intensely national party became bitterly hostile to everything pertaining to Greece and its civilisation. “Cursed be he who teacheth his son the learning of the Greeks,” was a saying among the Hebrews; while again, we hear of Rabban Simeon, the son of Gamaliel, who used to embody his hatred of the Grecians in the following story: “There were a thousand boys in my father’s school, of whom five hundred learned the law., and five hundred the wisdom of the Greeks; and there is not one of the latter now alive, excepting myself here and my uncle’s son in Asia.” Heaven itself was supposed by the Hebrews to have plainly declared its hostility against their Grecian opponents. Hence, naturally, arose the same divisions at Jerusalem. The bitter dissensions which racial and linguistic differences have made in the Church of every age are here depicted in miniature. The quarrels between East and West, Greeks and Latins, whites and negroes, European Christians and Hindoo converts, all turn upon the same points and embody the same principles, and may best find solution upon the lines laid down by the apostles. There are diversities of function and of work in the Church--a ministry of the Word, and a serving of tables. One class should not absorb every function.
III. The people nominated, while the apostles appointed. They took the most effective plan to quiet the trouble which had arisen when they took the people into their confidence. The Church has been often described as the mother of modern freedom. The councils of old time were the models and forerunners of modern parliaments. How many a quarrel in life would be avoided, how many a rough place would be made smooth, were the apostolic example always followed. Men naturally resist a law imposed from without, without any appearance of consultation with them or of sanction on their part; but men willingly yield obedience to laws, even though they may dislike them, which have been passed with their assent and appeal to their reason. (G. T. Stokes, D. D.)
The division of work
Some kinds of work are easier to learn than others. Some callings and professions require a long and special training, others are more easily acquired. All cannot teach, all are not called to the higher offices of the Church. The work of the Church may be compared to that of some extensive manufactory. Do not we seek from the raw, or at any rate from the unrefined material, to produce the perfect fabric? The material upon which we work is in every stage of refinement; it is of every class of texture. All have not to pass through the same process; what may refine some would surely damage others. We do not place the message in the same words before the uneducated and the highly cultured. And just as there are degrees of know]edge in the learners, so there may be in the teachers. Because we are not fitted to explain Christian truth to those who have learnt much, we have no right to conclude that there is no sphere in which we may teach. In a manufactory there are workers of every degree of skill and capacity, from the hewers of wood and drawers of water, to those by whose brain power, knowledge, thought, and foresight the working of the great concern is directed. The opportunities of the Church worker to-day are manifold indeed; and they vary according to the local conditions. Think how musical gifts and abilities may be devoted to the service of God, by making more beautiful, more devotional, the services of the Church, the mission room, the Sunday school, the cottage lecture! Think how financial and business capabilities may be employed in the careful management of various philanthropic agencies! How a knowledge of elementary science and the laws of life may be directed towards improving the conditions under which the ignorant and careless live! I might go on to speak of the work on behalf of temperance, purity, thrift. Then, again, a band of earnest district visitors is among the clergyman’s very greatest helps. The abilities necessary for the successful performance of this work are within the reach of many. The first requisite is sympathy, the next a knowledge of human character. (W. E. Chadwick, M. A.)
Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men.
The work of the Spirit in the deaconship of the Christian Church
I. The reasons assigned.
1. That the apostles might be relieved of secular duties. This did not arise out of any idea of superiority. They were the servants of all, ready to be, do, or suffer anything that might be for the glory of God and the good of men. Nor did it arise from any low estimate of the temporal interests of the Church. They were no ascetics. Temporalities were important in themselves, and in their influence on spiritual concerns. It arose out of their higher office and its absorbing claims. With these nothing must be allowed to interfere. However valuable the bodies of men, their souls were more so. What reproof is here administered to modern ministers and laymen! How many ministers are serving tables! And the offence is aggravated when this is the result of lay neglect. Both are sufferers--the minister whose mind is secularised, and the people who are less effectually instructed.
2. That the apostles might give themselves wholly to their proper duties. This is “reason.” The duty of a minister is to aim at the conversion of sinners, and to employ all means to secure that. And the danger is lest his mind should be brought under any influence that would disincline or disqualify it. These ends are only to be gained by an entire devotion to the sacred calling. Paul says to Timothy, “Give thyself wholly to them.” The philosophy is as sound as the sentiment is heavenly. The physician who would be successful in his profession must be devoted to it. So must the merchant and the labourer. The apostles were to give themselves to prayer in secret, and the Word in public. Without prayer there will be no heart for the Word--no success in it. Without the Word prayer will be a pretence and a mockery. Together they are omnipotent through grace. Let all the arrangements of the Church be such as to cherish and encourage their union. Let its temporalities be so managed by the members that the ministry may be relieved.
II. The manner. Church officers in the apostolic age were chosen by Church members. Matthias was so chosen. The voice of the Church is essential to the validity of the ministry. Members have an interest in the minister they have chosen which they can never have in one placed over them without their approval At the same time guards are necessary.
1. The purity of the Church. Its membership must not be a promiscuous community. Men of the world are incompetent to elect a Christian minister.
2. The sanction of the existing ministry. As these deacons were elected by the people, they were appointed by the apostles. Both had their rights and their duties. Either might refuse consent. And thus the one was a wholesome restraint on the other. What a consummate knowledge of human nature was manifested in the organisation of the Church! Its Author truly “knew what was in man.”
III. The qualifications (Acts 6:3; Acts 6:8). Note that these are the qualifications required for the management of temporal concerns. It must not be supposed, then, that mere business men can manage such. They have a sacred bearing; they must be conducted on holy principles, and be directed to holy ends. The meanest duties may be elevated by high motives. The deacons were to be--
1. Men of honest report. Their conduct must be such as to command respect. The public seldom err in their judgment of men. They may dislike their piety and persecute them, but secretly they will honour them, especially if they are, as they ought to be, useful and amiable as well.
2. Full of the Holy Ghost. Not only should they be men of piety, but eminently so.
3. Men of wisdom. Piety, although the first requisite, is not the only one. There are men of whose godliness we may be persuaded, but in whose ability for the direction of affairs we have not confidence.
4. Full of faith.
5. As a result of all this there will be power--mighty influence for good.
IV. The appointment.
1. The disciples set the elected deacons before the apostles.
2. The apostles prayed over them. Without God it was felt that the whole procedure was vain. We must do nothing in the Church on which we may not ask His blessing.
3. Then they laid their hands upon them. The Spirit was sought for men who already had the Spirit, and this was to be a token of the increase of His gifts and graces for their new duties.
V. The effects.
1. Many evils were prevented of which no mention is made.
(1) The discontent was silenced, for the cause was removed.
(2) The apostles were not hindered or distracted by misunderstandings in the Church.
2. Better than this, much good was done.
(1) The Word of God increased. It was preached more generally and powerfully, and a greater blessing rested on the preachers.
(2) The most prejudiced, “the priests,” were persuaded. The bitterest enemies were won to friendship, and so far the greatest barrier to the gospel was thrown down. “When a man’s ways please the Lord, He maketh his enemies to be at peace with him.” Conclusion: Note the connection between a right ecclesiastical polity and a successful ministration of the Word. Of course God can bless His Word under any polity; but there is a polity that hinders and a polity that promotes the truth. (J. Morgan, D. D.)
Suitable men to be sought out by the Church
A radical mistake has been committed in supposing it is necessary in all cases for the desire after the sacred office to rise up first of all and spontaneously in the breast of the aspirant. In consequence of this, many have thrust themselves forward who were altogether unfit for the work; while many, as eminently qualified for it, have been kept back by modesty. Does it not seem to be the work of the pastors and the churches to call out from among themselves the most gifted and pious of their members for this object? Should this matter be left to the inflations of self-conceit, the promptings of vanity, or the impulses, it may be of a sincere, but at the same time of an unenlightened zeal? Nothing can be more erroneous than that this call of the Church would be an officious intermeddling with the work of the Spirit in calling the ministry--for it may surely be conceived to be quite as rational a notion to suppose that the Spirit calls a person through the medium of the Church and its pastor, as to imagine that the commission from above comes direct to the heart of an individual--especially as the Church and the pastor, or at any rate the latter, is usually applied to, as a judge of the candidate’s fitness for the work; and thus, after all, the power and the right of pronouncing a judgment upon the alleged call of this Divine agent are vested with the pastor and the Church. To affirm that an individual cannot be supposed to have a very great fitness for the office, unless his love of souls has been strong enough to prompt him to desire the work of the ministry, and that he is not likely to be very earnest in it, if he be thus sent, instead of his going of his own accord, is assuming too much; for on the plan here recommended, it is supposed that the individual who attracts the attention of the pastor is one who, in addition to true piety and competent abilities, has manifested an active zeal in the way of doing good. It is only on such an one that his eye would light, or to whom he would venture to make the suggestion. In nil the official appointments recorded in the New Testament, from an apostle down to a deacon, the people were requested to look out for suitable men, and not to wait till they presented themselves. (J. A. James.)
Why seven deacons
Some have asserted that it was so determined because seven was a sacred number, others because there were now seven congregations in Jerusalem, or seven thousand converts. Perhaps, however, the true reason was simply that seven is a very convenient practical number. In case of a difference of opinion a majority can always be secured on one side or other, and all blocks avoided. The number seven was long maintained in connection with the order of deacons, in imitation of the apostolic institution. A council at Neo-Caesarea, a.d. 814, ordained that the number of seven deacons should never be exceeded in any city, while in the Church of Rome the same limitation prevailed from the second to the twelfth century, so that the Roman cardinals, who were the parochial clergy of Rome, numbered among them merely seven deacons down to that late period. The seven chosen by the primitive Church were to be men of good report because they were to be public functionaries, whose decisions were to allay commotions and murmurings; and therefore they must be men of weight, in whom the public had confidence. But, further, they must be men “full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” Piety was not the only qualification; they must be wise, prudent, sound in judgment as well. (G. T. Stokes, D. D.)
We will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the Word.--
Prayer and preaching
Alternate or simultaneous, are the right and left side of a living ministry. The preaching work may be laboriously and conscientiously performed without comfort or success if the other side be from any cause paralysed. I watched once the operations of a brick-maker in a field of clay. There was great agility in his movements. He wrought by piece, and the more he turned out the higher was his pay. His body moved like a machine. His task for a time was simply to raise a quantity of clay from a lower to a higher level by means of a spade, lie threw up one spadeful, and then he dipped his tool in a pail of water that stood by. After every spadeful of clay there was a dip in the water. The operation of dipping occupied as much time as raising. My first thought was, if he should dispense with these apparently useless baptisms, he might perform almost double the amount of work. My second thought was wiser: on reflection, I saw that if he should continue to work without these alternate washings, the clay would have stuck to the spade, and progress would have been altogether arrested. I said to myself, Go thou and do likewise. Prayer is the baptism which makes progress quick. (W. Arnot, D. D.)
Ministers should give themselves to prayer
“I was lately in company of one of our older ministers,” said a young minister the other day; “one who has laboured long and with much success in some of the most difficult fields of the Church. The object of my interview was to learn from him the secret of success with which it had pleased God to crown his ministry in positions and places where others had failed. Instead, however, of directly giving me the information I desired, he told me with great sorrow the reason why he had accomplished so little, and said with unaffected sadness, ‘My young friend, the mistake of my life has been that I have not prayed more. I fell into the error of most ministers--I studied and preached. I worked and worried too much, and I prayed too little. Could I live my life over again, I would be more with God and less with men. I see it all now--what wasted years of unrest I have passed, how much of my life was my own doing, and how little of God has been in my active ministry! I can now, in the evening of my days, only ask God to forgive my shortcomings, and to aid me in spending my few remaining years differently from the imperfect way in which I have served my Master.”
Prayer and power
A friend who knew Mr. Spurgeon many years ago, and who heard him preach on many occasions, says that he once heard him preach in one of our large towns in the afternoon and evening on a certain day; and that at the close of the afternoon service Mr. Spurgeon spoke of the consciousness that the service had not been what it should have been. His friend (then a student) admitted that he thought the preacher had not been himself in the preaching. Mr. Spurgeon, with a remark to the effect that it would never do to repeat the failure in the evening, went out into the woods to pray. Indeed, he spent the whole interval between the afternoon and evening services in prayer. The latter meeting was one of great power, and different in all respects from that of the afternoon. Many preachers of to-day might imitate Mr. Spurgeon’s example with great advantage to themselves and their congregations.
Prayer and ministerial success
A minister observing a poor man by the roadside breaking stones with a hammer, and kneeling to get at his work the better, said to him, “Ah, John, I wish I could break the stony hearts of my hearers as easily as you are breaking these stones!” The man replied, “Perhaps, master, you don’t work on your knees?”
They laid their hands on them.--
Imposition of hands
This action was of frequent use among the ancient Jews. The apostles must have remembered that it was employed in the designation of Joshua as leader of Israel in place of Moses (Numbers 27:18-23; cf. Deuteronomy 34:9), that it was used even in the synagogue in the appointment of Jewish rabbis, and had been sanctioned by our Lord’s practice. They naturally, therefore, used this symbol upon the solemn appointment of the first deacons, and the same ceremonial was repeated upon similar occasions (see Acts 13:3; 2 Timothy 1:6; Hebrews 6:2). This ceremony was also employed by the apostles as the rite which filled up and perfected the baptism which had been administered by others (Acts 8:17). The ceremony of imposition of hands was so essential and distinguishing a point, that Simon Magus selects it as the one he desires above all others effectually to purchase, so that the outward symbol might be followed by the inward grace (Acts 8:19). Again in chap. 19. we find St. Paul using the same visible ceremony in the case of St. John’s disciples, who were first baptized with Christian baptism, and then endued by St. Paul with the gift of the Spirit. Imposition of hands in the case of ordination is a natural symbol, indicative of the transmission of function and authority. It fitly indicates and notifies to the whole Church the persons who have been ordained, and therefore has ever been regarded as a necessary part of ordination. (G. T. Stokes, D. D.)
