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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Acts 6

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-4

Chapter 13

PRIMITIVE DISSENSIONS AND APOSTOLIC PRECAUTIONS.

Acts 6:1-4

The sixth chapter of the Acts, and the election of the Seven, mark a distinct advance in the career of the early Church. This sixth chapter is like the twelfth of Genesis and the introduction of Abraham upon the stage of sacred history. We feel at once as if the narrative of Genesis had come into contact with modern times, leaving the mysterious period of darkness all behind. So is it with the Acts of the Apostles. The earliest days of the primitive Church were quite unlike all modern experience. The Church had received a great blessing and a wondrous revelation, and had been enriched with marvellous powers. But just as men act when they have experienced a surpassing joy or a tremendous calamity, -they are upset for a time, they do not realise their position, they do not take all the circumstances in at once, nor can they quite settle what their future course shall be; they must get a little way distant from the joy or the sorrow before they make their future arrangements, -so was it with the Apostles during that space of time which elapsed from the Pentecostal outpouring down to the election of the Seven. We are so accustomed to think of the Apostles as inspired men, that we forget that inspiration did not destroy their natural powers or infirmities, but rather must have acted in consonance with the laws of their constitution. The Apostles must, to a certain extent, have been upset by the extraordinary events they had witnessed. They sought and found daily guidance in the power of the Spirit; but they had made no settled plans, had not compared or arranged their ideas, had formed no scheme of doctrine or teaching, had realised nothing concerning the future of the society they were unconsciously building up under the Divine leading. God had His plans; the ascended Lord had spoken to the Apostles concerning the future of the kingdom of Heaven; but it would be making the Apostles more than men of like passions and like infirmities with ourselves to imagine that during those stirring and eventful days they had Consciously realised the whole scheme of Christian doctrine and government. That period of a few months-for it could not have been more-was a period of Divine chaos, out of which the final settlement of the Church of God began slowly to evolve itself under the direction of God the Holy Ghost. How long, it may be asked, did this period of unsettlement last? A question which resolves itself into the further one bearing directly on our present subject, -what was the date of the election and subsequent martyrdom of Stephen? The answer to this throws much light on the apostolic history and the events recorded in the first five chapters of this book.

I. St. Stephen was put to death some time in the year 37 A.D., after Pontius Plate had been recalled from the government of Palestine, and before his successor had arrived to take up the reins of power. The Jewish authorities took advantage of the interregnum in order to gratify their spite against the eminent orator who was doing so much damage to their cause. Under ordinary circumstances the Jewish Sanhedrin could not put a man to death unless they had received the fiat of the Roman authorities. Now, however, during this interval, there was no supreme authority from whom this fiat could be secured, and so they seized the opportunity and executed Stephen as a blasphemer, according to the method prescribed in the law of Moses. This happened in the year 37 A.D., about four years after the Crucifixion. We must, however, observe another point. During the latter years of his administration, Pontius Pilate had been acting in a most tyrannical manner. This fact explains a circumstance which must strike the most casual reader of the Acts. We there read that the supreme Jewish council made two attempts to restrain the Apostles; the first after the healing of the cripple at the Temple Gate, and the second when Gamaliel dissuaded them from their purposes of blood. After that they allowed the Apostles to pursue their course without any hostility. This appears to the casual reader more striking, more difficult to understand, than it was in reality. We are now obliged to think of Judaism and Christianity as opposed and mutually exclusive religions; we cannot conceive of a man being a Jew and a Christian at the same time. But was not so with the Apostles and their followers at the period of which we are writing. This may seem contradictory to what I have elsewhere stated as to the antagonistic character of the two religions. But the apparent inconsistency is easily explained. As fullblown and realised systems, Judaism and Christianity are inconsistent. The one was a bud, the other an expanded flower. The same individual bulb cannot be at the same moment a bud and a flower. But the Apostles had not as yet realised Christianity as a full-blown system, nor grasped all its consequences. There was no inconsistency when they made a conjoint profession of Judaism and Christianity. The Apostles and their followers were all scrupulous observers of the law of Moses; and no dwellers in Jerusalem were more regular attendants at the Temple worship than the persons who had as yet no distinct name, and were known only as the followers of the prophet of Nazareth. To take an illustration from modern ecclesiastical history, the Apostles and the early Jerusalem Church must have been simply known to the Jewish authorities, just as the first Methodists at Oxford were known to the Church authorities of John Wesley’s earlier days, as stricter members of the Church of England than the usual run of people were. This fact alone lessens the difficulty we might find in accounting for the statements made as to the continued activity of the Apostles, and the freedom they enjoyed even after they had been solemnly warned by the Sanhedrim. Neither the Apostles themselves nor the Jewish council recognised as yet any religious opposition in the teaching of Peter and his brethren. The Apostles themselves had not yet formulated their ideas nor perceived where their principles would ultimately lead them. No one indeed would have been more surprised than themselves had they foreseen the antagonistic position into which they would be ultimately forced; and as for the Sanhedrin, the only charge they brought against the apostles was not a religious one at all, but merely that they were challenging the conduct and decision of the authorities concerning the execution of Jesus Christ, and, as the High Priest put it, "intend to bring this Man’s blood upon us." But then history reveals to us some other facts which completely explain the difficulty and vindicate the historical accuracy of the sacred narrative. St. Stephen was put to death in the year 37. At that time he may have been acting as a deacon for two, or even three, years, during which Christian teaching and views made very rapid progress, all unopposed by the Jewish authorities, simply because their attention was concentrated on other topics of much more pressing interest. Pilate was appointed governor of Palestine in 26 A.D. He ruled it for ten years, till the end of 36 A.D., when he was recalled. God causes all things to work together for good, and overrules even state changes to the development of His purposes. Pilate’s whole period of rule was, as I have already said, marked by tyranny; but the concluding years were the worst. The members of the Sanhedrin were then specially excited by two actions which touched themselves most keenly. He seized on the accumulated proceeds of the Temple-tax of two drachmas, about eighteen pence, paid by every Jew throughout the world, which then amounted to a vast sum, expending it in making an aqueduct for the supply of Jerusalem. This action affected the pecuniary resources of the Jewish authorities. But he attacked them on a dearer point still, for he set up the images of the Emperor in the Holy City, and thus wounded them in their religious feelings, introducing the abomination of desolation into the most sacred places.

All the attention of the priests, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the people, was concentrated upon the violent deeds of Pilate. They had no time to think of the Apostles, -who, indeed, must themselves have shared in the national enthusiasm and universal hostility which Pilate’s attempts excited. A common opposition stilled for the time the internal strife and controversy about the prophet of Nazareth which had, for a little, rent asunder the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Let us now repeat the dates to which we have attained. St. Stephen was executed in 37 A.D.; his election took place probably in 34 A.D. The first seven chapters of the Acts set before us, then, all we know of the history of the earliest four years of the Church’s life and work; and yet, though very briefly told, that history tallies with what we learn from writers like Josephus and Philo.

II. Let us now return to the text of our narrative. This sixth chapter offers a very useful glimpse into the inner life of the primitive Church. It shows us what led up to the election of the Seven in these words: "Now in these days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a murmuring of the Grecian Jews against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration."

(a) The election sprang out of the multiplying, and the multiplying begat a murmuring among the disciples. There is here teaching for the Church of all time, plain and evident to every reader, a lesson which history has repeated from age to age. Increase of numbers does not always mean increase of happiness, increase of devotion, increase of true spiritual life, but has often brought increase of trouble and discontent alone. What a lesson of patient submission under present trials the wise man may here read. God has made all things double one against another; and when he bestows such notable increase as He granted to the apostolic Church, He adds thereto some counter-balancing disadvantage to keep his people low and make them humble. Undiluted joy, unmitigated success, is not to be the portion of God’s people while tabernacling here below. How often has the lesson been repeated in this experience of the past as in our own personal experience as well!

The trial of the apostolic Church was typical of the trials which awaited future ages. The Church, in the Diocletian persecution, for instance, was wasted and torn. The records of that last great trial through which the Church passed, just prior to her final triumph over Paganism, are lighted up by the fires of the most determined attempt ever made to crush the faith of the Crucified One. How often during that last persecution God’s faithful ones must have wept in secret over the ruin of the holy places and the threatened destruction of the faith! Yet the trials of the hours of adversity were as nothing compared with the dangers which beset the Church when the faith triumphed under Constantine, and the multitude of the disciples was increased and multiplied by the power of imperial patronage. The trials of the day of persecution were external, and utterly powerless to affect the spiritual life of Christ’s mystical body. The trials of a multiplying and enlarging Church were internal; they arose from unbelief, and hypocrisy, and want of Christian love, and were destructive of the life of God in the human soul. The dangers of success, the subtle temptations of prosperity, making us proud, contemptuous of others, self-conscious, dependent wholly upon man, and independent of God, are the lessons, ecclesiastical, social, and personal, pressed upon us by the opening words of this sixth chapter.

(b) These words, again, correct a popular mistake, and reproduce a warning of our Master too often forgotten. When the disciples were increasing, and the hearts of the Apostles all aglow with the success vouchsafed them, "a murmuring arose between the Grecian Jews and the Hebrews." What a glimpse we get here into the very heart and centre of early Christian social life. It is often the hardest task in historical researches to get such a glimpse as here is given. We know the outer life of societies, of families, of dynasties. We see them in their external form and symmetry: we behold them in their company dress and in their public appearances; but till we get to know and realise their common everyday life, how they ate, drank, slept, how their social intercourse was maintained, we fail to grasp the most important side of their existence. The primitive Church is often thought of and spoken of as if its social and spiritual life were wholly unlike our own; as if sin and infirmity were entirely absent, and perfect holiness there prevailed. This expression, "Now in these days there arose a murmuring," shows us that the presence of supernatural gifts, the power of working miracles and speaking with other tongues, did not raise the spiritual level of individual believers above that we find in the Church of the present day. The distribution of alms is always attended by jealousies and disputes, rendering the work one of the most unpleasant tasks which can be undertaken by any man. No matter how earnestly one strives to be fair and just, no matter how diligently one may seek to balance claim against claim and righteously to satisfy the wants of those who seek relief, still there will always be minds that will never be content, and will strive to detect injustice and wrong and favouritism, no matter how upright the intention may be. What a comfort to God’s servant striving to do his duty is the study of this sixth chapter of the Acts! Fretting and worry, weary days and sleepless nights, are often the only reward which the Christian philanthropist receives in return for his exertions. But here comes in the Acts of the Apostles to cheer. It was just the same with the Apostles, for they must have been the chief almoners or distributors of the Church’s common fund prior to the election of the Seven. The Apostles themselves did not escape the accusation of favouritism, and we may well be content to bear and suffer what the Apostles were compelled to endure. Let us only take heed that like them we suffer wrongfully, and that our conscience testify that we have striven to do everything in the sight of the Lord Jesus Christ; and then, disregarding all human murmuring and criticism, we should calmly proceed upon our work, in no way discouraged because the recipients of Christian bounty still act as even the primitive Christians did. This is one important lesson we gain from this passage.

(c) We may, again, learn another great truth from this incident, and that is, that the primitive Church was no ideal communion, but a society with failings and weaknesses and discontent, exactly like those which exist in the Church of our own times. The favourite argument with controversialists of the Church of Rome, when trying to draw proselytes from among Protestants, is, as logicians say, of a a priori type. They will enlarge upon the importance of religion and religious truth, and upon the awful consequences which will result from a mistake on such a vital question, and then they will argue that God must have constituted a living infallible guide on such an important topic, and that guide is in their opinion the Pope, as the head of the Catholic Church. The Scriptures are full of warnings-unnoticed warnings they often are, but still they are full of them-as to the untrustworthy character of all such kind of arguments. In this sixth chapter, for instance, the thoughtful and meditative student can see a specimen of these providential admonitions, and a reason for its insertion in the sacred story. Christ came to establish the Christian Church upon earth. For this purpose He lived and suffered and rose again. For this purpose He sent forth the Third Person of the Holy Trinity to lead and guide and dwell in His Church; and surely, a priori, we might as well conclude that in the Church so founded, so guided, so ruled by Peter and the rest of the Apostles, there would have been found no such thing as favouritism, or murmuring, or discontent, -sentiments which might exist in the unregenerate world, but which should find no place in the kingdom of the Spirit. But, when we turn to the sacred record of Christ’s sayings, and the inspired history of Christ’s Church, we find that all our a priori presumptions and all our logical anticipations are put to flight, for the Master warns us in the thirteenth of St. Matthew, when speaking His wondrous parables concerning the Kingdom of Heaven, that sin and imperfection will ever find their place in His Church; and then the history of the Acts of the Apostles comes in to confirm the inspired prophecy, and we see from this chapter how the primitive Church of Christ was torn and racked with mere earthly feelings and mere human infirmities, like the ordinary worldly societies which existed all around; "there arose a murmuring" even in the Church where Apostles taught, where the Holy Ghost dwelt, and where the Pentecostal gifts were displayed. The occasion of the murmuring, too, is noteworthy and prophetic. It was like the trial under which man fell and by which Christ was tempted. It was a mere material temptation. Even in the primitive Church, living as it did in the region and presence of the supernatural, expecting every day and hour the return of the ascended Lord, even there material considerations entered, and the world and the things thereof found a place, and caused divisions where they would seem to have been strictly excluded by the very conditions of the Church’s existence. The Church and the world there touched and influenced one another; and so it must be always. There is a world indeed against which the Church must ever protest-the world of impure lusts and wicked desires, the world of which Paganism was the presiding genius; but then there is a world in which the Church must exist and with which it must deal, the world which God has created and ordained, the world of human society and human wants, feelings, desires, appetites. With these the Church must ever come in contact. Monasticism and asceticism have endeavoured indeed in the past to get rid of this world. They cut men and women off from marriage and separated them from society, and reduced human wants to a minimum; and yet nature asserted itself, and the corruptions of monasticism have been a divinely-ordered protest against foolish attempts to separate between things spiritual and things secular, between the Church founded by Christ and the world created by God. The murmuring arose on this occasion because the Apostles made no such mistake, but recognised fearlessly that the Church of Christ took cognisance of such a question as the daily distribution and the temporal wants of its disciples. The apostolic Church did not disdain a mere economic question, and yet the Church of our own time has been slow enough to follow its example; but, thank God, it is learning more and more of its duty in this respect. The time has been when nothing was considered worthy of the notice of the Christian pulpit or of Church synods and Church courts save purely spiritual and doctrinal questions. The vast subjects of education, of the social life, of the amusements of the people, the methods of legislation or statesmanship, were thought outside the region of Christian activity, and were utterly neglected or else left wholly to those who made no profession at least of being guided by Christian principle. But now we have learned the important truth that the Church is a Divine leaven placed in the mass of human society to permeate it through and through; and perhaps the present danger is that the clergy should forget the apostolic warning, true for every age, that while the Church in its totality, priests and people, should take an active interest in these questions, and strive to mould the whole life of man on Christian principles, it is not at the same time "fit that the ministry should forsake the word of God and serve tables."

