Then said the high priest, Are these things so?
I. The wandering of the Israelites was all a parable. It was, if we may trust apostolic teachings, all a Divine shadow of that great invisible and spiritual society, the yet more mysterious Ecclesia, "the Church throughout all ages" on its mighty march through time, with all its attendant omens and prodigies,—for such is the Church everywhere, a witness in the wilderness; such, indeed, is the Church; such are all its varieties of ordinance. It is the perpetual remonstrance against the sufficiency of the seen and temporal; it is a perpetual witness for the unseen and eternal; it is a perpetual testimony for the existence of a spiritual perpetuity and continuity; it is a mysterious procession; infinite aspirations are infused in the soul of man. The tabernacle of the testimony is the story of the Church and the soul—a witness for faith. A world with no tabernacle of Divine testimony has a philosophy which only sees the worst, which goes on declaring its dreary monologue that this is the worst of all possible worlds, that sleep is better than waking, and death is better than sleep. In the presence of such thoughts, the sky shuts down upon us, there is no motive in life; as Emerson well says, "This low and hopeless spirit puts out the eyes, and such scepticism is slow suicide."
II. The pulpit has been through all the fluctuating ages a tabernacle of testimony in the wilderness. The pulpit is like that ancient tabernacle of my text,—it rests, but it moves: it rests in the ancient truths it was instituted to announce. Christ is final; and, as has been truly said, "Christianity is a fixed quantity, not a fluxion, and Jesus Christ is all in all"; it is a spiritual universe; it has its immense and infinite announcements, which, like the definitions of mathematics and the numbers of arithmetic, are unchangeable and final—we cannot go beyond them. We need no new Messiah; we shall find no wiser teacher, no more sufficient Saviour in any time to come. Christianity is complete, like the round globe and the blue sky. In giving to us the principles of the ultimate law of morality, He has exhausted the moral world of its treasures when He proclaims God for our Father. But what an unlimited progress is there in men's ideas and sentiments, and their application to religion; and should not the pulpit be the tabernacle of testimony to these, for the ideas of Christianity are progressive in the human mind? It is not the speculator but God Himself who goeth forth with our armies, who bids us to strike the tent and march forward to some spot where the future shall fulfil itself even as the past has been fulfilled.
E. Paxton Hood, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xxiii., p. 233
Acts 7:47-50The Temples of God.
I. The physical creation. "Heaven is My throne; and earth is My footstool. Hath not My hand made these things?" These words refer directly to the material creation, and imply that God fashioned the heaven and the earth to be a temple to Himself, in which He might manifest His glory.
II. The second creation, or Judaism. God became nearer man in Judaism than in the material creation. He was pleased to concentrate the symbol of His presence in one special locality, first in the Tabernacle, afterwards in the Temple. The Temple on Moriah was not the goal, it was only a stage in the onward march of the Divine economies.
III. The third creation, or Christianity. Christianity is described in prophecy as a "stone cut out of the mountain without hands." God's proper templets holy humanity, and under the Christian dispensation He has found the temple He so earnestly coveted.
J. Cynddylan Jones, Studies in the Acts, p. 159.
References: Acts 7:51.—Parker, City Temple, vol. iii., p. 445. Acts 7:51-53.—S. A. Brooke, Sermons, p. 164. Acts 7:54-60.—H. W. Beecher, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xxvi., p. 422. Acts 7:55, Acts 7:56. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xiii., No. 740; H. Melvill, Voices of the Year, vol. i., p. 58; E. M. Goulburn, Acts of the Deacons, p. 147.
Acts 7:56The Witnesses for the Glorified Son of Man.
I. When Stephen spoke the words of our text, the truth which he had been proclaiming in all his discourse, which he had perceived to be the subject and climax of all revelation, presented itself to him just as actually as any visible thing presents itself to the eye. It was not a doctrine of the Incarnation which he acknowledged in that hour—a mere doctrine would have stood him in little stead. It was a person who stood before him, a person upon whom he might call, in whom he might trust; he was sure that it was life and substance he was in contact with, not hard forms of the understanding. It was a Son of man on the right hand of God, an actual mediator between man and God, one in whom God could look well pleased upon man, in whom man could look up to God and be at peace. Was it not an opening of heaven which disclosed such a union of manhood with Godhead? Did not that opening of heaven foreshadow a shaking of all religions—of all polities upon earth—which stood on some other foundation than this?
