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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Acts 7

 

 

Verse 1-2

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.


Verse 58

Chapter 1

THE TRAINING OF SAUL THE RABBI

Acts 7:58; Acts 22:3

THE appearance of St. Paul upon the stage of Christian history marks a period of new development and of more enlarged activity. The most casual reader of the Acts of the Apostles must see that a personality of vast power, force, individuality, has now entered the bounds of the Church, and that henceforth St. Paul, his teaching, methods, and actions, will throw all others into the shade. Modern German critics have seized upon this undoubted fact and made it the foundation on which they have built elaborate theories concerning St. Paul and the Acts of the Apostles. Some of them have made St. Paul the inventor of a new form of Christianity, more elaborate, artificial, and dogmatic than the simple religion of nature which, as they think, Jesus Christ taught. Others have seen in St. Paul the great rival and antagonist of St. Peter, and have seen in the Acts a deliberate attempt to reconcile the opposing factions of Peter and Paul by representing St. Paul’s career as modelled upon that of Peter. These theories are, we believe, utterly groundless; but they show at the same time what an important event in early Church history St. Paul’s conversion was, and how necessary a thorough comprehension of his life and training if we wish to understand the genesis of our holy religion.

Who and whence, then, was this enthusiastic man who is first introduced to our notice in connection with St. Stephen’s martyrdom? What can we glean from Scripture and from secular history concerning his earlier career? I am not going to attempt to do what Conybeare and Howson thirty years ago, or Archdeacon Farrar in later times, have executed with a wealth of learning and a profuseness of imagination which I could not pretend to possess. Even did I possess them it would be impossible, for want of space, to write such a biography of St. Paul as these authors have given to the public. Let us, however, strive to gather up such details of St. Paul’s early life and training as the New Testament, illustrated by history, sets before us. Perhaps we shall find that more is told us than strikes the ordinary superficial reader. His parentage is known to us from St. Paul’s own statement. His father and mother were Jews of the Dispersion, as the Jews scattered abroad amongst the Gentiles were usually called; they were residents at Tarsus in Cilicia, and by profession belonged to the Pharisees who then formed the more spiritual and earnest religious section of the Jewish people. We learn this from three passages. In his defence before the Council, recorded in Acts 23:6, he tells us that he was "a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees." There was no division in religious feeling between the parents. His home life and his earliest years knew nothing of religious jars and strife. Husband and wife were joined not only in the external bonds of marriage, but in the profounder union still of spiritual sentiment and hope, a memory which may have inspired a deeper meaning, begotten of personal experience in the warning delivered to the Corinthians, "Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers." Of the history of his parents and ancestors we know practically nothing more for certain, but we can glean a little from other notices. St. Paul tells us that he belonged to a special division among the Jews, of which we have spoken a good deal in the former volume when dealing with St. Stephen. The Jews at this period were divided into Hebrews and Hellenists: that is, Hebrews who by preference and in their ordinary practice spoke the Hebrew tongue, and Hellenists who spoke Greek and adopted Greek civilisation and customs. St. Paul tells us in Philippians 3:5 that he was "of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews," a statement which he substantially repeats in 2 Corinthians 11:22. Now it was almost an impossibility for a Jew of the Dispersion to belong to the Hebrews. His lot was cast in a foreign land, his business mixed him up with the surrounding pagans so that the use of the Greek language was an absolute necessity; while the universal practice of his fellow-countrymen in conforming themselves to Greek customs, Greek philosophy, and Greek civilisation rendered the position of one who would stand out for the old Jewish national ideas and habits a very trying and a very peculiar one. Here, however, comes in an ancient tradition, recorded by St. Jerome, which throws some light upon the difficulty. Scripture tells us that St. Paul was born at Tarsus. Our Lord in His conversation with Ananias in Acts 9:2, calls him "Saul of Tarsus," while again the Apostle himself in the twenty-second chapter describes himself as "a Jew born in Tarsus." But then the question arises, how came his parents to Tarsus, and how, being in Tarsus, could they be described as Hebrews while all around and about them their countrymen were universally Hellenists? St. Jerome here steps in to help us. He relates, in his "Catalogue of Illustrious Writers," that "Paul the Apostle, previously called Saul, being outside the number of the Twelve, was of the tribe of Benjamin and of the city of the Jewish Gischala; on the capture of which by the Romans he migrated with them to Tarsus." Now this statement of Jerome, written four hundred years after the event, is clearly inaccurate in many respects, and plainly contradicts the Apostle’s own words that he was born in Tarsus.

But yet the story probably embodies a tradition substantially true, that St. Paul’s parents were originally from Galilee. Galilee was intensely Hebrew. It was provincial, and the provinces are always far less affected by advance in thought or in religion than the towns, which are the chosen homes of innovation and of progress. Hellenism might flourish in Jerusalem, but in Galilee it would not be tolerated; and the tough, sturdy Galileans alone would have moral and religious grit enough to maintain the old Hebrew customs and language; even amid the abounding inducements to an opposite course which a great commercial centre like Tarsus held out. Assuredly our own experience affords many parallels illustrating the religious history of St. Paul’s family. The Evangelical revival, the development of ritual in the Church of England, made their mark first of all in the towns, and did not affect the distant country districts till long after. The Presbyterianism of the Highlands is almost a different religion from the more enlightened and more cultured worship of Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Low Church and Orange developments of Ulster bring us back to the times of the last century, and seem passing strange to the citizens of London, Manchester, or Dublin, who first make their acquaintance in districts where obsolete ideas and cries still retain a power quite forgotten in the vast tide of life and thought which sways the great cities. And yet these rural backwaters, as we may call them, retain their influence, and show strong evidence of life even in the great cities; and so it is that even in London and Edinburgh and Glasgow and Dublin congregations continue to exist in their remoter districts and back streets where the prejudices and ideas of the country find full sway and exercise. The Presbyterianism of the Highlands and the Orangeism of Ulster will be sought in vain in fashionable churches, but in smaller assemblies they will be found exercising a sway and developing a life which will often astonish a superficial observer.

So it was doubtless in Tarsus. The Hebrews of Galilee would delight to separate themselves. They would look down upon the Hellenism of their fellow-countrymen as a sad falling away from ancient orthodoxy, but their declension would only add a keener zest to the zeal with which the descendants of the Hebrews of Gischala, even in the third and fourth generations, as it may have been, would retain the ancient customs and language of their Galilean forefathers.

St. Paul and his parents might seem to an outsider mere Hellenists, but their Galilean origin and training enabled them to retain the intenser Judaism which qualified the Apostle to describe himself as not only of the stock of Israel, but as a Hebrew of the Hebrews.

