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Now in these for and in those, A.V. (it is not ἐκείναις, answering to מהֵהָ מימַיָבַּ, but ταύταις); multiplying for multiplied, A.V.; Grecian Jews for Grecians, A.V. The Grecian Jews; the Hellenists, for this is the appellation of them in the Greek; it means properly those who spoke Greek or otherwise followed Greek usages, applied to foreigners, here of course to Jews. Of a similar form and meaning is the word "to Judaize," translated "to live as do the Jews" (A.V., Galatians 2:14), and the forms "to Demosthenize," "to Platonize," "to Atticize," etc. The Hellenists were those Jews of the dispersion who lived in countries where Greek was spoken, and who themselves spoke Greek. It was for the sake of such that the Alexandrine Version of the Scriptures, commonly called the LXX., was made. Hebrews; Palestinian and other Jews, who spoke Aramean (2 Corinthians 11:21; Philippians 3:5; Acts 21:40), as opposed to the Hellenists. Their widows. We learn incidentally by this phrase that one of the earliest Christian institutions was an order of widows, who were maintained at the common cost. We find them in the Church of Joppa (Acts 9:41), and in the Church of Ephesus (1Ti 5:3, 1 Timothy 5:9, 1Ti 5:10, 1 Timothy 5:11, 1 Timothy 5:16). They gave themselves to prayer and to works of mercy. Daily; καθημερινός only occurs here in the New Testament, and rarely in Greek writers; ἐφημερινός, of a daily fever, is used by Hippocrates, and may possibly have suggested the use of this rare word to Luke the physician.
And for then, A.V.; fit for reasons, A.V.; forsake for leave, A.V. It is not fit; literally, pleasing; ἀρεστόν is often the rendering of בוֹט in the LXX.; e.g. Gem Acts 16:6; Deuteronomy 12:28. In Exodus 15:26, Deuteronomy 6:18, etc., it stands for רשָׁיָ, that which is right. Serve tables. The English reader should remember that the "ministration" of Deuteronomy 6:1, the "serve" of this verse, and the "deacon" which was the name of the new officers, are all forms of the same Greek word (διακονία διακονεῖν διάκονος). In Deuteronomy 6:4 "the ministry of the Word" is opposed to "the daily ministration" of meat. The passage gives a necessary warning to the ministers of God's Word not to spend too much time and strength upon any secular work, even though it be a work of charity. They must give themselves to the Word of God and to prayer. There are Christian laity to serve tables.
Look ye out therefore, brethren, from for wherefore, brethren, look ye out, A.V.; good for honest, A.V.; Spirit for Holy Ghost, A.V. and T.R.; of wisdom for wisdom, A.V. Good report; literally, borne witness to; i.e. well spoken of. So in Hebrews 11:5 it is said of Enoch that "he had witness borne to him that he pleased God," and in Hebrews 11:4 of Abel that "he had witness borne to him that he was righteous;" and so in Acts 10:22 Cornelius is said to be a man "well reported of by all the nation of the Jews." In Acts 16:2 Timothy is said to be "well reported of (ἐμαρτυρεῖτο) by the brethren." The Spirit. The number seven was, perhaps, fixed upon with reference to the exigencies of the service, some think because there were seven tables to be supplied; and partly perhaps from seven being the sacred number, the number of completeness—seven Churches, seven spirits, seven stars, seven children (1 Samuel 2:5), seven times (Psalms 119:164). From seven having been the number of the first deacons arose the custom in some Churches of always having seven deacons, which continued some centuries in the Church of Rome. One of the Canons of the Council of Neo-caesarea enacted that "there ought to be but seven deacons in any city," and St. Mark is said to have ordained seven deacons at Alexandria. But the needs of the Churches gradually superseded all such restrictions. Whom we may appoint. The multitude elect, the apostles appoint. The apostolate appears as the sole ministry of the Church at first. From the apostolate is evolved first the diaconate, afterwards the presbyterate, as the need for each arose (Acts 14:23).
Continue steadfastly in for give ourselves continually to, A.V.; in (the ministry) for to, A.V. Steadfastly. The verb προσκαρτερέω is of frequent use in the Acts (see Acts 1:14; Acts 2:42; Act 5:1-42 :46; Acts 8:13; x. 7; see also Colossians 4:2). It is used of persons and things to which any one adheres closely and perseveringly, which are put in the dative case, as here. But sometimes it has the prepositions ἐν or εἰς after it, as in Act 5:1-42 :46; Hist. of Susann. 7; Romans 13:6.
Holy Spirit for Holy Ghost, A.V. The mention of Stephen, and the narrative which follows leading up from Stephen's martyrdom to St. Paul (Acts 7:60), show to what the writer is tending. He selects the incidents in the history of the Church at Jerusalem which connect themselves most directly with that after history which was the object he had in view. It has been thought by some that the Greek character of all seven names is an indication that they were Hellenists. Such a conclusion, however, is not warranted, as many Jews who were not Hellenists had Greek or Latin names, e.g. Paul, Sylvanus, Aquila, Priscilla, Marcus, Justus, Petrus, Didymus, etc. At the same time, it is likely that some of them were. One, Nicolas, was a proselyte. The object, doubtless, was to ensure perfect fairness of distribution of the Church charities. Stephen and Philip (Acts 8:5, etc.; Acts 21:8) are the only two of whom we know anything beyond their names.
When they had prayed, they laid their hands on them. They did not pray without imposition of hands, nor did they lay hands on them without prayer. So in the sacraments, in confirmation, and ordination, the outward sign or rite is accompanied by prayer for the thing signified. And God's grace is given through the sacrament or rite in answer to the prayer of faith (see Acts 8:15, and the Office for Baptism, the Prayer of Consecration in the Office for Holy Communion, and the Confirmation and Ordination Services). (For the laying on of hands as a mode of conveying a special grace and blessing, see Numbers 27:3; Deuteronomy 34:9; Matthew 19:13-15; Luke 4:40; Acts 8:17; Acts 13:3; 1 Timothy 5:22; Hebrews 6:2.)
Exceedingly for greatly, A.V. Were obedient to the faith. Compare the phrase, obedience of froth or "to the faith" (Romans 1:5; Romans 16:25). The addition of a great multitude of priests was an important incident in the Church's history, both as they were a higher order of men, and a class very liable to be prejudiced against the faith which would rob them of their importance.
Grace for faith, A.V. and T.R.; wrought for did, A.V.; signs for miracle, A.V. Power (Acts 1:8, note); power to work miracles especially, but also other spiritual power beyond his own natural strength (see Acts 6:10). This power showed itself in the signs and wonders which he wrought.
But for then, A.V.; certain of them that were for certain, A.V.; of the Cyrenians and of the Alexandrians for Cyrenians and Alexandrians, A.V.; Asia for of Asia, A.V. Of the synagogue, etc. There were said to have been four hundred and eighty synagogues in Jerusalem alone in the time of our Savior (Olshausen, on Matthew 4:23). But this is probably a fanciful number; only it may be taken as an indication of the great number of such places of Jewish worship. Tiberias is said to have had twelve synagogues. Ten grown-up people was the minimum congregation of a synagogue. It seems by the enumeration of synagogues in our text that the foreign Jews had each their own synagogue at Jerusalem, as Chrysostom supposes, where men of the same nation attended when they came to Jerusalem; for the construction of the sentence is to supply before Κυρηναίων and again before Ἀλεξανδρέων the same words as precede Λιβερτίνων, viz. καὶ τῶν ἐκ τῆς συναγωγῆς τῆς λεγομένης, SO as to mean "and certain of them that were of the synagogue called of the Cyrenians," and so on. The very numerous Jews of Cyrene and of Alexandria would doubtless require each a synagogue for themselves. The Libertines were, as Chrysostom explains it, "freedmen of the Romans." They are thought to consist chiefly of the descendants of the Jews who were taken prisoners by Pompey, and deported to Rome, who were afterwards emancipated and returned to Judaea, though some (Meyer, Romans 1:1) settled in Rome. Tacitus, under the year A.D. 19, speaks of four thousand Libertini, infected with Jewish or Egyptian superstitions, as banished to Sardinia ('Annal.,' 2. 85.). Many of these must have been Jews. Josephus, who tells the same story as Tacitus, though somewhat differently, says they were all Jews ('Ant. Jud.,' 18, 3.5). The Cyrenians. Cyrene was the chief city in North Africa, and a great Jewish colony. Numbers of Jews were settled there in the time of Ptolemy Lagus ('Cont. Apion.,' 2.4), and are said by Josephus (quoting Strabo) to have been a fourth part of the inhabitants of the city ('Ant. Jud.,'14. 7.2). Josephus also quotes edicts of Augustus and of M. Agrippa, confirming to the Jews of Cyrene the right to live according to their own laws, and specially to send money for the temple at Jerusalem (16. 6.5). Jews from "the parts of Libya about Cyrene" are mentioned in Acts 2:10; Simon, who bore our Savior's cross, was "a man of Cyreue;" there were "men of Cyrene" at Jerusalem at the time of the persecution that arose about Stephen (Acts 11:19); and "Lucius of Cyrene" is mentioned in Acts 13:1. It was natural, therefore, that the Cyrenians should have a synagogue of their own at Jerusalem. Of the Alexandrians. Alexandria had a Jewish population of 100,000 at this time, equal to two-fifths of the whole city. The famous Philo, who was in middle age at this time, was an Alexandrian, and the Alexandrian Jews were the most learned of their race. The Jews settled in Alexandria in the time of Alexander the Great and Ptolemy Lagus. The LXX. Version of the Scriptures was made at Alexandria primarily for their use. We may be sure, therefore, that they had a synagogue at Jerusalem. And of them of Cilicia. The transition from the African Jews to those of Asia is marked by changing the form of phrase into καὶ τῶν ἀπὸ Κιλικίας. There were many Jews in Cilicia, and this doubtless influenced St. Paul in preaching there, as well as the fact of its being his own native province (see Acts 15:23, Acts 15:41; Galatians 1:21). Josephus makes frequent mention of the Jews in the wars between the Ptolemies and Antiochus the Great, with whom the Jews sided, and in consequence were much favored by him. And it is thought that many who had been driven out from their homes by the wars, and others who were brought by him from Babylonia, settled in his time in Cilicia, as well as other parts of his Asiatic dominions. Seleucus also encouraged the Jews to settle in the towns of Asia in his kingdom, by giving them the freedom of the cities and putting them on an equal footing (ἰσοτίμους) with Macedonians and Greeks ('Ant. Jud.,' 12. 3.1, 3). Asia; meaning the same district as in Acts 2:9 (where see note). Evidence of the abundance of Jews in Asia crops up throughout the Acts (8. 16, 24, 42, 45; Acts 14:19; Acts 16:13; Acts 18:26, Acts 18:28; Acts 19:17; Acts 20:21). That the Jews of Asia were very bigoted we learn from Acts 21:27 (see also 1 Peter 1:1).