A man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost.--
Stephen’s faith and its source
I. Stephen’s faith. From the speech he made in defence we may gather some of the leading features of his faith.
1. Stephen believed that God’s hand was discernible in history. He gives a rapid survey of the Scripture story from the call of Abraham to the death of Jesus, and shows how all had been overruled by God. The common notion is that kings and statesmen make history. Stephen believed that God made it. To him the value of history was not merely that it told succeeding generations the things that had happened to their fathers, and the deeds their fathers had done, but that it revealed God, made known His character, principles, and relationship to man. The life and soul of history is God. It is noticeable that Stephen’s speech is far from exact in its statements. Dean Stanley points out no less than twelve differences from the Mosaic history. But mere precision of record was not his aim. He desired to show the purposes of God. There may be the most minute exactitude of delineation, and yet no life. The true artist will sacrifice the rectitude of a line that he may express the soul of his subject.
2. Stephen believed that the most noticeable way-mark of the universal march had just been passed. It was the Cross of Jesus. So far the race had been journeying on and on to Calvary.
3. Stephen believed that Jesus, after His Cross and passion, had risen from the dead, and ascended to the right hand of the Father.
4. Stephen believed that the exalted Jesus still cared for, and could help His servants in all their labour and suffering upon earth. He beheld Jesus “standing on the right hand of God,” as if ready to assist him, and he prayed to Jesus.
II. Stephen’s possession of the Holy Spirit.
1. It was this that gave life to his faith. It is not the correctness of the creed that makes a man a Christian, in the highest sense, but the quickening power of the Holy Spirit.
2. If we would be useful as servants of God among men we must be baptized in the Holy Ghost.
3. Nay, we cannot live aright without this.
4. The most important question we can be asked is, “Have ye received the Holy Ghost?” (J. Kirk Pike.)
The character of Stephen
I. The spiritual endowments by which he was distinguished. “Full of faith and of the Holy Ghost.”
1. The high and honourable office to which he was elected would demand the continual exercise of a simple affiance in the power, the faithfulness, the love of Jesus Christ--in the stability of that religion to which he was self-devoted--in the fulfilment of that promise (Matthew 28:20).
2. Stephen was also full of the Holy Ghost. As the Shekinah, the bright emblem of the Divine presence, descended from heaven and filled the holy of holies, so did a sacred influence from above fill the heart of Stephen, and make his body the temple of the Holy Ghost.
II. The earnestness of his labour in the cause of Christ. He who is full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, proves the power of religion as a practical principle by abounding in every good word and work. His obligations to the Fountain of Mercy are so great, his deliverance so gracious, his hope so animating, his responsibilities so awful, that one master-feeling will occupy his mind--a desire to walk worthy of God, who hath called him to His kingdom and glory.
III. To these qualifications of St. Stephen must be added his boldness in confessing Christ. A. Christian should indeed charge it upon his conscience to abstain, as much as in him lieth, from religious controversy. Unnecessary disputes, and oppositions of theological science, are most unfriendly to the love and power of Divine truth in his heart. But when his faith is assailed; when the foundation of every hope on which the soul rests is attacked by the daring impiety of the blasphemer, or the more covert insinuation of the secret infidel, let him remember that silence and indifference are treason against the Saviour who bought him with His blood.
IV. Considering the closing events of St. Stephen’s life in the order of the sacred narrative, we next remark his support in the hour of trial. He had such a view of his risen Redeemer’s power and glory as strengthened him to abide unshrinkingly the fate before him; and such a foretaste of the bliss which awaited him as made him desirous to depart, and to be with Christ.
V. The charity with which St. Stephen prayed for his murderers: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” In this spirit of charity we must live and die if we hope for heaven. Never let us address God with a prayer for our own pardon, if we cannot unfeignedly pardon others their wrongs against us.
VI. The confidence with which St. Stephen resigned his soul into the hand of Christ. (R. P. Buddicom, M. A.)
The Christian full of faith and of the Holy Ghost
Here is an example. How simply is the character sketched! and how distinctly is it stated whence it was that this man was what he was! Happy is that Church which has many such among its laity, “men full of the Holy Ghost and of wisdom.” How shall we know such? What is it that we are to seek when we wish to be such?
I. Who and what is that man who is full of faith and of the Holy Ghost? Faith which believes the promise respecting the gift of the Holy Ghost, which relies upon His presence and help, which looks to Him continually, leans on His assistance confidently, is necessary to an individual’s being full of the Holy Ghost: “full of faith” and “full of the Holy Ghost” are inseparably united: they twine together, they grow up each into their fulness together. The Holy Ghost is the author of faith: it is by His gift and operation that the faith of believers “groweth exceedingly.” He reveals the truth “from faith to faith.” And faith opens wider and wider the door of the heart for His reception; and faith, acting upon the promises, draws a larger and a larger indwelling of that blessed visitant. It is almost needless to say that the expression “being full of the Holy Ghost” must mean being under the influence of the Holy Ghost--His influence exerted over the whole man, in all his powers, under all circumstances, at all times. It is by the Holy Ghost that he is guided. He is continually under the Spirit’s teaching. That blessed Spirit is acting, with all his trials, by them to sanctify him. The influence of the Holy Ghost is upon the man in all that he thinks or does: this is the “being full of the Holy Ghost.” Hence Christians are said to walk in the Spirit, to pray in the Spirit, to live in the Spirit. We go on now to the effects produced--those which others see visible in our disposition and conduct. The indwelling of the Spirit must be manifest to ourselves. In true Christians--for it is of them that we are now especially speaking--one of the chief and most evident of the operations of the Holy Ghost, where His influence is richly imparted, is the shedding abroad a love to God and a love to all real Christians. In close connection with love is hope, a confiding trust in God. “And, because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6). With these, and perhaps springing out of these in a measure, love and hope, are conjoined joy and peace, the work of the Holy Ghost. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace” (Galatians 5:22), says the apostle: “joy of the Holy Ghost” (2 Thessalonians 1:6), he says again. There are also exhibitions of Christian excellence--these come from the Spirit: there are works done by Christians--these are originated by the Spirit. Scripture is very clear and definite in its language. We must observe it where it is so marked and positive in its expression: it does not speak of goodness, charity, temperance, etc., as our own virtues, which we are to follow; but it calls them “fruits of the Spirit.” “But the fruit of the Spirit,” says St. Paul, “is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” These, if really Christian graces, come from the Spirit’s operation. He commences them; He nurtures them; He gives them their growth; He will bring them out to their full completion in another world. I would observe, too, that all these fruits of the Spirit must be sought by the Christian. Our Saviour denounces the breaking one of His least commandments. These graces of the Holy Ghost differ, in many respects, from those excellencies which the unchanged heart of man can exhibit. We may notice one of these graces in St. Stephen, that man “full of faith and of the Holy Ghost.” Christian graces have their opposites, but both appear. Where the Spirit of God works it will be so. See in St. Stephen the lion and the lamb united: he is the lion in courage, as he meets his persecutors, as he stands up valiant for the truth: he is the lamb in meekness, as he kneels down and prays for his murderers, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”
II. Our sinfulness in coming short of this, or it may be even, solemn and painful as is the thought, in some instances, the not possessing it at all. Think how often His good influences have been quenched, His work upon the soul interfered with, and more or less marred! Be humbled on account of these things. Endeavour to see them rightly. Confess them. This is the only way to obtain blessing from God.
III. The encouragements to our seeking this character, and, in dependence upon God, making it our object to be men full of faith and of the Holy Ghost. (J. E. Dalton, B. D.)
And the Word of God increased.
Good earnests of great success
I. The means by which this prosperity may be procured. Nothing can avail without--
1. The operation of the Holy Spirit and the smile from heaven. Paul planteth, Apollos watereth, and God giveth the increase.
2. The plain preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have been struck with the downrightness of the testimony of the Reformers. It was so with Farren, Luther, Calvin, etc. They did not aim at lofty periods and flowing eloquence; but they just dashed right on with this one truth, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” And if we are to see the Church of God really restored to her pristine glory, we must have back this plain, simple, gospel-preaching. Sunday-school teachers, you must teach this same gospel.
3. Much holy living to back it all up. After we have done the sermon, people say, “How about the people that attend there? Are they such people as you can trust? What about their homes? Do they make good husbands, good servants, kind masters?” And if the report of our character be bad it is all over with our testimony. The doctor may advertise, but if the patients are not cured, he is not likely to establish himself as being well skilled in his art; and the preacher may preach, but if his people do not live the gospel, they kick down with their feet what he builds up with his hands. The early Reformers were distinguished by the sanctity of their lives. When they were about to hunt out the Waldenses, the French king sent a priest to see what they were like, and be, honest man as he was, came back and said, “They seem to be much better Christians than we are. I am afraid they are heretics, but I would that all Catholics were as good as they are.” This was what made the gospel victorious in those days.
4. Individual, personal exertion. No Church can have prosperity if only a part of the members are active. It was thought among Christians that we ministers were to do all the work, and that you were to sit still and enjoy the sermon, and perhaps pull it to pieces. Let me give you a parable. A certain band had been victorious in all their conflicts. But on a sudden they said in the council-chamber, “We have at our head a most valiant warrior, one whose arm is stout enough to smite down fifty of his adversaries; would it not be better if, with a few such as he to go out to the fight, the mere men-at-arms, who make up the ordinary ranks, were to stop at home?” Now, the foremost champions, with fear and trembling, undertook the task and went to the conflict, and they fought well, and did great exploits. But still no city was taken, no province was conquered, and they met together and said, “How is this? Our former prestige is forgotten; our ranks are broken; our pennons are trailed in the dust; what is the cause of it?” When out spoke the champion, and said, “Of course it is so! How did you think that some twelve or fifteen of ‘us could do the work of all the thousands? When every man took his share, we dashed upon the foe like an avalanche; but now that you stay at home and put us, but a handful, to do all the work, how can you expect that great things should be done?” So each man resolved to put on his helmet and his armour once again, and go to the battle, and so victory returned. And if we are to have the victory you must be every one of you in the fight.
5. Much earnest prayer. Nothing is impossible to the man who knows how to overcome heaven by wrestling intercession. According to your faith shall it be done unto you.
6. More intense glowing spiritual life.
II. The results which flow from this prosperity.
1. Souls are saved. John Owen said that if you bad to preach to a whole nation for a twelvemonth, in order to win one soul, it would be good wages. Richard Knill once said, that if there were only one unconverted person in the wilds of Siberia, and that God had ordained that every Christian in the world must go and talk to that one person before he would be converted, it would be an exceedingly little thing for us all to do.
2. The name of our Lord Jesus Christ is glorified.
3. The Church is edified. As those who promote sanitary measures for the benefit of the neighbourhood are thereby favouring the conditions of their own health, so the promulgation of saving knowledge throughout the world is augmenting the peace and the welfare of our own hearts, and of all who are already saved.
III. The alternative. Either we must get a high state of prosperity, or else we shall lack what is to be dreaded to the very uttermost. I have seen congregations broken to pieces, and churches split up, and the bottom of it all has been because vital godliness has been drained out of the system. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Missionary hindrances and encouragements
I. The hindrances.
1. The apostles had to preach to them as sinners, who, because of their ungodliness and pride, necessarily hated the gospel, which opposes itself to these evils.
2. Besides these elements of opposition, which they possessed in common with their fellow-creatures throughout the world, there were national hindrances, formalism, self-righteousness, and exclusiveness.
3. The class that was most especially opposed to the gospel from their position in society were the priests. These were first pledged to their own system, as its teachers. Their pride as teachers would rise up against the idea of renouncing this system, to which they had been so long and so warmly attached. And then their interests, as priests, were likely to be altogether subverted by the substitution of the gospel for Judaism. Their power and their wealth were both at stake.
II. Encouragements. The apostles were aided--
1. By having to address to those whom they endeavoured to convert, the testimony respecting undeniable and signal facts. The Jews might oppose their various theoretical objections to the gospel, and doubtless did; but to all these the apostles could adduce in answer, plain great facts which they did not adduce from hearsay, but of which they were themselves the witnesses.
2. By the moral force of the doctrine which they had to convey.
3. By their personal character.
4. B the Divine assistance which was guaranteed. Conclusion: Our hindrances are just those which prevailed at the first preaching of the gospel, which were overborne and mastered by the first disciples of Jesus Christ, and therefore may be by His disciples now, for the very means which they possessed for wrestling with these difficulties are possessed by ourselves. (Baptist Noel.)
I. The Word of God increased.
1. The number of its preachers increased. Stephen and Philip certainly, and the other deacons probably, were added to the company of preachers. Times of revival are always times for recruiting the ranks of the ministry.
2. The preachers declared it with augmented industry and power, encouraged by signs of Divine approval, and by the favour of the people.
3. The people received it in constantly increasing numbers, and passed it on.
II. The disciples multiplied.
1. Converts were made. There is no surer sign of spiritual adversity than few or no conversions. For this architecture, music, wealth, etc., are no compensation. But a Church worshipping in some upper room where money is scarce, and ecclesiastical aesthetics non-existent, but where disciples are multiplied, is in a prosperous state.