St. Paul’s more immediate family connections have also some light thrown upon them in the New Testament. We learn, for instance, from Acts 23:16, that he had a married sister, who probably lived at Jerusalem, and may have been even a convert to Christianity; for we are told that her son, having heard of the Jewish plot to murder the Apostle, at once reported it to St. Paul himself, who thereupon put his nephew into communication with the chief captain in whose custody he lay. While again, in Romans 16:7; Romans 16:11, he sends salutations to Andronicus, Junias, and Herodion, his kinsmen, who were residents in Rome; and in verse 21 [Romans 16:21] of the same chapter joins Lucius and Jason and Sosipater, his kinsmen, with himself in the Christian wishes for the welfare of the Roman Church, with which he closes the Epistle. It is said, indeed, that this may mean simply that these men were Jews, and that St. Paul regarded all Jews as his kinsmen. But this notion is excluded by the form of the twenty-first verse, where he first sends greetings from Timothy, whom St. Paul dearly loved, and who was a circumcised Jew, not a proselyte merely, but a true Jew, on his mother’s side, at least; and then the Apostle proceeds to name the persons whom he designates his kinsmen. St. Paul evidently belonged to a family of some position in the Jewish world, whose ramifications were dispersed into very distant quarters of the empire. Every scrap of information which we can gain concerning the early life and associations of such a man is very precious; we may therefore point out that we can even get a glimpse of the friends and acquaintances of his earliest days. Barnabas the Levite was of Cyprus, an island only seventy miles distant from Tarsus, In all probability Barnabas may have resorted to the Jewish schools of Tarsus, or may have had some other connections with the Jewish colony of that city. Some such early friendship may have been the link which bound Paul to Barnabas and enabled the latter to stand sponsor for the newly converted Saul when the Jerusalem Church was yet naturally suspicious of him. "And when he was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: and they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the Apostles." [Acts 9:26-27] This ancient friendship enabled Barnabas to pursue the Apostle with those offices of consolation which his nascent faith demanded. He knew Saul’s boyhood haunts, and therefore it is we read in Acts 11:25 that "Barnabas went forth to Tarsus to seek for Saul" when a multitude of the Gentiles began to pour into the Church of Antioch. Barnabas knew his old friend’s vigorous, enthusiastic character, his genius, his power of adaptation, and therefore he brought him back to Antioch, where for a whole year they were joined in one holy brotherhood of devout and successful labour for their Master. The friendships and love of boyhood and of youth received a new consecration and were impressed with a loftier ideal from the example of Saul and of Barnabas.

Then again there are other friends of his youth to whom he refers. Timothy’s family lived at Lystra, and Lystra was directly connected with Tarsus by a great road which ran straight from Tarsus to Ephesus, offering means for that frequent communication in which the Jews ever delighted. St. Paul’s earliest memories carried him back to the devout atmosphere of the pious Jewish family at Lystra, which he had long known, where Lois the grandmother and Eunice the mother had laid the foundations of that spiritual life which under St. Paul’s own later teaching flourished so wondrously in the life of Timothy. Let us pass on, however, to a period of later development. St. Paul’s earliest teaching at first was doubtless that of the home. As with Timothy so with the Apostle; his earliest religious teacher was doubtless his mother, who from his infancy imbued him with the great rudimentary truths which lie at the basis of both the Jewish and the Christian faith. His father too took his share. He was a Pharisee, and would be anxious to fulfil every jot and tittle of the law and every minute rule which the Jewish doctors had deduced by an attention and a subtlety concentrated for ages upon the text of the Old Testament. And one great doctor had laid down, "When a boy begins to speak, his father ought to talk with him in the sacred language, and to teach him the law"; a rule which would exactly fall in with his father’s natural inclination. He was a Hebrew of the Hebrews, though dwelling among Hellenists. He prided himself on speaking the Hebrew language alone, and he therefore would take the greatest pains that the future Apostle’s earliest teachings should be in that same sacred tongue, giving him from boyhood that command over Hebrew and its dialects which he afterwards turned to the best of uses.

At five years old Jewish children of parents like St. Paul’s advanced to the direct study of the law under the guidance of some doctor, whose school they daily attended, as another rabbi had expressly enacted, "At five years old a boy should apply himself to the study of Holy Scripture." Between five and thirteen Saul was certainly educated at Tarsus, during which period his whole attention was concentrated upon sacred learning and upon mechanical or industrial training. It was at this period of his life that St. Paul must have learned the trade of tent making, which during the last thirty years of his life stood him in such good stead, rendering him independent of all external aid so far as his bodily wants were concerned. A question has often been raised as to the social position of St. Paul’s family; and people, bringing their Western ideas with them, have thought that the manual trade which he was taught betokened their humble rank. But this is quite a mistake. St. Paul’s family must have occupied at least a fairly comfortable position, when they were able to send a member of their house to Jerusalem to be taught in the most celebrated rabbinical school of the time. But it was the law of that school - and a very useful law it was too - that every Jew, and especially every teacher, should possess a trade by which he might be supported did necessity call for it. It was a common proverb among the Jews at that time that "He who taught not his son a trade taught him to be a thief." "It is incumbent on the father to circumcise his son, to redeem him, to teach him the law, and to teach him some occupation, for, as Rabbi Judah saith, whosoever teacheth not his son to do some work is as if he taught him robbery." "Rabbin Gamaliel saith, He that hath a trade in his hand, to what is he like? He is like to a vineyard that is fenced." Such was the authoritative teaching of the schools, and Jewish practice was in accordance therewith. Some of the most celebrated rabbis of that time were masters of a mechanical art or trade. The vice-president of the Sanhedrin was a merchant for four years, and then devoted himself to the study of the law. One rabbi was a shoemaker; Rabbi Juda, the great Cabalist, was a tailor; Rabbi Jose was brought up as a tanner; another rabbi as a baker, and yet another as a carpenter. And so as a preparation for the office and life work to which his father had destined him, St. Paul during his earlier years was taught one of the common trades of Tarsus, which consisted in making tents either out of the hair or the skin of the Angora goats which browsed over the hills of central Asia Minor. It was a trade that was common among Jews. Aquila and his wife Priscilla were tent-makers, and therefore St. Paul united himself to them and wrought at his trade in their company at Corinth. [Acts 18:3] It has often been asserted that at this period of his life St. Paul must have studied Greek philosophy and literature, and men have pointed to his quotations from the Greek poets Aratus, Epimenides, and Menander, to prove the attention which the Apostle must have bestowed upon them. {See Acts 17:28, Titus 1:12, 1 Corinthians 15:33} Tarsus was certainly one of the great universities of that age, ranking in the first place along with Athens and Alexandria. So great was its fame that the Roman emperors even were wont to go to Tarsus to look for rotors to instruct their sons. But Tarsus was at the very same time one of the most morally degraded spots within the bounds of the Roman world, and it is not at all likely that a strict Hebrew, a stern Pharisee, would have allowed his son to encounter the moral taint involved in freely mixing with such a degraded people and in the free study of a literature permeated through and through with sensuality and idolatry. St. Paul doubtless at this early period of his life gained that colloquial knowledge of Greek which was every day becoming more and more necessary for the ordinary purposes of secular life all over the Roman Empire, even in the most backward parts of Palestine. But it is not likely that his parents would have sanctioned his attendance at the lectures on philosophy and poetry delivered at the University of Tarsus, where he would have been initiated into all the abominations of paganism in a style most attractive to human nature.