Withstand for resist, A.V. This was a part of the "power" mentioned in Acts 6:8.
Then they suborned, etc. The resource of those who are worsted in argument is violence or treachery. Blasphemous words against Moses. It must be remembered that at this time the whole Jewish people were in a state of ill-suppressed frenzy and most sensitive jealousy for the honor of the Mosaic institutions—feelings which broke out in constant revolts against the Roman power. The accusation against the apostles of speaking blasphemies against Moses was therefore the most likely one they could have pitched upon to stir up ill will against them.
Seized for caught, A.V.; into for to, A.V. And they stirred up; i.e. by means of the reports spread by the men whom they suborned, and by working upon the feelings of the people and the elders and scribes, these men of the synagogues so excited them that they obtained permission to arrest Stephen and bring him before the Sanhedrim.
Words for blasphemous words, A.V. and T.R. Set up false witnesses. The similarity of Stephen's trial to that of our Lord is striking. The same set purpose to silence a true-speaking tongue by death; the same base employment of false witnesses; the same wresting of good words into criminal acts; and the same meekness and patience unto death in the righteous martyrs. Blessed servant to tread so closely in thy Lord's steps! (comp. Matthew 5:11,Matthew 5:12; 1 Peter 4:1-19. 1 Peter 4:14-16). This holy place; the Sanhedrim sat in one of the chambers of the temple, called Gazith. This had been prohibited by the Romans, but the prohibition was in abeyance in the present time of anarchy (Lewin).
Unto us for us, A.V. We have heard him say, etc. These false witnesses, like those who distorted our Lord's words (Matthew 26:61; John 2:19), doubtless based their accusation upon some semblance of truth. If Stephen had said anything like what Jesus said to the woman of Samaria (John 4:21) or to his disciples (Mark 13:2), or what the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews wrote (8. 13), or what St. Paul wrote to the Colossians (Colossians 2:16, Colossians 2:17), his words might easily be misrepresented by false witnesses, whose purpose it was to swear away his life. This Jesus of Nazareth. The phrase is most contemptuous. This (οὗτος), so often rendered in the A.V. "this fellow" (Matthew 26:61, Matthew 26:71; John 9:29, etc.), is of itself an opprobrious expression (comp. Acts 7:40), and the ὁ Ναζωραῖος, the Nazarene, is intended to be still more so.
Fastening their eyes for looking steadfastly, A.V. (see above, Acts 3:4). The council would naturally all look at him, in expectation of his answer to the evidence just delivered against him. In his face, illuminated with a Divine radiance, they had an answer which they would have done well to listen to (for the brightness of an angel's face, comp. Matthew 28:3; Daniel 10:6; Revelation 10:1, etc.).
The prosperity of the Church was great. The first hypocrisy had been plucked up by the roots and burnt, so to speak in the presence of the whole congregation. A holy awe had mingled with faith and love to give intense reality to the religion of the disciples. The Spirit of God had borne active witness to the word of the apostles by signs and wonders; and the healing of many sick had conciliated multitudes and attached them to the Church. The apostles had been strengthened and encouraged by the supernatural ministration of an angel bringing them forth from prison, and bidding them preach afresh in spite of their enemies; and at length their very enemies were silenced, and one of the chief of them had advised his fellows, "Leave these men alone." With a fresh burst of zeal, the preaching of Christ had been carried on, and the number of the disciples was greatly multiplied. But now a new danger arose. One of the first institutions of the growing body had been to supply the wants of the most desolate class—the widows—and to gladden their hearts by a daily ministration of food out of the common fund. But, in the rapid increase of numbers, the steps taken at first to secure abundance and fairness in the distribution had proved insufficient. The apostles, who hitherto had been the sole rulers and officers of the Church, had greater things to attend to than even the distribution of Church charities, and in their absence abuses had arisen. While the widows of the Hebrew converts, so called, were well cared for, the Hellenist widows, through some partiality on the part of those who had the management of the tables, were neglected. They were put off with worse places and scantier fare than their Hebrew sisters, or, maybe, found no place at all provided for them. Naturally their friends felt aggrieved, and murmured at such inconsiderate treatment. And the Christian body, before so closely united in the bonds of love in Jesus Christ, showed signs of being split into two bodies, Hebrews and Hellenists. What was to be done? Was the danger to be despised, and were the complaints to be slighted because they only related to the meat that perisheth? Were the widows and their friends to be told that they ought to be occupied only about that meat which endureth unto eternal life, which the Son of man would give them freely and impartially, and their grievances to remain unredressed? Or, taking a juster and graver view of the matter, should the apostles diminish their spiritual labors, and give up their time and strength to the organization of the public charities and the distribution of the daily bread? They did neither. But with conspicuous wisdom they at once founded a new order of men, whose special business it should be to attend to the daily ministration, and see that none were favored and none left out. And, to conciliate confidence in the thorough impartiality of the distribution, they invited the whole Church to elect seven men of approved wisdom and piety, to whom this important trust should be committed. The plan seems to have been eminently successful, as we hear no more of murmurs and complaints. The practical lessons to be learnt are these.
1. Never despise other people's grievances or make light of them because they do not affect you. Especially let no pastor of a flock underrate the temporal and personal vexations of any parishioner who may lay them before him. To poor people even small losses seem very serious things. And if to the sense of loss there is added a sense of injustice or unfairness, the murmurs are very real, and represent deep-seated wounds. They must be kindly and judicially attended to.
2. Again, all, and especially the clergy, should feel the full importance of impartiality in dealing with their people. Favoritism in dispensing charity or even pastoral care must be resolutely eschewed, nobody must be "neglected" because others are preferred. Murmurs are not always loud; but be sure that any unfair or supercilious treatment will rankle in the breast; that, if extended to classes, it will make a serious crack in the unity of the Church; and that it effectually prevents those who think themselves unfairly treated from reaping any profit from the ministrations of those by whom they think themselves so treated.
3. Lastly, the example of the apostles in this matter teaches those in authority not to attempt to do everything with their own hands, and not to be jealous of having able coadjutors to do the work thoroughly which they themselves of necessity can only do imperfectly. In leaving the choice of the new deacons to the congregation at large, instead of selecting them themselves, they showed a thoroughly liberal and wise spirit, and have left a lesson to the Church in all ages to trust the laity with all fitting power, and to evoke the latent energies of the body, by giving to every capable person some work to do for the glory of God and the welfare of his people.
Fanaticism has one respectable feature, that it is sincere. The fanatic believes what he asserts to be true, and he is earnest and zealous in the maintenance and propagation of his belief. But when we have said thus much we have said all that can be said in his favor. In fanaticism there is a culpable neglect of the reason which God has given to man to be his guide. The fanatic shuts his eyes and closes his ears, and rushes on his way with no more reflection or discrimination than a wild bull in its fury. Fanaticism, too, has a fatal tendency to deaden all moral considerations and to blunt a man's perceptions of right and wrong. It is in vain to look for justice, or fairness, or truth, or mercy, from a fanatic. There is no violence of which he is not capable if he thinks his faith is in danger, no wiles and baseness to which he will not stoop if he thinks it necessary for the defense of his cause. Murder, perjury, bribery, subornation of witnesses, and defamation of opponents by lies and slander, have constantly been the weapons by which fanaticism of various kinds has ever defended itself. The end justified the means. It is, however, a curious feature in the history of fanaticism that it is often so closely allied with self-interest. And this is a feature which derogates considerably from its only merit, that of sincerity. In a pure love of truth there is no thought of self-interest. Truth, is a holy, Divine thing, loved for its own sake. But the fanatic's creed is not pure truth; and so it seems it cannot be loved with the same pure, disinterested love with which truth is loved. Hence it has often been the parent of crime; and hence it is, as we have just said, often allied with self-interest. It is so with Mohammedan fanaticism; it has been so and still is with Romish and specially Jesuitical fanaticism; it was so with Puritan and fifth-monarchy fanaticism; it is so with other existing forms of fanatical and unreasonable zeal. In the case before us in this chapter we need not doubt that these Hellenistic Jews had a very strong and ardent attachment to the Law of Moses, and that their dread and dislike of Stephen's teaching arose from their apprehension that Christian doctrine was in its nature destructive of their own tenets. But if their attachment to the Law of Moses had been intelligent and pure, they would have welcomed the gospel of Christ as being the fulfillment of the Law. If they had been actuated by a holy love of God's truth, they would not have sought to uphold the Mosaic institutions By violence, by injustice, and by fraud. Nor can we doubt that, as in the case of the chief priests and scribes and elders, who conspired to take away the life of Jesus Christ, so in the case of these heated partisans, the fear of losing their own places of influence and power, and having to yield the place of honor to the Galilaean teachers whom they hated and despised, had much to do with the unrighteous zeal of the members of the Hellenistic synagogues. The Christian should strive to have a zeal for Christ and Ms glory quite as ardent as that of any fanatic, but at the same time to keep the eyes and ears of his reason always open for the correction of any error into which he may inadvertently have fallen, and for the addition of any truth which he may not hitherto have known. Above all, he will never seek to bear down reason by violence, or to defend truth with the carnal weapons of unrighteousness, whether violence or fraud.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Prosperity and peace within the Church.
These opening verses prove to us that a condition of exceptional virtue may abruptly pass into one of common infirmity. From the height of holy enthusiasm the Church falls down, by steep and quick descent, into the depth of unlovely wrangling. From all the verses of the text we gather—
I. THAT PROSPERITY BRINGS DANGER TO A CHRISTIAN CHURCH AS WELL AS TO INDIVIDUAL SOULS. "When the number of the disciples was multiplied there arose a murmuring" (Acts 6:1). Enlargement often brings with it pride, or false confidence, or sloth, or worldliness. It is a "slippery place," where there is great danger of falling. It is frequently the condition of disagreement and even serious discord. When the number is small and the band feeble, each member of the community feels that he must stand by the rest, and let all his strength be put out in advancement of the common cause; but when there is a consciousness of strength, the sense of responsibility is lessened, and men permit themselves to indulge a spirit and to manifest signs of impatience, querulousness, complaint. But no Christian Church can afford to have any of its members introduce the discordant note. It may, indeed, be lost and silenced in the harmonies which prevail; but it may throw everything out of tune and be the beginning of endless dissonance and dire confusion.