2. They were made in the least likely place. In Jerusalem, the stronghold of Jewish bigotry, where that spirit was in the ascendant which had crucified the Master. Had this been in Galilee, where the prejudice was not so intense, it would not have called for so much remark. So it is a blessed thing when those predisposed in favour of the gospel--the children of pious parents, etc., are brought to Christ; but it is still more glorious when the Word of God is received by heathen, either abroad or at home.
3. They were made in great numbers. Not in ones and twos, but in multitudes. It is sad when a Church has to congratulate itself that it holds its own, and that the additions fill the gaps made by removals or deaths. No Church is prosperous which does not keep pace with the growth of the population. The same power which converted multitudes in Jerusalem can do the same in London.
III. A great company of priests were obedient to the faith.
1. They had everything to lose and nothing to gain, and so their conversion and adhesion to the Church was a great argument in favour of the truth of the gospel. And so it is in any age when notorious opponents are converted.
2. All their learning and prestige were now consecrated to the cause of Christ. Frequently the conversion of one man or woman in an influential position or of great ability is of more value than the conversion of scores of others, because of the higher vantage ground they occupy.
3. These, too, were converted in great numbers. There is nothing unreasonable in this. The power that can convert one can convert multitudes.
4. Their conversion was thorough, “obedient unto the faith.” (J. W. Burn.)
A great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.--
The conversion of the priests an evidence of the truth of the Christian religion
The Jewish priesthood was of great dignity and influence. The office was hereditary, and its members constituted a national aristocracy. Every priest could trace back his pedigree to Aaron, and no matter to what straits of poverty he might be brought his social position was unchanged. He was exempt from taxation and military service. The number of priests during the period of our Lord’s life, Josephus estimated at twenty thousand. For reasons plainly to be seen, the Jewish authorities arrayed themselves in bitter hostility against the Prophet of Nazareth, and the most blood-thirsty of His enemies were God’s anointed priests. The political condition of Palestine was then strange and anomalous. David’s throne was occupied by a creature of the Emperor of Rome, and foreign soldiers kept the Jewish people in subjection. The Church outrivalled the state in degeneracy. Her priesthood, greedy, dissolute, and infidel, demanded unlawful fees for every temple service, disgraced the religion they professed, by the inhumanity and profligacy of their lives. With such a condition of things, no wonder that the Son of God met with the cruelty that He did: no wonder that even the chief priests were loudest in their clamours that He should die. When the Saviour rose from the dead, His scattered followers forthwith flocked about His standard, and began their great work of the conversion of the world. The first martyr, Stephen, laid down his life for the truth. On the very eve of his ordination to the office of deacon we are told that “the Word of God increased, and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.” It is no longer merely a company of ignorant fishermen and soft-hearted women who are found to take sides with the crucified Jesus, but the very class of men who could have been least expected to make such a sacrifice. Surely, among all the evidences afforded of the truth of the Christian religion, this is one of wonderful force and significance. Had one or two priests yielded to the overwhelming proofs vouchsafed, that Jesus was the Messiah, it would have been a testimony of no little value; but how the weight of testimony is increased when we read that a great company of those who occupied this high social position abandoned everything, and exposed themselves to opposition, ridicule, contempt, persecution, and death, that they might carry out their convictions of duty, and prove, as no men have ever done more clearly, that the religion of our Lord Jesus Christ is worthy of all acceptation. Once, the contemptuous question had been asked: “Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on Him?” (John 7:48). And yet, even then, many” among the chief rulers “already believed in Jesus, “but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue” (John 12:42; John 19:38). The day was at hand when “a great company of the priests” would acknowledge Jesus to be the Saviour of the world. Faith is here put for the Christian religion, and we are assured in this brief statement that they not only embraced the truths of the gospel as an act of the understanding, but that they pledged themselves to obey its requirements. Surely, then, they who, in our own day, claim to be unbelievers, ought to have very substantial ground to go upon before they rush to the conclusion that the multitudes who have embraced the Christian faith, and who have passed into another world, cheered and comforted by its promises, have all believed a lie! (J. N. Norton, D. D.)
And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.
The last first
I. The points in which Stephen was last.
1. His position was entirely subordinate. The deacons were appointed to help the apostles in the lower part of their functions, and even this they did not presume to do without delegation from the apostles. We may imagine, then, the apostles retiring after the ordination to give themselves without distraction to their spiritual exercises. But it was with them as with Moses of old. God took of the Spirit which was upon them and put it on those who were to bear the burden of the people with them. Stephen, etc., became the Eldad and Medad of the New Testament. Nay, Stephen was an Elisha, upon whom a double portion of their spirit rested.
2. Stephen had probably never seen our Lord, but was in all likelihood a pentecostal convert. Otherwise how could such a man have missed nomination to the vacant apostleship? But it pleased the Lord to illustrate in him that the knowledge of Christ after the Spirit is the one requirement for sanctity. “Whom having not seen, ye love.”
3. The apostles had forsaken all to follow Christ, but it nowhere appears that Stephen had gone through similar hardships. His fiery trials blazed out upon him all at once, and the language of our Lord concerning the late-called labourers adapts itself with nicety in his case. He could not be said to have borne the burden and heat of the day. So we learn that God has varieties of trial, and applies them to the different characters of His servants. For Peter there is a long, wearing warfare; for John a wearisome, desolate waiting; for Stephen the letting loose upon him at the opening of his career all the hounds of hell in one fell pack. Us, perhaps, He subjects only to those little crosses which form the burden of daily life. But we must consider that in crosses, as well as comforts, God chooses what is best for us. It is possible to reach a great height of sanctity by submitting quietly and lovingly to ordinary trials.
II. The points in which he became first.
1. He seems to have outstripped the apostles in spiritual intelligence, in appreciation of the breadth, comprehensiveness, and spirituality of the Divine plans. He was the morning star who ushered in the dawn of St. Paul’s ministry. It is evident that the theology of the one was that of the other. St. Peter clung long to Jewish prejudices, and we have no reason to suppose that the other apostles were further advanced.
2. In zeal for his Master’s honour, and devotion to his Master’s cause, Stephen appears to have outstripped his contemporaries. Peter had denied his Lord, and long after, at Antioch, showed that he was not entirely emancipated from moral cowardice. But Stephen from first to last was as bold as a lion.
3. According to the omen conveyed in his name (a crown), he was the first to wear the crown of martyrdom. For most of the apostles it was also in reserve, but when they reached paradise they found Stephen already crowned. The labourer called at the eleventh hour had received his wages before those called in the morning.
4. In the brilliancy and number of his miracles Stephen rivalled if he did not outstrip the apostles (verse 8).
1. We should see contentedly and thankfully many alterations made in the old platform of religious thought. These are days of progress, and old-fashioned and high-principled people are made very sore by novelties. In this adherence to old ways and thoughts there is danger, while at the same time there is a safeguard. Still it is very necessary that sound conservatism does not degenerate into bigotry. Not every new idea and practice turned up by the spade of modern inquiry is bad. And as for keeping the platform of popular theology what it was half a century ago, it is impossible. So we can imagine our early Christians jealous for Christ’s apostles, saying, “I do not like this Stephen: he carries matters too far; his teaching about the temple is audacious.” Yet to Stephen’s view the apostles came round in time.
2. It may be a stimulus to our will in the pursuit of holiness to remember that our last shall be first. Hitherto, maybe, we have made little, if any, proficiency in religion. But if now we are willing to redeem the time, we may advance. The blood and grace of Christ are forces as fresh as ever. (Dean Goulburn.)
Stephen’s miracles and controversies
It is observable that no express mention is made of his performance of deacon’s functions. He shot ahead of his position, and is only known as the brave champion and first martyr of the cause of Christ. Not that we must infer that he was neglectful of the duties of his calling. His routine of daily duty needed not recording.
I. His miracles. Observe how carefully we are guarded against the supposition that he was a mere wonder worker. The historian does not merely record the miracles, but tells us of the secret of them, “Stephen, full of faith,” etc. The man who acts in faith, whether he works a miracle or only achieves some great enterprise for Christ, simply lays hold of the power of God. So in the triumphs of grace. If I win a victory over a besetting sin, or am brought out unharmed from temptation, it is not in my own strength. The Bible knows nothing of inherent strength. The first element of all power is self-distrust. The vine branch has no sap, and consequently no power of fructification of its own; the sap must be sent up from the stem. A little child is quite incompetent to a long walk; but if in confessed impotence it throws itself into his father’s arms, he will entry it through. Sanctification, in its source and efficient cause, is no more inherent than justification. “In the Lord have I righteousness and strength.”
II. His controversies. It was said that in Jerusalem there were 480 synagogues. Among these several would be appropriated to Hellenistic Jews of whom Stephen was probably one, and thus his early associations as well as his office would bring him in contact with the members of these synagogues. It is worth noting that among his opponents were representatives of each of the three continents then known. First that of the Libertines or freedmen, i.e., Jews whose ancestors had been carried captive to Rome by Pompey and others, and had there, in process of time, been emancipated. Many of them would migrate to Jerusalem, and found this synagogue representing the Italian Jews. Cyrene and Alexandria were cities of North Africa. In the former the Jews were a fourth of the population. It was a Cyrenian Jew who bore our Lord’s cross, and another joined in laying hands on Paul. In Alexandria two out of its five districts were inhabited by Jews. These African Hebrews would have their representatives in the holy city, who would build their own church and have their own congregation. The Asiatic opponents of Stephen would be furnished by the representatives of the Jews in Cilicia and Asia. The mention of the former is significant. For St. Paul was a native of Tarsus in Cilicia, and according to tradition he appeared as a disputant against Stephen. But the result of the controversy was humiliating to Stephen’s antagonists. “They were not able to resist,” etc. (verse 10). No wonder Christ had stricken controversialists dumb by “the mouth and wisdom” He promised to His disciples. As soon as Stephen’s opponents felt his irresistibility his impeachment was arranged. Lessons:
1. The conditions of successful controversy. The controversy which carries the inner convictions does not necessarily extort open confession. This may be withheld from pride or prejudice as here. How very few controversies are more than a skirmish of words in which both parties are exasperated! Yet truth ought to be able to win its way by its own force. The three qualifications for controversy are, “a mouth,” or power of expression, “wisdom,” or power of argument, and lying deeper and giving effect to both, “a spirit--the Spirit of your Father.” In some modern controversies, nothing but “the mouth” is exhibited, occasionally “wisdom,” but it was “the Spirit” as well as “the wisdom” by which Stephen spoke which his adversaries were unable to resist. The naked logic of the intellect will not by itself convince, but the logic that is seconded by unction carries with it wonderful weight,
2. We may learn from the fact that Stephen’s miracles formed but an introduction to his controversies, breaking open a passage for his arguments to reach the minds and consciences of men. Tell me not of an ecclesiastical authority whose dictates are to be received on its own ipse dixit. Stephen did not say after cleansing a few lepers, etc., “These miracles prove that we are seat from God: now listen to us at the peril of your souls.” He and his colleagues came down into the lowly valley of disputation; they made a public appeal to the Holy Scriptures, and showed that Jesus was the Christ from documents admitted by their opponents. When men who could produce miracles in favour of their teaching entered the arena of controversy, how can any modern communion which has not the attestation of miracles make a claim to be believed on its own unsupported testimony? (Dean Goulburn.)
The first Christian martyr
The Book of Acts is composed upon a definite principle, to wit, what Jesus continued to do and teach after His ascension through the instrumentality of His followers. In the first five chapters this principle is illustrated in the doings and sayings of Peter. But when another steps on the arena in whom this truth is shown in a stronger light Peter is at once dropped; in the sixth and seventh chapters Stephen it is that occupies the forefront, then Philip, then Paul. The avowed object of the writer is not to show us Peter, but the “hand of the Lord”; and His hand is here more distinctly seen in Stephen than in Peter. Let us look at Stephen as--
I. A man (verse 3).
1. He was an honest man, and had a reputation for honesty. Some people are honest, but they push bargains so hard that their honesty is suspected. “Provide things honest in the sight of all men.” Not only be upright, but convince others of your uprightness. “So shalt thou find favour and good understanding in the sight of God and man.” “Good understanding”; on the margin, “good success.” An unsullied reputation for integrity helps a man forward even in business--it wins the confidence of the public.
2. Underlying his honesty was his goodness--he was spoken well of by all who knew him. Paul afterwards said that a deacon “must have a good report of them which are without,” i.e., he should not only stand well in the family and in the Church, but in the world. We should first be light; we should then “shine as lights in the world.” “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify”--yourselves? No; but “your Father which is in heaven.” I can look at the wall, but not through the wall; but I can look at and through the window. And a good character should be clear as glass, transparent as light--a character men can not only look at, but look through and see God beyond.
II. A Christian (verse 5).
1. He was “full of faith”--a strong, healthy believer. Some of his fellow members were exceedingly weak in the faith, shy, timid, vacillating; but Stephen’s spiritual life was deep and vigorous. He put unbounded confidence in the new religion; he “held fast his profession.” “By faith the elders obtained good report.” Not a great report, perhaps, but a good one. Other factors, such as learning and riches, are necessary to obtain a great report. But faith alone, if strong, will secure you a good report, which is better than a great one. By this Stephen “still speaketh,” and is still spoken of.