III. But we have not yet done with this murmuring or with the lessons it furnishes for the Church of the future. What lay at the basis of this murmuring, and of the jealousy thereby indicated? "There arose a murmuring of the Grecian Jews against the Hebrews"; a racial question developed itself, and racial, or perhaps we should rather say, in this case, social and linguistic, differences found place in the apostolic Church, and gave rise to serious quarrels even where the Spirit in fullest measure and in extraordinary power was enjoyed. There was bitter dissension between Jews and Samaritans, though they believed in the same God and reverenced the same revelation. Political circumstances in the past sufficiently explain that quarrel. There was almost, if not quite, as bitter hostility between the Grecians and the Hebrews, because they spoke different languages and practised diverse customs, and that though they worshipped in the same temple and belonged to the same nation. The origin of these differences in the Christian Church of Jerusalem goes back to a very distant period. Here comes in the use of the Apocrypha, "which the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners." If we wish to understand the course of events in the Acts we must refer to the books of the Maccabees, where is told the romantic story of the struggle of the Jews against the Greek kings of Syria, who tried to force them into conformity with the religion of Greece, which then was counted the religion of civilisation and of culture. The result was that the intensely national party became bitterly hostile to everything pertaining to Greece and its civilisation. The Jews of Palestine of that period became like the purely Celtic Irish of the Reformation epoch. The Irish identified the Reformation with England and English influence, just as the Jews identified Paganism with Greece and Syria, and Greek influence; and the result was that the Irish became the most intensely ultramontane nation, and the Palestinian Jews became the most intensely narrow and prejudiced nation of their time. The Palestinian or Hebrew Jews, speaking the Ararnaeic or Chaldee tongue, scorned Greek language and all traces of Greek civilisation, while the Jews of the Dispersion, specially those of Alexandria, strove to recommend the Jewish religion to the Gentile world, whose civilisation and culture they appreciated, and whose language they used. The opposition of the Hebrew to the Grecian Jews was very bitter, and expressed itself in language which has come down to us in the Talmudic writings. "Cursed be he who teacheth his son the learning of the Greeks," was a saying among the Hebrews; while again, we hear of Rabban Simeon, the son of Gamaliel, St. Paul’s teacher, who used to embody his hatred of the Grecians in the following story: "There were a thousand boys in my father’s school, of whom five hundred learned the law and five hundred the wisdom of the Greeks; and there is not one of the latter now alive, excepting myself here and my uncle’s son in Asia." Heaven itself was supposed by the Hebrews to have plainly declared its hostility against their Grecian opponents. Hence, naturally, arose the same divisions at Jerusalem. There were in that city nearly five hundred synagogues, a considerable proportion of which belonged to the Grecian Jews. All classes and all the synagogues, Hebrew and Grecian alike, contributed their quota to the earliest converts won by the Apostles; and these converts brought their old jealousies and oppositions with them into the Church of Christ. The Hebrew or the Grecian Jew of yesterday could not forget, today, because he had embraced a belief in Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, all his old feelings and his old hereditary quarrels, and hence sprang the Christian dissensions of which we read, prophetic of so many similar racial and social and linguistic dissensions in the Church down to the present time. The Acts of the Apostles is a kind of magic mirror for Church history. In the olden times men dreamt of a magic mirror into which one could look and see the course of their future life depicted. We can see something of the same in this inspired book. The bitter dissensions which racial and linguistic differences have made in the Church of every age are here depicted in miniature. The quarrels between East and West, between Greeks and Latins, between Latins and Teutons, between Teuton and Celt, between Roman Catholic and Protestant, between the Whites and Negroes, between European Christians and Hindoo converts; the scandalous scenes still enacted round the Holy Place at Jerusalem, where peace is kept between nominal Christians only by the intervention of Mahometan soldiers, -all turn upon the same points and embody the same principles, and may best find solution upon the lines laid down by the Apostles. And what were these lines? They laid down that there are diversities of function and of work in the Church of Christ; there is a ministry of the word, and there is a serving of tables. One class should not absorb every function; for if it does, the highest function of all, the ministry of the word and prayer, will inevitably suffer. Well, indeed, would it have been had this lesson been far more laid to heart. How many a schism and rent in the visible Church of Christ has been caused because no work, no spiritual function, was found for a newly-awakened layman anxious to do something for Him who had done so much for his soul ‘The principle here laid down in germ is a very fruitful one, suitable for every age. A new crisis, a fresh departure, an unexpected need, has arisen, and a new organisation is therefore at once devised by the Apostles; and well would it have been had their example found closer imitation. We have been too much in the habit of looking upon the Church of Christ as if it were once for all stereotyped in apostolic times, and as if there were nothing to be done in the living present save to adapt these ancient institutions to our modern needs. The Roman Catholic Church has been in many respects more true to apostolic principles than the children of the Reformation. With all her intense conservatism Rome has never hesitated to develop new organisations as new needs have arisen, and that in the boldest manner. It has often been remarked that the Church of Rome would never have lost John Wesley and the Wesleyans as the Church of England did. She would have put a brown cassock upon him, and girded him with a rope, and sent him forth as the head of a new order, to do the work to which he felt impelled and for which God had qualified him. Experience has taught us, however, that we cannot safely neglect apostolic precedent; and the warning implied in the words of the Apostles, "it is not fit that we should forsake the word of God and serve tables," has been amply fulfilled. The highest ministry of the word has been injured by the accumulation of all public work in the Church on one class alone. What minister of Jesus Christ does not feel that, even with the wider and more apostolic views now prevalent, with all the recognition of the service which the godly Christian laymen render, the old tradition is still strong, and clergymen are too absorbed in the mere serving of tables, to the neglect of their higher functions? The laity often complain of the poor, thin, meagre character of the preaching to which they are compelled to listen; but how can it be otherwise when they demand so much purely secular service, so much serving of tables from those whose great work is to teach? The Church of England, in her service for the ordination of priests, demands from the candidates whether they will devote themselves to the study of the Word of God, and such other studies as bear upon the same. I often wonder how her clergy are now to fulfil this solemn vow, when frequently they have not a night in the week at home, save perhaps Saturday evening, and when, from early morning to late at night, all their energies are swallowed up in the work of schools, and clubs, and charitable organisations, and parochial visitations, leaving little time and still less energy for the work of meditation and thought and study. The clergy are the Lord’s prophets, watchmen upon the walls of Zion. It is their great business to explain the Lord’s will, to translate the ideas of the Bible into the language of modern life, to apply the Divine principles of doctrine and discipline laid down in the Bible to the ever-varying wants of our complex modern civilisation; and how can this function be discharged unless there be time for reading and for thinking, so as to gain a true notion of what are these modern wants, and to find out how the eternal principles of the Scriptures are to be applied to them? We require a great deal more organised assistance in the work of the Church, and then, when that assistance is forthcoming, we may expect and demand that the highest ministry of all, "the ministry of the Word and prayer," shall be discharged with greater efficiency and blessing. The Apostles, in meeting this crisis, laid down a law of true development and living growth in the divine society. The Church of Christ is ever to have the power to organise herself in the face of new departures, while at the same time they proclaim the absolute necessity and the perpetual obligation of the Christian ministry in its highest aspect; for surely if even for Apostles it was needful that their whole time should be devoted to the ministry of the word of God and prayer, and the Church of that time, with all its wondrous gifts, demanded such a ministry, there ought to exist in the modern Church also an order of men wholly separated unto those solemn duties.

IV. The Apostles, having determined upon the creation of a new organisation to deal with a new need, then appeal to the people for their assistance, and call upon them to select the persons who shall be its members; but they, at the same time, reserve their own rights and authority, and, when the selection has been made, claim the power of ordination and appointment for themselves. The people nominated, while the Apostles appointed. The Apostles took the most effective plan to quiet the trouble which had arisen when they took the people into their confidence. The Church has been often described as the mother of modern freedom. The councils of old time were the models and forerunners of modern parliaments. The councils and synods of the Church set an example of open discussion and of legislative assemblies in ages when tyrannical authority had swallowed up every other vestige of liberty. The Church from the beginning, and in the Acts of the Apostles, clearly showed that its government was not to be an absolute clerical despotism, but a free Christian republic, where clergy and people were to take counsel together. It is a noteworthy thing indeed, that even in the Roman Catholic Church, where the exclusive claims of the clergy have been most pressed, the recognition of the rights of the laity in the matter of Church councils and debates has found place down to modern times. The representatives of the Emperor and other Christian princes took their seats in the Council of Trent, jointly with bishops and other ecclesiastics, and it was only at the Vatican Council of 1870 that this last lingering trace of lay rights finally disappeared. The Apostles laid down by their action the principle of Church freedom, and the mutual rights of clergy and people; but they also gave a very practical hint for the peaceful management of organisations, whether ecclesiastical, social, or political. They knew what was the right thing to do, but they did not impose their will by the mere exercise of authority; they took counsel with the people, and the result was that a speedy solution of all their difficulties was arrived at. How many a quarrel in life would be avoided, how many a rough place would be made smooth, were the apostolic example always followed. Men naturally resist a law imposed from without any appearance of consultation with them or of sanction on their part; but men willingly yield obedience to laws, even though they may dislike them, which have been passed with their assent and appeal to their reason. In Church matters especially would this rule apply, and the example of the Apostles be most profitably followed. Autocratic action on the part of the clergy in small matters has often destroyed the unity and harmony of congregations, and has planted roots of bitterness which have ruined ministerial usefulness. While steadily maintaining great fundamental principles, a little tact and thought, a wise condescension to human feeling, will often win the day, and carry measures which would otherwise be vigorously resisted.

Finally, the Apostles enunciate the principles which should guide the Church in its selection of officials, specially when they have to deal with the temporal concerns of the Society. "Look ye out therefore from among you seven men of good report." Attempts have been made to explain why the number was fixed at seven. Some have asserted that it was so determined because it was a sacred number, others because there were now seven congregations in Jerusalem, or seven thousand converts. Perhaps, however, the true reason was a more commonplace one, and that was that seven was a very convenient practical number. In case of a difference of opinion a majority can always be secured on one side or other, and all blocks avoided. The number seven was long maintained in connection with the order of deacons, in imitation of the apostolic institution. A council at Neo-Caesarea, in the year 314, ordained that the number of seven deacons should never be exceeded in any city, while in the Church of Rome the same limitation prevailed from the second century down to the twelfth, so that the Roman Cardinals, who were the parochial clergy of Rome, numbered among them merely seven deacons down to that late period. The seven chosen by the primitive Church were to be men of good report because they were to be public functionaries, whose decisions were to allay commotions and murmurings; and therefore they must be men of weight, in whom the public had confidence. But, further, they must be men "full of the Spirit and of wisdom." Piety was not the only qualification; they must be wise, prudent, sound in judgment as well. Piety is no security for wisdom, just as in turn wisdom is no security for piety; but both must be combined in apostolic officials. The Apostles thereby teach the Church of all time what are the qualifications necessary for effective administrators and officials. Even in charitable distributions and financial organisations the Church should hold up the high standard set before her by the Apostles, and seek out men actuated by religious principle, guided by religious truth, swayed by Divine love, the outcome of that Spirit whose grace and blessing are necessary for the due discharge of any office, whether of service, of charity, or of worship, in the Church of Jesus Christ; but possessed withal of strong common sense and vigorous intellectual power, for love and zeal separated from these often fall into mistakes which make religion and its adherents a laughing-stock to the world and a hindrance to the cause of truth and holiness. God can indeed make the weak things of this world to confound the high and mighty, but it would be presumptuous in us to think that we can do the same, and therefore we must seek out the instruments best suited in every way to do God’s work and accomplish His purposes.


Verses 1-6

37

Chapter 11

HONESTY AND PRETENCE IN THE PRIMITIVE CHURCH

Acts 4:36-37; Acts 6:1-6

THE exact period in the history of the apostolic Church at which we have now arrived is a most interesting one. We stand at the very first origin of a new development in Christian life and thought. Let us observe it well, for the whole future of the Church is bound up with it. Christianity was at the beginning simply a sect, of Judaism. It is plain that the Apostles at first thus regarded it. They observed Jewish rites, they joined in the temple and synagogue worship, they restricted salvation and God’s favour to the children of Abraham, and merely added belief in Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Messiah to the common Jewish faith. The spirit of God was indeed speaking through the Apostles, leading them, as it led St. Peter on the day of Pentecost, to speak words with a meaning and scope far beyond their thoughts. They, like the prophets of old, knew not as yet what manner, of things the Spirit which was in them did signify.

"As little children lisp, and tell of Heaven, So thoughts beyond their thought to those high bards were given."

Their speech had a grander and wider application than they themselves dreamt of; but the power of prejudice and education was far too great even for the Apostles, and so, though the nobility and profuseness of God’s mercy were revealed and the plenteousness of His grace was announced by St. Peter himself, yet the glory of the Divine gift was still unrecognised. Jerusalem, the Temple, the Old Covenant, Israel after the flesh, -these things as yet bounded and limited the horizon of Christ’s Church. How were the new ideas to gain an entrance? How was the Church to rise to a sense of the magnificence and universality of its mission? Joseph, who by the Apostles was surnamed Barnabas, emerges upon the scene and supplies the answer, proving himself in very deed a son of consolation, because he became the occasion of consoling the masses of mankind with that truest comfort, the peace of God which passes all understanding. Let us see how this came about.

I. The Christian leaders belonged originally to the extreme party in Judaism. The Jews were at this time divided into two sections. There was the Hebrew party on the one hand; extreme Nationalists as we might call them. They hated everything foreign. They clung to the soil of Palestine, to its language and to its customs. They trained up their children in an abhorrence of Greek civilisation, and could see nothing good in it. This party was very unprogressive, very narrow-minded, and, therefore, unfit to recognise the developments of God’s purposes. The Galileans were very prominent among them. They lived in a provincial district, remote from the influences of the great centres of thought and life, and missed, therefore, the revelations of God’s mind which He is evermore making through the course of His providential dealings with mankind. The Galileans furnished the majority of the earliest Christian leaders, and they were not fitted from their narowness to grasp the Divine intentions with respect to Christianity and its mission. What a lesson for every age do we behold in this intellectual and spiritual defect of the Galileans. They were conscientious, earnest, devout, spiritually-minded men. Christ loved them as such, and devoted Himself to their instruction. But they were one-sided and illiberal. Their very provincialism, which had sheltered them from Sadduceism and unbelief, had filled them with blind prejudices, and as the result had rendered them unable to read aright the mind of God and the development of His purposes. Man, alas! is a very weak creature, and human nature is very narrow. Piety is no guarantee for wisdom and breadth, and strong faith in God’s dealings in the past often hinders men from realising and obeying the Divine guidance and the evolution of His purposes amid the changed circumstances of the present. The Galilean leaders were best fitted to testify with unfaltering zeal to the miracles and resurrection of Christ. They were not best fitted to lead the Church into the possession of the Gentiles.

There was another party among the Jews whom God had trained by the guidance of His providence for this purpose. The Acts of the Apostles casts a strong and comforting light back upon the history of the Lord’s dealings with the Jews ever since the days of the Babylonish Captivity. We can see in the story told in the Acts the reason why God permitted the overthrow of Jerusalem by the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, and the apparent defeat for the time of His own designs towards the chosen people. The story of the dispersion is a standing example how wonderfully God evolves good out of seeming ill, making all things work together for the good of His Church. The dispersion prepared a section of the Jews, by travel, by foreign civilisation, by culture, and by that breadth of mind and sympathy which is thereby produced, to be mediators between the Hebrew party with all their narrowness and the masses of the Gentile world whom the strict Jews would fain have shut out from the hope of God’s mercy. This liberal and progressive party is called in the Acts of the Apostles the Hellenists. They were looked at askance by the more old-fashioned Hebrews. They were Jews, children of Abraham indeed, of the genuine stock of Israel. As such they had a true standing-ground within the Jewish fold, and as true Jews could exercise their influence from within much more effectually than if they stood without; for it has been well remarked by a shrewd observer, that every party, religious or political, is much more powerfully affected by movements springing from within than by attacks directed from without. An explosive operates with much more destructive force when acting from within or underneath a fortification than when brought into play from outside. Such was the Hellenistic party. No one could deny their true Jewish character, but they had been liberalised by their heaven-sent contact with foreigners and foreign lands; and hence it is that we discern in the Hellenistic party, and specially in Joseph, who by the Apostles was surnamed Barnabas, the beginnings of the glorious ingathering of the Gentiles, the very first rift in the thick dark cloud of prejudice which as yet kept back even the Apostles themselves from realising the great object of the gospel dispensation.

The Hellenists, with their wealth, their culture, their new ideas, their sense and value of Greek thought, were the bridge by which the spiritual life, hitherto wrapped in Jewish swaddling clothes, was to pass over to the masses of the Gentile world. The community of goods led Joseph Barnabas to dedicate his substance to the same noble cause of unselfishness. That dedication led to disputes between Hellenists and Hebrews, and these disputes occasioned the election of the seven deacons, who, in part, at least, belonged to the more liberal section. Among these deacons we find St. Stephen, whose teaching and martyrdom were directly followed by St. Paul and his conversion, and St. Paul was the Apostle of the Gentiles and the vindicator of Christian freedom and Christian liberty. St. Barnabas and his act of self-denial and self-sacrifice in surrendering his landed estate are thus immediately connected with St. Paul by direct historic contact, even if they had not been subsequently associated as joint Apostles and messengers of the Churches in their first missionary journeys; while again the mistaken policy of communism is overruled to the world’s abiding benefit and blessing. How wonderful, indeed, are the Lord’s doings towards the children of men!

II. We have thus suggested one of the main lines of thought which run through the first half of this book of the Acts. Let us now look a little more particularly at this Joseph Barnabas who was the occasion of this great, this new departure. We learn then, upon consulting the sacred text, that Joseph was a Levite, a man of Cyprus by race; he belonged, that is, to the class among the Jews whose interests were bound up with the maintenance of the existing order of things; and yet he had become a convert to the belief proclaimed by the Apostles. At the same time, while we give full credit to this Levite for his action, we must not imagine that either priests or Levites or Jews at that period fully realised all the consequences of their decisions. We find that men at every age take steps blindly, without thoroughly realising all the results which logically and necessarily flow forth from them. Men in religious, political, social matters are blind and cannot see afar off. It is only step by step that the purposes of God dawn upon them, and Joseph Barnabas, the Levite of Cyprus, was no exception to this universal rule. He was not only a Levite, but a native of Cyprus, for Cyprus was then a great stronghold and resort of the Jewish race. It continued to be a great centre of Jewish influence for long afterwards. In the next century, for instance, a great Jewish rebellion burst forth wherever the Jews were strong enough. They rose in Palestine against the power of the Emperor Hadrian, and under their leader Barcochba vindicated the ancient reputation of the nation for desperate and daring courage; while, in sympathy with their brethren on the mainland, the Jews in Cyprus seized their arms and massacred a vast multitude of the Greek and Roman settlers, numbering, it is said, two hundred and forty thousand persons. The concourse of Jews to Cyprus in the time of the Apostles is easily explained. Augustus Caesar was a great friend and patron of Herod the Great, and he leased the great copper mines of the island to that Herod, exacting a royalty upon their produce as we learn from Josephus, the well-known Jewish historian (‘Antiqq.,’ 16. 4:5). It was only to be expected, then, that when a Jewish monarch was leasehoulder and manager of the great mining industry of the island, his Jewish subjects should flock thither, and it was very natural that amongst the crowds who sought Cyprus there should be found a minister of the Jewish faith whose tribal descent as a Levite reminded them of Palestine, and of the City of God, and of the Temple of Jehovah, and of its solemn, stately worship. This residence of Barnabas in Cyprus accounts for his landed property, which he had the right to sell just as he liked. A Levite in Palestine could not, according to the law of Moses when strictly construed, possess any private landed estate save in a Levitical city. Meyer, a German commentator of great reputation, has indeed suggested that Jeremiah 32:7, where Jeremiah is asked to redeem his cousin’s field in the suburbs of Anathoth, proves that a member of the tribe of Levi could possess landed estate in Palestine. He therefore concludes that the old explanation that the landed property of Barnabas was in Cyprus, not in Palestine, could not stand. But the simple fact is that even the cleverest German expositors are not familiar with the text of their Bibles, for had Meyer been thus familiar he would have remembered that Anathoth was a city belonging to the priests and the tribe of Levi, and that the circumstance of Jeremiah the priest possessing a right to landed property in Anathoth was no proof whatsoever that he could hold landed property anywhere else, and, above all, affords no ground for the conclusion that he could dispose of it in the absolute style which Barnabas here displayed. We conclude then that the action of Barnabas on this occasion dealt with his landed estate in Cyprus, the country where he was born, where he was well-known, and where his memory is even still cherished on account of the work he there performed in conjunction with St. Paul.

III. Let us see what else we can glean concerning this person thus prominent in the early Church, first for his generosity, and then for his missionary character and success. It is indeed one of the most fruitful and interesting lines upon which Bible study can be pursued thus to trace the scattered features of the less known and less prominent characters of Scripture, and see wherein God’s grace specially abounded in them.