At thirteen years of age, or thereabouts, young Saul, having now learned all the sacred knowledge which the local rabbis could teach, went up to Jerusalem just as our Lord did, to assume the full obligations of a Jew and to pursue his higher studies at the great Rabbinical University of Jerusalem. To put it in modern language, Saul went up to Jerusalem to be confirmed and admitted to the full privileges and complete obligations of the Levitical Law, and he also went up to enter college. St. Paul himself describes the period of life on which he now entered as that in which he was brought up at the feet of Gamaliel. We have already touched in a prior volume upon the subject of Gamaliel’s history and his relation to Christianity, but here it is necessary to say something of him as a teacher, in which capacity he laid the foundations of modes of thought and reasoning, the influence of which moulded St. Paul’s whole soul and can be traced all through St. Paul’s Epistles.

Gamaliel is an undoubtedly historical personage. The introduction of him in the Acts of the Apostles is simply another instance of that marvellous historical accuracy which every fresh investigation and discovery show to be a distinguishing feature of this book. The Jewish Talmud was not committed to writing for more than four centuries after Gamaliel’s time, and yet it presents Gamaliel to us in exactly the same light as the inspired record does, telling us that "with the death of Gamaliel I the reverence for the Divine law ceased, and the observance of purity and abstinence departed." Gamaliel came of a family distinguished in Jewish history both before and after his own time. He was of the royal House of David, and possessed in this way great historical claims upon the respect of the nation. His grandfather Hillel and his father Simeon were celebrated teachers and expounders of the law. His grandfather had founded indeed one of the leading schools of interpretation then favoured by the rabbis. His father Simeon is said by some to have been the aged man who took up the infant Christ in his arms and blessed God for His revealed salvation in the words of the "Nunc Dimittis"; while, as for Gamaliel himself, his teaching was marked by wisdom, prudence, liberality, and spiritual depth, so far as such qualities could exist in a professor of rabbinical learning. Gamaliel was a friend and contemporary of Philo, and this fact alone must have imported an element of liberality into his teaching. Philo was a widely read scholar who strove to unite the philosophy of Greece to the religion of Palestine, and Philo’s ideas must have permeated more or less into some at least of the schools of Jerusalem, so that, though St. Paul may not have come in contact with Greek literature in Tarsus, he may very probably have learned much about it in a Judaised, purified, spiritualised shape in Jerusalem. But the influence exercised on St. Paul by Gamaliel and through him by Philo, or men of his school, can be traced in other respects.

The teaching of Gamaliel was as spiritual, I have said, as rabbinical teaching could have been; but this is not saying very much from the Christian point of view. The schools at Jerusalem in the time of Gamaliel were wholly engaged in studies of the most wearisome, narrow, petty, technical kind. Dr. Farrar has illustrated this subject with a great wealth of learning and examples in the fourth chapter of his "Life of St. Paul." The Talmud alone shows this, throwing a fearful light upon the denunciations of our Lord as regards the Pharisees, for it devotes a whole treatise to washings of the hands, and another to the proper method of killing fowls. The Pharisaic section of the Jews held, indeed, that there were two hundred and forty-eight commandments and three hundred and sixty-five prohibitions involved in the Jewish Law, all of them equally binding, and all of them so searching that if only one solitary Jew could be found who for one day kept them all and transgressed in no one direction, then the captivity of God’s people would cease and the Messiah would appear.

I am obliged to pass over this point somewhat rapidly, and yet it is a most important one if we desire to know what kind of training the Apostle received; for, no matter how God’s grace may descend and the Divine Spirit may change the main directions of a man’s life, he never quite recovers himself from the effects of his early teaching. Dr. Farrar has bestowed much time and labour on this point. The following brief extract from his eloquent word, will give a vivid idea of the endless puerilities, the infinite questions of pettiest, most minute, and most subtle bearing with which the time of St. Paul and his fellow-students must have been taken up, and which must have made him bitterly feel in the depths of his inmost being that, though the law may have been originally intended as a source of life, it had been certainly changed as regards his own particular case, and had become unto him an occasion of death.

"Moreover, was there not mingled with all this nominal adoration of the Law a deeply seated hypocrisy, so deep that it was in a great measure unconscious? Even before the days of Christ the rabbis had learnt the art of straining out gnats and swallowing camels. They had long learnt to nullify what they professed to defend. The ingenuity of Hillel was quite capable of getting rid of any Mosaic regulation which had been found practically burdensome. Pharisees and Sadducees alike had managed to set aside in their own favour, by the devices of the mixtures, all that was disagreeable to themselves in the Sabbath scrupulosity. The fundamental institution of the Sabbatic year had been stultified by the mere legal fiction of the Prosbol. Teachers who were on the high road to a casuistry which could construct rules out of every superfluous particle, had found it easy to win credit for ingenuity by elaborating prescriptions to which Moses would have listened in mute astonishment. If there be one thing more definitely laid down in the Law than another, it is the uncleanness of creeping things; yet the Talmud assures us that no one is appointed a member of the Sanhedrin who does not possess sufficient ingenuity to prove from the written Law that a creeping thing is ceremonially clean; and that there was an unimpeachable disciple at Jabne who could adduce one hundred and fifty arguments in favour of the ceremonial cleanness of creeping things. Sophistry like this was at work even in the days when the young student of Tarsus sat at the feet of Gamaliel; and can we imagine any period of his life when he would not have been wearied by a system at once so meaningless, so stringent, and so insincere?"