2. He was “full of the Holy Ghost”; and to be “full of the Holy Ghost” is better than to be “full of faith.” Faith at best is only the human aspiring after the Divine; but to be “full of the Holy Ghost” is for the human to possess the Divine. To trust God is good, to have God is better. One may be “full of faith “ and yet not “full of the Holy Ghost.” Many of the Old Testament saints were “full of faith,” but none of them were “full of the Holy Ghost “--this is the sole prerogative of saints under the New Testament• The faith of Abraham has never been excelled, but he fell into sins which could not be tolerated in the Christian Church. The apostles before the Pentecost were “full of faith,” but on the Pentecost were they “filled with the Spirit”; and as a natural consequence a process of refinement was then commenced unknown to the religious experience of the Jewish Church. Under the Old Testament the Holy Ghost was “upon” men, but under the New He is “in” men--a sweetening, hallowing influence, refining the very fibre of our being. The iron cold has the same properties as the iron heated, but the one is black and dull; the other is white and vivid--the fire imparts to it its own qualities. Thus Stephen was pervaded by the refining fire of God. His whole being was transfused with celestial brightness, and therefore his character grew in fineness of texture.
III. A deacon (verse 8).
1. The fifth verse says he was “full of faith,” the eighth (according to the best MSS.) that he was “full of grace.” “Grace” means favour. In its theological sense it signifies the Divine favour shown to sinners. But as used in the context it signifies the favour shown by Stephen to those with whom he came in contact. “Grace” some suppose to have the same etymology as “grease.” Be that as it may; but the body when well “greased” is lithe and nimble, easy in its carriage, graceful in its movements. Now, what grease does to the body, grace does to the soul. Stephen was elected to distribute the charity of the Church. How did he do it? Did he haughtily impress the humble recipients of his bounty with their inferiority? Certainly not. He did it with grace--beautiful ease and comfortable homeliness. Modern Christians may here learn a valuable lesson--not to insult the objects of their beneficence in the very act of succouring them. “Draw out thy soul to the hungry.” Thy money? Not only that, but thy soul. Give alms by all means, but give it with grace. 6, Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.”
2. Being thus “full of grace,” he was of necessity “full of power.” The man devoid of grace cannot in the nature of things wield much influence. But the man habitually kind, polite, and obliging acquires an influence subtle but irresistible in the sphere in which he moves. Judging by the outward show, men are apt to mistake vehemence for power. Lightning is the strong thing in the popular imagination because of the flash and thunder accompanying it. But gravitation, whose voice is never heard, is the central force holding countless worlds in its grip. In like manner the man of wealth, learning, eloquence--the man who can flash and roar--is usually considered the powerful factor. But scan society more narrowly, and you will perceive that none of those things wield so much true power as grace.
3. “He did great wonders and miracles among the people.” The same laws govern society now as then--get the grace and you will infallibly obtain the power. The great need of the present age is not physical but moral wonders. Think of our trains, steam packets, electric telegraphs, and telephones: what physical miracles can outshine these? It is within the reach of all to do wonders and to be wonders in goodness,
IV. A disputant (verse 10).
1. They were “not able to resist the wisdom with which he spake.” He proved victorious in the debate, for two reasons. First, he was evidently a practised logician. His Greek culture and Hebrew studies made him a man of great resource in argument. His speech shows him to be a man of keen philosophic insight. The second and chief reason was that he had truth on his side. The synagogue of the Cilician Jews is mentioned--the very synagogue of which young Saul of Tarsus was a member. This fact, coupled with the profound interest he took in the trial of Stephen, demonstrates conclusively that he was present. Young Saul would unquestionably be quite a match to Stephen in a bare trial of dialectic skill. But Stephen, backed by the truth, was too strong even for Saul. A weak mind, supported by a great truth, can bring about the total discomfiture of the stoutest adversary. The paramount duty of every public teacher is to seek “to be filled with wisdom,” that is, with good, sound, solid information. No amount of eloquence will make up for lack of matter. God can “create out of nothing”; and doubtless He has blessed sermons with little or nothing in them. In Genesis we read but once that He “created out of nothing”; but we read repeatedly that He “created out of something”--the author being very shy of using the stronger word. That is the usual method of the Divine operation still. “The preacher sought to find out acceptable words,” but “the preacher” also “was wise and taught the people knowledge.” The late Rev. Henry Rees, the great Welsh preacher, being asked which kind of sermon he thought most likely the Holy Ghost would bless to the salvation of the hearers, answered, “The sermon most likely to effect their salvation without Him.”
2. His “spirit” was as noteworthy as his wisdom. In a written sermon style is of great consequence. Now, what style is to a written, the spirit is to a spoken sermon. Stephen spoke with a marvellous spirit--he imparted warmth, beauty, life, force to his arguments.
3. “They were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit.” The wisdom alone they could. Dry argument skims only the surface of our nature, it does not stir the depths. “Intellectual preaching” seldom moves people. Moreover, they could resist the “spirit” alone; and in this day of sensationalism it is of some moment that we remember it. Mere “hwyl,” however delightful at the time, leaves our hearers securely immured in sin. But the wisdom and the spirit joined will prove irresistible. Alas! to the cavilling Jews it was the savour of death. If they could not resist his preaching, they could and did resist his person. “They suborned men--they stirred up the people--they caught him and brought him to the council.”
V. A prisoner (verse 11, etc.).
1. The speech he made serves to show--
(1) That he was profoundly versed in the Hebrew literature. It must be remembered that it was delivered at the spur of the moment under circumstances the most embarrassing. I am told that there are twelve discrepancies in it. How to account for them? Simply that Stephen was obliged to address his judges from memory without the chance of correcting himself by reference to the sacred Scriptures. Is it a cause of wonder that, in a review so minute and so searching, the valiant deacon should commit a few trivial mistakes?
(2) His Greek culture and sympathy. It would be almost a matter of sheer impossibility for a man born and bred in Palestine to deliver it. Native Jews like Peter and John dogmatise; Hellenistic Jews like Stephen and Paul philosophise.
(a) Stephen presents the council with a lucid and succinct philosophy of the national history. The same principle he proves to be running through Jewish history from the call of Abraham to the building of the temple. What is that principle? That true religion is independent of any fixed rite or particular locality, and that religious progress has always meant religious change, every change, however, involving progress on the part of God, but stern resistance on the part of man. What if God hath purposed to make another great change in the establishment of Christianity, and what if the Jews like their forefathers were making a resolute stand against it!
(b) The critics are much exercised to know how his speech can be viewed as a refutation of the charge of blasphemy. But they overlook the fact that he does not defend himself except incidentally. His supreme desire is to vindicate not himself, but the truth. Herein Stephen, the martyr of Christianity, contrasts favourably with Socrates, the martyr of philosophy--both alike indicted for blasphemy. Socrates, to his honour be it said, scorned to stoop to any base or unworthy artifice to save his life; his thoughts nevertheless continually reverted to himself. The first personal pronoun bristles through his famous apology. But Stephen has neither “I” nor “me” on his lips so much as once--he wholly forgets himself in his intense eagerness to expound to the council the formative principles and historical career of the kingdom of God.
2. But if his speech was remarkable, his bodily appearance was more remarkable still (verse 15).
(1) Solomon says, “A man’s wisdom maketh his face to shine, and the boldness of his face shall be changed.” Notice the young man before his admission to college--his countenance is marked by a certain degree of heaviness and opacity, is devoid of expression for the simple reason that there is behind but little to be expressed. Observe him again at the termination of his course--his features are illuminated, his eyes flash pure intelligence. Put light within a marble vase and it grows translucent. And “the spirit of man is the candle of the Lord”--Light the candle within and the face without will shine.
(2) Now if wisdom is thus able to radiate through the veil of flesh, how much more goodness, and especially goodness and wisdom together? You can tell a good man by his very face. “They took knowledge of them that they had been with Jesus.” That wickedness stamps itself on the features is an universally acknowledged fact. On the other hand, goodness restores grace to the faded features. Many men and Women, though plain enough from an artistic standpoint, possess indescribable charm. Believe me, young people, nothing will so improve your looks as deep piety. It is significant that the word translated “good” in the New Testament may be also rendered “beautiful.” Stephen was “full of faith and of the Holy Ghost,” and therefore “they beheld his face as it had been the face of an angel.”
(3) But is this all? I believe not. When Moses returned from Sinai, “the skin of his face shone so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold it.” And the angelic lustre on Stephen’s face was doubtless miraculous. But here as in other instances, the miraculous, so far from obscuring the natural, serves to illustrate it. It brings out into clearer prominence a law which, were it not for the transfiguration of Stephen, of Moses, and of Christ, would escape our attention--that genuine goodness is a Divine light within, whose inevitable tendency it is to make luminous both soul and body. In regeneration this Divine spark is struck, and sanctification is only the theological name for transfiguration. “Be ye transformed in the spirit of your mind”: literally, transfigured--the very same word that is used to describe the transfiguration of Christ. The Divine brightness first makes luminous the dark, dull, obtuse soul, and then the dark, dull, obtuse body. But more especially is this spiritual luminousness to be witnessed upon deathbeds. Friends beautiful in life are still more beautiful in death. Their faces seem to catch the pure beams of eternity like mountain tops the first light of day.
VI. A martyr.
1. Look at the mad fury of his hearers. “They were cut to the heart,” “sawn asunder.” The prophets of old had been “sawn asunder” by their stiffnecked forefathers; now they are “sawn asunder” by the powerful ministry of Stephen. They further “gnashed on him with their teeth.” Only in one other connection is this strong phrase used--“there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It seems as though the uncontrollable fury of the damned seized the motley crowd. Hell seemed broken loose on the streets of Jerusalem.
2. But if the rabble were wild with rage, Stephen himself was calm and collected.
(1) He first offered a prayer on his own behalf. He next prayed on behalf of his murderers. So deeply had he drunk of the spirit of the Saviour, that he unconsciously quotes His very words. Nowhere outside the religion of the New Testament do we behold such majesty and meekness in the grim presence of death. Pagans may die heroically--Christians only die forgivingly.
(2) No wonder that such a man should see “into heaven.” His body was in a state of incipient transfiguration; his eye, therefore, supernaturally strengthened, pierced beyond the azure, and swept the vast places of eternity. Men in the present day will receive only the testimony of the senses, and because they see not heaven and hell they will not believe. But are they sure the supposed weakness of the proof lies not in the weakness of their vision? Stephen looking stedfastly into heaven, “saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God.” And if credit is to be given--and why not?--to the dying testimony of saints, his is not a solitary case.
(3) But not only he saw into heaven, but heaven itself was “opened.” There was an elevation of the human--there was also a condescension of the Divine. Under the Old Dispensation “the way into the Holiest of All was not made manifest”; but now heaven is “opened.” “After this I looked, and behold, a door was opened in heaven”--standing open. Since Christ entered, the doors have been standing open--to offer shelter and home to the weary and persecuted pilgrims. “I see … the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.” This is the only instance except twice in the Apocalypse that Jesus after His ascension is called Son of Man. Why called so here? Because He was an object clearly discerned by the bodily eyes of Stephen. To the eyes of faith lie is Jesus or Christ or Lord; to the eyes of the body He will for ever be the Son of Man. When St. John thinks or writes of Him, He is always the Son of God; but when St. John is rapt up in vision He is the Son of Man. When He first ascended He “sat” to elbow His indisputable right to be there; but having established His right, lie sits or stands as occasion requires. Stephen sees Him standing--eagerly watching this momentous crisis in the history of the Church. And with this magnificent panorama floating before his view, the intrepid martyr “fell asleep”--“to sleep, aye, perchance to dream.” This sleep of Stephen has given to our burial grounds the Christian name of “cemeteries”--they are places where our friends sleep; and “if they sleep, they will do well.” (J. Cynddylan Jones, D. D.)
“Grace and power”
(R.V.):--These two words, “grace and power,” are closely connected. Their union here is significant. It was not the intellect, or the eloquence, or the activity of St. Stephen which made him powerful among the people, and crowned his labours with such success. It was his abundant grace. Eloquence, and learning, active days and laborious nights, are good and necessary things. God uses them and demands them from His people. He chooses to use human agencies, and therefore demands that the human agents shall give Him of their best, and not offer to Him the blind and lame of their flock. But these things will be utterly useless and ineffective apart from Christ and the power of His grace. (G. T. Stokes, D. D.)
Then there arose certain of the synagogue … of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen.--
Stephen disputing in the synagogues
I. The sphere. Amongst the four hundred and eighty synagogues which existed in Jerusalem at this time some were frequented exclusively by the Jews of the Dispersion. Families which had removed from the same region of heathenism to settle for devotion or trade in the holy city clustered together for daily prayer in the same congregation; exactly as to this day in Jerusalem Spanish Jews (called Sephardim), who have dwelt there since 1497, are only to be found in their four synagogues, and German and Polish Jews (called Ashkenazim)in others. Here they fall naturally into three divisions.
1. The Libertines (Libertini), or Freed-men from Rome. Some ninety years had now passed since Pompey carried off a multitude of Jewish captives; and their descendants, most of them manumitted by their masters, had either settled in the Trastavere, on the right bank of the Tiber, or been banished from Italy. It is possible that many of the four thousand whom Tiberius deported to Jardinia (a.d. 19) had found their way to their own land.
2. The Jews from North Africa, from Alexandria, and Cyrene, the capital of Libya, and where Tripoli now stands, both of which swarmed with Hebrews.
3. Asiatic Jews, from the province known in official language as “Asia,” and always called so in the New Testament, from Cilicia, whose capital gave birth to Saul.
