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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Acts 7

 

 

Verses 1-53

Chapter16

Prayer

Almighty God, we do not know thy way: it is in the sea, it is in the great waters, it is in the midst of the firmament of heaven, and the clouds are the dust of thy feet, and thine eye shineth like lightning from the east even to the west. We have heard of thee, and our hearts have trembled with fear. We have thought of thee, and our spirits have glowed with love. Sometimes clouds and darkness are round about thee; sometimes the light is thy robe. We cannot tell what thou art, or what thou wilt be to us at any moment, but this great prayer we can utter through Jesus Christ our sacrifice: Give us thy Holy Spirit, and it shall be well with us. Let thy grace dwell in our hearts, beautiful as a guiding cloud in the daytime, radiant and warm as a flame of fire in the night season. If our hearts are filled with thy grace, there shall be no room for the enemy. Fill our hearts with thy truth, and our minds with thy light, as thy truth and thy light are known in the Son of God, and in our soul there shall be the seal of heaven.

We thank thee for thy book, so grand in doctrine, so wondrous in its outlook, so tender in its benedictions, so beautiful in all its gospels. May we know it, love it, reproduce it in our lives, and show that we are men in whom is the indwelling and inspiring God. May our life be a secret like thine own; may men take knowledge of us that we have been with Jesus and have learned of him. May we surprise them not by our information, but by our wisdom. Behind and above all that we say, may there be a mystery of light and of love, not to be solved by the common understanding. May we in Christ, thy Song of Solomon , our Saviour, have bread that the world knoweth not of, and of the fulness of grace may we eat and drink abundantly day by day. Thou hast led us out of sin, and through a long wilderness of education and discipline. Lead us into Canaan"s gardens, into the wider liberty, into the ampler spaces, and may our souls enjoy all the comfort and hope of spiritual freedom. Give us understanding of thy word. Show us how thy book is full of seed; show us that nothing in thy book has come to fruition; that we have in thy book the great seed house. May we sow the seed in good and honest hearts, and may it be watered with dew from heaven, warmed by the sun of thy righteousness and love, and may it bring forth not only according to its kind, but according to the kind of soil in which it is sown. Then shall thy church be a beautiful garden, a wondrous landscape with all beauteous growths adorning and enriching it, and heaven will smile to see a world so blest.

Thou knowest us altogether, our sharpest pain, our dullest care, the anxiety that gnaws the inmost heart, the joy that sings in the spring air like a bird, the hope that lures us with heavenly persuasion on to some nobler conquest and greater peace. According to our necessity and various condition, do thou now command thy blessing to rest upon every soul. We thank thee for all thy love; it comes before the rising of the sun, it remains through the shining of the stars, it is never withheld. We live upon it; without it we must needs die. Show us that though we are here but for a little while thou art preparing us for great revelations and supreme destinies; and in view of the joy that has yet to be, may we forget our little sorrows, may our woes be lost in the sea of gladness which thou hast prepared for us.

The Lord hold the light above his own book whilst we read it. The Lord cause a light to shine out of the book whilst we peruse it. The Lord turn over the pages with his own fingers. The Lord whisper to us the meaning of the spirit whilst we read the letter. The Lord speak to us from the cross of forgiveness, pardon, absolution, complete, entire, final; and to the release of forgiveness add the joy of sanctification. Amen.

Acts 7:1-53

1. Then said the high priest, Are these things so?

2. And he said, Men, [omit Men] brethren, and fathers, hearken; The God of glory [the term is applied to the Incarnate Word, John 1:14] appeared unto our father [Stephen if even a proselyte might use this expression] Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, [his ancestral home was called Ur of the Chaldees] before he dwelt [the Greek word implies a settled residence] in Charran,

3. And said unto him, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall shew thee. [The destination of the emigrants was known before they started from Ur.]

4. Then came he out of the land of the Chaldans, [with Babylon for its capital] and dwelt in Charran: and from thence, when his father was dead, he removed [caused him to migrate] him into this land, wherein ye now dwell.

5. And he gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on: yet he promised that he would give it to him for a possession, and to his seed after him, when as yet he had no child.

6. And God spake on this wise, [ Genesis 15:13-14] That his seed should sojourn in a strange land; and that they should bring them into bondage, and entreat them evil four hundred years.

7. And the nation to whom they shall be in bondage will I Judges , said God: and after that shall they come forth, [with great substance] and serve me in this place, [these words are not in the promise given to Abraham, but are taken from Exodus 3:12.]

8. And he gave him the covenant of circumcision: [given the year before Isaac was born] and so Abraham begat Isaac, and circumcised him the eighth day; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat the twelve patriarchs.

9. And the patriarchs, moved with envy, [the same word is used Acts 17:5] sold Joseph into Egypt: but God was with him, [the argument being that as God"s presence is not circumscribed, neither should his worship be confined to place].

10. And delivered him out of all his afflictions, and gave him favour and wisdom in the sight of Pharaoh king of Egypt; and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house.

11. Now there came a dearth over all the land of Egypt [the oldest MSS. omit the land of"] and Chanaan, and great affliction: and our fathers found no sustenance.

12. But when Jacob heard that there was corn in Egypt, he sent out our fathers first [before he himself went away from Canaan into Egypt].

13. And at the second time Joseph was made known to his brethren; and Joseph"s kindred was made known unto Pharaoh.

14. Then sent Joseph, and called his father Jacob to him, and all his kindred, threescore and fifteen souls.

15. So Jacob went down into Egypt, and died, Hebrews , and our fathers,

16. And were carried over into Sychem, [Shechem] and laid in the sepulchre that Abraham bought for a sum of money of the sons of Emmor the father of Sychem.

17. But when [as] the time of the promise drew nigh, which God had sworn [vouchsafed] to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt,

18. Till another king arose, which knew not Joseph.

19. The same dealt subtilly with our kindred, and evil entreated ["made them to cut a great many channels for the river, and set them to build pyramids, forced them to learn all sorts of mechanical arts, and to accustom themselves to hard labour."—Josephus.] our fathers, so that they cast out their young children, to the end they might not live.

20. In which time Moses was born, and was exceeding fair, and nourished up in his father"s house three months:

21. And when he was cast out, Pharaoh"s daughter took him up, and nourished him for her own son.

22. And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds.

23. And when he was full forty years old, [the verb in the original intimates that the forty years were just being completed] it came into his heart to visit his brethren the children of Israel.

24. And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended him, and avenged him that was oppressed, and smote the Egyptian:

25. For he supposed his brethren would have understood how that God by his hand would deliver them: but they understood not.

26. And the next day he showed himself unto them as they strove, and would have set them at one again, saying, Sirs, ye are brethren; why do ye wrong one to another?

27. But he that did his neighbour wrong thrust him away, saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us?

28. Wilt thou kill me, as thou diddest the Egyptian yesterday?

29. Then fled Moses at this saying, and was a stranger in the land of Madian, [probably the peninsula on which Mount Sinai stands] where he begat two sons [Gersham and Eliezer].

30. And when forty years [making Moses eighty years old] were expired, there appeared to him in the wilderness of mount Sina an angel of the Lord in a flame of fire in a bush.

31. When Moses saw it, he wondered at the sight: and as he drew near to behold it, the voice of the Lord came unto him,

32. Saying, I am the God of thy fathers, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Then Moses trembled, and durst not behold.

33. Then said the Lord to him, Put off thy shoes from thy feet: for the place where thou standest is holy ground.

34. I have seen, I have seen [the Greek is an attempt to imitate an emphatic Hebrew construction, and is literally "having seen, I have seen"] the affliction of my people which is in Egypt, and I have heard their groaning, and am come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send thee into Egypt.

35. This Moses whom they refused, saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge? the same did God send [the verb is in the perfect tense in the original] to be a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the angel which appeared to him in the bush.

