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Then said the high priest, Are these things so?
The high priest and his question
This functionary was probably Theophilus, son-in-law of Caiaphas. The ex-officio president of the council called for the defence against the charge of blasphemy (Acts 6:13-14). The question, equivalent to guilty or not guilty, appears to have been put with great mildness, possibly under the influence of the angel-like aspect. (Bp. Jacobson.)
And he said, Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken.--
In order to understand this wonderful and somewhat difficult speech, it will be well to bear in mind that a threefold element runs through it.
I. He shows apologetically that so far from dishonouring Moses or God, he believes and holds in mind God’s dealings with Abraham and Moses, and grounds upon them his preaching; that so far from dishonouring the temple, he bears in mind its history and the sayings of the prophets respecting it; and he is proceeding, when interrupted by their murmurs or inattention, he bursts forth into a holy vehemence of invective against their rejection of God.
II. But simultaneously and parallel with this he also proceeds didactically, showing them that a future prophet was pointed out by Moses as the final lawgiver of God’s people--that the Most High had revealed His spiritual and heavenly nature by the prophets, and did not dwell in temples made with hands.
III. Even more remarkably does the polemic element run through the speech. “It is not I, but you, who from the first times till now have rejected and spoken against God.” And this element just appearing (Acts 7:9), and again more plainly (Acts 7:25-28), and again more pointedly still in Acts 7:35, becomes dominant in Acts 7:39-44, and finally prevails to the exclusion of the others in Acts 7:51-53. (Dean Alford.)
I. The source of his argument. The sacred history of the Jews which accusers and accused alike revered. In doing this he secured their attention by giving them to understand--
1. That his faith in that history was as strong as theirs.
2. That he was thoroughly conversant with that history.
II. Its point--that all God’s dealings with His people pointed to those very changes which he was accused of advocating. This position he makes good by showing--
1. That the external condition of the Church had undergone repeated changes. There was a change under
(1) Abraham (Acts 7:2-8).
(2) Joseph (Acts 7:9-16).
(3) Moses (Acts 7:17-44).
(4) David (Acts 7:45-46).
2. That the present external state of the Church had no existence before Solomon; and that even this was intended from the beginning to be temporary (Acts 7:47-50).
III. Its application (Acts 7:51-53). Mark--
1. The vile character he gives them.
(1) “Stiffnecked”--contumacious, rebellious.
(2) “Uncircumcised”--unsacred, impure.
2. The crimes he charges upon them--
(1) Resistance to the Holy Ghost.
(2) An hereditary persecuting spirit.
(3) The betrayal and murder of the Son of God. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The defence of Stephen
1. How does this speech happen to be here? It would be easy for the memory to carry a sentence or two; but who could record so long and highly-informed a speech? There was a young man listening with no friendly ear. His name was Saul. It is supposed that he related it to Luke. It is not a correct report. No man can report chain lightning. You may catch a little here and there, but the elements that lifted it up into historic importance, it was not in the power of memory to carry. You must not therefore hold Stephen responsible for this speech; they did not give him an opportunity of revising it. There is no statement here made that is not spiritually true, and yet there are a few sentences that may be challenged on some technical ground. Some persons imagine that they are inspired when they are only technical. They forget that you may not have a single text in support of what you are stating, and yet may have the whole Bible in defence of it. The Bible is not a text, it is a tone; it is not a piece of technical evidence, it is an inspiration.
2. The man who reported this speech to Luke made it the basis and the model of his own immortal apologies. Truly we sometimes borrow from unacknowledged sources, and are sometimes indebted to unknown influences for some of our best inspirations. That a man appointed with six others to serve tables should have become the first Christian martyr apologist, and should have given the model for the greatest speeches ever delivered by man, is surely a very miracle of Providence! How little Stephen knew what he was doing. Who really knows the issue and full effect of any action or speech? Life is not marked off in so many inches and done with; it may be the beginning of endless other acts nobler than itself.
I. It is fair criticism to infer the man from the speech. What kind of man was Stephen, judged by his speech? He was--
1. A man well versed in the Scriptures. From beginning to end his speech is scriptural; quotation follows quotation like shocks of thunder. Stephen was a man who had read his Bible; therein he separates himself from the most of modern people. I cannot call to mind one who ever read the Bible and disbelieved it. We all know many who abuse the Bible who have never read it. Not that such persons have not read parts of the Bible, which being perused without understanding are misquoted. Who really knows the Bible by heart? Some of us boast that we can recite five plays of Shakespeare. Who can recite the Book of Psalms? You call upon your little children to recite nonsense verses, which is well enough now and then; but which of your children can recite a chapter of St. John? Suppose some of us were called upon at a moment’s notice to recite six verses of Romans? Only the men who know the Bible should quote it. Only those who are steeped in the Scriptures should undertake to express any opinion about it. This is the law in all other criticism, and in common justice it ought to be the law in relation to the inspired revelation of God.
2. A man who took a broad and practical view of history. It is as difficult to find a man who has read history as to find a man who has read the Bible. A man does not know history because he can repeat all the kings of England from the Conquest. You do not learn history from the books. From the books you learn the facts; but having ascertained the facts, you must make history. The novelist is a better historian than the mere annalist, because history is an atmosphere. It is not only a panorama of passing incidents; it is a spirit in which such men as Stephen lived. He was a member of a great and noble household, a link in a far-stretching chain, an element in a great composition. Why should we live the shallow life of men who have no history behind them? We are encompassed by a great cloud of witnesses. We have no right to disennoble ourselves and commit an act of dismembership which separates us from the agony, the responsibility, and the destiny of the race. In Christ we have all to be one.
3. A man who was forced into action by his deep convictions. That is a word which, has somehow slipped out of our vocabulary, because it has slipped out of our life. Who now has any convictions? Life is now a game, a series of expedients, a succession of experiments. It is not an embodied and sacrificial conviction. In those days men spoke because they believed. They had no necessity to get up a speech, to arrange it in words that would offend and be recollected by nobody. Without faith we cannot have eloquence. It is not enough to have information. If you believe Christianity, you will not need an exhortation to speak it. Speech about Christianity, where it is known and loved, is the best necessity of this life. The fire burns, the heart muses, and the tongue speaks; hence in the fifty-first verse yon find that Stephen was a man whose information burned into religious earnestness. Having made his quotation he turned round as preachers dare not turn round now. It was an offensive speech, and it would be unpardonable now. Why? Because it was truth made pointed, and that no man will ever endure. The man who would listen all day with delight to an eloquent malediction upon the depravity of the whole world would leave the church if you told him he was a drunkard or a thief. We live in generalities. So preaching is now dying, or it is becoming a trick in, eloquence, or it is offering a grand opportunity for saying nothing about nothing. It used to turn the world upside down.
II. Let us turn from the man to the speech.
1. Its literary form. We need no book of rhetoric beyond this great apology. Called upon, he addresses his auditors with courtesy as “Men, brethren, and fathers.” He begins calmly, with the serenity of conscious power. He quotes from undisputed authority. Every step he takes is a step in advance. There is not in all his narration one circular movement. Having accumulated his facts and put them in the most vivid manner, he suddenly, like the out-bursting of a volcano, applies the subject, saying, “Ye stiff-necked,” etc. This is the law of argumentative progress. Begin courteously, and beg the confidence and respectful attention of your hearers; but your speech will be their responsibility. They will not be the same at the end of the speech a they were at the beginning. A preacher may begin as courteously as he pleases, but having shown what God is and has done, and wants to be done, his conclusion should be a judgment as well as a gospel.
2. Its probable source. How did Stephen know all about the case? Suppose that Stephen was the second disciple who, on the road to Emmaus, heard Christ expound in all Scripture the things concerning himself. What if Saul reported Stephen, and Stephen reported Christ, and so the great gospel goes on from man to man, from tongue to tongue, till the last man hears it, and his heart burns within him!
3. Its main purpose--to disclose the method of Divine revelation and providence. Let us see whether what is related here agrees with our own observation and experience.
(1) God has from the beginning made Himself known to individuals. Stephen relates the great names of history. Some names are as mountains on the landscape. We start our journeys from them, we reckon our distances by them, we measure our progress according to their height. God does not reveal Himself to crowds. It is not only in theology, but in science, politics, commerce, literature, family life, that God speaks to the individual and entrusts him with some great gospel or spiritual mystery. Why talk about election as if it were exclusively a religious word? How is it that one man in the family has all the sense? How is it that one man is a poet and another a mathematician? How is it that one boy can never be got to stay at home and his own brother can never be got to leave home? How is it that one man speaks out the word that expresses the inarticulate thought of a generation, though all other men would have been wise enough to discover it?
(2) God has constantly come along the line of surprise. Revelation has never been a commonplace. Wherever God has revealed Himself Me has surprised the person on whom the light has fallen. The power of surprise is one of the greatest powers at the disposal of any teacher. How to put the old as if it were the new! How to set fire to common sense so that it shall burn up into genius! How to reveal to a man his bigger and better self! How has God proceeded according to the historical narration of Stephen? To Abram he said, “Get thee out from thy country and from thy kindred.” We cannot conceive the shock of surprise with which these words would be received. Travelling then was not what travelling is now. No man could receive a call of that kind as a mere commonplace! Called to give up a reality in the hope of realising a dream! Joseph’s life was a surprise--a greater surprise to himself than to anybody. How was it that he always had the key of the gate? Why did men turn to him? How was it that he only could tell the meaning of the king’s dream? Then pass on to Moses. A bush flamed at the mountain base, and a voice said to the wanderer, Stop! Nothing but fire can stop some men! There are those to whom the dew is a gospel, there are others who require the very fire that lights the eternal throne to stop them and rouse their full attention. God knows what kind of ministry you need, so He has set in His Church a thousand ministries. It is not for us to compare the one with the other, but to see in such a distribution of power God’s purpose to touch every creature in the whole world.
(3) God has all the time been over-ruling improbabilities and disasters. We should say that when God has called a man to service the road would be wide, clear of all obstructions, filled with sunshine, lined with flowers, that the man leaning on God’s arm will be accompanied by the singing of birds and of angels. Nothing of the kind is true to fact. Stephen recognises this in very distinct terms. God said that Abram’s seed should sojourn in a strange land, and that they should bring them into bondage, and evil entreat them four hundred years! In the face of such an arrangement can there be an Almighty providence? Yes. And Joseph was sold into Egypt. “God-forsaken” we should say, looking at the outside only. And there were those who evilly entreated our fathers, so that they cast out their young children to the end they might not live. Moses himself was “cast out.” Stephen does not cover these things up or make less of them. Nay, he masses them into great black groups, and says--Still the great thought went on and on! There is the majesty of the Divine Providence. Its movement is not lost in pits, and caves, and wildernesses, and rivers, and seas. The disasters are many, the sufferings are severe, the disappointments are innumerable and unendurable; still the thought goes on. Judge nothing before the time. So it is with our own life.
Conclusion: Mark how exactly this whole history of Stephen’s corresponds with Christ’s method of revelation and providence.
1. Did not Christ reveal Himself to individuals? Did He not say to the Abram of His time, “Follow Me”?
2. Did He not also use the power of surprise? When was He ever received into any town as an ordinary visitor? Who did not wait for Him to speak and look, and act? Who was not impatient with all the multitude lest they should interrupt any sentence of this marvellous eloquence?
3. Did He not also take His Church through improbabilities, disasters, and dark places? Has not His Church been evil entreated? Have not our Christian fathers been cast out? Have we not also our heroes, and sufferers, and martyrs, and crowned ones? Was not Christ always master of the occasion? Without a place whereon to lay His head, He was still the Lord. We remember our disasters; but the Church is the Lamb’s Bride, and He will marry her at the altar of the universe! (J. Parker, D. D.)
St. Stephen’s defence
How was Stephen’s speech preserved? The notaries, shorthand writers, and clerks attendant upon a Roman court were accessible to the gifts of the richer Christians when they wished to obtain a correct narrative of a martyr’s last trial. Secret Christians among the officials also effected something, and there were numerous other methods by which the Roman judicial records became the property of the Church. Probably St. Paul gave his disciple, St. Luke, report of what Stephen said on this occasion.
I. The defence of St. Stephen was a speech delivered by a Jew, and addressed to a Jewish audience. Orientals argued then, and argue still, not according to the rules of logic taught by Aristotle, nor by the methods of eloquence derived from the traditions of Cicero and Quinctilian, but by methods and rules essentially different. What would satisfy Westerns would seem to them utterly worthless, just as an argument which now seems pointless appeared to them absolutely conclusive. Parallels, analogies, parables, mystical interpretations were then favourite methods of argument. St. Stephen was accused of irreverence towards Moses, and hostility towards the temple, and towards all the Jewish institutions. He begins his address to the Sanhedrin at the earliest period of their national history, and shows how the chosen people had passed through many changes and developments without interfering with their essential identity. There was a chosen people before the customs introduced by Moses. There may therefore be a chosen people still when these customs cease, having fulfilled their purpose. He was accused also of speaking blasphemous words against the national sanctuary. His argument now takes a different turn, and runs thus: This building is now the centre of Jewish thoughts and affections. But it is a mere modern thing as compared with the original choice and promise of God. Even when it was built, and in all its original glory, its temporal character was clearly recognised by Isaiah (Isaiah 66:1-2). The same truth had been anticipated by Solomon (1 Kings 8:27). Then there occurs a break in St. Stephen’s address. Possibly the Sadducean portion of his audience had got quite enough. Their countenances and gestures bespoke their horror of his doctrines. Isaiah’s opinion carried no weight with them as contrasted with the institutions of Moses; and so, borne along by the force of his oratory, Stephen finished with that vigorous denunciation which led to his death (verses 51-53).
II. What a lesson Stephen’s speech has for the Church of every age! His forecast swept away at once all the privileges and profits connected with the religious position of Jerusalem, and thus destroyed the political prospects of the Jewish people. Men never listen patiently when their pockets are being touched, their dearest hopes annihilated. Take the political world alone. We.now look back and view with horror the deeds wrought in the name of authority, and in opposition to the principles of change and innovation. We read the stories of Alva, and the massacres in the Netherlands, the bloody deeds of the seventeenth century in England and all over Europe, the miseries and bloodshed of the American War of Independence, the fierce opposition with which the spirit of liberty has been resisted throughout this century; and our sympathies are altogether ranged on the side of the sufferers--the losers and defeated, it may have been, for the time, but the triumphant in the long run. The true student, however, of history, or of human nature, will not content himself with any one-sided view, and he will have Some sympathy to spare for those who adopted the stern measures: He will not judge them too harshly. They reverenced the past as the Jews of Jerusalem did, and reverence is a feeling that is right and blessed. The opponents of political change are sometimes denounced in the fiercest language, as if they were morally wicked. The late Dr. Arnold seems a grievous offender in this respect. No one can read his charming biography by Dean Stanley without recognising how intolerant he was towards his political opponents; how blind he was to those good motives which inspire the timorous, the ignorant, and the aged, when brought face to face with changes which appear to them thickly charged with the most dangerous results. Charity towards opponents is sadly needed in the political as well as in the religious world. And as it has been in politics, so has it been in religion. Men reverence the past, and that reverence easily glides into an idolatry, blind to its defects and hostile to any improvement. It is in religion too as in politics; a thousand other interests--money, office, expectations, memories of the loved and lost--are bound up with religious forms, and then when the prophet arises with his Divine message, as Stephen arose before the Sanhedrin, the ancient proverb is fulfilled, the corruption of the best becomes the worst, the good motives mingle with the evil, and are used by the poor human heart to justify the hardest, most unchristian, deeds done in defence of what men believe to be the cause of truth and righteousness.
III. The mistakes and variations which occur in Stephen’s speech. They are mistakes such as a speaker, filled with his subject and speaking to an excited and hostile audience, might naturally make; mistakes such as truthful speakers every day make in their ordinary efforts. (G. T. Sokes, D. D.)
1. “Mark the perfect man.” That object is worthy of regard anywhere; but here it is in a position peculiarly fitted to display its grandeur. Everything about the faith of Christians is interesting; but “the trial of their faith is found unto praise,” etc. (1 Peter 1:7). The flame may live through the day, but it is by night that it is seen. “Mark the perfect man,” but choose the time for marking him--towards the close: “the end of that man is peace.”
2. Stephen stands before the Sanhedrin, not to be tried but to be condemned. When he distributed alms his face was pleasant; but when he stands before his murderers it is like the face of an angel. The sun is most beautiful at its setting, and if dark clouds cluster round they serve to receive and reflect his light, and so to increase the loveliness of the departing moment.
2. The specific charge against Stephen was that he spoke blasphemous words, etc; but the first portion of his speech must have gone far to refute it, for in the spirit of a devout believer he traces the course of Hebrew history. This is no reviler of the temple and the law, a renegade Jew who abjures Moses. His elegant apologetic essay by itself would have pleased his judges, as the story of the ewe lamb did the guilty king, and perhaps they may have begun to think “this man doeth nothing worthy of death or of bonds.”
4. Stephen, I suppose, had a well-defined plan. He wished to win their attention and soften their hearts. When at last he saw the gates open he made a sudden rush, in the hope of taking the city by assault, and leading its defenders captive to Christ. And the plan was in the first instance successful. The Word proved quick and powerful. The sword ran into their joints and marrow. The immediate object is gained: there is conviction--“they were cut to the heart.” But for those who try to win souls, as for those who try to win fortunes, there is many a slip betwixt the cup and the lip. Conversion does not always follow conviction. When such a home thrust takes effect a great fire of anger is kindled which will either turn inward and consume sin, or outward to persecute the preacher. In this case anger went the wrong way.
5. As the fury of the persecutors increased, so did the ecstasy of the martyr. The blast of their wrath against him, like the wind against a kite, carried him higher toward heaven. He saw “the glory of God and Jesus.” The two lie close together, to Stephen they blended in one. If the glory of God were to appear without Jesus the spirit would fail. “The Lamb is the light “ of heaven. An uproar ensued. The peace and triumph of the martyrs has always had an effect upon the persecutors. The drums were beaten to drown the last words of the Scottish covenanters. “Argyle’s sleep” on the night before his execution made his enemies’ blood run cold. (W. Arnot, D. D.)
The God of Glory.--
Stephen’s answers to the charge of blasphemy against God
There was good reason for commencing his speech in the name of God. He thus in opposition to the current slander that he blasphemed God not only testifies his deep respect for God, and gives to Him the honour which is His due; but he has a positive reason for asserting the glory of God. Here, as in the subsequent part of his speech, he keeps in view the unlimited greatness, authority and sovereignty of God, according to which God is bound to nothing and no one, and can manifest Himself to whom, and how, and when He pleases. The expression in connection with “appeared” brings to their remembrance the sublime and elevating glory in which the self-manifestations of God were wont to take place. (G. V. Lechler, D. D.)
Appeared unto our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia.--
The earliest appearance of God to Abraham
Of this particular appearance there is no account in Genesis 11:31. But a Divine command, which had already been given at that time, is implied in Genesis 15:7, and reference is made to this in Joshua 24:2-3; Nehemiah 9:7; Jdt 5:7-9. Philo and Josephus agree in representing the Patriarch as having been called twice, first from his kindred and country in Ur, secondly from his father’s house in Haran, Terah having accompanied him in the former migration, and being dead before the second. This is one of several instances in which New Testament supplies facts supplementary to Old Testament--e.g., the prophecy of Enoch (Jude 1:14); the names of the Egyptian magicians (2 Timothy 3:8); the hope that sustained Abraham in offering Isaac (Hebrews 11:19); the acknowledgment of Moses (Hebrews 12:21); the motive which strengthened him to leave the court of Pharaoh (Hebrews 11:24), and Egypt (Hebrews 11:27); and the prayer of Elijah (James 5:17). (Bp. Jacobsen.)
When his father was dead He removed him into this land.
The difficulty as to the date of Abraham’s migration
Terah died at Haran at the age of two hundred and five (Genesis 11:32.). From Genesis 11:26 it has been inferred that Terah was not more than seventy at the birth of Abraham; and as Abraham left Haran at seventy-five (Genesis 12:4) it would follow that Terah outlived his departure sixty years. But it is nowhere stated that Abraham was Terah’s eldest son, and the Rabbins reckoned him the youngest. Abraham’s prominence in history as the father of the faithful and the friend of God accounts for his name being placed before that of Haran in Genesis 11:26. In like manner the name of Shem, the youngest, stands first among the sons of Noah (Genesis 9:18; Genesis 10:21); Isaac’s name takes precedence of Ishmael’s (1 Chronicles 1:28); Judah is placed at the head of the list of the sons of Jacob (1 Chronicles 4:1; 1 Chronicles 5:1-2), and Moses is mentioned before his elder brother Aaron. (Bp. Jacobsen.)
And He gave him none inheritance in it … yet He promised, that He would give it to him for a possession.--
The faithfulness of God
Of this we have three illustrations in the verses before us, which are all the more impressive because of their unlikelihood. We have God’s fidelity--
I. To His promises (verse 5). Abraham, without a foot of land, and, being childless and nomadic, not likely to trouble himself about any, was promised that his seed should possess the entire country. We know that this came to pass, and through what a wonderful series of unlikely events it came to pass. This, therefore, is a good sample of all God’s promises--e.g.,
1. Of temporal good. Who that has trusted God’s word in this particular ever knew it to fail? There is no promise of affluence, but there are abundant promises of sufficiency. Some of the richest pages in Christian biography are records of the extraordinary way in which God works the deliverance of His people in poverty, affliction, danger, etc.
2. Of salvation “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” Who ever knew that to fail? It has been proved over and over again in the most hopeless cases. The infidel, men and women to whom abnormal vice has become a second nature, criminals on the verge of execution, have found it true, and in a manner in which the most sanguine could never have expected.
3. Of grace. The Christian is sometimes placed in circumstances of extraordinary trial. Extreme adversity and extreme prosperity, circumstances which have been gradually accumulating until they reach a climax, and circumstances which seem to gather like a thunderous cloud in a moment, expose the Christian to extreme peril. Satan seems to occupy an unshakeable vantage ground, and the good man seems to be helplessly entangled in his toils. Not so. Strangely is there opened “a way of escape,” which would all along have been seen to be open but for temporary blindness of faith.
4. Of glory--the best illustration perhaps of the promise before us. Then there will be given to us what we most seem to want here, but which we have least ground to expect. The poor will have riches, the weary rest, the afflicted blessedness, and, most wonderful of all, the humble Christian worker the glad “well done” and the crown of life.
II. To His prophecies (verse 6). That this prophecy would be fulfilled was most improbable, a general characteristic of most of the Divine predictions. Men make shrewd guesses based upon wide experience and a careful induction of facts, and men marvel when what, to the clear sighted, seemed almost inevitable takes place. Much more should they marvel when God’s Word--based upon what to the most sagacious human reason would pronounce to be no ground at all--comes true; only the wonder should be mixed with adoration. Here, e.g., is the prediction that a childless old man without a foot of territory should have a seed large enough to occupy the land; that a race that did not exist should pass through vicissitudes which are Sufficiently specified for a given number of years. Of alike character are the prophecies concerning Christ and His Church. This being the case with regard to fulfilled prophecies, surely there is good room for faith in those which have not yet come to pass. Having regard to the past who can cease to have hope for the Church or for the world. The Church has not yet come fully into its inheritance--but it is better off than Abraham, who had not a foot of his.
III. To His threatenings (verse 7). The power here threatened was now, and at the time of the fulfilment of the threatening, the mightiest in the world. Yet Egypt was judged. The great world powers afterwards threatened--Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, were in their turn colossal in their strength, yet where are they to-day? And why? Let modern potentates heed the lesson--because they opposed the cause of God; a course as likely to succeed as the effort to keep back the sea with a broom. Conclusion:
1. A sacramental guarantee was given for all this. God entered into solemn covenant with Abraham that promise, prediction, threatening--for all hung together--should be fulfilled, and sealed the covenant by the ordinance of circumcision. And what is a Christian’s baptism but a seal of a covenant of promise involving everything else for this life and the life to come; and what is the Lord’s supper but a memorial to all generations of the present support and ultimate triumph of the Church of Christ?
(1) God takes time for the evolution of His purposes. Four hundred years was not too long for the working out of His purposes concerning Israel; four thousand years are not too long for Him to whom one thousand years is as one day.
(2) Man must therefore wait. Patience is the grace supremely needed in this relation. Let us not, like faithless Israel, forget or despair. (J. W. Burn.)
And God spoke in this wise, that his seed should sojourn in a strange land.--
Sojourners in a strange land
I. The sojourners--Abraham’s seed the spiritual progenitors of believers. “They that are of faith are the seed of Abraham.” The Jews were--
1. A chosen people; so Christians are a chosen generation.
2. A separated people. In whatever circumstances we find them they will not mix. They would not in Egypt; they will not to-day. So a distinguishing mark of Christians is separation from the world--“What concord hath Christ with Belial.”
3. A people owned of God--“I will be their God; they shall be My people.” His own inheritance, portion, “special treasure.” Observe also, that this people owned their God. In their feasts, sacrifices, offerings, first-born. God was to be owned as their God in all. They were not to take a journey nor engage in battle without first asking God. Another and a double mark of Christian character.
4. A blessed people. “Blessed art thou in Israel,” etc., and all who are of the faith are recipients of “the blessing of Abraham.” The covenant treasures laid up in Christ Jesus, the righteousness which is by faith.
II. The sojourning. We should never consider the world through which we are passing as any other than a strange land. Do not think of building your nests as if you were to be always at home here. Leave the worldling to his toys, and let us contemplate the fact that we are only strangers and sojourners as all our fathers were.
1. Abraham’s seed are considered strange beings in this world--so strange, that they are held “an abomination,” and positively offensive (Genesis 43:32). The case is not altered in the present day. “The world knoweth us not, because it knows Him not.” “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God,” etc. He who is “born after the flesh” is still as bent upon persecuting him who is “born after the Spirit” as in Paul’s days. Nor can the servants of Satan, the soldiers of Sihon and Og, allow the Israel of God to pass through their territories unmolested. And yet I am anxious that all the seed of Abraham should be able so to live, that their very enemies may come to the same conclusion that the enemies of Daniel did (Daniel 6:5).
2. They are annoyed with strange things as they pass through this strange land with its--
3. Though grievously annoyed, yet they advance continually in the face of every obstacle and foe. Nothing stops them; on they must go. But how was it that no powers could arrest, no floods or plains intimidate, or armies vanquish Abraham’s seed? Just because God went before them as their guide, a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. And is it not the same now? The Lord is a wall of fire round about them that fear Him. The real advancement of the seed of Abraham will always include these two things; an advancement in the knowledge of ourselves that shall lay us low; and in the knowledge of Jesus that shall elevate and cheer us.
III. The kingdom beyond. It was Jehovah’s good pleasure to give His people Canaan, and they got it not with sword or bow. They did not deserve it, for they were a stiff-necked and perverse generation, but it was Jehovah’s good pleasure to give it to them, just as “it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.” Many things might be said about this kingdom; but note these: We shall then be so situated as to be above all annoyances, in a kingdom where there is not an unwholesome law; where there is not a dissenting voice from the will of the Monarch; where there is no infirmity, and nothing but joy, and peace, and righteousness. (J. Irons.)
And that they should bring them into bondage, and entreat them evil four hundred years.--
The duration of the sojourning
Verses 6 and 7 are quoted, not with verbal exactness, from Genesis 15:13-14 according to the LXX. A parenthesis marked after “land” and “evil” would make it clear that the four hundred years are the length of the entire time during which Abraham and his descendants were to be sojourners, i.e., to have no country of their own. The Egyptian servitude did not begin till after the death of Joseph, and did not exceed two hundred and fifteen years. If the calculation is made from the weaning of Isaac, the interval is exactly four hundred years. In speaking, the round number was used instead of the precise total of four hundred and thirty years; which is given in the historical statement (Exodus 12:40), quoted Galatians 3:17, which the received chronology makes to be the interval between Abraham’s going down into Egypt and the Exodus. The same variation is found in Josephus, who states in his history that the Israelites quitted Egypt in the four hundred and thirtieth year; but in a report of a speech of his own in the “Wars” he gives the duration four hundred years. (Bp. Jacobson.)
And the patriarchs, moved with envy, sold Joseph into Egypt; but God was with him.
The patriarchs and their younger brother
This picture of patriarchal life is not a flattering one, and was “written for our learning.” Jacob, by no means a model son, was not a model parent, and was blind to the evils of parental favouritism so signally illustrated in his early history. There can be no doubt that his conspicuous preference for Joseph was the root, if not the immediate occasion, of the “envy” of the text. Joseph’s brethren, however, stand in a worse light. No one, much less a brother, should suffer for the faults of others. Even supposing that parental affection was having an ill effect on their young relative, fraternal influence ought have done much to check it; and brotherly chivalry should have suggested a less drastic course than that which they pursued. Note--
I. Their Motive--“envy.”
1. Its ultimate cause. Occasioned by Jacob’s partiality, it grew to portentous proportions by Joseph’s dreams. No doubt Joseph was very foolish to tell them his dreams, knowing, as he must have done, their attitude towards him, and, as he might have guessed, the motive which they would impute to him. Even Jacob protested against the dream which indicated that “sun and moon” as well as “the eleven stars” would have to bow down to the young dreamer. Hence Joseph has been credited with egregious vanity; but there is nothing in the narrative which is inconsistent with childish simplicity.
2. Its evil. Apart from its consequences, envy is the greatest curse with which a man can be afflicted. It is not hard to read between the lines and see the misery of the eleven patriarchs as they brooded over their brother’s offence and plotted his ruin. We see the evil of it nowadays in the wretchedness of the men who nurse revenge, or who are covetous of their neighbours’ talents, position, or wealth.
II. Their act. There are no lengths to which envy will not go.
1. They plotted Joseph’s murder, and how many men’s reputation, fortune, or even life, have been murdered through envy! And they were guilty of it inasmuch as it was in their heart.
2. Reuben’s timely interposition gave their rage time to cool, and Judah’s cool calculation saw ultimately a personal advantage in sparing their brother’s life. Envy at white heat studies only revenge regardless of consequences; envy with a dash of reason in it plots for one’s own advantage at another’s expense. Hence they argued, “What is the use of killing him when sparing him means money.” So they sold him into Egypt. Not that their hard hearts were in the least softened, for they knew that in all human probability he was going into a life that was worse than death.
III. Their frustration. “But”--what a turn this little word gives for better or for worse I If we read something good about a man the conjunction prepares us for the inevitable detraction which follows. Naaman was a great man, “but he was a leper.” The word, however, gives a bright turn sometimes to history, as in the text.
1. Joseph was delivered out of all his afflictions.
2. He was made governor over all Egypt. The opposite of all they intended came to pass. How often are the designs of envy thus frustrated, and the evil passion smothered by what it hoped to consume!
IV. Their humiliation.
1. They became dependents on their evil-intreated brother. Imagine the situation. They were now begging bread of the lad whom they thought to murder; the eleven stars were prostrate before the star they thought to eclipse. Many other envious men have been brought into the same situation.
2. Joseph overwhelmed them with his forgiveness and generosity; showing the other side of revenge, and the proper attribute of the Christian towards those who envy him. “If thine enemy hunger, feed him,” etc.
1. How uncalculated forces in human life may operate to the dismay of the wicked and to the frustration of evil plans. The patriarchs, like all persecutors, left God out of their calculations.
2. How the very means employed to afflict the righteous may be the very instruments of their prosperity. Had Joseph not been sold to the Ishmaelites he had never been governor of Egypt.
3. How what is intended for the destruction of one may be the salvation of many! Had Joseph not been sold into Egypt, Egypt might not have had its bounteous harvest, and Joseph and his whole family might have perished. (J. W. Burn.)
Examples of envy
We shall find it in Cain, the proto-murderer, who slew his brother at the instigation of envy. We shall find it in the dark and gloomy and revengeful spirit of Saul, who, under the influence of envy, plotted for years the slaughter of David. We shall find it in the king of Israel, when he pined for the vineyard of Naboth, and shed his blood to gain it. Yea, it was envy that perpetrated that most atrocious crime ever planned in hell or executed on earth, on which the sun refused to look, and at which Nature gave signs of abhorrence by the rending of the rocks: I mean the crucifixion of Christ; for the Evangelist tells us that for envy the Jews delivered our Lord. (J. A. James.)
Envy: its grounds
As a shadow accompanies those that walk in the sun, so envy is a constant companion of those that excel others. As there is no shadow where there is no sun, so there is no envy where there is no prosperity. The infatuated Caligula slew his brother because he was a beautiful young man. Mutius, a citizen of Rome, was noted to be of such an envious and malevolent disposition, that Publius, one day, observing him to be very sad, said, “Either some great evil has happened to Mutius, or some great good to another.” “Dionysius the tyrant,” says Plutarch, “out of envy, punished Philoxenius the musician because he could sing, and Plato the philosopher because he could dispute better than himself.” Cambyses killed his brother Smerdis because he could draw a stronger bow than himself or any of his party.
Envy: its evils
As the joys of the happy increase, the sorrows of the envious multiply. As a ship tossed with continual waves, so the envious is always in trouble of mind, repining at the success of others. (Cawdray.)
Envy personally hurtful
The adder and the toad have deadly poison in them, which hurt others, but not themselves; but envy is so deadly, that it killeth him that hath it, and others also. The envious man frets and pines away when others do well. He cannot eat or sleep quietly, unless some mischief falls on the person he envies. (Cawdray.)
I remember reading somewhere in a Grecian story of a man who killed himself through envy. His fellow citizens had reared a statue to one of their number who was a celebrated victor in the public games. So strong was the feeling of envy which this incited in the breast of one of the hero’s rivals, that he went forth every night, in order, if possible, to destroy that monument. After repeated efforts he moved it from its pedestal, and it fell, and in its fall it crushed him. An unintentional symbolic act was this, showing the suicidal action of envy on the soul. It is ever an element of misery, a burning coal which “comes hissing hot from hell.” (D. Thomas, D. D.)