These words are true, thoroughly true, in their extremest sense. Casuistry is at all times a dangerous weapon with which to play, a dangerous science upon which to concentrate one’s attention. The mind is so pleased with the fascination of the precipice that one is perpetually tempted to see how near an approach can be made without a catastrophe, and then the catastrophe happens when it is least expected. But when the casuist’s attention is concentrated upon one volume like the law of Moses, interpreted in the thousand methods and combinations open to the luxuriant imagination of the East, then indeed the danger is infinitely increased, and we cease to wonder at the vivid, burning, scorching denunciations of the Lord as He proclaimed the sin of those who enacted that "Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor." St. Paul’s whole time must have been taken up in the school of Gamaliel with an endless study of such casuistical trifles; and yet that period of his life left marks which we can clearly trace throughout his writings. The method, for instance, in which St. Paul quotes the Old Testament is thoroughly rabbinical. It was derived from the rules prevalent in the Jewish schools, and therefore, though it may seem to us at times forced and unnatural, must have appeared to St. Paul and to the men of his time absolutely conclusive. When reading the Scriptures we Westerns forget the great difference between Orientals and the nations of Western Europe. Aristotle and his logic and his logical methods, with major and minor premises and conclusions following therefrom, absolutely dominate our thoughts. The Easterns knew nothing of Aristotle, and his methods availed nothing to their minds. They argued in quite a different style, and used a logic which he would have simply scorned. Analogy, allegory, illustration, form the staple elements of Eastern logic, and in their use St. Paul was elaborately trained in Gamaliel’s classes, and of their use his writings furnish abundant examples; the most notable of which will be found in his allegorical interpretation of the events of the wilderness journey of Israel in 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, where the pillar of cloud, and the passage of the Red Sea, and the manna, and the smitten rock become the emblems and types of the Christian Sacraments; and again, in St. Paul’s mystical explanation of Galatians 4:21-31, where Hagar and Sarah are represented as typical of the two covenants, the old covenant leading to spiritual bondage and the new introducing to gospel freedom.

These, indeed, are the most notable examples of St. Paul’s method of exegesis derived from the school of Gamaliel, but there are numberless others scattered all through his writings. If we view them through Western spectacles, we shall be disappointed and miss their force; but if we view them sympathetically, if we remember that the Jews quoted and studied the Old Testament to find illustrations of their own ideas rather than proofs in our sense of the word, studied them as an enthusiastic Shakespeare or Tennyson or Wordsworth student pores over his favourite author to find parallels which others, who are less bewitched, find very slight and very dubious indeed, then we shall come to see how it is that St. Paul quotes an illustration of his doctrine of justification by faith from Habakkuk 2:4 - "The soul of the proud man is not upright, but the just man shall live by his steadfastness"; a passage which originally applied to the Chaldeans and the Jews, predicting that the former should enjoy no stable prosperity, but that the Jews, ideally represented as the just or upright man, should live securely because of their fidelity; and can find an allusion to the resurrection of Christ in "the sure mercies of David," which God had promised to give His people in the third verse of the fifty-fifth of Isaiah.

Rabbinical learning, Hebrew discipline, Greek experience and life, these conspired together with natural impulse and character to frame and form and mould a man who must make his mark upon the world at large in whatever direction he chooses for his walk in life. It will now be our duty to show what were the earliest results of this very varied education.


Verses 58-60

Chapter 16

THE FIRST CHRISTIAN MARTYRDOM.

Acts 7:58-60; Acts 8:1

THE apology of Stephen struck the keynote of Christian freedom, traced out the fair proportions of the Catholic Church, while the actual martyrdom of Stephen taught men that Christianity was not only the force which was to triumph, but the power in which they were to suffer, and bear, and die. Stephen’s career was a type of all martyr lives, and embraces every possible development through which Christ’s Church and His servants had afterwards to pass, - obscurity, fame, activity, death, fixing high the standard for all ages.

I. We have in this passage, telling the story of that martyrdom, a vast number of topics, which have formed the subject-matter of Christian thought since apostolic times. We have already remarked that the earliest quotation from the Acts of the Apostles connects itself with this scene of Stephen’s martyrdom. Let us see how this came about. One hundred and forty years later than Stephen’s death, towards the close of the second century, the Churches of Vienne and Lyons were sending an account of the terrible sufferings through which they had passed during a similar sudden outburst of the Celtic pagans of that district against the Christians. The aged Pothinus, a man whose life and ministry touched upon the apostolic age, was put to death, suffering violence very like that to which St. Stephen was subjected, for we are told expressly by the historian Eusebius that the mob in its violence flung missiles at him. "Those at a distance, whatsoever they had at hand, every one hurled at him, thinking it would be a great sin if they fell short in wanton abuse against him." The Church of Lyons, according to the loving usage of those early times, sent an account for all their trouble to the brethren in Asia and Phrygia, that they might read it at the celebration of the Eucharist for their own comfort and edification. They entered into great details, showing how wonderfully the power of God’s grace was manifested, even in the weakest persons, sustaining their courage and enabling them to witness. The letter then goes on to note the marvellous humility of the sufferers. They would not allow any one to call them martyrs. That name was reserved to Jesus Christ, "the true and faithful Martyr," and to those who had been made perfect through death. Then, too, their charity was wonderful, and the Epistle, referring to this very incident, tells how they prayed "like Stephen, that perfect martyr, Lord, impute not this sin to them." The memory of St. Stephen served to nerve the earliest Gallic martyrs, and it has ever since been bound up with the dearest feelings of Christians. The arrangements of the Calendar, with which we are all familiar, are merely an expression of the same feeling as that recorded in the second-century document we have just now quoted. Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s Day are closely united, -the commemoration of Christ’s birth is joined with that of the martyrdom of St. Stephen, because of a certain spiritual instinct. Christmas Day records the fact of the Incarnation, and then we have according to the order of the Calendar three holy days; St. Stephen’s, St. John’s, and the Holy Innocents’ Day, which follow one another in immediate succession. Many persons will remember the explanation of an old commentator on the Calendar and Liturgy, of which Keble makes a very effective use in his hymns in the "Christian Year" set apart for those days. There are three classes of martyrs: one in will and deed like St. Stephen, -this is the highest class, therefore he has place next to Christ; another in will, but not in deed, like St. John the Divine, who was ready to suffer death, but did not, -this is the second rank, therefore his place comes next to St. Stephen; and lastly come the Holy Innocents, the babes of Bethlehem, martyrs in deed but not in will, and therefore in the lowest position. The Western Church, and especially the Church of Northern Europe, has always loved the Christmas season, with its cheerful fires, its social joys, its family memories; and hence, as it was in the Church of the second century, so with ourselves, none has a higher or dearer place in memory, doubtless largely owing to this conjunction, than the great proto-martyr. Men have delighted, therefore, to trace spiritual analogies and relationships between Stephen and Christ; fanciful perhaps some of them are, but still they are devout fancies, edifying fancies, fancies which strengthen and deepen the Divine life in the soul. Thus they have noted that Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s Day are both natal days. In the language of the ancient Church, with its strong realising faith, men spoke of a saint’s death or martyrdom as his dies natalis. This is, indeed, one of the many traces of primitive usage which the Church of Rome has preserved, like a fly fixed in amber, petrified in the midst of her liturgical uses. She has a Martyrology which the ordinary laity scarcely ever see or use, but which is in daily use among the clergy and the various ecclesiastical communities connected with that Church. It is in the Latin tongue, and is called the "Martyrologium Romanum," giving the names of the various saints whose memories are celebrated upon each day throughout the year, and every such day is duly styled the natal or birthday of the saint to whom it is appropriated. The Church of Rome retains this beautiful custom of the primitive Church, which viewed the death-day of a saint as his birthday into the true life, and rejoiced in it accordingly. That life was not, in the conception of the primitive believers, a life of ghosts and shadows. It was the life of realities, because it was the life of eternity, and therefore the early Christians lived for it, they longed for it, and counted their entrance upon it their true natal or birthday. The Church brought the two birthdays of Christ and Stephen into closest union, and men saw a beautiful reason for that union, teaching that Christ was born into this lower world in order that Stephen might be born into the heavenly world. The whole of that dreadful scene enacted at Jerusalem was transformed by the power of that beautiful conception. Stephen’s death was no longer a brutal murder; faith no longer saw the rage, the violence, the crushed body, the mangled and outraged humanity. The birthday of Jesus Christ, the Incarnation of the Master, transfigured the death-scene of the servant, for the shame and sufferings were changed into peace and glory; the execrations and rage of the mob became angelic songs, and the missiles used by them were fashioned into messengers of the Most High, ushering the faithful martyr through a new birth into his eternal rest. Well would it be for the Church at large if she could rise to this early conception more frequently than she commonly does. Men did not then trouble themselves about questions of assurance, or their Christian consciousness. These topics and ideas are begotten on a lower level, and find sustenance in a different region. Men like Stephen and the martyrs of Vienne and Lyons lived in the other world; it was the world of all their interests, of all their passionate desires, of all their sense of realities. They lived the supernatural life, and they did not trouble themselves with any questions about that life, any more than a man in sound physical health and spirits cares to discuss topics dealing with the constitution of the life which he enjoys, or to debate such unprofitable questions as, How do I know that I exist at all? Christians then knew and felt they lived in God, and that was enough for them. We have wandered far enough afield, however; let us retrace our steps, and seek to discover more in detail the instruction for the life of future ages given us in this first martyr scene.