The very personal appearance of Barnabas can be recalled by the careful student of this book. Though it lies a little out of our way, we shall note the circumstance, as it will help us to form a more lively image of Barnabas, the Son of Consolation. The two Apostles, Paul and Barnabas, were on their first missionary tour when they came to the city of Lystra in Lycaonia. There the multitude, astonished at the miracle wrought upon the cripple by St. Paul, attempted to pay. divine honours to the two Christian missionaries. "They called Barnabas Jupiter, and Paul Mercurius, because he was the chief speaker." It must have been their physical characteristics as well as the mode of address used by the Apostles which led to these names; and from the extant records of antiquity we know that Jupiter was always depicted as a man with a fine commanding presence, while Mercury, the god of eloquent speech, was a more insignificant figure. Jupiter, therefore, struck the Lycaonian people as the fittest name for the taller and more imposing-looking Apostle, while St. Paul, who was in bodily presence contemptible, was designated by the name of the active and restless Mercury. His character again shines through every recorded action of St. Barnabas. He was a thoroughly sympathetic man, and, like all such characters, he was ever swept along by the prevailing wave of thought or action, without allowing that supreme place to the judgment and the natural powers which they should always hold if the feelings and sympathies are not to land us in positions involving dire ruin and loss. He was carried away by the enthusiasm for Christian communism which now seized upon the Jerusalem Church. He was influenced by the Judaising movement at Antioch, so that "even Barnabas was carried away with the Petrine dissimulation." His sympathies got the better of his judgment in the matter of St. Mark’s conduct in abandoning the ministry to which St. Paul had called him. His heart was stronger, in fact, than his head. And yet this very weakness qualified him to be the Son of Consolation. A question has, indeed, been raised, whether he should be called the Son of Consolation or the Son of Exhortation, but practically, there is no difference. His consolations were administered through his exhortations. His speech and his advice were of a consoling, healing, comforting kind. There are still such men to be found in the Church. Just as all other apostolic graces and characteristics are still manifested, -the eloquence of a Paul, the courage of a Peter, the speculative flights of a John, - so the sympathetic power of Barnabas is granted to some. And a very precious gift it is. There are some good men whose very tone of voice and bodily attitudes-their heads thrown back and their arms akimbo and their aggressive walk-at once provoke opposition. They are pugnacious Christians, ever on the lookout for some topic of blame and controversy. There are others, like this Barnabas, whose voices bring consolation, and whose words, even when not the clearest or the most practical, speak counsels of peace, and come to us thick-laden with the blessed dews of charity. Their advice, is not, indeed, always the wisest. Their ardent cry is always, Peace, peace. Such a man on the political stage was the celebrated Lucius Carey, Lord Falkland, in the days of the great civil war, who, though he adhered to the royalist cause, seemed, as the historian tells us, to have utterly lost all heart once that active hostilities commenced. Men of this type appear in times of great religious strife. Erasmus, for instance, at the time of the Reformation, possessed a good deal of this spirit which is devoted to compromise, and ever inclined to place the interests of peace and charity above those of truth; and principle, just as Barnabas would have done at Antioch were it not for the protest of his stronger and sterner friend St. Paul. And yet such men, with their sympathetic hearts and speech, have their own great use, infusing a healing, consoling tone into seasons of strife, when others are only too apt to lose sight of the sweet image of Christian love in pursuit of what they consider the supreme interests of religious or political truth. Such a man was Barnabas all his life, and such we behold him on his first visible entrance upon the stage of Church history, when his sympathies and his generosity led him to consecrate his independent property in Cyprus to his brethren’s support, and to bring the money and lay it down at the Apostles’ feet.

IV. Now for the contrast drawn for us by the inspired pen of St. Luke, a contrast we find oft repeating itself in Church history. Here we have the generous, sympathetic Son of Consolation on the one side, and here, too, we have a warning and a type for all time that the tares must evermore be mingled with the wheat, the false with the true, the hypocrites with real servants of God, even until the final separation. The accidental division of the book into chapters hinders casual readers from noticing that the action of Ananias and his wife is set by the writer over against that of Barnabas. Barnabas sold his estate and brought the price, the whole price, and surrendered it as an offering to the Church. The spirit of enthusiastic giving was abroad, and had seized upon the community; and Barnabas sympathised with it. Ananias and Sapphira were carried away too, but their spirits were meaner. They desired to have all the credit the Church would give them for acting as generously as Barnabas did, and yet, while getting credit for unselfish and unstinting liberality, to be able to enjoy in private somewhat of that which they were believed to have surrendered. And their calculations were terribly disappointed. They tried to play the hypocrite’s part on most dangerous ground just when the Divine Spirit of purity, sincerity, and truth had been abundantly poured out, and when the spirit of deceit and hypocrisy was therefore at once recognised. It was with the Apostles and their spiritual natures then as it is with ourselves and our physical natures still. When we are living in a crowded city we notice not strange scents and ill odours and foul gases: our senses are dulled, and our perceptive powers are rendered obtuse because the whole atmosphere is a tainted one. But when we dwell in the pure. air of the country, and the glorious breezes from mountain and moor blow round us fresh and free, then we detect at once, and at a long distance, the slightest ill-odour or the least trace of offensive gas. The outpoured presence of the Spirit, and the abounding love which was produced thereby, quickened the perception of St. Peter. He recognised the hypocrisy, characterised the sin of Ananias as a lie against the Holy Ghost; and then the Spirit and Giver of life, seconding and supporting the words of St. Peter, withdrew His support from the human frame of the sinner, and Ananias ceased to live, just as Sapphira, his partner in deceit, ceased to live a few hours later. The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira have been ofttimes the subject of much criticism and objection, on the part of persons who do not realise the awfulness of their position, the full depths of their hypocrisy, and the importance of the lesson taught by their punishment to the Church of every age. Their position was a specially awful one, for they were brought into closest contact, as no Christian can now be brought, with the powers of the world to come. The Spirit was vouchsafed during those earliest days of the Church in a manner and style which we hear nothing of during the later years of the Apostles. He proved His presence by physical manifestations, as when the whole house was shaken where the Apostles were assembled; a phenomenon of which we read nothing in the latter portion of the Acts. By the gift of tongues, by miracles of healing, by abounding spiritual life and discernment, by physical manifestations, the most careless and thoughtless in the Christian community were compelled to feel that a supernatural power was present in their midst and specially resting upon the Apostles. Yet it was into such an atmosphere that the spirit of hypocrisy and of covetousness, the two vices to which Christianity was specially opposed, and which the great Master had specially denounced, obtruded itself as Satan gained entrance into Eden, to defile with their foul presence the chosen dwelling-place of the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost vindicated His authority therefore, because, as it must be observed, it was not St. Peter sentenced Ananias to death. No one may have been more surprised than St. Peter himself at the consequences which followed his stern rebuke. St. Peter merely declared his sin, "Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God"; and then it is expressly said, "Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost." It was a stern action indeed; but then all God’s judgments have a stern side. Ananias and Sapphira were cut off in their sins, but men are every day summoned into eternity in precisely the same state and the same way, and the only difference is that in the case of Ananias we see the sin which provoked the punishment and then we see the punishment immediately following. Men object to this narrative simply because they have a one-sided conception of Christianity such as this period of the world’s history delights in. They would make it a religion of pure, unmitigated love; they would eliminate from it every trace of sternness, and would thus leave it a poor, weak, flabby thing, without backbone or earnestness, and utterly unlike all other dispensations of the Lord, which have their stern sides and aspects as well as their loving.

It may well have been that this incident was inserted in this typical church history to correct a false idea which would otherwise have grown up. The Jews were quite well accustomed to regard the Almighty as a God of judgment as well as a God of love. Perhaps we might even say that they viewed Him more in the former light than in the latter. Our Lord was obliged, in fact, to direct some of His most searching discourses to rebuke this very tendency. The Galileans, whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices, the men upon whom the tower of Siloam fell-neither party were sinners above all that were at Jerusalem, or were punished as such. Such was His teaching in opposition to the popular idea. The Apostles were once quite ready to ascribe the infirmity of the man born blind to the direct judgment of the Almighty upon himself or upon his parents. But men are apt to rush from one extreme to another. The Apostles and their followers were now realising their freedom in the Spirit; and some were inclined to run into licentiousness as the result of that same freedom. They were realising, too, their relationship to God as one of pure filial love, and they were in great danger of forgetting that God was a God of justice and judgment as well, till this stern dispensation recalled them to a sense of the fact that eternal love is also eternal purity and eternal truth, and will by no means clear the guilty. This is a lesson very necessary for every age of the Church. Men are always inclined, and never, perhaps, so much as at the present time, to look away from the severe side of religion, or even to deny that religion can have a severe side at all. This tendency in religious matters is indeed simply an exhibition of the spirit of the age. It is a time of great material prosperity and comfort, when pain is regarded as the greatest possible evil, softness, ease, and enjoyment the greatest possible good. Men shrink from the infliction of pain even upon the greatest criminals; and this spirit infects their religion, which they would fain turn into a mere matter of weakly sentiment. Against such a notion the judicial action of the Holy Ghost in this. case raises an eternal protest, warning the Church against one-sided and partial views of truth, and bidding her never to lower her standard at the world’s call. Men may ignore the fact that God has His severe aspect and His stern dispensations in nature, but yet the fact remains. And as it is in nature so is it in grace: God is. merciful and loving to the penitent, but towards the hypocritical and covetous He is a stern judge, as the punishment of Ananias and Sapphira proved.

V. This seems one of the great permanent lessons for the Church of every age which this passage embodies, but it is not the only one. There are many others, and they most important. An eminent modern commentator and expositor has drawn out at great length, and with many modern applications and illustrations, four great lessons which may be derived from this transaction. We shall just note them, giving a brief analysis of each.

(1) There is such a thing as acting as well as telling a falsehood. Ananias did not say that the money he brought was the whole price of his land; he simply allowed men to draw this conclusion for themselves, suggesting merely by his conduct that he was doing exactly the same as Barnabas. There was no science of casuistry in the apostolic Church, teaching how near to the borders of a lie a man may go without actually being guilty of lying. The lie of Ananias was a spiritual act, a piece of deception attempted in the abyss of the human soul, and perpetrated, or attempted rather, upon the Holy Spirit. How often men lie after the same example. They do not speak a lie, but they act a lie, throwing dust into the eyes of others as to their real motives and objects, as Ananias did here. He sold his estate, brought the money to the Apostles, and would fain have got the character of a man of extraordinary liberality and unselfishness, just like others who truly sacrificed their all, while he enjoyed in private the portion which he had kept back. Ananias wished to make the best of both worlds, and failed in his object. He sought to obtain a great reputation among men, but had no regard to the secret eye and judgment of the Almighty. Alas! how many of our actions, how much of our piety and of our almsgiving are tainted by precisely the same vice. Our good. works are done with a view to man’s approbation, and not as in the sight of the Eternal God.

(2) What an illustration we find in this passage of the saying of the Apostle, "The love of money is the root of all evil; which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves with many sorrows!" The other scriptures are full of warnings against this vice of covetousness; and so this typical history does not leave the Church without an illustration of its power and danger. Surely if at a time when the supernatural forces of the unseen life were specially manifested, this vice intruded into the special sphere of their influence, the Church of every age should be on its perpetual guard against this spirit of covetousness which the Bible characterises as idolatry.

(3) What a responsibility is involved in being brought near to God as members of His Son’s Church below! There were hypocrites in abundance at Jerusalem at that time, but they had not been blessed as Ananias had been, and therefore were not punished as he. There is a reality in our connection with Christ which must tell upon us, if not for good, then inevitably for evil. Christ is either the savour of life unto life or else the savour of death unto death unto all brought into contact with Him. In a far more awful sense than for the Jews the words of the prophet Ezekiel are true, "That which cometh into your mind shall not be at all, that ye say, We will be as the heathen, as the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone"; [Ezekiel 20:32] or as the poet of the "Christian Year" has well put it in his hymn for the eighteenth Sunday after Trinity:-

"Fain would our lawless hearts escape, And with the heathen be, To worship every monstrous shape In fancied darkness free."

"Vain thought, that shall not be at all, Refuse we or obey; Our ears have heardth’ Almighty’s call, We cannot be as they."

"We cannot hope the heathen’s doom To whom God’s Son is given, Whose eyes have seen beyond the tomb, Who have the key of Heaven."

(4) Lastly, let us learn from this history how to cast out the fear of one another by the greater and more awful fear of God. The fear of man is a good thing in a degree. We should have respect to the opinion of our fellows, and strive to win it in a legitimate way. But Ananias and his consort desired the good opinion of the Christian community regardless of the approval or the watchful eye of the Supreme Judge, who interposed to teach His people by an awful example that in the new dispensation of Love, as well as in the old dispensation of Law, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and that they and they alone have a good understanding who order their lives according to that fear, whether in their secret thoughts or in their public actions.


Verse 5-6

Chapter 14

ST. STEPHEN AND THE EVOLUTION OF THE CHRISTIAN MINISTRY.

Acts 6:5-6; Acts 6:8-11

THE names of the seven chosen on the suggestion of the Apostles raises very naturally the question, To what office were they appointed? Did the seven elected on this occasion represent the first beginning of that office of deacon which is regarded as the third rank in the Church, bishops being first, and presbyters or priests second. It is agreed by all parties that the title of deacon is not given to them in the sixth chapter of the Acts, and yet such an unprejudiced and fair authority as Bishop Lightfoot, in his Essay on the Christian Ministry, maintains that the persons selected and ordained at this crisis constituted the first origin of the diaconate as it is now known. The Seven are not called, either here or wherever else they are mentioned in the Acts, by the name of deacons, though the word διακονϵῖν (serve), which cannot be exactly rendered into English, as the noun deacon has no equivalent verb answering to it, is applied to the duties assigned to them. But all the best critics are agreed that the ordination of the Seven was the occasion of the rise of a new order and a new office in the Church, whose work dealt more especially with the secular side of the ministerial function. The great German critic, Meyer, commenting on this sixth chapter, puts it well, though not so clearly as we should like. "From the first regular overseership of alms, the mode of appointment to which could not but regulate analogically the practice of the Church, was gradually developed the diaconate, which subsequently underwent further elaboration." This statement is somewhat obscure, and thoroughly after the manner of a German critic; let us develop it a little, and see what the process was whereby the distributers of alms to the widows of the earliest Church organisation became the officials of whom St. Laurence of Rome in the third, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria in the fourth century were such eminent examples.

I. The institutions of the synagogue must necessarily have exercised a great influence over the minds of the Apostles and of their first converts. One fact alone vividly illustrates this idea. Christians soon began to call their places of assembly by the name of churches or the Lord’s houses, but the old habit was at first too strong, and so the churches or congregations of the earliest Christians were called synagogues. This is evident even from the text of the Revised Version of the New Testament, for if we turn to the second chapter of the Epistle of James we read there, "If there come into your synagogue a man with a gold ring,"-showing that in St. James’s day a Christian Church was called a synagogue. This custom received some few years ago a remarkable confirmation from the records of travel and discovery. The Marcionites were a curious Christian sect or heresy which sprang up in the second century. They were intensely opposed to Judaism, and yet so strong was this tradition that even they seemed to have retained, down to the fourth century, the name of synagogue as the title of their churches, for some celebrated French explorers have discovered in Syria an inscription, still in existence, carved over the door of a Marcionite church, dated A.D. 318, and that inscription runs thus: "The Synagogue of the Marcionites."

Now seeing that the force of tradition was so great as to compel even an anti-Jewish sect to call their meeting-houses by a Jewish name, we may be sure that the tradition of the institutions, forms, and arrangements of the synagogue must have been infinitely more potent with the earliest Christian believers, constraining them to adopt similar institutions in their own assemblies. Human nature is always the same, and the example of our own colonists sheds light upon the course of Church development in Palestine. When the Pilgrim Fathers went to America, they reproduced the English constitution and the English laws in that country with so much precision and accuracy that the expositions of law produced by American lawyers are studied with great respect in England. The American colonists reproduced the institutions and laws with which they were familiar, modifying them merely to suit their own peculiar circumstances; and so has it been all the world over wherever the Anglo-Saxon race has settled-they have done exactly the same thing. They have established states and governments modelled after the type of England, and not of France or Russia. So was it with the early Christians. Human nature compelled them to fall back upon their first experience, and to develop under a Christian shape the institutions of the synagogue under which they had been trained. And now, when we read the Acts, we see that here lies the most natural explanation of the course of history, and specially of this sixth chapter. In the synagogue, as Dr. John Lightfoot expounds it in his "Horae Hebraicae," [Matthew 4:23] the government was in the hands of the ruler and the council of elders or presbyters, while under them there were three almoners or deacons, who served in the same capacity as the Seven in superintending the charitable work of the congregation. The great work for which the Seven were appointed was distribution, and we shall see that this was ever maintained, and is still maintained, as the leading idea of the diaconate, though other and more directly spiritual work was at once added to their functions by St. Stephen and St. Philip. Now, just as our colonists brought English institutions and ideas with them wherever they settled, so was it with the missionaries who went forth from the Mother Church of Jerusalem. They carried the ideas and institutions with them which had been there sanctioned by the Apostles, and thus we find deacons mentioned in conjunction with bishops at Philippi, deacons joined with bishops in St. Paul’s Epistle to Timothy, and the existence of the institution at Corinth, and its special work as a charitable organisation, implied in the description given of Phoebe to the Roman Christians in the sixteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. St. Paul’s directions to Timothy in the third chapter of his first Epistle deal both with deacons and deaconesses, and in each case lay down qualifications specially suited for distributers of charitable relief, whose duty called upon them to visit from house to house, but say nothing about any higher work. They are indeed "to hold the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience; " they must be sound in the faith like the Seven themselves; but the special qualifications demanded by St. Paul are those needed in almoners: "The deacons must be grave, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre."