Envy: its good
Envy, like the worm, never runs but to the fairest fruit: like a cunning bloodhound, it singles out the fattest deer in the flock. Abraham’s riches were the Philistines’ envy; and Jacob’s blessing bred Esau’s hatred. (J. Beaumont.)
Envy: its universality
Envy is a weed that grows in all soils and climates, and is no less luxuriant in the country than in the court; is not confined to any rank of men or extent of fortune, but rages in the breasts of all degrees. Alexander was not prouder than Diogenes; and it may be, if we would endeavour to surprise it in its most gaudy dress and attire, and in the exercise of its full empire and tyranny, we should find it in schoolmasters and scholars, or in some country lady, or the knight her husband; all which ranks of people more despise their neighbours than all the degrees of honour in which courts abound; and it rages as much in a sordid, affected dress as in all the silks and embroideries which the excess of the age and the folly of youth delight to be adorned with. (Lord Clarendon.)
Envy: advantage of benevolence over
The benevolent have the advantage of the envious, even in this present life; for the envious is tormented not only by all the ill that befalls himself, but by all the good that happens to another: whereas the benevolent man is the better prepared to bear his own calamities unruffled, from the complacency and serenity he has secured from contemplating the prosperity of all around him. (Colton.)
Joseph’s afflictions and advancement
I. His afflictions.
1. Their causes.
(1) The envy of the patriarchs.
(2) The desires of Potiphar’s wife.
(3) The forgetfulness of the cupbearer.
2. In what they consisted.
(1) Incivilities of his brethren.
(2) Loss of liberty.
(3) Exile from home.
(4) False accusation and imprisonment.
II. His advancement.
1. God was with him.
2. God delivered him out of all his afflictions.
3. God gave him favour and wisdom in the sight of Pharaoh.
4. Pharaoh made him governor, etc. (Biblical Museum.)
Joseph a type of Christ
I. In the afflictions he suffered.
1. He was hated by his brethren.
2. He was sold as a slave.
II. In the beauty of his character. This is seen clearly in every recorded incident of his life, but especially--
1. In the manner in which he resisted temptation.
2. In the spirit of forgiveness he manifested.
III. In the counsel he imparted.
1. His counsel was wise (Genesis 41:33-40; Genesis 45:24).
2. Wise because God directed. Joseph, like Daniel, taught of God. So of Jesus we read, “Never man spake,” etc. (John 7:46). “In Him are hid all the treasures of wisdom” (Colossians 2:3). “I counsel thee buy of Me,” etc. (Revelation 3:18).
IV. In the deliverance he accomplished.
1. From famine and death.
2. For Jew and Gentile, for his brethren, also for Egyptians and all countries round Egypt (Genesis 41:56-57).
V. In the exaltation he obtained.
1. It was obtained through humility and fidelity.
2. It was acknowledged even by his foes. So Christ is exalted (Philippians 2:5-11). (F. Joseph.)
Joseph a type of Christ
I. In his humiliation
1. His father’s beloved son, but his brethren’s derision and offence.
2. Conscious from childhood of future greatness, only attained by suffering.
3. He was hated by his own; sold into the hands of sinners; falsely accused, and unjustly condemned.
II. In his exaltation.
1. Crowned with honour after trial, shame, and suffering
2. Placed for a blessing over a famishing people.
3. Recognised with trembling by those who once denied and persecuted him.
4. Rewarding with favour and kindness those who did him evil. (Preacher’s Monthly.)
Pharaoh … made him governor.--
He exchanges a captive’s chain for ornaments of gold; the prison, garb for courtly vesture; the narrow walls of a jail for crowded streets, through which, amid acclaims that rend the skies, he is borne in a royal chariot. He was Potiphar’s slave; he has become Potiphar’s lord. He begged favours of a butler; the proudest princes of Egypt now live in his smiles, and tremble at his frown. (T. Guthrie, D. D.)
And at the second time Joseph was made known to his brethren.--
The second time
There is a plain parallel between Joseph and Jesus, his brethren and ourselves. Certain classes of real seekers do not at once find peace: they go to Jesus after a fashion, and return from Him as they went. Our fear is that they may grow indifferent or despairing. Our hope is that they will go again, and before long discover the great secret, and find food for their souls. To this end we would follow the track of Joseph’s story, and use it as an allegory for the benefit of the seeker.
I. There is a something which you do not know. The sons of Israel did not know Joseph. Like them--
1. You have no idea of who and what Jesus is. Power and pity blend in Him. He is far more than He seems.
2. You view Him only as great, lordly, unapproachable; a great and stern governor and tax-master.
3. You do not know that He is your brother, one with you in nature, relationship, and love.
4. You cannot conceive how He loves; He yearns to make Himself known; His heart is swollen big with compassion.
5. You cannot guess what He will do for you: all that He is and has shall be at your disposal. Picture the Israelitish shepherds in the presence of the exalted Egyptian prince, as he stands veiled in mystery, girded with power, and surrounded with honour. Little could they imagine that this was Joseph their brother.
II. There is a reason why at your first going you have not learned this. Joseph was not made known to his brethren on their first journey, nor have you yet found out Jesus so as to know His love.
1. You have not looked for Him. The sons of Jacob went to Egypt for corn, not for a brother. You are looking for comfort, etc., not for the Saviour.
2. You have not yet felt your sin against Jesus, and He would bring you to repentence, even as Joseph brought his brethren to confess their great wrong.
3. You have not gone with your whole force. As the brothers left Benjamin at home, so have you left some faculty or capacity dormant, or chill, in your seeking for grace.
4. You have a larger blessing through the delay; and the Lord Jesus will in the most seasonable hour reveal Himself, as Joseph did. Till then He refrains.
III. There is great hope in tour going again to him. Joseph’s brethren made a great discovery the second time; you are in similar circumstances to them. Go a second time; for--
1. You must go or perish. There was corn only in Egypt; and there is salvation only in Christ.
2. Others have gone and speeded. All nations went to Egypt, and none were refused. Has Jesus cast out one?
3. You have lingered too long already, even as did Israel’s sons.
4. A welcome awaits you. Joseph longed to see his brethren, and Jesus longs to see you.
IV. There are forecasts of what will happen if you go. The story lends itself to prophecy. As the sons of Israel fared with Joseph, so shall you fare with Jesus.
1. You will tremble in His presence.
2. He will bid you draw near.
3. He will comfort you by revealing Himself to you.
4. He will bless and enrich you and send you home rejoicing, to fetch all your family to Him.
5. He will rule all the world for your sake, and you shall be with Him, and be nourished by Him.
1. Let us hasten to go to our Saviour the second time.
2. Surely this is the season, for the Holy Ghost saith “to-day.” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
All his kindred, threescore and fifteen souls.
Seventy is given as the number, including Jacob, Joseph, and his two sons, in Genesis 46:27; Exodus 1:5; Deuteronomy 10:22. Here, however, Stephen had the authority of the LXX. of Genesis 46:27, which gives the number at seventy-five and makes it up by inserting the son and grandson of Manasseh, two sons and a grandson of Ephraim. With them it was probably an editorial correction based upon Numbers 26:27. Stephen, as an Hellenistic Jew, naturally accepted, without caring to investigate, the number which he found in the Greek version. (Dean Plumptre.)
But when the time of the promise drew nigh.
The fidelity of God to His promises
What a faithful God! He does not forget His promise, but fulfils it even long after the death of the man. Mark this, thou disheartened teacher: thou mayest not see the use of this thy work, and thou mayest in the meantime with Abraham fall asleep; yet God will fulfil His promise after thy death. (Apostolic Pastor.)
In which time Moses was born.
Moses, a man of God and a man of the people
I. From the people, according to flesh and blood.
II. Above the people, according to spirit and character.
III. For the people, in word and in deed.
IV. Against the people, where the law of God was concerned. (K. Gerok.)
Moses, a pattern of God’s chosen instruments
1. The metal from which He takes them.
2. The fire in which He forges them.
3. The tests by which He proves them.
4. The deeds which He performs by them. (K. Gerok.)
Moses, a true reformer
Every reformer needs--
1. Profound knowledge and living experience of the heart.
2. Clear insight into the times.
3. Warm heart for the people.
4. Heroic courage in the face of the world.
5. Childlike humility before God and His Word. (K. Gerok.)
The training of Moses, an example how God prepares His chosen instruments
1. By great dangers and mighty deliverances (Acts 7:21).
2. By human instruction (Acts 7:22), and Divine illumination (Acts 7:30).
3. By the experience of the world (verss 22-24), and quiet intercourse with our own heart (Acts 7:29).
4. By deep humiliations (Acts 7:27-28), and high proofs of favours (Acts 7:32-34). Observe similar experiences in Joseph, David, Elijah, Paul, Luther, etc. (K. Gerok.)
Moses and Christ
I. Wherein Moses resembles Christ.
1. Both accredited by God--
(1) By a wonderful deliverance in infancy (Pharaoh and Herod).
(2) By their silent ripening for their great mission (Moses at court and in the wilderness; Christ in the cottage and the wilderness).
(3) By their solemn call to office (Moses at Horeb, Christ at Jordan).
(4) By the rich manifestation of the Spirit and of power (Moses “mighty in words and deeds,” Jesus “mighty in deeds and words”).
(5) By the deliverances wrought out by them.
(6) By the judgments inflicted on an ungrateful and disobedient people.
2. Both rejected by their nation.
(1) Their Divine mission was apprehended (Acts 7:27).
(2) Their pure intention calumniated (Acts 7:28).
(3) The freedom offered to the despised (Acts 7:39).
(4) Their memory blotted out by an ungrateful generation (Acts 7:40).
II. Wherein Christ is superior to Moses.
1. Moses redeems from bodily, Christ from spiritual bondage.
2. Moses redeems Israel, Christ mankind.
3. Moses effects a temporal, Christ an eternal salvation.
4. Moses acts as servant, Christ as Lord. (K. Gerok.)
And was exceeding fair.--
God gave him that tallness when he was three years old, as was wonderful; and as for his beauty, there was nobody so unpolite, as when they saw Moses, they were not greatly surprised. Nay, it happened frequently, that those who met him as he was carried along the road, were obliged to turn again on seeing the child; that they left what they were about, and stood still a great while to look on him. (Josephus.)
Beauty a Divine talent
Beauty, if given to God, is indeed a talent not to be despised. It adds grace to our actions, a lustre to our virtues, and eloquence to our words. But if it be not defalcated to the service of God, it becomes a deadly poison, both to ourselves and others. (Dr. Wogan.)
Beauty, its criterion
If true, it increases on examination; if false, it lessens. (Lord Greville.)
Virtue necessary to beauty
Beauty unaccompanied by virtue is a flower without perfume.
And when he was cast out Pharaoh’s daughter took him up.--
What God wills to live no tyrant can destroy. Pharaoh, who had given a cruel order for Moses’ death, must bring him up in his own court. The Lord knows how to protect His chosen, and makes their enemies their servants. (K. Gerok.)
And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.--
I. The education of Moses.
1. He was instructed by strangers. Pharaoh’s daughter had him taught Egyptian learning at her own expense, as children have to be taught in schools by strangers. Instruction by parents not always possible, because of their ignorance, labour, etc.
(1) God appointed a princess, as if to honour the teacher’s office. People say any one will do; but if your watch-spring is broken, do you take it to a blacksmith? Can a common mind guide that delicate, ethereal thing, a child’s soul? We want first-rate men. Miserable economy in parents! Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. You weigh your child’s mind against copper.
(2) Consider the influence of teachers. Three thousand five hundred years an Egyptian princess took a poor man’s child and taught him. The result of that education is not over yet. Compare her influence with Pharaoh’s. To rule in a single heart is greater than the proudest sway. The teacher is greater than the king. Here is a man perched on high, dressed in a little brief authority, with fingers pointing: That is he! And here is Christ with little children round Him.
2. He was under home influences. By a merciful arrangement Moses’ early years were entirely superintended by Pharaoh’s daughter. His mother nursed him. The princess gave him instruction, his mother education. People think education reading, writing, etc.; loading the memory with information and making preparation for a profession; but that is only the wisdom of Egypt. We must distinguish between education and instruction. The former is to unfold nature; to strengthen good and conquer evil; to give self-help; to make a man. The teacher cannot give this. You want influence bearing on the heart. Now influence is given at home. God gives the father to impart strength of will, and the mother tenderness of affection. Moses owed his lawgiving, politics, etc., to the princess; his religion to Jochebed. Jochebed that woman of poverty and toil, her hands black with brick-making; Jochebed that woman of faith, ennobled to defy the might of Egypt. Mothers, know your work! God has given you the destinies of the world. Our schools fail for the want of mothers and home influences.
3. He was disciplined by circumstances. Pharaoh’s daughter had done something, and Moses’ mother something, but there were other things needed beyond man’s control.
(1) He belonged to an oppressed nation: hence his patriotism--that deep, long devotion to one vast cause which only can be felt in such circumstances.
(2) He was a banished man: hence his sympathy with the crushed.
(3) He was a solitary man: hence his depth and solemnity of character.
(4) He was a traveller: hence his knowledge of the world and man, and his enlarged views.
4. But he needed some sudden impulse. It came in the burning bush, and from thence the man of learning became the man of public action. Observe from all this--
(1) That education goes on through life. After he left Egypt and home his development continued. The lot of many is poverty: hence their fondness of character. It is often the lot of the orphan: hence may spring self-help; or, if the disposition be weak, bad habits. Riches may obstruct the child’s moral growth, and produce, in spite of expensive education, only indolence of character. Again, we are disciplined by public circumstances. We live in time of war or peace, during a revolution, or in an age of trade, science, and philosophy--all this disciplines character. We talk of “finished education.” Education only ends when a man is in his winding-sheet. Observe--education is useful to call forth power to grapple with and modify circumstances. Trees on the sea-coast or in stony soil are thwarted, yet they may be pushed by agriculture. The best agriculture is in Scotland, which has but a poor soil.
(2) Education is God’s work, for circumstances come from God. Teaching cannot do all; we must look for fruit from God. We must war for our best impulses, which come like a flash, unexpectedly. “The wind bloweth where it listeth,” etc. Look back on our lives: what governed our most remarkable moments and alteration in character? Not systematic education; but some impression like that of Moses in the wilderness, that locked like chance--an impression from some great soul, or an old truth forcibly put.
II. Its results.
1. On his own character.
(1) Mentally, it gave him the habit of inquiry. He turns aside “to see why the bush is not burnt.” Other men would have simply seen the bush on fire. The first thing in education is to encourage this habit. When your child asks, “What is the use of this?” etc., do not call it troublesome. But not in duty. “Why” in phenomena is the acknowledgment of ignorance, but in practical duties it is the boast of presumption.
(2) Morally, it gave him boldness and tenderness. Many men are bold, yet tyrannical; many tender, yet weak. The perfect character joins both. Moses was ever the champion of the oppressed--his brethren, Jethro’s daughters.
(3) Religiously, it gave him--
(a) Reverence. He takes off his shoes.
(b) Obedience. God says, “Go before Pharaoh,” and Moses braves the angry king.
(c) Meekness. He was humble as a child. This is what is meant by education--mental power, moral worth, religious character.
2. On his nation the chief result was the elevation of the labouring classes. The Egyptian policy was to keep Israel down, to refuse them educational and political advantages, to prevent their increase. The task of Moses was their emancipation. So is that of every Christian. To elevate the labouring classes, however, is not to exempt them from toil. Labour is a blessing; it brings out strength of character. Nor is it to break down classes, but by Christianity and education to level up. Thank God the time has passed when the English policy was the policy of Egypt. The insane cry once was, “The people must not be educated, because it will unfit them for their station.” Now the mighty chasm between rich and poor is filling up. (F. W. Robertson, M. A.)
Human learning recommended from the example of Moses
I. Inquire into the education and attainments of Moses, who is here said to have been learned in all the wisdom of the egyptians.
II. Deduce the lawfulness and explain the advantages of human learning, in opposition to those weak sophisms which some conceited novelists have imagined to the contrary. But there is little need of authority to recommend that which does so amply recommend itself. Such is the excellency of human learning, that it is impossible to conceive how anything so entertaining in the theory, so useful in the application, and withal so ornamental in the figure it makes, should be unlawful to be acquired, or should not, indeed, rather be highly worthy of the most laborious pursuits. The mind of man is capable of great improvements, not to be attained but by much pains and study: from whence we see every day the mighty difference between a liberal and sordid education. In the one, human nature seems only to resemble the rude lines of an unfinished piece, which may, indeed, discover the bulk that is designed, but without that beauty, order, and proportion which should recommend it. In the other it is, as it were, finished by the artist’s hand, and seems to want nothing that should make it lovely and agreeable. I forbear to expatiate farther on the transporting pleasures which arise from learning; in regard its excellency is such that it serves not only to please, but profit, to improve the mind with useful lessons and instructions, as well as entertain it with delightful speculations. The necessity of virtue is more clearly discerned, and the measures of our duty are more easily prescribed, when men are able to perceive the consequences of their actions, and infer fit rules of life from their observation of the nature of things. They are likewise better able to gain advantage to themselves, and go the readiest way to work in any enterprise, when they know the connection between causes and effects, and have all the experience of former ages which learning can afford. Nor is its influence confined at home, but, diffusive of itself, extends to all that stand in any way related to us, The philosopher, studies not only for himself, but for the common benefit of human kind; and, by his useful discoveries, unfolds those secrets for the public good, which had been otherwise locked up in the profoundest silence. The power of medicine to heal diseases might have remained a secret, and mankind have been for ever destitute of wholesome remedies, were it not for such cultivation and improvement of the mind as human learning gives. I need not observe to you how the several arts of arithmetic, geometry, navigation, and the rest, conduce to the good order and government of the world, to the adjusting men’s various rights and interests, to the symmetry, and thereby to the duration, of buildings, to the conjunction of countries far distant in situation, and thereby to the better carrying on of trade and commerce. Nor can you want to be reminded that an inquiry into the nature of moral good and evil must likewise be of general use, beneficial to the public as well as to the student, qualifying some for the information and tuition of others, to furnish them that have less leisure and abilities with true principles, and instruct them fully in the nature of their duty. And from the whole it will be obvious to collect what ought not to be omitted upon this occasion, that those first rudiments of literature we learn at school must needs be highly beneficial as laying the foundation for all the rest, and being, indeed, the proper groundwork upon which any part of human learning should be built. The enthusiast, in the first place, objects against it as deceitful or vexatious, or at best but useless. The deceitfulness of human learning he would build upon St. Paul’s authority, who calls it philosophy and vain deceit, and warns his Colossians beware lest any man should spoil them by it. But they who make this objection would do well to distinguish between the different ends and uses to which learning is applied. The right end of it is to serve for the better illustration and discovery of truth; and when it is subservient to this purpose, the Holy Scripture is so far from condemning it, that it recommends it rather as highly beneficial. It is not then, you see, the thing itself, but the abuse or vain pretence of it the apostle blames. Nor are they less deceived in the argument they draw from the vexatiousness and uncertainty of human learning, which the wisest of men reckoned to be but “vanity and vexation of spirit,” because that “in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” For here again there is a pertinent distinction to be made between the study of human learning, looked upon as being itself our supreme good and happiness, and as a means only which may be subservient and conducive to it. It was Solomon’s business, in his book of Ecclesiastes, to show that nothing but religion or the fear of God can make us truly happy. To that end, he observes the vanity of all other schemes of happiness, and among them, how even learning itself, though it bids fairer than the rest, is yet very defective, and will leave the man far short of happiness who has no higher aims, especially if he be (as without religion men are too apt to be) over-curious to search deeper than human reason can fathom, and unwilling to resolve everything at last into unsearchable wisdom and omnipotence. But this is no real disparagement to that wisdom and knowledge which, being kept subordinate and made subservient to religious purposes, does humbly admire what it cannot comprehend, and therefore can be no just objection against that right use of human learning which I am at present desirous to recommend. I have but one objection more to examine, and that is the freethinker’s, who reckons every man ought to judge in all matters for himself, and not suffer himself to be influenced by the skill and learning of another; but especially that it is most unreasonable, by arts of rhetoric and moving eloquence, to work on the affections of vulgar minds, and so prevail with them to do that to which they would otherwise be most averse. Let it be returned that no man’s liberty of judging is taken from him by having reasons offered to direct his judgment; but he ever judges with the greatest freedom who judges most consistently with the appearance of reason and truth. If the matter be such as he is capable of examining himself, he ought seriously to weigh whatever is thus offered, and either to reject or admit it, as shall appear most reasonable upon mature deliberation. But if the matter be above his reach, it will be but equitable to believe the learned in their own profession, since he can have no other way of discovering the truth. He is not to follow them where he finds they are in error, any more than he would wittingly take a cup of poison if it were recommended to him by a skilful physician. But then neither may he neglect their direction, where his own judgment fails or wavers, any more than he would refuse the medicine prescribed by his physician, for no other reason but because he is not thoroughly acquainted with the quality and power of those ingredients of which it is compounded--always remembering to apply himself to God for His special blessing and favourable assistance. And then, as to the other part of the objection, although I shall allow the moving of men’s passions, where there are no reasons, either directly offered, or at least presupposed, for the conviction of their judgment, to be an absurd and unjust way of proceeding, yet so many are the instances where people act against their judgment, and are backward to do that which they cannot but confess fittest to be done, that it deserves to be esteemed, not a lawful only, but a necessary art, to stir up the affections, even where the understanding is sufficiently informed before.
III. Inferences from all that has been said.
1. Such being the manifold and great advantages of human learning, let us be thankful to Almighty God, who has made our nature capable of such improvements. It is sure a very easy return for the blessings we receive, to acknowledge the bounty of Him who gave them; and he must be most unworthy of the benefit bestowed who will not own it to be one.
2. Let those who are set apart to such studies be careful to improve the talents committed to their trust.
3. Let those who reap benefit from their labours of this kind value in return and esteem them for their works’ sake. The advantages, we see, are great which redound to the public from the studies of the learned; and therefore gratitude requires that the public should make suitable acknowledgments to those persons by whose means such advantages are derived to them.
4. Let us all, therefore, in our several stations and capacities encourage the study and increase of useful learning, by our exhortation, our contribution, or our own industry. (W. Berriman, D. D.)
And when he was full forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren.
The patriotism of Moses
I. Long nursed--“forty years.”
1. Inspired by his mother. The precious time during which he was entrusted by the princess to the care of his nurse, Jochebed, would, we may be sure, be well employed, and subsequent opportunities would be utilised for reminding him of who he was, and of his possible destiny as the leader of his race. No throne in the universe is so potent as the mother’s knee for good or evil.
2. Cherished among smothering influences.
(1) Gratitude to his deliverer.
(2) Egyptian learning and court training.
(3) Prospects of advancement, even to the throne of Egypt. It must have required a very deep-seated patriotic instinct to have resisted all this.
II. Prematurely exhibited.
1. Without a Divine call. Moses acted on the spasmodic impulse of the moment. Here was a palpable opportunity--the first which presented itself--of showing his long-nursed patriotism, and the ill-usage of his brethren acted like a spark on a train of gunpowder. Many men call themselves to rectify certain evils, and mistake a seeming opportunity for the voice of God. Passion, however noble, is not inspiration. This is seen in its effects. That which leads to murder, however great the provocation, as in the case of Moses and the French Revolution, is manifestly not from heaven. When the hour comes the man will be inspired; let the man, then, wait for the hour.
2. Without the least chance of success. What was one man, even suppose that he was sure of the loyalty of the unorganised slaves, against the disciplined might of Egypt? This has been the mistake of well-meaning but impulsive patriots all through history, and the results have ever been fatal to the interests of those whom they would have served.
III. Eventually rectified. Moses soon saw that force was no remedy, and that his people were hardly fit for immediate emancipation. What chance of liberation for a people divided amongst themselves? Union is strength; and Moses began to educate the people in the two great unifying principles--
1. Fraternity. “Sirs, ye are brethren.” Moses saw that the only hope for Israel was the cultivation of brotherly feeling. Other ties without this are ropes of sand.
2. Justice. “Why do ye wrong?” The fetters of internal wrong-doing are far stronger than those imposed from without. Tyrants are safe when their subjects are depraved. If a community would successfully resist the iniquities of the powers that be, they must be law-abiding themselves. Agitators are at length recognising this principle, and passionately appeal to their followers not to break the law.
IV. Ungratefully repudiated. When Moses smote the Egyptian no protest was raised; but on attempting to sow the seeds of self-deliverance he met with the fate of many reformers. Most people are willing to be helped; but when urged to help themselves, the whole situation is often changed. They had no objection to Moses being a ruler and a judge when he assailed the oppressor; but when he advised the oppressed to follow a more successful but prosaic and unromantic course, the worst feelings of jealousy were aroused. The public sentiment towards Cromwell was very different when he was driving out the Stuarts from that which was expressed when reducing the chaotic national elements to order.
V. Suddenly abandoned. “Then fled Moses.”
1. Not, we may well believe, through sheer cowardice. Fear of Pharaoh had something to do with it, no doubt; but this was the fear of a man who felt that he would have to encounter the monarch alone. The cause was hopeless; he would have no following; it was useless to throw his life away.
2. Disgust, we may believe, had something to do with it. Why should he sacrifice himself for a people who would not even treat him with common gratitude. “Those who would be free must themselves strike the blow.” Moses adopted the right course. He accepted the inevitable. The time was not ripe, nor was he--a lesson for all would-be patriots and reformers.
VI. Divinely revived. That his patriotism died out in Midian is obvious from his reluctance to embark on the mission when the time had come. By minding other people’s business he had lost everything; henceforth he would mind his own, And he did so for forty years. But all this time he was being Divinely qualified. His character matured, his old impulsiveness was gone. Cool reason took the place of spasmodic passion. He became familiar with habits and scenes which stood him in good stead for the next forty years. The time came, and when it came the fire of the bush laid hold of his soul, and the Divinely-inspired leader went to beard Pharaoh and to lead his brethren out of the house of bondage. (J. W. Burn.)
A true leader of the people
These words were spoken by the Christian martyr, Stephen, when he was standing before the Jewish council. He was accused of seeking to overthrow the institutions of Moses, and his mind not unnaturally reverted to the time when Moses himself was an innovator, and repelled by the ancestors of the very men who now taxed Stephen with seeking to change the customs which he had delivered to them. The passage in the life of Moses which Stephen relates gives us an example of--
I. The true leader’s instinct. He went to see his brethren, and to look on their burdens. This is the instinct of a true leader. He does it from policy; for how can the general regulate the marches unless he knows how much the soldier has to carry? Or how can he prescribe methods of lightening burdens unless he knows of what they consist? But not only from policy; from piety and humanity. The true leader’s nature comprises the true shepherd’s nature--not the robber’s or the mere hireling’s.
II. The true leader’s mistake. He supposed the people would understand. A superiorly-gifted mind often finds a peculiar difficulty in judging of average human nature, and its calculations may prove to be ill-founded.
III. The true leader’s aim. It is to cause unity to be recognised; for what but unity can give the power which it is his nature and his function to wield? Here there was no absence of natural grounds of union. They had two of the strongest--oneness of race and a common oppressor.
IV. The true leader’s disappointment. That his efforts to promote union were in vain. But in the case of the Israelites, blindness was combined with jealousy. They saw in Moses only a man of their own order. “His own received him not.” Stephen might well recall these circumstances when he was standing before that tribunal of his countrymen, which was perpetrating a still greater refusal. The repulse was a personal one; but the disappointment was far from being merely personal. (Homilist.)
And when the forty years were expired there appeared to him an angel of the Lord in a flame of fire in a bush.
The burning bush
A sign and a type--
I. Of Israel. As in Egypt, it resembled a degenerate and wild thorn hedge, burning, but not consumed, in the glow of the brick-kiln, and in the heat of trial.
II. Of The Messiah. According to His human lowliness--a thorn bush, and Divine glory--the flame in the bush, inseparable in one person--the bush not consumed.
III. Of the Christian Church, in its insignificant cross form, constant trial, and indistructible powers of life. This bush has now burned fez nearly two thousand years, and yet we have never seen its ashes. (K. Gerok.)
The fear of Moses
I. Its nature.
1. It was not slavish fear.
2. But pious humility. How good is it for a teacher, who must so often stand upon holy ground, to experience this trembling, not only at the commencement, but during the continuance of his ministry.
II. Its effects. This filial fear and reverence will be--
1. A barrier by which useless words, vain gestures, and other sinful things will be prevented.
2. An incentive to speak and act as before God, in God, and from God. (Apostolic Pastor.)
Put off thy shoes.
An exhortation to put off earthly stains and conceited pride in the presence of God.
1. For ministers, in the study and in the pulpit.
2. For hearers in their church-going and at worship. (K. Gerok.)
I have seen, I have seen the affliction of My people.--
The greater our need the nearer God
1. He sees the sufferings of His people.
2. He hears the sighs of believers.
3. He comes down at the proper time.
4. He sends out His servants. (K. Gerok.)
The people of God
I. God has a people. “My people.”
1. Chosen by Him.
2. In covenant with Him.
II. Where they live. “In Egypt.”
1. A house of bondage.
2. A transient residence.
3. Among a strange people.
III. What they suffer. “Affliction.” In some shape or form this is the Christian’s earthly lot.
1. Inflicted by man.
2. Permitted by God.
3. Working out spiritual ends.
IV. The Divine notice of their case.
1. God sees their affliction.
2. God hears their groaning.
3. God works out their deliverance. (J. W. Burn.)
This Moses … brought them out after that he had showed wonders and signs.--
The miracles of Moses and Christ
The Divine authority of the Jewish lawgiver was chiefly seen and heard in thunderings and lightnings, great plagues and fearful judgments--in the darkened air, the flashing firmament, the corrupted waters, the divided sea, the rending earth, lamenting families, armies overwhelmed and terror-stricken nations: so that most emphatically does the sacred historian, in summing up the character of Moses as a worker of miracles, declare that none ever equalled him “in all that mighty hand, and in all that great terror which he showed in the land of Egypt.” The glory of our Saviour’s miracles is of a different kind, and better suited to the genius of His dispensation. He gave indeed abundant testimony that it was not for want of power He did not signalise His mission like Moses--when, e.g., over His Cross the sky was shrouded with a pall of funereal darkness, while fierce earthquakes tore the flinty rocks, and the temple vail was rent asunder by an unseen hand, and the buried dead arose. But the characteristic tone of the Redeemer’s marvellous works was of another and a benignant kind. The Mighty Man of Wonders, by whom come grace and truth “went about doing good.” Consolation and joy and bright-eyed health attended all His steps. Mercy went before His face; and at His heavenly smile diseases vanished, pain expired, fear ceased to quiver, sorrow dried her tearful countenance, the broken heart was made whole. (A. S. Patterson, M. A.)
This is that Moses which said … a prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me.
Moses, a type of Christ
How emphatic is the expression! “This is that Moses!” You have a similar expression where the object was to set a special mark on a guilty individual. “This is that king Ahaz.” In our text the object is to fix attention on the fact that the Moses who had brought Israel out of Egypt, was the very same who had predicted the coming of a greater prophet. Even this Moses for whom, in their blind attachment, they were about to reject the Messiah, had told them of the Christ. In the whole line of prophets there was not one who could be regarded as closely resembling Moses. In tracing the correspondence here alleged let us consider Moses--
I. As a leader and lawgiver.
1. The condition of the Jews in Egypt depicted that of the whole human race given up for their sins to be the captives of Satan. And it could hardly fail to follow that, if our natural condition were thus imaged, some resemblance might be traced between the deliverers. Both Moses and Christ proved their commission by miracles. They both came to an enslaved race, and claimed authority to set free prisoners; and, when proof of their authority was demanded, they both wrought wonders which were beyond human power. There was much the same kind of opposition ranged against the one and the other--the magicians contending with Moses, and evil spirits with Christ. And the deliverance effected by the two was singularly alike. Moses broke off the yoke from the neck of a captive people, and Christ from the neck of the whole human race. But when Moses had made a passage for Israel out of Egypt the former tyrant pursued the freed tribes and sought to regain the ascendancy he had lost. And though Christ has redeemed us from the power of Satan, who knows not that evil spirits, eager to regain their former dominion, pursue those that follow the Captain of salvation? When Moses led Israel out of Egypt he did indeed tell them of a goodly land, but he did not at once put them into possession; but conducted them into a dreary wilderness, where they were exposed to continued trials. And we also hear of a beautiful Canaan, reserved for the followers of the Redeemer, but there is no immediate entrance; a wild desert has to be traversed, set thick with snares and peopled with enemies, and it is only through much tribulation that we can take possession of our heritage.
2. As a lawgiver Moses bore striking resemblance to Christ. It was a main part of his office to restore amongst the Jews the decayed knowledge of Jehovah, to re-institute a pure worship, and to establish laws which might mark them off as a peculiar people. But was not the condition of our race similar to that of Israel? There scarce remained any trace of truth in the popular theology; the whole Gentile race was given up to idolatry, and Christ had to instruct this world in the very first elements of spiritual truth. Moses led the children of Israel through the waters of the Red Sea, and then formed them into a church, with means and ordinances for producing and preserving acquaintance with God, obedience to His will, and hope in His promises. And Christ now conducts men through the waters of baptism into fellowship with His mystical body, that they may be taught in duty and trained for immortality. Moses restores the altars of God, delivers laws, institutes sacrifices; and Christ erects a visible Church, with ordinances and sacraments, that those who are in error may be taught, and those who know the truth may be confirmed.