36. He brought them out, after that he had shewed wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red sea, and in the wilderness forty years.

37. This is that Moses, which said unto the children of Israel, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear.

38. This is Hebrews , that was in the church [congregation] in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sina, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us:

39. To whom our fathers would not obey, but thrust him from them, and in their hearts turned back again into Egypt,

40. Saying unto Aaron, Make us gods to go before us: for as for this Moses, which brought us out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.

41. And they made a calf in those days, and offered sacrifice unto the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands.

42. Then God turned, and gave them up to worship the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, O ye house of Israel, have ye offered to me slain beasts and sacrifices by the space of forty years in the wilderness?

43. Yea, ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Remphan, figures which ye made to worship them: and I will carry you away beyond Babylon.

44. Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as he had appointed, speaking unto Moses, that he should make it according to the fashion that he had seen.

45. Which also our fathers that came after brought in with Jesus into the possession of the Gentiles, whom God drave out before the face of our fathers, unto the days of David;

46. Who found favour before God, and desired to find a tabernacle for the God of Jacob.

47. But Solomon built him an house.

48. Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet,

49. Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me? saith the Lord: or what is the place of my rest?

50. Hath not my hand made all these things?

51. Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.

52. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers:

53. Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.

The Defence of Stephen

HOW does this speech happen to be here? It is a long one. Who put it down? It reads like a verbatim report; who reported it? It would be easy for the memory to carry a sentence or two; but who could record so long and so highly-informed a speech as the one which is given in this chapter? There was a young man listening to this speech with no friendly ear. His name was Saul. It is supposed that afterward, when he became Paul, he related this speech to Luke , who wrote it in this form. It is not a correct report. No man can report chain lightning. You may catch a little here and there of such eloquence, but the speech itself, in all the elements that lifted it up into historic importance, it was not in the power of memory to carry, or in the power of recollection to reproduce. This is not Stephen"s speech, and you must not therefore hold him responsible for it; they did not give Stephen an opportunity of revising his speech. He spoke, and they hurried him on; the punctuation did not undergo the criticism of Stephen"s eye. The speech itself is full of historic blunders and contradictions. It is Saul"s recollection of Stephen"s defence. It is little or nothing more. You have only to compare the Old Testament statements with the statements which Stephen is said to have made, and you will see at once discrepancy after discrepancy, and in one or two cases you will see blank and palpable contradiction. This gives us another view of inspiration than that which we have sometimes too narrowly held. The speech is true, and yet not factual. What is said here is Biblical, but not textual. There is no statement here made that is not spiritually true, and yet there are few sentences in the elaborate apology that may not be challenged on some technical ground. Some persons imagine that they are inspired when they are only technical. They forget that you may not have a single text in support of what you are stating, and yet may have the whole Bible in defence of it. The Bible is not a text, it is a tone; it is not a piece of technical evidence, it is an inspiration, a wind blowing where it listeth, to carry with it everywhere life, and freshness, and liberty.

Looking at this speech therefore not as a verbatim report, but as a rsum given by an unfriendly hearer, but a most friendly reporter, we may take it as giving the principal features in Stephen"s character. The man who reported this speech to Luke made it the basis and the model of his own immortal apologies. Truly we sometimes borrow from unacknowledged sources; certainly we are sometimes indebted to unknown influences for some of our best inspirations. To think that a man whom they appointed with six others to watch over the ministration of tables should have become the first Christian martyr apologist, and should have given the model for the greatest speeches ever delivered by Prayer of Manasseh , namely, the speeches of Paul himself when put upon his trial and defence, is surely a very miracle of Providence! How little Stephen knew what he was doing. Who really knows the issue and full effect of any action or speech? Who can tell what little sentences are quoted in the sick room, what suggestions are taken from the speaker"s lips and sent in letters to those far away and ill at ease? Who can tell what echoes of spent eloquence follow the hearer through his daily engagements, and cheer him in days of dejection? Life is not marked off in so many inches and done with; it is full of reference, allusion, collateral and incidental bearing, so that an act done is not self-complete, but may be the beginning of endless other acts nobler than itself. Compare the great orations of Paul with the speech of Stephen, and you will be struck with the manner in which the scholar reproduced the master, and how Stephen transfused himself into Paul"s very spirit, and was under God the making of that sublime Apostle.

I think it is fair criticism to infer the man from the speech on all occasions. It is sometimes proverbially said, "The voice is the man." We may enlarge that common saying, and declare with Wisdom of Solomon , I believe, that the speech is the character. Following this suggestion, what kind of man was Stephen, judged by the speech which is reported in this chapter? Accused of blasphemy, he is called upon for his defence. How does he reveal himself? Surely we may in the first instance describe him as a man well versed in the Scriptures. From beginning to end his speech is a Scriptural one; quotation follows quotation like shocks of thunder. There is very little of Stephen himself until he comes to the application of his Scriptural references. Stephen was a man who had read his Bible; therein he separates himself from the most of modern people. Personally I cannot call to mind a single person who ever read the Bible and disbelieved it. It belongs peculiarly to the Bible to get hold of its readers little by little; subtly it gets round about their souls, so that when they come to the amen of the Apocalypse they find themselves spiritually, if not literally, on their knees in homage to the Spirit of the Book. We all know numerous persons who abuse the Bible who have never read it. Such opposition is natural, and when lunacy becomes philosophy it will be about the most rational course to pursue. Not that such persons have not read parts of the Bible; such parts they have perused without understanding; they misquote every passage which they cite, and they make imperfect reference to every Biblical proposition they undertake to dispute. They do not distinguish between verse and Bible,—fractions and whole numbers. Who really knows the Bible by heart? It is the boast of some of us that we can recite from end to end five plays of Shakespeare, Who can recite the Book of Psalm? You call upon your little children to recite nonsense verses, and it is well enough that now and then the little ones should do so. Which of your children can recite a chapter of the Gospel according to John? Where is the man who can repeat word for word one of Paul"s letters to the Corinthians? And would not some of us be posed if we were called upon at a moment"s notice to recite six verses of Paul"s letter to the Romans? Only the men who know the Bible should quote it. Only those who are steeped in the Scriptures, saturated through and through with Divine truth, should undertake to express any opinion about it. This is the law in all other criticism, and in common justice it ought to be the law in relation to the Book which we believe to be the inspired revelation of God. Is this not just? Are we asking for anything in the Church which would not be granted in the Polytechnic and the Lyceum? To undertake to discuss an author without knowing him, knowing him within his very spirit and purpose, is to trifle with the occasion, not to rise to its dignity and responsibility. When the Church knows its Bible well, we may trust it anywhere. When other voices arise to charm its ear, what piping voices they will be, what pitiful moans and feeble notes, after the infinite thunder and ineffable music of Moses and the Prophets, of the Psalm , and Evangelists of Christ?

Having this complete knowledge of Scripture, Stephen next shows himself to have been a man who took a broad and practical view of history. It is as difficult to find a man who has read history as to find a man who has read the Bible. History itself is a term which needs definition. A man does not know history because he can glibly repeat all the kings of England from the Conquest until now—that is not history. We justly ask our younger students to construct a party. Giving them this or that Pope as president of the Council, we say, collect around him the leading men of his day. It is interestng to watch how the table is supplied with visitors, how every chair is filled up, and how the symposium is completed with accuracy—but that is not history. You will find that history is not a letter, and is not to be reported in letters: it is a tone, an inspiration, a subtle, impalpable, all-involving something—full of voices, full of music, vibrating, throbbing with indefinable life and energy. You do not learn history from the books. From the books you learn the facts, but, in a sense which might be defended at length if requisite, having ascertained the facts, you must make history. The novelist is a better historian than the mere annalist, because history is an atmosphere. It is not only a panorama of passing incidents and anecdotes great and small; it is a spirit which only the wizard can evoke and express. Stephen lived in history. His was not a little rootless life that lay on the surface, that the sun could smite with withering fire. Stephen belonged to the past, and therefore to the present. Stephen was a member of a great and noble household, he was a link in a far-stretching chain, he was an element in a great composition. Why should we live the shallow life of men who have no history behind them? We are encompassed by a great cloud of witnesses. Behind us, the undying dead; beyond us, the immortal living. By what right do we dissociate ourselves from currents, historic and providential? We have no right to disennoble ourselves, and commit an act of dismembership which separates us from the agony, the responsibility, and the destiny of the race. In Christ we have all to be one. "The whole family in heaven and on earth" was the language of Paul; and that language ought to be ours if we would realize what it is to be sons of God, mighty in the Scriptures, and inspired by history.