So far as to the testimony of Scripture. When we pass beyond the bounds of the canonical books, and come to the apostolic fathers, the evidence is equally clear. They testify to the universality of the institution, and bear witness to its work of distribution. Clement of Rome was a contemporary of the Apostles. He wrote an Epistle to the Corinthians, which is the earliest witness to the existence of St. Paul’s Epistles to the same Church. In Clement’s epistle we find express mention of deacons, of their apostolic appointment, and of the universal diffusion of the office. In the forty-third chapter of his epistle Clement writes to the Corinthians concerning the Apostles:-"Thus preaching through countries and cities they appointed bishops and deacons for those who should afterwards believe," clearly implying that deacons then existed at Rome, though we have no express notice of them in the epistle written by St. Paul to the Roman Church.

There is a rule, however, very needful for historical investigations. Silence is no conclusive argument against an alleged fact, unless there be silence where, if the alleged fact had existed, it must have been mentioned. Josephus, for instance, is silent about Christ and Christianity. Yet he wrote when its existence was a matter of common notoriety. But there was no necessity for him to notice it. It was an awkward fact too, and so he is silent. St. Paul does not mention deacons as existing at Rome, though he does mention them at Philippi. But Clement’s words expressly assert that universally, in all cities and countries, this order was established wherever the Apostles taught; and so we find it even from Pagan records. Pliny’s letter to Trajan, written about A.D. 110, some fifteen or twenty years later than Clement, testifies that the order of deacons existed in far distant Bithynia, among the Christians of the Dispersion to whom St. Peter directed his Epistle. Pliny’s words are, "I therefore thought it the more necessary, in order to ascertain what truth there was in this account, to examine two slave-girls who were called deaconesses (ministrae), and even to use torture." (See the article Trajanus in the "Dict. Christ. Biog.," 4:1040.) It is exactly the same with St. Ignatius in the second chapter of his Epistle to the Trallians, which dates about the same period. The spiritual side of the office had now come more prominently into notice, as the occasion of their first appointment had fallen into disuse; but still Ignatius recognises the origin of the diaconate when he writes that "the deacons are not deacons of meats and drinks, but servants of the Church of God" (Lightfoot, "Apost. Fathers," vol 2. sec. 1. p. 156). While again Polycarp, in his Epistle to the Philippians, ch. 5., recognises the same qualities as necessary to deacons which St. Paul requires and enumerates in his Epistle to Timothy. Justin Martyr, a little later, twenty years or so, tells us that the deacons distributed the elements consecrated in the Holy Communion to the believers that were absent (Justin, "First Apol.," ch. 67.). This is most important testimony, connecting the order of deacons as then flourishing at Rome and their work with the Seven constituted by the Apostle. The daily distribution of the Apostles’ time was closely connected with the celebration of the Eucharist, which indeed in its meal or food, common to all the faithful, and its charitable collections and oblations, of which Justin Martyr speaks, retained still some trace of the daily distribution which prevailed in the early church, and occasioned the choice of the Seven. The deacons in Justin Martyr’s day distributed the spiritual food to the faithful, just as in earlier times they distributed all the sustenance which the faithful required, whether in their spiritual or their temporal aspect. It is evident from this recital of the places where the deacons are incidentally referred to, that their origin was never forgotten, and that distribution of charitable relief and help was always retained as the essence, the central idea and notion, of the office of deacon, though at the same time other and larger functions were by degrees entrusted to them, as the Church grew and increased, and ecclesiastical life and wants became more involved and complex. History bears out this view. Irenaeus was the disciple of Polycarp, and must have known many apostolic men, men who had companied with the Apostles and knew the whole detail of primitive Church government; and Irenaeus, speaking of Nicolas the proselyte of Antioch, describes him as "one of the seven who were first ordained to the diaconate by the Apostles." Now Irenaeus is one of our great witnesses for the authenticity of the Four Gospels; surely then he must be an equally good witness to the origin of the order of deacons and the existence of the Acts of the Apostles which is implied in this reference. It is scarcely necessary to go farther in Church history, but the lower one goes the more clearly we shall see that the original notion of the diaconate is never forgotten. In the third century we find that there were still only seven deacons in Rome, though there were forty-six presbyters, a number which was retained down to the twelfth century in the seven cardinal deacons of that Church. The touching story of the martyrdom of St. Laurence, Archdeacon of Rome in the middle of the third century, shows that he was roasted over a slow fire in order to extort the vast sums he was supposed to have in charge for the purpose of relieving the sick and the poor connected with the Roman Church; proving that the original conception of the office as an executive and charitable organisation was then vigorously retained; just as it is still set forth in the ordinal of the Church of England, where, after reciting how the deacon’s office is to help the priest in several subordinate positions, it goes on to say, "Furthermore, it is his office, where provision is so made, to search for the sick, poor, and impotent people of the parish, to intimate their estates, names, and places where they dwell, unto the curate, that by his exhortation they may be relieved by the alms of the parishioners."

The only objection of any value which has been raised to this line of argument is based on a mere assumption. It has been said that the Seven were appointed for a special emergency, and to serve a temporary purpose connected with the community of goods which existed in the early Church of Jerusalem, and therefore when this arrangement ceased the office itself ceased also. But this argument is based on the assumption that the Christian idea of a community of goods wholly passed away, so that services of an order like the Seven were no longer required. This is a pure assumption. The community of goods as practised at Jerusalem was found by experience to be a mistake. The shape of the idea was changed, but the idea itself survived. The old form of community of goods passed away. The Christians retained their rights of private property, but were taught to regard this private property as in a sense common, and liable for all the wants and needs of their poor and suffering brethren. A charitable order, or at least an order charged with the care of the poor, and their relief, must inevitably have sprung up among the Jewish Christians. The relief of the poor was a necessary part of the duty of a synagogue. The Jewish domestic law enforced a poor-rate, and collected it through the organisation of each synagogue, by means of three deacons attached to each. Selden, in his great work on "The Laws of the Hebrews," bk. 2. chap. 6. ("Works," 1:632), tells us that if "any Jew did not pay his fair contribution he was punished with stripes." As soon as the Jewish Christians began to organise themselves, the idea of almoners, with their daily and weekly distributions, after the synagogue model, was necessarily developed. We have an unexceptionable piece of evidence upon this point. The satirist Lucian lived at the close of the second century. He was a bitter scoffer, who jeered at every form of religion, and at Christianity above all. He wrote an account of a certain Syrian named Peregrinus Proteus, who was an impostor trading upon the religious principles of various philosophical sects, and specially on those of the Christians. Lucian tells us that the Christians were the easiest persons to be deceived, because of their opinions. Lucian’s words are interesting as showing what a second-century pagan, a clever literary man too, thought of Christianity, viewing it from the outside. For this reason we shall quote a little more than the words which immediately bear upon the subject. "It is incredible with what alacrity these people (the Christians) support and defend the public cause. They spare nothing, in fact, to promote it. These poor men have persuaded themselves that they shall be immortal, and live for ever. They despise death therefore, and offer up their lives a voluntary sacrifice, being taught by their lawgiver that they are all brethren, and that, quitting our Grecian gods, they must worship their own sophist, who was crucified, and live in obedience to His laws. In compliance with them, they look with contempt upon all worldly treasures, and hold everything in common-a maxim which they have adopted without any reason or foundation. If any cunning impostor, therefore, who knows how to manage matters, come amongst them, he soon grows rich by imposing on the credulity of those weak and foolish men." We can see here that the great outer world of paganism considered a community of goods as still prevailing among the Christians. Their boundless liberality, their intense devotion to the cause of their suffering brethren, proved this, and therefore, because a practical community of goods existed amongst them, an order of men was required to superintend the distribution of their liberality in the second century just as tru1y as the work of the Seven was needed in the Church of Jerusalem.

II. We thus can see that the office of deacon, as now constituted, had its origin in apostolic times, and is built upon a scriptural foundation; but here we are bound to point out a great difference between the ancient and the modern office. An office or organisation may spring up in one age, and after existing for several centuries may develop into a shape utterly unlike its original. Yet it may be very hard to point out any special time when a vital change was made. All we can say is that the first occupants of the office would never recognise their modern successors. Take the papacy as an instance. There has been at Rome a regular historical succession of bishops since the first century. The succession is known and undoubted. Yet could one of the bishops of Rome of the first three centuries, -above all, could a first-century bishop of Rome like St. Clement-by any possibility recognise himself or his office in the present Pope Leo XIII? Yet one would find it difficult to fix the exact moment when any vital change was made, or any unwonted claims put forward on behalf of the Roman See. So was it in the case of deacons and their office. Their modern successors may trace themselves back to the seven elected in the primitive Church at Jerusalem, and yet the office is now a very different one in practice from what it was then. Perhaps the greatest difference, and the only one we can notice, is this. The diaconate is now merely the primary and lowest rank of the Christian ministry; a kind of apprenticeship, in fact, wherein the youthful minister serves for a year, and is then promoted as a matter of course; whereas in Jerusalem or Rome of old it was a lifelong office, in the exercise of which maturity of judgment, of piety, and of character were required for the due discharge of its manifold duties. It is now a temporary office, it was of old a permanent one. And the apostolical custom was much the best. It avoided many difficulties and solved many a problem. At present the office of the diaconate is practically in abeyance, and yet the functions which the ancient deacons discharged are not in abeyance, but are placed upon the shoulders of the other orders in the Church, already overwhelmed with manifold responsibilities, and neglecting, while serving tables, the higher aspects of their work. The Christian ministry in its purely spiritual, and specially in its prophetical or preaching aspect, is sorely suffering because an apostolic office is practically set aside. In the ancient Church it was never so. The deacons were chosen to a life-office. It was then but very seldom that a man chosen to the diaconate abandoned it for a higher function. It did not indeed demand the wholesale devotion of time and attention which the higher offices of the ministry did. Men even till a late period, both in East and West, combined secular pursuits with it. Thus let us take one celebrated instance. The ancient Church of England and Ireland alike was Celtic in origin and constitution. It was intensely conservative, therefore, of ancient customs and usages derived from the times of persecution, when Christianity was first taught among the Gauls and Celts of the extreme West. The well-known story of the introduction of Christianity into England under St. Augustine and the opposition he met with prove this. As it was in other matters, so was it with the ancient Celtic deacons; the old customs remained; they held office for life, and joined with it at the same time other and ordinary occupations. St. Patrick, for instance, the apostle of Ireland, tells us that his father Calpurnius was a deacon, and yet he was a farmer and a decurion, or alderman, as we should say, of a Roman town near Dumbarton on the river Clyde. This happened about the year 400 of the Christian era.

Here indeed, as in so many other cases, the Church of Christ needs to go back to scriptural example and to apostolic rule. We require for the work of the Church deacons like the primitive men who devoted their whole lives to this one object; made it the subject of their thoughts, their cares, their studies, how they might instruct the ignorant, relieve the poor and widows, comfort the prisoners, sustain the martyrs in their last supreme hour; and who, thus using well the office of a deacon, found in it a sufficient scope for their efforts and a sufficient reward for their exertions, because they thereby purchased for themselves a good degree and great boldness in the faith of Jesus Christ. The Church now requires the help of living agencies in vast numbers, and they are not forthcoming. Let her avail herself of apostolic resources, and fall back upon primitive precedents. The real diaconate should be revived. Godly and spiritual men should be called upon to do their duty. Deacons should be ordained without being called to give up their ordinary employments. Work which now unduly accumulates upon overburdened shoulders should be assigned to others suitably to their talents, and thus a twofold blessing would be secured. Christian life would flourish more abundantly, and many a rent and schism, the simple result of energies repressed and unemployed, would be destroyed in their very commencement.

We have devoted much of our space to this subject, because it is one of great interest, as touching the origin and authority of the Christian ministry, and also because it has been a subject much debated; but we must hurry on to other points connected with the first appointment of the diaconate. The people selected the person to be ordained to this work. It is probable that they made their choice out of the different classes composing the Christian community. The mode of election of the Seven, and the qualifications laid down by the Apostles, were derived from the synagogue. Thus we read in Kitto’s "Cyclopaedia," art. "Synagogue:"-"The greatest care was taken by the rulers of the synagogue and of the congregation that those elected almoners should be men of modesty, wisdom, justice, and have the confidence of the people. They had to be elected by the harmonious voice of the people." Seven deacons altogether were chosen. Three were probably Hebrew Christians, three Grecian Christians or Hellenists, and one a representative of the proselytes, Nicolas of Antioch. This would have been but natural. The Apostles wanted to get rid of murmurs, jealousies, and divisions in the Church, and in no way could this have been more effectually done than by the principle of representation. Had the Seven been all selected from one class alone, divisions and jealousies would have prevailed as of old. The Apostles themselves had proved this. They were all Hebrew Christians. Their position and authority might have secured them from blame. Yet murmurings had arisen against them as distributers, and so they devised another plan, which, to have been successful, as it doubtless was, must have proceeded on a different principle. Then when the seven wise and prudent men were chosen from the various classes, the Apostles asserted their supreme position: "When the Apostles had prayed, they laid their hands on them." And as the result peace descended like a shower upon the Church, and spiritual prosperity followed upon internal peace and union.

III. "They laid their hands on them." This statement sets forth the external expression and the visible channel of the ordination to their office which the Apostles conferred. This action of the imposition of hands was of frequent use among the ancient Jews. The Apostles, as well acquainted with Old Testament history, must have remembered that it was employed in the case of designation of Joshua as the leader of Israel in the place of Numbers 27:18-23; {compare Deuteronomy 34:9} that it was used even in the synagogue in the appointment of Jewish rabbis, and had been sanctioned by the practice of Jesus Christ. The Apostles naturally therefore, used this symbol upon the solemn appointment of the first deacons, and the same ceremonial was repeated upon similar occasions. Paul and Barnabas were set apart at Antioch for their missionary work by the imposition of hands. St. Paul uses the strongest language about the ceremony. He does not hesitate to attribute to it a certain sacramental force and efficacy, bidding Timothy "stir up the gift of God which is in thee through the laying on of my hands"; [2 Timothy 1:6] while again, when we come down a few years later, we find the "laying on of hands" reckoned as one of the fundamental elements of religion, in the sixth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. But it was not merely in the solemn appointment of officials in the Church that this ceremony found place. It was employed by the Apostles as the rite which filled up and perfected the baptism which had been administered by others. Philip baptised the Samaritans. Peter and John laid their hands tin them and they received the Holy Ghost. The ceremony of imposition of hands was so essential and distinguishing a point that Simon Magus selects it as the one he desires above all others effectually to purchase, so that the outward symbol might be followed by the inward grace. "Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay my hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost," was the prayer of the arch-heretic to St. Peter; while again in the nineteenth chapter we find St. Paul using the same visible ceremony in the case of St. John’s disciples, who were first baptised with Christian baptism, and then endued by St. Paul with the gift of the Spirit. Imposition of hands in the case of ordination is a natural symbol, indicative of the transmission of function and authority. It fitly indicates and notifies to the whole Church the persons who have been ordained, and therefore has ever been regarded as a necessary part of ordination. St. Jerome, who was a very keen critic as well as a close student of the Divine oracles, fixes upon this public and solemn designation as a sufficient explanation and justification of the imposition of hands in ordinations, test any one should be ordained without his knowledge by a silent and solitary prayer. Hence every branch of the Church of Christ has rigorously insisted upon imposition of hands after the apostolic example, in the case of ordinations to official positions, with one or two apparent and very doubtful exceptions, which merely prove the binding character of the rule.

IV. The list of names again is full of profit and of warning. How completely different from human histories, for instance, is this Divine record of the first doings of the Church! How thoroughly shaped after the Divine model is this catalogue of the earliest officials chosen by the Apostles! Men have speculated whether they were Hebrews or Grecians, whether they belonged to the seventy sent forth by Christ or to the hundred and twenty who first gathered into the upper room at Jerusalem. All such speculations are curious and interesting, but they have nothing to do with man’s salvation; therefore they are sternly put on one side and out of sight. How we should long to know the subsequent history of these men, and to trace their careers! yet Holy Writ tells us but very little about them, nothing certain, in fact, save what we learn about St. Stephen and St. Philip. God bestowed Holy Scripture upon men, not to satisfy or minister to their curiosity, but to nourish their souls and edify their spirits. And surely no lesson is more needed than the one implied in the silences of this passage; there is in truth none more necessary for our publicity-seeking and popularity-hunting age than this, that God’s holiest servants have laboured in obscurity, have done their best work in secret, and have looked to God alone and to His judgment for their reward. I have said indeed that concerning the list of names recorded as those of the first deacons, we know nothing but of St. Stephen and St. Philip, whose careers will again come under our notice in later chapters. There is, however, a current tradition that Nicolas, the proselyte of Antioch, did distinguish himself, but in an unhappy direction. It is asserted by Irenaeus in his work "Against Heresies" (Book 1. chap. 26), that Nicolas was the founder of the sect of Nicolaitans denounced in the Revelation of St. John. [Revelation 2:6; Revelation 2:16] Critics are, however, much divided upon this point. Some clear Nicolas of this charge, while others uphold it. It is indeed impossible to determine this matter. But supposing that Nicolas of Antioch was the author of this heresy, which was of an antinomian character, like so many of the earliest heresies that distracted the primitive Church, this circumstance would teach us an instructive lesson. Just as there was a Judas Iscariot among the Apostles, and a Demas among St. Paul’s most intimate disciples, so was there a Nicolas among the first deacons. No place is so holy, no office so sacred, no privileges so great, but that the tempter can make his way there. He can lurk unseen and unsuspected amid the pillars of the temple, and he can find us out, as he did the Son of God Himself, amid the wilds of the desert. Official position and exalted privileges confer no immunity from temptation. Nay, rather, they bring with them additional temptations over and above those which assail the ordinary Christian, and should therefore lead every one called to any similar work to diligent watchfulness, to earnest prayer, lest while teaching others they themselves fall into condemnation. There is, however, another lesson which a different version of the history of Nicolas would teach. Clement of Alexandria, in his celebrated work called the "Stromata" (Book 2. chap. 20, and Book 3. chap. 4), tells us that Nicolas was a most strictly virtuous man. He was extreme even in his asceticism, and, like many ascetics, used language that might be easily abused to the purposes of wickedness. He was wont to say that the "flesh must be abused," meaning that it must be chastised and restrained. One-sided and extreme teaching is easily perverted by the wicked nature of man, and men of impure lives, listening to the language of Nicolas, interpreted his words as an excuse for abusing the flesh by plunging into the depths of immorality and crime. Men placed in official positions and called to the exercise of the clerical office should weigh their words. Extreme statements are bad unless duly and strictly guarded. The intention of the speaker may be good, and a man’s own life thoroughly consistent, but unbalanced teaching will fall upon ground where the life and intention of the teacher will have no power or influence, and bring forth evil fruit, as in the case of the Nicolaitans.