II. We have brought before us the cause of the sudden outburst against Stephen. For it was an outburst, a popular commotion, not a legal execution. We have already explained the circumstances which led the Sanhedrin to permit the mob to take their own course, and even to assist them in doing so. Pilate had departed; the imperial throne too was vacant in the spring or early summer of the year 37; there was an interregnum when the bonds of authority were relaxed, during which the Jews took leave to do as they pleased, trusting that when the bonds were again drawn tight the misdeeds of the past and the irregularities committed would be forgotten and forgiven. Hence the riot in which Stephen lost his life. But what roused the listeners-Sanhedrists, elders, priests, and people alike - to madness? They heard him patiently enough, just as they afterwards heard his successor Paul, till he spoke of the wider spiritual hope. Paul, as his speech is reported in the twenty-second chapter, was listened to till he spoke of being sent to the Gentiles. Stephen was listened to till he spoke of the free, universal, spiritual character of the Divine worship, tied to no place, bounded by no locality. Then the Sanhedrin waxed impatient, and Stephen, recognising with all an orator’s instinct and tact that his opportunity was over, changes his note-charging home upon his hearers the same spirit of criminal resistance to the leadings of the Most High as their fathers had always shown. The older Jews had ever resisted the Holy Ghost as He displayed His teaching and opened up His purposes under the Old Dispensation; their descendants had now followed their example in withstanding the same Divine Spirit manifested in that Holy One of whom they had lately been the betrayers and murderers. It is scarcely any wonder that such language should have been the occasion of his death. How exactly he follows the example of our Saviour! Stephen used strong language, and so did Jesus Christ. It has even been urged of late years that our Lord deliberately roused the Jews to action, and hastened his end by his violent language of denunciation against the ruling classes recorded in the twenty-third chapter of St. Matthew. There is, however, a great lesson of eternal significance to be derived from the example of St. Stephen as well as of our Lord. There are times when strong language is useful and necessary. Christ’s ordinary ministry was gentle, persuasive, mild. He did not strive nor cry, neither did any man hear His voice in the streets. But a time came when, persuasion having failed of its purpose, the language of denunciation took its place, and helped to work out in a way the Pharisees little expected the final triumph of truth. Stephen was skilful and gentle in his speech; his words must at first have sounded strangely flattering to their prejudices, coming from one who was accused as a traitor to his race and religion. Yet when the gentle words failed, stern denunciation, the plainest language, the keenest phrases, - "Stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears," "Betrayers and murderers of the Righteous One,"-prove that a Christian martyr then, and Christ’s martyrs and witnesses of every age, are not debarred under certain circumstances from the use of such weapons. But it is hard to know when the proper time has come for their employment. The object of every true servant and witness of Christ will be to recommend the truth as effectually as possible, and to win for it acceptance. Some people seem to invert this course, and to think that it is unworthy a true follower of Christ to seek to present his message in an attractive shape. They regard every human art and every human motive or principle as so thoroughly bad that men should disregard and despise them. Human eloquence, or motives of policy and prudence, they utterly reject. Their principles lead some of them farther still. They reject the assistance which art and music and literature can lend to the cause of God, and the result is that men, specially as they grow in culture and civilisation, are estranged from the message of everlasting peace. Some people, with a hard, narrow conception of Christianity, are very responsible for the alienation of the young and the thoughtful from the side of religion through the misconceptions which they have caused. God has made the doctrines of the cross repugnant to the corrupt natural feelings of man, but it is not for us to make them repugnant to those good natural principles as well which the Eternal Father has implanted in human nature, and which are an echo of His own Divine self in the sanctuary of the heart. It is a real breach of charity when men refuse to deal tenderly in such matters with the lambs of Christ’s flock, and will not seek, as St. Stephen and the apostles did, to recommend God’s cause with all human skill, enlisting therein every good or indifferent human motive. Had St. Stephen thought it his duty to act as some unwise people do now, we should never have had his immortal discourse as a model for faithful and skilful preaching. We should merely have had instead the few words of vigorous denunciation with which the address closed. At the same time the presence of these stern words proves that there is a place for such strong language in the work of the Christian ministry. There is a time and place for all things, even for the use of strong language. The true teacher will seek to avoid giving unnecessary offences, but offence sharp and stern may be an absolute duty of charity when prejudice and bigotry and party spirit are choking the avenues of the soul, and hindering the progress of truth. And thus John the Baptist may call men a generation of vipers, and Paul may style Elymas a child of the devil, and Christ may designate the religious world of His day as hypocrites; and when occasion calls we should not hesitate to brand foul things with plain names, in order that men may be awakened from that deadly torpor into which sin threatens to fling them. The use of strong language by St. Stephen had its effect upon his listeners. They were sawn asunder in their hearts, they gnashed their teeth upon the martyr. His words stirred them up to some kind of action. The Gospel has a double operation, it possesses a twofold force-the faithful teaching of it cannot be in vain. To some it will be the savour of life unto life, to others the savour of death unto death. Opposition may be indeed unwisely provoked. It may be the proof to us of nothing else save our own wilfulness, our own folly and imprudence. But if Christian wisdom be used, and the laws of Christian charity duly observed, then the spirit of opposition and the violence of rage and persecution prove nothing else to the sufferers than that God’s word is working out His purposes, and bringing forth fruit, though it be unto destruction.