Stephen was, in the third place, a man who was forced into action by his deep convictions. That is a word which has somehow slipped out of our vocabulary. Why should I say slipped out of our vocabulary? It has only done so because it has slipped out of our life. Who now has any convictions? Life is now a game, a series of expedients. It consists of a succession of experiments. It is a speculation, a bet, a fool"s wager, a leap in the dark. It is not an embodied and sacrificial conviction. In the old, old days, men used to live because they could not help it. In those days they spoke because they believed. They had no necessity to get up a speech, to prepare and arrange it in words that would offend nobody, and would be recollected by no hearer. In old Christian days men spoke as naturally and as necessarily as they breathed. Without faith we cannot have eloquence; words innumerable, but not speech of the heart, sparks from the life, flashes from the inward and living altar. It is not enough to have information. It is not enough, my young brother, preparing for the pulpit, to have an encyclopaedia of mere knowledge of letters and of books; you must have the believing and the understanding heart, the resolute will, which can only come from the Holy Ghost. If you believe Christianity, you will not need any exhortation to speak it. Speech about Christianity, where it is known and loved, is the best necessity of this life. The fire burns, the heart muses, and the tongue speaks. If timidly, still clearly, and if timidly, not with the timidity of cowardice, but with the self restraint of modesty. It was not enough for Stephen; hence in the fifty-first verse you find that Stephen was a man whose information burned into religious earnestness. Having made his quotation he turned round as preachers dare not turn round now. "Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye." It was an offensive speech. It was unpardonable then, and it would be unpardonable now. Why was it unpardonable? Because it was truth made pointed. It was doctrine personalized, and that no man will ever endure. No man goes to church to be spoken to. There is not a man amongst us would be here today if he knew that the preacher would personally rebuke his sins. The man who would listen all day with delight to an eloquent malediction upon the depravity of the whole world would leave the church if you told him he was a drunkard or a thief. We live in generalities. So preaching is now dying, or it is becoming a trick in eloquence, or it is offering a grand opportunity for saying nothing about nothing. It used to turn the world upside down. It used to be followed by blows, and stones, and fires, and racks.

Stephen shows us the model of the great speaker; we need no book of rhetoric beyond this great apology. Called upon, he addresses his auditors with courtesy as "Men, brethren, and fathers." He begins calmly, with the serenity of conscious power. He quotes from undisputed authority. Every step he takes is a step in advance. There is not in all his narration one circular movement. Having accumulated his facts and put them in the most vivid manner, he suddenly, like the out-bursting of a volcano, applies the subject, saying, "Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost. As your fathers did, so do ye." Are these the people he described at the beginning of his speech? Then he called them, "Men, brethren, and fathers." This is the law of argumentative progress. Begin courteously, and beg the confidence and respectful attention of your hearers. At the beginning, before they had heard the statement, they are, "Men, brethren, and fathers," but your speech will be their responsibility. They will not be the same at the end of the speech as they were at the beginning. So the hearers who were "Men, brethren, and fathers" in the exordium, are "Stiff-necked and uncircumcised in hearts and ears" in the peroration! A preacher may begin as courteously as he pleases, but having got out the truth, having showed what God is and has done, and wants to be done, his conclusion should be a judgment as well as a gospel. Is it possible for any man today to be a Stephen? Why not? The Bible is still here. Every one of us can read it in the tongue in which he was born, and every one of us may by the grace and gift of the Holy Ghost have a calm and sovereign confidence in the truth. That is what is wanted. Do not put your case tentatively, interrogatively, suggestively. The Bible is either a revelation or it is an imposition. It is either the truth or the aggravation of all falsehood. Range yourselves upon the one side or the other, and, having the truth of God, speak it. But how did Stephen know all about the case? Was Hebrews , as suggested, the second disciple who travelled on that eventide from Jerusalem to Emmaus? None can decide that question. There is some inferential evidence in favor of the view. For my part, I think it is most probably true. On that, however, no definite and final opinion can be pronounced by any man. But suppose that Stephen was the very disciple when the two walked together and were sad, and as they went together Jesus himself drew near, but their eyes were holden that they should not know him. Having inquired into the circumstances of the case, he said, "Oh, fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken," and, beginning at Moses and the prophets, he expounded to them in all Scripture the things concerning himself. What if Saul reported Stephen, and Stephen reported Christ, and so the great Gospel goes on from man to Prayer of Manasseh , from tongue to tongue, till the last man hears it, and his heart burns within him!


Verses 1-60

Chapter17

Prayer

(Easter Sunday.)

O Thou who hast thyself risen from the dead, raise us up also with thyself that we may die no more. We bless thee for the word of resurrection, for the gospel of restoration, and for the hope that death itself shall die and the whole creation be filled with joyous life. If we be risen with Christ we will set our affections on things above. Help us in this way to show how truly we have been buried with Christ, and how certainly we have been raised again with the Son of God. May we know the fellowship of his sufferings and the power of his resurrection. Crucified with Christ, may we also rise with him. Having known his shame, may we share his glory. Help us to overcome in the great battle of life, that we may sit down with Christ upon his throne.

Thou dost bring the years round from day to day, with all their sacred memories, with all their solemn inspirations, and with all their ennobling and instructive lessons. May ours be the seeing eyes, the hearing ears, and the hearts that do understand. Let nothing of thy providence be wasted upon us. Let the whole ministry of thy grace operate constantly in our hearts, subduing every evil passion, controlling every unholy thought, and lifting our whole life up to the sublimity of the life of Christ. We bless thee for all thy care. May we never forget thy benefits. Make our memories quick to retain every gracious impression, and whilst our memory remembers may our hope strengthen itself upon nourishment from heaven, that it may live through all the night of life, and finally enter into the joy of heaven"s own morning.

Thou hast reminded us this day of the open grave of the Son of God. He is not here. He is risen. We will not seek the living among the dead. Our hearts will fly towards the heavens where the Christ of God now pleads and prays, and we will breathe our prayer through His infinite intercession, and because of his priesthood the answer to our desire shall be worthy of thyself, thou giver of all good. Our hope is still in the Cross; our confidence is in the abandoned tomb. Because Christ died we shall live, and because he rose again from the dead death shall have no dominion over us. Having this hope in us, may we purify ourselves, and set ourselves earnestly to all the high service of thy kingdom. May we not be slothful; may we rather be reckoned among those who redeem the time, and who prevent the rising of the sun, and toil till the night has fallen. Blessed is that servant who shall be found waiting and watching and serving when his Lord cometh. Even Song of Solomon , Lord Jesus, come quickly. Delay not thy coming. The earth is wearying for thee, and the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. Come as thou wilt, and when thou wilt, only make us ready to receive thee with the eager love which should possess the hearts of men redeemed.

Comfort thy people. Speak a work of tender consolation to the heart that is filled with trouble. To some, life is a river of tears, a long pain, a dark and terrible disappointment, an agony which death alone can heal. Surely thou knowest such, and today, when the heavens are glad with a new hymn, and the earth is young with a new spring, and a new hope, thou wilt find them out in their hiding-places, and make them also glad.