V. The central figure of this whole section of our narrative is St. Stephen. He is introduced into the narrative with the same startling suddenness which we may note in the case of Barnabas and of Elijah. He runs a rapid course, flings all, Apostles and every one else, into the shade for a time, and then disappears, exemplifying those fruitful sayings of inspiration, so true in our every-day experience of God’s dealings, "The first shall be last, and the last first." "Paul may plant, Apollos may water, but it is God alone that giveth the increase." Stephen, full of grace and power, did great signs and wonders among the people. These two words, grace and power, are closely connected. Their union in this passage is significant. It was not the intellect, or the eloquence, or the activity of St. Stephen which made him powerful among the people and crowned his labours with such success. It was his abundant grace. Eloquence and learning, active days and laborious nights, are good and necessary things. God uses them and demands them from His people. He chooses to use human agencies, and therefore demands that the human agents shall give Him of their best, and not offer to Him the blind and lame of their flock. But these things will be utterly useless and ineffective apart from Christ and the power of His grace. The Church of Christ is a supernatural society, and the work of Christ is a supernatural work, and in that work the grace of Christ is absolutely necessary to make any human gift or exertion effectual in carrying out His purposes of love and mercy. This is an age of organisations and committees and boards; and some good men are so wrapped up in them that they have no time to think of anything else. To this busy age these words, "Stephen, full of grace and power," convey a useful warning, teaching that the best organisations and schemes will be useless to produce Stephen’s power unless Stephen’s grace be found there as well. This passage is a prophecy and picture of the future in another aspect. The fulness of grace in Stephen wrought powerfully amongst the people. It was the savour of life unto life in some. But in others it was a savour of death unto death, and provoked them to evil deeds, for they suborned men "which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God."

We get in these words, in this false accusation, even through its falsehood, a glimpse into the character of St. Stephen’s preaching. A false accusation need not be necessarily altogether false. Perhaps rather we should say that, in order to be effective for mischief, a twisted, distorted charge, with some basis of truth, some semblance of justification about it, is the best for the accuser’s purpose, and the most difficult for the defendant to answer. St. Stephen was ripening for heaven more rapidly than the Apostles themselves. He was learning more rapidly than St. Peter himself the true spiritual meaning of the Christian scheme. He had taught in no ambiguous language the universal character of the Gospel and the catholic mission of the Church. He had expanded and applied the magnificent declarations of the Master Himself, "The hour cometh, when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall ye worship the Father"; "The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipper’s shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth." And then the narrow-minded Grecian Jews, anxious to vindicate their orthodoxy, which was doubted by their Hebrew brethren, distorted Stephen’s wider and grander conceptions into a charge of blasphemy against the holy man. What a picture of the future of Christ’s best and truest witnesses, especially when insisting on some nobler and wider or forgotten aspect of truth. Their teaching has been ever suspected, distorted, accused as blasphemous; and so it must ever be. And yet God’s servants, when they find themselves thus misrepresented, can realise to themselves that they are but following the course which the saints of every age have run, that they are being made like unto the image of Stephen the first martyr, and of Jesus Christ Himself, the King of Saints, who suffered under a similar accusation. The mere popularity-hunter will, of course, carefully eschew such charges and suspicions. His object is human praise and reward, and he shapes his teaching so as to carefully avoid giving offence. But then the mere popularity-hunter seeks his reward here below, and very often gets it. Stephen, however, and every true teacher looks not for reward in this world. Stephen taught truth as God revealed it to his soul. He suffered the consequence, and then received his crown from that Almighty Judge before whose awful tribunal he ever consciously stood. Misrepresentation must ever be expected by God’s true servants. It must be discounted, borne with patiently, taken as a trial of faith and patience, and then, in God’s own time, it will turn out to our greater blessing. One consideration alone ought to prove sufficient to console us under such circumstances. If our teaching was not proving injurious to his cause, the Evil One would not trouble himself about it. Let us only take good heed lest our own self-love and vanity should lead us to annoy ourselves too much about the slander or the evil report, remembering that misrepresentation and slander is ever the portion of God’s servants. Jesus Christ and Stephen were thus treated. St. Paul’s teaching was accused of tending to licentiousness; the earliest Christians were accused of vilest practices; St. Athanasius in his struggles for truth was accused of rebellion and murder; the Reformers were accused of lawlessness; John Wesley of Romanism and disloyalty; William Wilberforce of being an enemy to British trade; John Howard of being an encourager of crime and immorality. Let us be content then if our lot be with the saints, and our portion be that of the servants of the Most High.

Again, we learn from this place how religious zeal can overthrow religion and work out the purposes of evil. Religious zeal, mere party spirit taking the place of real religion, led the Hellenists to suborn men and falsely accuse St. Stephen. They made an idol of the system of Judaism, and forgot its spirit. They worshipped their idol so much that they were ready to break the commandments of God for its sake. The dangers of party spirit in matters of religion, and the evil deeds which have been done in apparent zeal for God and real zeal for the devil, these are still the lessons, true for the future ages of the Church, which we read in this passage. And how true to life has even our own age found this prophetic picture. Men cannot indeed now suborn men and bring fatal charges against them in matters of religion, and yet they can fall into exactly the same crime. Party religion and party zeal lead men into precisely the same courses as they did in the days of St. Stephen. Partisanship causes them to violate all the laws of honour, of honesty, of Christian charity, imagining that they are thereby advancing the cause of Christ, forgetting that they are acting on the rule which the Scriptures repudiate, - they are doing evil that good may come, - and striving to further Christ’s kingdom by a violation of His fundamental precepts. Oh for more of the spirit of true charity, which will lead men to support their own views in a spirit of Christian love! Oh for more of that true grasp of Christianity which will teach that a breach of Christian charity is far worse than any amount of speculative error! The error, as we think it, may be in reality God’s own truth; but the violation of God’s law implied in such conduct as Stephen’s adversaries displayed, and as party zeal now often prompts, can never be otherwise than contrary to the mind and law of Jesus Christ.


Verses 8-11

Chapter 14

ST. STEPHEN AND THE EVOLUTION OF THE CHRISTIAN MINISTRY.

Acts 6:5-6; Acts 6:8-11

THE names of the seven chosen on the suggestion of the Apostles raises very naturally the question, To what office were they appointed? Did the seven elected on this occasion represent the first beginning of that office of deacon which is regarded as the third rank in the Church, bishops being first, and presbyters or priests second. It is agreed by all parties that the title of deacon is not given to them in the sixth chapter of the Acts, and yet such an unprejudiced and fair authority as Bishop Lightfoot, in his Essay on the Christian Ministry, maintains that the persons selected and ordained at this crisis constituted the first origin of the diaconate as it is now known. The Seven are not called, either here or wherever else they are mentioned in the Acts, by the name of deacons, though the word διακονϵῖν (serve), which cannot be exactly rendered into English, as the noun deacon has no equivalent verb answering to it, is applied to the duties assigned to them. But all the best critics are agreed that the ordination of the Seven was the occasion of the rise of a new order and a new office in the Church, whose work dealt more especially with the secular side of the ministerial function. The great German critic, Meyer, commenting on this sixth chapter, puts it well, though not so clearly as we should like. "From the first regular overseership of alms, the mode of appointment to which could not but regulate analogically the practice of the Church, was gradually developed the diaconate, which subsequently underwent further elaboration." This statement is somewhat obscure, and thoroughly after the manner of a German critic; let us develop it a little, and see what the process was whereby the distributers of alms to the widows of the earliest Church organisation became the officials of whom St. Laurence of Rome in the third, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria in the fourth century were such eminent examples.

I. The institutions of the synagogue must necessarily have exercised a great influence over the minds of the Apostles and of their first converts. One fact alone vividly illustrates this idea. Christians soon began to call their places of assembly by the name of churches or the Lord’s houses, but the old habit was at first too strong, and so the churches or congregations of the earliest Christians were called synagogues. This is evident even from the text of the Revised Version of the New Testament, for if we turn to the second chapter of the Epistle of James we read there, "If there come into your synagogue a man with a gold ring,"-showing that in St. James’s day a Christian Church was called a synagogue. This custom received some few years ago a remarkable confirmation from the records of travel and discovery. The Marcionites were a curious Christian sect or heresy which sprang up in the second century. They were intensely opposed to Judaism, and yet so strong was this tradition that even they seemed to have retained, down to the fourth century, the name of synagogue as the title of their churches, for some celebrated French explorers have discovered in Syria an inscription, still in existence, carved over the door of a Marcionite church, dated A.D. 318, and that inscription runs thus: "The Synagogue of the Marcionites."

Now seeing that the force of tradition was so great as to compel even an anti-Jewish sect to call their meeting-houses by a Jewish name, we may be sure that the tradition of the institutions, forms, and arrangements of the synagogue must have been infinitely more potent with the earliest Christian believers, constraining them to adopt similar institutions in their own assemblies. Human nature is always the same, and the example of our own colonists sheds light upon the course of Church development in Palestine. When the Pilgrim Fathers went to America, they reproduced the English constitution and the English laws in that country with so much precision and accuracy that the expositions of law produced by American lawyers are studied with great respect in England. The American colonists reproduced the institutions and laws with which they were familiar, modifying them merely to suit their own peculiar circumstances; and so has it been all the world over wherever the Anglo-Saxon race has settled-they have done exactly the same thing. They have established states and governments modelled after the type of England, and not of France or Russia. So was it with the early Christians. Human nature compelled them to fall back upon their first experience, and to develop under a Christian shape the institutions of the synagogue under which they had been trained. And now, when we read the Acts, we see that here lies the most natural explanation of the course of history, and specially of this sixth chapter. In the synagogue, as Dr. John Lightfoot expounds it in his "Horae Hebraicae," [Matthew 4:23] the government was in the hands of the ruler and the council of elders or presbyters, while under them there were three almoners or deacons, who served in the same capacity as the Seven in superintending the charitable work of the congregation. The great work for which the Seven were appointed was distribution, and we shall see that this was ever maintained, and is still maintained, as the leading idea of the diaconate, though other and more directly spiritual work was at once added to their functions by St. Stephen and St. Philip. Now, just as our colonists brought English institutions and ideas with them wherever they settled, so was it with the missionaries who went forth from the Mother Church of Jerusalem. They carried the ideas and institutions with them which had been there sanctioned by the Apostles, and thus we find deacons mentioned in conjunction with bishops at Philippi, deacons joined with bishops in St. Paul’s Epistle to Timothy, and the existence of the institution at Corinth, and its special work as a charitable organisation, implied in the description given of Phoebe to the Roman Christians in the sixteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. St. Paul’s directions to Timothy in the third chapter of his first Epistle deal both with deacons and deaconesses, and in each case lay down qualifications specially suited for distributers of charitable relief, whose duty called upon them to visit from house to house, but say nothing about any higher work. They are indeed "to hold the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience; " they must be sound in the faith like the Seven themselves; but the special qualifications demanded by St. Paul are those needed in almoners: "The deacons must be grave, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre."

So far as to the testimony of Scripture. When we pass beyond the bounds of the canonical books, and come to the apostolic fathers, the evidence is equally clear. They testify to the universality of the institution, and bear witness to its work of distribution. Clement of Rome was a contemporary of the Apostles. He wrote an Epistle to the Corinthians, which is the earliest witness to the existence of St. Paul’s Epistles to the same Church. In Clement’s epistle we find express mention of deacons, of their apostolic appointment, and of the universal diffusion of the office. In the forty-third chapter of his epistle Clement writes to the Corinthians concerning the Apostles:-"Thus preaching through countries and cities they appointed bishops and deacons for those who should afterwards believe," clearly implying that deacons then existed at Rome, though we have no express notice of them in the epistle written by St. Paul to the Roman Church.

There is a rule, however, very needful for historical investigations. Silence is no conclusive argument against an alleged fact, unless there be silence where, if the alleged fact had existed, it must have been mentioned. Josephus, for instance, is silent about Christ and Christianity. Yet he wrote when its existence was a matter of common notoriety. But there was no necessity for him to notice it. It was an awkward fact too, and so he is silent. St. Paul does not mention deacons as existing at Rome, though he does mention them at Philippi. But Clement’s words expressly assert that universally, in all cities and countries, this order was established wherever the Apostles taught; and so we find it even from Pagan records. Pliny’s letter to Trajan, written about A.D. 110, some fifteen or twenty years later than Clement, testifies that the order of deacons existed in far distant Bithynia, among the Christians of the Dispersion to whom St. Peter directed his Epistle. Pliny’s words are, "I therefore thought it the more necessary, in order to ascertain what truth there was in this account, to examine two slave-girls who were called deaconesses (ministrae), and even to use torture." (See the article Trajanus in the "Dict. Christ. Biog.," 4:1040.) It is exactly the same with St. Ignatius in the second chapter of his Epistle to the Trallians, which dates about the same period. The spiritual side of the office had now come more prominently into notice, as the occasion of their first appointment had fallen into disuse; but still Ignatius recognises the origin of the diaconate when he writes that "the deacons are not deacons of meats and drinks, but servants of the Church of God" (Lightfoot, "Apost. Fathers," vol 2. sec. 1. p. 156). While again Polycarp, in his Epistle to the Philippians, ch. 5., recognises the same qualities as necessary to deacons which St. Paul requires and enumerates in his Epistle to Timothy. Justin Martyr, a little later, twenty years or so, tells us that the deacons distributed the elements consecrated in the Holy Communion to the believers that were absent (Justin, "First Apol.," ch. 67.). This is most important testimony, connecting the order of deacons as then flourishing at Rome and their work with the Seven constituted by the Apostle. The daily distribution of the Apostles’ time was closely connected with the celebration of the Eucharist, which indeed in its meal or food, common to all the faithful, and its charitable collections and oblations, of which Justin Martyr speaks, retained still some trace of the daily distribution which prevailed in the early church, and occasioned the choice of the Seven. The deacons in Justin Martyr’s day distributed the spiritual food to the faithful, just as in earlier times they distributed all the sustenance which the faithful required, whether in their spiritual or their temporal aspect. It is evident from this recital of the places where the deacons are incidentally referred to, that their origin was never forgotten, and that distribution of charitable relief and help was always retained as the essence, the central idea and notion, of the office of deacon, though at the same time other and larger functions were by degrees entrusted to them, as the Church grew and increased, and ecclesiastical life and wants became more involved and complex. History bears out this view. Irenaeus was the disciple of Polycarp, and must have known many apostolic men, men who had companied with the Apostles and knew the whole detail of primitive Church government; and Irenaeus, speaking of Nicolas the proselyte of Antioch, describes him as "one of the seven who were first ordained to the diaconate by the Apostles." Now Irenaeus is one of our great witnesses for the authenticity of the Four Gospels; surely then he must be an equally good witness to the origin of the order of deacons and the existence of the Acts of the Apostles which is implied in this reference. It is scarcely necessary to go farther in Church history, but the lower one goes the more clearly we shall see that the original notion of the diaconate is never forgotten. In the third century we find that there were still only seven deacons in Rome, though there were forty-six presbyters, a number which was retained down to the twelfth century in the seven cardinal deacons of that Church. The touching story of the martyrdom of St. Laurence, Archdeacon of Rome in the middle of the third century, shows that he was roasted over a slow fire in order to extort the vast sums he was supposed to have in charge for the purpose of relieving the sick and the poor connected with the Roman Church; proving that the original conception of the office as an executive and charitable organisation was then vigorously retained; just as it is still set forth in the ordinal of the Church of England, where, after reciting how the deacon’s office is to help the priest in several subordinate positions, it goes on to say, "Furthermore, it is his office, where provision is so made, to search for the sick, poor, and impotent people of the parish, to intimate their estates, names, and places where they dwell, unto the curate, that by his exhortation they may be relieved by the alms of the parishioners."

The only objection of any value which has been raised to this line of argument is based on a mere assumption. It has been said that the Seven were appointed for a special emergency, and to serve a temporary purpose connected with the community of goods which existed in the early Church of Jerusalem, and therefore when this arrangement ceased the office itself ceased also. But this argument is based on the assumption that the Christian idea of a community of goods wholly passed away, so that services of an order like the Seven were no longer required. This is a pure assumption. The community of goods as practised at Jerusalem was found by experience to be a mistake. The shape of the idea was changed, but the idea itself survived. The old form of community of goods passed away. The Christians retained their rights of private property, but were taught to regard this private property as in a sense common, and liable for all the wants and needs of their poor and suffering brethren. A charitable order, or at least an order charged with the care of the poor, and their relief, must inevitably have sprung up among the Jewish Christians. The relief of the poor was a necessary part of the duty of a synagogue. The Jewish domestic law enforced a poor-rate, and collected it through the organisation of each synagogue, by means of three deacons attached to each. Selden, in his great work on "The Laws of the Hebrews," bk. 2. chap. 6. ("Works," 1:632), tells us that if "any Jew did not pay his fair contribution he was punished with stripes." As soon as the Jewish Christians began to organise themselves, the idea of almoners, with their daily and weekly distributions, after the synagogue model, was necessarily developed. We have an unexceptionable piece of evidence upon this point. The satirist Lucian lived at the close of the second century. He was a bitter scoffer, who jeered at every form of religion, and at Christianity above all. He wrote an account of a certain Syrian named Peregrinus Proteus, who was an impostor trading upon the religious principles of various philosophical sects, and specially on those of the Christians. Lucian tells us that the Christians were the easiest persons to be deceived, because of their opinions. Lucian’s words are interesting as showing what a second-century pagan, a clever literary man too, thought of Christianity, viewing it from the outside. For this reason we shall quote a little more than the words which immediately bear upon the subject. "It is incredible with what alacrity these people (the Christians) support and defend the public cause. They spare nothing, in fact, to promote it. These poor men have persuaded themselves that they shall be immortal, and live for ever. They despise death therefore, and offer up their lives a voluntary sacrifice, being taught by their lawgiver that they are all brethren, and that, quitting our Grecian gods, they must worship their own sophist, who was crucified, and live in obedience to His laws. In compliance with them, they look with contempt upon all worldly treasures, and hold everything in common-a maxim which they have adopted without any reason or foundation. If any cunning impostor, therefore, who knows how to manage matters, come amongst them, he soon grows rich by imposing on the credulity of those weak and foolish men." We can see here that the great outer world of paganism considered a community of goods as still prevailing among the Christians. Their boundless liberality, their intense devotion to the cause of their suffering brethren, proved this, and therefore, because a practical community of goods existed amongst them, an order of men was required to superintend the distribution of their liberality in the second century just as tru1y as the work of the Seven was needed in the Church of Jerusalem.