II. THAT THE HARMONIOUS ACTION OF THE CHURCH IS LARGELY DEPENDENT ON THE WISE APPORTIONMENT OF ITS FUNCTIONS. It is not reasonable that we [the apostles] should leave the Word of God and serve tables" (Acts 6:2). It was altogether undesirable that the apostles of Christ, who were charged with such high functions, should expend their strength and time in small monetary arrangements. They would probably do that ill when they might be doing their own proper work admirably. They wisely divided the duties of the Church into two different parts, of which they would take one, and leave the other to those whose habits and faculties made them suitable for its discharge: then all went well. If we do not assign functions with discretion, all affairs will speedily be out of joint; the machinery will work with the maximum instead of the minimum of friction. Let the minister take his post or posts, and there be found in full activity; let the other officers have theirs, and keep them. Let activity be well directed, and there will be peace as well as fruitfulness.
III. THAT THE OFFICERS OF THE CHURCH OFTEN DO WELL TO CONSULT THE COMMUNITY INSTEAD OF SETTLING EVERYTHING THEMSELVES. "The twelve called the multitude … and said,… look ye out," etc. (Acts 6:2, Acts 6:3). The members of the Church should remember that affairs are greatly expedited, order maintained, and peace preserved by their delegating much business to a few chosen men; on the other hand, the leaders should remember that even the inspired apostles of our Lord did not stand upon their dignity as such, but consulted "the multitude of the disciples," and that what they did with propriety we may do with advantage.
IV. THAT EVEN FOR THE HUMBLER DUTIES OF THE CHURCH SOME STERLING CHRISTIAN GRACES ARE NEEDFUL. The seven men now appointed "to serve tables" were to be "men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost, and wisdom" (Acts 6:3); i.e. they were
(1) to enjoy a good reputation;
(2) to be spiritual men in whom God dwelt by his Spirit;
(3) to be men of prudence and capacity.
They who do not possess these qualifications have no right to expect any position in the Church of Christ. Without the confidence and esteem of their brethren they could not make a good beginning; without Christian character they would be out of place altogether; without requisite gifts of the understanding and disposition they would certainly not make a good ending.
V. THAT WE MAY EXPECT MINISTERIAL FIDELITY TO BE FOLLOWED BY ABOUNDING AND EVEN SURPRISING TRIUMPHS. When the apostles were relieved of other more secular duties, and "gave themselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the Word" (Acts 6:4), then "the Word of God increased" (Acts 6:7); then came abounding success—"the number of the disciples multiplied greatly;" surprising success—"a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith." It does not necessarily follow that ministerial faithfulness will be attended with such results; prayerlessness, or discord, or inconsistency on the part of the members may defeat the exertions of the holiest and ablest minister of Christ. But, nothing being in the way, the Church itself being in sympathy, an earnest, faithful ministry will witness very blessed spiritual results—
(1) some that will rejoice,
(2) and some also that will surprise the hearts of the holy. There will be added unto the Church many, and of these some who seemed utterly and hopelessly removed, by their prejudices, their temporal interests, the heinousness of their wrong-doing, or their long continuance in sin.—C.
The service of the lip and the glory of the countenance.
The wise step of appointing seven deacons "to serve tables," and thus to liberate the apostles for prayer and preaching, like other good causes, had results which reached beyond the first object of it. It led to the formation of a most useful body of men, who have served Christ and his Church in other things beside mere "tables 'or temporalities. It brought out Stephen; and who shall say how much that had to do with the conversion of Saul, and so with the evangelization and enlightenment of the world? We learn—
I. THAT THE FAITHFUL DISCHARGE OF THE LOWER DUTY WILL LEAD TO ENTRUSTMENT WITH A HIGHER ONE. (Acts 6:8, Acts 6:9.) Stephen, having acquitted himself well as a deacon, and showing powers of speech and argument, was encouraged to visit the synagogues, and there "dispute" on behalf of Christian truth. And not only so, but God honored him as the channel of his Divine healing power, and he "did great wonders and miracles among the people" It is always wise to begin at or near the bottom of the scale; to do the simplest thing well, and then rise to that which is next above it. It is well, in Christian service as in secular callings and in the affairs of state, to go through the various grades until the higher and perhaps the highest are reached. Faithful work in a humbler sphere will fit for useful and honorable service in a higher; this is true of our life on earth, and will doubtless prove true respecting the life which is to come (Matthew 13:12; Luke 16:10).
II. THAT IS THE SERVICE OF CHRIST WE MUST DEPEND FOR POWER WITH MEN ON GRACE FROM GOD. Stephen was full of" grace and power" (Acts 6:8); full of power with men because full of grace from God. From the Divine resources there came down heavenly influences into his soul—illumination, sanctity, zeal—and he was strong to interest, to instruct, to convince, to persuade. We shall remain unsuccessful as workers for Christ, however great our natural gifts may be, except we have grace from on high to penetrate and possess our soul, and we be endued "with all might by his Spirit in the inner man."
III. THAT CHRISTIAN CONTROVERSY HAS ITS PLACE IN SACRED SERVICE. Stephen "disputed" with the Hellenistic Jews in the synagogues (Acts 6:9), and so effectively that "they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake" Statement of Christian doctrine and enforcement of Christian truth may take higher rank, in usefulness, than the defense of Christian theology; but the latter has its place in the field of sacred service, and those who work elsewhere should not disparage or decry it. Everything in its time and in its turn.
IV. THAT ERROR, WHEN IT IS SEATED IN THE SOUL, IS OFTEN ONLY AGGRAVATED BY THE EXHIBITION OF THE TRUTH. (Acts 6:11-14.) These men who were in the wrong, instead of being enlightened and benefited by Stephen's forcible exposition, were led into folly and sin. They hired others to give testimony which was virtually if not literally false, and they did their best to compass the violent death of the man who was seeking to lead them into the kingdom of truth and life. When men are not only wrong in theory, but also bad at heart, interested in maintaining that which is false, any endeavor to enlighten them will often fan the flame of their folly and rouse to its fullest exercise the perversity which is in their souls.
V. THAT DEVOTEDNESS IS SOMETIMES RADIANT WITH HEAVENLY BRIGHTNESS. (Verse15.) We may Continue to dispute whether the "angel-face" of Stephen was natural or supernatural radiance. It matters little; but it is of consequence to know that the higher Christian graces will write their sign upon our countenance. As sin makes its sad and shameful traces on the frame, so purity, faith, love, devotion, will make the face to be aglow with heavenly light. Nothing but a devoted Christian life could give us such angel-faces as some of those which we see worshipping in our sanctuaries and laboring in our holy fields of love.—C.
HOMILIES BY E. JOHNSON
The appointment of deacons.
I. THE SPIRIT OF STRIFE.
1. It arose between the Hellenists and the Hebrews, members of the same nation, of the same blood, of the same Church, but of different places of birth, education, and, above all, of different languages. Language is, perhaps, the greatest divider between man and man. So many of those associations which govern the mind are rooted in the sound of our native tongue. We may notice that Christianity reconciles the difference of the Palestinian Jew and the Greek-speaking Jew; the Book, the New Testament, is the thought of the Jew in the tongue of the Greek.
2. It was on a question of pecuniary benefit. Most disputes of the bitterest kind in the family life turn on questions of money—property and its distribution. Hence the Christian duty of strict justice and exactitude in all dealings with the goods of this world.
3. Jealousy was at the root of the strife. No feeling more painful than the sense of neglect and of the preference of others. All Christian principle is rooted in love, which alone can conquer jealousy. All Christian graces are but forms of the "love that seeketh not its own." Love must seek to remove this "root of bitterness," which otherwise will trouble many and pollute the pure flow of peace in the Church.
II. THE CALLING TOGETHER Or THE CHURCH. To the sense and piety of the multitude the appeal of wisdom and of justice may ever be safely made. But without strong leading, even Christian congregations may become scenes of anarchic passion. It is composed of many wills. If none is present to represent with conscientiousness and firmness the will of the Head of the Church, nothing but confusion can be expected. When that will is clearly apprehended, and the duty thence arising firmly laid down, the majority, if not the whole, will be found ready to obey. Such was the case at Jerusalem.
III. THE COUNSEL OF THE APOSTLES.
1. The division of Christian functions is necessary. It is not "pleasing," either to the Head of the Church or to the judgment of its enlightened members, that callings and duties should be confused; above all, that the higher calling should suffer in efficiency from being joined with a lower. The "Word of God," or thought and utterance in the Church—the Christian ministry in the special sense—was the special function of the apostles. The "serving of tables" was another kind of function, evidently important and necessary. Bat for the two to be fixed in the same persons would have been a want of congruity, or of harmony. For the ministry of the Word freedom from the distractions of business is peculiarly necessary.
2. The central function in the Church is that of the teacher. If this languish or be in any way fettered, the life of the congregation must suffer. It demands a whole man and whole energies. The resolve of the apostles is, therefore, to persevere in prayer and in the ministry of the Word. These two words sum up the life of the preacher. By prayer he draws from the fountain of truth and Divine strength; and in preaching he gives forth that which he has thus received. Without the inner communion with God there can be no power to prevail over the hearts of men.
3. Directions for the appointment of deacons. Seven are to be selected; the number has sacred associations, which were doubtless helpful to the mind. A sevenfold band symbolizes strength, Divine presence and assistance.
(1) They are to be "full of the Spirit "—an expression which cannot be defined, but the meaning of which can be felt. Divine presence in the soul is ever indefinable, and is known by its effects on the tone of the man, and on the energy, the gentleness, and persuasiveness of his speech and action.
(2) They are to be wise men—who are always needed for tasks so delicate as that here assigned them. Goodness and sense: these are the great qualities needed in Church officers every day. Neither weakly good men nor merely shrewd men fulfill the desired qualifications.
IV. THE ELECTION. The counsel of the apostles is approved unanimously; and seven brethren are chosen out and presented to the apostles, who ratify the choice of the Church by the devout ceremony of the imposition of hands.
1. The eminence of Stephen. He is specially mentioned as "full of faith and of the Holy Spirit." Faith, a most comprehensive word in the New Testament, may mean here either constancy, fidelity, or the habit of the living and strong believer. But really the two meanings unite. The believing man in the genuine Christian sense is alone the true, the steadfast man. The trustworthy man is so because he himself is a truster in God. He who has no certain faith in the Divine is no object of human confidence.
2. The obscurity of useful lives. Except of Philip, of whom we have an after glimpse, nothing is known of these worthies (Acts 8:5, Acts 8:26; Acts 21:8). "He has not lived amiss whose life and death have escaped the notice of the world," said the Roman poet. The "path of a hidden life" is the lot of most Christians. A niche in the temple of fame is not set as an object of Christian ambition; but the approval of the Divine Master is.