III. Again, the locality, the circumstances, and the surroundings of Stephen’s martyrdom deserve a brief notice. The place of his execution is pointed out by Christian tradition, and that tradition is supported by the testimony of Jewish custom and of Jewish writings. He was tried in the Temple precincts, or within sight of it, as is manifest from the words of the witnesses before the council, "He ceaseth not to speak against this holy place. We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place." The mob then rushed upon him. Under ordinary circumstances the Roman garrison stationed in the neighbouring town of Antonia, which overlooked the temple, would have noticed the riot, and have hastened to intervene, as they did many years after, when St. Paul’s life was threatened in a similar Jewish outburst. But the political circumstances, as we have already shown, were now different. Roman authority was for the moment paralysed in Jerusalem. People living at great centres such as Rome once was, or London now is, have no idea how largely dependent distant colonies or outlying districts like Judaea are upon personal authority and individual lives. In case of a ruler’s death the action of the officials and of the army becomes necessarily slow, hesitating; it loses that backbone of energy, decision, and vigour which a living personal authority imparts. The decease of the Roman Emperor, synchronising with the recall of Pontius Pilate, must have paralysed the action of the subordinate officer then commanding at Antonia, who, unaware what turn events might take, doubtless thought that he was safe in restraining himself to the guardianship and protection of purely Roman interests.

The scene of Stephen’s murder is sometimes located in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, near the brook Kedron, under the shadow of Olivet, and over against the Garden of Gethsemane. To that spot the gate of Jerusalem, called the Gate of St. Stephen, now leads. Another tradition assigns the open country northeast of Jerusalem, on the road to Damascus and Samaria, as the place consecrated by the first death suffered for Jesus Christ. It is, however, according to the usual practice of Holy Scripture to leave this question undecided, or rather completely disregarded and overlooked. The Scriptures were not written to celebrate men or places, things temporary and transient in themselves, and without any bearing on the spiritual life. The Scriptures were written for the purpose of setting forth the example of devotion, of love, and of sanctity presented by its heroes, and therefore it shrouds all such scenes as that of Stephen’s martyrdom in thickest darkness. There is as little as possible of what is merely local, detailed, particular about the Scriptures. They rise into the abstract and the general as much as is consistent with being a historical narrative. Perhaps no spot in the world exhibits more evident and more abundant proofs of this Divine wisdom embodied in the Scriptures than this same city of Jerusalem as we now behold it. What locality could be more dear to Christian memory, or more closely allied with Christian hope, than the Holy Places, as they are emphatically called-the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and its surroundings? Yet the contending struggles of Roman Catholics, Greeks, and Armenians have made the whole subject a reproach and disgrace, and not an honour to the Christian name, showing how easily strife and partisanship and earthly passions enter in and usurp the ground which is nominally set apart for the honour of Christ Jesus. It is very hard to keep the spirit of the world out of the most sacred seasons or the holiest localities.

Stephen is hurried by the mob to this spot outside the Holy City, and then they proceed in regular judicial style so far as their fury will allow them. Dr. John Lightfoot, in his great work "Horae Hebraicae," dealing with this passage, notes how we can trace in it the leading ideas and practices of Jewish legal processes. The Sanhedrin and their supporters dragged St. Stephen out of the city. because it was the law as laid down in Leviticus 24:14 - "Bring forth him that hath cursed without the camp." The Jews still retained vivid memories of their earlier history, just as students of sociology and ethnology still recognise in our own practices traces of ancient prehistoric usages, reminiscences of a time, ages now distant from us, when our ancestors lived the savage life in lands widely separated from our modern homes. So did the Jews still recognise the nomad state as their original condition, and even in the days of our Saviour looked upon Jerusalem as the camp of Israel, outside of which the blasphemer should be stoned.

Lightfoot then gives the elaborate ceremonial used to insure a fair trial, and the re-consideration of any evidence which might turn up at the very last moment. A few of the rules appointed for such occasions are well worth quoting, as showing the minute care with which the whole Jewish order of execution was regulated: "There shall stand one at the door of the Sanhedrin having a handkerchief in his hand, and a horse at such a distance as it was only within sight. If any one therefore say, I have something to offer on behalf of the condemned person, he waves the handkerchief, and the horseman rides and calls the-people back. Nay, if the man himself say, I have something to offer in my own defence, they bring him back four or five times one after another, if it be a thing of any moment he has to say." I doubt, adds Lightfoot, they hardly dealt so gently with the innocent Stephen. Lightfoot then describes how a crier preceded the doomed man proclaiming his crime, till the place of execution was reached; where, after he was stripped of his clothes, the two witnesses threw him violently down from a height of twelve feet, flinging upon him two large stones. The man was struck by one witness in the stomach, by the other upon the heart, when, if death did not at once ensue, the whole multitude lent their assistance. Afterwards the body was suspended on a tree. It will be evident from this outline of Lightfoot’s more prolonged and detailed statement that the leading ideas of Jewish practice were retained in St. Stephen’s case; but as the execution was as much the act of the people as of the Sanhedrin, it was carried out hurriedly and passionately. This will account for some of the details left to us. We usually picture to ourselves St. Stephen as perishing beneath a deadly hail of missiles, rained upon him by an infuriated mob, before whom he is flying, just as men are still maimed or killed in street riots; and we wonder therefore when or where St. Stephen could have found time to kneel down and commend his spirit to Christ, or to pray his last prayer of Divine charity and forgiveness under such circumstances as those we have imagined. The Jews, however, no matter how passionate and enraged, would have feared to incur the guilt of murder had they acted in this rough-and-ready method. The witnesses must first strike their blows, and thus take upon themselves the responsibility for the blood about to be shed if it should turn out innocent. The culprits, too, were urged to confess their sin to God before they died. Stephen may have taken advantage of this well-known form to kneel down and offer up his parting prayers, which displaying his steadfast faith in Jesus only stirred up afresh the wrath of his adversaries, who thereupon proceeded to the last extremities.