II. Moses as a mediator. The Israelites were assembled round Sinai to receive the commandments and the law of their God. There was nothing of the sublime and the terrible which did not attend the publication of the law. Appalled by what they saw and heard, the rulers of Israel said to Moses, “Go thou near, and hear all that the Lord our God shall say, and speak thou unto us all that the Lord our God shall speak unto thee”; and as soon as this petition was offered, God said to Moses, “They have well said all that they have spoken”; thus signifying His approval of the consciousness that fallen creatures cannot approach Him except through an intercessor, and in Deuteronomy 18:1-22, the prediction of the text is there made to follow immediately on these words of approval. As much as to say, “They have asked a mediator, and a Mediator will I give them, in the fulness of time, who shall resemble thee in standing, as thou now dost, between God and man.” And is it not a resemblance most accurate?--for is it not the law by whose terrors we, as well as the Israelites, are affrighted? and was it not to shield us from the law--condemning every human being to everlasting death--that Christ Jesus arose, a Mediator between God and ourselves? In cases of conversion, there is ordinarily enacted much of that scene which is described as occurring when the Israelites stood around Sinai. The Spirit when He handles the moral law makes a man perceive that there has been no moment of his life in which he has not infringed its commands, and that there is no infraction so slight but it entails punishment. Then, for the first time in his life, a man knows rightly the awfulness of God; and then will he exclaim, with the Israelites at the foot of Sinai, “This great fire will consume me: if I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, then shall I die.” Such a man will at once feel that he cannot stand in his own strength and his own merit face to face with his Maker. Therefore he has no alternative but that of leaving himself to be crushed beneath the weight of indignation, unless, indeed, he can find some being mighty enough and pure enough to rise up as an intercessor, and plead his cause with the Eternal One. Who will deny, then, that in respect of the mediatorial office, the prophecy quoted by Stephen had its fulfilment in Christ?
III. In the particulars of his life. Moses was wonderfully preserved when the male children of the Hebrews were destroyed; and thus also was Christ preserved when Herod slew all the children in Bethlehem. Moses fled from his country, and then there came a message, “Go, return into Egypt: for all the men are dead which sought thy life”; Christ fled, in like manner, and then there came a message in almost the same words. Moses contended with the magicians, and forced them to acknowledge his power--Christ contended with evil spirits, and obtained from them a similar confession. Immediately before emancipating Israel, Moses instituted the passover--immediately before redeeming mankind, Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper. When Moses had to appoint elders, he appointed seventy--when Christ chose disciples, He chose seventy. Into the land that was to be conquered Moses sent twelve men as spies--when the world was to be subdued, Christ sent twelve men as apostles. How did Moses overcome Amalek? By extending both arms, and keeping them stretched out. How did Christ subdue all our enemies? By suffering that His hands should be nailed to the cross. As a prophet, it was specially of the desolations which should overtake the disobedient Jews that Moses made mention; and, as a prophet, it was of the destruction of Jerusalem that Christ chiefly spoke. Moses had to deal with a perverse generation, who were not to be won over to the obeying God, and who, consequently, with the exception of two, all perished in the wilderness. And was not Christ sent to an obdurate people, and who, therefore, within about the same space of forty years, were almost all consumed by the anger of the Lord? Moses had to endure injurious treatment from his own family--his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam rebelled against him; and we are told of Christ, “Neither did His brethren believe on Him.” Moses fed the people miraculously in the wilderness; Christ fed thousands miraculously in the desert. And in lifting up the brazen serpent, did not Moses typify Christ? In making a covenant by blood between God and his people, did he not again represent the Saviour, who, by His own blood hath “brought nigh those who were sometime afar off”? It was not until Moses was dead that the people could enter the Promised Land; it was only by the death of Christ that the kingdom of heaven was opened to all believers. It was, in one sense, for the iniquities of the people, that Moses died. “The Lord was angry with me for your sakes.” In the fulness of his strength, when “his eye was not dim nor his natural force abated,” did Moses go up to die; and when Christ was yet in the flower of His age did not He go up to the summit of Calvary? Before he went up to die Moses comforted the disconsolate tribes with an assurance that God would raise them up another Prophet; before Christ went up to die He said to His desponding disciples, “I will not leave you comfortless; I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter.” Moses was buried, but no one knew where his body lay; Christ was buried, and yet was His body in vain sought for by the Jews. Surely, if ever there was a wonderful resemblance, it is that which we thus trace in minute particulars, between Moses and Christ. (H. Melvill, B. D.)
This is he … who received the lively oracles to give unto us.
Whatever sense “lively” (A.V.) may once have had, it can only now mislead: it is limited to certain special characteristics of life; “living” (R.V.) implies life in itself, life as a principle, life with all its manifold issues. The one is particular, the other is comprehensive. What more striking illustration could we have of this life, this vitality, than the great Bible Society, comprising members of many countries and churches, dispensing an income of more than £200,000 a year, dependent on gratuitous support, and bringing no gain to its members, concentrating all its energies and absorbing all its resources on the reproduction and the dissemination of one single Book--a Book, too, of which the latest page is some eighteen centuries old; claiming to have distributed already between ninety and a hundred million copies, and at this moment distributing year by year close upon three million of its volumes, whole or in part, in well-nigh every spoken language of the globe; however you may look at it this is a fact, to which the long roll of history presents not the faintest parallel. And yet this society does not stand alone. It is the handmaid of almost all the missionary associations throughout the world, to whatever church or whatever country they belong.
I. Life involves growth; growth is at once a characteristic and an evidence of life. We speak of life in a plant or tree, because it puts forth leaves and flowers and throws out fresh branches. We do not speak of a crystal as living. A crystal may be a very beautiful thing, but one thing it wants--Life. This figure fitly describes the Bible as contrasted with other sacred books. It did not come into being all at once; it was not the product of one mind or age; it is not a book, but a library; it is legislation, chronicles, poetry, philosophy, epistolography, allegory, romance, apocalyptic. It spreads over some thousands of years; it traverses the history of the race from the earliest dawn to the full noon-day of an elaborate civilisation. It was not written in any one place; Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, all contribute. Now we find ourselves wandering with nomadic tribes over lonely pastures beneath the starry sky; now we are dazzled by all the splendid surroundings of an Oriental despot’s court; now we are lodged in some humble peasant household, and now we stand face to face with the majesty and the insignia of the imperial law. Sea and land, mountain, field and forest, crowded city and trackless desert, each in its turn furnishes a theme for this ever-shifting drama. All the vicissitudes of human life, poverty, and wealth, mourning and joy, the marriage and the funeral, the secret communings of the individual soul, and the tumultuous activity of public life--all contribute their quota to its incidents.
II. Life involves unity--a unity underlying the various devolopment. There must be some principle of life from which all the growth is evolved, which stamps its character on all the parts, which secures the harmony and coherence of the whole. We speak of the germ in the plant, of the soul in the man. So it is with the Bible. Amidst all these marvellous diversities of time, place, condition, form, subject-matter, there is a principle of unity which is also the principle of life. This unity is quite as real in the different parts of the Bible as in the different; parts of a plant, or in the different ages of man. The first chapter of Genesis finds its natural and appropriate climax in the last chapter of Revelation, while all the intermediate parts have their proper place in the sequence written though they were long centuries apart and gathered together we hardly know when and we cannot say how; the New Testament latent in the Old, the Old Testament patent in the New. Its fame can never grow old or out of date. And this principle of life, this animated soul--what is it but the Eternal Word speaking through lawgiver and captain and priest and prophet and king, speaking in the continuous history of a nation and in the chequered but unbroken light of the Church until at length He became incarnate in the man Christ Jesus. The many modes and the many parts of the Divine revelation were harmonised, explained, completed when in the last days God spoke through His Son. Contrast this infinite variety, these worldwide interests and associations with the monotony of other great books. The Koran is Arabian, the Vedas are Indian, the Zendavesta is Persian, the Bible alone is cosmopolitan. Other books for the most part have a oneness of treatment, of subject-matter, even of style. They are like the statue fused in a mould; it may have a beauty of its own, but it is rigid; it has no movement and no life, and the purpose served by all this is that life speaks to life. As a living thing the Bible appeals to the mind, affections, historical instincts, domestic sympathies, political aspirations. It arrests first that it may instruct afterwards. And here in this intimate union of intensely human sympathies and interests with intensely Divine teaching, this close alliance of heaven and earth, the Bible ever is a type, a reflection, a counterpart of the Incarnation itself. In the Bible God stoops to man, in the Incarnation God becomes man. Thus the Incarnation is the ultimate satisfaction of all religious craving and the final goal of all religious history, beyond which no other step is possible or conceivable.
III. Life involves struggle. The Scriptures have proved themselves as living oracles by the controversies which they excite and the antipathies which they provoke. Is it not an eloquent fact that in the early persecutions, pre-eminently in the last and fiercest of all, the main object of attack was the sacred writings; that the foes of the gospel were ready enough to spare the lives of men if only they might take the life of the Book; that those were branded by their fellow-Christians with the name of traitor, not who had surrendered a human being, whether leader or confederate or friend, but who had betrayed the Book into the hands of the destroyer? Aye, these heathen persecutors were wise in their generation; they felt instinctively that these Scriptures were living things; that they were active and aggressive; that, as Luther said of St. Paul’s Epistles, “They have hands and feet--hands to grasp and feet to march; therefore they must be killed; they must be hurried out of sight.” Was Milton so far wrong after all when he said that one who killed a good book is worse than a homicide; for, striking at the very breath of reason, he slays an immortality rather than a life? And as it was with the Greek Bible in the days of Diocletian, so was it also with the English Bible in the days of Henry. What a testimony to its living power is the record of its early days when that great man, who has won for himself an undying name, not only in English Christianity, but in English literature also, an outlaw and a wanderer in a foregin land, fled from city to city, carrying with him the half-translated texts, the half-printed sheets of his new version, the parent of our English Bible of to-day! Can we reflect without the deepest thanksgiving on this magnificent irony of the Divine goodness that within a stone’s-throw of the place where the gentle, tender-hearted, reasonable Tunstall committed to the flames the first issue of Tyndale’s New Testament as a thing to be abhorred and detested by all faithful Christian people, his latest successor in the see of Durham is able this day to congratulate a large, powerful, and wealthy society on its distributing within a single year no less than one million and a half copies of the English Bible, whole or in parts? (Bp. Lightfoot.)
The law of God, a living word
I. In itself it is living--an efflux of the living God; and was thus for man, in a state of innocence, a lawgiving life, not killing and oppressing, but regulating and forming.
II. In a state of sin it indeed at first proves itself as killing; it reveals spiritual death and threatens eternal; but even then it is not dead, but living, otherwise it could not as a fire burn in the hearts of sinners, and as a sword pierce them; and also it there operates to life, awakening the conscience and pointing to Him whose Word gives life.
III. In a state of grace it is not dead and abolished, but objectively in Christ, the Revealer and Fulfiller of the law, it has become living and embodied; and subjectively by the Holy Ghost it is employed as a motive of life, and as a power of sanctification in the heart and life of the believer. (K. Gerok.)
The Bible--its living freshness
I heard a gentleman say yesterday that he could walk any number of miles when the scenery was good; but, he added, “When it is flat and uninteresting, how one tires!” What scenery it is through which the Christian man walks--the towering mountains of predestination, the great sea of providence, the mighty cliffs of Divine promise, the green fields of Divine grace, the river that makes glad the city of God--oh, what scenery surrounds the Christian, and what fresh discoveries he makes at every step! The Bible is always a new book. If you want a novel, read your Bible; it is always new; there is not a stale page in the Word of Goal; it is just as fresh as though the ink were not yet dry, but had flowed to-day from the pea of inspiration. There have been poets whose sayings startled all England when first their verses were thrown broadcast over the land, but nobody reads their writings now; yet the pages that were written by David and by Paul are glowing with the radiant glory which was upon them when long ago the Holy Spirit spake by them. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The Bible--its life organic
If the Bible were like a collection of stones, we might select some and put aside others, as less valuable and beautiful; and although in such selection we might make great mistakes, we should still be in possession of something more or less complete. But the Bible is like a plant, and all its parts are not mechanically or accidentally connected, but organically united, and hence a law of life rules here; and he who reveres life will neither add nor take away from the beautiful plant which the Father hath planted in and through Christ by the Spirit … Nobody asserts that a man would be killed if you cut off his hair and his nails. But there is a vital union of all his members. If you cut off my little finger I shall survive it; but it is my little finger you cut off, and it is a loss, a disfigurement. So with the Bible. It is not like a piece of cloth that you can clip and cut. It is a body, animated by one Spirit. (A. Saphir, D. D.)
The excellence of the Scriptures
I. The excellence of the scriptures.
1. They are lively oracles so called--
(1) In contradistinction to heathen oracles which proceeded from the pretended responses of senseless idols or departed spirits under the artful management of impostors. The Bible is the voice of the living and true God.
(2) Because they instruct men in the way of life.
(3) The Scriptures of both Testaments are called by this name because they are the means by which God communicates the knowledge of His will and of the way of salvation.
2. If we consider the sacred volume merely as history it is the most complete, entertaining, and instructive ever written. We have a view of the world from its creation to its final dissolution.
3. How grand, solemn, and interesting are its doctrines.
4. It exhibits the most correct view of human nature.
5. It prescribes the most excellent precepts and rules of life.
(1) It proposes the purest motives to virtue.
(2) It teaches the noblest virtues in the sublimest exercises.
(3) It furnishes the best defence against temptation, and the sweetest consolation in affliction.
(4) It has instituted the most excellent means of moral improvement in the order and discipline of the Church.
6. It gives us affecting illustrations of God’s attributes and providence in His various dealings toward the children of men.
II. We are bound to convey the scriptures to succeeding generations (Deuteronomy 4:5; Deuteronomy 6:7; Psalms 78:1).
1. If the Scriptures are of such importance to ourselves they are equally so to our children.
2. Their excellence demonstrates our obligation to transmit them.
3. If we regard the temporal much more ought we to regard the eternal happiness of posterity. The former is promoted, the latter essential depends on the knowledge of the Scriptures.
4. That we may transmit them
(1) We must make a pious use of them ourselves: family worship.
(2) Have them read in our schools.
(3) Take care never to treat them with disrespect.
(4) Never allow our children to read books which treat them with ridicule.
(5) Maintain the preaching of the Word.
(6) Show our belief in and reverence for the Bible by that holy and blameless life it requires. (J. Lathrop, D. D.)
To whom our fathers would not obey.
The sin of Israel
I. Its manifold nature.
1. Disobedience (Acts 7:39). There is hardly a phase of Jewish history in which this sin does not appear. It was manifested in the murmurings against Moses, in the wholesale transgression of the law, and in the rejection of the prophets. This is a crime which provokes universal reprobation as against parents; how sad that it should be so universally prevalent, and so loudly extenuated as against God.
2. Ingratitude. They were free, yet they hankered after the poor emoluments of their servitude. They preferred the succulent products of Egypt with slavery to the hard fare of the wilderness and liberty. Nay, even after their instalment in the land flowing with milk and honey, the fascinations of Egypt proved well nigh-irresistible. This was a poor return to God who, in response to their groanings (Acts 7:34), granted them the deliverance for which they cried. And are there no similar hankerings after, and even conformity to, the present evil world from which Christians have been redeemed?
3. Idolatry. This was the crowning sin and had its marked stages. They worshipped
(1) “The works of their own hands” (Acts 7:41), an imitation of Apis, perhaps, a god of the land from which they came.
(2) The works of God’s hands (Acts 7:42), the gods of the surrounding nations, honouring the creature instead of the Creator.
(3) Devils (Acts 7:43). When men renounce the living and true God there is no knowing whom they may be prepared to honour. There are the same stages in the idolatry of modern Christian lands. Men worship
(a) Their own fabrications--wealth, social position, fashion, pleasure, etc.
(b) God’s creatures--natural beauty, others, themselves.
(c) Devils. There is not a vice before which some men are not prostrate.
II. Its aggravations. Israel sinned in spite of--
1. The presence and imperial influence of Moses, their mighty leader and God’s appointed vicegerent. And so men sin to-day notwithstanding the presence and authority of Christ whom Moses typified (Acts 7:37), and the influence, strivings, and convictions of the Holy Spirit.
2. The theocracy, “the church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38), and its visible centre and symbol “the tabernacle of witness” (Acts 7:44). They were, however faithless, the people with whom God had entered into solemn covenant, and their periodical services in the tout of meeting were a virtual acknowledgment of the fact that the covenant was still binding. So men sin to-day, notwithstanding the existence, great services, and wide-reaching influence of the Church of Christ, whose origin, nature, history, and destiny are a standing witness for God and against sin, and in spite of churches, visible symbols of the invisible Church.
3. The “lively oracles” which protested against iniquity in all its forms, and were meant to creates encourage, and guide in the life of righteousness. These oracles have since been multiplied and are now completed. They contain all that is needful to give and sustain life, and have the promise of both the life that now is and that which is to come. Yet men sin and doom themselves to death.
4. The most palpable manifestations of God’s severity and goodness. Surely one would have thought that the plagues and the overthrow of Pharaoh were sufficient to deter from crime, and that their own precious deliverance and support would have encouraged obedience. Those who so argue forget that all history teems with the same manifestations, and yet men sin.
III. Its punishment.
1. Their sins. Their idolatry was at once their crime and their punishment (Acts 7:42), and as their crimes increased so they held them in the iron chain of sinful habit which grew in strength and intolerableness as the years passed by. “Be sure your sin will find you out,” in the misery of a God-forsaken and degraded manhood.
2. The wilderness wandering. Those who murmur against God’s dealings with them, and despise the grace which mitigates and blesses the rigour of those dealings, shall be condemned to endure them without alleviation. The Christian’s way may be hard--but so is “the way of transgressors.” The difference consists in God’s presence with the one and His absence from the other. Surely this is enough to make the former a way of pleasantness and a path of peace.
3. The Babylonish Captivity (Acts 7:43). When the nation cast God off, God cast it off. Eventually Israel showed its preference for the great world powers to Himself, and He handed them over to one of them. A respite came which was unimproved, and the destruction of Jerusalem sealed the fate of Judaism. Of what sinner is that the type as indicated by our Lord? (Mat 24:-25.). (J. W. Burn.)
And in their hearts turned back again into Egypt.
The fascination of Egypt
Throughout his speech Stephen treats the early history of Israel, as the French say, “allusively,”--he talks about the past while he is thinking of the present. Here he implies that the Jews who rejected our Saviour were turning away from the true meaning of God’s revelation to Moses into a time of comparative darkness--a mental and a moral Egypt from which they had been in a fair way altogether to escape. Let us consider--
I. The fascination of Egypt.
1. This appears even before the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea. It was the fascination at once of terror and of admiration. As they passed out from the fertile lands into the desert, their thoughts reverted to the vast burial-ground above Memphis, along the ridge of the desert. “Is it,” they cried, “because there were no graves in Egypt that thou hast taken us away to die in the wilderness?… It had been better for us to serve the Egyptians.” “It was well with us,” they cried at Taberah, “in Egypt.” “Would to God,” they exclaimed at the report of the spies, “that we had died in the land of Egypt,” etc. This fascination appears later on. It is seen in Solomon’s marriage; in the welcome which Jeroboam seeks of the Egyptian court: in the tendency, rebuked by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, to “trust in the shadow of Egypt.” Egypt became the home of a large colony of Greek-speaking Hebrews, and the descendants of the patriarchs counted for more in Alexandria of the Ptolemys than in Rameses of the Pharaohs.
2. This fascination is the more remarkable because the treatment which Israel experienced was frequently cruel, always unscrupulous. The patriarchs, indeed, had been welcomed by the usurping “Shepherd Kings,” who welcomed all Asiatics as strengthening their position in a country which they ruled with difficulty. Of these, the Pharaoh Apepi, the friend of Joseph, was the last. He had scarcely passed away when the subject-rulers of Thebes, after a great struggle, expelled the Shepherd Kings. In the eyes of these new rulers the Israelites were not guests who had been invited to become subjects: they were the foreign dependents of a detested and expelled dynasty. Not one, but a long line of kings, “knew not Joseph.” The eighteenth dynasty, including that greatest of Egyptian conquerors, Thothmes III., whose obelisk now stands on the Thames Embankment, reigned for two hundred years, and passed away, before the great heat of the oppression began with the third king of the nineteenth dynasty, Rameses
II. And as Egypt endeavoured to crush the children of the patriarchs, so in a later day Egypt shattered the work of David and Solomon. It was at the Egyptian court that Jeroboam matured his schemes. It was the Egyptian Shishak who plundered Jerusalem and then engraved the story of his triumph on the walls of Karnak, where, in confirmation of the Bible narrative, it may be seen and read at this very day. Not to mention the invasion of Judah by Zerah, who was defeated by Asa, it may here suffice to recall the defeat and death of Josiah at the hands of Pharaoh Necho. Certainly, for reasons of her own, which were apparent enough two generations later, Egypt was prepared to assist Hezekiah against Sennacherib; but, on the whole, her treatment of the chosen people was anything but friendly. Yet; for all that, again and again during the long course of their history, Israel’s heart “turned back again into Egypt.”
II. The causes of this fascination.
1. The productiveness of Egypt due to the Nile, which washes down a rich soil from the highlands of Abyssinia and this may illustrate the cry of the Israelites at Taberah (Numbers 11:5-6). True they were on their way to a land flowing with milk and honest; a land where every man should sit “under his vine and fig tree,” etc.; but for all that, the land of the Nile had, in their eyes, no rival. The flesh-pots of Egypt were, beyond all doubt, one cause of its attractiveness for the Hebrews.
2. The character of Egyptian civilisation. In Egypt human life was embellished with beauty and comfort such as would naturally impress a comparatively rude people like the Hebrews. When they became settled, and built cities and the Temple, everything was on a smaller and less splendid scale than they had left behind. Our grandest cathedrals are dwarfed by the Hall of Columns in the temple at Karnak, and we have never even attempted to rival such structures as the pyramids. Many centuries before the exodus, kings, like Amenemha III., of the twelfth dynasty, established a complete system of dykes, canals, lakes, and reservoirs by which the inundations of the Nile were regulated; or excavated vast artificial lakes like Moeris in Fayum to receive the overflowing waters, and so to secure a supply during the dry season for a vast extent of adjacent country. Egypt, too, long before Israel’s sojourn there, had its literature and seats of learning; and On, or Heliopolis, the great temple of the setting sun, before which, originally, our obelisk on the Embankment stood, and where the ‘patriarch Joseph married his wife Asenath, was also an university where Moses learned, as in a later age Plato and Eudoxus learned, all the wisdom of the Egyptians. It is impossible to do more than touch the fringe of this vast subject. When an Indian chief was asked why he did not join in the mutiny, he said, “I have stood on London Bridge.” And if an ancient Israelite could say, “I have stood on the ridge of the Libyan Desert, and have looked down on Memphis or on Thebes,” it might explain the feeling with which the member of the less civilised race would have regarded that vast and elaborate civilisation.
3. Its antiquity. A veneration for antiquity is a natural and legitimate sentiment, and not to feel it is to lack some of the finer elements of a well.balanced mind. This veneration is felt not only by scholars, or poets, or historians, but by men of a very utilitarian turn of mind. Look at the Americans who come to visit us in increasing numbers every summer. What is it in England, or in Europe, that interests them most? Not our manufactures, shipping, or public works. In these they are always our rivals, and sometimes our superiors. That which attracts them is a possession which a people cannot buy with money, or compass by industry, since it is the gift of time. In their eyes, our older literature, our ancient towns, our castles, our parish churches, our cathedrals, have a charm which they sometimes lack in the eyes of Englishmen. It might almost seem that to know the value of an ancient past it were necessary to have no share in it. Israel, we may think, was sufficiently ancient, but as compared with Egypt, Israel was but of yesterday. Homer knew of no city in the world so great as the Egyptian Thebes with its hundred gates. Yet, when Homer wrote, Thebes had been declining for at least three centuries. And Thebes was modern when compared with Memphis, whoso pyramids were ancient structures in the time of Abraham, and inasmuch as such work implies a long course of preceding labour and training, there arises a vista of a yet higher antiquity, the limits of which it is impossible to conjecture.
4. Its religion. This had in it, like all pagan systems, some element of truth, and a large element of falsehood. The worship to which St. Paul refers when writing to the Romans, of “birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things,” and which we still see in our museums, and on the walls of ruined temples, to us unintelligible and hideous, were but developments of a religious idea, which at first recognised the Deity everywhere in nature, and then identified Him with nature. In ancient Egypt a process went forward which may be observed in certain regions of modern thought: Theism sank to Pantheism, and Pantheism sank more and more nearly to the level of Fetichism. The Egyptians were always a naturally religious people. No people of the ancient world were so possessed with the idea of man’s immortality. Their splendid tombs and pyramids were a perpetual profession of faith in a future after death. Israel felt the influence of this religion. We cannot mistake the influence of Egyptian models on the form of the temple, or the ark, or other details of the Levitical system. Here inspiration has selected what was good in heathendom, just as the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel consecrates certain fragments of the language of the Platonic philosophy. Taken as a whole, the religion of Egypt was, with its many, and some of them debasing, errors, the religion of a great, serious people without a revelation; and as such it contributed one powerful element to the fascination which Egypt exerted over the mind of Israel. On two great occasions that power was apparent, with fatal effect. The first was when Aaron, in the absence of Moses on Mount Sinai, made a golden calf out of the earrings of the people. The second was when Jeroboam erected the two calves at Bethel and Dan, both doubtless suggested by the Egyptian worship of the sacred bulls, Apis and Mnevis. The influence of Egypt upon Israel might be traced in later ages, especially in Alexandria. Conclusion: Egypt as presented in Scripture is not mainly an historical study. When St. Stephen spoke, the Egypt of the Pharaohs had long forfeited independent existence. The Caesars who ruled it had but subjected its earlier conquerors. But the Egypt of spiritual experience which attracts souls by its manifold seductions to return to some mental or moral bondage--this Egypt always remains. The Psalmist couples Rahab with Babylon, and John with Sodom, as the mystic name of the great city of the ungodly world-power, “where also,” he adds, “our Lord was crucified.” Egypt is a standing type of this world-power, ever hostile to God; and from which, in all ages, elect souls must make their escape towards a land of promise, only, it may be, to reach that land after long wanderings in some intellectual or moral desert. Often to such will the past which they have renounced seem to them to be transfigured and idealised by memory. Often will they have misgivings whether the “better part” of Mary was not, for them at least, a Quixotic enterprise. Often will they be tempted, like Israel of old, in their hearts if not more decidedly still, “to turn back into Egypt”; for the Egypt from which the Israel of God escapes is, like its prototype, undeniably attractive. Perhaps it satisfies man’s lower appetites; perhaps it addresses itself to his sense of beauty and refinement; and it has been in possession, more or less, ever since human society has existed at all. It even has a religion of its own, cleverly lowered down and adapted to the varied instincts of human nature. Referring to some who, under his own eyes, yielded to its seductive power, St. Peter speaks with peculiar plainness (2 Peter 2:20-22). How are we to escape its subtle power save by loyal devotion to Him who spoke to Israel by Moses, and who died for us upon the Cross? Surely no baits to the senses can compete with the things which God has prepared for them that love Him. Surely the richest embellishments of man’s outward life must pale before Him who is the uncreated Beauty. The most remote antiquity is but a second of time when it is measured against the High and the Eternal. The most reassuring religion will fail us if it will not stand the judgment of that day, when “the idols of Egypt shall be moved at His presence.” Let us learn to guard the issues of our hearts, convinced that He only has a right to our affections who has said not less solemnly of the redeemed in our age than of the Redeemer in another, “Out of Egypt have I called My Son.” (Canon Liddon.)
And they made a calf in those days.--
Making an idol
And who would ever have supposed it I when we remember how God had poured contempt on idols and idolaters; how they had been delivered, and how the visible symbol of the Divine presence was with them.
I. The peculiarities of this sin. Men abuse everything, even the divinest things. Idolatry is the corruption of religion--the substitution of the material for the spiritual, of the lie for the truth. It had irresistible attractions for the multitude; it appealed to their senses and was a system of solemn and splendid licentiousness. The Hebrews had become tainted with it in Egypt, and manifested a proneness to it on many occasions. This golden calf was the Apis of the mythology of Egypt, who was a representative god, not worshipped on its own account, but as a symbol of the chief and supreme divinity. This throws light on the conduct of the Israelites. Moses was the mediator of that economy. He had gone up to commune with God; but forty days and nights had passed away. The people were becoming uneasy and unbelieving; they felt that they were alone in the wilderness. They wanted some symbol of God; they would not have wanted this if they had had Moses; but having lost him, they made a calf. They did not renounce God--they introduced the unhallowed ideas and practices of Egyptian idolatry into the worship of Jehovah. Thus “they changed their glory”--that is, the invisible God--“into the similitude of an ox that eateth grass.” The result was most debasing--“They sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.” They practised their lascivious rites at the very base of Sinai. The idolater will be like his god, he can never rise beyond his standard of perfection, and when men become worshippers of an animal, they become animal themselves. Idolatry is the substitution of the human for the Divine--the symbol for the reality. There may be no image, and yet idolatry. In after times men trusted in the temple, and not in God. Men now may trust in churches; in the forms of religion, and not in God or the gospel. Men may put baptism in the place of regeneration, and the Lord’s Supper in the place of salvation by Christ, and thus overlook all the great verities and realities of a spiritual religion.
II. The palliatives of sin. Aaron professed simply to have cast the gold into the fire, and the unexpected result was this calf. Men have always excuses or subterfuges. They charge their sins on the devil, or hereditary taint, or constitutional peculiarity, or the force of circumstances. We admit all this; but you can defy all in God’s name and strength. There had been preparation and design, and great care in fashioning the mould for the idol. So it is, by a long, painful process, we form habits; but these determine character. Your character has been fashioned and graven by a sharp instrument, and all your feelings, thoughts, and deeds, like fused metal, are poured into this mould, and come out bearing its form. Many a worldly man has said, “I never thought I should be what I am.”
III. The partnership in sin. It was Aaron’s making, but their instigation. They made the calf that Aaron made. When legislators, to gratify the people, enact laws that are opposed to the will of God--when a teacher of truth comes down from his high position and panders to the tastes and prejudices of his hearers--when fathers and mothers listen to the caprice and self-will of their children--in all these instances there is partnership. It is a fearful thing this. You may have moulded some character. Other men’s sins may be yours. You originated them--helped them to the birth. When they were born, they grew into fearful forms without you. They are yours, however, you are partakers of other men’s sins.
IV. The reproductiveness of sin. Ages have rolled by. The people have entered the goodly land. There has been the reign of David, the golden age of Solomon. Once more the cry of the wilderness is heard, the echoes of which have slept for centuries--“These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” There had been the division of the kingdom, and it was a master-stroke of policy on the part of Jeroboam to prevent the ten tribes going up to Jerusalem to worship. He felt that unity of worship would lead to unity of feeling. The people, however, must have a religion, and so he falls back on the calf worship. The people are taught that that worship cannot be wrong which had been devised and framed by the high priest in the wilderness. And so the sin lives again, and is reproduced. Sin is like some fearful taint which has been latent for generations, but suddenly manifests itself with new power. Conclusion: We are leaving far behind the forms of an old idolatry; getting beyond the worship of the laws and powers of nature, but the creature worship lives, and comes between Christianity and the world.
1. Men may make an idol of self. There is no form of idolatry more debasing and deadly.
2. Men may make an idol of their physical nature. How much time do many of you spend in dressing up life as if it were a god. And there are others who say, “What shall we eat, and what shall we drink,” as well as “wherewithal shall we be clothed.” All their attention is concentrated on the physical. I have read of vines in Italy that cling to some strong tree and clasp it for support, but they suppress all its manifestations of life by the growth of their own. So the very strength and wondrous energy of our spiritual natures may give intense power to physical sins.
3. What is the idol men worship in this country? Is it not a golden one? “Keep yourselves from idols.” (H. J. Bevis.)
The folly of idolatry
“My father,” said a convert to a missionary in India, “was an officiating priest of a heathen temple, and was considered in those days a superior English scholar, and, by teaching the English language to wealthy natives; realised a large fortune. At a very early period, when a mere boy, I was employed by my father to light the lamps in the pagoda, and attend to the various things connected with the idols. I hardly remember the time when my mind was not exercised on the folly of idolatry. These things, I thought, were made by the hand of man, can move only by man, and, whether treated well or ill, are unconscious of either. Why all this cleaning, anointing, illuminating etc.? One evening these considerations so powerfully wrought on my youthful mind that, instead of placing the idols according to custom, I threw them from their pedestals and left them with their faces in the dust. My father, on witnessing what I had done, chastised me so severely as to leave me almost dead. I reasoned with him that, if they could not get up out of the dust, they were not able to do what I could, and that, instead of being worshipped as gods, they deserved to lie in the dust where I had thrown them. He was implacable, and vowed to disinherit me, and, as the first step to it, sent me away from his house. He repented on his death-bed, and left me all his wealth.” Yea, ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch.--Moloch, the king of gods, from Malek, king, or from “Melkarth” at Tyre, “the god of the city,” and Saturn, or the Sun, are the same as Baal, or Baal Samen, “the Lord of heaven,” in Phoenicia. In Kings 11:5-7, the name occurs under the forms of Moloch and Milcom, and is there spoken of as the abomination of the Ammorites. The worship of the deity was, as the names by which the idol was known in various countries will show, widely diffused. It was, in its origin at least, a kind of Sub,an worship, and hence the seven cavities in the image, and the seven chapels of its temple, in reference to the seven planets of the ancient cosmogony. That Baal and Moloch are one is evident not only from the characteristics of the god and his worship, but from Jeremiah 19:5; Jeremiah 32:35. He was a god of terror and destruction: the god of consuming fire, the burning sun, the god who smites the land with unfruitful-ness and pestilence, dries up the springs, and begets poisonous winds. See with reference to these characteristics 1 Kings 18:1-46.; where even his prophets are representing as in vain invoking him when the land was suffering from drought, and note the answer of Jehovah to Elijah in verses 44, 45. The most acceptable sacrifice to this god was little children. The idol had a bull’s head, and his arms were outstretched. On these arms when glowing hot the victims were laid by their parents, and when, writhing from the heat of the metal, they rolled off, they fell into the flames below. Drums drown the cries of the children, and hence the place of sacrifice was called Zophet--a drum. Besides children animals Were offered, sheep, lambs, bulls, and even horses. (W. Denton, M. A.)
Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness.--
The tabernacle of witness
It was so called--
1. Because of the ark which contained the tables of the law which were a perpetual witness between God and the people. A witness against them if they disobeyed, a witness for them if they obeyed--a standing evidence that they were entitled to its promises.
2. Because when Moses, or the high priest afterwards, would know the will of God, and went into the tabernacle, they there obtained an answer in their perplexity, and thus received perpetual witness of His truth who revealed Himself in the tabernacle: a witness that all who desired an answer to prayer should seek God in His house, and a pledge that there they should receive His guidance.
3. The tabernacle was in itself, as it stood before the eyes of the people, a witness to all His mercies whose tabernacle it was, a witness that He had delivered His people, and commanded them to serve Him. (W. Denton, M. A.)
The witness in the wilderness
I. Our fathers had the tabernacle. They had it moving as well as resting. I know not what ancient story or wondrous myth can approach in majesty the record of that long, tedious, and sacred march, imagination quite fails in the attempt adequately to realise either the moving or the resting. There are those who believe that those mystic inscriptions on the red rocks of Sinai date from that very time. Who will dare to say that it is not so--the whole story heaves with miracle. There was the mysterious shrine; it was, as the word literally translated means, a house of skins; but within were the palpitations of ineffable splendour, heraldries which accumulated in wealth as the pilgrims advanced on their journey. The tabernacle rested, surrounded by the tents of the tribes, and the pillar of cloud rested over the shrine. Probably many of the journeyings were accomplished during the night. Then, in the advance of the tabernacle, moved first the tents of Ephraim and Manasseh, with the sacred sarcophagus, enshrining the bones of the great Patriarch Joseph, strange and weird monument of his faith in the ultimate destiny of the exiled nation; and then as the strange caravan began to move, would rise the cry, “Thou that dwellest between the cherubim shine forth,” and the pillar of the white cloud became a fixed red flame, a fire shooting forth a guiding light. So onward they passed until the Jordan was passed, then the tabernacle of testimony rested on the heights of Shiloh.
II. But it was all a parable--a Divine shadow of that great invisible and spiritual society, the yet more mysterious Ecclesia, “the Church throughout all ages,” on its mighty march through Time, with all its attendant omens and prodigies--for such is the Church everywhere a witness in the wilderness; such are all its varieties of ordinance. “Ye are My witnesses, saith God, that I am the Lord.” It is the perpetual remonstrance against the sufficiency of the seen and temporal; it is a perpetual witness for the unseen and the eternal; it is a perpetual testimony for the existence of a spiritual perpetuity and continuity; it is a mysterious procession; infinite aspirations are infused into the soul of man. A transcendent idea; it is embodied and takes its shape ix what is called the Church. The tabernacle of testimony is the story of the Church and the soul--a witness for faith. The invincible assurance that all contradictions have interpretations, and that in all disappointments there lies latent a Divine satisfaction waiting to be born. Thus it is that we do not make our faith--our faith makes us, not we it. “By their fruits you know them.” A world with no tabernacle of Divine testimony has a philosophy which only sees the worst, which goes on declaring its dreary monologue that this is the worst of all possible worlds, that sleep is better than waking; and death is better than sleep; a creed full of negatives, whose disciples carry a perpetual note of interrogation on their features, and who write and read books to propose the question, “Is life worth living?”--in the presence of such thoughts, the sky shuts down upon us, there is no motive in life--as Emerson well says, “this low and hopeless spirit puts out the eyes, and such scepticism is slow suicide.” (E. Paxton Hood.)
But Solomon built Him an house.
The temples of God
Scripture divides the Divine dispensations into the Patriarchal, the Jewish, and the Christian. We read of three creations, or three classes of heaven and earth. The first is physical creation: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” The second is Judaism. “Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven.” Evidently the heaven and earth there alluded to are the ecclesiastical and civil polity of the Jews. The third creation is Christianity: “Behold I create a new heaven and a new earth; and the former one will not be remembered nor come into mind.” I shall examine these three creations, with a view principally of pointing out the successive dwelling-places of God.
I. The first creation of nature. “Heaven is My throne; and earth is My footstool. Hath not My hand made these things?” Abraham reared altars and offered sacrifices in the open fields. He had the earth for a floor and the sky for a canopy. The universe is a temple. Many people, I am aware, convert it into a warehouse, or a den of thieves. Alas I where are the worshippers? Nature is exceedingly beautiful; but go where you will, the buyers and sellers and the exchangers of money are there before you. God is present in Nature. The ancients saw Him in everything and law in nothing; We moderns have swung to the other extreme. But the true Christian view is to perceive God in law and through law and above law. God still works in Nature, not capriciously but methodically. The roses of this year are the embodiment of His freshest ideas. The rose is not a part of God, but God is in it as the source of its vitality and the principle of its beauty; and as long as it is a living rose, God will be its God, “for God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” “For God so clothes the grass of the field.” The great heart of eternity may also be felt throbbing in the wild flowers along the hedgerows. This spring God is creating a new heaven and a new earth. The earth looks as new to-day as if she were born only yesterday. The curtain of heaven looks as blue and clean to day as if it came from the factory only this week. But however magnificent the ancient temple of nature, God expresses His dissatisfaction with it. “Where is the place of My rest’? Hath not My hand made these things?” The first creation does not afford rest to the Almighty--it is only a preparation for a better creation to follow. Nature hides more glory than it reveals, and God’s noblest glory it cannot reveal at all. A second creation was needful.
II. The second creation or Judaism.
1. The first creation divides itself into two parts--matter and laws, substance and truths. But in the second creation God created only laws. He did not add to the matter, but He did add to the laws of the universe. The laws of Judaism again divide themselves into laws which are necessary and therefore eternal, and laws which are contingent and therefore temporary. The Lord delivered the Ten Commandments, those commandments are in a certain sense necessary and eternal. God did not make them--He only spoke them. But as for laws touching civil and ecclesiastical government, God made them. The splendid fabric of ritual with its tabernacle and sacrifice and priesthood was the creation of God--not of His arm like matter, but of His mind.
2. The second creation is therefore of an order superior to the first. Inasmuch as spirit is nobler than matter. It is more difficult to preserve a spirit than a planet in its right orbit. It is harder to keep the peace in the commonwealth of men than in the commonwealth of stars. In the first creation God was legislating for dead, inert matter; in Judaism He was legislating for free, living spirits. In every soul there is a heaven and an earth; aye, and if we do not mind there will be a hell there too. But originally there is a heaven--formed of love, imagination, and pure reason. There is an earth there also--the propensities which qualify man for social intercourse and worldly avocations. And to make laws for the heaven and earth of the spirit such as you find in the religious and in the civil code demanded more care and wisdom than to establish the earth and garnish the heavens.
3. As Judaism is thus an advance upon the system of nature, so God became more visibly and palpably present in the former than in the latter. He was pleased to concentrate the symbol of His presence in one special locality. Stephen speaks of God as the “God of glory,” referring probably to the Shekinah. God under the Old Testament was manifesting His presence in a cloud of dazzling light. The name therefore by which He was known was the Brilliant or Shining One. It was long supposed that God etymologically meant good. But further investigation seems to point out that the English God, the Latin Deus, the Greek Theos, the Welsh Duw--all come from an old Aryan root signifying to shine. Men thought of God, and to what could they compare Him? To nothing else than the shining splendour of the light. “God is light.” A kind of natural correspondence, therefore, subsisted between the Shekinah and God--the shining cloud and the shining One. During the Patriarchal dispensation the glory-cloud wandered up and down without a fixed habitation. But on the establishment of Judaism it found a convenient abode in “Tabernacle of witness.” But this tabernacle was small in size and mean in appearance; therefore David desired to build a temple, and what David conceived, Solomon was privileged to execute. So far progress marks the history of religion among the Jews. The Shekinah thenceforth dwelt in the Holy of Holies--a visible symbol of the invisible God.
4. In what then did the fault of the Jews consist? In supposing that the Divine presence was restricted to the temple, and that there could be no Divine worship unless connected with the Jewish ritual. The local and temporary character of Judaism they entirely overlooked, which character Stephen in his oration forcibly urges on their attention. As God was worshipped acceptably before the building of the temple, so will He be worshipped acceptably after its demolition. The temple, however spacious and costly, could not afford God a permanent and congenial rest. “The hour cometh when ye shall worship the Father neither in this mountain nor yet at Jerusalem.” God is a Spirit, and what satisfaction can He find in mountains of dust, and what rest can He find in bricks and mortar however skilfully put together? Not that we would disparage a material temple--the House of God demands our profoundest reverence. “Keep thy foot when thou goes to the House of God.” So long as God is pleased to dwell in it, it deserves our reverence; we drift, however, into error the moment we exalt the temple and its ritual above God Himself. Stephen therefore was not guilty of blasphemy. The temple on Moriah was only a stage in the onward march of the Divine economies.
III. The third creation or Christianity. Evidently Stephen’s argument does not properly conclude with Acts 7:49 --he is only paving his way to make a transition to Christianity. Neither do the prophet’s words end there he points to a temple nobler and more spiritual and more pleasing unto God. “To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at My word.” In these creations a certain gradation is observable, and corresponding with them, we read of three creative words. The first is the word “Be” in Genesis, corresponding with the material creation. The second is “I am” in Exodus, corresponding with the Jewish creation. The third is “Immanuel,” corresponding with the Christian creation. In the physical universe is seen the Word of His might; in the Jewish the Word of His oath; in the Christian the Word of His essence. “Therefore, even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth.” Truths are of two kinds as we have seen necessary and eternal, contingent and temporary. That one is the first figure in numeration is necessary--God could not create a figure less than one. But that the earth revolves round the sun in twelve months is not necessary, it might be fourteen months quite as well. Christianity is a system of new truths, of truths which have been made. The Incarnation was not a truth always; it was not a truth in the days of Adam, of Abraham, or of Moses. But it is a truth to-day, a truth however which has been made. And the truths God has made are in a sense more wonderful than the truths He has not made. But what is it that principally differentiates the new creation of Christianity from the two preceding? The words of the text answer--“God dwelleth not in temples made with hands; hath not My hands made these things?” We have here come upon a very important phrase--“made with hands,” which suggests to us its opposites “not made with hands.” They are the Scripture synonyms for the terms, “natural” and “supernatural” in modern theology. The first heaven and earth, and Solomon’s temple were made with hands; and therefore God declined to acknowledge them as the place of His rest. Christianity is described as a “stone cut out of the mountain without hands,” and is thereby elevated to the realm of the supernatural.
1. The body or rather the human nature of Jesus Christ was not made with hands (Hebrews 9:11). The human nature of Adam was, and so was the human nature of his posterity. But the human nature of the Saviour was radically different. It was not as the apostle explains--“of this building,” “of this creation.” Christ is in it, but not of it. He was not produced by the intervention of the established laws of the world; He was the supernatural effect of the supernatural operation of God. “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee,” etc. That is, therefore, the reason why He is in a pre-eminent sense the temple of God. “All the fulness of the Godhead dwelleth in Him bodily.” “It pleased the Father that in Him shall all fulness dwell.” In Jesus Christ He finds a temple “not made with hands,” a temple therefore more akin to His own eternal nature, and in Him He deigns to dwell for ever. “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
2. The regenerate heart is not made with hands (Colossians 2:11). That to regenerate a man does not belong to the old system of things. No forces in the first universe, whether of mind or matter, can effect the spiritual renewal of our nature. And therefore is the second birth designated “a new creation.” The spiritual circumcision of the heart belongs emphatically to the realm of the supernatural. No amount of intellectual light or moral influence can effect it. The natural man is said not to understand the spiritual; and no wonder--they do not belong to the same universe. They may be living in the same house, attending the same church; but, after all, they are separated by the width of a whole creation. “Know ye not that ye are the temples of God,” etc. “Will God of a truth dwell with man on the earth?” Yea, answers St. Paul, He will not only dwell with man, He will also dwell in man on the earth. It has now been made clear to us that God’s proper temple is holy humanity, and under the Christian dispensation He has found the temple He so earnestly coveted. In the first creation we see me works of Nature; but God declares He cannot rest therein. In the temple of Solomon we see the works of art; but God again declares He cannot find in it the place of His rest. However magnificent, therefore, is the temple of Nature, God is not satisfied with it, for it is the work of His own hands. However splendid the temple of art, God is not satisfied with it, for it is the work of man’s hands. But in Christianity--in Christ first, and in the Christian afterwards, He has a temple reared by His grace, a temple not made with hands, a temple in which He vouchsafes to dwell for ever. The temple of nature, the temple of art, the temple of grace, these three; but the greatest of these is the temple of grace. (J. Cynddylan Jones, D. D.)
The true temple of God
1. The visible not to be despised (verses 46, 47).
2. The invisible not to be forgotten (verses 48-50). (K. Gerok.)
Composition Of The Church
God’s Church is not built of--
I. Gold and silver, i.e., worldly might and splendour.
II. Wood And Stone, i.e., external customs and dead works.
III. Parchment or paper, i.e., confessions of faith and forms of government.
IV. But of living hearts.
1. Founded on Christ by faith.
2. United to one another in love.
3. Growing up to heavenly perfection in hope. (K. Gerok.)
Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool. What house will ye build Me?--
The universal nature of Christian worship
These words of Stephen have sometimes been quoted as if they sounded the death-knell of special places dedicated to the honour and glory of God, such as churches are. It is evident, however, that they have no such application. They sounded the death-knell of the exclusive privilege of one place, the temple, but they proclaimed the freedom which the Church has ever since claimed; and the Jewish Church of the dispersion, by the institution of synagogues, had led the way in claiming--teaching that whatever true hearts and true worshippers are found, there God reveals Himself. But we must bear in mind a distinction. Stephen and the apostles rejected the exclusive right of the temple as the one place of worship for the world. They asserted the right to establish special places of worship throughout the world. They rejected the exclusive claims of Jerusalem. But they did not reject the right, and the duty of God’s people, to assemble themselves as a collective body for public worship, and to realise Christ’s covenanted presence. This is an important limitation of St. Stephen’s statement. The great end of public worship is worship, not hearing, not edification even, though edification follows as a necessary result of such public worship when sincerely offered. The teaching of St. Stephen did not then apply to the erection of churches and buildings set apart for God’s service, or to the claim:made for public worship as an exercise with a peculiar Divine promise annexed. It simply protests against any attempt to localise the Divine presence to one special spot on earth, making it, and it alone, the centre of all religious interest. (G. T. Stokes, D. D.)
A transcendent existence
I. An omnipresent existence. One whose throne is heaven, whose footstool is earth, and to whom all places are alike. One who fills heaven and earth not merely with His influence, nor indeed, as the Pantheists teach, with His substance; but One who is everywhere as a Personality, free, conscious, active. All created existences are limited by the laws of space, and those that occupy the largest space are mere specks in immensity. Concerning the stupendous fact of God’s Omnipresence observe that it is--
1. Agreeable to reason, although incomprehensible. The denial of it would be a contradiction. A limited God would be no God.
2. Essential to worship.
(1) To its spirit. Worship implies mystery. Take away God’s incomprehensibility and you take away the power to evoke in the soul all the awe and wonder which enter into the very essence of worship.
(2) To its constancy. True worship is not an occasional service confined to times and places, but an abiding attitude of the soul. “God is a Spirit,” etc.
3. Promotive of holiness. Let men realise the constant presence of God, and how strongly will they feel restraint from sin and stimulus to virtue.
4. Assurative of retribution. Who can hide himself from the Lord? No sin escapes His notice. There is no escaping therefore from punishment. “Whither shall I flee from Thy presence?”
5. Illustrative of heaven. There is nothing local or formal in heaven’s worship. “I saw no temple therein.” Then He is felt to be everywhere, and is worshipped everywhere.
II. A Creative existence. “Hath not My hand made,” etc. Because He made all, He owns all. Creatorship implies sovereignty, almightiness, and proprietorship. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
What is the place of My rest.--
The place of God’s vest
I. God revealing Himself. By the aid of figures God discloses His spiritual character. Everywhere we see pictures, suggestions of the Divine. The boundary sky, with its serene height of blue; the midnight sky with its myriad worlds; mountains piercing the clouds or hanging in frowning precipice; great floods of water rolling in their ceaseless tides; all compel us to say, “How marvellous are Thy works,” etc.
1. Heaven is God’s throne. A star in the far depths attracted the attention of an observer. It seemed to be but a single star, but a powerful telescope resolved into two which were really distant from each other five hundred times the distant between our earth and the sun. Who can conceive of such sublime spaces. What must He be whose throne rises higher than these stars, whose canopy is gemmed by myriad suns.
2. Earth is God’s footstool. Here the microscope comes to our assistance. This great earth, with its millionfold objects seen and unseen, is but a resting-place for God’s foot.
II. God appealing to man to find Him rest. We should never have dared to represent God as seeking rest. The marvel of His condescension is that He is independent of His creatures, and yet seeks rest in them. If God were only wisdom or power then His rest might be found in the works of His hands. But every being seeks rest according to his character. The infinitely pure One can only find rest in holiness; the infinitely loving in love; the eternal Father in His children.
III. Man vainly offering God rest in things. The first shrine for human worship was the open firmament of heaven. It was the only worthy one. The only befitting walls were the distant horizon and the everlasting hills; the only suitable roof was the illimitable sky. Yet from the first, through sin, this temple proved too vast and glorious for man to use. So he planted groves to circle God to a space; and consecrated mountain peaks to fix God to a point; and built temples and churches to narrow the infinite to human grasp. Too often man has offered his temples as a sacrifice in the vain hope that, satisfied with them, God would cease to ask for holier things. And even now men think to offer God rest in the beauty of our churches and the charm of our services, and give Him things instead of persons. And yet even we men cannot be satisfied with things; how, then, can we expect God to be. Our hearts cannot rest in the artistic fittings of our dwellings, the creations of genius, or the associations of culture. We want love; we must have persons. We are “the figures of the true.” He, too, puts aside the things we offer Him, be they temple, or gold, or work, and pleads with us, “My son give Me thy heart.” If we respond then He will accept our things, and things alive with holy love may find for Him the rest He seeks. (R. Tuck, B. A.)
Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears.
Stephen’s change of tone
1. This was not the first Christian sermon that the Jews or the Sanhedrin had heard. Otherwise, possibly, such vehement and unsparing denunciations had been out of place. They had already heard of Christ twice from His inspired messengers, and he did not speak till the ecclesiastical rulers had shown a determined animus to put their foot on the gospel. It was to a council who had, and still were, resisting grace that Stephen spoke.
2. Stephen was addressing the authorities, and the tone of Peter towards them had been very different from his tone with the people (Acts 3:17; cf Acts 4:11; Act 6:30). There was deep reason and equity in this difference. It was the Sanhedrin which had all along fomented the hostility of the people to Christ. The common people heard Christ gladly, and shouted Hosannah; and in the closing scene it was only at the persuasion of the chief priests and elders that they were induced to “ask Barabbas and destroy Jesus.” They had, no doubt, their full share of guilt, and Peter charges them with being accomplices; but, as at the Fall, God recognises a difference in degree of guilt between man and the serpent, so those who are of the same mind with God draw a distinction between those who sin through weakness, and those who sin of malice prepense. It is against the latter that Stephen hurls his indignant invective.
II. Accounted for.
1. There was the natural friction which his own argument produced in his mind. As he traced the history of his nation, view after view opened upon him of the perversity, bigotry, and wilful opposition to truth which had characterised them at every period. They had only been too consistent in rejecting Divine messengers, and now by their rejection of the love and Spirit of God they had put the finishing stroke upon their sin. This repeated defiance of God galls Him, and kindles His holy indignation.
2. In all probability his quotation from Isaiah, so palpably adverse to their view of the temple, and so impossible to be answered stung them to the quick. This is indicated in the narrative, “They while in the act of listening were cut to the heart and kept gnashing upon him with their teeth.” It is not difficult to picture the scene. Audible murmurs are heard as Stephen says, “The Most High dwelleth not in temples,” etc. They make menacing gestures as wild beasts would spring upon their prey. There two scribes, reaching across to one another, have got a scroll between them, in which they are pointing to passages which they think confute him. One finger is on the words, “I have hallowed this house,” etc.; the fist of the other contracts and is raised towards the prisoner. The young man from the Cicilian synagogue glances to and fro from the accused to Gamaliel. The great doctor had in a previous council made a diversion in favour of the apostles. But on that occasion it appears that the high priest had been under the influence of the Sadducees. Stephen’s speech brought out into full prominence the anti-Pharisaic element of the gospel. And as he did so the eyes of Saul are turned wistfully to his great authority mutely asking, “Will you plead for these Galileans now?” And Gamaliel’s contracted brow answers “No.” Then catching the symptoms of the storm long brewing, with that, quick apprehension which always characterises an earnest speaker, and seeing in a moment “the wicked husbandmen” before him, he bursts forth in the words of the text. In the early part of his speech he is cautious, and avoids giving offence; “He keeps his mouth, as it were, with a bridle, while the ungodly is in sight.” But at last his heart grows hot within him, and while he is musing upon the circumstances he has recited, the fire kindles; and at the last he throws away his caution and speaks in accents of burning indignation. Conclusion: What has been said may read us a needful lesson on the subject of spurious charity. Charity is not uniform suavity under all circumstances; it has in it a stern element of moral indignation which is the salt that keeps it from corruption. Charity never flatters a man in wilful sin, but tells him plainly that continuance means death; just as a surgeon, who desires nothing but the health of his patient, does not hesitate to perform a painful operation. And because heresy is mischievous to souls charity pays it no compliments. If some safeguards are required with perfect righteousness of indignation--
1. Rid the mind of personal resentment.
2. Be sure that it is vital error, and do not confound it with your view of it. (Dean Goulburn.)
Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost.--
Resisting the Holy Ghost
I. The character here given of impenitent and ungodly men.
1. Their leading feature is obduracy, which the Scriptures call hardness of heart. There may be a variety of dispositions, yet all merging in this spirit.
(1) Stiff-neeked means nearly the same as stout-hearted; one who is unyielding and obstinate; who sets at nought the councils of God and follows his own.
(2) Uncircumcised in heart and ears. Circumcision was a rite intended to point out the nature and necessity of spiritual renovation (Deuteronomy 10:16-18).
2. The obduracy of an ungodly man may be resolved into--
(1) Sensuality (Deuteronomy 21:18-20).
(2) Pride and prejudice (Jeremiah 6:10-13).
(3) Habitual negligence and the spirit of slumber (Isaiah 66:8; Isaiah 66:4; Isaiah 29:9-13).
II. How ungodly men resist the Holy Ghost. That a creature should rise in rebellion against the great Creator might seem incredible, had we not demonstration of the fact. Gamaliel said, “If this council, or this work, be of God, ye cannot overthrow it, lest ye haply be found even to fight against God.” There are many ways in which men do fight against God; but the most awful is in resisting the Holy Ghost. The Sovereign of the universe maintains a communication with our fallen world by the agency of His Spirit. Now this Divine Spirit is called--
1. The Spirit of Truth. He revealed the will of God to us. When any one opposes Divine truth, he resists the Holy Ghost. The grand doctrines of the gospel are confessedly clear and plain in the Word. How then is it that they are not received? (Isaiah 30:8-13; John 3:19.) To those who prefer agreeable things, which flatter the roving imagination, and the unrenewed heart, a full exhibition of Divine truth, will ever be unwelcome. Herein consists the guilt of obstinate unbelief and impenitence. Hence, too, arises the sophistry which contrives a thousand subtle devices to nullify the Word of God.
2. The spirit of purity. He is the sole source and efficient author of sanctity. He has given a hallowed and peculiar stamp to the various precepts, ordinances, and institutions of true religion. Now, the man who labours to stain this stamp of purity resists the Holy Ghost.
3. The Spirit of Grace. God engaged to pour out the spirit of grace and of supplication. The favour of Jehovah is eminently manifested through the agency of the Holy Ghost. Yet, alas I great numbers resist this Divine Agent of mercy, stifling those convictions which are produced by His power. The truth is heard, but not heeded and applied.
III. The tremendous consequences of resisting the Holy Ghost.
1. Those persons who have long and obstinately opposed truth, are usually given over to a reprobate mind. The light which they have laboured so hard to exclude is withdrawn, and they are enveloped in the thick darkness they love. Compunction of conscience gradually abates till they are past feeling. “My Spirit shall not always strive with man,” etc. “Ephraim is joined to idols, let him alone.” “For it is impossible for those who were once enlighted,” etc.
2. The future punishment of those who have resisted the Holy Ghost will be beyond expression dreadful. Though for a time they may be hardened, so as to have little or no fear, the justice of God is preparing their doom. He that despised Moses’ law, died without mercy, under two or three witnesses; of how much sorer punishment, etc. “Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker!” (Essex Congregational Remembrancer.)
Resisting the Holy Ghost
I. The office of the Holy Spirit.
II. The means He uses.
1. The Word.
4. Providential dealings.
III. The modes of resisting Him.
3. Contradiction. (W. W. Wythe.)
On resisting the Holy Spirit
To resist the Holy Ghost is a sin of the deepest guilt. It is the basest ingratitude against God; for it is resisting the very means which God of His infinite mercy freely offers for recovering our souls from sin, and bringing us to Christ, our only Saviour. Does it not seem strange that against one so good, so merciful, so willing to help, and comfort us, we should ever be led to commit wilful sin?
1. Christians of the present day approach towards this “sin” several ways; and first whenever they despise or ridicule things belonging unto God. Should they persevere in these sinful habits, they may in the end lose all reverence for holy things; and then, if, with a soul indifferent to things spiritual, they die, have they a hope that their sin can be forgiven? Like the Pharisees of old, they seemed to have refused the very means by which they might have been brought to Christ.
2. There is another way by which Christians “resist the Holy Ghost”; and this, in the language of Scripture, is called grieving, or quenching, the Holy Spirit. In one sense every sin wilfully committed against God, every known Christian duty wilfully omitted, is grieving the Holy Spirit. But in a more especial manner Christians grieve the Holy Ghost when they refuse to receive those doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ which He hath Himself revealed; when the plain teachings of the Scriptures seem unto them “foolishness.”
3. God’s Holy Spirit is resisted also by every one who, in direct opposition to conscience, refusing the holy aid which alone could have preserved him, wilfully commits sin, knowingly violates the moral law of God. Such are some of the very awful considerations arising from the subject before us. Warned of the danger, let us watch and pray against it. Let us not resist the Holy Ghost in this our accepted time, and He will fit us for the full enjoyment of the salvation purchased by the blood and secured by the intercession of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. (H. Marriott, M. A.)
Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted.--
Devotion to the conventional
I. The rejection of Christ was the national sin of the Jewish people. It was the act of the whole nation, the result of the full development of the then Jewish mode of looking at the world--the spirit of the age.
1. The term, a national sin, wants a clear definition. It is used at present recklessly. Every party declares its opponents guilty of a national sin. But a national sin is not an evil done by any one party to the nation, but an evil done by the nation itself. I might mention courses of political action in which England has persisted for years, through all changes of party, which are of the character of national sins, but I will content myself with saying that one of the worst of national sins is the rejection or neglect of the great men whom God has sent to save or to teach the nation. It is a proof of the perfect culture of a people, when it recognises its great men, puts them forward at once and obeys them.
2. The man of noble genius, the prophet, or whatever else you call him, is the test of the nation. Those are lost who reject him--the whole nation is lost if the whole nation rejects him--for it is not he so much whom it rejects as the saving ideas of which he is the vehicle. The question whether Christ shall be accepted or rejected has again and again been placed before the nations. It was placed most completely before the Jews at the appearance of the perfect Man--is placed before each of us--since He was the representation of that which is noblest in humanity. This passive work was recognised by Simeon when he said, “This child is set for the fall and the rising again of many in Israel.” It was recognised by Christ Himself when He said, “For judgment,” i.e. for division, for sifting of the chaff from the wheat, “am I come into the world.” And so it was, wherever He went He was the touchstone of men. Those who were pure and true-hearted saw Him and loved Him; those who were conscious of their need and sin believed in Him, drank deep of His Spirit, and found redemption and repose. Those who were base or false of heart naturally recoiled from Him, and, to get rid of Him, hanged Him on a tree. In doing so--and this was the deed of the mass of the people--they destroyed their nationality which was hidden in their reception of Christ. In a coincidence with this, the priesthood rejected Christ in words which repudiated their distinct existence as a nation--“We have no king but Caesar.” He did nothing overt to produce this. He simply lived His life, and it acted on the Jewish world as an electric current upon the water; it separated its elements.
II. The cause of this rejection was primarily devotion to the conventional, which is practically identical with want of individuality, one of the most painful deficiencies in our present society.
1. Now the rectification of that evil lies at the root of Christianity. Christ came to ensure the distinct life, the originality of each man, to rescue men from being mingled up, indistinguishable atoms, with the mass of man.
2. The spirit of the world is in exact opposition to this. Its tendency is to reduce all men and women to one pattern. There must be nothing original in the world’s language, eccentric, erratic. Custom is to be despot. We must all dress in the same way, read the same books, talk of the same things. We do not object to progress, but everybody must be levelled, and then collectively advance; no one must leave the ranks or step to the front.
3. This is the spirit which either cannot see, or, seeing, hates men of genius. They are in conflict with the known and the accredited modes of action. So it comes to pass that they are depreciated and neglected; or, if they are too great and persist, persecuted and killed. And, indeed, it is not difficult to get rid of them, for men of genius cannot breathe in this atmosphere, it kills them. The pitiable thing in English society now is, that it is in danger of becoming of so dreadful a uniformity that no original man can be developed in it at all. This, if anything, will become the ruin of England’s greatness.
4. There is, it is true, a kind of re-action going on at present against this tyranny. Young men and women, weary of monotonous pleasures, are in rebellion, but the whole social condition has been so degraded that they rush into still more artificial and unnatural pleasures and excitements; in endeavouring to become free, they enslave themselves the more.
5. Those who might do much, do little. It is one of the advantages of wealth and high position that those who possess them may initiate the uncustomary without a cry being raised against them. But even with every opportunity, how little imagination do they ever display, how little invention, how little they do to relieve the melancholy uniformity of our pleasures, or the intense joylessness of our work!
6. Now this was precisely the spirit of the Jewish religious world at the time of Christ. Men were bound down to a multitude of fixed rules and maxims;. they were hedged in on all sides. It was the most finished conventionalism of religion, in spite of the different sects, which the world has ever seen. Then came Christ, entirely original, proclaiming new ideas, or, old truths in a new form, overthrowing worn-out ceremonies, denouncing things gray with the dust of ages, letting in the light of truth into the chambers where the priests and lawyers spun their webs of theology to ensnare the free souls of men, trampling down relentlessly the darling customs of the old conservatism, shocking and bewildering the religious society. He did not keep, they said, the Sabbath day. He ate and drank--abominable iniquity!--with publicans and sinners. He allowed a fallen woman to touch Him. Worse still, He did not wash His hands before He ate bread. He did not teach as the scribes did. He did not live the time-honoured and ascetic life of a prophet. He dared to speak against the priesthood and the aristocracy. He came from Nazareth, that was enough; no good could come from Nazareth. He was a carpenter’s son, and illiterate, and no prophet was made, or could be made, out of such materials. And this man! He dares to disturb us, to contest our maxims, to set at nought our customs, to array Himself against our despotism. “Come, let us kill Him;” and so they crucified Him. They did not see, the wretched men, that in murdering Him they murdered their nation also.
III. Take the question now out of the realm of thought and history, and apply it practically. Ask yourselves two questions:--
1. What would be the fate of Christ if He were suddenly to appear as a teacher in the middle of London? How would our orthodox religious society and our conventional social world receive Him? Desiring to speak with all reverence, He would horrify the one by His heterodox opinions, the other by His absolute scorn of many of the very palladia of society. Supposing He were to denounce--as He would in no measured terms--our system of caste; attack our most cherished maxims about property and rights; live in opposition to certain social rules, contemn with scorn our accredited hypocrisies; live among us His free, bold, unconventional, outspoken life; how should we receive Him? It is a question which it is worth while that society should ask itself. I trust more would hail His advent than we think. I believe the time is come when men are sick of the tyranny of custom of living in unreality; that they are longing for a new life and a new order of things, for some fresh ideas to come and stir, like the angel, the stagnant pool. I believe there are thousands who would join themselves to Him, thousands of true men from all religious bodies, and from those who are now plentifully sprinkled with the epithets of rationalists, infidels, heretics, and atheists; but there are thousands who call themselves by His name who would neglect or persecute Him, for He Would come among our old conservatisms of religion, our doctrinal systems, superstitions, priesthoods, and ritualisms, as He came of old. If we could accept the revolution He would make, our nation and religion Would be saved, if not it would be enervated by the blow and die. Realising these things, realising Christ speaking to us as He would speak now, we ought to feel our falseness. We may save our nation if we resolve, each one here for himself, to free ourselves from cant, and formalism, and superstition, to step into the clear air of freedom, individuality, truth, and holiness.
2. How far is the spirit of the world preventing you personally from receiving Christ?
(1) Is your sole aim the endeavour to please your party, forfeiting your individuality? Then you cannot receive Christ, for He demands that you should be true to your own soul.
(2) Are you permitting yourself to chime in with the low morality of the day, to accept the common standard, repudiating the desire to be better than your neighbours, and so coming at last to join in the light laugh with which the world treats immoralities of society or trade, or the more flagrant shame, dishonesty, and folly which adorn the turf--Letting evils take their course, till gradually the evils appear to you at first endurable, and then even beautiful, being protected by the deities of custom and fashion, which we enthrone instead of God? Are you drifting into such a state of heart? If so, you cannot expect to be able to receive Christ, for He demands that life should be Godlike; not the prudence of silence about evil, but the imprudence of bold separation from evil.