II. With these various representatives of Hellenised Judaism the Church now came for the first time in contact. The elevation of Stephen had this for its result, that his spiritual and intellectual gifts found a wider and more public sphere. His duties brought him in contact with the poor brethren of his own section of the Church, and through them with their unbelieving neighbours. These opportunities he used for the preaching of the gospel. Stephen was much more than an almoner. He was a deep student of tim Old Testament, a theologian of unusual insight, a powerful reasoner, and an advanced Christian. In him we first find those gifts of healing which Jesus had given the apostles exercised by a man who was no apostle. In him, too, we find the promise fulfilled which had hitherto been fulfilled to Peter (Luke 21:15). His manner of speech, however, was unlike that of Peter. Peter was a witness, and preached by witness-bearing. Stephen was a student, and preached by exposition and controversy. These synagogues, to which no doubt he belonged, were homes of learning and bigotry. Intense enough and terribly sincere were the disputants whom Stephen encountered, but proud, narrow, self-righteous, and bitter; just the men to argue themselves into a bad temper, and, when beaten in logic, to fall to abuse.
III. We are left to gather the subject of dispute from the result. From the charge brought against Stephen, from the evidence of the witnesses, and from his own defence, we gather that that great question was the bearing of the new faith on the old system.
1. In his earliest sermons Peter had hinted that the advent of Jesus, His passion and resurrection, formed the consummation towards which Mosaism pointed, the accomplishment of the great hope which all the prophets had foretold, and for which Israel waited. This constructive teaching was not unpopular, and orthodox Jews did not cease to be so upon baptism. Up to this time the question had not been raised, What if the Jewish hierarchy and commonwealth reject it? Now, however, it was getting to be not unlikely that the Sanhedrin might excommunicate the Church. Suppose it did, was that to be conclusive against the Church? Must the new economy be fettered by the limitations of the old? Nay, did not the very coming of Him to whom the whole symbolic ritual pointed require its abolition, and initiate of necessity a new worship?
2. How far Stephen went in this direction it is impossible to tell, but on it his face was set. He was the first man who dared to think that the gospel was a Divine step forward, which existing institutions might refuse to accept, and in that case have to be dispensed with. He probably went a good way in depreciation of the Mosaic system. To be sure the false witnesses misrepresented him as his Master was misrepresented. Still Stephen must have said something like it, nor is it hard to guess in what sense he said it. The whole of Mosaic worship on its external national side was anchored on the rock on which the temple stood. There was nowhere else any altar, priesthood, etc. Moreover, the current faith of the people believed in all this external system, and in little else. So long as that stood, God was propitious and Israel blest; no matter how full the temple was of cheating or Jerusalem of uncleanness. This was the system which threatened to reject the gospel. As it had slain Christ, it seemed about to cut off from its fellowship Christ’s Church. What did recent events prognosticate? The downfall of Christ’s cause over the temple system? Stephen had read the history of his nation with other eyes than those of the rabbis. Underneath all the changes of Hebrew story he had learned to trace a Divine progress towards some spiritual end. He had not found in this latest phase of national religious life such a finality as his countrymen dreamed of. The most material, local, and unspiritual of all forms of Hebrew worship did not seem the form likely to be everlasting. But one thing he had found to mark the whole of his ancestral history. As often as God had led Israel forward through a moment of change into a fresh spiritual epoch of blessing, so often had His purpose been rejected by the bulk of Israel. This they were doing now, by idolising a material temple and rejecting a spiritual Christ.
Here is the key to Stephen’s long defence, which maintained--
1. That a mode of worship limited to a single spot and a fixed ritual was by no means essential to God’s service, but had been late in its origin and temporary in its purpose--being only one most recent stage in a very long and gradual process of Divine manifestation.
2. That at every critical turning in Israel’s history Israel had mistaken the leadings of God, and resisted those who were sent to save it. (J. Oswald Dykes, D. D.)
And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.--
The source of ministerial power
It is impossible to listen to the ministrations of others or to watch carefully our own without perceiving great inequalities in respect of power. You will observe many devoted men who are amiable in their characters, zealous in their ministry, whose sermons are carefully prepared, who preach the truth faithfully, while, on the other hand, there is but little in their ministry of “the demonstration of the Spirit and power.” On the other hand, you often see men of less intellectual calibre who produce an impression which even the unconverted cannot fail to feel. And this inequality is scarcely less observable in regard to one individual. You may frequently hear a sermon full of power in the morning, and one decidedly feeble, from the same minister, in the evening; and if you could ascertain the preacher’s own opinion, you would find, in all probability, that he was best satisfied with the one which the people found the feeblest. Now, it is clear that this gift of power is pre-eminently the want of the Church of God, both at home and abroad. Note--
I. Stephen’s power. It was--
1. The power of persuasion (verse 7).
2. It was a power in controversial defence of truth (verse 9).
3. It was the power of searching and probing the heart to the very quick (Acts 7:54).
4. But there is one thing to remark, and it is this--when we look for power, we must not look for an easy, smooth, pleasant, triumphant victory. Stephen had all the power of which we speak, but it called forth the angry passions of the wicked, so that they rose up against him, and he fell the first martyr to the truth. Stephen’s power, however, is just the very thing we want. We want persuasive power to bring in men, we want controversial power to maintain the truth, and we want heart-searching power to awaken sinners, even if it provoke them. This is the power to be sought and prayed for by the whole Church of God.
II. Its sources.
1. Wisdom. There was the same connection between wisdom and power in Micah, “Now then, I am full of power, of the Spirit of the Lord, of wisdom, and of might.” There is the same connection in the prophecies of our blessed Saviour (Isaiah 11:1-16.)--the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, was given to him. Light words, conceits, affectations, and outward display overthrow all thoughts of power. The man of God wants wisdom. He has to unfold the deep things of God, and he must not go lightly to the work. He is a steward in the Lord’s household; he has to deal with a multitude of different dispositions, under different circumstances. Stephen’s wisdom was pre-eminently Scriptural. There is only one of his discourses preserved, and that one is full of Scripture. He was not one of those who thought his own reason was anything when compared with the wisdom of God. He was not ashamed to draw all his conclusions from the Bible, and to base the whole fabric of his reasonings simply upon Scripture. The clearest evidence of the most consummate folly is the venturing forth in the strength of your own understandings. There may be wisdom in the simplest cottager, or the youngest child, far exceeding the loftiest flights of merely intellectual philosophy, Nor does it require anything extraordinary either in intellect or eloquence to produce such wisdom, for the Psalmist says, “I have more understanding than all my teachers; for Thy testimonies are my meditation. I know more than the ancients, because I keep Thy precepts.”
2. Faith. The connection between faith and power is a union frequently recurring. “This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” Abraham “was strong in faith,” but that may refer to one simple single act; “full of faith” implies that the whole mind and character were completely imbued with it. It was like St. Paul, when he said, “The life that I live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God.” But how is this faith displayed?
(1) In dependence. It is the office of faith to lean. Self-satisfied men are confident in their own powers and do not care to lean. Timid, doubting souls are so perplexed by their misgivings that they are almost afraid to lean, but the sinner who knows his nothingness leans his whole weight on Christ. So it is in our own personal experience. Men are very apt to lean with one hand on Christ, and one hand on resolutions, or on the Church, or on the sacraments; “but we must learn to lean with both hands on Christ,” and to lean the whole weight; and when you so begin to lean you will first taste the joy of peace and power. Men may go forth to preach leaning upon the excellences of a previous education, or on the advantages of his early youth. But what are these for the great work we have to do?
(2) In expectation, for “faith is the substance of things asked for.” If we pray for pardon without expectation of receiving it, or for the Holy Spirit without opening the heart in the full hope of his sacred entrance, or if we send men in the Lord’s name, or go forth ourselves, to preach the gospel without expectations, where can be our faith? And is not this one reason why there is no more power in the Church of God? Do we not meet Sunday after Sunday with very little practical belief that souls will be born again through the preached Word? Perhaps a man begins with sanguine expectation, but after some months or years of hard toil he is ready to say with Peter, “We have toiled all night and taken nothing.” Stephen was full of power; but he was first full of faith. He could grasp a fast hold of the Saviour, and so they were “not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.”
3. All his wisdom, faith, and power were to be traced to a yet higher source--he was first full of the Holy Ghost. This has always been so. Micah was full of power, and he says, “Truly I am full of power by the Spirit of the Lord.” The great mountain shall melt before Zerubbabel; but “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.” Paul went to Corinth, not “with excellency of speech, or man’s wisdom, but in the demonstration of the Spirit and power.” In Thessalonica his “ministry came not in word only, but in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and with much assurance.” Even Stephen and Peter and all the rest were powerless until the Spirit of God came, and then they were full of power, and soon thousands were added to the Church. It is clear, therefore, that if we desire power in our ministry, we must seek first for the gift promised by our blessed Lord and Saviour in John 14:17. In Stephen’s case the two promises were fulfilled. The Spirit was with him, so that opposing powers were overcome under the influence of the Spirit. He was in him, so that when the stones were dashed at him there was a calm spirit of well-supported prayer. Conclusion: There is a mighty conflict raging--every day the conflict thickens. Depend upon it that these are not days for an easy, tranquil, indulgent Christianity. I might ask for money; I might ask for men--and we want them even more than money--but the great want is power to strengthen the whole Church of God. What is the use of men if God does not make them men of power? We do not want mere ecclesiastical machines, because we do not believe in mere ecclesiastical machinery. We want men filled with wisdom, faith, and the Holy Ghost. (E. Hoare, M. A.)
Then they suborned men.
The accusation of Stephen
I. Its authors (Acts 6:9). Observe here--
1. That moral perversity is common to men of every race. All these men, “Libertines,” etc., differing widely in many respects, agreed in their antagonism to the true and Divine.
2. That theological controversy often irritates rather than convinces.
II. Its spirit (Acts 6:10)--hostility to a truth which they felt an utter incapacity to deny. An unpalatable truth was forced upon them, despite of all their learning and logic, by the overwhehning arguments of one man.
1. This mortified their pride. Nothing makes the soul so furious as to wound its pride.
2. This struck at their most cherished prejudices.
III. Its subject (Acts 6:11; Acts 6:13-14). The charge here preferred would be considered by the Sanhedrin as the most heinous of crimes, sufficient to wake the vengeance of the nation. Blasphemous words against Moses, God, the holy place, and the law, a threat to destroy Jerusalem and change the customs of the Jewish nation!
IV. Its weakness.
1. The mode of procuring witnesses (Acts 6:11). Also that there should be men who prefer pelf to principle. Facts require no such support.
2. The appearance of the accused (Acts 6:15).
(1) The face is the mirror of the soul.
(2) Christianity makes the soul angelic. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The arraignment and transfiguration of St. Stephen
It is necessary that the Bible should be brief. A book so important must be made portable by the hand and the memory. Accordingly, out of a vast mass of materials the sacred writers have been directed to the choice of a very few. The thirty-three miracles of our Lord are specimens; why should others yielding no fresh lessons be detailed? Tautology only weakens effect. St. Stephen supplied the inspired specimen of martyrdom, although there were many others. Conformity to Christ’s sufferings according to that Word, “Ye shall indeed drink of the cup,” etc. You have it here. Brave protest for Christ in the face of those who have power to kill the body--it is here. Joy in the hope set before the martyr--it radiates from Stephen’s face. Love to persecutors mingled with stern faithfulness--it exhales like a precious perfume from Stephen’s prayer. Studied imitation of Christ in the act of dying--nowhere is this more remarkably exhibited than in the death of Stephen. This providential conformity to the image of Christ, however (as distinct from the studied imitation of Him), is the first thing which strikes us. What befell the disciple is what befell the Master over again.
I. The conduct of Stephen’s opponents. Infuriated by defeat in argument, they resorted to calumny and violence. Agents were employed to set about a story of blasphemy. With precipitate violence--the word used is the one applied to the seizure of the demoniac by the legion of devils, and to the seizure of St. Paul’s vessel by the fury of the wind--they laid hands on him and hurried him away to the Sanhedrin. The paid agents of the Hellenist synagogues pronounced the formal accusation, “This man ceases not to speak,” etc. Now the actual deposition is to be made, and the witnesses feel that their words may be called in question, we hear no more of the big terms of Acts 6:11. God is exchanged for “the holy place,” and Moses for “the law”. Full well they knew that Stephen had said nothing derogatory of Moses, much less of God. No doubt he had said much to this effect. Christ had predicted that not one stone of the temple should be left upon another, and Stephen echoed the prediction. Stephen too had probably seen further into the mystery of the admission of the Gentiles, and very possibly may have preached that Jewish rites were non-essential to salvation. But if Stephen had foretold all this, why are the witnesses stigmatised as false? Because they took his words out of the context which interpreted them, and gave them a totally different colour. Doubtless, like his Master, Stephen had the profoundest veneration for the temple and the law. But he had an intelligent apprehension of the place which each held in the system of true religion. He saw that both were elements of a preparatory discipline, and that now “faith is come” the “schoolmaster” was unnecessary. A man who says that a school book may be parted with when education is finished, by no means implies that school books are unnecessary while education is in progress. And if the words “School books are valueless” were separated from his explanation of the circumstances, the witness would be false. By telling half the truth we may convey quite as wrong an impression as by a contradiction of the truth’. Nothing is easier and commoner than to make sweeping charges against these who maintain suspected propositions, while wilfully ignoring their explanation of what they hold. I have no right to say that a man denies inspiration because he denies verbal inspiration; nor that he impugns the atonement because he dissents from certain popular views of it.