II. We thus can see that the office of deacon, as now constituted, had its origin in apostolic times, and is built upon a scriptural foundation; but here we are bound to point out a great difference between the ancient and the modern office. An office or organisation may spring up in one age, and after existing for several centuries may develop into a shape utterly unlike its original. Yet it may be very hard to point out any special time when a vital change was made. All we can say is that the first occupants of the office would never recognise their modern successors. Take the papacy as an instance. There has been at Rome a regular historical succession of bishops since the first century. The succession is known and undoubted. Yet could one of the bishops of Rome of the first three centuries, -above all, could a first-century bishop of Rome like St. Clement-by any possibility recognise himself or his office in the present Pope Leo XIII? Yet one would find it difficult to fix the exact moment when any vital change was made, or any unwonted claims put forward on behalf of the Roman See. So was it in the case of deacons and their office. Their modern successors may trace themselves back to the seven elected in the primitive Church at Jerusalem, and yet the office is now a very different one in practice from what it was then. Perhaps the greatest difference, and the only one we can notice, is this. The diaconate is now merely the primary and lowest rank of the Christian ministry; a kind of apprenticeship, in fact, wherein the youthful minister serves for a year, and is then promoted as a matter of course; whereas in Jerusalem or Rome of old it was a lifelong office, in the exercise of which maturity of judgment, of piety, and of character were required for the due discharge of its manifold duties. It is now a temporary office, it was of old a permanent one. And the apostolical custom was much the best. It avoided many difficulties and solved many a problem. At present the office of the diaconate is practically in abeyance, and yet the functions which the ancient deacons discharged are not in abeyance, but are placed upon the shoulders of the other orders in the Church, already overwhelmed with manifold responsibilities, and neglecting, while serving tables, the higher aspects of their work. The Christian ministry in its purely spiritual, and specially in its prophetical or preaching aspect, is sorely suffering because an apostolic office is practically set aside. In the ancient Church it was never so. The deacons were chosen to a life-office. It was then but very seldom that a man chosen to the diaconate abandoned it for a higher function. It did not indeed demand the wholesale devotion of time and attention which the higher offices of the ministry did. Men even till a late period, both in East and West, combined secular pursuits with it. Thus let us take one celebrated instance. The ancient Church of England and Ireland alike was Celtic in origin and constitution. It was intensely conservative, therefore, of ancient customs and usages derived from the times of persecution, when Christianity was first taught among the Gauls and Celts of the extreme West. The well-known story of the introduction of Christianity into England under St. Augustine and the opposition he met with prove this. As it was in other matters, so was it with the ancient Celtic deacons; the old customs remained; they held office for life, and joined with it at the same time other and ordinary occupations. St. Patrick, for instance, the apostle of Ireland, tells us that his father Calpurnius was a deacon, and yet he was a farmer and a decurion, or alderman, as we should say, of a Roman town near Dumbarton on the river Clyde. This happened about the year 400 of the Christian era.

Here indeed, as in so many other cases, the Church of Christ needs to go back to scriptural example and to apostolic rule. We require for the work of the Church deacons like the primitive men who devoted their whole lives to this one object; made it the subject of their thoughts, their cares, their studies, how they might instruct the ignorant, relieve the poor and widows, comfort the prisoners, sustain the martyrs in their last supreme hour; and who, thus using well the office of a deacon, found in it a sufficient scope for their efforts and a sufficient reward for their exertions, because they thereby purchased for themselves a good degree and great boldness in the faith of Jesus Christ. The Church now requires the help of living agencies in vast numbers, and they are not forthcoming. Let her avail herself of apostolic resources, and fall back upon primitive precedents. The real diaconate should be revived. Godly and spiritual men should be called upon to do their duty. Deacons should be ordained without being called to give up their ordinary employments. Work which now unduly accumulates upon overburdened shoulders should be assigned to others suitably to their talents, and thus a twofold blessing would be secured. Christian life would flourish more abundantly, and many a rent and schism, the simple result of energies repressed and unemployed, would be destroyed in their very commencement.

We have devoted much of our space to this subject, because it is one of great interest, as touching the origin and authority of the Christian ministry, and also because it has been a subject much debated; but we must hurry on to other points connected with the first appointment of the diaconate. The people selected the person to be ordained to this work. It is probable that they made their choice out of the different classes composing the Christian community. The mode of election of the Seven, and the qualifications laid down by the Apostles, were derived from the synagogue. Thus we read in Kitto’s "Cyclopaedia," art. "Synagogue:"-"The greatest care was taken by the rulers of the synagogue and of the congregation that those elected almoners should be men of modesty, wisdom, justice, and have the confidence of the people. They had to be elected by the harmonious voice of the people." Seven deacons altogether were chosen. Three were probably Hebrew Christians, three Grecian Christians or Hellenists, and one a representative of the proselytes, Nicolas of Antioch. This would have been but natural. The Apostles wanted to get rid of murmurs, jealousies, and divisions in the Church, and in no way could this have been more effectually done than by the principle of representation. Had the Seven been all selected from one class alone, divisions and jealousies would have prevailed as of old. The Apostles themselves had proved this. They were all Hebrew Christians. Their position and authority might have secured them from blame. Yet murmurings had arisen against them as distributers, and so they devised another plan, which, to have been successful, as it doubtless was, must have proceeded on a different principle. Then when the seven wise and prudent men were chosen from the various classes, the Apostles asserted their supreme position: "When the Apostles had prayed, they laid their hands on them." And as the result peace descended like a shower upon the Church, and spiritual prosperity followed upon internal peace and union.

III. "They laid their hands on them." This statement sets forth the external expression and the visible channel of the ordination to their office which the Apostles conferred. This action of the imposition of hands was of frequent use among the ancient Jews. The Apostles, as well acquainted with Old Testament history, must have remembered that it was employed in the case of designation of Joshua as the leader of Israel in the place of Numbers 27:18-23; {compare Deuteronomy 34:9} that it was used even in the synagogue in the appointment of Jewish rabbis, and had been sanctioned by the practice of Jesus Christ. The Apostles naturally therefore, used this symbol upon the solemn appointment of the first deacons, and the same ceremonial was repeated upon similar occasions. Paul and Barnabas were set apart at Antioch for their missionary work by the imposition of hands. St. Paul uses the strongest language about the ceremony. He does not hesitate to attribute to it a certain sacramental force and efficacy, bidding Timothy "stir up the gift of God which is in thee through the laying on of my hands"; [2 Timothy 1:6] while again, when we come down a few years later, we find the "laying on of hands" reckoned as one of the fundamental elements of religion, in the sixth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. But it was not merely in the solemn appointment of officials in the Church that this ceremony found place. It was employed by the Apostles as the rite which filled up and perfected the baptism which had been administered by others. Philip baptised the Samaritans. Peter and John laid their hands tin them and they received the Holy Ghost. The ceremony of imposition of hands was so essential and distinguishing a point that Simon Magus selects it as the one he desires above all others effectually to purchase, so that the outward symbol might be followed by the inward grace. "Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay my hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost," was the prayer of the arch-heretic to St. Peter; while again in the nineteenth chapter we find St. Paul using the same visible ceremony in the case of St. John’s disciples, who were first baptised with Christian baptism, and then endued by St. Paul with the gift of the Spirit. Imposition of hands in the case of ordination is a natural symbol, indicative of the transmission of function and authority. It fitly indicates and notifies to the whole Church the persons who have been ordained, and therefore has ever been regarded as a necessary part of ordination. St. Jerome, who was a very keen critic as well as a close student of the Divine oracles, fixes upon this public and solemn designation as a sufficient explanation and justification of the imposition of hands in ordinations, test any one should be ordained without his knowledge by a silent and solitary prayer. Hence every branch of the Church of Christ has rigorously insisted upon imposition of hands after the apostolic example, in the case of ordinations to official positions, with one or two apparent and very doubtful exceptions, which merely prove the binding character of the rule.

IV. The list of names again is full of profit and of warning. How completely different from human histories, for instance, is this Divine record of the first doings of the Church! How thoroughly shaped after the Divine model is this catalogue of the earliest officials chosen by the Apostles! Men have speculated whether they were Hebrews or Grecians, whether they belonged to the seventy sent forth by Christ or to the hundred and twenty who first gathered into the upper room at Jerusalem. All such speculations are curious and interesting, but they have nothing to do with man’s salvation; therefore they are sternly put on one side and out of sight. How we should long to know the subsequent history of these men, and to trace their careers! yet Holy Writ tells us but very little about them, nothing certain, in fact, save what we learn about St. Stephen and St. Philip. God bestowed Holy Scripture upon men, not to satisfy or minister to their curiosity, but to nourish their souls and edify their spirits. And surely no lesson is more needed than the one implied in the silences of this passage; there is in truth none more necessary for our publicity-seeking and popularity-hunting age than this, that God’s holiest servants have laboured in obscurity, have done their best work in secret, and have looked to God alone and to His judgment for their reward. I have said indeed that concerning the list of names recorded as those of the first deacons, we know nothing but of St. Stephen and St. Philip, whose careers will again come under our notice in later chapters. There is, however, a current tradition that Nicolas, the proselyte of Antioch, did distinguish himself, but in an unhappy direction. It is asserted by Irenaeus in his work "Against Heresies" (Book 1. chap. 26), that Nicolas was the founder of the sect of Nicolaitans denounced in the Revelation of St. John. [Revelation 2:6; Revelation 2:16] Critics are, however, much divided upon this point. Some clear Nicolas of this charge, while others uphold it. It is indeed impossible to determine this matter. But supposing that Nicolas of Antioch was the author of this heresy, which was of an antinomian character, like so many of the earliest heresies that distracted the primitive Church, this circumstance would teach us an instructive lesson. Just as there was a Judas Iscariot among the Apostles, and a Demas among St. Paul’s most intimate disciples, so was there a Nicolas among the first deacons. No place is so holy, no office so sacred, no privileges so great, but that the tempter can make his way there. He can lurk unseen and unsuspected amid the pillars of the temple, and he can find us out, as he did the Son of God Himself, amid the wilds of the desert. Official position and exalted privileges confer no immunity from temptation. Nay, rather, they bring with them additional temptations over and above those which assail the ordinary Christian, and should therefore lead every one called to any similar work to diligent watchfulness, to earnest prayer, lest while teaching others they themselves fall into condemnation. There is, however, another lesson which a different version of the history of Nicolas would teach. Clement of Alexandria, in his celebrated work called the "Stromata" (Book 2. chap. 20, and Book 3. chap. 4), tells us that Nicolas was a most strictly virtuous man. He was extreme even in his asceticism, and, like many ascetics, used language that might be easily abused to the purposes of wickedness. He was wont to say that the "flesh must be abused," meaning that it must be chastised and restrained. One-sided and extreme teaching is easily perverted by the wicked nature of man, and men of impure lives, listening to the language of Nicolas, interpreted his words as an excuse for abusing the flesh by plunging into the depths of immorality and crime. Men placed in official positions and called to the exercise of the clerical office should weigh their words. Extreme statements are bad unless duly and strictly guarded. The intention of the speaker may be good, and a man’s own life thoroughly consistent, but unbalanced teaching will fall upon ground where the life and intention of the teacher will have no power or influence, and bring forth evil fruit, as in the case of the Nicolaitans.

V. The central figure of this whole section of our narrative is St. Stephen. He is introduced into the narrative with the same startling suddenness which we may note in the case of Barnabas and of Elijah. He runs a rapid course, flings all, Apostles and every one else, into the shade for a time, and then disappears, exemplifying those fruitful sayings of inspiration, so true in our every-day experience of God’s dealings, "The first shall be last, and the last first." "Paul may plant, Apollos may water, but it is God alone that giveth the increase." Stephen, full of grace and power, did great signs and wonders among the people. These two words, grace and power, are closely connected. Their union in this passage is significant. It was not the intellect, or the eloquence, or the activity of St. Stephen which made him powerful among the people and crowned his labours with such success. It was his abundant grace. Eloquence and learning, active days and laborious nights, are good and necessary things. God uses them and demands them from His people. He chooses to use human agencies, and therefore demands that the human agents shall give Him of their best, and not offer to Him the blind and lame of their flock. But these things will be utterly useless and ineffective apart from Christ and the power of His grace. The Church of Christ is a supernatural society, and the work of Christ is a supernatural work, and in that work the grace of Christ is absolutely necessary to make any human gift or exertion effectual in carrying out His purposes of love and mercy. This is an age of organisations and committees and boards; and some good men are so wrapped up in them that they have no time to think of anything else. To this busy age these words, "Stephen, full of grace and power," convey a useful warning, teaching that the best organisations and schemes will be useless to produce Stephen’s power unless Stephen’s grace be found there as well. This passage is a prophecy and picture of the future in another aspect. The fulness of grace in Stephen wrought powerfully amongst the people. It was the savour of life unto life in some. But in others it was a savour of death unto death, and provoked them to evil deeds, for they suborned men "which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God."

We get in these words, in this false accusation, even through its falsehood, a glimpse into the character of St. Stephen’s preaching. A false accusation need not be necessarily altogether false. Perhaps rather we should say that, in order to be effective for mischief, a twisted, distorted charge, with some basis of truth, some semblance of justification about it, is the best for the accuser’s purpose, and the most difficult for the defendant to answer. St. Stephen was ripening for heaven more rapidly than the Apostles themselves. He was learning more rapidly than St. Peter himself the true spiritual meaning of the Christian scheme. He had taught in no ambiguous language the universal character of the Gospel and the catholic mission of the Church. He had expanded and applied the magnificent declarations of the Master Himself, "The hour cometh, when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall ye worship the Father"; "The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipper’s shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth." And then the narrow-minded Grecian Jews, anxious to vindicate their orthodoxy, which was doubted by their Hebrew brethren, distorted Stephen’s wider and grander conceptions into a charge of blasphemy against the holy man. What a picture of the future of Christ’s best and truest witnesses, especially when insisting on some nobler and wider or forgotten aspect of truth. Their teaching has been ever suspected, distorted, accused as blasphemous; and so it must ever be. And yet God’s servants, when they find themselves thus misrepresented, can realise to themselves that they are but following the course which the saints of every age have run, that they are being made like unto the image of Stephen the first martyr, and of Jesus Christ Himself, the King of Saints, who suffered under a similar accusation. The mere popularity-hunter will, of course, carefully eschew such charges and suspicions. His object is human praise and reward, and he shapes his teaching so as to carefully avoid giving offence. But then the mere popularity-hunter seeks his reward here below, and very often gets it. Stephen, however, and every true teacher looks not for reward in this world. Stephen taught truth as God revealed it to his soul. He suffered the consequence, and then received his crown from that Almighty Judge before whose awful tribunal he ever consciously stood. Misrepresentation must ever be expected by God’s true servants. It must be discounted, borne with patiently, taken as a trial of faith and patience, and then, in God’s own time, it will turn out to our greater blessing. One consideration alone ought to prove sufficient to console us under such circumstances. If our teaching was not proving injurious to his cause, the Evil One would not trouble himself about it. Let us only take good heed lest our own self-love and vanity should lead us to annoy ourselves too much about the slander or the evil report, remembering that misrepresentation and slander is ever the portion of God’s servants. Jesus Christ and Stephen were thus treated. St. Paul’s teaching was accused of tending to licentiousness; the earliest Christians were accused of vilest practices; St. Athanasius in his struggles for truth was accused of rebellion and murder; the Reformers were accused of lawlessness; John Wesley of Romanism and disloyalty; William Wilberforce of being an enemy to British trade; John Howard of being an encourager of crime and immorality. Let us be content then if our lot be with the saints, and our portion be that of the servants of the Most High.

Again, we learn from this place how religious zeal can overthrow religion and work out the purposes of evil. Religious zeal, mere party spirit taking the place of real religion, led the Hellenists to suborn men and falsely accuse St. Stephen. They made an idol of the system of Judaism, and forgot its spirit. They worshipped their idol so much that they were ready to break the commandments of God for its sake. The dangers of party spirit in matters of religion, and the evil deeds which have been done in apparent zeal for God and real zeal for the devil, these are still the lessons, true for the future ages of the Church, which we read in this passage. And how true to life has even our own age found this prophetic picture. Men cannot indeed now suborn men and bring fatal charges against them in matters of religion, and yet they can fall into exactly the same crime. Party religion and party zeal lead men into precisely the same courses as they did in the days of St. Stephen. Partisanship causes them to violate all the laws of honour, of honesty, of Christian charity, imagining that they are thereby advancing the cause of Christ, forgetting that they are acting on the rule which the Scriptures repudiate, - they are doing evil that good may come, - and striving to further Christ’s kingdom by a violation of His fundamental precepts. Oh for more of the spirit of true charity, which will lead men to support their own views in a spirit of Christian love! Oh for more of that true grasp of Christianity which will teach that a breach of Christian charity is far worse than any amount of speculative error! The error, as we think it, may be in reality God’s own truth; but the violation of God’s law implied in such conduct as Stephen’s adversaries displayed, and as party zeal now often prompts, can never be otherwise than contrary to the mind and law of Jesus Christ.