3. There may be good service without the title of servant. These men had no official designation of "deacons." They were simply "the seven." It is good to resist the weakness for titles and for status in the Christian Church. Good men and useful are sometimes spoiled when these imaginary distinctions are placed upon them. So susceptible is our fancy that, as dress seems to magnify our personality, so does the consciousness of office and rank. We cannot crush vanity by the singularity of dropping titles; it will nestle just as well under the affectation of plainness. But the simplicity of this example may remind us that there is a danger in vanity for the ministers of Christ of every degree.
V. THE SUBSEQUENT CONDITION OF THE CHURCH. It is sketched in three features.
1. The growth of the Divine Word. The Logos, or Word, of God is a very wide expression. It includes all spiritual activity and all expressions of it. The meaning, then, is that there was a great growth of spiritual thought and life. And this by the Divine favor as human means. When the affairs of any Church are conducted in the spirit of wisdom and love, this blessing may be expected. It is foolish to expect manifestations of growth and prosperity where these have not been sought and wrought for.
2. Growth of numbers. Which is one of the most obvious marks of success. The popular reception of a new creed is a mark of its adaptation to the wants of the many. But we must not infer that the unpopularity of a principle, or a person, or a teaching condemns it. There is a popular and an unpopular side to all truth. The divinely winning aspect of Christianity is not always to be seen; and there are days when the faithful must struggle with discouragement. The prophets with their lofty teaching complained that their report was not believed. The gospel, when seen to be the source of peace, prosperity, and wealth, is readily believable; not so widely so when it asks for sacrifice and leads to suffering.
3. The submission of the priests. This was most significant of all. Ecclesiastical orders are the most stubborn in resistance to change; priests the most conservative of religionists, as prophets are the friends of advance and of freedom. The giving way of the priests was indeed a remarkable triumph of Christ and his gospel. The evidence of the facts, the present facts, was too strong to be resisted. The evidence of a religion lies at last in its power to help and Mess the life of society. So long as this evidence is presented by the Church "apologies" for Christianity will for the mass of men be quite unnecessary.—J.
Stephen's work and witness.
I. HIS SPIRIT DESCRIBED. "Full of grace and power." We can feel rather than define the force of those words. Grace is first the favor of God felt in the man's soul, then manifested in his whole bearing, tone, conversation, and way of life. The effect is like the cause; the recipient of Divine favor makes a deeply favorable impression upon others. Power, again, is the Divine will making itself felt in the man as his will; and the effect is powerful upon others. Thus Stephen was a man felt to be spiritually original.
II. HIS ACTIVITY DESCRIBED. He wrought "signs and wonders" of an extraordinary kind among the people. The Jew craved signs and wonders, and from long habit and education was accustomed to see in these the great evidence of a Divine mission. But true faith is never without power to work some kind of wonders. Moral wonders are the most impressive and the most evidential.
III. THE RISE OF OPPOSITION TO HIM. Jealousy as usual, and envy, must have prompted it. The most fruitful lives invite most criticism. "Stones are not thrown except at the fruit-laden tree," says the proverb.
1. Its character: disputatious. School wit and wisdom are brought to bear against him. When facts cannot be denied, nor made the foundation of charges, fancies are found to be convenient as material of attack. The man who is mighty in deed shall, if possible, be shown an imbecile in argument, a tyro in knowledge. But there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in school philosophy; and the power of God and wisdom of God in his servants set at naught the "disputer" of the world.
2. Its failure. The dialecticians were met by simple spiritual wisdom. It was a plain story that Stephen had to tell; its very simplicity and dignity foiled these debaters.
IV. FALSE ACCUSATIONS. From sophistry to positive lies it is an easy step. If dishonesty is in a man's use of words and arguments, he will be likely to carry it out in deeds. If we bribe our reason in the interests of passion, why should we hesitate to corrupt the minds of others? Bribed testimony may produce a great effect for a time. It can craftily be made closely to resemble the truth. If a teacher upholds the spirit of Scripture, he may be represented with the ignorant as despising its letter. The charge of "speaking evil against Moses and God" must have been made color-able. Stephen taught that the old dispensation was in decay, and that the temple must pass away. This was easily misrepresented as speaking against the temple and the old institutions. The institutions of God are living, therefore must grow, and change their forms from age to age. To assert the necessity of change may be perverted to mean the assertion of the necessity of overthrow. The highest teaching is ever most liable to misrepresentation. It cannot respect men's vested interests. And interest, with all the "hell-deep instincts" which rally in support of it, can ever find plausible arguments against the innovator. Stephen's experience repeats that of Jesus and anticipates that of Paul.
V. SUCCESS OF THE PLOT. The people were deeply moved; the temple and all its sacred associations in religion and national feeling were threatened, as they thought. The Sanhedrim, the "elders and scribes," trembled for their power. Stephen was apprehended and brought before them. The false witnesses repeat their story. Though doubtless verbally true, it was in spirit false. That Jesus of Nazareth should "dissolve the sacred place and change the old religious customs" was indeed the sublime truth in a sentence. Christianity dissolves Judaism—by fulfilling it. To break up one home to found another is not to destroy the first home. To cast off an old garment because a new one is needed and at hand, is not to discredit the old. Destruction absolute and final is different from abolition with a view to progress. The witnesses were thus near to the truth, yet far from it. When opposites meet, the idea of dissolution and that of life, the hall-truth may be the most malicious of lies.
VI. THE DEMEANOUR OF STEPHEN. It was a moment of great trial. The people were now again united with their rulers. The Sanhedrim no longer feared to go against the general feeling. It was "Stephen against the world." Among all the eyes fastened upon him there was probably no friendly glance. Yet at this moment, like the sun breaking through the blackness of a thunder-cloud, a glory of unearthly splendor irradiated the brow of the witness. In such moments God chooses to show his love to his chosen. Forsaken—not forsaken; cast down—not destroyed; fettered and hemmed in on every side—yet free; such is the experience of the soul that confides in God. It throws itself in the extremity of its helplessness at the feet of God—nay, upon his very breast. Never do we know what heights and depths are in the kingdom of spirit, till we are thrust into them by the frowns or the force that bars all other ways. The spirit touches its height of triumph and joy in the very moment when the man to outward appearance is lost. And there are brief moments when God reveals his presence in a manner not to be forgotten on that noblest of his mirrors, the human countenance. God's eagles rise in the storm; his stars shine in the darkest night. Compare the face of Stephen with that of Moses (2 Corinthians 3:7, 2 Corinthians 3:8). We learn from Stephen:
1. The might that comes to man through faith and the Holy Spirit; ability to work, to witness, to suffer.
2. The glory of the martyr. Accused, God favors him; slandered, the truth is illustrated by him; overcome and overclouded, he rises and he shines like the sun in his strength.—J.
HOMILIES BY R.A. REDFORD
Institution of deacons.
1. The increase of officers was the natural outcome of increase in number of disciples, illustrating the great principle that the life of Christianity develops the organization and not depends upon it.
2. The spirit of charity was the underworking cause of the need of more rule. Had there been little to distribute, there would have been no ground of complaint.
3. The Jewish element was still uppermost in the Church. It was as yet an unordered community; but the two principles of care for the weak and equality among brethren were there to be appealed to.
4. The apostles, while guiding the Church with inspired wisdom, usurped no authority as rulers, claimed distinction only as servants of the Lord, called the whole body of believers together, and committed this first distinct act of constitutional appointment to the free vote of the Church as a whole.
5. The men elected were the best men spiritually as well as in adaptation to the special office.
6. The whole transaction was an appeal to Divine direction, being carried through in the spirit of prayer and in dependence on the apostolic superintendence of the Church which was instituted by Christ himself.
7. The deacons' office was instituted for the relief of the spiritual officers of the Church. The ministry of the Word is chief in importance. The "serving tables" requires character, wisdom, spiritual gifts, but is separated from the higher offices of prayer and preaching. The deacons are "business" officers.
8. Nothing should be done in the Church except by spiritual men, in dependence on Divine direction sought by prayer, and in harmony with that form of Christian life already appointed.—R.
The first note of strife.
"There arose a murmuring," etc. Good and evil mingled everywhere. Multiplication of disciples means multiplication of interests and dangers. Prosperity in Churches has its attendant difficulties. Learn a lesson of wisdom and safety from the narrative. Money matters cannot be too carefully and spiritually controlled in all Churches.
I. THE NECESSARY INFIRMITIES OF CHURCH LIFE Call be made opportunities of great blessing.
1. Let nothing be neglected, either wants or murmurs, but all promptly and wisely considered and prayed over.
2. Call out the gifts of the people. No one knows what he cannot do. A Church's extremity is often God's opportunity.
3. Keep the spiritual and the secular as far as possible in their right places. Let not the business claims oppress the minds which should be free to study the Word of God. Aim at the development of the Church's knowledge and devotion as supreme.
II. GOD'S WONDERFUL CARE OF HIS PEOPLE; overruling; inspiring; by means of individual instances and comparatively trivial occasions, providing great precedents and rules and guiding facts, which extend their influence over the whole world. So in the order of his providence throughout. As humanity develops new capacity and function manifested.—R.
An earnest ministry the greatest need and blessing of the Church.
"But we will give ourselves," etc.
I. FUNCTIONAL, FAITHFULNESS. "Each in his office wait."
1. Apostles held an exceptional position, but in all main respects examples of singleness of mind and wisdom.
2. Distinguish between faithfulness in office and officialism. Special gifts adapted to special work; should be stirred up.
3. The hope of the Church is in the spirituality of its ministers. If they lower the conception of their office and regard themselves as mere popular leaders, they let in a flood of evils both into the pulpit and into the Church.
II. The WORLD'S CONVERSION IN THE HANDS OF GOD'S PEOPLE. The chief agency—prayer and the ministry of the Word. Charity secondary, not primary. Philanthropy is not a substitute for Christianity. The apostles put their own office as preachers before that of the deacons. In these times a temptation to put the "tables," the bodily necessities, before the spiritual wants. We must wait for results, but Christ understood the work of his Church. Stand by the apostolic method, and the end will vindicate it. The world must be changed by spiritual forces. The Church must use all the material and social advantages supplied, but not as though they were sufficient by themselves; "By my Spirit, saith the Lord."—R.
The fruits of faith.
"And the Word of God increased," etc. Connect with the preceding description of a prayerful, obedient, spiritually minded Church. How different the result might have been had the murmuring gone on to increase and become a strife which would have broken up fellowship, dishonored the Name of Jesus, and stopped the mouths of the preachers!
I. THE FIELD in which such fruits were gathered—Jerusalem and neighborhood.
1. In some measure prepared for the new seed. God works by a deeply laid method of orderly progress The gospel the beginning of the new world because it was the end of the old; taking up into itself all that was really Divine m Judaism.