Help us to hold on steadfastly during the few years that remain. May there be no break in our constancy; may our fidelity be without flaw or hesitation; may our life, redeemed with blood, spare not itself in the service of thy truth; and may our whole hope in Christ be made glad at last with the revelation and the enjoyment of his own heaven. Amen.

The Defence of Stephen

Acts 7
(continued)

THE first use we made of this speech was to inquire into the character of the speaker. I propose to recur now to this great apology, and to use it in the second place for the purpose of showing the method of Divine revelation and providence. Taking this great speech as our guide, what is the method of God"s revelation to His creatures and the method of His providence over them? Let us see whether what is related here agrees with our own observation and experience. It may be that we can Revelation -deliver Stephen"s great speech ourselves. If we cannot find the words of such eloquence, we can identify Stephen"s words as a fit expression of the sentiments which animate our own hearts. The first point to which attention is now called is the very point which came before us in our first study of the Acts of the Apostles. Notice how God has from the beginning made himself known to individuals. Stephen relates the great names of history. Some names are as mountains on the landscape. We start our journeys from them, we reckon our distances by them, we measure our progress according to their height. God does not reveal Himself to great crowds of men by some common revelation which ten thousand men seize at one and the same moment. So Stephen tells us that God appeared to Abram, to Joseph, to Moses, and to Solomon. This is the method of the Divine revelation all through and through history. It is in some senses a perplexing method, but we cannot deny it. We may reason about it, and fear it as we fear a great dark cloud, but there it is; and it is not there only in theology, it is there in science, in politics, in commerce, in literature, in family life, all through and through—the fact that God speaks to the individual, and entrusts him with some great gospel or spiritual mystery, or of scientific and commercial progress. Why make so much ado about religious election? Why talk about election as if it were a distinctively and exclusively religious word? You find this principle of the selection of individuals as evangelists, apostles, preachers, and pastors, in agriculture, in astronomy, in statesmanship, in theology. If we could conceive valid objections against any accidental application of this doctrine of personal election, we should still have to encounter it along the whole line of human history. How is it that one man in the family has all the sense? How is it that one of your boys has all the adventure? How is it that one man is a poet and another a mathematician? How is it that one boy can never be got to stay at home and his own brother can never be got to leave home? How is it that one man speaks out the word that expresses the inarticulate thought of a generation, though all other men would have been afraid to speak it, even if they had been wise enough to discover it? Stephen therefore recognizes this great principle in the Divine Revelation , that God speaks to individuals, and clothes individuals with peculiar and most solemn responsibility. In all ages God has had His prophets, apostles, evangelists, errand runners, men who have digged into the rocks and soared into the stars, and plunged through tumultuous seas to discover unknown lands. God has adopted the same method also in the kingdom of heaven. He has made some apostles, some prophets, some pastors and teachers, but the principle of individual election and coronation has been the same.

In the second place Stephen recognizes the great fact that God has constantly come along the line of surprise. Revelation has never been a commonplace. Wherever God has revealed Himself He has surprised the person on whom the revealing light has fallen. The power of surprise is one of the greatest powers at the disposal of any teacher. How to put the old as if it were the new! How to set fire to common sense so that it shall burn up into genius? How to reveal to a man his bigger and better self! How has God proceeded according to the historical narration of Stephen? To Abram he said, "Get thee out from thy country and from thy kindred." We cannot conceive the shock of surprise with which these words would be received. Travelling then was not what travelling is now. Get thee out on foot, bind on thy sandals, take thy staff, gather together thy family, and go out, not knowing whither thou goest! No man could receive a call of that kind as a mere commonplace! It must have gone thrillingly through every fibre of the man"s being. Called to leave something positive for something promised—called to give up a reality in the hope of realizing a dream! Then pass on to the case of Joseph. Stephen reminded his hearers that God gave Joseph favor and wisdom. Joseph"s life was a surprise—a greater surprise to himself than to anybody that could look upon it. How was it that he always had the key of the gate? Why did men turn to him in the night-time, and ask him the way through the valley of darkness and across the mountain of gloom? How was it that he only could tell the King the meaning of the King"s dream? Then pass on to Moses. Stephen recognizes the same principle of surprise, for he reminds his hearers that God appeared unto Moses in a flaming bush—not that He baptized him with the dew, not that he insensibly surrounded him with a new atmosphere, and breathed upon him a benediction without words. Moses was startled. The power of surprise was used by the Almighty to attract attention. So a bush flamed at the mountain base, and a voice said to the wanderer, Stop! Nothing but fire can stop some men! There are those to whom the dew is a gospel, there are others who require the very fire that lights the eternal throne to stop them and arouse their full attention. God knows what kind of book to give you. The book that would suit you might be an offence to your own mother. God knows what kind of ministry you need, so He has set in His Church a thousand ministries, of dew, of tenderness, of lute-like music, of pathos and tears and infinite persuasiveness, and thunder and lightning, and fire and alarm! It is not for us to compare the one with the other, but to see in such a distribution of power God"s purpose to touch every creature in the whole world.

In the third place, Stephen, looking over the whole range of human history, shows how God has all the time been overruling improbabilities and disasters. We should say that when God has called a man to service, the road would be wide, clear of all obstructions, filled with sunshine, lined with flowers, that the man leaning on God"s arm will be accompanied by the singing of birds and of angels. Nothing of the kind is true to fact. Stephen recognizes this in very distinct terms. He says that God spake in this wise, that Abram"s seed should sojourn in a strange land, and that they should bring them into bondage, and evil entreat them four hundred years! In the face of such an arrangement can there be an Almighty providence? Yes. And Joseph was selected, as we have seen, and yet he was sold into Egypt. "Godforsaken" we should say, looking at the outside only. And there were those, as we are reminded by Stephen, who evilly entreated our fathers, so that they cast out their young children to the end they might not live. Yet the first word was supposed to be a Divine direction! Moses himself was "cast out." Stephen does not cover these things up or make less of them, or seek to hasten away from them as from disagreeable circumstances in the order of Divine Providence. Nay, he relates them, masses them into great black groups, and says—Still the great thought went on and on! There is the majesty of the Divine Providence. Its movement is not lost in pits, and caves, and wildernesses, and rivers, and seas. The disasters are many, the sufferings are severe, the disappointments are innumerable and unendurable; still the thought goes on. Judge nothing before the time. So is it with our own life. To-day white-clothed apostles, mighty with God, the uplifting of our hands a prevailing prayer—to-morrow like the beasts that perish! Living the forbidden life, eating stolen bread, living the beggar"s life, can we be the called of God? Can God be living in us and leading us onward to some great destiny? Yes! He will yet cause death itself to die. There shall be joy in the presence of the angels of God over this little sin-blighted earth, more than over ninety and nine of the planets that never knew the tragedy of sin! Do not say you are forsaken of God because you have broken every commandment of the ten. The gift of God is not a question of good behaviour as from the outside, and as measurable by the letter; it is a question of purpose, thought, supreme intent; and GOD alone is judge!

There is nothing in this review of history as conducted by Stephen that ought to startle us as a novelty, or disturb us as an improbability. God has revealed himself to individuals in the making of the steam-engine, and the spinning jenny, and the telegraph, and the telephone, and a thousand other things. He did not reveal these inventions or possible inventions to all together, but to the singular Prayer of Manasseh , to the solitary student, to the one brooding mind. "The Holy Ghost hath overshadowed thee, therefore, that holy thing which shall be born of thee, shall be called the gift of God!" That is true of every miraculous conception, whether it be of the Son of God or of the last invention of progressive civilization. Do not, then, distrust the individual teacher.