3. And to come home to the inner spiritual life, is your religion only the creature of custom, not of conviction? Have you received and adopted current opinions because they are current, orthodox because it is the fashion to be orthodox, or heterodox because it is the fashion to be heterodox? How can you receive Christ?--for where He comes He claims reality. Ye must be born again; born out of a dead, Pharisaic, conventional form of religion into a living individual union with the life of God. Two things, then, are laid before you this day--conventional religion, a whited sepulchre; personal religion, a fair temple, whose sure foundations are bound together by the twisted strength of the innermost fibres of the soul. (Stopford A. Brooke, M. A.)
When they heard these things they were cut to the heart.
The procedure against Stephen
I. The narrative. Full of faith and power, he did great wonders and miracles among the people. He is, therefore, singled out for special attack, not in relation to the reality of his miraculous pretensions, but on what, no doubt, his assailants felt with such a man would be their higher vantage ground, the open field of theological controversy. And herein they were foiled. Chosen as the disputants were most probably for their superior learning and abilities, they would doubtless look upon Stephen with much the same scorn as the armed warrior of Gath regarded the stripling of Bethlehem. But on coming to close hand strife, they found that human learning was a poor match against Divine gifts, and they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spoke. This signal defeat compelled a change in their mode of attack. Satan has more than one arrow in his quiver, and whenever he has set upon a man to destroy him, will never be wanting. If reasoning fail, the adversary will try invective; invective silenced, he has recourse to falsehood; falsehood confuted, there are well laid engines of subtlety and fraud and brute force. All these means were successively employed against Stephen. The refuted argument was followed by the charge of blasphemy. The groundless charge of blasphemy had to be propped up by bribed witnesses, as these could only obtain a judicial hearing by the violent dragging of the case before the council; and in the very act of making his defence before this body, Stephen is seized, cast out of the city, and put to death.
II. Its lesson. In reading narratives like this, we are prompted to look for some principles on which to account for the bitterness and violence which usually characterises religious persecution. Men, we know, will get angry sometimes if people differ from them in politics, and will even forget their charities when contending on the most ordinary topics of dispute; but the fury, the gnashing with the teeth, and the showers of stones, are only met with when that which is to be put down is the pure truth of God; when the object of popular hatred can have no end of his own to compass. The fact is a standing, undeniable testimony to the doctrine, that the carnal mind is enmity against God. If the feeling of the natural heart, which supervened upon the fall, had been only the negation of a former love towards God, leaving man to settle down into a Gallio unconcerndness, we should never have heard anything of the blood of martyrs. Men would no more have risen up against an apostle than against a philosopher. But the case we know to be far otherwise. Press upon the consciences of men in any age the obligations of spiritual religion; carry the lamp of God’s condemning truth into the heart’s chambers of imagery; disturb that untempered mortar with which men daub over the walls of their refuge of lies, and in an instant you wake up the old feud of our nature; the embers begin to glow again of an ancient but long-slumbering fire; you have touched the man in the very quick of his cherished delusion, and at once he stands up in stout and rebellious front against God. Neither has advancing civilisation done more than restrain the outward expression of this feeling. It may have taught men, when convinced of the utter futility of their own religious principles, that they cannot now have recourse to the rude retributions of a rude age--but it has not dispossessed them of their malignity, or altered the original antagonism of the natural mind to the reception of Bible truth, or the practice of Bible requirements. If I tell a Socinian, that in the sight of God his moralities are no more than so many disguised and garnished sins; if I tell a man of right creed and pious activities, that if he has not something besides this, the publicans and harlots shall go into heaven before him; if I say to the proud, the worldly, the over-reaching, the slander-dealer, the uncharitable, the blasphemer, and the Sabbath-breaker, “Ye have not the Spirit of Christ, and therefore can be none of His”--yea, if I can so bring home these evidences of an unchanged heart to the individual conscience as that a man shall feel as if I were saying to him, Thou art the man whom, in your present state, the blood of Christ cannot reach; for whom the mansions of heaven can make no room; whose peace is a delusion, and whose hope is but a spider’s web--spared though I may be from the gnashing teeth of unbridled rage, yet, while determined to stand out against conviction, the spirit of the persecutor is in that sinner’s heart, and only to the age, and other accidents of social life, is it owing that men are not found to rush upon a faithful messenger with one accord, and to cast him out of the city, and to stone him. By nature men hate truth as the midnight robber hates the light. (D. Moore, M. A.)
The first Christian martyr
I. The man. The form of his name would indicate that he was a Hellenist; that is, a Jew born among the Gentiles, speaking the Greek language, tits name also signifies a crown.
1. He was versed in the Scriptures. “When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart.” Cranmer and Ridley learned the New Testament by heart. They also saw its truths in relation to present duties of life. This was the case of the first Christian martyr. He exposed the false view of the Jews toward the temple and the law. “They were cut to the heart,” or, literally, they were sawn asunder in their hearts. It was not one staggering blow which did the work. The truth, laden with rebukes, was gradually making its way through their hearts, The personal application completed the work.
2. Stephen was spiritually enlightened. “But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven.” We may not all have the privilege of Stephen to look into heaven in this life, but the Holy Spirit furnishes enlightening power. Spiritual breadth of vision follows. That creates confidence. Moses endured, seeing Him who is invisible; and the angel of God revealed himself unto Paul, saying, “Fear not.” Here was the basis of Stephen’s confidence. Facts of the visible world were newly impressed upon him. We see things here from a short range. Hence mystery and perplexity arise. He is sustained by a higher power, and looks with joy to the end.
3. He possessed a forgiving spirit. “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” This prayer is without a parallel outside of Biblical history and its influence. Confucius, Isocrates, Seneca, and other Gentile writers hinted at the golden rule in a partial or negative form. But praying for one’s enemies has thus far been discovered only in the Bible and in the line of its influence. The Cross first brings it to view.
II. Stephen witnessing to the truth.
1. He witnessed that God’s presence and favour were not limited to any set place. Stephen taught that God’s presence was not limited to a favoured few. This was one link in the chain which drew away Christians from Jewish rites. The disciples loved the temple. Who could blame them? Here Jesus gave some of His choicest revelations. But lingering amid the incense and smoking sacrifices too long they may bind these practices, only belonging to the past, on the new society, and fetter its future course. They were providentially thrust out into new fields, as we may be, by apparent disasters, to secure in the end the best results.
2. Stephen bore witness that Christ had been elevated to glory and power. “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.” Stephen was the first to bear witness to the fact of seeing Christ after His ascension. Paul and John were granted such visions later (Act 9:3-4; 1 Corinthians 9:1; Revelation 1:12-17). Perhaps such witnessing was needed to encourage the early Church. It made visible things appear as a positive reality. It also confirmed Stephen’s teaching. Christ had taught that spiritual worship anywhere was pleasing to the Father. It would follow that a peculiar privilege had been granted to Stephen. Any rabbi might have coveted it. The glory of God had appeared to him as well as Abraham and to Moses. If his face had shone like that of an angel, his words now had a heavenly support.
3. Stephen bore witness that Jesus receives His people after death. He did not formally affirm this fact, but prayed to Jesus to receive his spirit; or, in bold literalness, “Take my spirit by the hand.” (J. H. Allen.)
The first Christian martyr
We have foregleams of the next life. Witnesses have had glimpses to which they have given testimony.
I. Stephen was a man of affairs. He was no dreaming enthusiast, however intense his spiritual life. He was equal to the demands of new enterprises where originality in planning and fertility of resource were requisite.
II. He, only a deacon, a layman, was full of faith and power.
III. This testimony he gives when he must seal his sincerity with his life. He knew what extremes Jewish hate could reach.
IV. He had given abundant proof of mental soundness and grasp in his resume of Jewish history and God’s dealings.
V. His spiritual elevation and fellowship appear, beautifully and gloriously, in his agreement in words and disposition with his dying master. Such a witness we can trust, however momentous the questions upon which he speaks. Points of Stephen’s testimony--
1. Heaven’s glory gladly and easily appreciable by redeemed souls. Infinite the necessary remove of heaven’s life from earth’s, but God’s redeemed ones can enter it with delight. However stupendous the transition, it is easy and quick; no narrowed and doubtful reception; the finite easily joins the infinite; the imperfect is neither shamed nor crippled by the perfect; the lowliest estate does not shrink or tremble as the highest glory suddenly bursts upon it. Stephen looked steadfastly.
2. Heaven is heaven because fined with God’s personal presence. God’s glory apart from His presence is inconceivable. The soul is made for God, and reposes only in Him. There its satisfactions are supreme and complete. Is God’s conscious presence welcome here now? If not, how can we meet Him face to face when this life shall open upon the next and His flooding glory appear on every side?
3. Jesus, in His glorified humanity, has the highest place in heaven’s honour, and welcomes His disciples as they follow Him. We are strongly impressed with Jesus’ manifold offices for His disciple band when with them in visible leadership. The story is dramatic in vividness and suggestive in teaching. But His personal relations now, His invisible leadership, mean much more every way. The glorified Jesus is the firstfruits of our redeemed humanity--in the fulness of time He will gather to Himself, to a full sharing of His glory, all who are washed in His blood and trained by His grace.
4. Dying saints are strengthened by foregleams, sometimes brilliant sight of heaven’s inhabitants’ bliss.
5. The spirit survives the body, its powers expanded and quickened. We reason about continued life, the body laid aside; but hear the proof in the experience of one qualified to speak. Stephen saw Jesus, and to Him committed his soul. We shudder at the thought of going into utter oblivion, life annihilated. From this fear the dying Stephen brings sure release.
6. The saved soul, redeemed by the blood of Christ and quickened by Divine grace, can thoroughly forgive. No test of Christian character is more trustworthy than this. No personal resentments embittered His dying hour. Will our pillow be free from such thorns? They are sharp and fatal to dying peace or eternal safety.
7. Divine Providence utilises all events to the forwarding of its world-embracing plans. A great apostle was needed for the Gentile world. Here that coming apostle had his first special training. As Augustine has said, “But for Stephen’s prayers the Church would not have had its apostle Paul.”
8. A significant fact that this detailed account of Stephen’s martyrdom stands alone. We needed it, that we might have this one vivid illustration of dying grace in a crisis so remarkable.
9. A typical instance of an apparent triumph of hostility to Jesus in His followers turning into overwhelming defeat. We tremble before assaults upon the Word of God, the organised Church and all related institutions; but such assaults, however successful in appearance, are but for the moment. Converts to Christ are, in most cases, born through the travail of some one.
10. Lighter trials may avail themselves of the same supports as came to the dying martyr. (S. Lewis B. Speare.)
He being full of the Holy Ghost.
The work of the Spirit in the proto-martyr
Note how explicitly the character, attainments, and triumph of Stephen are ascribed to the Holy Spirit. In the first notice of him he is called “a man full of faith and the Holy Ghost.” So here in his death. Bearing this in mind, observe--
I. He looked up steadfastly into heaven, where his heart and treasure had long been. Where else could he look? Everything urged him to look away from earth and invited him to look up to heaven. He had no sympathy below, but there was all sympathy above. There were the redeemed who had gone before him, the angels, Jesus, his heavenly Father, all waiting to welcome him. So good is brought out of evil, and man’s violence made to hasten the saint’s blessedness. “As thy days so shall thy strength be.” When earth casts us out, heaven waits to receive us.
II. As he looked he saw the glory of God.
1. In Isaiah 6:1-13. we may see the meaning of this glory, especially as interpreted by John. “These things, said Esaias, when he saw Christ’s glory.” The seraphim saw in Christ the glory of God--His mercy and His holiness, how He could be just and yet forgiving. So Stephen saw the Divine honour secured by that redemption for which he was called upon to die.
2. He saw Jesus standing, and the glory of God softened in the Person of his Saviour. He saw Jesus--
(1) Glorious after His humiliation.
(2) Accepted by the Father, and in that the proof that His work was accomplished.
(3) “Standing,” to import that He was interceding, giving the Spirit, and that human nature was indeed exalted in His Person.
III. In full harmony with these views he said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
1. He had a clear apprehension of the soul’s independence of the body.
2. He knew that as soon as his enemies had despatched him his soul would be admitted into glory.
3. He realised the sufficiency of Christ for his salvation.
IV. How was he exercised towards his enemies? He prayed, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.
1. What just views of Christ these prayers discover.
2. What a view does his conduct give of the power of Christianity.
V. It was while he expressed such a spirit that he fell asleep. Learn from the example of Stephen--
1. How to die in peace.
2. That the Spirit has brought great glory to Christ from the death of His people.
3. What shall be the glory of the martyr in heaven? (J. Morgan, D. D.)
The true conception of worship
I. Its nature.
1. Negatively. It does not consist in--
(1) Mere external ceremony.
(2) The mere utterance of any prescribed forms of prayer.
(3) Any special attitudes of devotion.
(4) Mere devotional feeling.
2. Positively. The true conception of worship is realised only in the vision of Jesus.
1. Respects His Divine-human character.
2. Is centred in Jesus as Mediator.
3. Is directed to Christ in His position of official dignity.
III. Its characteristics. Stephen--
1. “Looked.” This was--
2. “Steadfastly.” The soul was in the act. It was no mere “ vacant stare”; no idle, curious glance.
3. “Into heaven.” He entered within the veil and worshipped with the spirits before the throne. He was not content to look merely at its burnished gates.
4. “Saw the glory of God.” The instrument of vision was the eye of the soul. He saw by faith not the outer, but the inner, glory, of the temple of God.
IV. Its moral condition. He was “full of the Holy Ghost.” It is the power of the Holy Ghost that purifies the heart, spiritualises the conceptions, and develops the true worshipping faculty in man. Worship is a dead letter without such power. (John Tesseyman.)
Looked up steadfastly into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing.
The rapture of Stephen
Let us regard this as--
I. A ravishing glimpse into heavenly realities. Divine manifestations usually fasten on something in the fortunes or thoughts of those who receive them. To Joshua, about to besiege Jericho, the angel of the Lord appears as a captain; to the wise men, whose study was astronomy, the revelation of Christ’s birth was made by a star; to St. Peter and his fellow-fishermen, a sign of Christ’s power is given in a miraculous draught of fishes. Stephen was now in the temple, and was familiar with the history of the shekinah of its holy place. He was before the high priest, with whose function on the day of atonement he was also familiar. With, then, this imagery in his mind he sees the shekinah of the heavenly sanctuary, and the great High Priest standing before God to intercede for the human race.
II. A confession of Christ before those who had crucified Him. Stephen’s mind was full of his Master’s words when placed in similar circumstances, “Hereafter shall ye see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power,” and his declaration is tantamount to “Lo, His words are fulfilled. I see your late Victim crowned with glory at the right hand of God.”
III. A consolation and support to himself. Our Lord had warned the Jews that they would see Him “sitting”; Stephen sees Him “standing.” The difference is significant. To the Jews He will sit as Judge; to Stephen He stands--
1. As ready to assist him. A person who sits while contemplating the sufferings of another gives an impression of indifference. One who rises and advances towards us shows that he hears our cry and is willing to help.
2. As ready to plead for him. The earthly high priest sat before him as judge, fury on his countenance, and condemned him. The heavenly High Priest stands as his Advocate with the Father.
3. As ready to receive him in fulfilment of His own gracious words (John 14:2-3).
IV. Conforming the martyr to the image of his Lord. At Christ’s baptism “the heavens were opened,” and in Gethsemane “there appeared an angel from heaven, strengthening Him.” Thus was He prepared for the two great conflicts of the temptation and the passion. Now that the disciples might be made like Him it pleased God, in the first martyrdom, to vouchsafe the support of a heavenly vision, It was otherwise with James. He had no vision, but what had passed in Stephen’s case must have given him support. “He who welcomed Stephen will welcome me.” These different circumstances of the two martyrdoms open up the general plan of God’s administration of His Church. “We walk by faith, not by sight.” If every believer had such a vision there would he no longer any trial of character in faith, and the great object of our probation would be seriously interfered with. God’s plan, therefore, is to give glimpses into the heavenly world only at the outset of a dispensation. But if our privileges are less high in this respect, we have the opportunity of exercising a nobler faith. “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.”
V. Throwing into relief the obtuseness of the Jews. Blinded by their malicious fury, they can no more see Christ than Balaam could the angel. In this there is something very awful. A transaction was going on in the spiritual world, which intimately concerned them, of which they were totally unconscious. So it may be with us; and there is but one thing which can make the spiritual world a reality to us, and that is the faculty which penetrates into the unseen--faith. (Dean Goulburn.)
Stephen’s outlook and vision
The eye of man is “the window of his soul.” Through it, he himself looks out; and if any one stands high enough in his confidence, through it he may likewise look in. The direction of just one glance sometimes exhibits a whole character in a single flash of revelation: and this may be drawn forth by the same object. Lot looked down towards Sodom; thus he displayed his avarice. Lot’s wife looked back towards Sodom; thus she disclosed her disobedience. Abraham looked forth on Sodom; thus he showed his faith after prayer. Note--
I. Stephen’s outlook.
1. Its expectancy. “He looked.” He was now in search of help in his extremity; it was nowhere to be found in that neighbourhood. He looked off from everything earthly, sent his mind backward after some old promise, forward for some fresh revealing of hope, and upward beyond all pain and worry for himself or the young Church he loved. Our lesson is this: Give up all responsibility for the world’s history into the hands of a faithful God. How some people distress themselves about the future of their children; forgetting that they lived somehow after their parents died. God lives always.
2. Its intelligence. “He looked up.” He might have, in some way, sought help from the Roman government, or sympathy from his fellow-believers, but “up” was the only way in which to look, for one who had read the Old Testament as he had (Isaiah 31:1). So we must rest for living help, and for dying grace, upon Jesus Christ (Hebrews 12:2).
3. Its tranquillity. “He looked up steadfastly.” There is here no quailing of the coward, no cringing of the captive, no weak sympathy for those who would mourn his death. Is it not strange that the one person in all the world who would fitly express his exact feelings was at the time standing? (Acts 20:24). And any sincere believer may depend upon his covenant-keeping God to give him perfect peace in dying, even under the most dreadful circumstances.
4. Its triumph. “Into heaven.” True faith, eminent and dauntless, has an eyesight of its own, which will prove gloriously serviceable at the final moment of life.
II. The vision. When Stephen looked up, what did he see? Two years afterwards, the “young man” Saul saw the same grand spectacle (chap. 9:3-5). It made him an apostle (1 Corinthians 9:1).
1. “The glory of God.” Moses and Elijah appeared in glory with Christ (Luke 9:31). When Moses and Aaron saw it, it was like a pavement of sapphires (Exodus 24:10). The dying martyr saw an unutterable splendour. He sprang towards it with an impulsive gesticulation of discovery. He forgot where he was, and even ceased to think how unsympathetic an audience he had.
2. “The Son of Man.” Our Lord called Himself by that name often, but no one else till this martyr died. The Son of God is still the Son of Man. Conclusion: Heaven is--
1. The only real thing in the universe.
2. The only hope worth cherishing.
3. The only end worth striving for. (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
We get the keynote of Stephen’s life and character in the text--“He, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly unto heaven.” That was not a mere outward gesture, a solitary act, but expressed the constant habit, the normal attitude of his soul. Habitually he looked through the things that are seen to the things that are not seen, and saw life in the light of God. He saw the glory of God--the one perfect revelation of the character of God--in the face of Jesus Christ. He looked through all the changes and.through all the apparent moral confusion of this world to the Divine reality behind.
I. First of all, it is said, he was “full of grace and power.” In the same chapter it is said he was “full of faith and of the Holy Ghost.” Practically it is the same thing. “Full of faith and of the Holy Ghost,” and “full of grace and power”: the one is the condition of the other. The one points to the inward fact, the thing which made him what he was; the other to the manifestation of that, the impression which he left upon those who came into contact with him.
1. He was “full of grace.” The expression suggests a type of character with qualities of its own, which not only calls forth our admiration, but which leads our thoughts upwards to God. There are persons who, in a special way, make us think of the Lord Jesus Christ. We recognise the character I am pointing at when we meet with it, although we may feel that we can only very inadequately describe it. It is a character partly like that of Christ Himself, but also in some essential particulars unlike it; like it in the presence of simple trust in God, and purity of heart, and prompt faithfulness of loving obedience; like it in the pain and indignation caused by falsehood and cruelty and meanness; like it in the love that seeketh not her own, that is not easily provoked, that beareth all things and hopeth all things; but also unlike it, not only in the imperfection that belongs to human goodness at its best, but in the profound humility which accompanies deep consciousness of sin, and the grateful love which springs from sin forgiven. Yes, we know very well that there is a character which has in it something distinctive, something peculiarly its own, even when it is very imperfectly developed, something that we recognise, and we know whence it is and how it cometh. We know whence it is, for it is grace; and we know how it cometh, for it cometh by that faith which realises the unseen and lives as in the presence of Him who is unseen, which habitually looks up into heaven, which has learned to see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, and which, as the result of beholding the glory of the Lord, reflects it, and is changed into the same image.
2. And being “full of grace,” he was “full of power.” The power here indicated was not simply that of working miracles, nor was it even intellectual force--the wisdom with which he selected from a memory well-stored with Old Testament Scripture, and the cogency with which he drove home his arguments, though that was part of it; but it was above all moral force of character, the power which always goes along with grace, and suffers no life where that is to be resultless. For grace in itself is power. We -an understand that Stephen was “full of power” when he was pressing his antagonists in debate with arguments which they were unable to answer, and they retreated step by step, baffled and silenced, and at last slunk away abashed. We can understand it when we perceive how, while professedly dealing with the past, he was really holding up history before them as a mirror, in which they could see themselves, and observe that in one respect at least they were proving themselves to be the children of the fathers, by doing after their deeds; and we can understand it again, when his pent-up feeling at last finds vent in a burst of indignant denunciation, which must have made those men who held his life in their hands quail in his presence. We recognise that there was a power there; and perhaps it is not that in us which is most akin to the spirit of Christ, which is most quick to appreciate that kind of power; but how slow we are to realise that there was perhaps greater, wider, and more lasting power in the daily round of common duty, in the unnoticed ministries of charity, as he daily wended his way through the lanes and closes of the city among the poor committed to his charge, in his example of patience and self-mastery, in the help he gave by friendly counsel, in the silent influence of his ordinary life. It is good to covet earnestly the best gifts; but it is well to remember that there is something more excellent, for greater--greater in power--than all these is love, the love which is quickened and sustained by looking up steadfastly into heaven and beholding Jesus.
II. It is in harmony with what we are told of Stephen--“that he was full of grace”--that we read of that glory upon his face in the great crisis of his life. For grace is the inner beauty of the soul; this was the shining through of that inner beauty. Who cares to stop to discuss the question whether this was, in the commonly accepted sense of the word, miraculous? Does not that which is inward ever tend to find for itself outward expression? Do not the habitual emotions and cherished thoughts of the soul record themselves upon the countenance? And if the evil dispositions write themselves upon the face, do not the best feelings of the heart--does not grace--tend to do the same? Is there not something unmistakably its own in the eye of guilelessness and transparent openness? Does not the habitual trustfulness which rests on God come at last to reflect itself in serene placidity of expression? Does not love in its purest, intensest, self-sacrificing forms--the love of a mother, for instance--almost glorify?
III. The inward likeness to Christ, which comes by steadfastly looking to Him, which was manifest in the life of Stephen, making it full of grace and power, was also conspicuous in his death. He is like his Lord in faith and in love.
1. He is like Him in faith. There is similar confidence, yet with a significant difference. Our Lord in dying had said, “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit.” Stephen, in his last agony, commits his spirit not directly to the Father, but to Jesus, who has bought it with His blood, knowing in whom he has believed, and that He is able to keep that which is committed to Him against that day.
2. And, once more, in his dying hour, in showing himself strong in love, Stephen reveals how full his mind and heart are of the thought of his Saviour, and how deeply he has drunk of His Spirit. While the blinding volleys of stones are flying round him, crashing upon body and brain, the last effort of his yet clear consciousness is an act of prayer; and the prayer of Jesus for those who were nailing Him to the Cross is echoed in his expiring appeal--“Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” We can scarcely help tninking of a wonderful contrast. In the days of King Joash, Zechariah the son of Jehoiada, the faithful friend and counsellor of the king, stood forth to rebuke the corruption of the popular worship. Like Stephen’s, his warning provoked an outburst of popular fury; and like him, he received the earthly recompense of his faithfulness in being stoned to death, the king, with shameful ingratitude, being a party to it; and when he died, he said, “the Lord look upon it and require it.” In what a different strain does the first Christian martyr plead. Since the old prophet’s time a new revelation of Divine love had been given to men; a new example of human love had been set before them; a new motive of love had begun to work within them; a new spirit of love, the Spirit of Christ Himself, had been imparted to them; and of that Spirit Stephen was full--“full of the Holy Ghost.”
IV. This is the only narrative with any fulness of detail of any death in the New Testament, save One. Is it wrong to infer from this that in the New Testament greater importance is attached to the manner of a man’s life than to the manner of a man’s death; that in his conquering temptation in living, even more than in his triumphing over fear in dying, is the power of the grace of Christ displayed? At any rate, for once we are asked to contemplate a Christian in the hour of his departure. His was a stormy passage to the heavenly rest; but this is what we have to remember--what was true in his case is true as to the main things in all who have obtained like precious faith. There may be no brightness like the reflection of the heavenly glory lighting up the face; there may be no telling of a -vision of the opened heavens; there may be only pain and weakness, dull unconscious stupor, or a clouded mind; but none the less it is true that as here, so over every dying believer the Lord Jesus Christ stands to succour and to receive the spirit he commits to Him then, or has committed long before. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of all His saints. Like Stephen they fall asleep, and awake to behold His face in righteousness, and shall be satisfied with His likeness. (A. O. Johnston, M. A.)
I. The glorious scene that exists in the world above--“the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God.” This Stephen saw; but it did not come into existence then; it was in existence before; it is in existence now. We find it difficult to give reality in our minds to distant and unseen things, My friend in some remote land is a really existing being, though I cannes realise his presence. None of us doubts the existence of countries on the other side of the globe. They are as real as though we beheld them. So of heavenly things.
II. Those distressing scenes that often occur in our world below. Scenes like that are often acted in our world. They seem to be a part of our fallen world’s sad inheritance. To some of us the injustice, cruelty, and evil tempers of those we live with, have embittered our lives. We must not murmur at this. It is to be endured patiently, just as sickness or any other calamity. Let us, as one fruit of it, long more for a world where we and all admitted shall be creatures of another mind--all happy one in another, as well as happy in our God.
III. The conduct of the faithful Christian amid the distressing scenes of life. “They gnashed on him with their teeth.” They were becoming wild in their rage against him: yet what does he? Strive to mollify their rage? Appeal for protection to the judges? Look round to find some one less violent than the rest, to interpose in his behalf? No; great as his danger appears, he looks above his danger. “Full of the Holy Ghost, he looks up steadfastly into heaven.” The expression implies that he felt sure that there was help for him there. Here is the secret of bearing trouble well--it is not to keep our eyes on our trouble, anxious for any and ready to catch at the first alleviation of it; it is to look above our troubles, to get our whole soul riveted on Christ in the heavens.
IV. The manifestation which the Lord sometimes makes of Himself to His expecting servants. Our Lord had promised His disciples that if they loved Him and kept His commandments, He will still manifest Himself to them. Now to draw our attention to this promise, and to assure us of the fulfilment of it, we may conceive to be the design of this wonderful vision. At this time most certainly he was loving his Lord, and proving his affection to Him by the danger in which he had placed himself for His sake. Here, then, was an opportunity for the Lord to show how precious to Him are the people that love Him, and how mindful He is of His own word. (C. Bradley, M. A.)
Seeing the glory of Christ
Dr. Owen, just previous to his death, said, “I am going to Him whom nay soul has loved--or, rather, who has loved me with an everlasting love--which is the sole ground of all my consolation.” On Mr. Payne saying to him, “Doctor, I have just been putting your book on ‘The Glory of Christ’ to the press,” he answered, “I am glad to hear it. But oh, brother Payne, the long-looked-for day is come at last, in which I shall see that glory in another manner than I have ever done yet, or was capable of doing in this world.”
The presence of Christ in the dying hour
Robert Glover, mentioned by Mr. Foxe in the “Book of Martyrs,” though he was a man very gracious and holy, faithfully bearing witness to the truth, yet it pleased God to withdraw Himself and presence from him, insomuch that he was greatly distressed while he was in prison, and, opening himself to his friend; told him bow God had left and deserted him. His friend exhorted him still to wait on God, which he laboured to do, and the night before his execution spent much of that time in prayer; yet no comfort came, no manifestations of the presence of Christ. The next day he was drawn out to the stake to die for the truth, and as he went he mourned much for the presence of Christ; but when he came in sight of the stake it pleased God so to fill his heart and soul with comfort, and the incomes of His love, that he cried out unto his friend, “Oh, Austin, He is come! He is come! He is come!” The good man was in the dark a great while, but when in the darkest time then Christ came. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The martyr’s gaze on his ascended Lord
But twice, so far as we know, since Christ’s ascension has the cloud which received Him out of the sight of those first loving gazers opened its blinding folds--once for the conversion of the persecuting Saul, once for the support of the suffering Stephen. It was a great crisis in the history of the new faith. How much depended on the faithful endurance of that young champion! To him tortured men and women would look back from many a scene of agony, and take courage. But he had no example. To him, therefore, most fitly was this support vouchsafed. And mark the mode of its bestowal: “Stephen, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven.” What a gaze was that! What faith, desire, love, need, supplication was gathered into it! And as he gazes, lo, the cloud melts away; being “full of the Holy Ghost,” the power of intuition, so weakened in us fallen men, is supernaturally strengthened, and he sees Jesus standing, because it is the priestly attitude of the great Intercessor, and because the attitude of His intercession is the attitude of His help. And so He showed Himself as reaching out from the eternal shore into the billows of this bitter storm the pierced hand to be the stay of His martyr. And that sight changed all things to him. The lights of earth paled beneath its lustre; the sounds of earth were hushed by its ineffable harmony; the mighty throb which shot through his spirit deadened the power of marking any lower sensation, as he saw that sight of glory, and knew that contenance of love which was bent full upon him. He saw God’s kingdom in its strength, its vastness, and its repose, and he was safe. How can the ripple around their darkened base stir those adamantine foundations? How can the hate of man pluck him out of that hand pierced by love and full of omnipotence? “The Son of Man--the sharer of my nature.” And as the shadow of the great Intercessor falls upon him, transforming him into its own likeness, the dying martyr pleads for his murderers. And then, not as one shrinking back from pain, but as a soul in rapture, thirsting for its full fruition, he calls upon his manifested Lord to receive his spirit; until amidst that storm of murdering violence, calm as the hushed infant upon its mother’s breast, he sinks into a rest sweeter than that of peaceful infancy, and falls indeed asleep in Jesus. For the sake of its great practical lessons--
I. We have here a notable instance of the way in which the whole of our holy religion rests on facts. We see what it was amongst its first confessors in a time of crucial experiment. It was not a set of beneficent maxima which leavened, and raised the tone of, society; not a set of lofty ideas which, gradually, with the help of time and distance, formed a highly-coloured medium through which reverence and affection could look back to the form of their first promulger, and gaze upon it with a wonder which at last invested him with the fancied attribute of a god. No! from the very first it was faith in a Person, Divine and human, beside His follower, and able and willing to hold him up in every struggle. Stephen’s spirit did not cast itself upon sublime abstractions. No! he looks up steadfastly into heaven with the earnest, longing, searching glance of undoubting expectation, following the ascended form to where the cloud had received Him out of their sight; and before such a gaze the cloud melted, and he “saw the heavens opened, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”
II. If thus the word of God was a set of facts, any attempt to resolve it into a set of ideas subverts its very foundations, and destroys the whole edifice. For--
1. This is to take a position altogether at variance with that occupied by the first believers, and thus to shake utterly their credit, inasmuch as, in this view, either they were so ignorant as to be misled, or so false as to mislead. Nor is this all; the great Teacher Himself appealed to these facts as the proofs of His commission (John 10:38; John 15:24). Either, therefore, the facts were real, or the Teacher was a deceiver.
2. It is not possible, consistently with any rules of reasoning, to make a selection from the facts, and yet seek to retain the ideas. A philosophy, being a speculation, may contain a multitude of great and true ideas, mixed with phantasies and fictions; and it is the office of higher intelligences to separate the precious from the vile. But in a system of alleged facts resting upon evidence, the presence of one falsehood shakes the truth of the whole fabric. This is the very issue to which St. Paul brings the whole question, “If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”
III. The light thrown hereby upon difficulties as to gospel miracles.
1. These difficulties rest mainly on the supposed existence of a contradiction between the universally observed law of causes and effects, and the interposition of any intervening power to suspend or to invert those laws. Such pretended interruptions, we are told, no evidence could establish, and that a miracle therefore is impossible. The same conclusion is more gently insinuated by those who would have us think that miraculous power was nothing more than a deeper acquaintance with nature, enabling the operator to work a trick and to call it a miracle; to do, as some have done by savages, when they called to their aid the secrets of science to astonish by pretended portents the ignorance of the uncivllised.