2. Broken up by the new ministry, so different from that of scribes and Pharisees.
3. A continuation of Christ's own work, upon the basis of the great facts of his history.
II. THE LABOURERS.
1. Apostles. Their spirit and method adapted to achieve spiritual success; informal; earnest; devout; inspired. Accompanied with miraculous attestation.
2. The multitude of believers. All spoke more or less. Their fellowship was an eloquent fact. Their order and self-denial and separation from the world.
III. THE HARVEST.
1. Large. Immense population of Jerusalem; continually changing.
2. Representative of the future. The center of religious life, sending streams of light over the world; devout men of all nations. Special adaptation of the Jewish mind to preaching. Knowledge of the Old Testament. Connection with Greek through Alexandria, with Latin through Rome.
3. Wonderful. Overcoming Jewish prejudice; winning many of the priests, notwithstanding opposition and persecution; foretelling the downfall of Judaism. Multiplication of disciples a spiritual fruit. Let God add to the Church. Preserve the distinction between the Church and the world.—R.
Stephen before the council.
The conflict between the spirit of Judaism and the Spirit of Christ. Show the importance of this conflict in the early Church, lasting for more than a whole generation, lingering into the second century. But chiefly brought to an end through one (Saul of Tarsus), himself a trophy of the Spirit, exalted out of the very midst of the fiercest fire of Jewish bigotry.
I. THE DIVINE WITNESS. Stephen.
1. Natural gifts; Jewish training; Hellenistic. Union of faith and freedom.
2. Special gifts of the Spirit. Leader of the seven. "Grace and power." Wrought wonders and signs. The wisdom and spirit; raised the highest by Divine afflatus.
II. THE OPPOSING JUDAISM.
1. From the foreign synagogues. Therefore probably not so much on the ground of a narrow Pharisaism, but as a resistance of the Holy Spirit's manifestations in the spirit of rationalism and literalism.
2. The resort to the Sanhedrim, already leagued with the Sadducees, and therefore kindred with the Alexandrian latitudinarians. Instructive as showing that Judaism was going off into rationalism, as it still does. 3. The falsehood and the violence which wrought in the persecution. Suborned men. Appeal to the Pharisaic party, though the synagogues had no real sympathy with them. They were not really guardians of the Mosaic customs. People, elders, scribes,—all stand up by the Alexandrian party.
III. THE MIRACULOUS TESTIMONY OF GOD TO HIS SERVANT. His face "as the face of an angel" (cf. the similar manifestation on the face of Moses).
1. Spiritual manifestation appealing to faith.
2. Testimony to the purity and angelic character of Stephen.
3. Contrast between the heavenly anti the earthly in the men, the methods, the doctrines, and the final results.—R.
HOMILIES BY P.C. BARKER
The first crystallizings of ecclesicastical institution.
This short section has much to say, more to suggest, to us. The day of Pentecost had receded no distance whatever into the past; the holy enthusiasm of the days when new-born disciples sold their individual property in order to turn it into common property was literally but of yesterday; and Jerusalem, Christianity's cradle of associations the venerable sacredness of which was now superseded by a new, a young, a surpassing sacredness, had not yet been left of the apostolic missionaries. If other things were to date their "beginning from Jerusalem," things of brighter and more blessed omen, so also the Church's earliest acquaintance with division and strife was to be made and m part provided against within the precincts of that same city, center of cities, and "mother of all." However, the strife was not fierce at present, nor the division malignant in its tyro. Yet, looked at under the light of the centuries that have succeeded, there can be now no doubt of the significance of the symptoms which then appeared. Let us notice in this passage—
I. What may be called THE FIRST EFFORT OF THE CHURCH TO PUT ON FORM. Effort though it was, there can be little doubt that it was most unconscious of its nature. The occasion, interesting from a merely historical point of view, is much more so from a moral point of view. Hitherto the brief and wonderful career of the Church had been all "spirit and life"—stem and bough and twig all concealed beneath flower and fruit. Suddenly, however, the rudiments of organization commence to be seen; and it was a consequence of some of the less lovely aspects of human nature. These do not fail to thrust themselves into notice at a time one would have most desired their absence, and while they labor under the rebuke of many a faithful suggestion of Christian feeling and principle. Plainly up to this time the apostles had themselves distributed the offerings that had been laid at their feet (Acts 4:35; comp. with Acts 6:2), availing themselves of just such help as might offer. Inspired apostles could not do everything. Though "murmuring" might not be lovely, and very probably was not so now, yet, as they recognize some foundation for it, they proceed to propose a remedy (cf. Exodus 18:13-26).
II. HOW IT WAS GUIDED BY APOSTLES INSPIRED.
1. They summon the whole body of the disciples together, and point out to them the aspects of the case.
2. They throw upon this body of disciples the responsibility of choosing those helpers who shall serve the needs of the occasion.
3. They insist on the moral, nay, more, the high spiritual, qualifications of these. Though they are only "to bear the vessels of the Lord," yet must they in high sense be "pure" and "clean;" for they must be men "of good report, full of the Spirit and of wisdom."
4. By a service most simple, of prayer and laying on of hands, they set them apart for what might seem their comparatively humble and business kind of duties. Christian dignity and honor are set upon the work of these men, as dignity and honor belong to it, in the Name of the Master for whom and for whose Church it was to be done.
III. SOME SUGGESTIONS OF GENERAL PRINCIPLES ARISING FROM THIS OCCASION.
1. Division of labor is a principle to be observed within the Church as without it.
2. A gradation in importance of work (though not necessarily of the workman) is plainly implied by the words of the apostle (Acts 6:2).
3. The character of Church organization, whatever of it there might come to be, seems plainly shadowed forth. It is not to be place and office and dignity for the sake of them, or for the show of hierarchy. The offices of the Church are not to be the filling up of an á priori constitution. They are only justifiable in the interests of the use of the Church, and are to be assigned in faithful analogy with the illustrious model-principle of "the sabbath made for man, not man for the sabbath."
4. The possession of the Spirit is the foundation-qualification of every order of Christian workman. Men "of good report, and … of wisdom" may be the manifest qualifications of men of business, whether Church business or not. But the apostles require that those who are "appointed over this business," i.e. "to serve tables," shall be also "full of the Holy Ghost."
5. The discretion of the Spirit is still reserved—unfettered in each order and in each individual. For of these seven "deacons," now elected and with solemn service set apart, we hear no more, except of two of them; and both of these are doing distinguished work, not as deacons, but as "preaching Christ," and doing "great wonders and miracles" (comp. Acts 8:13-15, with Acts 7:1-60. and Acts 8:5-8). The conclusion of all may be understood to be that the truest Church will be that which earnestly bids for life and movement, and allows only so much form as the tide of life and the directing of that life may fairly require.—B.
Convincing testimonies to the force of the new faith.
"And a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith." The obedience of "a great company of the priests to the faith" was beyond a doubt, in the nature of things, a commanding witness to the force of that faith. When that faith made its successful assault upon the serried ranks of such "a company," and persuaded the throwing away of weapons so peculiarly their own, and endeared to them by an almost inveterate attachment, a great victory was won. The glory and especially the moral impressiveness of victory will often be proportioned in the directest manner, not to the strength only, but to the very nature of the opposing forces. Special mention is made of the triumph of the gospel over this "great company of priests," not without good reason. In addition to the usual causes of the enmity of the human heart to the "faith" of Jesus Christ, and which must in all cases be triumphed over, others were present here, and such as asked a strong hand to overmaster them. Notice, therefore, that "the obedience to the faith" of those here spoken of was—
I. A TRIUMPH OVER THE DIFFICULT FOE THAT GOES BY THE NAME OF PREJUDICE. It is very clear that, let alone any of the forms of class prejudice, prejudice itself, pure and simple, was at the root of a very large preponderance of the enmity shown to Christ and his "faith" on the part of all those who would make any assumption of superior knowledge or position. Settled on the lees of self, they had no relish for anything that tended to disturb their opinion of self. And this bred more of prejudice toward Christ and his truth than of anything else, while the mischief of prejudice answers to no name more appropriately than the name Legion. The assumption of knowledge, of goodness, of superiority, was the native element of the priest in the days of Christ's flesh and of his apostles. Against assumption of this kind any one or anything that dared self-assertion dared at the same time the prompt encounter of prejudice the most unreasoning.
II. A TRIUMPH OVER THE JEALOUS FOE OF PROFESSIONALISM.
1. The simplicity alike of the life and of the doctrine of Christ would sin, from a priest's point of view, against his own faith in professionalism.
2. The unmistakable language of Christ, in reference to the overthrow or the superseding of an order of religious officers, forms, ceremonies, and sacrifices, would clearly sin against the same.
3. The very genius of the character of Christ would be felt to militate unerringly against it, however feebly that genius might be appreciated.
III. A TRIUMPH OVER THE BIGOTED AND MALIGN FOE OF PRIESTISM, The love of the priest's office was one of the devoutest feelings with the true priest. As the office lay with an appointed class in the constitution of the Jewish people, we cannot say that individual preference or bent of disposition decided who should bear it. While no constitutional predilection determined the Jew's choice of the ecclesiastic profession, it makes perhaps more distinctly visible the effect of the office upon him and his character. And very visible for had was this effect in the time of our Savior, when an earnest and devout priest was the exception. The love and simplicity and devoutness of the true priest was indeed "precious in those days." And certain it is, for whatever reason, that "chief priests and elders "led the opposition to Jesus, created it, and for the most part utterly constituted it. The same parts they sustained towards the apostles now from day to day. Moral blindness and moral insensitiveness are the con-stunt avengers of the temper. Two things go far to explain why it should be so.
1. The confident and familiar tampering with unseen realities is one. The conventional temper will dogmatically pronounce upon the things which ask for the more reverent touch in that they are unseen and must be largely unknown.