There is a common sophism, which only requires to be stated to refute itself, to the effect that it is very strange that God should have kept back this or that truth until this or that man should have arisen. There is nothing in all history less strange. It is God"s common method. Yet there are those today who will tell you that it is very strange that God should have kept back his truth for nineteen hundred years, and should have revealed it to this latest of the teachers. It is a most fallacious sophism. We all know better. It is God"s plan to say to Abram, "Get thee out." To call individual minds to his service, and to set the flame of the new revelation on the altar of the indvidual understanding. Do not fear to be surprised. Distrust commonplace rather than novelty. Astonishment would seem to be the keyword of the Divine Book. Every page is a surprise. Every syllable flames with a new light. The Lord sends us not a new book, but new readers of the book, men whose tones are comments and whose expositions are revelations. Do not succumb to misfortune. Our fathers were evil entreated, said Stephen; for four hundred years they seemed to have no deliverer. Moses was cast out; Joseph had been thrown into prison; disaster had marked the whole history of the Church. It was still God"s Church, and you are God"s child, his loved one still, though you have been evil entreated, and have done evil, and have left undone much that you ought to have done. God does not elect and disentitle according to our paltry rules and technicalities. "The gifts and calling of God are without repentance." Bruised, ragged, sin-stained, tearful, worn, we may yet arrive at the city whose streets are gold and whose walls are jasper, for God"s grace is greater than man"s sin.

Mark how exactly this whole history of Stephen"s corresponds with Christ"s method of revelation and providence. We can trace the whole of the old history in the new, and entirely fit piece to piece, letter to letter, line to line. Did not Christ reveal himself to individuals? Did he not say to the Abram of his time, "Follow me?" Did he call ten thousand men with one loud call, or did he go closely to one waiting fisherman and say to him, "Come?" A greater call than was addressed to Abraham! Peter was summoned to a more honored and sublime destiny. "Follow me;" to weariness, to shame, to misunderstanding, to reproach, to abandonment, to death, to heaven! Did not Christ also use the power of surprise? When was he ever received into any town as an ordinary visitor? Who did not know his voice amongst a hundred others? Who did not wait for him to speak, and look, and act? Who was not impatient with all the multitude lest they should interrupt any sentence of this marvellous eloquence? Did not Christ also take his Church through improbabilities, disasters, and dark places? Has not his Church been evil entreated? Have not our Christian fathers been cast out? Have we not also our heroes, and sufferers, and martyrs, and crowned ones? I saw a great city, and one of the elders answered and said unto me, These are they that came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. And, lastly, was not Christ always master of the occasion? Without a place whereon to lay his head, he was still the LORD. Without a beast to ride upon, he still called himself the MASTER. Washing his disciples" feet, he lifted himself up from his stoop to name himself LORD and MASTER. We remember our disasters, our slaveries, our punishments, our reproach, and our sorrow; still, notwithstanding all, the Church is the Lamb"s Bride, and he will marry her at the altar of the universe!


Verses 54-60

Chapter18

Prayer

Almighty God, thou hast made thy truth savour of life unto life, or of death unto death. Truly thy word is a fire to enlighten or a fire to destroy. The stone which thou hast set forth in thy Gospel is a wondrous stone. If men fall upon it they will be broken, but if it fall upon men it will grind them to powder. May we know thy Gospel to be the word of life. To us may there be no sound of death in all the utterance of the truth. May our souls leap with joy on hearing the great Gospel of thy Word. We bless thee that we have heard thy truth, that we love its graciousness, and that we answer its music. Thy Word is truth. Thy truth gladdens the heart; thy truth overthrows the last enemy, and fills the open grave with spring"s brightest, sweetest flowers. May we this day enter into thy truth with gladness, with sympathy, with gratitude; and as we study it in the sanctuary of God may light be increased. Open our eyes until our whole life be filled with glory, and there be round about us the very splendour of heaven. Thou dost grant unto thy people occasional seasons of rapture. Sometimes thou dost permit us to look over the boundary line and to see the better land. Now and again thou dost cause us to hear singing which falls from above. We know it by its tenderness, and sweetness, and power to heal. May this day be a day of vision and of much overhearing of heavenly melodies, and may our hearts be lifted up with all the inspiration of blood-bought freedom, and may we gather under the banner which floats from the Cross itself. Wondrous Cross! So mean, so grand! Behold there we see, with our heart"s bright eyes, the dying Son of God, the sacrifice for our sins, the one Priest, the infinite Redeemer. We see him die and we see him rise again, and we know that now he prays for us as he only can pray. Receive us, thou Great Intercessor. Speak in words of thine own the griefs we cannot utter, and tell thy Father in words of thine own choosing the keenness of our penitence. We await great answers. We have brought with us the empty vessels of our heart, and mind, and strength, and every power we have, and we await the opening of the windows of heaven, and the deluge that baptizes but never destroys. Our sin is great, but thy grace is greater. It is to grace we come. It is to grace we direct our hope. It is to thyself in thy love that we now hasten like prodigals whose hearts are broken. Receive us every one. Make the old man young again, and may the white hair be but like the white spring blossom, the sign of a real summer. Make the young be sober, strong, enthusiastic. Recall into thy Church the angels we have banished, the angels of devotion, passion, enthusiasm, self-sacrifice. Let thy Church today be as thy Church of long ago, when she walked abroad in the earth, and men knew her by the fire which glowed in her eyes, and by the graciousness of her persuasive speech. Be with all good and honest men—with the missionary here, the evangelist yonder, with the sower of heaven"s own seed, and may we one day see him coming back from the field burdened only because the sheaves are so many. Amen.

The Double Effect of Truth

Acts 7:54-60

TRUTH would always seem to produce a double effect. Some time ago we read that when the people heard Peter"s speech they were pricked in their hearts, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the Apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" When the people heard Stephen deliver substantially the same message they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. This is the history of preaching. It is the history of preaching today. This wonderful divergence of feeling is developed in every congregation where the truth as it is in Jesus is proclaimed with faithfulness and power. The Gospel is either a savour of life unto life or of death unto death, that is to say, it either saves men or it kills them. No man is the same after a sermon that he was before. It is a solemn thing to be in the sanctuary at all, and no man can pass through the services of the sanctuary, with any interest either on one side or on the other, and be precisely the same at the end as he was at the beginning. In proportion as this is not so the Gospel is not preached. We must not confound the permanent with the accidental. If men can hear sermons now, and be simply amused or pleased, gratified or delighted, something has been left out in the statement made by the preacher. He has concealed the Lord"s sword, he has thrown water upon the burning fire, he has delivered but a one-sided message. "The word of the Lord is sharper than a two-edged sword; it pierceth to the dividing asunder of the joints and marrow." Where preaching has become child"s play, and hearing a dreary mind"s pious entertainment, then the great features of apostolic preaching have been lost. Have you come hungering and thirsting after righteousness, earnestly desiring to see the Father, the Song of Solomon , and the Holy Ghost, and to hold sweet and fervent communion with the Triune God? Then you cannot be disappointed. God will not allow disappointment to follow such aspirations. He would deny himself if he could, for he has plainly said, "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled." The Lord is not a host who invites more guests than his banqueting-table will accommodate. There is no shortness in the Father"s house, there is bread enough and to spare. If we bring the hunger, God will find the food. I do not say that the food will be in this portion or in that portion of the service, but it will be somewhere—in Psalm , or hymn, or inspired lesson, or exposition, or loving fervent prayer. Nay, if you cannot exactly say where it Isaiah , if it be as diffused and yet as near as the atmosphere, you will still feel that this is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven. The righteous man is always satisfied. The good and honest heart never goes away complaining. The effect of truth upon the candid mind is an effect of perfect happiness. Judge the mind you brought to the sanctuary by the result which accrues from its service. On the other hand, let a man go to the house of God with a prejudiced mind, and what is the effect of prayer, exposition, truth, upon him? You cannot get at him. He is behind a cloud; he is ensheathed within the armour of an impenetrable hostility. He has come determined not to hear what he ought to hear. His purpose is to find fault, to gratify the discontent which he brought with him; nay, it is even to prove his own prophecy, for he said that such and such would be the result, and he is bound to confirm his own word. Even Christ failed before the power of prejudice. What wonder, then, if Stephen also failed to touch the soul that had enclosed itself within the most aggravated prejudices which could confine even a Jewish heart?