2. But cast upon all these difficulties the brightness of St. Stephen’s vision, and they are scattered in a moment; for it lifts us at once out of the dull level of naturalism into the new lights and shadows of the mountain of God. If one of these recorded facts be true and real, it is of itself enough to prove that the Lord of nature has for His wise purposes resolved to manifest to us, through our sensible faculties, His peculiar presence and His direct working; and this once admitted, the probability is in favour of the truth of any other well-attested miracles. For just as one flash of lightning evinces the existence of such conditions of the atmosphere as may be expected to produce a second, and so makes the coming of that second as probable then as at another time it would be improbable; so does one such direct proof of the manifested working of the Master’s hand make it even probable that according to His wise purpose it may be followed by another. One such fact, therefore, proves that, we are not under a dispensation of nature but of grace; that we are introduced into a new atmosphere, to which we cannot apply the laws which governed that from which we have been transported; that we can no more argue as to what can and cannot be from the data of mere naturalism, than we could measure the laws of light by knowledge gathered from the darkness.
3. Here, then, we are led to the real cause of such difficulties. It is to be found in a want of hearty belief of the spiritual world. To any one of such a habit of mind all difficulties multiply spontaneously after their kind. It is with such spirits as with the bodies of men who live beside open drains, or are encompassed in the malaria of a marsh; they imbibe unconsciously at every pore the lurking poison: you must lift them up to higher grounds and purer airs if you would give health to their fever-stricken limbs. To heal these troubled spirits you must place them with St. Stephen on the mountain of God. If that eye, so diseasedly minute in its small criticisms; if that apprehension, so ready but so shallow in its power; if that reason, so feverishly captious in its questions; if that bent, narrow, trembling soul could but be lifted to those heights--could but be led to look up steadfastly into heaven--its difficulties would pass even unconsciously from it, and its cure be certain.
4. Here, then, is the true mode of meeting these difficulties: not by shutting our eyes feebly to them, not by turning away from them as though we were afraid of them; but by looking at them, not in the purblind darkness of a carping petulance, but in the light of these spiritual verities. To live in this light is our Christian birthright. We need not be with St. Stephen in the agony of martyrdom to attain to it. God has so made us that common life gives us daily opportunities, if we will but use them, of gaining this insight. To every soul so seeking Him He reveals Himself; the cloud opens; the form of the Son of Man is seen; and then belief is comparatively easy, and the difficulties which must remain, whilst they keep our faith humble and watchful, cease to be perplexing to the soul.
5. If this be so, then what becomes of the supposed morality of encouraged doubts in any Christian man? Surely we can see the utter falsehood of representing them as the patient reachings forth of an inquiring spirit for the light for which he longs Rather, assuredly, are they the wilful turning, through some fault of the flesh or of the spirit, away from the light; and instead of bearing the noble titles of reasonable and faithful inquiry, they should by every true heart be degraded to the discreditable category of suspicions nourished in cankered hearts against a father’s truthfulness or a mother’s honour. Dark and sad is the history of such a course. Its steps lead surely down from the mountain of light. The one only Sun which lighteth every man that cometh into the world, sinks for him who treads it in the mists which gather ever thicker and thicker round his blackening horizon. Worship in its fervour, prayer in its reality, and then trust, and love, and peace one by one are all extinguished--peak after peak loses the last lingering ray of the daylight--until all is dark (Isaiah 59:9-11).
6. It is not on the difficulties of belief alone, but upon all the struggles through which the life of God is maintained within our souls, that this vision of St. Stephen casts its light. Never cap the impetuous tyranny of appetite be subdued, and the soul and body kept in purity, save by these powers of the world to come. When the flesh is strong within, what shall aid us in the strife like looking up steadfastly into heaven and seeing the Son of Man as our helper? Or, again, as years go on, and these impetuous temptations of earlier life being somewhat past, new ones of a soberer, heavier, and more stupefying worldliness have taken their place, what else can so guard us against sinking into the dull, respectable, commonplace conformity with evil which, like the white ashes after the conflagration, succeeds so naturally to the burst of youthful indulgence, as the ever-living sense of our nearness to the Lord and of His perpetual presence with us? What can arouse watchfulness, keep prayer alive, kindle love, deepen humility, renew contrition, quicken zeal, minister support in sorrow, or awaken praises in the soul which God is graciously keeping, like the perpetual realisation by the eye of faith of what is now going on within the veil? (Bp. S. Wilberforce.)
The exaltation of Christ
I. To understand the nature and extent of that honour and glory to which the Redeemer is now exalted, first direct your thoughts to that state of humiliation to which He was once subjected upon earth.
II. As the sufferings of the Redeemer had been severe beyond example, so is His triumph over every enemy complete beyond the power of description. It commenced at that moment when He broke asunder the chains of death, and rose triumphant from the tomb; and it was still more conspicuously displayed at the hour of His ascension to heaven.
III. Consider the improvement to be made of this subject. The doctrines of the gospel either excite us to avoid the paths of sin by showing us the dangers with which they are beset, or they stimulate us to lives of faith on the Son of Man by displaying the rich rewards that await the righteous.
1. Of the latter description is the doctrine of our Lord’s exaltation; and the first obvious inference that flows from it is, that it furnishes a theme of joy and exultation to the true Christian.
2. Another lesson to be learnt from this doctrine is a firm reliance on the promises of the gospel. Of the truth of these promises, the history of our Saviour’s sufferings and triumph affords the most ample evidence.
3. This doctrine affords a noble and most powerful encouragement to a life of faith on the Son of Man. Our blessed Redeemer ascended to the bosom of His heavenly Father, not less to prepare a place for His faithful followers than to enter Himself into His glory.
4. Consider the exaltation of Christ as teaching us to set a just and proper value on the things that belong to our eternal salvation, and as conveying to us the important lesson of placing our affection on things above, and not on things below. For what are the honours, the riches, and the pleasures of this world, in comparison of that glory which is at the right hand of God? (James Bryce.)
Christ appears for His people in time of danger
A little child in white was playing in the park. As long as she ran about on the grass, the nurse took little notice of her--she was safe. Presently the little feet chose a path leading down to the water, and the good nurse was after the little one in a moment--she was in danger. While we lie down in the green pasture of the 23rd Psalm, the Good Shepherd may not seem to notice us--we are safe; but when the sheep are among the wolves of Matthew 10:16, the Good Shepherd will run to their help--they are in danger.
Then they cried with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him.
The first gospel martyr
I. The matter for which he died.
II. The Divine assistance which he experienced.
III. The composure with which he passed away. (J. A. Krummacher, D. D.)
The first Christian martyr
I. The call of Stephen was to martyrdom. Neither he nor the Church knew the honour which awaited him. Note--
1. That the humblest service leads to the highest.
2. How a man may enlarge a narrow sphere. We do not want so much men for large places as men to enlarge small places.
3. What God wanted of Stephen did not fully appear at the first. All that the Church could see was, that he had qualifications for a difficult trust. God bad a larger purpose. He wanted him, not to live, but to die.
4. That a man’s greatest services may only begin when he is buried.
5. That no Divine cause hinges on a man. God always has another.
II. Stephen was called because he was full of the Holy Ghost. Through the Spirit he--
1. Had a message.
2. The power of a holy face. The baptism of the Spirit is an illumination. We have seen faces of men and women weal; and expressionless, dark and evil, through conversion glorified. The change at first is in softening, idealising. As it progresses, the peace of God is reflected in the features. In its completeness there is the manifestation of unearthly power.
3. He displayed the Divine union of severity and gentleness.
4. Had a vision.
5. Was sustained. He triumphed over pain.
III. The effects of the martyrdom.
1. On the world. He showed how a Christian could die. There had been deaths of disciples already, but they were shameful, dreadful: first Judas, then Ananias and his wife. But God now gave His people a grave to glory in.
2. On the Church (Acts 7:1). A general persecution was let loose. The Christians met the storm as they had been instructed by Jesus; they fled from the city and were scattered, but wherever they went they preached. Thus a part of the Divine plan appeared. In all ages persecution has been one of the greatest providential agencies for the spread of the gospel.
3. On the apostles. It was a discipline only paralleled by that which followed the crucifixion; but through it they were to become better leaders, and God would take care of His Church. They met the trial nobly. They stayed at their posts. The influence of their constancy upon the Christians, and also upon their enemies, must have been very great.
4. Upon the devout Jews. The persecution tested them. At the peril of their lives they paid the murdered man the reverence of burial. So the death of Jesus brought out Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.
5. On Saul. Upon him the impression was deep. His reference to the part he had had in the murder, when he was in his trance at Damascus, shows it. One of the goads against which, from that time, he kicked in vain, was then buried in his heart. The immediate result was to infuriate him. But he had received his death-wound. The cord of love held him. (Sermons by the Monday Club.)
The first martyrdom
I. Stephen’s faith. He did not say, “All these things are against me”; if Christ had designed to own my work, He would not thus have cut it short; if this be the manner in which Christ’s cause prospers below, how can I believe that He Himself lives and reigns above? Never was his faith so strong, or his vision so unclouded. While his enemies are rushing upon him he is rapt above earth and earthly things, and privileged to behold his beloved Master Himself standing at the right hand of God.
II. His hope. In the midst of the uproar of angry voices, and of the flight of stupefying, crushing stones, he is calling upon his Master, not as a mere expression of pain or disquietude or weakness; or as the ignorant ejaculations sometimes heard from a sinner’s deathbed, when for the first time the grasp of a mightier power is felt, which must be propitiated by abject invocation: not thus, but in the tone of one who “knows whom he has believed.”
III. His charity. As the mangled frame begins to totter to its dissolution, the dying martyr kneels. That posture with which we allow any little excuse to interfere, which many of us never practise even in God’s house, which few of us would practise in a season of pain or sickness, he deemed the fittest attitude even for a dying man: he would honour God with his body as well as with the spirit: and then he cries aloud, in the hearing of his enemies still thirsting for his blood, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge!” He prays not, as some have done, that the murderers may find out their sin one day in punishment--not even that his blood may produce a speedy and an abundant harvest, but that that cruel deed may never be weighed in God’s balances against its perpetrators. Thus he prayed, and in one case at least we know that his prayer was heard and answered.
IV. His composure. He was laid to rest. He was lulled to slumber. The word itself is enough to take the sting from death. The ease of St. Stephen himself may assure us that no circumstances of death can prevent its being this to a Christian. It matters not whether the cause of death be disease or accident, the weapon of war or the stroke of the executioner. It matters not whether the scene of death be the house or the roadside, the field of battle or the desolate prison-house. There are three conditions of such a death. It must be--
1. A rest from labour. “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord,” etc.
(1) An idle, desultory, self-indulgent life has earned no rest. Night may come to such a life, but not the sweet sleep of the healthily wearied labourer.
(2) Again, a rest from what labour? Not from common worldly occupations, such as have their reward (if anywhere) here, and have nothing stored up for them in the world unseen. He who would rest in Christ must first have wrought in Christ. It is Christ’s labourer, not the world’s, who, when he dies, falls asleep.
2. A rest with Christ. “I have a desire to depart, and to be with Christ, which is far better.” “While we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord.”
3. A rest unto rising. A sleep not to be again broken is death, not sleep. A sleep only to be broken by terrific Suffering is no sleep: it is a frightful dream, a horrible nightmare. Such is the death of the wicked. (Dean Vaughan.)
True Christian zeal will seek to do the highest work of which sanctified humanity is capable. Stephen is first heard of as a distributor of the alms of the Church to needy widows. Doubtless he used the office of a deacon well, and so purchased to himself a good degree. Although the onerous duty of serving tables might well have excused him from other service, we soon find him doing great wonders among the people; and not even content with that, we see him defending the faith against a synagogue of subtle philosophical deniers of the truth. He had a higher promotion yet--he gained the peerless dignity of martyrdom. Put a man without zeal into the front place, and he will gradually recede into his native insignificance, or only linger to be a nuisance; but put a man into the rear, if his soul be full of holy fire, you will soon hear of him. Observe
I. The power of the Holy Spirit as developed in Stephen’s death, in order that we may learn to rely upon that power. This power is seen in--
1. The fact that although surrounded by bitter enemies, and having no time for preparation, Stephen’s defence is wonderfully logical, clear, and forcible. This chapter does not read like an address delivered to a furious mob. He could not have delivered it with greater fearlessness had he been assured that they would thank him for the operation. To what do we trace this mouth and wisdom but to the Holy Spirit? The Holy Ghost exerts such a power over the human mind, that when it is His will, He can enable His servants to collect their scattered thoughts, and to speak with unwonted power. Moreover, the Lord can also touch the stammering tongue, and make it as eloquent as the tongue of Esaias. When we can study the Word, it is mere presumption to trust to the immediate inspiration of the moment; but if any one of you be called to speak for your Master when you can have had no preparation, you may confidently depend upon the Spirit of God to help. It is better to be taught of the Holy Spirit than to learn eloquence at the feet of masters of rhetoric. The Spirit of God needs to be honoured in the Church in this respect.
2. The manner and bearing of the martyr. He gazes steadfastly up into heaven. They may gnash their teeth, but they cannot disturb that settled gaze. What he beholds above makes him careless of the bloodthirsty foes below. The bearing of many of the martyrs has been singularly heroic. When the King of France told Bernard Palissy that, if he did not change his sentiments, he should be compelled to surrender him to the Inquisition, the brave potter said to the king, “ You say I shall be compelled, and yet you are a king; but I, though only a poor potter, cannot be compelled to do other than I think to be right.” The potter was more royal than the king. Now if you and I desire to walk among the sons of men without pride, but yet with a bearing that is worthy of our calling and adoption, we must be trained by the Holy Ghost. Those men who go cap-in-hand to the world, asking leave to live, know nothing of the Holy Ghost.
3. His calm and happy spirit. It is a great thing for a Christian to keep himself quiet within when turmoil rules without. To be calm amid the bewildering cry, confident of victory--this is so hard that only the Divine Dove, the Comforter, can bring us from above the power to be so; but when once the art of being still is fully learned, what strength and bliss is in it!
4. His holy and forgiving temper. He knelt down, as if to make them see how he prayed, and then he prayed with a loud voice, that they might hear. Surely this is a work of the Holy Spirit indeed! We find it not altogether easy to live at peace with all men, but to die at peace with our murderers, what shall I say of it? The prayer we have just mentioned did not die in the air; it passed through the gate of pearl, and it obtained an answer in the conversion of Saul.
II. The source of richest comfort, with the hope that we may learn to look there. It was the end and aim of the Holy Spirit to make Stephen happy. How could this be done? By revealing to him the living and reigning Saviour at the right hand of God. If we have like precious faith with Stephen, since it is a great fact that Christ is there, there is no reason why oar faith should not see what Stephen’s faith saw. He saw--
1. That Jesus was alive. He was not serving a dead Christ; he was speaking for a Friend who still existed to hear his pleadings, and to accept his testimony. Stephen argued within himself, “If Christ lives after crucifixion, why should not Stephen live, through Christ, after stoning?”
2. That Jesus saw him and sympathised with him. Is not that the meaning of the attitude which the Lord assumed? The Man of Sorrows is alive, and sympathises with His people still. “In all your affliction He is afflicted.”
3. Jesus standing at the right hand of God. That was the point in dispute. The Jews said the Nazarene was an impostor. “No,” said Stephen, “there He is.” The people rage, the rulers take counsel together, but yonder is the King upon the holy hill of God; and to Stephen’s heart this was all he wished. I have known what it is to be brought so low in heart, that no promise of God’s Word gave me a ray of light, nor a gleam of comfort, and yet, so often as I have come across this text, “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted Him,” etc., I have always found a flood of joy bursting into my soul, for I have said, “Well, it is of no consequence what may become of me so long as my Lord Jesus is exalted.” Like the dying soldier in the hour of battle, who is cheered with the thought, “The general is safe; the victory is on our side.” I would like to put this telescope, then, to the eye of every sorrowing Christian. Your Saviour is exalted--
(1) To intercede for you.
(2) To prepare a place for you.
(3) As your representative. Because He lives, we shall live also.
III. The comfort itself. We do not find that the appearance of Jesus stopped the stones. That is the plan of the present dispensation. The Lord Jesus does not come to us to forbid our suffering, nor to remove our griefs, but He sustains us under them. “My grace is sufficient for thee.” How sweetly is Stephen’s triumph pictured in those last words, “He fell asleep.” This is the life of a Christian. When the world has been most in arms against a believer, it is wonderful how he has rested with perfect composure in the sight of his enemies. This shall be the death of the Christian. He shall shut his eyes to earth and open them to heaven. His body shall but sleep, to be awakened by the heavenly trumpeter. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
On reviewing the whole narrative we cannot fail to be struck with three things--
1. The professed patrons of religion engaged in banishing it from the world. The peculiar enormity of the crime is that it was done in the name of religion.
2. The most eminent future apostle accessory to the death of the most eminent disciple. This teaches us--
(1) How the conscience may be perverted. An action is not necessarily right because the author believes it to be so.
(2) How concealed the spirituality of the law may be from its most diligent student. Some knew its letter, but had not learned the alphabet of its spirit. “The letter killeth.”
(3) How sovereign and almighty is the grace of God. Christ selected Saul to become His apostle, and the martyrdom of Stephen was one of the causes of His conversion. “He is able of stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
3. The most useful man of his time allowed to be stoned out of the world as a blasphemer. Stephen appears in two opposite lights--as a victim and as a victor. Though crushed he yet conquered-illustrating the dark and bright sides of piety.
I. The dark side. Stephen dying under a shower of stones. The world has ever hated vital Christianity. Two causes led to this result--
1. He held convictions which clashed with the prejudices and worldly interests of his contemporaries.
2. He faithfully declared those convictions. Had he kept them to himself, compromised them, or toned them down to the corrupt spirit of his age, he would have avoided such an end as this.
II. The bright side. Piety looked upon from the world’s side is rather a miserable object--but not so when viewed from the spiritual side.
1. Stephen was in vital connection with God. He was “filled with the Holy Ghost.”
2. He had a glorious vision of heaven. Having God within him, everything was full of divinity.
3. His spirit was inspired with the sublimest magnanimity.
4. He had a delightful departure from the world.
(1) He commended his spirit to Christ. This prayer implies--
(a) Consciousness that he had a spirit.
(b) Belief that that spirit would survive his expiring body.
(c) Unbounded faith in Christ to take care of his spirit.
(2) He fell asleep. Implying--
(a) A welcome rest.
(b) An anticipated rising. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The martyrdom of Stephen
I. What was the secret of his meekness and his bravery? There must have been some Divine bestowment. Was it, then, some miraculous gift reserved for some specially chosen man? The secret lies in the fact that he was “full of faith and of the Holy Ghost.” He did not leap into this character. There was no special charm by which these graced clustered round him: they were the gift of God to him as they are to us. The only difference between us and him is that he grasped the blessing with a holier boldness, and lived in a closer communion with God. It was not physical hardiness then. There are men whose bravery no one dare question, who have yet beer the veriest cowards in the face of moral duty, and vice versa. The Duke of Wellington once despatched two officers on a service of great hazard, and as they were riding the one turning to the other saw his lips quivering and his cheek blanched. Reining in his horse he said, “Why, you are afraid.” “I am,” was the answer; “and if you were half as much afraid as I am, you would relinquish the duty altogether.” Without wasting a word the officer galloped back and complained bitterly that he had been sent in the company of a coward. “Off, sir, to your duty,” was the duke’s reply, “or the coward will have done the business before you get there.” And the great man was right. There was physical timidity, perhaps the result of a highly-wrought nervous organisation, but there was an imperial regard for duty which bore him above his fears to triumph. Yes; and Church history can tell us many a story of sufferings endured for Christ by delicate and high-born womanhood. Martyrs are what they are from the “demonstration of the Spirit and power.”
II. The lot of the Christian is ordinarily an inheritance of persecution. There was nothing in Stephen’s character to arouse hostility. But he was faithful, and his reproofs stung his adversaries to the quick; he was consistent, and his life was a perpetual rebuke to those who lived otherwise; he was unanswerable, and that was a crime too great to be forgiven.
1. Persecution has been the lot of the Church in all ages. The prophets were scoffed, and some of them were slain. Nearly all the apostles wove the martyr’s amaranth into their crown of thorns. Rome pagan persecuted, so has Rome papal, and even churches of purer faith.
2. But apart from ecclesiasticism altogether “they that will live godly must suffer persecution.” The developments of the persecuting spirit are restrained by the advance of enlightenment, the decorums of society, the interlacings of interest, the silent unrecognised leaven of Christian faith; but depend upon it, if you are a Christian the world hates you and your practice still. The father may interpose to prevent his child’s devotion, the husband withdraw his wife’s privileges, or the custom may be withdrawn, the preferment withheld, the suspicion insinuated. There are a thousand ways by which the latent hate may be shown--in the shrug of the shoulder, the curl of the lip, the glance of the eye, the wave of the hand.
3. If you are persecuted take it as a proof of your legitimacy. I wonder almost whether the reason that there is so little persecution now is that there is so little faithfulness. Unfaithfulness to the Christian is like the Deluge to the world--a flood to drown it: persecution to the Christian spirit is like the Deluge to the ark--a flood to lift it nearer to heaven.
III. Strength and grace are always given most liberally where they are most needed. In the early part of Stephen’s life, when acting as deacon and evangelist, he had grace according to his day. When before the council the Spirit inspired his unpremeditated speech and gave him a vision of glory. And now amid the shower of stones he lay his head upon his Saviour’s bosom and went triumphant home. “As thy days, so shall thy strength be.” Have you not heard from the lips of the now glorified that the time of their fiercest trial was the time of their most glorious deliverance? Have you not listened sometimes in the death-chamber, and wondered at the disclosures of the realities of heaven?
IV. Death is not death to a believer. “He fell asleep.” When men sleep they usually surround themselves with the most favourable circumstances. They demand quiet, they exclude light and sound. Stephen fell in circumstances very different, but when God wills a man to sleep it does not matter how much noise there is around him. In sleep there is--
2. Security. Men do not usually commit themselves to slumber without some prospect of safety; so there was security for Stephen’s body in the grave and his soul in paradise.
3. Restoration; for after the night comes the morning. (W. M. Punshon, LL. D.)
The death of Stephen
I. The malignant excitement of the Jewish council. We are shocked at the wickedness of which the heart of man is capable. It has many manifestations; but in no case is it so strongly marked as in the contrasts presented in instances of religious persecution. On the one hand, there is everything to conciliate regard; and on the other, there are the worst of passions. But how is this to be accounted for? Enmity to the truth of God; and hatred to them who hold it. Yet, think not that this spirit is confined to ages of persecution. It exists in ages of professed liberality. Be faithful witnesses of the truth; and you will see the enmity, and often hear the growl of the savage within, though chained. Be faithful to yourselves; and you will often find when truth and its preachers press hard upon your errors, the inquiry rising, “Hast thou found me, O mine enemy?”
II. The attitude of the martyr.
1. The fact that he was “full of the Holy Ghost” intimates that he had in that moment a special visitation of Divine strength and comfort. How often does this appear in the Bible! Hence St. Paul remarks, “We glory in tribulations also.” When the three Hebrew children were cast alive into the burning fiery furnace, “one like unto the Son of God” appeared amongst them, so that not a hair of their heads was singed. When St. John was banished to the Isle of Patmos he was favoured with the presence of his glorified Lord and of the holy angels. All these facts are designed to teach us that the Lord is “a very present help in the time of trouble.”
2. The immediate effect of this visitation was, that “he looked up stedfastly into heaven,” a devout committal of his cause into a supreme hand. A man whose eye is fixed on heaven tramples equally underfoot the smiles and the frowns of earth. Here is no defiance, no retreating of man into himself in search of natural courage or other principles to sustain him. In Christian heroism man goes out of himself to a higher power, and becomes mighty through God.
III. The vision vouchsafed to him. How appropriate it was to the two great purposes which to him were so important in that hour!
1. To confirm his faith. Whether he had seen our Lord before does not appear; but he now saw Him in His glory. Here was faith rewarded and confirmed by the evidence of vision; just as all true faith shall finally be rewarded. For true faith fixes upon the reality of things. They exist, though the distance which separates time from eternity intervenes; and God does not work a miracle, as in the case of Stephen, to enable us to see. Still they are there, and the faith which the world despises shall be crowned with the glorious sight. Ah! how soon may God lift the veil and let the saint into the anticipated glories, and plunge the sinner into the forgotten horrors of eternity!
2. To inspire courage and comfort. It was a vision of Jesus--
(1) At the place of power and authority; everything below, therefore, was under His management and control. If the sovereign Lord permitted his enemies to destroy him, it was the part of the servant to bow. Still He is at the right hand of power, to control the rage of man, to choose the moment when His servant should thus glorify Him, to afford him almighty succour, to turn his death into a means of furthering His own eternal truth, and by opening His glory to receive his spirit.
(2) Standing and looking down upon him. How could he then faint? There was Christ tacitly exhorting him by His look, “Be thou faithful unto death,” etc. He looks upon us; let us take care that we sin not. He requires of us patiently to bear the cross, and to suffer with resignation. He will give us the help we need. Let us look to Him in habitual reverence and stedfast trust.
IV. His death It was a death of--
1. Prayer. He died calling upon God. No former grace was then sufficient, although important; for he knew how to call upon God. Let us now learn the habit of prayer. We shall need it to our last struggle.
2. Faith. Christ was recognised by the dying martyr, and into His hands the soul was commended.
3. Certainty. In the mind of Stephen there was no gloom as to the future. “And now, O ye judges,” said Socrates, “ye are going to live, and I am going to die. Which of these is best, God knows; but I suppose no man does.” “I am going to take a leap in the dark!” exclaimed an infidel in the prospect of dissolution. The despairing sinner trembles at the sight of the great gulf. It is your privilege to die like Stephen.
4. Charity. A soul ripe for heaven can have no resentments.
5. Peace. “He fell asleep.” (R. Watson.)
The death of Stephen
It is a glorious thing to be the first t achieve some great work--the first mariner to sail into an unknown sea, or the first soldier to mount the breach, and enter the beleaguered city--but nobler still to be the first to bear witness to a great truth, and to seal the testimony with one’s blood. This honour was enjoyed by Stephen. In the story of his martyrdom we see--
I. A victim conquering. Stephen’s murderers seemed to get the victory, yet in reality they were vanquished. No wonder that their victim triumphed, for persecution is always a sign of weakness. Persecution is always an attempt to accomplish the impossible. It is an endeavour to effect spiritual ends by physical means. Not all the Acts of Parliament, decrees of magistrates, rage of princes in the world can crush the soul that is strengthened by the grace of God. The martyr triumphs over his foes.
II. A witness testifying. Stephen’s martyrdom was an argument for Christianity.
1. He bore testimony to the facts of the gospel story. What a convincing proof of the reality of these events!
2. He bore testimony to the power of the living Saviour. Nothing can inspire such enthusiasm and devotion as a person can excite.
III. A hero crowned.
1. A radiant vision. “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man,” etc. The spirit-world is nearer than we often think. If our powers were developed, what spiritual glories would flash upon us!
2. A celestial spirit. “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge”--the martyr’s prayer for his murderers. How unlike the world’s spirit of revenge!
3. A profound peace. “And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” How striking the contrast between Stephen’s calmness and the fierce excitement of his persecutors! (T. W. Mays, M. A.)
The death of Stephen
Let us regard this as refuting some practical mistakes.
I. That character will save a man from harm. That would be so in certain conditions of society, but those conditions are not present in our life. Stephen was a man of blameless character, yet when he was called upon to make his defence, and had made it, his character went for nothing. The meanest criminal could not have received more malignant treatment. A bad world cannot tolerate good men. If we were better we should be the sooner got rid of. It is our gift of compromise that keeps us going.
II. That truth needs only to be heard in order to be recognised and accepted. But show where truth has ever been crowned readily. Truth spoken to the true will always be so received, but truth spoken to the false challenges a contest of strength.
III. That regularly constituted authorities must be right. You smile at the suggestion that one odd man can have the truth, and seventy regularly trained and constitutionally appointed men do not know the reality of the case in dispute. The Church must be right; we cannot allow ourselves to be bewildered and befooled by eccentric reformers and by individual assailants. All history reverses such opinions. The truth, it would seem, has always been with the one man. The moment another man joins him he is less than he was before. The sense of individual responsibility is almost lost. The Almighty seems to have elected the individual man, and through him to have spoken to the crowd or the race. But he has not God’s message simply because he happens to be one. You are not great because you are eccentric. You are not wise because you are solitary. But being called and inspired, having the assurance of the truth, and being prepared to establish that assurance by daily sacrifice, go forward, and at the last the vindication will come.
IV. That personal deliverance in trial is the only possible providence. That is the very idea that would recur to the simplest mind that could look at the case. It is the first rush at a popular riddle; but there is nothing in that answer. If that were God’s method there would never be any need of deliverance at all. There must be something grander than this. The miracle was wrought within. “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” Any miracle of merely personal deliverance set side by side with that miracle of grace would be an anti-climax and a pitiful commonplace. Any religion that will evoke such a spirit in its believers, and lead them under such circumstances to offer such prayers, needs no vindication of its divinity.
V. That life is limited by that which is open to the eyes of the body. It would have been a poor case for Stephen but for the invisible. “If in this life only we have hope, we are of all men most miserable.” Moses endured as seeing the invisible. Stephen said, “I see heaven opened,” etc. “Blessed are the pore in heart, for they shall see God.” In great dangers God shows us great sights. What did Elisha ask the Lord to do in the case of the young man who saw the gathering hosts surrounding his prophet master? “Lord, open his eyes that he may see.” That is all we want. The enemy is near: but the friend is nearer. Stephen’s spiritual faith made him forget that he had a body. Think of trusting his spirit to a God that had allowed his body to be killed! This is the sublimity of faith. When the spirit is inspired, when heaven is opened, when Christ rises to receive the guest, there is no flesh, there is no pain, there is no consciousness but in the presence of God, the absorption of the heart in the infinite love. When the heart seizes God as an inheritance it fears not them that kill the body. (J. Parker, D. D.)
I. Its general character.
1. It was in the midst of his service. He had been appointed an officer of the Church to see that the alms were distributed properly, and thereby he did most useful service, for it gave the apostles opportunity to give themselves wholly to their true work, and it is no small matter to be able to bear a burden for another if he is thereby set free for more eminent service than we could ourselves perform. The care which Stephen exercised over the poor tended also to prevent heartburning and division. Bat, not content with being a deacon, Stephen began to minister in holy things as a speaker of the Word with great power. He stands forth as quite a leading spirit; so much so, indeed, that the enemies of the gospel made him the object of their fiercest opposition. Stephen stood in the front rank of the Lord’s host, and yet he was taken away! “A mystery,” say some; “A great privilege,” say I. Is it not well to die in harness? Who wants to linger till he becomes a burden rather than a help?
2. In the prime of his usefulness. And is not this well? Well, first, that God should teach His people how much He can do by a man whom He chooses; well, next, that He should show them that He is not dependent upon any man. If our life can teach one lesson, and when that is taught, if our death can teach another, it is well to live and well to die. If God be glorified by our removal, is it not well?
3. It was painful, and attended with much that flesh and blood would dread. He died not surrounded by weeping friends, but by enemies who gnashed their teeth; no holy hymn made glad his death chamber, but the shouts and outcries of a maddened throng rang in his ears. For him no downy pillow, but the hard and cruel stones. Now this is all the more for our comfort, because if he died in joy and triumph, how much more may we hope to depart in peace!
4. It was calm, peaceful, confident, joyous. He never flinched while addressing that infuriated audience. He was as calm as the opened heaven above him, and continued so though they hurried him out of the city. He stood up and committed his soul to God with calmness, and when the first murderous stones felled him to the earth he rose to his knees, still not to ask for pity, but to plead with his Lord for mercy upon his assailants; then, closing his eyes, “he fell asleep.” Believe, then, O Christian, that if you abide in Christ, the like will be the case with you. We wept when we were born though all around us smiled; so shall we smile when we die while all around us weep. Why should we expect it to be otherwise? Stephen’s God is our God; the Holy Spirit dwells in us even as He did in him.
5. His mind was in a very elevated condition, Remark--
(1) His intense sympathy with God. All through that long speech of his you see that his soul is taken up with his God, and the treatment which he had received from Israel.
(2) His exclusive attachment to the spiritual. All ritualism was clean gone from him. I dare say at one time Stephen felt a great reverence for the temple; but Stephen says, “Howbeit the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands.” It is noteworthy how the saints, when they are near to die, make very little of what others make a great deal of. The peculiar form of worship and the little specialities of doctrines which he made much of, will seem little in comparison with the great spiritual essentials when the soul is approaching the presence chamber of the Eternal.
(3) His superiority to the fear of men. He looks like an immortal angel rather than a man condemned to die. The fitter we are for heaven the more we scorn all compromise, and feel that for truth, for God, for Christ, we must speak out, even if we die.
(4) His freedom from all cares. He was a deacon, but he does not say, “What will those poor people do? What will the apostles do?” He trusts the Church militant with her Captain; he is called to the Church triumphant. Why should it not be thus with us? Our Lord managed His Church well enough before we were born; He will not be at a loss because He has called us home.
(5) His triumphant death. His name was Stephanos, or crown, and truly that day he not only received a crown, but he became the crown of the Church as her first martyr.
II. Its most notable peculiarity. It was full of Jesus. Jesus was--
(1) As the Son of Man. This is the only place in Scripture where Jesus is called the Son of Man by any one but Himself. At all times it is a gladsome sight to see the representative Man exalted to the throne of God, but it was peculiarly suitable for this occasion, for the Lord Himself had warned the present audience about “the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power.”
(2) Standing--eager both to sustain and to receive him when the conflict was over.
(3) At the right hand of God, the place of love, power, and honour. Now, when we come to die, we may not, perhaps, expect with those eyes to see what Stephen saw, but faith has a grand realising power. So long as we are sure that Christ is at the right hand of God, it little matters.
2. Invoked. Dying Christians are not troubled with questions as to the Deity of Christ. Unitarianism may do to live with, but it will not do to die with. At such a time we need an Almighty Saviour.
(1) Stephen makes no mention of any other intercessor. The abomination of saint and angel worship had not been invented in his day.
(2) Neither do we find him saving a word as to his good works, and almsdeeds, and sermons, and miracles.