Verses 12-14

Chapter 15

ST. STEPHEN’S DEFENCE AND THE DOCTRINE OF INSPIRATION.

Acts 6:12-14; Acts 7:1-2

ST. STEPHEN and St. Philip are the two prominent names among the primitive deacons. Stephen, however, much surpasses Philip. Devout expositors of Scripture have recognised in his name a prophecy of his greatness. Stephen is Stephanos, a garland or crown, in the Greek language. Garlands or crowns were given by the ancient Greeks to those who rendered good services to their cities, or brought fame to them by winning triumphs in the great national games. And Stephen had his name divinely chosen for him by that Divine Providence which ordereth all things, because he was to win in the fulness of time an imperishable garland, and to gain a crown of righteousness, and to render highest services to the Church of God by his teaching and by his testimony even unto death. St. Stephen had a Greek name, and must have belonged to the Hellenistic division of the Jewish nation. He evidently directed his special energies to their conversion, for while the previous persecutions had been raised by the Sadducees, as the persons whose prejudices had been assailed, the attack on Stephen was made by the Grecian Jews of the synagogues belonging to the Libertines or freedmen, in union with those from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia. The Libertines had been slaves, Jewish captives, taken in the various wars waged by the Romans. They had been dispersed among the Romans at Rome and elsewhere. There in their captivity they had learned the Greek language and become acquainted with Greek culture; and now, when they had recovered their freedom through that suppleness and power of adaptation which the Jewish race has ever displayed, they returned to Jerusalem in such numbers that a synagogue of the Libertines was formed. Their captivity and servitude had, however, only intensified their religious feelings, and made them more jealous of any attempts to extend to the Gentiles who had held them captives the spiritual possessions they alone enjoyed. There is, indeed, an extremely interesting parallel to the case of the Libertines in early English history, as told by Bede. The Saxons came to England in the fifth century and conquered the Christian Celts, whom they drove into Wales. The Celts, however, avenged themselves upon their conquerors, for they refused to impart to the Pagan Saxons the glad tidings of salvation which the Celts possessed. But the Libertines were not the only assailants of St. Stephen. With them were joined members of synagogues connected with various other important Jewish centres. Jerusalem was then somewhat like Rome at the present time. It was the one city whither a race scattered all over the world and speaking every language tended. Each language was represented by a synagogue, just as there are English Colleges and Irish Colleges and Spanish Colleges at Rome, where Roman Catholics of those nationalities find themselves specially at home. Among these Hellenistic antagonists of St. Stephen we have mention made of the men of Cilicia. Here, doubtless, was found a certain Saul of Tarsus, enthusiastic in defence of the ancient faith, and urgent with all his might to bring to trial the apostate who had dared to speak words which he considered derogatory of the city and temple of the great king.

Saul, indeed, may have been the great agent in Stephen’s arrest. It is a nature and an intellect like his that can discern the logical results of teaching like St. Stephen’s, and then found an accusation upon the deductions he makes rather than upon the actual words spoken. Saul may have placed the Church under another obligation on this occasion. To him may be due the report of the speech made by Stephen before the Sanhedrin. Indeed, it is to St. Paul in his unconverted state we feel inclined to attribute the knowledge which St. Luke possessed of the earlier proceedings of the council in the matter of the Christians. After St. Paul’s conversion we get no such details concerning the deliberations of the Sanhedrin as we do in the earlier chapters of the Acts, simply because Saul of Tarsus, the rising champion and hope of the Pharisees, was present at the earlier meetings and had access to their inmost secrets, while at the later meetings he never appeared save to stand his trial as an accused person. The question, How was Stephen’s speech preserved? has been asked by some critics who wished to decry the historic truth of this narrative, and to represent the whole thing as a fancy sketch or romance, worked up on historic lines indeed, but still only a romance, written many years after the events had happened. Critics who ask this forget what modern research has shown in another department. The "Acts" of the martyrs are sometimes very large documents, containing reports of charges, examinations, and speeches of considerable length. These have often been considered mere fancy history, the work of mediaeval monks wishing to celebrate the glory of these early witnesses for truth, and sceptical writers have often put them aside without bestowing even a passing notice upon them.

Modern investigation has taken these documents, critically investigated them, compared them with the Roman criminal law, and has come to the conclusion that they are genuine, affording some of the most interesting and important examples of ancient methods of legal procedure anywhere to be found. How did the Christians get these records? it may be asked. Various hints, given here and there, enable us to see. Bribery of the officials was sometimes used. The notaries, shorthand writers, and clerks attendant upon a Roman court were numerous, and were always accessible to the gifts of the richer Christians when they wished to obtain a correct narrative of a martyr’s last trial. Secret Christians among the officials also effected something, and there were numerous other methods by which the Roman judicial records became the property of the Church, to be in time transmitted to the present age. Now just the same may have been the case with the trials of the primitive Christians, and specially of St. Stephen. But we know that St. Paul was there. Memory among the Jews was sharpened to an extraordinary degree. We have now no idea to what an extent human memory was then developed. The immense volumes which are filled with the Jewish commentaries on Scripture were in those times transmitted from generation to generation, simply by means of this power. It was considered, indeed, a great innovation when those commentaries were committed to writing instead of being intrusted to tradition. It is no wonder then that St. Paul could afford his disciple, St. Luke, a report of what Stephen said on this occasion, even if he had not preserved any notes whatsoever of the process of the trial. Let us, however, turn to the consideration of St. Stephen’s speech, omitting any further notice of objections based on our own ignorance of the practices and methods of distant ages.

I. The defence of St. Stephen was a speech delivered by a Jew, and addressed to a Jewish audience. This is our first remark, and it is an important one. We are apt to judge the Scriptures, their speeches, arguments, and discussions, by a Western standard, forgetting that Orientals argued then and argue still not according to the rules of logic taught by Aristotle, nor by the methods of eloquence derived from the traditions of Cicero and Quinctilian, but by methods and rules essentially different. What would satisfy Westerns would have seemed to them utterly worthless, just as an argument which now seems pointless and weak appeared to them absolutely conclusive. Parallels, analogies, parables, mystical interpretations were then favourite methods of argument, and if we wish to understand writers like the authors of the scriptural books we must strive to place ourselves at their point of view, or else we shall miss their true interpretation. Let us apply this idea to St. Stephen’s defence, which has been often depreciated because treated as if it were an oration addressed to a Western court or audience. Erasmus, for instance, was an exceedingly learned man, who lived at the period of the Reformation. He was well skilled in Latin and Greek learning, but knew nothing of Jewish. ideas. He hesitates not, therefore, to say in his Annotations on this passage that there are many things in Stephen’s speech which have no-bearing on the question at issue; while Michaelis, another German writer of great repute in the: earlier days of this century, remarks that there are many things in this oration of which we cannot perceive the tendency, as regards the accusation brought against the martyr. Let us examine and see if the case be not otherwise, remembering that promise of the Master, given not to supersede human exertion or to indulge human laziness, but given to support and sustain and safeguard His persecuted servants under circumstances like those amid which Stephen found himself. "But when they deliver you up, be not anxious how or what ye shall speak; for it shall be given you in that hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you." What, then, was the charge brought against Stephen? He was accused of "speaking blasphemous words against Moses, and against God," or, to put it in the formal language used by the witnesses, "We have heard him say that Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered unto us." Now Stephen, if merely a man of common sense, must have intended to reply, to this indictment. Some critics, as we have just noted, think that he failed effectually to do so. We are indeed often in great danger of paying too much attention and lending too great weight to objections of this kind urged by persons who assume to themselves the office of critics; and to counteract this tendency perhaps it is as well to note that a leading German writer of a rationalistic type, named Zeller, who has written a work to decry the historical character of the Acts, finds in St. Stephen’s words an oration "not only characteristic, but also better suited to the case and to the accusation raised against him than is usually supposed."

Disregarding, then, all cavils of critics whose views are mutually destructive, let us see if we cannot discern in this narrative the marks of a sound and powerful mind, guided, aided, and directed by the Spirit of God which dwelt so abundantly in him. St. Stephen was accused of irreverence towards Moses and hostility towards the temple, and towards all the Jewish institutions. How did he meet this? He begins his address to the Sanhedrin at the earliest period of their national history, and shows how the chosen people had passed through many changes and developments without interfering with their essential identity amid these changes. His opponents now made idols of their local institutions and of the buildings of the temple, but God’s choice and God’s promise had originally nothing local about them at all. Abraham, their great father, was first called by God in Ur of the Chaldees, far away across the desert in distant Mesopotamia. Thence he removed to Charran, and then, only after the lapse of years, became a wanderer up and down in Canaan, where he never possessed so much of the land as he could set his foot upon. The promises of God and the covenant of grace were personal things, made to God’s chosen children, not connected with lands or buildings or national customs. He next takes up the case of Moses. He had been accused of blasphemy and irreverence towards the great national law-giver. His words prove that he entertained no such feelings; he respected and revered Moses just as much as his opponents and accusers did. But Moses had nothing to say or do with Canaan, or Jerusalem, or the temple. Nay, rather, his work for the chosen people was alone in Egypt and in Midian and on the side of Horeb, where the presence and name of Jehovah were manifested not in the temple or tabernacle, but in the bush burning yet not consumed.

The Grecian Jews accused Stephen of irreverence towards Moses. But how had their forefathers treated that Moses whom he recognised as a divinely-sent messenger? "They thrust him from them, and in their hearts turned back again into Egypt." Moses, however, led them onward and upward. His motto was hope. His rod and his voice ever pointed forward. He warned them that his own ministry was not the final one; that it was only an intermediate and temporary institution, till the prophet should come unto whom the people should hearken. There was a chosen people before the customs introduced by Moses. There may therefore be a chosen people still when these customs cease, having fulfilled their purpose. The argument of St. Stephen in this passage is the same as that of St. Paul in the fourth-chapter of Galatians, where he sets forth the temporary and intermediate character of the Levitical law and of the covenant of circumcision. So teaches St. Stephen in his speech. His argument is simply this:-I have been accused of speaking blasphemous words against Moses because I proclaimed that a greater Prophet than he had come, and yet this was only what Moses himself had foretold. It is not I who have blasphemed and opposed Moses: it is my accusers rather. But then he remembers that the accusation dealt not merely with Moses. It went farther, and accused him of speaking blasphemous words against the national sanctuary, "saying that Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place."

This leads him to speak of the temple. His argument now takes a different turn, and runs thus. This building is now the centre of Jewish thoughts and affections. But it is a mere modern thing, as compared with the original choice and promise of God. There was no chosen dwelling-place of the Almighty in the earliest days of all; His presence was then manifested wherever His chosen servants dwelt. Then Moses made a tent or tabernacle, which abode in no certain spot, but moved hither and thither. Last of all, long after Abraham, and long after Moses, and even after David, Solomon built God a house. Even when it was built, and in all its original glory, even then the temporary character of the temple was clearly recognised by the prophet Isaiah, who had long ago, in his sixty-sixth chapter, proclaimed the truth which had been brought forward as an accusation against himself: "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? Hath not My hand made all these things?"-a great spiritual truth which had been anticipated long before Isaiah by King Solomon, in his famous dedication prayer at the opening of the temple: "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee; how much less this house that I have builded." [1 Kings 8:27] After St. Stephen had set forth this undeniable truth confirmed by the words of Isaiah, which to the Pharisaic portion of his audience, at least, must have seemed conclusive, there occurs a break in the address.

One would have thought that he would then have proceeded to describe the broader and more spiritual life which had shone forth for mankind in Christ, and to expound the freedom from all local restrictions which should henceforth belong to acceptable worship of the Most High. Most certainly, if the speech had been invented for him and placed in his mouth, a forger would naturally have designed a fuller and more balanced discourse, setting forth the doctrine of Christ as well as the past history of the Jews. We cannot tell whether he actually entered more fully into the subject or not. Possibly the Sadducean portion of his audience had got quite enough. Their countenances and gestures bespoke their horror of St. Stephen’s doctrine. Isaiah’s opinion carried no weight with them as contrasted with the institutions of Moses, which were their pride and glory; and so, borne along by the force of his oratory, St. Stephen finished with that vigorous denunciation which led to his death: "Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye." This exposition of St. Stephen’s speech will show the drift and argument of it as it appears to us. But it must have seemed to them much more powerful, plain-spoken, and aggressive. He vindicated himself to any right-thinking and fair mind from the accusation of irreverence towards God, towards Moses, or towards the Divine institutions. But the minds of his hearers were not fair. He had trampled upon their prejudices, he had suggested the vanity of their dearest ideas, and they could not estimate his reasons or follow his arguments, but they could resort to the remedy which every failing, though for the present popular, cause possesses-they could destroy him. And thus they treated the modern as their ancestors had treated the ancient prophets. What a lesson Stephen’s speech has for the Church of every age! How wide and manifold the applications of it! The Jewish error is one that is often committed, their mistake often repeated. The Jews identified God’s honour and glory with an old order that was fast passing away, and had no eyes to behold a new and more glorious order that was opening upon them. We may blame them then for their murder of St. Stephen, but we must blame them gently, feeling that they acted as human nature has ever acted under similar circumstances, and that good motives were mingled with those feelings of rage and bigotry and narrowness that urged them to their deed of blood. Let us see how this was. Stephen proclaimed a new order and a new development, embracing for his hearers a vast political as well as a vast religious change. His forecast of the future swept away at once all the privileges and profits connected with the religious position of Jerusalem, and thus destroyed the political prospects of the Jewish people. It is no wonder the Sanhedrin could not appreciate his oration. Men do not ever listen patiently when their pockets are being touched, their profits swept away, their dearest hopes utterly annihilated. Has not human experience often repeated the scene acted out that day in Jerusalem? On the political stage men have often seen it, -we ourselves have seen it. The advocates of liberty, civil and religious, have had to struggle against the same spirit and the same prejudices as St. Stephen. Take the political world alone. We now look back and view with horror the deeds wrought in the name of authority and in opposition to the principles of change and innovation. We read the stories of Alva and the massacres in the Netherlands, the bloody deeds of the seventeenth century in England and all over Europe, the miseries and the bloodshed of the American war of independence, the fierce opposition with which the spirit of liberty has been resisted throughout this century; and our sympathies are altogether ranged on the side of the sufferers, -the losers and defeated, it may have been, for the time, but the triumphant in the long run.

The true student, however, of history or of human nature will not content himself with any one-sided view, and he will have some sympathy to spare for those who adopted the stern measures. He will not judge them too harshly. They reverenced the past as the Jews of Jerusalem did, and reverence is a feeling that is right and blessed. It is no good sign for this age of ours that it possesses so little reverence for the past, thinks so lightly of the institutions, the wisdom, the ideas of antiquity, and is ready to change them at a moment’s notice. The men who now are held up to the execration of posterity, the high priest and the Sanhedrin who murdered Stephen, the tyrants and despots and their agents who strove to crush the supporters of liberty, the writers who cried them down and applauded or urged on the violent measures which were adopted and sometimes triumphed for the time, -we should strive to put ourselves in their position, and see what they had to say for themselves, and thus seek to judge them here below as the Eternal King will judge them at the great final tribunal. They knew the good which the old political institutions had worked. They had lived and flourished under them as their ancestors had lived and flourished before them. The future they knew not. All they knew was that changes were proposed which threatened everything with which their dearest memories were bound up, and the innovators seemed dangerous creatures, obnoxious to God and man, and they dealt with them accordingly.

So it has been and still is in politics. The opponents of political change are sometimes denounced in the fiercest language, as if they were morally wicked. The late Dr. Arnold seems a grievous offender in this respect. No one can read his charming biography by Dean Stanley without recognising how intolerant he was towards his political opponents; how blind he was to those good motives which inspire the timorous, the ignorant, and the aged, when brought face to face with changes which appear to them thickly charged with the most dangerous results. Charity towards opponents is sadly needed in the political as well as in the religious world. And as it has been in politics so has it been in religion. Men reverence the past, and that reverence easily glides into an idolatry blind to its defects and hostile to any improvement. It is in religion too as in politics; a thousand other interests-money, office, expectations, memories of the loved and lost - are bound up with old religious forms, and then when the prophet arises with his Divine message, as Stephen arose before the Sanhedrin, the ancient proverb is fulfilled, the corruption of the best becomes the worst, the good motives mingle with the evil, and are used by the poor human heart to justify the harshest, most unchristian deeds done in defence of what men believe to he the cause of truth and righteousness. Let us be just and fair to the aggressors as well as to the aggrieved, to the persecutors as well as to the persecuted. But let us all the same take good heed to learn for ourselves the lessons this narrative presents. Reverence is a good thing, and a blessed thing; and without reverence no true progress, either in political or spiritual things, can be made. But reverence easily degenerates into blind superstitious idolatry. It was so with the Sanhedrin, it was so at the Reformation, it has ever been so with the opponents of true religious progress. Let us evermore strive to keep minds free, open, unbiassed, respecting the past, yet ready to listen to the voice and fresh revelations of God’s will and purposes made to us by the messengers whom He chooses as He pleases. Perhaps there was never an age which needed this lesson of Stephen’s speech and its reception more than our own. The attitude of religious men towards science and its numerous and wondrous advances needs guidance such as this incident affords. The Sanhedrin had their own theory and interpretation of God’s dealings in the past. They clung to it passionately, and refused the teaching of Stephen, who would have widened their views, and shown them that a grand and noble development was quite in accordance with all the facts in the case, and indeed a necessary result of the sacred history when truly expounded! What a parable and picture of the future we here find! What a warning as to the attitude religious men should take up with respect to the progress of science! Patience, intellectual and religious patience, is taught us. The Sanhedrin were impatient of St. Stephen’s views, which they could not understand, and their impatience made them lose a blessing and commit a sin. Now has it not been at times much the same with ourselves? Fifty or sixty years ago men were frightened at the revelations of geology, -they had their own interpretations of the past and of the Scriptures, -just as three centuries ago men were frightened at the revelations and teaching of modern astronomy. Prejudiced and narrow men then strove to hound down the teachers of the new science, and would, if they could, have destroyed them in the name of God. Patience, here, however, has done its work and has had its reward. The new revelations have been taken up and absorbed by the Church of Christ. Men have learned to distinguish between their own interpretations of religion and of religious documents on the one hand and the religion itself on the other. The old, human, narrow, prejudiced interpretations have been modified. That which could be shaken and was untrue has passed away, while that which cannot be shaken has remained.