Stephen’s death was a type of the vast majority of future martyrdoms, in this among other respects: it was a death suffered for Christ, just as Christ’s own death was suffered for the world at large, and that under the forms of law and clothed with its outward dignity. Christianity proclaims the dignity of law and order, and supports it-teaches that the magistrate is the minister of God, and that he does a divinely appointed work, but Christianity does not proclaim the infallibility of human laws or of human magistrates. Christianity does not teach that any human law or human magistrate can dictate to the individual conscience, or intrude itself into the inner temple of the soul. Christianity indeed has, by a long and bitter experience, taught the contrary, and vindicated the rights of a free conscience, by patiently suffering all that could be done against it by the powers of the world assuming the forms and using the powers of law. Christians, I say, have taught the dignity of law and order, and yet they have not hesitated to resist and overturn bad laws, not however so much by active opposition as by the patient suffering of all that fiendish cruelty and lust could devise against the followers of the Cross. Just as it was under the forms of law that our Saviour died and Stephen was executed, and Peter and Paul passed to their rest, so was it under the same forms of law that the primitive Church passed through those ten great persecutions which terminated by seating her on the throne of the Caesars. Law is a good thing. The absence of law is chaos. The presence of law, even though it be bad law, is better than no law at all. But the individual Christian conscience is higher than any human law. It should yield obedience in things lawful and indifferent. But in things clearly sinful the Christian conscience will honour the majesty of law by refusing obedience and then by suffering patiently and lovingly, as Stephen did, the penalty attached to conscientious disobedience.

IV. Let us now briefly notice the various points of interest, some of them of deep doctrinal importance, which gather round St. Stephen’s death. We are told, for instance, that the martyr, seeing his last hour approaching, "looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God." Surely critics must have been sorely in want of objections to the historical truth of the narrative when they raised the point that Stephen could not have looked up to heaven because he was in a covered chamber and could not have seen through the roof! This is simply a carping objection, and the expression used about St. Stephen is quite in keeping with the usus loquendi of Scripture. In the seventeenth of St. John, and at the first verse, we read of our Lord that "lifting up His eyes to heaven" He prayed His great eucharistic prayer on behalf of His Apostles. He lifted His eyes to heaven though He was in the upper chamber at the time. The Scriptural idea of heaven is not that of the little child, a region placed far away above the bright blue sky and beyond the distant stars, but rather that of a spiritual world shrouded from us for the present by the veil of matter, and yet so thinly separated that a moment may roll away the temporary covering and disclose the world of realities which lies behind. Such has been the conception of the deepest minds and the profoundest teaching. St. Stephen did not need a keen vision and an open space and a clear sky, free from clouds and smoke, as this objection imagines. Had St. Stephen been in a dungeon and his eyes been blind, the spiritual vision might still have been granted, and the consolation and strength afforded which the sight of his ascended Lord vouchsafed. This view of heaven and the unseen world is involved in the very word revelation, which, in its original Greek shape, apocalypse, means simply an uncovering, a rolling away of something that was flimsy, temporary, and transient, that a more abiding and nobler thing may be seen. The roof, the pillars, the solid structure of the temple, the priests and Levites, the guards and listeners, all were part of the veil of matter which suddenly rolled away from Stephen’s intensified view, that he might receive, as the martyrs of every age have received, the special assistance which the King of Martyrs reserves for the supreme hour of man’s need. The vision of our Lord granted at this moment has its own teaching for us. We are apt to conjure up thoughts of the sufferings of the martyrs, to picture to ourselves a Stephen perishing under a shower of stones, an Ignatius of Antioch flung to the beasts, a Polycarp of Smyrna suffering at the stake, the victims of pagan cruelty dying under the ten thousand forms of diabolical cruelty subsequently invented; and then we ask ourselves, could we possibly have stood firm against such tortures? We forget the lesson of Stephen’s vision. Jesus Christ did not draw back the veil till the last moment; He did not vouchsafe the supporting vision till the need for it had come, and then to Stephen, as to all His saints in the past, and to all His saints in the future, the Master reveals Himself in all His supporting and sustaining power, reminding us in our humble daily spheres that it is our part to do our duty, and bear such burdens as the Lord puts upon us now, leaving to Him all care and thought for the future, content simply to trust that as our day is so shall our grace and our strength be, Stephen’s vision has thus a lesson of comfort and of guidance for those fretful souls who, not. content with the troubles and trials of the present, and the help which God imparts to bear them, will go on and strive to ascertain how they are to bear imaginary dangers, losses, and temptations which may never come upon them.

Then, again, we have the final words of Stephen, which are full of important meaning, for they bear witness unto the faith and doctrine of the apostolic Church. They stoned Stephen, "calling upon the Lord, and saying. Lord Jesus, receive my spirit"; while again a few moments later he cried, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." The latter petition is evidently an echo of our Lord’s own prayer on the cross, which had set up a high standard of Divine charity in the Church. The first martyr imitates the spirit and the very language of the Master, and prays for his enemies as Christ himself had done a short time before; while the other recorded petition, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," is an echo likewise of our Lord’s, when He said, "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit." We note specially about these prayers, not only that they breathe the spirit of Christ Himself, but that they are addressed to Christ, and are thus evidences to us of the doctrine and practice of the early Church in the matter of prayer to our Lord. St. Stephen is the first distinct instance of such prayer, but the more closely we investigate this book of the Acts and the Epistles of St. Paul, the more clearly we shall find that all the early Christians invoked Christ, prayed to Him as one raised to a supernatural sphere and gifted with Divine power, so that He was able to hear and answer their petitions. St. Stephen prayed to Christ, and commended his soul to Him, with the same confidence as Christ Himself commended His soul to the Father. And such commendation was no chance expression, no exclamation of adoring love merely. It was the outcome of the universal practice of the Church, which resorted to God through Jesus Christ. Prayer to Christ and the invocation of Christ were notes of the earliest disciples. Saul went to Damascus "to bind all that called upon the name of Jesus." [Acts 9:14] The Damascene Jews are amazed at the converted Saul’s preaching of Jesus Christ, saying, "Is not this he that in Jerusalem made havoc of them which called on this name?" [Acts 9:21] While again Romans 10:12 and 1 Corinthians 1:2 prove that the same custom spread forth from Jerusalem to the uttermost parts of the Church. The passage to which I have just referred in the Corinthian Epistle is decisive as to St. Paul’s teaching at a much later period than St. Stephen’s death, when the Church had had time to formulate its doctrines and to weigh its teaching. Yet even then, he was just as clear on this point as Stephen years before, addressing his Epistle to the Church of God at Corinth, "with all that call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ in every place"; while again, when we descend to the generation which came next after the apostolic age, we find, from Pliny’s celebrated letter written to Trajan, describing the practices and ideas of the Christians of Bithynia in the earliest years of the second century, that it was then the same as in St. Paul’s day. One of the leading features of the new sect as it appeared to an intelligent pagan was this: "They sang a hymn to Christ as God." St. Stephen is the earliest instance of such worship directly addressed to the Lord Jesus Christ, a practice which has ever since been steadily maintained in every branch of the Church of Christ. It has been denied, indeed, in modern times that the Church of England in her formularies gives a sanction to this practice, which is undoubtedly apostolical. A reference, however, to the collect appointed for the memorial day of this blessed martyr would have been a sufficient answer to this assertion, as that collect contains a very beautiful prayer to Christ, beseeching assistance, similar to that given to St. Stephen, amid the troubles of our own lives. The whole structure of all liturgies, and specially of the English liturgy, protests against such an idea. The Book of Common Prayer teems with prayer to Jesus Christ. The Te Deum is in great part a prayer addressed to Him; so is the Litany, and so are collects like the prayer of St. Chrysostom, the Collect for the First Sunday in Lent, and the well-known prayer for the Third Sunday in Advent-"O Lord Jesus Christ, who at Thy first coming didst send Thy messenger to prepare Thy way." The Eastern Church indeed addresses a greater number of prayers to Christ directly. The Western Church, basing itself on the promise of Christ, "Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in My Name, He will give it you," has ever directed the greater portion of her prayers to the Father through the Son; but the few leading cases just mentioned, cases which are common to the whole Western Church, Reformed or unreformed, will prove that the West also has followed primitive custom in calling upon the name and invoking the help of the Lord Jesus Himself. And then when Stephen had given us these two lessons, one of faith, the other of practice; when he had taught us the doctrine of Christ’s divinity and the worship due to Him, and the practice of Christian charity and the forgiving spirit which flows forth from it, even towards those who have treated His servants most cruelly, then Stephen "fell asleep," the sacred writer using an expression for death indicative of the new aspect which death had assumed through Christ, and which henceforth gave the name of cemeteries to the last resting-places of Christian people.