3. Trusted. “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
4. Imitated, for the death of Stephen is a reproduction of the death of Jesus. Jesus died without the gate, praying, so did Stephen; Jesus died saying, “Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit”; Stephen says, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Christ dies pleading for His murderers, so does Stephen. Now, if our death shall be a reproduction of the death of Jesus, why need we fear?
III. Its suggestion as to the kind of death which we may wisely desire. First, it is very desirable that our death should be--
1. Of a piece with our life. Stephen was full of faith and of the Holy Ghost in life, and so was he full of the Holy Ghost in death; Stephen was bold, brave, calm, and composed, in life, he is the same amid the falling stones. It is very sad when the reported account of a man’s death does not fit in with his life. It is ill to die with a jerk, getting as it were upon another line of rails all on a sudden. It is better to glide from one degree of grace to another, and so to glory. Death may be the fringe or border of life, but it should he made out of the same piece. A life of clay is not to be joined to a death of gold.
2. The perfecting of our whole career, the putting of the cornerstone upon the edifice, so that when nothing else is wanted to complete he man’s labours he falls asleep.
3. Useful. Augustine says, “If Stephen had never prayed, Saul had never preached.” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Stephen’s death a witness to vital Christian truth
I. The character of Stephen; or what manner of man he was: “full of the Holy Ghost.” Now this Holy Spirit dwells in the heart of all “the Israel of God “ (John 14:25-26). What can be plainer, than that here is a Person distinct from either the Father and the Son, but intimately connected with both? And that He is not a principle, but a person. In this view, “the fruits of the Spirit” are to be always distinguished from the Spirit itself; the gifts are not to be confounded with the Giver; the Spirit of faith will make a man die contentedly; the Spirit of purity will make him die composedly; the Spirit of truth will make him die consistently; the Spirit of comfort will make him die happily; the Spirit of might will make him die triumphantly.
II. His confidence; or what he did: “He looked up stedfastly into heaven.” Not only looked towards, but into, as one who had “cast his anchor of hope within the veil,” and knew, therefore, where again to find it.
1. “He looked up,” we cannot doubt, with longing desire to be there.
2. With great indifference to all things here below. We would not tolerate neglect of your proper concerns; but the hour cometh when the possession of the whole world, will be of no avail; when its opinions can no longer influence, when its interests can no longer bind, when its friendships can no longer profit, and when its pleasures can no longer charm. If, then, you cannot “look up stedfastly into heaven” for comfort, ah! you have nowhere else to look!
3. In prayer. Stephen knew that a martyr’s grace was needful to a martyrs constancy. “He prayed,” therefore, for himself; but also for his murderers--“Holy hands must be lifted up without wrath or doubting.”
III. His vision and encouragement; or what he saw--
1. “The glory of God, and Jesus.” As “the glory of God” is seen most, resplendent in “the face (or person) of Jesus Christ,” this was most probably the view with which his soul was blest. Somewhat of this, too, Esaias saw when at the surpassing brightness even the seraphim did “ceil their faces with their wings.”
2. Jesus “standing at the right hand of God,” amidst His shining hosts, sovereign and supreme, arising in order to be the first to receive the dying martyr’s spirit; standing, as a priest “who standeth daily ministering,” to offer up this “sacrifice of a sweet-smelling savour”; standing, as a judge of masteries at the end of the goal or conflict, to hail the triumph of the candidate, and Himself confer the victor’s crown!
IV. His avowal; or, “what he said.” “Behold, I see the heavens opened,” etc. Here, then, St. Stephen gives a testimony to--
1. The Trinity; for he himself was “full of the Holy Ghent”: he saw the “glory of God” the Father, and this manifested in Jesus standing at His right hand. He declared also--
2. Christ’s humanity--“Son of Man.” His faith and hope of admission into heaven: “I see heaven opened.” Can there be a doubt but that there is “an open door, which no man can shut,” proposed to us? “When Thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death, Thou didst open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.”
V. His adoration; or whom it was he worshipped. “They stoned Stephen, invocating and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Jesus, therefore, was the object of his adoration; He was the only God he invocated, and at his last extremity of suffering and distress--a period when, if ever, men pray with the utmost seriousness, and always to Him whom they conceive to be the mightiest to help. Nor is it an immaterial circumstance that this invocation was made at the very time when Stephen “saw the glory of the Father, and was himself full of the Holy Ghost”; so that neither ignorance nor inadvertency nor imperfection could occasion it. And as if conscious, too, that He who could succour could equally forgive, he prayed again to Christ--“Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” (W. B. Williams, M. A.)
Stephen had been preaching a rousing sermon, and the people could not stand it. They resolved to do as men sometimes would like to do in this day, if they dared, with some plain preacher of righteousness--kill him. I want to show you to-day five pictures. Stephen--
I. Gazing into heaven. Before you climb a ladder you want to know to what point the ladder reaches. And it was right that Stephen, within a few moments of heaven, should be gazing into it. We would all do well to be found in the same posture. There is enough in heaven to keep us gazing. The whole universe is God’s palace, but heaven is the gallery in which the chief glories are gathered. We have a great many friends there. As a man gets older, the number of his celestial acquaintances very rapidly multiplies. We have not had one glimpse of them since the night we kissed them good-bye and they went away; but still we stand gazing at heaven.
II. Looking upon Christ. How Christ looked in this world, how He looks in heaven, we cannot say. Painters have tried to imagine His features, and put them upon canvas; but we will have to wait until with our own eyes we see Him. And yet there is a way of seeing Him now, and unless you see Christ on earth, you will never see Him in heaven. Look! There He is. Behold the Lamb of God. Can you not see Him? Then pray to God to take the scales off your eyes. His voice comes down to you, saying, “Look unto Me, all ye ends of the earth, and be ye saved.” Proclamation of universal emancipation for all slaves, of universal amnesty for all rebels. Behold Him, little children, for if you live to threescore years and ten, you will see none so fair. Behold Him, ye aged ones, for He only can shine through the dimness of your failing eyesight. Behold Him, earth. Behold Him, heaven. What a moment when all the nations of the saved shall see Him!
III. Stoned. The world has always wanted to get rid of good men. Their very life is an assault upon wickedness. Out with Stephen through the gates of the city. Down with him over the precipices. Let every man come and drop a stone upon his head. But these men did not so much kill Stephen as they killed themselves. While these murderers are transfixed by the scorn of all good men, Stephen lives in the admiration of all Christendom. Show me any one who is doing all his duty to State or Church, and I will show you scores of men who utterly abhor him. If a steamer makes rapid progress through the waves, the water will boil and foam all round it. You may assault a good man, but you cannot kill him. On the day of his death, Stephen spoke before a few people of the Sanhedrin; this Sabbath morning he addresses all Christendom!
IV. Praying. His first thought was not how the stones hurt his head, nor what would become of his body. His first thought was about his spirit. “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” There is within you a soul. What direction will it take? What guide will escort it? What gate will open to receive it? Oh, this mysterious spirit i It has two wings, but it is in a cage now, but let the door of this cage open the least, and that soul is off. The lightnings are not swift enough to take up with it. And have you no anxiety about it? Thank God for the intimation of my text, that when we die Jesus takes us. In that hour it may be we shall be too feeble to say a long prayer, not even the “Lord’s Prayer,” for it has seven petitions. Perhaps we ms.y be too feeble to say the infant prayer our mothers taught us, but this prayer of Stephen is so short, concise, earnest, comprehensive, we surely will be able to say that.
V. Asleep. What a place to sleep in! Stephen had lived a very laborious life. But that is all over now. I have seen the sea driven with the hurricane until the tangled foam caught in the rigging, and wave rising above wave seemed as if about to storm the heavens, and then I have seen the tempest drop, and the waves crouch, and everything become smooth and burnished as though a camping place for the glories of heaven. So I have seen a man, whose life has been tossed and driven, coming down at last to an infinite calm, in which there was the hush of heaven’s lullaby. (T. De Witt Talmage, D. D.)
And the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.
Stephen and Saul
I. Stephen. The picture of a dying saint.
1. He enjoys the Divine presence and power (Acts 7:55), “Full of the Holy Ghost.” The power of God was present when His faithful servant was passing through the flood.
2. He is lifted above the consciousness of earthly surroundings, enemies, and gnashing teeth.
3. He enjoys a full view of heavenly glory (Acts 7:55). He saw in that hour what many would have given their all to see, the vision of his glorified Redeemer.
4. He shows the spirit of his Master (Acts 7:60).
5. He has a peaceful death, though dying by violence. “He fell asleep,” though the storm of stones was crashing upon him.
6. He leaves a blessed memory (Acts 7:2). Though dead he was not forgotten. Godly men mourned him, and many years afterward his name was remembered (Acts 22:1-30.). Greater still, his influence endured; for the whole life of Paul was the larger echo of Stephen’s dying address.
II. Saul. We notice in him the picture of an honest persecutor.
1. His spirit of leadership (Acts 7:58). The young man Saul already shows himself as a master of men.
2. His sincerity. Saul was faithful to his conviction, even while in the wrong (Galatians 1:13-14; Philippians 3:4-6).
3. His thoroughness. He must carry out his conviction, even to the bitter end.
4. His failure to check the gospel (Acts 7:4). The storm which was intended to destroy the gospel only served to scatter it over new soil and to cause new churches to spring up.
Stephen and Saul
The meeting here described was a memorable event in the Church’s history, and suggests to us some important lessons.
I. Do not think there are any chance meetings in this strange world of ours.
1. It was no accident that Saul was by. This perhaps may be admitted; but never let us think that saints and martyrs live under a different form of Providential government from that of common men. Impiety will sometimes wear the cloak of humility, and talk of worms like ourselves being too insignificant to be watched at every step by the Eye that never sleeps. In such reasoning there is a twofold fallacy,
(1) What is little, and what is great? Take into account the wide domain which stretches from God’s central throne to the farthest limits of creation, and what is our world, and what are the grandest men who move upon its surface? But take into account, on the other hand, responsibility and an immortal nature, and the relation of dependence on an heavenly parent, with all that is involved in the rewards of loyalty and the perils of disobedience; take into account the great redemption, and the universal promise and the inspiriting thought that here God’s purposes are being worked out, and then what about us is mean? which of us all, if bought with precious blood, can be overlooked and forgotten?
(2) Even if some pass for great, and some are reckoned mean, in this strangely varied scene, still the two worlds intermingle at a thousand points. Something that looks little becomes the parent of an evil of portentous magnitude; or a deed, small at first as the mustard-seed, dropped into the ground at a venture, grows into a harvest of blessing by which a nation is enriched. The first link in a chain of events shall be a word spoken at hazard, a journey taken without a motive, a child’s whim, a fool’s false reckoning, but the last shall be a city consumed by conflagration, a kingdom convulsed by civil strife, a generation wasted and half devoured by the aggressions of war; yet the first link and the last were as certainly bound together as if an hour’s interval only had elapsed between the original movement and its final consequences.
2. Saul and Stephen came together that day for good. And as God guided their steps, so God guides ours. You can tell of meetings, some of you, which have coloured your whole life, meetings which you never planned, meetings, it may be, with one unknown to you before, as the apostle was to the martyr, yet never forgotten, because step by step you can trace the occurrences which have grown out of that single interview, and which have done more, perhaps, to influence your condition or your character than all that you have deliberately planned for your own good through half a life. These thoughts are good for us, because the more we own God everywhere, and look on the common working world as His world, shaped by His wisdom, and brightened by His presence, the more diligently and cheerfully shall we do His will.
II. We must not think that good teaching or example is like wasted seed, because the fruit is not at once apparent. Stephen died, and little thought who saw him die. His dying scene was like the conqueror’s march; but even then room would have been found for one emphatic burst of thankfulness--to Him who can make the wrath of man to praise Him--if it had been revealed to him that one, who stood within his view, would soon rank as the champion of the Cross, and a master-builder of Christ’s Church. He did not reap the harvest, nor see it reaped; yet was he sowing for it when he lived and died so well. So we may do good in the world that we never live to see. What is well done for God is never wholly lost; and half of what we fancy to be wasted may ripen and bear fruit when our course is ended. “In the morning,” then, “sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thy hand.” “The husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it.”
III. Watchful eyes are upon us at all times, and we may be doing good, or doing harm, unconsciously, to some whom we know not now, and never shall know. St. Stephen thought, perhaps, that the men before him were all alike. He did not know that one in that crowd looked on with more eager interest and with deeper feeling than the rest. Nothing was aimed at Saul; for to St. Stephen he was but one of a hundred spectators, probably all strange to him alike; but every word was heard and remembered: and to a thoughtful, inquiring mind, an end that looked so holy must have seemed a wonder, if the dying man were indeed a profane blasphemer. Surely a lesson like that ought not to be lost upon us. If God has taught us by His Spirit, without going out of our way, or setting ourselves up to be preachers, we may wonderfully help the ignorant and ungodly to understand what living Christianity is. We may expound to them what can hardly be learnt from books, by the persuasive eloquence of a holy, consistent example. In the occupations and engagements of common life we may be testifying for God and preaching Christ, as St. Stephen was when he died. It is a blessed service rendered to the cause of truth and righteousness if we stand the test, and because God helped us to act faithfully, and speak wisely, the man shall trust us more henceforth, and receive our message more willingly. On the other hand, fearful mischief will ensue if the life contradict the lips. Parents, masters, remember this, and all of you who become teachers of others in any sense. Numbers, who are dull-sighted in other things, are sharp-sighted to detect the flaw when there is manifest inconsistency between words and deeds. (J. Hampden Gurney, M. A.)
Stephen and Saul
The Holy Spirit records Stephen’s martyrdom, but does not enter into details of his sufferings and death, as uninspired recorders would have been so apt to do. The object of the Holy Ghost is not to indulge curiosity nor to harrow the feelings, but to instruct and move to imitation. Note here--
I. A suggested contrast. Stephen and Saul.
1. These were both highly earnest, fearless men, yet at this time they were wide as the poles asunder.
(1) Stephen spiritual; giving in his address great prominence to the spiritual nature of religion, and the comparative insignificance of its externals (verses 48-50). Saul superstitious, worshipping form and ritual, full of reverence for the temple and the priests, and so forth.
(2) Stephen, a humble believer in the Lord Jesus, saved by faith alone. Saul, a self-righteous Pharisee, as proud as he could live.
(3) Stephen, defending and vindicating the gospel of Jesus. Saul, giving his countenance, his vote, his assistance in the persecution of the servant of the Lord Christ.
2. Inquire if a Saul is now present. Call him forth by name.
(1) Have you been a consenting party to the persecution of good men? You do not object to making Christian men the theme of ridicule. You smile when you hear such ridicule.
(2) By your indecision in religion you aid and abet the adversary. In these ways the witnesses lay down their clothes at your feet, and you are their accomplice.
II. A singular introduction to true religion. Many have been brought to God by means somewhat similar. The young man, whose name was Saul, met with the religion of Jesus in the person of Stephen, and thus he saw it with the following surroundings--
1. The vision of a shining face.
2. The hearing of a noble discourse.
3. The sight of a triumphant death.
These did not convert Saul, but they made it harder for him to be unconverted, and were, no doubt, in after days thought of by him. Let us so introduce religion to men, that the memory of its introduction may be worth their retaining.
III. A remarkable instance of the Lord’s care for His Church. The apostolical succession was preserved in the Church,
1. Stephen’s death was a terrible blow to the cause; but at that moment his successor was close at hand.
2. That successor was in the ranks of the enemy.
3. That successor was far greater than the martyr, Stephen, himself. There is no fear for the Church: her greatest champions, though as yet concealed among her enemies, will be called in due time. The death of her best advocates may assist in the conversion of others.
IV. A gracious memorial of repented sin. Did not Paul give Luke this information concerning himself, and cause it to be recorded in the Acts of the Apostles? It was well for Paul to remember his sin before conversion. It will be well for us to remember ours.
1. To create and renew feelings of humility.
2. To inflame love and zeal.
3. To deepen our love to the doctrines of sovereign grace.
4. To make us hopeful and zealous for others.
Let dying Stephen be cheered by the hope of young Saul’s salvation. Let wicked young Saul repent of his wrong to Stephen. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
And they stoned Stephen.
The clearing shower of life
When mists have hung low over the hills, and the day has been dark with intermittent showers, great clouds hurry across the sky, and the rain comes pouring down, then we look out and say, “This is the clearing-up shower.” And as the clouds part to let the blue sky reappear, we know that just behind them are singing-birds and glittering dew-drops. So the Christian, on whom chilling rains of sorrow have long fallen, when the last sudden storm breaks knows it is but the clearing-up shower. Just behind it he hears the songs of angels and sees the glories of heaven. (H. W. Beecher.)
The stones which the world lifts against the witnesses of Christ are changed into--
I. Monuments of shame for the enemies of truth.
II. Jewels in the crowns of the glorified martyrs.
III. The seed of a new life for the Church of Christ. (K. Gerok.)
Calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.--
Stephen’s dying prayer
This seems to teach us--
I. That stephen regarded Jesus Christ as very God. There are sundry places where this prime doctrine is not so much dogmatically asserted as clearly implied. These are, in one aspect, even more satisfactory than formal assertions, because so obviously sincere expressions of the heart, and show how this cardinal truth is interwoven with the believer’s whole experience. Our text in the Greek reads, “They stoned Stephen, invoking, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” The intention of the evangelist was to state that Christ was the object of his prayer. In every office of the Redeemer the enlightened Christian feels that he could not properly rely on Him for salvation unless He were very God. “It is because He is God, and there is none else,” that Isaiah invites “all the ends of the earth to look unto Him and be saved.” But in the hour of death especially the Christian needs a Saviour who is no less than God. An angel could not sympathise with our trial, for he cannot feel the pangs of dissolution. A human friend cannot travel with us the path through the dark valley. The God-man alone can sustain us; He has survived it and returns triumphing to succour us, for He is God. Unless this Divine Guide be with us, we must fight the battle with the last enemy alone and unaided.
II. To expect an immediate entrance into the presence of Christ. Stephen evidently did not expect that the grave would absorb his spirit into a state of unconscious sleep until the final consummation; or that any limbus, or purgatory, was to swallow him for a time in its fiery bosom. His faith aspired directly to the arms of Christ, and to that blessed world where His glorified humanity now dwells. He manifestly regarded his spirit as separate from the body, and therefore, as true, independent substance. The latter he relinquishes to the insults of his enemies, the former he commits to Christ. If only we are in Christ by true faith, the grave will have naught to do with that which is the true, conscious being, and no purgatorial fires after death can be inflicted upon believers; for “Lazarus died and was carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom.” To the thief it was said, “This day thou shalt be with Me in paradise.” “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”
III. To what guidance the Christian may commit his soul during the journey into the world of spirits. Heaven is as truly a place as was paradise. When we first arrive there we shall be disembodied spirits. But spirits have their locality. The clearer evidence, however, that heaven is a literal place is that it contains the glorified bodies of Enoch, of Elijah, of Christ, and of the saints who rose with their Redeemer. But where is this place? In what quarter of this vast universe? When death batters down the walls of the earthly tabernacle, whither shall the dispossessed soul set out? It knows not; it needs a skilful, powerful guide. But more: it is a journey into a spiritual world; and this thought makes it awful to the apprehension of man. The presence of one disembodied spirit in the solitude of night would shake us with a thrill of dread. How, then, could we endure to be launched out into the untried ocean of space, peopled by we know not what mysterious beings? How could we be certain that we might not lose our way in the pathless vacancy, and wander for ever, a bewildered, solitary rover amidst the wilderness of worlds? This journey into the unknown must issue in our introduction to a scene whose awful novelties will overpower our faculties; for even the very thought of them when we dwell upon it fills us with dreadful suspense. Truly will the trembling soul need some one on whom to lean, some mighty, tender guardian, who will point the way to the prepared mansions, and cheer and sustain its fainting courage. That Guide is Christ; therefore let us say in dying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” It is a delightful belief to which the gospel gives most solid support, that our Redeemer is accustomed to employ in this mission His holy angels. “Are they not ministering spirits?” etc. When Lazarus died he was carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom.
IV. The arms of Christ may be looked to as our final home. We are authorised to say, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”; not only that Thou mayest sustain it in the pangs of dying, and guide it to its heavenly home, but that it may dwell with Thee world without end. “Father, I will that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am,” etc. Oh, blessed resting-place! In Thy presence is fulness of joy: at Thy right hand are pleasures for evermore. Let us live and die like believing Stephen, and our spirits will be received where the God-man holds His regal court, to go out thence no more for ever. (R. L. Dabney, D. D.)
The close of the Christian life
I. There is a spirit in man distinct from the body. The body is the habitation of the soul, and only the instrument by which it acts. This is the frame of human nature, and agreeable to the original account of its formation. We find it represented as a principle of life (Genesis 2:7). The dust of the earth was animated by a living soul. The dissolution of our constitution is described by the wise man, agreeably to this account (Ecclesiastes 12:7). It is principle of thought and reason, of understanding and choice (Job 20:2-3; Job 32:8). It is represented as a principle both of natural and religious action: we not only live and move, but worship God in the spirit (John 4:24). It is represented as a distinct thing from the body, and of another kind (Matthew 10:28; Matthew 24:39; 2 Corinthians 4:16). And although we do not know the precise nature of a spirit, or the manner of its union with the body, which is a great mystery in nature; as neither do we the substratum or abstract essence of matter; yet we do know the essential and distinguishing properties of them. The soul is a thinking conscious principle, an intelligent agent, a principle of life and action, which bears a near resemblance of God the Infinite Spirit, and of angels, who are pure unbodied spirits.
II. At death the spirit will be separated from the body, and exist apart from it. Though they are closely united to one another in the present state, yet the bonds of union are not indissoluble. But then as it is a vital principle, and all life and action proceeds from the union of soul and body; so the separation of the soul from the body is the death and dissolution of it. It is destroying our present being and way of existing: the body dies and returns to the dust when deserted of the living soul. This is plainly implied here, when Stephen prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”; not only that he had a spirit distinct from the body, but that the spirit was now dislodging, and ready to depart from the body. It was to be then out of the body. So the apostle says (2 Corinthians 5:1; 2 Corinthians 5:4; 2 Timothy 4:6). To the same purpose St. Peter says (2 Peter 1:14-15). The separation of soul and body is properly the death of our present nature. This came into the world by sin, and is the proper fruit of it. It is the sentence of the law executed upon the breach of it (Genesis 2:17; Genesis 3:19). Our death is appointed by the Divine will, though we know not the day of our death. Nature tends to a dissolution, and gradually wears out, though no evil befall it; and it is liable to many distempers, and many accidents, which often prove fatal, and hasten a separation,
III. The Lord Jesus will receive the departing spirits of good men. This was the matter of Stephen’s payer. And we cannot suppose that he would have prayed in this manner, who was full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, if the case had been otherwise; if it did not belong to Him to receive it, or He was not disposed to do it. This is a more distinct and particular account of the matter, and proper to the Christian revelation. In the Old Testament we are only told that the spirit returns to God who gave it, and who is the Father of spirits; but here we are told that the Lord Jesus receives our departing spirits. It is through the Mediator, and by His immediate agency, that the whole kingdom of providence and grace is now administered in all the disposals of life, and the issues of death. But what is the import of His receiving the departed spirits of good men?
1. The taking them under His protection and care, He is their Refuge and Guide, to whom they fly, and whom they follow, when they go into a new and unknown state. He preserves the naked trembling spirit by a guard of holy angels from affrightment and amazement, from the terror and power of envious spirits, who would gladly seize it as a prey, and distress and terrify it, as the devil now goes up and down seeking whom he may devour.
2. He conveys them to God, and to a state of blessedness. What this state will be we can have no more clear conceptions than Scripture gives us, and what arises from the natural notions of a spirit, and the essential difference between good and evil. That they are in a state of activity, and in a state of rest and happiness, and vastly different from that of wicked spirits.
IV. Christians should commend their departing spirits to Christ by prayer. This was directly the case here, and is the form of the expression, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” This prayer was directed to Christ in His exalted state, standing at the right hand of God, and in the quality of a Mediator, who ever lives to make intercession for us. But upon what grounds may a dying Christian offer up such a prayer to Christ? With what warrant and hope of success? I answer, upon good grounds and sufficient security.
1. His great love to the spirits of men. Will He deny us anything when He freely gave His life for us? Will He forsake them at last, and leave them exposed in an unknown state, whom He has preserved all their lives, and wherever they have been in this?
2. His relation to them. He is their Lord and Saviour, their Head; they are His subjects and servants, His members and friends, to whom He stands in a special relation, and who is endeared to them by special marks of favour. And He is concerned in the protection and care of His faithful servants, as a prince is concerned to secure his subjects.
3. His ability and power to take care of them (Hebrews 7:27).
4. His engagements and undertaking. He who by the grace of God tasted death for every man, was to bring the many sons unto glory (Hebrews 2:9-10). And He would fail in His trust if any of them miscarried, and came short of the glory of God. Besides, He is engaged by His promise and faithfulness to preserve and secure them (John 10:28).
1. That the soul does not die with the body, or sleep in the grave.
2. We should be often thinking and preparing for a time and state of separation.
3. The peculiar happiness of good men, and the great difference between them and others.
4. We learn what is the proper close of a Christian’s life. When we have finished our course of service, and done the work of life, what remains but the lifting up of our souls to God, and commending them into His hands? (W. Harris, D. D.)
Prayer in death
Passing inside, they looked toward the bed; Dr. Livingstone was not lying on it, but appeared to be engaged in prayer, and they instinctively drew backward for the instant. Pointing to him, Majwara said, “When I lay down he was just as he is now, and it is because I find that he does not move that I fear he is dead.” They asked the lad how long he had slept. Majwara said he could not tell, but he was sure that it was some considerable time. The men drew nearer. A candle stuck by its own wax to the top of the box shed a light sufficient for them to see his form. Dr. Livingstone was kneeling by the side of his bed, his body stretched forward, his head buried in his hands upon the pillow. For a minute they watched him; he did not stir, there was no sign of breathing; then one of them--Matthew--advanced softly to him, and placed his hands to his cheeks. It was sufficient; life had been extinct for some time, and the body was almost cold: Livingstone was dead. (Life of Dr. Livingstone.)
The martyrdom of Wishart
Speaking of the martyrdom of Wishart, in 1546, Mr. Froude writes: “In anticipation of an attempt at rescue, the castle guns were loaded, and the port-fires lighted. After this, Mr. Wishart was led to the fire, with a rope about his neck and a chain of iron about his middle and when he came to the fire, he sat down upon his knees and rose up again, and thrice he said these words: ‘O Thou Saviour of the world, have mercy on me. Father of heaven, I commend my spirit into Thy holy hands.’ He next spoke a few words to the people; and then, last of all, the hangman that was his tormentor fell upon his knees and said, ‘Sir, I pray you forgive me, for I am not guilty of your death’; to whom he answered, ‘Come hither to me,’ and he kissed his cheek and said, ‘Lo, here is a token that I forgive thee. Do thy office.’ And then he was put upon a gibbet and hanged, and then burned to powder.”
Fellowship in death
“Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit” (Luke 23:46). “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59).
I. Fellowship of suffering.
II. Fellowship of vision.
III. Fellowship of pity. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”
IV. Fellowship of attitude. With hounding might and “loud” voices the last enemy was confronted and destroyed.
V. Fellowship of burial. Devout duty to the dead. This is the work of the living. Let us bury our friends reverently. They have an undying history. Let us bury our friends sympathetically. They ask a brother’s interest. Let us bury our friends hopefully. They have a lasting destiny.
1. This precious coincidence is surely not accidental.
2. Here is a proof of the true humanity of Jesus Christ. We wonder less that Stephen was like the Saviour than that the Saviour was so like Stephen.
3. How completely one are the Lord and His people! “Thou shalt be with Me.” With Him heaven is not only near, but accessible.
4. Fellowship with Jesus Christ in life is the surest guarantee of His presence in death. (H. T. Miller.)
The last request
Human history is a record of the thoughts and exploits of human spirits. Wherever we touch the history of spirit, we find it invested with the gravest responsibilities. Wherever we look, we behold memorials of spirit-power. I am anxious to impress you with the fact that you are spirits, and that your history here will determine all your conditions and relationships in the endless ages!
I. Man’s supreme concern should be the well-being of his spirit. Because your spirit--
1. Is immortal. Only eternity can satisfy it. It claims the theatre of infinitude! Yet many occupy more time in the adornment of the flesh, which is to turn to corruption, than in the culture of the spirit which no Lomb can confine! You pity the imbecility of the man who estimates the casket more highly than the gem, but your madness is infinitely more to be deplored if you bestow more care on the body than on the soul.
2. Can undergo no posthumous change, whereas the body may. There is no repentance in the grave. “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still,” etc. Moral change after death is an eternal impossibility. Not so with the body; Christ will change our vile body, and make it like unto His own glorious body.
3. Has been Divinely purchased. “Ye are not redeemed with corruptible things,” etc.
4. Is capable of endless progress. There is no point at which the spirit must pause and say, “It is enough!”
II. Man is approaching a crisis in which he will realise the importance of his spirit. Stephen was in that crisis when uttering this entreaty. Amid the commotion of the world--the strife for bread and the battle for position--men are apt to overlook the moral claims of their nature. But remember that there hastens a time in which you must give audience to the imperious demands of your spiritual nature! I have visited the prodigal in the chamber of death; and he who was wont to scorn the appeals of Christianity--who had drunk at the broken cisterns of crime--even he has turned upon me his glazed eye, and stammered out with dying breath, “My soul!” I have stood at the bedside of the departing rich; and he whose aim it was to build around himself a golden wall--who considered no music so entrancing as that produced by the friction of coin--even he has turned his anxious gaze to me, and, with stifled utterance, has said, “My soul, my soul!” I have watched the votary of fashion--whose ambition it was to bedeck his mortal frame, whose god was elegance, and whose altar the mirror--and even he has wept and cried, “My naked soul, my naked soul!” I have stood in the chamber where the good man has met his fate: has he displayed anxiety or given way to despair? Nay, he exclaims, “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit!” Now, seeing that the approach of this momentous hour is an infallible certainty, two duties devolve upon us.
1. To employ the best means for meeting its requirements. What are those means? Those who know the deceitfulness of riches and the cares of this world, emphatically testify that they cannot meet the requirements of the spiritual constitution. Faith in Christ and obedience to His will constitute the true preparation for all the exigencies of life, and the true antidote for the bitterness of death!
2. To conduct the business of life with a view to its solemnities. “How will this affect my dying hour?” is an inquiry too seldom propounded, but, when conscientiously answered, must produce a powerfully restraining influence on man’s thoughts and habitudes. Few men connect the present with the future, or reflect that out of the present the future gathers its materials and moulds its character.
III. Man knows of one Being only to whom he can safely entrust his sprit--the “Lord Jesus.” This prayer implies--
1. Christ’s sovereignty of the spiritual empire. Whom does Stephen see? There are ten thousand times ten thousand glorified intelligences in the heaven to which he directs his eyes: but the triumphant martyr sees “no man but Jesus only.” All souls are Christ’s. All the spirits of the just made perfect are loyal to His crown.
2. Christ’s profound interest in the well-being of faithful spirits. He said that He went to “prepare a place” for His people, and that where He was, there they should be also. Now one of His people proves this.
3. Christ’s personal contact with departed Christian spirits. Stephen acknowledges no intermediate state; looking from earth, his eye beholds no object until it alights on the Son of Man. Stephen’s creed was--“absent from the body, present with the Lord.”
4. Christ’s unchanging relationship to human spirits. Lord Jesus was the name by which Christ was known on earth. How He was designated in the distant ages of eternity none can tell! But when He uncrowned Himself He assumed the name of Jesus, for He came to save His people from their sins! And now that He has returned to His celestial glory He has not abandoned the name.
IV. Man alone is responsible for the eternal condition of his soul. You make your own heaven or hell, not by the final act of life, but by life itself. Your spirit is now undergoing education. Two results ought to be produced by your trials.
1. They should discipline your spirit; bring it into harmony with the Divine will, by curbing passion, checking error, rebuking pride.
2. They should develop the capabilities of your spirit. Trials may do this, by throwing you back on great principles. But for trial, we should never know our powers of endurance. Trial brings out the majesty of moral character. (J. Parker, D. D.)
Prayer in death
A Christian should die praying. Other men die in a way fitting their lives. The ruling passion of life is strong in death. Julius Caesar died adjusting his robes, that he might fall gracefully; Augustus died in a compliment to Livia, his wife; Tiberius in dissimulations; Vespasian in jest. The infidel, Hume, died with pitiful jokes about Charon and his boat; Rousseau with boasting; Voltaire with mingled imprecations and supplications; Paine with shrieks of agonising remorse; multitudes die with sullenness, others with blasphemies faltering on their tongues. But the Christian should die praying; for “Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath,” etc. “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit! “ This is the prayer of faith, commending the immortal spirit to the covenant care of Jesus. (Homiletic Review.)
From this prayer we infer--
I. That man’s soul survives corporeal death. This was now a matter of consciousness with Stephen. He had no doubt about it, and hence he prays Jesus to take it. This is with all men rather a matter of feeling than argument. The Bible not only addresses this feeling, but ministers to its growth.
II. That in death the importance of man’s soul is especially felt. The “spirit” was now everything to Stephen. And so it is to all dying men. Death ends all material interests and relations, and the soul grows more and more conscious of itself as it feels its approach to the world of spirits.
III. That the well-being of the soul consists in its dedication to Jesus. “Receive my spirit.” What does this mean?
1. Not the giving up of our personality. Such pantheism is absurd.
2. Not the surrender of our free agency.
3. But the placing of its powers entirely at Christ’s service, and its destiny entirely at His disposal. This implies, of course, strong faith in the kindness and power of Jesus.
IV. That this dedication of the soul to Jesus is the one great thought of the earnest saint. It is the beginning and end of religion, or rather the very essence of it. The first breath, and every subsequent respiration, of piety is, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (D. Thomas, D. D.)