This brings us face to face with the vital question, in what mind have we come to God"s house? For what purpose have we opened His book? God says himself, to the froward he will show himself froward, and to the upright he will show himself upright. God will be to us as we are to him in these sacred things. This was Jesus Christ"s method of revelation to those who heard him. When men came from curiosity, he never satisfied them. When they reared a great wall of prejudice between him and them, he never spoke over it, but turned away. He was a thousand Christs to a thousand different men. "Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God." "To this man will I look, to him that is of a broken and contrite heart, and that trembleth at My word."

The truth therefore produces one of two effects. It saves or it kills. It raises men from the dead, or it buries them in a grave sevenfold deep. Verily, it is the great power of God. Is the spring sun which is now shining upon us doing the same thing throughout the forest and the garden to everything he finds there? The other day I looked upon a tree that was full of blossom, and under its wide-spreading branches I saw a huge limb of a tree withering away. Was the sun that created the blossom causing the tree branch to wither? Yes; that was even so. To the living tree whose roots were struck into the earth the sun was giving life, but to the branch cut away, having nothing but itself to live upon, the sun was pouring down arrows of destruction. The great sun, so hospitably full of light, kind, friendly, was feeding, like a mother-nurse, the living tree, and was killing with pitiless fire the sundered branch. As is the double effect of light, so is the double effect of truth. The question therefore comes back, always, What are we in relation to the truth? What is our temper? What is our spirit? What is our supreme desire? If we can prove that we have brought the hunger, and God has not given the food, then we convict God of a false promise. Who can do so? Nay, rather let God be true, and every man a liar. But how difficult it is to find the reason in ourselves when the result is not satisfactory. How readily we blame circumstances, and persons, and situations. Who ever puts the dart into his own breast saying, I only am to blame for this unhappy effect? Consider the distance that lies between us and God. Not in majesty, but in moral sympathy. We do not like to entertain God in our hearts. The Almighty has to exercise the full powers of His omnipotence to bring us even into a hearing attitude. We do not contribute towards the miracle. We do always resist the Holy Ghost; as our fathers did so do we. If we seek the Lord we shall find him. If we come to the house of God for the truth we shall see it. If we return with disappointment we must find the reason in our own badness. Do I accuse men who do not accept Christian truth of insincerity? Most certainly not. There may be men listening to this discourse at this moment who have not accepted Christ as I have accepted him, and yet they may be perfectly sincere. No good is to be gained by bandying charges of insincerity. That some are insincere is too plain. I am not talking of all who reject the Gospel, but of men who claim to be of sincere purpose, earnestly wishing to be and to do what is right. Thus would I conciliate such persons; there shall be no controversy between me and them where they claim consistency of purpose and intent. But even where there is sincerity there may be a subtle action of what I may term intellectual vanity. Not always a conscious vanity. Our life is not measured by our consciousness alone and absolutely. We have a self within a self, and another self deeper still. We are many selves. Oftentimes the mind is its own surprise. Occasionally we feel in ourselves the beating or throbbing of an influence we cannot name. Astronomers tell us that there are pertubations here and there which signify that there is a planet yet undiscovered in the neighborhood of these occasional and singular agitations. The planet has not been seen; it has not been named; its weight and measure are unknown, but because of these perturbations, these eccentric movements, the existence of the planet is known to be a fact. Is it not so also with us? For a time we go on equably, regularly, as if we had ascertained our exact intellectual magnitude, and suddenly a new passion starts up in the soul. Fire unfelt before pierces us like a sting, and for a moment we are other than our usual selves. So there may be a conscious or an unconscious intellectual vanity. See what a man has to give up in accepting God"s truth in the Gospel! He has to give up his own respectability. Who can do it? He has to surrender his own infallibility. He has to say to his own reason many a time, "You are not sufficient for this great service. Reason, divinely beautiful, divinely inspired, divinely sanctified, great reason, strong and noble reason, there is a region you cannot enter, and there is a fellowship of whose language you do not know one word. Stand thou here whilst I go up to worship yonder." A man has to surrender a good deal before he falls into absolute sympathy with the will and mind of Christ. He has, so to say, to take a sponge and rub out all his own intellectual inferences and conclusions, and make blank places of room which he thought was already filled with inspiration. A man has to empty both hands and say, "In my hands no price I bring." He has to cast out of his heart everything of the nature of self-idolatry and self-satisfaction, and has to say in effect, if not in terms—

A man therefore may be, from his own point of view, sincere, and yet his mind may be narrowed, and perverted, and limited by an unconscious intellectual vanity. There is also a great moral difficulty. If some of you were to accept the Gospel this day you could not go to business to-morrow. Christ is not a partner in your firm. If you offered him a share for nothing he would decline it. This truth would shut up so many places. Perhaps the Stock Exchange would not be opened at all to-morrow if this Gospel of Christ took right hold of the soul and made it a loving slave. These things must be considered in estimating the double effect of the truth. A man may be sincere, and he may not be conscious of intellectual vanity, and yet he may have to consider his family claims, his commercial position, his success in life. He may say, "I will go through this thicket first, and then I will pray." He may say, "I do not deny the inspiration of the Bible or the claim of the Creator upon the soul, nor do I deny that there is more truth in the universe than I have yet received into my mind; but if I begin today to accept Christ, and to act according to his will, I could not live. My trade is a bad one; it makes people poor and miserable, and it misleads the unwary and the ignorant; it takes into its iron grip the savings of the industrious; it promises great interest and great rewards to those who trust me, and I do not see how I can at present give it up." A man under such circumstances is tempted to gnash upon every Stephen with his teeth, to call him rude, offensive, personal, and to cast him out and stone him. Do not suppose that stoning was a Jewish method of treating enemies. Stoning is the method of all countries and of all times. We stone men today. We make the Bible so poor by trying to find how much of it was local and temporary. As if we, the leaders of civilization in the nineteenth century, never stoned anybody, when we are stoning men every day! We throw at them hard words, we write about them bitter things. We endeavour to limit, if not to destroy, their best influence. By many a suggestion we seek to blunt the edge of their keenest appeals for Christ. Do not, therefore, imagine that stoning went out of fashion with the ancient Jews, and has never been heard of since.

Now comes the question, What is the effect of truth upon us? What are the sermons we like best? It is curious to listen to the notions of hearers upon that question. There are those who praise the intellectual sermon. They like intellectual truth. They are exceedingly pleased with recondite matter. They are charmed to look into depths which they are never expected themselves to sound. That is useless, and worse than useless. It is not preaching at all, if it be limited to the intellectual treatment of spiritual truth. There are those who enjoy the poetical treatment of truth. They like sweet little touches of art, phrases beautifully-cut, diamond phrases with facets throwing back all the glory of the morning sun. That is useless if alone. The merely intellectual will do you no good, the merely imaginative may but lull you to undeserved rest. What then do we want? We want the intellectual, the imaginative, the argumentative, the doctrinal. We want the preaching that will so apply itself to the lives of men as to cause them to cry out, "What shall we do?" Then we want the great Gospel balm, the evangelical redemption, the Cross of Christ, the Blood of the One Victim, the Sacrifice, all that goes to make up God"s heart-offer of pardon and peace. So would I receive into my confidence and love preachers of all kinds. No one preacher is all preachers. You may regard that statement as trite and paradoxical, but it is significantly true. You must hear all if you would hear the complete one. Do not then stop any man in his career of preaching. Though it be not mine, we are fellow servants, brother prophets, men united in a holy association, having one head, one truth, the one supplementing the other, and both consenting to the mastership and sovereignty of Christ. Do not imagine that the truth is being badly preached because it is seriously opposed. We hear of those who think it to be their duty to attend certain meetings and gatherings for the purpose of forming their own opinion as to their propriety. It is a shocking display of vanity. Who made them Judges , and by what standard do they judge? If the standard itself be wrong, the whole judgment is useless and mischievous. Who made them a judge in God"s sanctuary? The only standard should be the outcoming usefulness of the service. Show me men edified in the faith, strongly built up in all holy doctrine and thinking, increasingly obedient to every command of Christ, becoming gentler in temper, nobler in spirit; show me wicked men convicted, show me self-interested men crying out for vengeance; and I may conclude that God"s truth is being preached there with great vigour and great effect. But where there is a feeling of sleepiness, of passive acquiescence, where hearing is an endurance rather than an opposition; where there is no opposition because there is no excitement; I fear that though much may have been said about the Gospel, the Gospel itself has not been heard in the majesty of its moral dignity, and in the tenderness of its redeeming appeal.