V. The execution of St. Stephen was followed by his funeral. The bodies of those that were stoned were also suspended on a tree, but there was no opposition to their removal, as afterwards in the great persecutions. The pagans, knowing that Christians preached the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, strove to prove the absurdity of this tenet by reducing the body to ashes. The Christians, however, repeatedly proved that they entertained no narrow views on this point, and did not expect the resurrection of the identical elements of which the earthly body was composed. They took a broader and nobler view of St. Paul’s teaching in the fifteenth of 1st Corinthians, and regarded the natural body as merely the seed out of which the resurrection body was to be developed. This is manifest from some of the stories told us by ancient historians concerning the Christians of the second century. The martyrs of Vienne and Lyons have been already referred to, and their sufferings described. The pagans knew of their doctrine of the resurrection of the body, and thought to defeat it by scattering the ashes of the martyrs upon the waters of the Rhone; but the narrative of Eusebius tells us how foolish was this attempt, as if man could thus overcome God, whose almighty power avails to raise the dead from the ashes scattered over the ocean as easily as from the bones gathered into a sepulchre. Another story is handed down by a writer of Antioch named John Malalas, who lived about A.D. 600, concerning five Christian virgins, who lived some seventy years earlier than these Gallic martyrs, and fell victims to the persecution which raged at Antioch in the days of the Emperor Trajan, when St. Ignatius perished. They were burned to death for their constancy in the faith, and then their ashes were mingled with brass, which was made into basins for the public baths. Every person who used the basins became ill, and then the emperor caused the basins to be formed into statues of the virgins, in order, as Trajan said, that "it may be seen that I and not their God have raised them up."

But while it is plainly evident from the records of history that the earliest Christians had no narrow views about the relation between the present body of humiliation and the future body of glory, it is equally manifest that they paid the greatest attention to the mortal remains of their deceased friends, and permitted the fullest indulgence in human grief. In doing so they were only following the example of their Master, who sorrowed over Lazarus, and whose own mortal remains were cared for by the loving reverence of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea. Christianity was no system of Stoicism. Stoicism was indeed the noblest form of Greek thought, and one which approached most closely to the Christian standpoint, but it put a ban upon human affection and feeling. Christianity acted otherwise. It flung a bright light on death, and illuminated the dark recesses of the tomb through the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the prospect for humanity which that resurrection opens up. But it did not make the vain attempt of Stoicism to eradicate human nature: Nay, rather, Christianity sanctified it by the example of Jesus Christ, and by the brief notice of the mourning of the Church for the loss of their foremost champion, St. Stephen, which we find in our narrative. Such a gratification of natural feeling has never been inconsistent with the highest form of Christian faith. There may be the most joyous anticipation as to our friends who have been taken from us, joined with the saddest reflections as to our own bereavement. We may be most assured that our loss is the infinite gain of the departed, and for them we mourn not; but we cannot help feeling that we have sustained a loss, and for our loss we must grieve. The feelings of a Christian even now must be thus mixed, and surely much more must this have been the case when devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him.

The last results we note in this passage of Stephen’s death are twofold. Stephen’s martyrdom intensified the persecution for a time. Saul of Tarsus was made for a while a more determined and active persecutor. His mental position, his intellectual convictions, had received a shock, and he was trying to re-establish himself, and quench his doubts, by intensifying his exertions on behalf of the ancient creed. Some of the most violent persecutions the Church has ever had to meet were set on foot by men whose faith in their own systems was deeply shaken, or who at times have had no faith in anything at all. The men whose faith had been shaken endeavoured, by their activity in defence of the system in which they once fully believed, to obtain an external guarantee and assurance of its truth; while the secret unbeliever was often the worst of persecutors, because he regarded all religions as equally false, and therefore looked upon the new teachers as rash and mischievous innovators.

The result then of Stephen’s martyrdom was to render the Church’s state at Jerusalem worse for the time. The members of the Church were scattered far and wide, all save the Apostles. Here we behold a notable instance of the protecting care of Providence over His infant Church. All save the Apostles were dispersed from Jerusalem. One might have expected that they would have been specially sought after, and would have been necessarily the first to flee. There is an early tradition, however, which goes back to the second century, and finds some support in this passage, that our Lord ordered the Apostles to remain m the city of Jerusalem for twelve years after the Ascension, in order that every one there might have an opportunity of hearing the truth. His protecting hand was over the heads of the Church while the members were scattered abroad. But that same hand turned the apparent trial into the Church’s permanent gain. The Church now, for the first time, found what it ever after proved to be the case. "They that were scattered abroad went about preaching the word." The Church’s present loss became its abiding gain.

The blood of the martyrs became the seed of the Church. Violence reacted on the cause of those who employed it, as violence-no matter how it may temporarily triumph-always reacts on those who use it, whether their designs be intrinsically good or bad; till, in a widely disseminated Gospel, and in a daily increasing number of disciples, the eye of faith learned to read the clearest fulfilment of the ancient declaration, "The wrath of man shall praise God, and the remainder of wrath shalt Thou restrain."

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Acts 7:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/acts-7.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, December 11th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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