II. Stephen’s demeanour.
1. He heard the calumnious charge. It is not hard to see what course natural feeling would take. In the first place there would be indignation; and then would come perplexity as soon as it became apparent that the charge was so worded that it could not be met with simple flat denial. With these feelings fear would mingle, and altogether painful discomposure and hesitation of mind would be produced which would communicate itself to the feelings of the accused. But in that exciting moment Stephen retained the most perfect serenity of spirit. When the accusation was advanced, every member of the court turned to see how the servant of Christ thus brought to bay would look. Greatly were they surprised, and for the moment disconcerted. This was no wan and haggard culprit; those features spoke of nothing but communion with the invisible God, of the love, joy, and peace which are the result of such communion (Acts 6:15)--a lower grade of transfiguration. The Sanhedrin are momentarily cowed, as the devil’s agents are so often by the majesty of holy innocence. Possibly the radiance of Stephen’s countenance reminded them of the similar radiance on Moses’ face, the result of similar communion with God.
2. Could there have been any nearer approach than this to our Lord’s circumstances? He, too, had been apprehended with sudden violence; in His case false witnesses were suborned; His words, too, were twisted from their meaning, and finally His demeanour made His enemies quail. It may have been that this conformity to his Master’s image was the secret of the supernatural joy that radiated from Stephen’s countenance.
1. “Think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you”: do not consider it foreign to Christian experience. If the Captain of our salvation was made perfect through suffering, let not His soldiers claim exemption. Therefore, when the cross is placed upon us, let us rejoice in the resemblance between us and our Master, and in the prospect of perfect conformity which that resemblance guarantees.
2. Let the supernatural radiance of Stephen’s features, caught from the contemplation of his Master, remind us of the spiritual transfiguration which should be daily proceeding in ourselves. “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed,” etc., and the secret of this is disclosed in “We all, with open face, beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed,” etc. (Dean Goulburn.)
Stephen before his accusers
I. The character of Stephen (Acts 6:8).
1. He was “full of grace and power.” That was his spiritual condition. Not all power, so as to be stern, tyrannous, overwhelming, but power characterised by love, geniality, sympathy, gentleness. Not all grace, lest he should be mistaken as a mere sentimentalist, who contented himself with exquisite expressions, without seeking their realisation in the sterner qualities of character. Stephen was by so much a complete man.
2. He “did great wonders and miracles among the people.” That was his outer life. Mark the beautiful correspondence between the spiritual and the active. The one accounts for the other. With less of a spiritual quality there would have been less of social demonstration and influence. The “wonder” was not a trick of the hand; it was an expression of the deep spiritual history of the soul’s life. The “miracle” was not painted on a board; it flamed forth from an inner and sacred fire. This description of Stephen should be the description of the Christian man and the Christian Church. Not a line can be added to this picture. We do no wonders and miracles. Why? Because we have so little grace and power. We have looked at the wrong end of this business. We have been wanting more “wonders” and more “miracles” instead of looking into the inner condition of the heart. Make the tree good, and the fruit will be good.
II. His accusers.
1. They were controversial, they “ disputed “with Stephen. Controversy is not Christianity. It is most difficult for any man to be both a debater and a Christian. So long as the Church was in the era of suffering, she had no time for debate. Her controversies were then fights for life. The Christian life is always a controversy; but “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities,” etc. Let us all beware of the spirit of controversy, which delights in the rearrangement of words and forgets that Christianity is a sacrifice, a life of obedience.
2. Being controversial, they were as necessarily unjust. They “suborned” men to tell lies. The aim of debate is not to secure truth, but to secure some petty triumph, or to carry out to its melancholy end some rooted prejudice, or some discreditable antipathy. This is my fear of some collateral institutions which are formed in Christian churches. There are limits within which debate may be conducted to high intellectual advantage; but whoever enters upon a course of debate merely as such, without having as a supreme view to knowing, loving, accepting, and obeying the truth, puts his spiritual life to a severe strain. You will always find behind intellectual hostility to Christianity an explanatory moral condition. A man who does not love the light will use any excuse for getting out of it.
Learn from this narrative--
1. The danger which often accrues to truth from its supposed friends. “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” This is one of the earliest instances of heresy-hunting. Once for all, let us lay it down as an impossibility that bad men are judges of truth and falsehood. Men who had accepted a bribe came up to defend orthodoxy! No blind man is appointed as a judge of pictures, and no deaf man of music. But a bad man goes to church, and ventures upon an opinion as to the orthodoxy or heterodoxy of the preacher, and says, with intolerable impertinence, that he himself may not be what he ought to be, but he knows the truth when he hears it! What is your life? What is your spirit? What are your wonders and miracles? And what is the interior condition of heart which explains them? These are the questions that ought to be answered. Search into narrow, envenomed, and ignoble criticism in every age, and you will find that the men who speak most against blasphemy in doctrine are often the men who could not live otherwise than by telling lies.
2. The manner in which slander should be met. What was Stephen’s condition at the time? Hearing these lies, he will surely spring from his seat and indignantly deny the impeachment! Some men say they “cannot sit still and hear false statements about themselves.” If they were greater men they would learn the art of patience. Great bodies are calm. Stephen sat still, but his face gleamed like an angel. Could you have seen the other faces--with the significant leer, the harsh mouths--you would have known, without hearing the defence, who was right and who was wrong. Would that we could look more and say less!
3. The transfiguring power of Christianity. The face of Stephen shone like the face of an angel. This is typical of character. Whenever character is under the influence of Christian inspiration it shines. “Ye are the light of the world.” It is typical also of the resurrection, the last grand miracle that shall be performed upon these common bodies. The face once dull shall be lighted up with an inward light that shall transfigure it into nobility and gracious expressiveness. “It doth not yet appear what we shall be.” Christianity never takes hold of any man without making him a new creature, and without investing him with new beauty, nobility, and occasionally even splendour of expression. But whether this can take place in the body or not, it always takes place in the character, and the character determines the man.
4. We can all be full of faith or grace, and we can all do miracles and wonders. We have been too content to sit down under the impression that miracles have ceased. But what a wonder it would be, for example, if some of us ever helped a fellow-creature under any circumstances whatsoever! That wonder is possible to you. What a wonder it would be for some of us could we ever be met in a good humour! Wonders, miracles, signs! Why, the difficulty is to escape them! What a wonder it would be if some of us could be patient under suffering! You thought the age of “wonders” was passed, because the merely introductory signs have disappeared! The blossom is gone that the fruit may come. And we of these latter times are called to exhibit the wonder of a disciplined character, the marvel of a sanctified temper, the glittering phenomenon of a truly obedient sonship. (J. Parker, D. D.)
We have heard him speak blasphemous words.--
A false accusation with a semblance of truth
We get in these words, in this false accusation, even through its falsehood, a glimpse into the character of St. Stephen’s preaching. A false accusation need not be necessarily altogether false. In order to be effective for mischief, a twisted, distorted charge, with some basis of truth, is the best for the accuser’s purpose, and the most difficult for the defendant to answer. St. Stephen was ripening for heaven more rapidly than the apostles themselves. He was learning more rapidly than St. Peter himself the true spiritual meaning of the Christian scheme. He had taught, in no ambiguous language, the universal character of the gospel and the Catholic mission of the Church. And the narrow-minded Grecian Jews, anxious to vindicate their orthodoxy, which was doubted by their Hebrew brethren, distorted Stephen’s wider and grander conception into a charge of blasphemy against the holy man. What a picture of the future of Christ’s best and truest witnesses, especially when insisting on some nobler and wider or forgotten aspect of truth. Their teaching has been ever suspected, distorted, accused as blasphemous; and so it must ever be. And yet God’s servants, when they find themselves thus misrepresented, can realise to themselves that they are but following the course which the saints of every age have run, that they are being made like unto the image of Stephen, the first martyr, and of Jesus Christ Himself, the King of Saints, who suffered under a similar accusation. St, Paul’s teaching was accused of tending to licentiousness; the earliest Christians were accused of vilest practices; St. Athanasius, in his struggles for truth, was accused of rebellion and murder; the Reformers were accused of lawlessness; John Wesley of Romanism and disloyalty; William Wilberforce of being an enemy to British trade; John Howard of being an encourager of crime and immorality. Let us be content, then, if our lot be with the saints, and our portion be that of the servants of the Most High. Again, we learn from this place how religious zeal can overthrow religion and work out the purposes of evil. Men cannot, indeed, now suborn men and bring fatal charges against them in matters of religion, and yet they can fall into exactly the same crime. Party religion and party zeal lead men into precisely the same causes as they did in the days of St. Stephen. Partisanship causes them to violate all the laws of honour, of honesty, of Christian charity, imagining that they are thereby advancing the cause of Christ, forgetting that they are acting on the rule which the Scriptures repudiate, doing evil that good may come, and striving to further Christ’s kingdom by a violation of His fundamental precepts. Oh, for more of the spirit of true charity, which will lead men to support their own views in a spirit of Christian love! Oh, for more of that true grasp of Christianity which will teach that a breach of Christian charity is far worse than any amount of speculative error! (G. T. Stokes, D. D.)
And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly upon him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel
The martyr of Jesus
I. Stephen’s circumstances and transfiguration.
1. It was a.d. 37 that he died. The circumstances of that year in the government of the Jewish people were altogether exceptional. Pilate had left the country, and Judaea was, for the time, without any representation of the Imperial Government, and thus the power over life and property remained absolutely in the hands of the Jewish council.
2. Stephen, young, full of vigour, and as bold as he was intellectually strong, had stung into activity the furious hatred of the fiercest fanaticism. Foiled in argument, exposed to the jeers or contempt of those who watched the contest, they determined to have their revenge.
3. There were probably three component elements in the gathering of that fatal day..
(1) The mob of spectators no way uninterested in the trial. The question at issue was one which seemed to touch the quick of national exclusiveness--the tenderest point in a Jewish mind.
(2) The bench of judges, which included the rank and learning of the Jewish hierarchy. Some had grown old in the lore of Judaism; some were young in years but versed in the study of the law; all were the possessors of the sacred Scriptures, whose meaning was shrouded from them in the dismal fog of darkened minds; all were the slaves of an iron tradition and the victims of a distorting prejudice.
(3) Last in that strange assembly was one young man, with the hopes of life still fresh before him. With the joy, felt by all men who in any sense deserve it, of conscious strength and rectitude, he had committed an unpardonable crime; he had loved truth better than custom, faithfulness to conviction better than popularity; he had hated the stagnation of an unworthy tradition, and risen above the temper of the habitual respectability of his time.
4. The trial began. The witnesses were examined and performed their expected duty of falsehood. Then as the president’s interrogation came, the eyes of the assembly were turned on Stephen. Certainly Jesus was with him, and His promise, that the true words would be “given” in the hour of need, supported his spirit. Certainly heavenly powers were upon him, and the light of God’s glory was streaming through his soul. Every eye was riveted on the face of Stephen, and the vision of that inner splendour flashed upon them with an unearthly loveliness. “His face was like the face of an angel.” A face is the dial-plate of the soul. It takes the lights and shadows of varying feelings, hopes, and fears, and by expression records for others the inner variation of the movements of the soul. Hence the effect upon us frequently of a face in a crowd. Our eyes, resting for the moment upon the features of one happening then to be in rapturous joy or overwhelming sorrow, have rested--and we feel it--on the revelation of a human life. So some faces come to us, remembered indistinctly, and yet haunting our very dreams, moving us--by their slight and delicate tracery of pathos and suffering--moving us to the deepest, keenest sympathy. Now, what was the power of this face on which was riveted the gaze of the council? What? why, the angels are God’s messengers; they see the face of the Father; they catch some expression of the uncreated beauty. Once on earth that had been seen in its real loveliness. Once it had awed the multitudes, subdued the intrusive band in the garden, flashed on Peter and melted him to penitence, gazed on the Magdalene and wakened her to heavenly love; now the likeness of its loveliness was seen on the face of the martyr, because in his soul was Jesus the crucified.
II. His defence. The vision of the martyr was a mighty message; but his lips threw that message into words. There, at least, is outlined his message; there for us is trace his character. Note--
1. That earnest desire for truth which is the first real requisite to its attainment. To kindle curiosity, to keep alive an honourable ambition in the young, not merely for reward, but for the acquisition of knowledge, is the duty of every good teacher. To know and apply the best that has been done and thought by those before us is the duty of all of us. And this desire for knowledge, when sanctified and ennobled by a reverent spirit and eager thoughts of God--how beautiful, how good it is! Alas I the fashionable spirit of doubt and unbelief, so often a mere cover for the laziness of an utterly worldly temper, is turning the ‘noble-hearted young men of England into mere childish triflers. St. Stephen had evidently desired truth, and searched and studied the Scriptures, and that eager and loving spirit had had its reward. One reward was the vigorous intellectual grasp of the subject which he had to handle with readiness and under the appalling pressure of a trial for life.
2. Turn to the speech itself.
(1) It indicates the noblest eloquence. True eloquence is one of God’s choicest gifts. To abuse it is always terrible; because the possession of no weapon can involve a greater responsibility than of that one by which a single mind can sway a multitude. But eloquence has its degrees; the truest is primarily and intrinsically the eloquence of thought. If clear and powerful thought--alive with the vis vivida of genuine pathos or fiery feeling, and expressed in shapely words--be presented to the ear and mind of man, he has the rarest and the best. And in such cases even all we possess is the written record; even then the words have something of a power of life to penetrate through the thickest wrappings of the human soul. This has been felt in Demosthenes, Cicero, Chrysostom, Bossuet, Massillon, and Lacordaire. From the few recorded words of St. Stephen we feel the same.