Chapter19

Prayer

Almighty God, this is thine house, and we are safe in it. Thou wilt not suffer the very least of us to perish. There is no death in thine house, thou Father of spirits. We come to thee with great expectation, with the urgency of love and the shame and sorrow following upon personal sin. We stand by the Cross; we feel its falling blood. We need it all. Cleanse us, and we shall be made clean. Multiply thy grace towards us until our sin is lost in its fulness. We have heard of thine abounding grace. Men have spoken of it as they speak of overflowing rivers and fountains of water covering and refreshing the land. To that grace in Christ we now come. We all come. We press towards it. There is no reluctance in our spirit, but a great constraint, to which we yield with expectant and grateful delight. Liberate us from the bondage of sin. Destroy the dominion of guilt. Let the grace of Christ gather up into itself the sin of the whole world, and slay it for ever. We love thine house: behold, it is not far from heaven. Into it the angels come with sweet messages. Here there is no common tongue, no inferior theme, but here the altar burns with heavenly fire, and the whole place is radiant with light above the brightness of the sun. Wondrous light! Everywhere, yet not taking up any room; falling upon the whole universe, but nowhere as a burden. We live in thy light; without it we needs must die. Let thy light find its way into our hearts, there to nourish the roots of all good things, of all high purpose, all noble vows, and all desires after God. Give us such lifting up of soul as shall cause us to see the littleness of earth and the vanity of time, then give us such ideas of duty and sacrifice as shall bring us down to the earth again to do its meanest work as by appointment of heaven. May we not be amongst the slothful servants. May ours be a life of religious industry, so let the Master come when he may, in the morning twilight or in the twilight of evening, or in the bright noon, we shall be ready to meet him.

Thou art taking away one and another and making the earth poor. Thou dost remove the lamp of science, and silence the voice of eloquence. Thou dost show us that no man is needful to thy purposes upon the earth. Thou alone art God, we are but men. The Lord reigneth, and on his throne there is room for none other. It is enough. It is eternal Sabbath, it is infinite freedom. We are thy servants, and in thy service is liberty. Spurn us not from thy feet, for we have been bought by the Son of thy love, by the Christ of God, by the Priest of the Universe. Help us to realize the littleness of our life, and the importance of immediate action. In thy Church may there be no death. May we all live to the very last. May there be no long dying, but working up to the last moment, and then passing into thy peace. Be with those who this day mourn their dead, to whom this is a Sabbath within a Sabbath, who have a Church at home, because of the eloquent that speak not. May they hear the eloquence of that speechlessness, and pray with a wider compass and with a tenderer entreaty of love. Destroy death. Thou dost hate it. It is not in thyself. It is not in thy heaven. There no flower fades, no worm eats the bud of the summer. Death is in us and in our world, and it follows quickly the footprints of our sin. Oh, thou Victor over the grave, thou raised Christ, Man of the resurrection, Conqueror of the tomb, abolish death and give thy people to feel that dying is living, and that farewell in our world is a salutation in a better. The Lord help us; the Lord go with us down the steep places, and help us over the rugged crags and rocks that lie in the way. The Lord speak to the last black river, and let it divide that his children may pass over as on dry land. Amen.

The Defence of Stephen

Acts 7:54-60
(continued)

LET us now turn to the fourth aspect of the great speech of Stephen; let us look at this defence as refuting some practical mistakes. We form notions of things, and we say such notions stand to reason, and that being so rational they must of necessity be right and wise, and therefore indisputable. It is very strange to observe how our theories and preconceptions are upset by facts. Given such a case as is represented in the seventh chapter of the Acts , to find what the issue would be, and there would be no difficulty in outlining an issue of considerable pleasantness. As a matter of fact, the issue on the one side at least upsets some of the most mischievous sophisms which vitiate human reasoning. For example, you would say without hesitation that character will save a man from harm. You would maintain this doctrine with some vehemence, it is so plausible. The very sound of the terms is a kind of argument in its favor. With this good character there will be a good passage through society. Character will be its own introduction. Character will be its own defence. Where there is nobleness of character there will be ananimity of blessing. That would be so in certain conditions of society, but those conditions are not present in our life. There are certain conditions in which holiness is an intolerable offence. It mars the bad harmony of the occasion. It stops the flow of evil thinking and evil speaking: it is a check that must be got rid of. Stephen was a man of blameless character, wise, benign, kind to everybody, a servant of the Church, devoted to his ecclesiastical business. Yet when he was called upon to make his defence, and had made it, his character stood him in no good stead. He was treated as an offender. The meanest criminal could not have received more malignant treatment. What, then, comes of your theory that character is its own defence? A bad world cannot tolerate good men. If we were better we should be the sooner got rid of. It is our gift of compromise that keeps us going. It is our trick of playing the double game that saves us from Stephen"s fate. We are ambidexters. We are as clever with one hand as we are with the other, and it is this faculty that may be preserving us from a similar catastrophe.

You would further say that truth needs only to be heard in order to be recognized and accepted. Truth carries its own music. The fragrance of truth is wafted upon every wind, and all passers-by know the sacred odour. Only let a man stand up in his age and speak the truth with a clear voice, with a keen accent, with a burning earnestness, and men will recognize it, and will fall down loyally before it and will assist in its coronation. That would be the theory, what is the fact? Show where truth has ever been crowned so readily and harmoniously. Truth spoken to the true will always be so received but truth spoken to the false invites a conflict and challenges a contest of strength. It is not enough, therefore, that you have the truth in order to make your way in the world instantly and successfully. You have to consider the conditions in which you speak the truth. If men were really in earnest one sermon would convert the world. But men are not in earnest. All parts of a man are not equally in earnest. There is a possibility of a man being divided against himself in this matter. Part of his nature votes one way, and part another, and therefore truth must stand outside until the controversy can be in some degree adjusted.

Then you would, in the third place, frankly say that regularly constituted authorities must be right. You smile at the suggestion that one odd man can have the truth, and seventy regularly trained and constitutionally appointed men do not know the reality of the case in dispute. You would contend that it stands to reason that it must be so. Do you mean to say that the court does not understand the truth better than an anonymous blasphemer called Stephen? Anonymous so far as social influence and social standing are concerned. Consider the case. The Church must be right; the court must be infallible. We cannot allow ourselves to be bewildered and befooled by eccentric reformers and by individual assailants. All history reverses such opinions and misconceptions. The truth, it would seem, has always been with the one man. It is when a man is alone that you get him in reality and in the sum total of his being. The moment another man joins him he is less than he was before. The moment a man enters into a congregation he loses the most of himself. The sense of individual responsibility is almost lost. Your friend is not the same to you in a crowd as when he is face to face with you alone. Then you have him in the totality of his powers, affections, sympathies. So the Almighty seems to have elected the individual Prayer of Manasseh , and through him to have spoken to the crowd, the multitude, or the race. It does seem singular that the regularly constituted authority should be wrong, and that the one man should have God"s message. But he has not God"s message simply because he happens to be one. He must not inspire himself. No man is called upon to make a self-election. You are not great because you are eccentric. You are not wise because you are solitary. Do look at both sides, and indeed all sides of the case, and gather wisdom from the widest inferences. But being called, being inspired, having within you the assurance that what you know is the truth, and being prepared to establish that assurance by daily sacrifice, daily humiliation, and daily pain, go forward, and at the last the vindication will come.