The lesson taught us by these instances of astronomy and geology, ought not to be thrown away. Patience is again necessary for the Christian and for the scientist alike. New facts are every day coming to light, but it requires much time and thought to bring new facts and old truths into their due correlation, to look round and about them. The human mind is at best very small and weak. It is blind, and cannot see afar off, and it is only by degrees it can grasp truth in its fulness. A new fact, for instance, discovered by science may appear at first plainly contradictory to some old truth revealed in Scripture. But even so, we should not lose our patience or our hope taught us by this chapter. What new fact of science can possibly seem more contradictory to any old truth of the Creeds than St. Stephen’s teaching about the universal character of God’s promise and the freeness of acceptable worship must have seemed when compared with the Divine choice of the temple at Jerusalem? They appeared to the Sanhedrin’s ideas mutually destructive, though now we see them to have been quite consistent one with another. Let this historic retrospect support us when our faith is tried. Let us welcome every new fact and new revelation brought by science, and then, if they seem opposed to something we know to be true in religion, let us wait in confidence, begotten of past experience, that God in His own good time will clear up for His faithful people that which now seems difficult of comprehension. Patience and confidence, then, are two lessons much needed in this age, which St. Stephen’s speech and its reception bring home to our hearts.

II. We have now spoken of the general aspect of the discourse, and the broad counsels we may gather from it. There are some other points, however, points of detail as distinguished from wider views, upon which we would fix our attention. They too will be found full of guidance and full of instruction. Let us take them in the order in which they appear in St. Stephen’s address. The mistakes and variations which undoubtedly occur in it are well worthy of careful attention, and have much teaching necessary for these times. There are three points in which Stephen varies from the language of the Old Testament. In the fourteenth verse of the seventh chapter Stephen speaks thus: "Then sent Joseph, and called his father Jacob to him, and all his kindred, threescore and fifteen souls"; while, if we turn to the Pentateuch, we shall find that the number of the original Hebrew immigrants is placed three times over at seventy, or threescore and ten, that is in Genesis 46:2; Genesis 46:7, Exodus 1:5, and Deuteronomy 10:22. This, however, is only a comparatively minor point. The Septuagintor Greek version of the Pentateuch reads seventy-five in the first of these passages, making the sons of Joseph born in Egypt to have been nine persons, and thus completing the number seventy-five, at which it fixes the roll of the males who came with Jacob. The next two verses, the fifteenth and sixteenth, contain a much more serious mistake. They run thus:-"So Jacob went down into Egypt, and died, he, and our fathers, and were carried over into Sychem, and laid in the sepulchre that Abraham bought for a sum of money of the sons of Emmot the father of Sychem." Now here there occur several grave errors. Jacob was not carried over and buried at Sychem at all, but at the cave of Machpelah, as is plainly stated in Genesis 50:13. Again, a plot of ground at Sychem was certainly bought, not by Abraham, however, but by Jacob. Abraham bought the field and cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite. Jacob bought his plot at Sychem from the sons of Emmor. There are in these verses, then, two serious historical mistakes; first as to the true burial-place of Jacob, and then as to the purchaser of the plot of ground at Sychem. Yet, again, there is a third mistake in the forty-third verse, where, when quoting a denunciation of Jewish idolatry from Amos 5:25-26, he quotes the prophet as threatening, "I will carry you away beyond Babylon," whereas the prophet did say, "Therefore I will cause you to go into captivity beyond Damascus." St. Stephen substituted Babylon for Damascus, two cities between which several hundred miles intervened. I have stated the difficulty thus as strongly as possible, because I think that, instead of constituting a difficulty, they are a real source of living help and comfort, as well as a great practical confirmation of the story. Let us take this last point first. I say that these mistakes, admitted mistakes which I make no vain attempt to explain away, constitute a confirmation of the story as given in the Acts against modern rationalistic opponents. It is a favourite theme of many of these writers that the Acts of the Apostles is a mere piece of fancy history, a historical romance composed in the second century for the purpose of reconciling the adherents of St. Paul, or the Gentile Christians, with the followers of St. Peter, or the Jewish Christians.; The persons who uphold this view fix the date of the Acts in the earlier half of the second century, and teach that the speeches and addresses were composed by the author of the book and put into the mouths of the reputed speakers. Now, in the mistake made by St. Stephen, we have a refutation of this theory. Surely any man composing a speech to put into the mouth of one of his favourite heroes and champions would not have represented him as making such grave errors when addressing the supreme Jewish senate. A man might easily make any of these slips which I have noticed in the heat of an oration, and they might have even passed unnoticed, as every speaker who has much practice in addressing the public still makes precisely the same kind of mistake. But a romancer, sitting down to forge speeches suitable to the time and place, would never have put in the mouth of his lay figures grave errors about the most elementary facts of Jewish history. We conclude, then, that the inaccuracies reported as made by St. Stephen are evidences of the genuine character of the oration attributed to him. Then again we see in these mistakes a guarantee of the honesty and accuracy of the reports of the speech. The other day I read the objections of a critic to our Gospels. He wished to know, for instance, how the addresses of our Lord could have been preserved in an age when there was no shorthand. The answer is, however, simple enough, and conclusive: there was shorthand in that age. Shorthand was then carried to such perfection that an epigram of Martial (14:208), a contemporary poet, celebrating its triumphs may be thus translated:-

"Swift though the words, the pen still swifter sped; The hand has finished ere the tongue has said."

While even if the Jews knew nothing of shorthand, the human memory, as we have already noted, was then developed to a degree of which we have no conception. Now, whether transmitted by memory or by notes, this address of St. Stephen bears proofs of the truthfulness of the reporter in the mistakes it contains. A man anxious for the reputation of his hero would have corrected them, as parliamentary reporters are accustomed to make the worst speeches readable, correcting evident blunders, and improving the grammar. The reporter of St. Stephen’s words, on the contrary, gave them to us just as they were spoken. But then, I may be asked, how do you account for St. Stephen’s mistake? What explanation can you offer? My answer is simple and plain enough. I have no other explanation to offer except that they are mistakes such as a speaker, filled with his subject, and speaking to an excited and hostile audience, might naturally make; mistakes such as truthful speakers every day make in their ordinary efforts. Every man who speaks an extemporaneous discourse such as Stephen’s was, full of references to past history, is liable to such errors. Even when the memory retains the facts most accurately, the tongue is apt to make such lapses. Let a number of names be mingled up together in a speech or sermon where frequent mention has to be made of one now and of another again, how easily in that case a speaker substitutes one for another. But it may be objected that it is declared of Stephen that he was "full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom," that "he was full of faith and power," and that his adversaries "were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit with which he spake." But surely this might be said of able, devoted, and holy men at the present day, and yet no one would say that they were miraculously kept from the most trivial mistakes, and that their memories and tongues were so supernaturally aided that they were preserved from the smallest verbal inaccuracies. We are always inclined to reverse the true scientific method of inquiry, and to form notions as to what inspiration must mean, instead of asking what, as a matter of fact, inspiration did mean and involve in the case of the Bible heroes. People when they feel offended by these mistakes of St. Stephen prove that they really think that Christianity was quite a different thing in the apostolic days from what it is now, and that the words "full of the Holy Ghost" and the presence of the Divine Spirit meant quite a different gift and blessing then from what they imply at the present time. I look upon the mistakes in this speech in quite a different light. St. Luke, in recording them exactly as they took place, proves, not merely his honesty as a narrator, but he also has handed down to us a most important lesson. He teaches us to moderate our notions and to hasten our a priori expectations. He shows us we must come and study the Scriptures to learn what they mean by the gift and power of the Holy Spirit. St. Luke expressly tells us that Stephen was full of the Holy Ghost, and then proceeds to narrate certain verbal inaccuracies and certain slips of memory to prove to us that the presence of the Holy Ghost does not annihilate human nature, or supersede the exercise of the human faculties. Just as in other places we find Apostles like St. Peter or St. Paul spoken of as equally inspired, and yet the inspiration enjoyed by them did not destroy their human weakness and infirmities, and, full of the Holy Ghost as they were, St. Paul could wax wroth and engage in bitter dissension with Barnabas, his fellow-labourer; and St. Peter could fall into hypocrisy against which his brother Apostle had publicly to protest. It is wonderful how liable the mind is, m matters of religion, to embrace exactly the same errors age after age, manifesting themselves in different shapes. Men are ever inclined to form their theories beforehand, and then to test God’s actions and the course of His Providence by those theories, instead of reversing the order, and testing their theories by facts as God reveals them. This error about the true theory of inspiration and the gifts of the Holy Ghost which Protestants have fallen into is exactly the same as two celebrated mistakes, one in ancient, the other in modern times. The Eutychian heresy was very celebrated in the fifth century. It split the Eastern Church into two parts, and prepared the way for the triumph of Mahometanism. It fell, too, into this same error. It formed a a priori theory of God and His nature. It determined that it was impossible for the nature of Deity to be united to a nature which could feel hunger and thirst and weakness, because that God cannot be affected by any human weakness or wants. It denied, therefore, the real humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ and the reality of His human life and actions; teaching that His human body was not real, but merely a phenomenal or apparent one, and then explaining away all the statements and facts of Gospel history which seemed to them to conflict with their own private theory. In the West we have had ourselves experience of the same erroneous method of argument. The adherents of the Church of Rome argue for the infallibility of the Pope in the same way. They dilate on the awful importance of religious truth, and the fearful consequences of a mistake in such matters. Hence they conclude that it is only natural and fitting that a living, speaking, teaching, infallible guide should be appointed by God to direct the Church, and thence they conclude the infallibility of the Pope; a method of argument which has been amply exposed by Dr. Salmon in his work on the Infallibility of the Church. The Roman Catholics form their theory first, and when they come to facts which conflict with their theory, they deny them or explain them away in the most extraordinary manner.

Protestants themselves, however, are subject to the same erroneous methods. They form a theory about the Holy Ghost and His operations. They conclude, as is true, that He is Himself right and just and true in all His doings, and then they conclude that all the men whom He chose in the earliest age of the Church, and who are mentioned in Scripture as endued with His grace, must have been as free from every form of error as the Holy Spirit Himself. They thus fashion for themselves a mere a priori theory like the Eutychian and the Romanist, and then, when they apply their theory to passages like St. Stephen’s speech, they feel compelled to deny facts and offer forced explanations, and to reject God’s teaching as it is embodied in the divinely taught lessons of history. Let us be honest, fearless students of the Scriptures. St. Stephen was full of the Holy Ghost, and as such his great, broad, spiritual lessons were taught by the Spirit, and commend themselves as Divine teaching to every Christian heart. But these lessons were given through human lips, and had to be conveyed through human faculties, and as such are not free from the imperfections which attach themselves to everything human here below. Surely it is just the same still. God the Holy Ghost dwells with His people as of old. There are men, even in this age, of whom it still may be said, that in a special sense "they are full of the Holy Ghost," a blessing granted in answer to faithful prayer and devout communion and a life lived closely with God. The Holy Spirit speaks through them and in them. Their sermons, even on the simplest topics, speak with power, they teem with spiritual unction, they come home with conviction to the human conscience. Yet surely no one would dream of saying that these men are free from slips of speech and lapses of memory in their extemporaneous addresses, or in their private instructions, or in their written letters, because the Holy Ghost thus proves His presence and His power in His people as of old. The human heart and conscience easily and at once distinguish between that which is due to human weakness and what to Divine grace, according to that most pregnant saying of an Apostle himself gifted above all others, "We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God and not of us." This view may be startling to some persons who have been accustomed to look to the Bible as some persons look to the Pope, as an oracle which will give them infallible guidance on every topic without the exercise of any thought or intelligence on their own part. Yet it is no original or novel notion of my own, but one that has been luminously set forth by a devout expositor of Scripture, dealing with this very passage many years ago. Dr. Vaughan, in his lectures on the Acts, preaching at Doncaster when vicar of that place, thus states his conclusions on this point:-"Now I will address one earnest word to persons who may have noticed with anxiety in this chapter, or who may have heard it noticed by others in a tone of cavil or disbelief, that in one or two minor points the account here given of Jewish history seems to vary from that contained in the narrative of the Old Testament. For example, the history of the book of Genesis tells us that the burying-place bought by Abraham was in Mamre or Hebron, not at Sychem; and that it was bought by him of Ephron the Hittite, Jacob (not Abraham) being the purchaser of the ground at Shechem of the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father. My friends, can you really suppose that a difference of this nature has anything to do, this way or that, with the substantial truth of the gospel revelation? I declare to you that I would not waste the time in endeavouring (if I was able) to reconcile such a variance. It is to be regretted that Christian persons, in their zeal for the literal accuracy of our Holy Book, have spoken and written as if they thought that anything could possibly depend upon such a question. We all know how easy it is to get two witnesses in a court of justice to give their stories of an occurrence in the same words. We know also how instant is the suspicion of falsehood which that formal coincidence of statement brings upon them. Holy Scripture shows what I may indeed call a noble superiority to all such uniformity. Each book of our Bible is an independent witness; shown to be so, not least, by verbal or even actual differences on some trifling points of detail. And they who drink most deeply at the fountain head of Divine truth learn to estimate these things in the same manner; to feel what we might describe as a lordly disdain for all infidel objections drawn from this sort of petty, paltry, cavilling, carping, creeping criticism. Let our faith at last, God helping us, be strong enough and decided enough to override a few or a multitude of such objections. We will hear them unmoved; we will fearlessly examine them; if we cannot resolve them, then, in the power of a more majestic principle, we will calmly turn from them and pass them by. What we know not now, we may know hereafter; and if we never know we will believe still." These are wise words, very wholesome, very practical, and very helpful in this present age.

III. Let us briefly gather yet another lesson from this passage. The declaration of the Church’s catholicity and the universal nature of Christian worship contained in verses 47-50 [Acts 7:47-50] deserve our attention. What did St. Stephen say?-"But Solomon built Him a house. Howbeit the Most High dwelleth not in houses made with hands; as saith the prophet, The heaven is My throne, and the earth the footstool of My feet; what manner of house will ye build Me? saith the Lord; or what is the place of My rest? Did not My hand make all these things?" These words must have sounded as very extraordinary and very revolutionary in Jewish ears, because they most certainly struck at the root of the exclusive privilege claimed for Jerusalem, that it was the one place upon earth where acceptable worship could be offered, and where the Divine presence could be manifested. It seems no wonder that they should have aroused the Sanhedrin to the pitch of fury which ended in the orator’s judicial murder. But these words have been at times pressed farther than Stephen intended. He merely wished to teach that God’s special and covenanted presence was not for the future to be limited to Jerusalem. In the new dispensation of the Messiah whom he preached, that special covenanted presence would be found everywhere. Where two or three should be gathered in Christ’s name there would God’s presence be found. These words of Stephen have sometimes been quoted as if they sounded the death-knell of special places dedicated to the honour and glory of God, such as churches are. It is evident, however, that they have no such application. They sounded the death-knell of the exclusive privilege of one place, the temple, but they proclaimed the freedom which the Church has ever since claimed, and the Jewish Church of the dispersion, by the institution of synagogues, had led the way in claiming; teaching that wherever true hearts and true worshippers are found, there God reveals Himself. But we must bear in mind a distinction. Stephen and the Apostles rejected the exclusive right of the Temple as the one place of worship for the world. They asserted the right to establish special places of worship throughout the world. They rejected the exclusive claims of Jerusalem. But they did not reject the right and the duty of God’s people to assemble themselves as a collective body for public worship, and to realise Christ’s covenanted presence. This is an important limitation of St. Stephen’s statement. The absolute duty of public collective worship of the Almighty cannot be too strongly insisted upon. Men neglect it, and they support themselves by an appeal to St. Stephen’s words, which have nothing to do with public worship more than with private worship. The Jews imagined that both public and private worship offered in the Temple had some special blessing attached, because a special presence of God was there granted. St. Stephen attacked this prejudice. His words must, however, be limited to the exact point he was then dealing with, and must not be pressed farther. Private prayer was binding on all God’s people in the new and freer dispensation, and so, too, public worship has a special covenant blessing attached to it, and the blessing cannot be obtained if people neglect the duty. Public worship has been by Protestants looked at too much, as if it were only a means of their own edification, and thus, when they have thought that such edification could be as well or better attained at home, by reading a better sermon than they might chance to hear in the public congregation, they have excused their absence to their own conscience. But public worship is much more than a means of edification. It is the payment of a debt of worship, praise, and adoration due by the creature to the Creator. In that duty personal edification finds a place, but a mere accidental and subsidiary place. The great end of public worship is worship, not hearing, not edification even, though edification follows as a necessary result of such public worship when sincerely offered. The teaching of St. Stephen did not then apply to the erection of churches and buildings set apart for God’s service, or to the claim made for public worship as an exercise with a peculiar Divine promise annexed. It simply protests against any attempt to localise the Divine presence to one special spot on earth, making it and it alone the centre of all religious interest. St. Stephen’s words are indeed but a necessary result of the ascension of Christ as we have already expounded its expediency. Had Christ remained on earth, His’ personal presence would have rendered the Church a mere local and not a universal institution; just as the doctrine of Roman Catholics about the Pope as Christ’s Vicar, and Rome as his appointed seat, has so far invested Rome with somewhat of the characteristics of Jerusalem and the Temple. But our Lord ascended up on high that the hearts and minds of His people might likewise ascend to that region where, above time and sense and change, their Master evermore dwells, as the loadstone which secretly draws their hearts, and guides their tempest tossed spirits across the stormy waters of this world to the haven of everlasting rest.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Acts 6:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/acts-6.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, December 12th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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