(2) Before the mind of the martyr was the vision of a world-wide religion, and this was in sharp contrast with the narrow and passing character of Judaism. Before his mind, also, was the true, the necessary, issue of the Mosaic teaching--viz., Christ and the wide reach and sacred sovereignty of the Catholic Church. The dignity of the speech was, of course, enhanced by the danger of the speaker; but in it, on the points of the argument, every syllable told. The subjects he handled needed all his vigour, as centuries have conclusively proved. They are just those subjects of the deepest importance which concern and interest us still--the character, office, and claim of the Church of our Master.
(3) Stephen’s elucidation of the meaning of Jewish history and worship was the fulfilling in word of the duty performed so nobly in his life, and so heroically in his death. In this he is to the humblest of us a splendid and real example. The beginning, middle, and end of that duty now as then, is--Jesus Christ. To be faithful to Him, in each of us, is to make sense of fact and of history. He gave a reasonable explanation to accepted facts. An everlasting Judaism, with all the rest of men excluded, would have been a senseless solution of the history of the Jewish Church. That Church was like a broken clue unless it eventuated in Catholic Christianity; Moses and his teaching would have been an insoluble problem unless worked out in Jesus Christ. The power of this first argumentative statement of these important truths was in the fact that it made Jewish history hang together; its astonishing dignity lay in this, that it was the first.
III. The force behind him and its effect.
1. No mental vigour on such a desperate crisis would have availed to any purpose unless it had been seconded by intrepidity of spirit. And this courage of St. Stephen was no physical excitement nor vulgar audacity. He was essaying the rugged and difficult track of Christian martyrdom on which many indeed have travelled after him, but none had passed before. And here be it not forgotten that we are scarcely conscious how strongly we are swayed by the voiceless testimony of those who have gone before. If public opinion is a mighty power in life, stronger at times is the public opinion of the dead. To feel behind him a long array of public witnesses, of tim achievements of brave generals and successful politicians, is for a soldier or a statesman to be confident in the inspiring genius of a great people. Noble ancestors help to noble deeds. And even in daily life, for some one else to have first succeeded, is to ourselves at least half the powerful element in our own success. Stephen, however, knew no merely human example; struggling for a cause, new, untried, and deemed altogether contemptible, he “possessed his soul” with a heroic patience, and bore his part with literally unexampled courage. Christian, do you flinch from the duty placed upon you? Think--around you is a “cloud of witnesses”; behind you the long array of the greatness and the suffering of the Christian Church. I pause in passing to remind you that as it is easy to follow a multitude to do evil, so it is not altogether difficult to go on the side of goodness if it chance to acquire the patronage of the majority. But the real test of principle, the real exhibition of Christian courage is, when standing alone, perhaps the object of scoffs and taunts, you sternly take the path of duty and witness to Jesus Christ.
2. “Sternly,” did I say?--that brings me to another feature in the martyr’s character: its extraordinary wealth of tenderness. Tenderness in a Christian comes first--we cannot doubt it--from his sense of human weakness and human need. The scene at the death of St. Stephen reminds us of that at the death of Christ. And both are the outcome of the deepest tenderness; no mere softness of a natural kindliness, or a natural shrinking from others’ pain, but the true tenderness of a soul awakened to the depth of man’s sorrows, and the greatness of his destiny.
3. Do you ask the secret of such a combination of tenderness and courage in any tempted man? There is one answer: An unshaken, a deep, a supernatural union with Jesus Christ. He first, in the fullest sense, obeyed the precept, or realised the prediction--“Ye shall be witnesses unto Me.”
4. Thus came the end. There are times when, from the spiritual blindness or the profound prejudice of an audience, the possibility of persuasion is gone. In such cases one duty remains to an honest man, the duty at all hazards of a faithful testimony. Such was the case with Stephen. All else tried in vain, this at last was left. It was the inspiration of such a duty that prompted his daring peroration. Obstinate resistance to Divine remonstrances had been their national, their historic danger; if persisted in, it was sure to be their ruin. At least they should be warned. “Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears,” etc. Hell was opened upon the souls of the judges, but heaven was, not merely on the face, but in the heart and on the lips of the criminal. Not to bow before Divine revelation is to join the ranks of the rebel angels. The judges had chosen sides; so had the martyr!
IV. The issues of his martyrdom. A great life, even though it seems to end in failure, must have great consequences. Stephen was a pioneer in suffering and in the spread of truth. The immediate consequence was “an open door” to a wider world than the Church could act upon in Jerusalem, because there the door seemed closed. Stephen was the first to clear men’s minds, in some measure, of the mistaken dream that Christianity must pass through Judaism. And further, the impression made by his courage and his constancy could not have failed to be deep and lasting on many minds. On one we know it was. Saul had heard words that longed in his mind and rankled in his memory; had seen a vision that he could not forget, a first faint outline, surely, of that face which afterwards he saw in completed dignity amid the noonday glory of the Damascus road. We know that, to the end of his days, in deep penitence, in touching humility, in most loving sorrow, the intense and tender nature of the great apostle was penetrated by the sad memory of the death of Stephen. The revelation of the richer details of results is reserved for “that day when the secrets of all hearts shall be revealed.”
1. The soul must be true to itself. There may be a disloyalty to self, which is rather a spiritual suicide than a spiritual treason. “Every soul seeking God faithfully is led by Him who is the Guide to truth. To be faithless to the voice that warns and teaches is so far forth to mar in us the image of the Eternal, and to paralyse spiritual power.
2. In the world of revealed faith all power of witness depends upon conviction. To act upon conviction is to work your lever from a fulcrum which affords scope to move a world. Conviction is the fruit of a temperate, a true, a prayerful life. Doubt is no basis of action. Do not trifle with your faith; hold prayerfully what you know; and pray, when there is any dimness, for the clearer light which is never withheld from those who earnestly seek it.
3. Act with courage upon conviction, and act with charity. The Christian needs unflinching firmness, with unflagging love. Whence come such powers so needed and so majestic? The answer is, from Christ.
4. Begin at once; begin now. None are too young to witness to Jesus. The young creature whose soul was battered out of the shattered body on that morning of martyrdom, might have pleaded youth as a reason for reserve. He did not. How noble, how beautiful, is a young life given to Christ!
5. When all possible struggle is over we may witness to Jesus by the calmness of a loving resignation. (Canon Knox-Little.)
Moses and Stephen: the Old Testament and the New
(text, and Exodus 34:30):--In reading this account one is led to think of a similar scene in the life of Moses.
1. To be servants of the same God, they could scarcely be more unlike in their history, and they show in what divers ways the Divine workman may use his spiritual instruments. The life of Moses is probably the most complete of any man’s. But not a single ray of light falls upon his death. Of the life of Stephen we know almost as little as of the death of Moses. But his last hours stand before us distinct and bright.
2. So unlike in other things, they have this in common, that each of them, on a great occasion, had a transfiguration--the reflection of the vision of God when He comes very near.
3. In setting these transfigurations over against one another, we have no thought of comparing the two men. Stephen fills a small range in the Book of God beside Moses. We shall compare them, then, in the periods to which they belong in God’s revelation. We may compare--
I. That view of God which is reflected from the face of each of them.
1. In the case of Moses it was “God’s glory” (Exodus 33:18; Exodus 33:22)--an appearance like that which was seen by him in the bush, and which hovered over the mercy-seat without any definite form, for one fixed aim of that dispensation was to check the tendency to shut up God in figures made with hands. It was a great and significant vision, raising the Mosaic system above all religions, and proclaiming that there is one God, who is light, and who yet can visit man in love. For corresponding to this vision came the voice with it (Exodus 34:6-7). There was much that was reassuring, but much also that was doubtful. It revealed the purity of God, but the image had no distinct features; and it promised mercy, but the way of pardon was not made plain.
2. Stephen “saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God.” The glory which Moses beheld has now opened its bosom, and, issuing from it, there is seen “the brightness of the Father’s glory and the express image of His person.” The purity which in the day of Moses had no distinct features has formed itself into the countenance of the Son of God, and the mysterious mercy descends from God’s throne by a new and living way in the person of the God-man Mediator, a Saviour risen from the Cross and grave.
3. These, then, were the views of God presented to Moses and Stephen. That the first was in the same line with the second cannot be doubted if we believe in the unity of the Bible and in the plan of God running through all the ages. It would be impossible to invert these views, for there was a fitness in their order.
II. The effect of the view on the immediate witnesses.
1. In the case of Moses the effect was mainly, if not entirely, an external brightness--“the skin of his face shone.” Its beauty had something of terror with it. Those who were near could not bear its open look, and required to have it veiled. Moses was the representative of a system which was not characterised by profound spirituality, as is proved by the sad stains and inconsistencies which mark the history of some of its best members, and the readiness of the great mass of its adherents to cast aside its profession in the hour of trial. In some few it was a strong reality, but in the majority their religion was an illumination cast on them from without--a separable and perishable surface thing.
2. The illumination on the face of Stephen came from the action of the soul itself. It is said, “the children of Israel were afraid to come nigh Moses,” but “all that sat in the council looked steadfastly at Stephen.” It did not turn them from their purpose, their passion was too fierce, but it brought them to a pause, imprinted itself upon them, and, may we not suppose, came back in waking thoughts and nightly dreams, and deserted some of them never till they saw it again before the throne of God? For there is this difference further between mere brightness of face and the beauty of the soul which beams through it, that the one is seen entire at first and grows no more. It tends constantly to fade, and must fade. But the soul’s expression grows evermore as we gaze into it, and it is in reminiscence above all that it rises to its perfect ideal. It was this angelic beauty which shone in the face of Stephen, and it was there because of the object he looked upon. “His eyes were beautiful,” because you saw that they saw Christ.
3. Now these two forms of transfiguration belong each to its own period. The one is bright but formless, the shadow of the Shechinah on him who sees it, and inspiring even its friends with awe till they can look no longer. The other is the beauty of the soul that has beheld Christ, distinct and expressive, reflecting His Divine purity and tenderness, so mild that even those who hate it cannot choose but look and wonder, and, when they would thrust it from the world, must stop their ears upon the voice of Stephen, and summon blind passion to do its work.
III. The crisis of life in which each of these transfigurations occurred.
1. In the history of Moses it was in the fulness of his power and success as a Divine messenger. Great through his whole history, he had never been so great to the eye of man as at this moment. He had scattered, as God’s vicegerent, disaster upon all opposition, and had led through the lied Sea an oppressed and terror-stricken nation to breathe into them a new life. He had been admitted amid scenes that, for outward grandeur, still stand unparalleled, into the closest intercourse with God, and the glory is there like God’s mark on his forehead to tell where he has been and with whom. This hour is also in the very height of his natural and intellectual life. Many men gain their heart’s desire as God’s servants, only to die. Before Moses there lay stretched out years of usefulness and honour, which took their character and bore their results from this crowning period.
2. Stephen, on the contrary, is placed as a criminal before those who sat in Moses’ seat, and is charged with breaking in pieces the law which Moses gave. He has done nothing to shake the earth with wonder. He professes only to be a humble follower of One who died on a Cross. A cruel and ignominious death looks him full in the face. But the transfiguration of Stephen is far grander than that of Moses. The one is impressed with the temporal and external magnificence of the Old Testament, the other full of the spiritual glory of the New, which begins with a death as the salvation of the world, and shows us the shame of the Cross on its way to become the brightest crown in the universe. It is more honouring to the power of God to see it not merely sustaining a man in such terrible extremity but glorifying him. It is, indeed, most significant, that while, in the Old Testament, the approving light of God falls upon His servant in the midst of life, in the New it descends in the presence of death. It crowns him conqueror after a course of labour very ardent but very brief. Among God’s servants, those who fail in the outward life may rise to the highest rank in the spiritual, and the fore-glancing tokens of it can be granted here.
IV. The effects on the surrounding spectators.
1. The impression made on the Israelites by the view of Moses was at first very great. A growth of obedient homage took place that was rarely equalled in their history. But it had not much depth, and soon withered away. They had seen many more wonders in Egypt, and had equally forgotten them. They went on to murmur against God and against Moses.
2. In the case of Stephen it may seem as if the impression were still less. Those who saw his face as it had been that of an angel, did not spare his life. But we know how a look lives years after the face is hidden in the grave. We can scarcely doubt it was so here. Can we question that the look of Stephen burned its impression into the heart of Paul, and that from the martyr’s death the living preacher rose with an angel’s power and zeal?
3. Here again these results are entirely characteristic of the two systems. The Old Testament began with outward demonstrations of the most striking kind, and they were needful in their time and place. But their effects were transitory. They served a purpose only as they helped the introduction of spiritual principles, in some such way as thunder accompanies spring showers, where the power lies not in the peal or the tremor, but in influences more gentle and less marked. Even in that ancient dispesation a practised ear can hear the words all through--“Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord.” And, in the New Testament, this mode of working becomes fully apparent. It begins with the death of Christ as the grand means by which men are to be drawn to God. It manifests its Teal strength in the meekness and patience of its humblest followers--in their calmness in trial, their fortitude in danger, their forgiving spirit to their enemies, their unquenehed hope in the presence of death. Outward demonstrations have their use, but they are only the band of clay round the young graft to keep it safe till the current of inner life has established itself.