2. Its pride is to intrude into that most sacred domain, the domain of the innermost life of others. The saying might have been made for it that it "rushes in where angels would fear to tread." And for a bold challenge like this, no one who has at all observed the phenomena of man's moral nature can for a moment doubt that the recoil must be perilously dangerous. "Have any of the rulers or the Pharisees believed on him?" was a question that came, in point of fact, from the lips of a Pharisee (John 7:48), but for all that was the unwitting tell-tale of saddest and surest facts, deep down in the moral nature of himself and of his most intimately related associates, the priests. And they amounted to self-blight's confession—the self-blight that came of profane presumptuousness towards Heaven and arrogant assumption towards the spiritual life of their fellow-men, and that consisted of ingrained inveteracy of prejudice, infolded affections, and shriveled sympathies. To throw life and a healthy beat into the hearts of such men has ever been beyond human resources. They have been hopeless of the hopeless, and despair has been most familiar with their face. The sovereign touch alone can reach their case. Great, then, was the victory of the faith on this occasion, for they were "priests," and they were "a great company of priests" over whom it prevailed. The force of Jesus prevails betimes over every worst form and every worst degree of evil in human nature. Why it does not always is a question to which man knows not the answer, or at all events not the explanation of the answer. But that force did prevail now, and it made a great day and great joy. Greatest of all, however, was the mercy that sped not by, but now rested on the wing and alighted with the gift of salvation for this unlikeliest company. Let it be the light of hope and the encouragement of effort for those who work, amid the darkest, blankest, hardest material. Not less should this touch of history warn with most ominous suggestion all those whose native bias, whose solemn profession, whose self-undertaken series of duties, charge them with the dreadest responsibility, not in its bearing on others only, but "chiefly" and "first" on themselves.—B.
The logic of heavenly luster.
"And all … saw his face as it had been the face of an angel." The two occasions of the mention of Stephen have already apprised us of an exceptional spirituality marking his character, and it cannot but be that the exceptional splendor and luminousness of his countenance here spoken of are more or less connected with that fact. The hour of martyrdom is drawing on apace for Stephen, and he is already raised to that little company which numbered in it—Moses in one of the most critical portions of his history (Exodus 34:29, Exodus 34:30; 2 Corinthians 3:7), and Jesus himself (Matthew 17:2; Luke 9:29) on the Mount of Transfiguration. It is being given to Stephen to ripen into an "angel of God" even on earth. The fact of the distinct record of Stephen's appearance now justifies our paying even some additional attention to what in itself would naturally have attracted our interested inquiry. The interest gathers round this central inquiry—Why was such special and such peculiar kind of distinction vouchsafed to Stephen? "His face was as it had been the face of an angel."
I. A HIGHLY SPIRITUAL FORCE OF CHARACTER MARKED HIM AS AT LEAST FIT OBJECT OF THIS LUSTER. It is not open to us to say that this was the cause in any sense, but much less the one cause, of the luster with which the countenance of Stephen shone. But we must remark on it as showing the presence of one essential condition. In a biography almost as brief (omitting his defense) as that of Enoch, three things are reiterated, intimating to us the highly developed spirituality of Stephen.
1. He was "full of faith." Every true disciple of Jesus Christ must, no doubt, be "rooted in" faith. He must "know whom he believes." But to be "full of faith" probably signifies something beyond this. A man may truly have faith, and if he have it he will live and "walk" by it, yet may be the very man who will need to have full allowance made for him as respects the distinction of faith and sight. Not just so the man who is "full of faith." For him faith has come to be such an "evidence of things not seen," and such an embodied "substance of things hoped for," that his "conversation is in heaven" already, and his countenance more really fitted to shine with celestial radiance. In fact, we may rest assured there is a great difference between even a very genuine possession of faith and a being "full of faith." The former is true of very many who are exceedingly far removed from the latter. That faith which scripturally and apostolically postulates the distinction of sight has in its fullness the power to efface the very distinction itself has made, and throws two worlds into one. We do not at all doubt it was so now with Stephen, who for the fulness of faith now lived and thought, spoke and worked, "as seeing him who is invisible" (Hebrews 11:27); and that was in itself the earnest of a radiant countenance.
2. He was "full of the Holy Ghost." It must be allowed on all hands that this fact justifies us much more in an affirmation of the presence now of something in the nature of a predisposing qualification. In the modern Church the work and the fruit of the Spirit is grievously underrated. Hence its weakness, hence its want of enterprise, hence its comparative deadness. We have ample Scripture warrant for distinguishing degrees in the Spirit's operation; nor can we forget how, while to others according to measure the gifts of the Spirit are vouchsafed, of One it is said, "God giveth not the Spirit by measure" to him (John 3:34). How intensely full was St. John of the Spirit, when as he rather puts it, "I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day" (Revelation 1:10)! What the countenance of St. John then was we know not, nor was there one to see it and tell us; but we are in no ignorance of what his rapt state of mind was, and to what the Spirit exalted him. It is not, therefore, the unwarranted thing to think that the Spirit's force in the nature of the man in whom he largely dwells should betoken itself in physical manifestation. The legitimate conclusion would rather lead us to a conviction that restraint is self-imposed on the Spirit, in order that his blessed manifestation should neither overpower the individual in whom he largely may dwell, nor supersede moral attraction and moral evidence for all who stand by. How humiliating, how unspeakably mournful, to think how seldom it appears true of any in these ages that they are "full of the Holy Ghost," or that in their case the Spirit needs to shade off any of his effulgence!
3. He abounded in zeal. The zeal of Jesus and his truth, of Jesus and "this life" that came through him, went far "to eat him up" (John 2:17). Though Stephen was not an apostle, and though he was and had only just been formally elected and appointed a deacon, yet he did the works of an apostle, and, if we may judge from appearances, did much more than the more part of them. He was first to be chosen deacon (verse 5), a circumstance which marks probably not his high spiritual character alone, but also his repute for practical diligence. It is then distinctly testified of him (verse 8) that he "did great wonders and miracles among the people." Nor this alone. He stood to his position, did not refuse to maintain by disputation the truth he had spoken, and did so hold his own that, unscrupulous though his opponents were, "they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake." This was to be a thorough believer and a thorough-going champion. Argument will often fire the passions and light up the countenance; and holy argument will fire noble passions and will make a luster dawn upon the face. Yet still it is God's sovereign act to select his "chosen vessel," and his surpassing mercy that fits any one to be such.
II. THE RESPONSIBILITY OF A HIGHLY CRITICAL OCCASION NOW LAY WITH STEPHEN.
1. From our modern point of view, interest in watching him now would have been possibly not a little increased by the thought that we were watching the first layman on his trial. Though the thing would not have been so worded then, yet we may readily imagine a quickened gaze on the part at least of all the apostles, and probably of many others, it was gradually dawning upon the Jewish nation and the world that a prophet, a priest, an apostle, was what he did; and Peter begins to be impressed with what leads him soon to say, "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons, but … he that feareth him and worketh righteousness is accepted with him." Neither Peter nor any of his fellow-apostles was an hereditary or trained priest, but they were all conscious that they were "called to be apostles." The vast circle of the true Christian preachers and prophets begins further still to enlarge when Peter and the apostles fall behind a while, and Stephen, just now a plain man and only most recently titled deacon, fills up the whole foreground, in an episode of almost unsurpassed interest in the whole of the Acts of the Apostles. Since, then, Stephen was not "called apostle," the luster which now lighted up his countenance was in part his Master's gracious and bountiful substitute. God does not forget the special needs of special occasions, and if, as is probably the case, Stephen was not aware of his own appearance, there cannot be a doubt that it secured for him, from the first word of his opening defense, a special attention. The occasion was one of special responsibility, therefore, for Stephen, inasmuch as he is employed to bring into uncommon prominence, in one aspect of it, the dawning comprehensiveness of Christianity.
2. The number of those present, the very various description of them that they were led on to the attack by a very confederacy of infuriated synagogues, the determined and excited tactics resorted to of false witnesses, wresting words and statements of Stephen out of their connection,—all these contributed to give
(1) a violence to the occasion, that asked for something unusual to hold it for some moments at least in check. It was an occasion to which the interrogatory fits, "Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things?" And it meant mercy to the maddened in heart, far more than respite to Stephen. Against themselves they shall hear, and if needs be that they may hear, they shall also first see. If thereafter they will still refuse, it is more than ever their own deed that proffered mercy turns into judgment. So upon the madness and fury of Saul's persecuting journey to Damascus gracious check was placed by the directest Divine interference. And in this case that interval of calmed time was sanctified to the saving of Saul, and of many others through him. Even beyond what we very clearly read, it may be that there were peculiarities in the occasion, and in the excited audience that Stephen had now to address, which should explain this peculiarly gracious—we had almost said graceful—and considerate interposition of the supernatural. For certainly
(2) the event proved that the occasion was, in point of fact, one of the most supreme sort. Most remarkable and most fatal was the chill taken by "the people." It had looked as though Jerusalem would not have been in vain "begun with in the" preaching of the gospel. It had looked as though that "great company of priests" who became "obedient to the faith" decided the tide of victory and made the day one ever notable and glorious. But the prospect terribly clouds over, and fair hopes are dashed to the ground. This the event proves. But the foreseeing eye, the foreknowing great mind, heeded not the event, yet treats that oncoming decisive struggle as though there were still hope, and gives it every help, if haply Jerusalem may be still snatched from its self-chosen destruction. It is so constantly, that God, though he foreknows, still lengthens out the opportunity and the offer of grace and help. Behind the fact lies, doubtless, one of the great mysteries, as yet unapprehended, nay, untouched, by the apprehension of man. Certain it is that foreknowledge with us would peremptorily strip off from us alike impartial conduct and courage, whether for what awaited ourselves or for what awaited others. We should never keep a steady hand or hold on a steady way. But is Jerusalem in the very act of sealing her fate—still to the last the hand, the voice, the features of Divine pity and love, continue or redouble their appeal.
III. THE SEALING OF HIS FAITHFUL TESTIMONY WITH HIS LIFE-BLOOD WAS NOW IMMINENT FOR STEPHEN. And this is like the grace and free liberality of the Master. Has Stephen's career been very short?—yet he has run bravely the race, he has fought well the fight. And even before the crown above, and before the glorious witness there, he shall have a telling and to-be-remembered witness here also, on the very scene of his conflict, and in the very eyes of those whom he sought to save, but who sought to destroy him. Either we do often call that a miracle which needs not the name, or we very often fail to call that a miracle which begs the name; for tender analogies to the thing wrought now for Stephen have been even frequent since and up to the present. When the end comes very near for the faithful, how mellowed his feeling and how calmed his temper and how serene his countenance! When the last hour approaches, how often does physical pain resign her hitherto implacable tyranny, and mental aberration subside into a resumption of childlike instead of childish disposition and docility of thought and feeling! When the last moments arrive for those who have "struggled long with sins and doubts and fears," but who nevertheless have been faithful both to work and to love, how often does the actual countenance speak of the peace that reigns undisturbed within, and sights are seen and songs are heard which nothing but the callousness of the infidel can possibly deny or throw doubt upon! This very thing was going to be so for Stephen, while he is being stoned. But it is anticipated by—shall we say—a brief half-hour. For his last argument he shall have more light within than ever before—the logic of very light; and in his last gazing and impassioned looks turned on the gainsaying people his face shall reflect the light of God.—B.
HOMILIES BY R. TUCK
Acts 6:1, Acts 6:2
The call for order in the Church.