Another mistake which this great defence refutes is that personal deliverance in trial is the only possible providence. Look upon the case. Stephen is one; the enemy is many. God is supposed to be looking on. What did God do for Stephen? Let us sit in judgment upon this, and suppose a possible interposition of the divine hand. Instantly we should say there is only one thing that God can do, and that is to lift his servant right up above the crowd, and place him securely beyond the reach of his infuriated opponents. What a childish solution of the difficulty! Why that is the very idea that would occur to the simplest mind that could look at the case. It is the first rush at a popular riddle. There is nothing in that answer. If that were God"s method of deliverance, his method of prevention would balance it, therefore there would never be any need of deliverance at all. Does the infinite Father wait until his children are in this position, and then simply extricate them from personal danger? If that could be his method at one end, it would be balanced by a similar method at the other; and therefore, let us repeat, his children never could be in any difficulty at all. There must be something better, something grander than this. What it is I cannot tell until I have read the revelation. But my whole nature says that simply to loose the man and send him home from among the crowd would have been a defence worthy only of a manufactured deity. What did God do for Stephen under the painful circumstances of the case? He wrought upon the inner spirit and thought of His suffering one. The miracle was wrought within. "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." Any miracle of merely personal deliverance set side by side with that miracle of grace would be an anti-climax and a pitiful commonplace. If Stephen had been delivered bodily, and had then uttered this prayer, it would have been but a mocking sentiment. It would have belonged to an effervescent nature, that being unduly urged by a sense of selfish gratitude wanted to play a magnanimous part in relation to parties who had been defrauded of their prey. But wounded, worsted, overwhelmed, without comfort, without hope, sure only of one thing, and that thing death, he said, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." It was a moral miracle; it was a spiritual conquest; and any religion that will evoke such a spirit in its believers, and lead them under such circumstances to offer such prayers, needs no vindication of its divinity. This is the eternal miracle of Christian faith. It enables men in the most distressing circumstances of life to forgive animosity. Who can perform that miracle but God? Silence might have been a sullen acquiescence in an inexorable fate. But under such circumstances, to pray, to pray for others, to pray for forgiveness, is a sublimity of faith we can never know, because we can never live the martyr"s life. But if in these high, heroic heights we cannot so discover the sublimity of Christian faith and patience, there are lower levels open to us every day, along which we may move with the grace of men who can suffer and be strong, who can be stoned and yet pray for the forgiveness of those who inflict injury upon us. If we could pray for forgiveness on account of others, and could really ourselves forgive, our Christianity would be its own unanswerable and triumphant defence.

Another mistake which is refuted by this issue Isaiah , that life is limited by that which is open to the eyes of the body. It would have been a poor case for Stephen but for the invisible. "If in this life only we have hope, we are of all men most miserable." Moses endured as seeing the invisible. The old pilgrims sandalled their feet and grasped their staves with a braver confidence day by day, because they "sought a country out of sight." Should we be the sport of accident, feathers driven by the fickle wind, if we could see heaven open? We should bear our losses as if they were increase of riches if we could see the opening heavens. Stephen said, "I see heaven opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God." We see nothing now but flat surfaces badly coloured, paint without blood, feature without fire. We have not had the baptism of suffering which gives a man the inner vision—heart-eyes, to whose penetration there is no night. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. I see—that is the cry of Christian experience. I see the meaning. I see the further shore. I see God"s purpose. These sights come upon a man in sublime tragedies, in last crises, in the hour and article of death. In great dangers God shows us great sights. What did Elisha ask the Lord to do in the case of the young man who saw the gathering hosts surrounding his prophet master? Elisha"s brief but comprehensive desire was "Lord, open his eyes that he may see." That is all we want. The enemy is near, I know it: but the friend is nearer. God can come in where there seems to be no room. Like his own light he fills all space, and yet leaves room for every mountain, planet, and blade of grass. He fills all room, and leaves all. The angels are nearer than we suppose. Things are not most against us when they so seem to be. What we want is vision, sight of the heart, inner eyes, and these are the gift of God.

"I see." Stephen"s spiritual faith made him forget that he had a body. Think of trusting his spirit to a God that had allowed his body to be killed! This is the sublimity of faith. Did Stephen say, "God has taken no care of my body, and therefore he will take no care of my spirit?" That would be rough reasoning, a chain without links, an empty nothing. Stephen showed in this crisis what the spirit can do. He showed what it is in the power of the heart to accomplish. When the spirit is inspired, when the heart is sanctified, when heaven is opened, when Christ rises to receive the guest, there is no flesh, there is no pain, there is no consciousness but in the presence of God, the absorption of the heart in the infinite love. If you feel the body it is for want of the thorough sanctification of the spirit. If the flesh is an encumbrance to you it is because the spirit has not finished its education. When the heart seizes God as an inheritance it fears not them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. The supreme concern of man ought to be not as to the fate of his body, but as to the destiny of his soul. What has happened to the Church? Nothing that was not foretold by Christ. This whole tragedy had been foreseen and fore-described. Before Christ sent out his messengers he told them exactly what would befall them. He took care to reveal all the sorrow, he spared nothing of the dark side of the picture. He said to the messengers in effect, "They will hate you, persecute you, starve you, bring you up before kings and Judges , they will not hear half that you have to say, they will spit upon you, they will tear away from you every endearment of life, they will turn your day into night, they will mingle poison in your drink, they will tear you bone from bone, they will set fire to your quivering flesh, they will thrust you down into a nameless and dishonoured grave—if they can." The messengers went out not under summer skies, blue as the morning of heaven, but they went out under a cloud of infinite thunder, and they knew that at any moment that terrific cloud might burst and they be overwhelmed in the storm. How have you gone out from Christ? To exchange opinions, to bandy notions with men to compare your last intellectual drivellings one with another? You have gone out to take a year"s rest, during which time you may revise your theological conclusions. You will not be martyrs! You will come home without a spot upon your garments that will betray hard travelling, and without a single sign of anybody having ever been fluttered for one moment by your most innocuous presence. How have you gone out from Christ? To be his ministers, to speak the truth, to set fire to error, to beard the lion in his den, to challenge the hosts of darkness? Then Christ"s word will be realized in your case, for the word of the Lord endureth for ever.

Stephen condensed a long life into a few days. But recently we have seen he was appointed to his office, and now he lies bruised, mangled, killed. Yet he had a long life. He may live again in the young man at whose feet his clothes were laid down. That young man may rave awhile, but in his raving he is only trying to quiet his conscience. It will be needful for this man Saul to be very violent for a time, in order to keep out of his ears appeals he would rather not hear. He will try to find in madness a solace for what he has done. It is a trick of our fallen nature. We do the wrong thing, and then run away in order to lose in violence the sense of what we have done. Stephen"s resurrection in certain spiritual senses may take place in Saul. We do not know who is hearing us, or who is watching us, or into whom we are transfusing our spirit. We live in one another. God maketh the wrath of man to praise him. What if by-and-bye we find Saul modelling his own speeches upon the lines of Stephen"s defence, and longing to be stoned, that he may find in this suffering some compensation for painful memories? We cannot tell. Life is a mystery, and time its explanation.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Acts 7:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/acts-7.html. 1885-95.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, August 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20
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