St. Stephen a worshipper and witness of Jesus, more than conqueror of death and of the world
Stephen is not a prodigy. He is aa example; he is a Christian; he is a believer, nothing more; nothing more than all of us would become and be this day if we were followers of his faith.
I. He died in charity.
II. He died as a true martyr, condemning the world, rearing the cross of Christ. His defence is no apology, as if he were pleading for life, or deprecating either death or their displeasure. Thus in Christ’s spirit did he go forth, faking up his cross, and confronting all that was not of God in the world and in the Church.
III. He died contending as a true martyr for the common, or catholic, faith. His was no sectarian stand, or fight. What was the Christianity for which he pleaded, and for Which he was ready to sacrifice his life against their dead form of godliness, and conventional faith, and mere Judaism? It was a Christianity that revealed the way of access to this living God, and admission to this communion in Jesus Christ; a Christianity that revealed that new and better covenant in which these unspeakable gifts of grace were now published as man’s birthright, in the faith of which he became alive unto God, the faith of which was eternal life.
IV. He died, as he had lived, by faith. That opened his eyes to “see the heavens opened, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” That made his face to the spectators in the council “as the face of an angel.” The Holy Ghost wrought in him visibly. God thus sealed His martyr’s ministry by a token which even his murderers could not deny, and said, as audibly as by a voice from heaven, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” Stephen-like, men in general, Christians and others, die as they live.
1. There are, it is evident, few deathbeds like Stephen’s. Those who are familiar with the history of the Church in ancient times could cite many a parallel to Stephen among the glorious company of its martyrs and confessors. Nor are modern biographies without instances corresponding or similar. But what are these, or the greater number still of unrecorded triumphs over death and suffering, to the multitudes that are different, to the myriads that furnish a contrast rather than a counterpart? To how few is death without a sting, a conquered enemy!
2. There are, perhaps, as few lives like Stephen’s as there are deathbeds like his. What is the value of a deathbed testimony, even of triumph like Stephen’s, if what has gone before has either ill corresponded, or has contradicted? Look at family life, and social life, and Church communion among us, as compared with the fellowship of Stephen’s day (Acts 2:46-47). We shall then cease to wonder that there are few deathbeds like Stephen’s. Stephen’s was but the appropriate close of a consistent life.
3. The spirit, the faith of the Church certainly now is not Stephen’s, nor like those of the Church of Stephen’s day. How many fail to claim the fulness of the Holy Ghost, to walk worthily of their vocation by living in the faith of this vocation?
4. Hence the Church’s weakness--want of faith like Stephen’s; want of the Holy Ghost. Not a withholding on God’s part of grace, or of the Spirit, but a want of response, or reciprocal action on ours. We are not straitened in Him, but in ourselves. (R. Paisley.)
A watchword for life and death
(Text and Psalms 31:5; Luke 23:46.)
1. David said in his lifetime, “Into Thy hand I commit my spirit.” In the hour of torture and dissolution Christ and His servant used almost the same expression. It is not, then, necessarily a dying speech. It is as appropriate to youth as to old age, to the brightness of life as to the shadow of death.
2. The greatest concern of man should be about his spirit. His clothes wear out; his house crumbles away; his body must return to dust: it is in his spirit alone that man finds the supreme possibilities of his being. Care for the spirit involves every other care. Regard the words as supplying--
I. The true watchword for life. Life needs a watchword. Our energies, purposes, hopes, should be gathered round some living and controlling centre. We stray far from the right line when we take ourselves into our own keeping. When we commit our spirit into the hand of God, three results accrue.
1. We approach the duties of life through a series of the most elevating considerations.
(1) We are not our own.
(2) We are parts of a great system.
(3) We are servants, not masters.
(4) The things round about us are beneath our serious notice, except for momentary convenience or instruction.
2. We accept the trials of life with the most hopeful patience. They are--
(2) Under control.
3. We recognise the mercies of life with joyful gratitude. The name of God is on the smallest of them (Psalms 31:7-8; Psalms 31:19). To the atheist the morning is but a lamp to be turned to convenience; to the Christian it is the shining of the face of God. All things are ours if the spirit be Christ’s. What is your life’s watchword? Have you one? What is it? Self-enrichment? Pleasure? The one true watchword is, “Into Thy hands I commit my spirit,” my ease, my controversies, disappointments, whole discipline and destiny.
II. The true watchword for death. If a living man requires a watchword, how much more the man who is dying! How strange is the country to which he is moving; how dark the path along which he is travelling; how short a way can his friends accompany him! All this, so well understood by us all, makes death very solemn. This watchword, spoken by Jesus and Stephen, shows--
1. Their belief in a state of being at present invisible. Was Christ likely to be deceived? Read His life; study the character of His thinking; acquaint yourselves with the usual tone of His teaching; and then say whether He was likely to die with a lie in His mouth. And Stephen--what had he to gain if no world lay beyond the horizon of the present and invisible? Jesus and Stephen, then, must at least be credited with speak, ing their deepest personal convictions. It is something to us to show who have believed this doctrine.
2. Their assurance of the limitations of human malice. The spirit was quite free. Evil ones cannot touch the Divine side of human nature.
1. When the spirit is fit for the presence of God, there is no fear of death.
2. All who die in the faith are present with the Lord.
3. Jesus Himself knows what it is to pass through the valley of the shadow of death.
4. The prayer for entrance among the blest may come too late.
We have no authority for the encouragement of a death-bed repentance. It is but poor prayer that is forced from a coward’s lips. (J. Parker, D. D.)
The dying testimony of Stephen
I. The prayer of Stephen
1. Stephen expected an immediate transfer of his soul, in the full possession of is powers and consciousness, from a state of earthly to a state of heavenly being. He understood its high relation to the Father of spirits; and expected from Him protection and provision for its unembodied existence.
2. The prayer of Stephen contained a plain, positive acknowledgment of the Saviour’s proper Deity, as one with the Father, over all, God blessed for ever.
II. The circumstances in which the prayer of Stephen was offered.
1. Saint Stephen was, beyond all controversy, a man of uprightness and integrity.
2. Will it be answered, “The integrity of Stephen remains unimpeached: he must, however, be ranked among those every-day characters, whose intellectual weakness is in some degree retrieved by the uprightness of their principles?” Such an apology will hardly serve the turn of those who impugn or deny the Divinity of our blessed Lord. For Stephen was a wise man, no less than a man of moral honesty and integrity. The knowledge and intellect of Jerusalem doubtless sat upon the seats of the Sanhedrin: yet they were cut to the heart with what they heard him declare, and could only answer “by gnashing upon him with their teeth.” Now, it is not the part of wisdom to brave scorn, mockery, and death for an opinion unfounded in truth. Even Erasmus, one of the most amiable and learned men of modern times, who lived when the torch of the Reformation first shed its glorious light upon the benighted Church of Christ, confessed that, though he should know the truth to be on his side, be had not courage to become a martyr in its behalf. Was it, then, for one of Stephen’s wisdom falsely to ascribe Godhead to Jesus Christ, when his life was endangered by the assertion, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God”?
3. I add, however, that Stephen was a partaker of knowledge more than human: he was a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost. “He had an unction from the Holy One, and he knew all things.” No man can say that Jesus is the Christ, but by the Holy Ghost.
4. Once more: Stephen was a dying man. Whatever our previous sentiments may have been, yet when the things of this world are passing fast away, and the realities of eternal existence are opening upon our view, the mists of delusion are dissipated, and the true light of conviction usually flashes upon the soul.
III. The death by which the prayer was followed. Lessons:
1. It is a deduction, easily and naturally made from our review of the passage, that doctrinal religion is not a matter so unimportant as rational divines would persuade us to believe.
2. I add that faith in doctrines, unattended and unevidenced by practical religion, will serve rather to condemn than to save. (R. P. Buddicom, M. A.)
And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice.
The best testament of a Christian
1. His soul to heaven.
2. His body to the earth.
3. His friends to the Divine protection.
4. His enemies to the Divine compassion. (Starke.)
The power of Christ in believers
I. He strengthens them to boldness in confessing, the power of which their enemies cannot resist.
II. He adorns them with purity of conduct, which the tongues of blasphemers cannot stain.
III. He fills them with a tenderness of love, which prays for their bitterest enemies.
IV. He sweetens their dying with a blessed insight into His eternal glory. (Leonhard.)
Stephen’s three crowns
I. The fair crown of grace, with which the Lord adorned him in life and death.
II. The bloody crown of thorns, which he wore after his Saviour in suffering and death.
III. The heavenly crown of glory, which was reserved in eternity for the faithful martyr. (K. Gerok.)
The victory of dying Stephen
I. He triumphs over the murderous cry of a hostile world by a look of faith to heaven.
II. He overcomes the sharpness of death by a child-like surrender of his spirit into the arms of Jesus.
III. He triumphs over flesh and blood by a priestly petition for his murderers. (K. Gerok.)
The Cross of Christ reflected in Stephen, living and dying
I. The shame of the cross.
1. Before the same council.
2. The like false accusations.
3. A similar thrusting out of the city.
4. The like unrighteous doom.
II. The glory of the cross, displayed--
1. In courageous defence.
2. In patient meekness.
3. In love, blessing its enemies--Jesus’ first and Stephen’s last dying words.
4. In a blessed hope of heaven. (K. Gerok.)
Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.--
The request of Stephen
1. Of one dying.
2. Of a soul that entirely forgets itself.
3. Of a man who is striving after nothing but the kingdom of God. (Schleiermacher.)
The magnanimity of the Christian spirit
This is shown by--
1. The victories it achieves over the corrupt affections of the human heart.
2. Its superiority to the principles, spirit, and practices of the world.
3. Its fortitude under the infliction of unprovoked injuries.
4. The support and consolation which it gives in seasons of pain and sorrow, and the victory it achieves over the king of terrors.
5. The benevolence and grandeur of its purposes, and the labours and sufferings which it prompts in the execution of them. (G. N. Judd, D. D.)
Forgiveness: its nature
A forgiving spirit is a noble, generous Christian virtue. It takes its rise in that love of God and man which is the fruit of the Spirit and the fulfilling of the law; it is made up of love and forbearance, united with the tenderness of compassion towards those who have injured us, and fortified by some just sense of our own sinfulness and need of forgiveness from God. In the full sense of the thing itself, it consists of the inward spirit of forgiveness and the outward act of reconciliation. It belongs to the heart, just as every other grace has its seat in the inner man. In this view of it, it is the opposite of revenge, which angrily seeks redress for injuries by inflicting injuries in return. It is the inward exercise of kindness and good-will toward our enemies. (G. Thring, D. D.)
Forgiveness: its rarity in heathendom
Of forgiveness, we cannot certainly say that it was unknown to the ancients; under certain conditions, no doubt, it was very common among them. In family life, in which all the germs of Christian virtue are to be found, it was undoubtedly common. Undoubtedly friends fell out and were reconciled in antiquity, as amongst ourselves. But where the only relation between the two parties was that of injurer and injured, and the only claim of the offender to forgiveness was that he was a human being, then forgiveness seems not only not to have been practised, but not to have been approved. People not only did not forgive their enemies, but did not wish to do so, nor think better of themselves for having done so. That man considered himself fortunate who on his death-bed could say that no one had done more good to his friends or more mischief to his enemies. The Roman Triumph, with its naked ostentation of revenge, fairly represents the common feeling of the ancients. Nevertheless, forgiveness of enemies was not unknown. They could conceive it, and feel that there was a Divine beauty in it; but it seemed to them more than could be expected of human nature--almost superhuman. (Ecce. Homo.)
Forgiveness: its nobility
Generous and magnanimous minds are readiest to forgive; and it is a weakness and impotency of mind to be unable to forgive. (Lord Bacon.)
Forgiveness: a sign of a noble nature
The brave only know how to forgive; it is the most refined and generous pitch of virtue human nature can arrive at. Cowards have done good and kind actions; cowards have fought and even conquered; but a coward never forgave: it is not in his nature; the power of doing it flows only from a strength and greatness of soul, conscious of its own force and security, and above the little temptations of resenting every fruitless attempt to interrupt its happiness. (Laurence Sterne.)
Forgiveness: the mark of a Christian
As a seal leaves a mark of itself in the wax, whereby it is known; so it is with every one who has a readiness to forgive others: for by it the Christian may know that God hath sealed the forgiveness of his sins upon his heart. (Cawdray.)
Forgiveness: the power of Christ necessary to
“What can Jesus Christ do for you now?” said an inhuman slave-master, when in the act of applying the lacerating whip to an already half-murdered slave. “Him teach, me to forgive you, massa,” was his reply. (Phillips.)
And when he had said this, he fell asleep.--
I. Every man is bound to do something before he die.
1. Every man is bound to be something, to take some calling upon him. We begin with our beginning, our birth. “Man is born to labour” (Job 5:7; Hebrews). Howsoever honourable his station is, he is bound to do his day’s work in the day, the duties of the place in the place. How far is he from doing so who never so much as considers why he was sent into this world, and in spite of all that God has done for him, and taught him in creation and redemption! Such a man passes through life as an ignis fatuus, which gives no light, and signifies nothing. He passes out of the world as a body out of a bath, when the water may be the fouler, but otherwise retains no impression; so the world may be the worse for his having lived in it, or else retains no mark of his having been here. When God placed Adam in the world He enjoined him to fill, subdue, and rule it; when God placed His children in the land of promise He enjoined them to fight against idolatry--to everybody some task for His glory. God made every man something, but many make the best of things, man, nothing. He that qualifies himself for nothing does so; he whom we can call nothing is nothing. God’s own name is “I am”--Being, and nothing is so contrary to God as to be nothing. Be something or else thou canst do nothing, and till thou hast done something thou canst not sleep Stephan’s sleep.
2. Every man is bound to do seriously, sedulously, and sincerely the duties of his calling. He that stands in a place and does not the duties of that place is a statue, and a statue without an inscription. The duty in the text is speaking, “When he had said,” a duty devolving upon ministers and magistrates, and unless they speak, and speak to purpose, they cannot sleep Stephen’s sleep. But as in creation God does as well as says, so we must not only speak, but act. Therefore do not complain that God exacts the duties of thy place, and say not of it that it is good for nothing, for it is good for this that when thou hast discharged its duties thou mayest sleep Stephen’s sleep.
3. The better to perform those duties every one shall do well to propose to himself some example to imitate in that calling, It was the counsel of that great little philosopher, Epictetus, whensoever thou undertakest any action to consider what a Socrates or a Plato would do in that case, and to do conformably to that. Here is an example which suits everybody.
(1) Note this name, Stephen, a crown--the reward of faithfulness. Our names are debts; every man owes the world the signification of his name, and every additional name of honour or office lays a new obligation on him; and his first name, his Christian name above all. The duties of a Christianity must weigh down the duties of all other plans.
(2) He became a disciple early, and therefore takes rank even before Paul.
(3) He made his ambition only to serve Christ, and not in a high place, but as a deacon.
(4) But Stephen’s exemplariness consists not so much in what he did as in what he suffered. He cheerfully laid down his life for Christ’s sake. To suffer for God is the greatest thing in the world, except God’s sufferings for man. The latter was the nadir of God’s humiliation, the former is the zenith of man’s exaltation. Nor is it needful to suffer death to imitate Stephen. Every man who suffers injuries without resentment, who resists temptations from power or pleasure, who cheerfully bears God’s crosses, is a true copy of Stephen.
(5) Christ was his and our supreme pattern, as we see conspicuously here.
II. To that man who hath done those things which the duties of his calling bind him to, death is but a sleep. There are two classes of men, those who die in the bath of a peaceable, and those who die upon the wreck of a distracted conscience--and the lives of each are correspondent to, and lead up to their death.
1. The death of the wicked is not a sleep.
(1) It is bloody conflict and no victory.
(2) It is a tempestuous sea and no harbour.
(3) A slippery height and no footing.
(4) a desperate fall and no bottom.
2. The death of the righteous is a sleep. They do not only go to heaven by death, but heaven comes to them in death; their very manner of dying is an inchoative act of their glorified state: therefore it is not called a dying, but a sleeping, which intimates two blessings--
(1) Present rest. Now men sleep not well fasting; nor does a fasting conscience, a conscience that is not nourished with a testimony of having done well, come to this sleep. “The sleep of a labouring man is sweet,” and to him that laboureth in his calling this sleep of death is welcome (Proverbs 3:24; Psalms 4:8).
(2) Future waking is the resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:14). They shall awake as Jacob did, and say as he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and this is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven.” (J. Donne, D. D.)
The death of Stephen
I. In Stephen we have a pattern of faith. He knew and was persuaded that his gracious Redeemer reigned on high, that He was not unmindful of His followers on earth, and would keep that which was committed to Him till the day of His appearance. Depending on this hope, he died with a composure and magnanimity which religion alone can produce.
II. In Stephen we have an example of unshaken constancy in obedience to God. When he was chosen a deacon to assist the apostles in managing the concerns of the Church, he had a high character for piety, integrity, and wisdom. Nor did he ever afterwards do anything to forfeit that character. On the contrary, the more he was tried, the more his virtues shone forth. Let his unshaken constancy be a pattern to us. Religion does not consist of fits and starts of devotion, of resolutions that are quickly made and as quickly abandoned, of that wavering and inconsistent conduct which always indicates unsoundness in the faith. It is a steady principle abiding in the heart and influencing the conduct.
III. In Stephen we have a pattern of pious resignation. No complaining words proceeded from his lips. He discovered no distrust of the power, or the love of his Saviour. We may not have trials to endure, like Stephen, but we are placed in a situation which will afford ample scope for the exercise of resignation. We are subject to sickness, losses, and disappointments, together with innumerable vexatious circumstances, which we cannot prevent. We should ever remember that God is the sovereign disposer of all events; that He has a right to place us in what station, and expose us to what sufferings He pleases. But though the sovereignity of God over His creatures be absolute, yet we know that He doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men. These very sufferings may be the means of our salvation. Such considerations will prevent murmuring, and dispose us to a calm acquiescence in the appointments of Providence. This pious principle will diffuse its benign influence over the whole soul. It will soothe our sorrows, overcome our angry passions, and sweeten the bitter cup of life. The God whom we serve will grant us support and consolation here, and bestow upon us unspeakable happiness hereafter.
V. In Stephen we have a pattern of forgiveness. If we examine the history of the world, we shall find that many of the evils which from age to age have afflicted mankind, have arisen from a revengeful and unforgiving spirit. In ancient times this spirit, exerting itself without control, diffused over every land its baneful influence, producing contention and strife and every evil work. This spirit, so adverse to human improvement, our Saviour set Himself upon all occasions to correct and to subdue. He inculcated brotherly love to an extent till then altogether unknown. “Love your enemies,” etc., “If we forgive not our brethren their offences, neither will God forgive us our offences.” This consideration should lead us earnestly to cultivate a meek and forgiving spirit. In this spirit there is a dignity, a magnanimity, an excellence, which the sons of dissipation and the votaries of pleasure may envy and ridicule, but which the Christian, who aspires to the inheritance of the blessed, will cherish as one of the highest attainments that can adorn his character. And while he does so, every revengeful principle will die in his breast. He will be at peace with all mankind, “ and the peace of God which passeth all understanding will keep his heart and mind through Christ Jesus.” (John Ramsay, M. A.)
Death to the believer: what
I. What death is to the believer.
1. A sleep. The expression conveys a sweet idea of placidity and calmness. The day of life declines; the shadows of its evening fall around; wearied and exhausted nature needs repose; its strength is weakness, yea, it may be labour and sorrow, and in the appointed moment the believer falls “asleep.”
2. Nor is it a troublous rest: it is a peaceful sleep. “Mark the perfect man … for the end of that man is peace.” The stroke of death--the pain of dissolution, is, as it were, but the kind alarm which leads a child of God to shelter himself more closely in the bosom of God’s paternal love. Since the Redeemer died, death has been abolished in its penal terror. By descending, too, into the grave, He has dispelled the grave’s dark horrors, and sanctified the resting-place of His dear and believing people. The grave, therefore, is now no more than the bed where the mortal remains of the believer rest in peaceful hope.
3. A sleep from which he shall awake. “Them that sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him” to reward them. The night of the grave will pass away; the morning of the resurrection-day will dawn, and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Nothing shall resist the voice which will say, “Come forth.”
4. A sleep into which, when once awakened, he will fall again no more. “Death hath no more dominion over” Christ: death shall have no more dominion over one that believes and loves and serves Him, and is “risen together with Him.” As surely as “He that was dead, is alive again and liveth for evermore,” so surely shall the believer rise to live for ever. In the new heavens and the new earth “there shall be no more death.” The purified and ennobled powers of a glorified saint, will be too vigorous ever to need repose again. No “second death” awaits the believer. The gift of God is eternal life; “whoso liveth and believeth in Him shall never die.” Thus “the righteous hath hope in his death.”
II. Whence it is he dies so calmly. Simply because he is a believer. By faith he becomes interested in all the benefits which result from “the meritorious cross and passion” of Jesus Christ. Like the martyr Stephen, the believer--
1. Partakes of the Holy Ghost.
2. Sees Jesus standing on God’s right hand--not indeed as Stephen visibly, but by faith. And “where He is those who believe on Him may be also.” In a persuasion of this sweet truth, the believer may smile in death.
3. Has a Friend, to whose care he may commit his departing spirit. Unspeakably precious is this privilege. Our earthly friends may go with us, in their kind solicitude, to the verge of death; but there the dearest ties must be severed, and a last adieu be bidden. One there is, however, that can be with us in the shadowy vale, support and cheer us through it, and while our mortal eyes are closing on all terrestrial objects, He can give to our faith such brightening views of celestial glory as will enrapture our departing spirits, and fill them with desire to wing their upward flight. As amidst the ocean’s billows the shipwrecked mariner will cling with increasing tenacity to the floating plank, so amidst the agonies of death the believer lays a firmer and still stronger hold upon the hope of life in Christ. He sees his Lord above him: and whilst he hears the gracious words, “Fear not, for I am with thee,” “Receive my spirit,” may he cry; and very gracious will the Lord be to him at the voice of his prayer. “So the Lord giveth His beloved sleep”; and hence it is the believer dies so calmly.
In conclusion let me exhort you--
1. To awake from the slumbers of sin. How many, alas! are there “dead in trespasses and sins”! While they continue so, they cannot possibly “sleep in Jesus” or “die in the Lord.” Do not be saying in your heart, “A little more sleep, a little more slumber, a little more folding of the hands to sleep.” Take care lest your sleep in the death of sin be perpetuated till you sleep in the death of nature. Take care lest when “many of them who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake,” you rise--not to shine as the firmament and as the stars for ever and ever, but to shame and everlasting contempt.
2. To believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Without Him, to die peacefully, in the Scripture sense of the word, would be impossible.
3. To do immediately what you purpose doing. “Now is the day of salvation.” (W. Mudge, B. A.)
Death a sleep
Sleep is not unfrequently used by ancient heathen writers for the same general purpose of denoting the termination of human life. The still, quiescent state into which man passes when he sinks into repose is no unapt image of what takes place in appearance when man expires, more especially if under circumstances of gentle dissolution. It was only in such circumstances that the metaphor would have been deemed appropriate by a heathen, and would not probably have been used in a case like the present. To one, however, who, like the author of this history, regarded the present life as introductory to a better world, and who held the doctrine of the resurrection, death under whatever circumstances was regarded as being merely a sleep. This language suggests two ideas.
I. The state of the grave is not permanent: it is a sleep.
1. Sleep is not the extinction, but a suspension, of the faculties, and extends only to the body. The mind continues its activity, and when we awake the two continue as before to act together. Death is not the final end of man. The stroke which consigns the body to the grave does not destroy the active, functions of the soul. It still subsists in a state of consciousness, and at the resurrection it will be again united to its corporeal companion. He whom Stephen saw standing on God’s right hand had formerly suffered the pangs of dissolution.
2. On the subject of the resurrection many difficulties have been proposed and questions started, and some have taxed ingenuity in framing answers. But, perhaps the best answer is a short and simple one--the resurrection is an act of Omnipotence. If this is admitted, to speculate on the supposed obstacles to its accomplishment is useless. Is anything impossible with God? But independently of Divine revelation, there are many presumptions of the resurrection. Inanimate nature undergoes an annual death and resurrection. But however striking vegetable analogies are, they afford a far less satisfactory presumption of immortality than that which is derived from contemplating the sufferings of good men, and to which even their virtues in some cases contribute. Can it be that the man, like Stephen, shall have no other recompense for his virtues but pain and torture; while ease, affluence, and secular honours shall be the lot of those who have been his tormentors?
II. The state of the grave will, to the Christian, be in its consequences improving. It is a sleep.
1. All have experienced the feeling induced after a day of severe exertion. Both body and mind are jaded. You know likewise what in health are the feelings after a night of sound repose; you rise invigorated, and are in some respects new men. In this the resemblance holds between sleep and death. In advanced age the mind and the body equally exhibit symptoms of decay; and disease, at any period of life, will soon produce in both mind and body the effects which are produced by age. When they are reunited, after the body has been raised from the grave, we shall be free from former imperfections, and those numerous sufferings which are connected with the body will he no more known. It must be obvious, however, from this statement, that the analogy in this case is in some respects far less perfect than in the former. In awaking after the slumbers of the night, though invigorated in comparison of what we were at the time when, through the exhaustion of nature, sleep became necessary, there is no alteration in our general condition. It is otherwise after the repose of the grave. On the morning of the resurrection we will not only be different from what we were at the time when natural decay or disease brought on dissolution, but different from what we ever have been.
2. To render a future life an object of desire, it is necessary that it should be an improvement on the present. Take away from the enjoyments of this life the pleasure connected with the hopes of another, and a good man would have little inducement to resume it. If the feelings of the worldly man were analysed, it would perhaps be found that even in his case, at every period of life, it is the hope of something better that is his chief support. Much more is hope the principle of a Christian--a hope which is not restricted to the expectation merely of another life, but includes in that other the expectation of a better. In the Christian this hope will not be disappointed. Of this highly consolatory doctrine Stephen had an ocular demonstration. In what Jesus now is, Stephen saw what His followers shall be. (R. Brodie, A. M.)
Death a sleep
When a person is asleep what is it that rests? It is simply the muscles and the nerves and the weary limbs. The heart goes on beating, the lungs respiring and expiring; and what is remarkable in sleep, the soul never sleeps at all It seems that when one is asleep the soul often travels to far distant lands, or sails upon the bosom of the deep, amid the blue hills and green glens of other parts of the land; exploring, thinking, searching, studying. The soul is never literally dead (though it may forget) to every thought and object, to all that enters by the avenues of the senses. If sleep be the metaphor of death, it does not prove that the soul is insensible, but only that the body, the outward garment only, having been worn and wasted in the wear and toil of this present life, is folded up and laid aside in that wardrobe--the grave--a grave as truly in the keeping of the Son of God as are the angels in glory. (J. Cumming, D. D.)
Death a sleep
You cannot find in the New Testament any of those hateful representations of dying which men have invented, by which death is portrayed as a ghastly skeleton with a scythe, or something equally revolting. The figures by which death is represented in the New Testament are very different. One is that of falling asleep in Jesus. When a little child has played all day long, and become tired out, and the twilight has sent it in weariness to its mother’s knee, where it thinks it has come for more excitement, then, almost in the midst of its frolicking, and not knowing what influence is creeping over it, it falls back in the mother’s arms, and nestles close to the sweetest and softest couch that ever cheek:pressed, and, with lengthening breath, sleeps; and she smiles and is glad, and sits humming unheard joy over its head. So we fall asleep in Jesus. We have played long enough at the games of life, and at last we feel the approach of death. We are tired out, and we lay our head back on the bosom of Christ and quietly fall asleep. (H. W. Beecher.)
The sleep of death
Asleep amid a storm! “He felt asleep”--not, he died, or he breathed his last, but he fell asleep. “Death is but a sleep; we need no more shrink from dying than from our nightly beds; we may lie down to die with just as sure a hope of rising; we may look forward to it as the release from all the cares, all the work of life.” Moses of old had been warned of the time when he should “sleep with his fathers” (Deuteronomy 31:16). The wise man talks of Samuel’s “long sleep” (Ecclesiastes 5:12). David, we read, “fell on sleep” (Acts 13:36). Monarch after monarch is laid in his tomb, by the sacred writer, with the short epitaph, that he “slept with his fathers.” Daniel prophesies of the time, when “those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake” (Daniel 12:2). Amid the convulsions by which Nature testified her horror at the dread hour of the Passion, “the graves were opened, and many bodies of the saints which slept arose” (Matthew 27:52). So St. Paul (1 Corinthians 15:18; 1 Corinthians 15:20; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). Such a faith speaks still upon the walls of the ancient cemeteries in the catacombs of Rome, where to this day the simple inscriptions are preserved, by which faith and affection marked the remains of their lost, in the first and second centuries after Christ. On one we read two words, “Victoria sleeps”--or, “Saturninus sleeps in peace.”--“Zoticus is laid here to sleep.”--“Domitian, artless soul, sleeps in peace.”--“Antonia, sweet soul, in peace. May God refresh her.”--“Arethusa sleeps in God.”--“He sleeps, but lives.”--Laurinia, sweeter than honey, rests in peace.”--“On the 5th of November was placed here to sleep, Gregory, friend of all, the enemy of none.”--Or, with a studied conciseness, “Clementia, tortured, dead, sleeps; will rise again.” Faith loved to dwell upon an image which represented so sweetly her hope in dying. But reason here comes in aid of Faith; and the more closely we look into the nature of sleep and of death, the more exact is the resemblance we shall discern.
1. Sleep, first of all, is a mystery to us. What wonder death should be? Sleep is one of the greatest mysteries of our existence here, so mysterious that were it not so familiar to us, we should every day be wondering about it, that out of the short life God has given us for our probation, full one-third should be spent in a state of inaction, when we can do neither good nor bad. Even so shall we lie inactive in our graves. Is it a mystery, again, how we die? And who can understand how we fall asleep? It comes upon us, we know not how. We cannot recollect it afterwards. Our consciousness dissolves, and we are asleep. And so it may be at death. We lie uneasily on our bed; we try to die: on a moment the last tie is loosed; and, we know not how, we are away. Sleep soothes every pain, forgets every care; angry tempers, disappointments, want, unkindness, all the miseries of life are left behind in a moment. And so it will be at death. A parting struggle or two, one last breath, and “there is neither sorrow nor sighing, neither any more pain, for the former things are passed away.”
2. The hours of sleep level all the inequalities of life, and make the poor man as happy as the king (Job 3:17-19).
3. Sleep unlooses all the ties of life, and death breaks them. In sleep the soul is disengaged from the trammels of the body; and thus we may form a conjecture how it will exist separately from it hereafter. We lie asleep, the eyes are closed, the ears are deaf, the hands lie uselessly by our side; but the mind is busily at work, and revolves within itself all those images which have been conveyed into it in our waking hours. We can so, I say, guess how, amid the darkness and silence of the grave, the soul will be able to rehearse to itself all the experience of life; and with the avenue of the senses then cut off, will have material enough within itself for incessant activity and thought.
4. Sleep, instead of contracting the powers of the mind, gives keenness to the memory, and wings to the imagination. And will not this again help us to understand how, when we have left this material world behind us, and the sheath of the body no longer encases the soul and dulls her edge, that the emancipated spirit then will be able at a glance to recall with the exactest truth the entire history of life? And when we read of the books being opened, and the judgment set, and the dead, both small and great, being judged out of the things that were written in the books; what else may be intended here, than this book of memory and conscience, with every old impression revived afresh, so that the sinner sees all his sins before his face, and goes away to his own place, speechless and without appeal, self-condemned? In sleep the mind is emancipated from the restrictions of bodily life, and the limitation of time and space. A succession of images crowd into the minds and we live a life long in a night. This is a sort of foretaste of the freedom from material ties, which the disembodied spirit shall enjoy.
5. It is in the time of sleep, again, that the soul, half-loosened from the body, is most open to communications from the unseen world (Job 33:15-16). It was in the hour of sleep, in a vision by night, that the angel appeared to Mary, and to Joseph and to Daniel. The spirits of another world may have peculiar access to our souls when we are disengaged from this; and those that sleep in Jesus may so enjoy unrestrained communion with the innumerable company of angels. And the Father of the spirits of all flesh may thus be instructing and preparing them for His glorious kingdom. This long sleep of peace may thus be as needful for the expansion and perfection of our nature, as our nightly slumber is for the growth of our present frame, and for the refreshment of soul and body. Morning after morning now we each may thank our Maker, “I beheld and awaked, my sleep was sweet; unto me”; and every such arising we may hail as an omen of the day, when our eyes shall be opened to behold God’s presence in righteousness, when we shall wake up after Christ’s likeness, and be satisfied with it. Such a waking, who will not look up and hope after? Such a sleep, who need mistrust or fear? And would we know how we may so sleep with God? A quiet conscience gives the sweetest sleep. Night after night, let us take a closer and closer view of death, and then we shall not start from it when it comes. We shall lie down at last and be glad of it, just as we are glad to fall asleep. (C. F. Secretan, M. A.)
The blood of the martyrs the seed of the Church
Stephen was dead, and it might well have seemed that all the truth which was to be the glory and the thought of Christianity had died with him. But the deliverance of the Gentiles, and their free redemption by the blood of Christ, were truths too glorious to be quenched. The truth may be suppressed for a time, but it always starts up from its apparent grave. Fra Dolcino was torn to pieces, and Savonarola and Huss were burnt, but the Reformation was not prevented. Stephen sank in blood, but his place was taken by the young man who stood by to incite the murderers. Four years after Jesus had died on the Cross Stephen was stoned for being His disciple; thirty years after the death of Stephen his deadliest opponent died also for the same holy faith. (Archdeacon Farrar.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Acts 7". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34