It arose out of the very fact of increase. The association of people together demands organization and order. A few persons may have such an interest in each other and such a knowledge of each other as will enable them to dwell together in peace without formal rules, and this is abundantly illustrated from family life; but large aggregations of people, mostly unknown to each other, that are based only on some common sentiment on a particular subject, must be set under rule and order; society, as distinct from the family, requires organization and government. The first occasion of difficulty arose out of the party spirit, and out of the jealousy some felt on account of others getting undue advantages. These two verses suggest two subjects for consideration.
I. THE CALL FOR ORDER AS MADE BY THE PEOPLE. Sooner or later, society, clubs, and nations find out that order is necessary to secure both the general and the individual well-being, comfort, and success in life. Illustrate by the consequences of civil commotion, class conflicts, or society jealousies. The same is true within Christ's Church. Offences will come. Jealousies and envies do arise. But Church members soon cry out for the order and rule which alone can ensure peace, growth, or prosperity. Every man who joins a community has to learn that he must give up his independence to some extent, and fit into the order if he is to enjoy the benefits of the communion. As against the ambitious and aggressive man, and as against the man who overpresses his individuality, the Church, as a whole, calls for order. And in view of the practical difficulties that arise when numbers meet, or worship, or dwell together, orderly arrangement, and even a central and acknowledged authority, are demanded. It may be shown that order need never unduly repress life, and that exactly the order which men ask for, in Church and in state, is that which will efficiently repress all forms of evil, but leave the freest possible room and scope for the due and useful expression of individual character and individual gifts.
II. THE CALL FOR ORDER AS MADE BY THE CHURCH LEADERS. The difficulty that arose was viewed by the apostles from quite a different side. They felt the increasing pressure of the claims which the enlarging Church made upon their interest, their care, and their toil. And they further felt that the work demanded was both beyond their power to compass, and unsuited to their apostolic mission; nay, to concern themselves with formal things of money and provisions and daily meals was to imperil that very spiritual life and culture on which the due fulfillment of their true mission depended. So they called for order in the arrangement of the work demanded, and such order would at once meet their need, giving them due relief, and meet the people's need, assuring that each class received due attention. It is interesting to note that the apostles consulted the Church in their scheme for the removal of the difficulty, and it has been found wise, both in the Church and in the state, to adopt methods by which the people can be made to share in the responsibility of keeping order, and the dignity and impulse of a conscious self-government can be assured. Impress that both theoretically and practically the Church still needs order and government. But these must be secured on two conditions.
1. That order shall never crush, only guide, the expressions of life.
2. That order shall secure efficiency, comfort, and peace for all who come within its rules. The Church has in each age known peril in two directions.
(1) Resistance to all organization in the supposed interests of the individual life.
(2) Over-organization giving no room for the natural and healthy expressions of life.—R.T.
The true fitness for Church offices.
Much interest properly attaches to the first instance of election to Church office, and according to educational or ecclesiastical bias prominence is given to one or other of the leading features narrated. It may be going too far to assert that here is given an absolute model of all Church elections. The details of Church management may well be left to the guidance of Christian wisdom and prudence, and need not be made matters of faith. The apostles acted upon their best judgment in the difficult circumstances that arose, but in later times we find that their experience led them to adopt other modes in filling Church offices. In this case the multitude exercise the right of selection, and the apostles retain the right of ratifying the choice. The democratical element prevailed, but from the first it was put under wise limitations and restraints. "So long as the Christian spirit continued to display itself vigorously in the Church, the public voice might well be consulted; but when this spirit afterwards disappeared, it would have been ruinous to the Church if the plurality of voices had been allowed to decide. A glance at the rudeness of the masses in the Middle Ages may convince us of the necessity of their being guided by those above them" (Olshausen). We turn from the controversial aspect of the subject to observe what the apostles regarded as constituting true fitness for any place of service in Christ's Church. Here we may find principles that will be of permanent application and interest.
I. PERSONAL CHARACTER. The men selected must be of "honest report;" "good report;" "good repute;" held in general esteem; attested; well reported of. Their private character must be such as to win confidence and respect. Their integrity must be unquestioned. The importance of personal character may be urged in view of the trusts that would be committed to them—trusts of money, trusts of impartial dealing, trusts of just decisions in cases of difficulty, etc. Christian officials must be beyond suspicion of interested motives, unfaithfulness, or time-serving. Guarantee of fair and honorable dealing is found in established and acknowledged integrity. This is still the first requirement for all who would serve Christ in the lesser and material, as well as in the higher and spiritual, offices of the Church. In public esteem they must be blameless.
II. ACTIVE PIETY. The persons selected are to be" full of the Holy Ghost," or "full of the Spirit." The Church, to be enabled to judge who had such a baptism, must observe some things which were recognized signs of a fullness of the Divine indwelling and sealing. They would be two:
1. A high fervor of religious feeling, seen in rapidly developed Christian experience, advanced Christian knowledge, and unusual prayerfulness.
2. Active and energetic and self-denying labors for the welfare of the fellow-Christians and for the spread of the gospel. Men of the self-indulgent type are mischievous in Church offices; men of the retiring and monastic type are unfitted for Church offices; men of characteristic energy and business activity, if these are combined with warmth and fervor of devotion, are the men "full of the Holy Ghost," who still may nobly serve the Church and the Master.
III. PRACTICAL FITNESS. The persons selected are also to be "full of wisdom;" i.e. of practical sagacity and skill for the management of the particular work to which they are called. The Church must seek fitness. Each man must be set in his right place, and given his right work. Each can serve best in the sphere for which natural disposition and Divine endowment have fitted him. Such men have always been provided in the Church, but they usually need to be sought out. The best men are very seldom found forward to press themselves into office, but when their fitness is made plain to others, and leads to their selection and appointment, it is no true humility on their part to refuse the service. Impress that counted worthy to serve is the Christian's supreme honor.—R.T.
The work of the ministry.
In no age of the Church has it been more necessary than it is in this to exalt the ministry of the Church, to secure its freedom from secular cares, and to culture its spiritual life and efficiency. Thousands of Christian clergy long to be able to say the words of our text, and hopelessly repeat after Dr. Chalmers, "I am bustled out of my spirituality." We may help to a better understanding of the work of the ministry if we consider—
I. ITS PRIVATE AND PREPARATORY FEATURES. "Give ourselves continually to prayer." The term "prayer," as here used, is a comprehensive one, and includes all that belongs to private piety and soul-culture, the nourishing of the Christian vitality, and enriching of the personal spiritual stores of thought, feeling, and truth. Ministers know, by a constant experience, how immediately their pleasure and their power in their work depend on their personal spiritual conditions. The soul must be full of God that is to speak well for God; and Christian congregations should take it upon them, as a burden of duty, to free their pastors from care, both in his family and in the temporal matters of the Church, so that he may "give himself unto prayer." Prayer may here be taken to include:
1. Self-culture—the full mastery of a man's own disposition and habits.
2. Mental culture—a sufficient training of the intellectual powers to ensure full and wise teaching of the people.
3. Scripture-culture—adequate acquaintance with the actual contents of God's revealed Word, and quickness of spiritual insight into its deeper meanings, suggestions, and mysteries.
4. Soul-culture—that kind of sympathetic, persuasive force which seems to bring God near to man, in us, and man near to God, through us; the kind of power that only comes to us through "prayer and fasting." These things are the absolute essentials of true and successful ministerial work today. The men of prayer are the men of power.
II. ITS PUBLIC AND OFFICIAL FEATURES. "The ministry of the Word," or the service of the revealed Word. This may be set in two forms.
1. The ministry of the Scriptures; not merely in their contents, but in their applications, their examples, warnings, counsels, comfortings, etc. "Our ministers are the teachers of a Book, and each has more than a lifetime full of labor if he sets his heart upon declaring the whole revealed counsel of God."
2. The ministry of the Christ, as the very essence of the Scriptures. In this bringing out the special redemptive features of the Divine relation, and claiming personal surrender to, personal obedience to, and personal homage to, the risen, glorified, and reigning Lord. "The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." It may be further pressed that:
(1) The Word, or message of salvation, needs a human ministry; "by the foolishness of preaching God would save them that believe."
(2) That it also needs the entire devotion of men's time and talents and influence. If apostles needed to step aside from common cares to keep their efficiency for spiritual work, much more do the modern clergy in this busy and anxious age. It should seriously be considered how far the modern ministry has become weakened, especially in spiritual power and prophet-like energy, by becoming crowded with worldly cares, so that private soul-culture is neglected and prayer-preparations are crowded out. Only from the "secret place of the Most High" can Christian teachers come forth in power. "While they are musing the fire burns;" and then they can "speak with their tongues."—R.T.
Stephen, the proto-martyr.
Very little is known of his history. And, except for the sake of introducing Saul of Tarsus, and indicating the influence that Stephen's teachings and martyrdom exerted upon him, it is difficult for us to trace why the brief record of his work and death are preserved for us by St. Luke. We judge that he was a Hellenist, by his name; but it is not known from what country he came. He is represented by Epiphanius as one of the seventy disciples chosen by Christ. Others think that he was one of St. Peter's converts on the day of Pentecost. Dr. Dykes fixes on the point most demanding our attention when he says, "The elevation of Stephen to official rank had this for one of its results, that the spiritual and intellectual gifts with which God had endowed this man found at once a wider and more public sphere. Stephen was more than an almoner. He was a deep student of the Old Testament, a theologian of unusual insight, a powerful reasoner and an advanced Christian. In him, too, we find that promise fulfilled which had hitherto been fulfilled to Peter, the promise of such wisdom in speech as no adversary could gainsay. His manner of speech, however, was unlike that of Peter. Peter was a witness, and preached by witness-bearing. Stephen was a student, and preached by exposition and controversy." We dwell on the mission of Stephen as suggested by the terms of the above passages.
I. HE WAS A MAN OF FAITH. It is twice noticed that he was "full of faith"—an expression which may be taken to mean:
1. That he was unusually open and receptive to the Christian truth and grace; for some manuscripts read, "full of grace."
2. Or that he was unusually zealous and active in proclaiming Christ. Faith is sometimes the equivalent of piety, sometimes of activity. The man of faith is, from one point of view, the man of piety; from another point of view he is the man of activity, who readily overcomes hindrances, and, relying on Divine help, goes on in his work, con~ secreting himself wholly to it. Faith is too often thought of as a cherished sentiment; it is for Christians the inspiration of practical life and duty. They should be earnest in service, and find the earnestness maintained by their trust. Faith evidently kept very near to Stephen the vision of the exalted and living Christ.