V. The permanence of the transfigurations in the subjects of them.
1. The brightness in the face of Moses faded away into the light of ordinary life as he receded from the great vision. It partook in this of the transitory character of the dispensation to which he belonged, and had its brightest light turned to our world.
2. In Stephen it was no passing glimmer of a setting sun, but that lustre in the morning clouds which shows him before he is above the horizon, and which is lost only in perfect day. In the death of Stephen it is intended we should see how thin the veil is between the two worlds--how the Lord stands on the very confine, sending across His look and arm and voice, so that ere His servant left the earth he saw his heavenly Master, heard His words, and returned His smile. (J. Ker, D. D.)
The angelic glory on Stephen’s countenance
I. A resplendence of the glory of Christ, who says to His own “In the world ye shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer,” etc.
II. A radiation of the inner confidence of faith, which knows that “if God be for us who can be against us?”
III. A reflection of the future glory, with which the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be Compared. (K. Gerok.)
Man or angel
I. What was it men saw on the face of Stephen?
1. Not a supernatural aureola such, as the painters love to depict. But--
2. The transformation of the human by the Divine, according to the natural law which connects spiritual states with corresponding bodily manifestations. The most transient emotions and impulses will betray their presence thus; how much more, therefore, the more constant elements of character and disposition? The changes of expression upon the face are, next to speech, the surest index to that inward world of thought and feeling and will which affects so powerfully our entire outward life.
3. The transmission of the Divine through the human.
(1) In that upward gaze Pharisee and Sadducee were confronted with the reality of a spiritual world.
(2) It served to hold them spellbound until the grand remonstrance had been uttered--as when Bishop Stanley, of Norwich, faced the tumultuous mob at his cathedral door, or Marshman was borne from his sick bed to quell the Birmingham rioters by his gentle presence.
II. That of which this transfigured face was the prophecy and token. What if it were intended to present the chief end of man to be a minister and interpreter of the Divine? Who more adapted than he, standing as he does between two worlds, and enjoying if he wills the suffrages of both. (A. F. Muir, M. A.)
The angel-face on man
1. The Jews were familiar with angels, and knew that some of the greatest things in their national history had been accomplished by their agency. It was easy, therefore, for them to see any resemblance between a human creature and an angel of God.
2. Here is a man who had the look of an angel, and yet was still a man. Nay, in this trying yet favoured moment, he towered as it were to the height of his manhood, and put on all its bloom. It was Stephen’s beauty that shone in the face. It was the real qualities of Stephen’s character that made that beauty. It would seem, then, that a perfect man and an angel are brothers. Or say an imperfect man, in a mood of perfectness, or when he is wholly Christian, a child of God when he is looking homewards, And if this be the way of it, then surely there is many an angel-face on earth, and much beholding of the same from the higher spheres.
3. Of course we do not associate the angel-look with any particular style of face. We know nothing about the personal appearance of Stephen: only this seems plain, that such as he was in type and by Divine intention, that he now became with great clearness, and in becoming that, of necessity put on the likeness of the angel. Yet, I think we may say that there are certain things common to the angel-face on man amid all the endless variety of type and form.
I. Brightness. We cannot be wrong in supposing that there was something luminous on the face of Stephen. We always associate brightness with the angels. If they come like common men (as they did to Abraham on the plain), the veiled brightness soon begins to shine through. If they come in their own nature, and proper state, then “the countenance is like lightning, and the raiment white as snow.” If Stephen’s countenance had been dull or sad on that day, this in the text bad never been recorded of him. Why should any man wear darkness or heaviness on his face? There is something in the world which we may learn, there is something from God which we may have, that will change all to brightness. The true philosophy of life is to get the light within ourselves; and then to get the habit of looking for and seeing the light everywhere, according to that profound and beautiful Scripture, “In Thy light shall we see light.”
II. Calmness. Stephen was preternaturally calm in a scene of the utmost excitement. The test of a man’s soul-state is often thus made very practical. He is tried by the pressure of the hour, by the hurry of the happening events. And it is not enough to have a general cheerfulness as the result of a survey of life and the world on the whole. There must be superiority to particular disquietudes, and a keeping of the heart in the stillness of grace, in the great and deep peace of God. It need not be disguised that this is sometimes a matter of supreme difficulty. But no one can hope to get the angel-face who furrows and flushes his own with daily excitements. The peace of God is to keep the heart and mind as a garrison is kept. Surely “the helmet of salvation” should keep the head cool and quiet. The very feet should be “shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace.”
III. Benignity. This is the family likeness. For “God is love,” and told us so in the visible form of His Son. And he that loveth not is not of God, and cannot wear an angel-face. The devil wears a kind of shattered splendour on his face. He is intellectual, he is calm; but there is no flush of benignity on his face; and by a long course of rebellion he has forgotten how to love. But those who, like Stephen, learn the lesson at the feet of Christ, and practise it among those who return good for evil, and seek the salvation of souls, they put on the image of the heavenly, and look like what they are--the children of the King!
IV. Fearlessness. In Stephen’s case consequences were what we call “fatal.” But in the nomenclature of heaven fatal sometimes means vital. Courage in the highest sense always means safety. If an angel were here, to live for a while the life of a man, you would see what it is to be brave. You would see him pass through sorrows smiling, his heart borne up already with foretaste of the after-joy. Conclusion:
1. He who would have the angel-face must look high and far. He must learn to look not so much at things, as through them, to see what is in them, and what is beyond. In a little while Stephen “looked steadfastly up into heaven.” There is a look for a mortal man to give! A look which in his case was well rewarded, for “He saw the glory of God,” etc. And that look gave him final victory. Men were gnashing their teeth, etc., beside him; they did not know that to him the pains of death were over. He had “looked” himself into heaven. He had trodden the streets of gold. But this was not the first time he had looked into heaven. Ever since he became a believer he had been looking that way. “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth.” You find them everywhere--in daily duties, in commonest things--but it needs the angel-eye to see them. Be an angel, or be a child in this; for the little child is not unlike the angel in its looking. Did you never see it on the little face--that calm, dreamy, distant look, that pierces quite through your world, and transcends all your ideas of prudence, and care, and duty, with a sublime indifference which is none the less grand that it is so simple?
2. Of course it is quite vain to attempt to put it on--the angel-face--directly, and by mental intention, as a soldier puts on his armour, or a king his royal robe. Could anything more absurd be conceived than this, that a man should say, “Now I am going to look like an angel!” If you try to put any particular emotion into the features, it will not be suprising if the very opposite emotion should come instead. Try to look grand, and you may make yourself little. Try to look innocent, and (although you may not remember a single sin) the general consciousness of guilt may seize you and put its colour into your face. Have the angel within, and leave all else to come, as it will. Or, as in the case of Stephen, be “full of faith, and of the Holy Ghost,” i.e., be a Christian man, through and through, and the Lord.. your God will put His “beauty” on you, in one or other of its many forms, and in some supreme moments of life, in suffering, in trial, in death, may give your friends beholding you the privilege and joy of looking as it were upon the face of an angel. (A. Raleigh, D. D.)
Character seen in the face
There is a natural effect of the states of the spirit upon the countenance, which gradually progresses, and which amounts in a lifetime to a transfiguration. The infant has no expression in its face of good or evil, because it feels no good or evil. As it grows into childhood, there is little to be read there, save sometimes an inherited grossness of feature moulded by ancestral brutishness, or some lines of spiritual or intellectual expression that come down from the father and the father’s father. Otherwise all is blank--the unspotted sheet on which many characters of exquisite beauty or unseemly blots may be thereafter marked. But as life progresses every deed seems to be written on the face. See how it is--
I. Is a life of vice.
1. Evil passions and deeds trace the handwriting of sin; and every crime deepens the lines, and every bad thought extends them further. Beastliness of habit makes a beastly face. Hatred and revenge ossify the features to their own hardness. Drunkenness puffs up the drunkard’s bloated face. The young have not written these characters on themselves so plainly as yet--they are hardly legible;--but age has imprinted them as indelibly as if they were carved in the rock. And this is the transfiguration of vice.
2. It is so perfect that there need be no other book of record for men than that which they write themselves upon themselves. Did Cain bear a mark on his forehead? It was the type or prediction of the thousands of marked brows which at the judgment shall require no testimony, and no sentence of the Judge, but shall, to all beholders, proclaim the sinfulness and the punishment.
3. Do we often enough think of this, that it requires not great crimes to debase the features of the form Divine, but that what we call little sins are just as surely day by day leaving their imprint? We suffer anger to possess us, and think that when it has passed we shall be the same. We cherish impure thoughts, supposing that they will in no way permanently affect us. We deceive our fellows without a thought that “hypocrite” will be written in our faces. How often are these said to be little things which will be like stains upon the hands, easily washed away! But there is truth in the thought that blood of murder will not wash from the palm, and an equal truth that our so-called little faults, too, do daily stain or mould our countenances. Take care, then, of the inward impurity, that it may not come to it; that not only God, who reads the heart, but men also who read the face, may see the wrong of a wrong life by its marks.
II. In the life of virtue.
1. This also is a change which may progress from the earliest age at which moral character can exist. And we have often seen the good man’s goodness written upon his outward appearance, and his purity of heart, like a subtle ether, penetrating through until it has surrounded him with a kind of atmosphere, and sat upon his head like a halo. Have you not seen it?--gentleness on the brow; calmness and purpose in the eye; purity of heart on the lips; temperance stamped on the features; the love of man in every gesture; and love and faith toward God in the air and expression. It is seen more in the aged, for it is a change which grows through long years. It grows sooner in such as have borne pain and sorrow, since they are the native soil of virtue. But it is, more or less, in all who live good lives. It is the mark by which God marks His beloved. It is the transfiguration of virtue.
2. This, too, is an evident preparation for the judgment or life to come. For it is written by ourselves--our own handwriting on the white page in which we come to this world clothed; our own signature which we shall carry when we go hence. And shall we fail to write this lovely record as we live here?--by faith marking on ourselves the graceful letters of faith; by brotherly kindness writing it on our face; by excellent and passionless emotions smoothing our brows; by holy love illuminating the beauteous margin of the whole manuscript; by patience and pain providing the border of glory which shall appear in the white hairs which are, in the good, a crown of glory. Ah! it is ours to rise at the last day with God’s seal of baptism made a visible stamp on every feature by our daily fulfilment of baptismal vows. Conclusion: How does all this impress on us the folly of the thought that we can safely put off a holy life until near the end of life. Surely, if vice and virtue do thus stamp themselves upon the features, a man cannot for long years let avarice pinch his features and passions deform them, and then in a short time expect God’s Spirit to paint upon them the beauty of goodness. The evil spirits against which we strive are slowly to be killed and drawn forth; and the good that shall he unto life will be slowly planted and nourished. Begin early. For it were better for the saint even to die young and have the glow of heaven on his face, and see his Lord on the right hand of God, and say in rapture, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” than a long life would have been, even crowned with all worldly prosperity. (Bp. Phillips Brooks.)
The glory on the countenances of dying Christians
1. As the glorious setting of an earthly life, ended in the peace of God.
2. As the glorious rising of an approaching eternity with its heavenly light. (K. Gerok.)
The outward expression of the inward
It is said that Raphael, the great master of the beautiful, in sketching any figure or group of figures, gave his first attention to the drawing and modelling of the limbs, adding the draperies only after he had satisfied himself as to these. By this method he succeeded in imparting to them an air of inimitable ease and truthfulness. In like manner, grace, the character-creating principle, begins from within, gradually but surely harmonising the outward man with the laws of the new nature, and so producing that “beauty of holiness” which is so indescribable yet so familiar to us all. (A. F. Muir, M. A.)
Heaven in the face
A little boy going home one day, exulting in the fact that he had met Mr. Pennefather, was asked by his mother, “What did he say to you?” “He said nothing,” was the child’s reply, “but he beamed upon me.” His singularly attractive power, however, was not confined to children. An importunate beggar, who was one day telling his tale of want to a party of travellers, suddenly caught sight of Mr. Pennefather, and prefaced his appeal with the exclamation, “You, sir, with heaven in your face !”
A face shining for the Lord
I cannot tell you the privilege it is to go forth as Christ’s messenger. I have lately returned from a visit to China, and it has been, not an occasional thing, but quite the usual thing, to find the missionaries full of blessing and boiling over. One who reached China about a year ago was not there very long before the natives gave him a name--“Mr. Glory-face”--because his face was always shining for the Lord. He left a large business in which over two thousand hands were employed. He left a very precious work for God, in which he had been happy and much blessed. But what was his testimony? “The Lord promised me,” he said, “a hundredfold more than all I left for Him. He has given me a very large hundredfold. It has been the best investment I have ever made.” (T. Hudson Taylor.)
Judged by the grace
An American minister quaintly said, “Many Christians are like chestnuts: very pleasant nuts, but enclosed in very prickly burs, which require various dealings of nature and her grip of frost before the kernel is disclosed.” This reminds me of an incident in my experience. Some years ago, when walking with a dear friend in the West-end of London, we happened to meet a lady truly eminent for her good works, but, alas I possessing a stern, sombre expression of countenance. I remarked to my friend, “That lady is a very earnest Christian.” She replied, “I would not like to make her acquaintance, judging from her face.” Here was one of Christ’s servants repelling instead of attracting to Himself. Truly it has been said, “Gloominess, irritability, discontent, and touchiness are four things more catching than cholera.”.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Acts 6". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29