II. STEPHEN AS A MAN OF POWER. This was shown in
(1) the influence of his personal character;
(2) in his indomitable energy and perseverance;
(3) in his stores of scriptural knowledge;
(4) in his intellectual gifts;
(5) in his unanswerable arguments;
(6) in his ability to add miraculous attestations. Men could not resist the "wisdom and the Spirit by which he spake."
III. STEPHEN IS A MAN MOVED BY THE HOLY GHOST. Not simply endowed with intellectual gifts, but under special constrainings of the Holy Ghost; called to a special work, and suitably enriched and inspired for that work. Where there is a full consecration of heart, and an entire openness of life, there the Holy Spirit will come, making the man his agent, and assuring to his labors full success.
IV. STEPHEN AS A MAN BEFORE HIS TIME. Only gradually did the true relations between Judaism and Christianity dawn upon the apostles. But Stephen saw them, and boldly announced them, putting them on men's thoughts, if he might not win for them a present acceptance. Perhaps, as a Hellenist, he had not so great prejudices to overcome as had the Palestinian Jews. Stephen paid the penalty which usually comes to those whose thoughts and teachings are in advance of their age. His enemies were quite right. From their point of view he was a most dangerous man—no one of the Christian band was so dangerous. But he was one of the noblest of men. He is a sublime example. His brief life is an abiding witness. Being dead, he speaks with a martyr's voice, bidding us do noble things for Christ, and trust him to give us strength for the doing.—R.T.
The laying on of hands.
This is the first mention of the custom in connection with the Christian community. It does not appear that our Lord set apart his apostles to their work by any formal ceremony. A little while before his passion he "breathed on them, and said, Receive ye the Holy Ghost." The imposition of hands was an instance of carrying over and adapting a Jewish custom. "It had an analogous meaning in the ritual of Israel (Numbers 27:23) in acts of blessing (Genesis 48:13, Genesis 48:14) and the transmission of functions." It appears to have been used in the Jewish schools on the admission of a scribe to his office as a teacher. "Its primary symbolism would seem to be that of the concentration for the moment of all the spiritual energy of prayer upon him on whom men lay their hands; and so of the bestowal of any office for which spiritual gifts are required." For other Scripture references, see Acts 42:3; 1 Timothy 5:22; Hebrews 6:2. "The origin of this rite is to be looked for in patriarchal times, when it seems to have been a form simply of solemn benediction, as in Genesis 48:14. In the New Testament we find the laying on of hands used by our Lord both in blessing and in healing; and again he promises to his disciples that they too should lay hands on the sick and they should recover. At the time when the Epistle to the Hebrews was written, the doctrine of the 'laying on of hands' was one of the elements of Christian teaching" ('Dict. of Christian Antiquities;' see art. "Imposition of Hands" for the ceremonies in which the Christian Church has adapted the custom). This is an illustration of the importance of preserving valued ancient practices. It cannot be said that we have any Divine commands in regard to the laying on of hands, but the Church has found the practice to be significant and useful. It may be regarded as—
I. A SIGN OF SELECTION. For some reason the individual is singled out. For some particular office he is chosen. The selection is made by the whole Church. It is represented by the act of imposition done by one person, or by several, in the Church's name. The public nature of the act sets the individual forth prominently before the whole Church as the selected one.
II. A SIGN OF UNITED CONFIDENCE. This is more fully indicated in the form of imposition practiced by what are known as the Free Churches. At their ordination services the laying on of hands is done by the assembled presbyters, each laying a single hand on the head of the selected one, and the custom is mainly valued as an expression of mutual confidence in the Divine call of the selected one, and in his spiritual fitness for the office which he is about to undertake. It becomes an important part of an ordination service as a comforting assurance given to the candidate for office; and with this simple meaning of the rite some of the Free Churches are satisfied.
III. AS A SIGN OF COMMUNICATION. "It was connected with other acts that presupposed the communication of a spiritual gift. Through well-nigh all changes of polity and dogma and ritual, it has kept its place with Baptism and the Supper of the Lord, among the unchanging witnesses of the Church's universality and permanence." Hackett takes it as "a symbol of the impartation of the gifts and graces which they (the deacons) needed to qualify them for the office." Olshausen says, "The idea embraced in the laying on of hands was really just this, that by means of it there was effected a communication of the Spirit from the individual consecrating to the one ordained." Two questions need treatment.
1. Was the imposition an actual impartation of Divine gifts or the Divine Spirit? or was it only the outward symbol or sign of a Divine impartation which was beyond man's control?
2. If there was apostolic power to communicate the gift or the Spirit, have we sufficient ground for assuming that the power is retained by the teachers of the Church whom we regard as the successors of the apostles? Decision on and treatment of these questions must depend on our ecclesiastical bias. No earnest Christian need fail to realize the spiritual value and suggestiveness of this custom. It may, no doubt, be made to serve purely ritual purposes; but it may also be an important and useful Church ordinance, when it is observed on due consideration, and with suitable solemnity and prayer.—R.T.
Acts 6:10, Acts 6:11
The weakness of persecutors.
Attention is drawn to the fact, which has received frequent illustration through the martyr-ages, that men only resort to persecuting tactics when they become conscious of their moral helplessness and theological inefficiency. The persecutor is like the swearer; No man ever needs to curse if his word is known to he truthful. No man ever needs to persecute if he has the right on his side, and faith in those moral forces which ever uphold the right. As the line of thought is directly based on the incident as narrated in the verses, a brief outline will suffice. We find these advocates of strict Judaism—
I. DEFEATED IN ARGUMENT. (Acts 6:10.) Observe that, in Stephen, there was not merely controversial skill, adequate knowledge, and a good theme; there was a spiritual power which made him irresistible. Perhaps nothing rouses anger more readily than defeat in discussion. Few men can retain self-control at such times. And the permanent value of religious public disputations may be very seriously questioned. Happily the tone of religious controversy in our times is greatly improved.
II. APPEALING TO PHYSICAL FORCE. Always a sign of weakness. Sadly illustrated in Calvin and Servetus, and similar cases of condescending to use the power of the magistrate in purely intellectual and moral disputes. Properly, the public magistrate has only to do with the breaking of the social order, but it has always been found easy to fashion charges cognizable by the magistrate when the real purpose has been to silence a triumphant intellectual or religious foe. Truth-lovers never need ask aid from the world's coarse government weapons. Magna est veritas, et prevalebit.
III. MAKING ALLIANCE WITH LIARS. Suborning bad men and prompting false witnesses. So did the prejudiced Sanhedrim in dealing with our Lord. Honorable men descending to the lowest depths to carry out their malicious schemes. Their spirit and conduct are fully shown up by the company they keep. Loyalty to the right and to God cannot endure fellowship with false witnesses.
IV. TRUSTING TO POPULAR EXCITEMENT. "They stirred up the people." The fickleness of the populace is proverbial. Their susceptibility to excitement makes them the easy tool of the demagogue. And Jewish crowds were remarkable for their sudden impulses. Theudas and Judas and Barchocheha played their purposes on this tightly strung string. When Stephen's enemies had no fair charge to urge against him before the courts, their only hope of accomplishment for their malicious purposes lay in the violence of a popular uprising. Their utter weakness and their shameful badness are revealed in their schemes. Seeming to succeed, they really failed more utterly than with their arguments. They could kill the body, but what more could they do? They could not fly after the winged words which, like seeds, had found their lodgment in the minds and hearts of Barnabas and Saul, and would surely spring up and bear blossom and fruitage to the dismay of all Stephen's enemies. Let the persecutor do his weak and foolish work, for "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."—R.T.
The angel-face on man.
Something of a proverbial character rests on the expression, "Saw his face as it had been the face of an angel". Some think that this description" may be traced to the impression made at the time on St. Paul and reported by him to St. Luke." There was "calm dignity," but there was something more and better; there was the vision of Christ as present with him, and the radiant face was the response he made to the vision. Compare the skin of Moses' face shining, and the glory of the Savior on the Mount of Transfiguration. "The face of Stephen was already illumined with the radiancy of the new Jerusalem." "The words describe the glory that brightened the features of Stephen, supported as he was by the consciousness of the Divine favor." Illustrate the truly wonderful power of varied expression which is found in the human face. It responds at once to the moods of the spirit, changing suddenly at changing moods, and gaining fixity of form and feature according to the settled character and habit of the mind. What a man is can be read from his face. How true this was of Stephen may be shown by dwelling on the following points:—
I. THE CHANGE IN STEPHEN'S FACE WAS THE SIGN OF CHERISHED FEELING. It tolls us the tone and mood of his mind—what he was thinking about, and what he was feeling. Reveals to us the man of God and man of faith and man of prayer, who lived in communion of spirit with the glorified Savior. Lines of care come into faces of worldly Christians. Heart-peace, rest in God, absorbing love to Christ, make smile-play over the face. "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he," and so is he in expression of countenance. And the pleasant, the angel, face makes holy witness for Christ before men, winning them to the love of him who thus can glorify his saints.
II. THE CHANGE IN STEPHEN'S FACE INDICATED SUPERIORITY TO HIS SURROUNDINGS. Describe them, and show how reasonably we might have looked for alarm and fear. Well Stephen knew that all this wild rage and tumult and false witnessing meant his death. But there is no quailing. It might have been a day of joy and triumph, to judge by Stephen's face. Compare St. Paul's words, "None of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself." Outwardly a man may be tossed, tempted, tried, imperiled, tortured, but inwardly he may be kept in perfect peace, having his mind stayed on God. Such mastery of circumstance is just as truly the great Christian triumph now, though our circumstances are rather those of perplexity and pressure than of peril to life and property. Overcoming the world, as Stephen did, we too may win and wear the "angel-face."
III. THE CHANGE IN STEPHEN'S FACE WAS A RESPONSE TO THE CONSCIOUS NEARNESS OF JESUS. Of this we have intimation in Acts 7:56, but we are apt to regard Stephen's exclamation as indicating a sudden and passing vision. It is much more probable that it kept with him all through the wild and exciting scene. When they set him before the council, the "angel-face" was there, and the vision of the Christ was in his soul. While he spoke his defense, the Lord stood by him and strengthened him; and when the stones flew about him and struck him down, the vision kept in his soul; the blinded eyes saw it, and it never passed until it became the enrapturing and eternal reality—his bliss for evermore to be with Jesus. The light on Stephen's face was the smile that recognized the best of Friends, who was so graciously fulfilling his promise, and being with his suffering people always. That smile told on the persecuting Sanhedrim. They would not forget it or ever get the vision out of their minds. It would secretly convict, if it did not openly win. Can there be still, and now, in our milder spheres, the angel-face on man—on us? And if so, then on what things must the winning and the wearing of that angel-face depend?—R.T.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Acts 6". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24