II. St. Stephen's witness is the witness which the Church of God is to bear upon earth. The true martyr—the martyr who deserves honour and reverence from men—bears that witness and no other. Religious bodies are wrong only in pretending that they have been faithful stewards of the Divine message of men; that their divisions, hatreds, persecutions, have not marred it, broken it, inverted it; that each has not often been used by the wisdom of God to bring forth some witness of it which the other has suppressed or mangled; that there has not been a cry rising out of the depths of the human heart—often a cry of bitter wailing and cursing against them all—which has also, if we interpret it according to the teachings of Scripture, the same significance. Judging according to human calculations, there never was a time when such men as Stephen were more demanded, or were less likely to appear. But we are not to judge according to human calculations. This is God's own cause, and He will take care of it. In places of which we know nothing, by processes of education which we cannot guess, He may have been preparing His witnesses. They will speak with power to the hearts of men who need a Son of man. They will be sure, even when their own vision is weakest, that the heavens will one day be opened, and that the Son of man will be revealed to the whole universe at His Father's right hand.
F. D. Maurice, Sermons, vol. v., p. 59.
References: Acts 7:56-60.—T. de Witt Talmage, Christian World Pulpit, vol. viii., p. 56; E. M. Goulburn, Acts of the Deacons, p. 165. Acts 7:57, Acts 7:60.—Expositor, 2nd series, vol. iv., p. 428. Acts 7:58.—Spurgeon, My Sermon Notes, Gospels and Acts, p. 186. Acts 7:59.—J. Pulsford, Three Hundred Outlines on the New Testament, p. 111; Parker, Cavendish Pulpit, vol. ii., p. 181.
I. The faith of Stephen. How was it manifested, and in what respect may we seek to imitate it? Now, I think we may say that as his faith was seen in every part of his trial, so most remarkably in the manner in which he faced death. It was seen in that upward looking of his soul to God in the hour of deepest suffering; it was proved by the cry which he then uttered, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." These words, spoken at such a time, must be regarded as the strongest evidence to the reality and soundness of Stephen's faith. They show us that he endured as seeing Him who is invisible. Let us also be prepared beforehand. Let us try now and examine our faith. Do not expect to find comfort from it at the last, unless you have proved and tested it in the course and conduct of your common life. Calls for such proof are daily occurring. We have all periods of sorrow; we are all tried by many infirmities; we are all subject to the loss of health, and to the loss of friends. When such things happen unto us, then is the trial of our faith. Let us take them as sent for our good, our portion of the cross, and let us bear cheerfully our burden; ever amidst the present distress let our eye look steadfastly towards heaven.
II. The charity of Stephen. It was of that kind so commended by the Apostle; that which beareth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Martyr as he was, his death had not been that tranquil sleep in the Lord which now it is, had he carried with him to the grave one thought of harm, one feeling of revenge against his persecutors. But then, neither can our death be tranquil except on the same terms. It is not safe for any man to die at enmity with his fellow. Nay, more. It is not safe for any man to live at enmity with his fellow. The very charter by which we hold the promise of God's pardon is that we pardon our brother his trespasses.
H. D. B. Rawnsley, Village Sermons, 4th series, p. 110.
The Martyrdom of Stephen.
I. The first question that we must ask ourselves in reading this story is, "What is the secret of all this meekness and of all this bravery? How came Stephen to be thus self-possessed before the frowning Sanhedrim, fearless amidst that excited multitude in his home-thrusts of truth, brave in the crisis of trial, forgiving at the moment of death?" Men are not born thus. As we mentally put ourselves into his circumstances, we feel that no physical hardihood, no endowment of natural bravery, could sustain us. There must have been some Divine bestowment, in order to secure this undaunted heroism and this supreme tenderness of love. Then, was it a miraculous gift, reserved for some specially commissioned and specially chosen man, or is it the common heritage of all mankind? These are questions that become interesting as we dwell upon the developments of holy character that are presented to us in the life of Stephen. The secret lies in the delineation of the man. He was "a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost." He did not leap into this character in a moment; he did not spring, fully armed, as Minerva is fabled to have sprung from the brain of Jupiter. There was no mystic charm by which the Graces clustered around him. He had faith, and that faith was the gift of God to him, as it is the gift of God to us. He had the indwelling of the Holy Ghost, and that indwelling is promised to us, as to him, by the blood-shedding of our Surety and Saviour. The only difference between us and him is that he grasped the blessing with a holier boldness and lived habitually in a closer communion with God.
II. The lot of the Christian is, ordinarily, an inheritance of persecution. There was nothing in the character of Stephen to arouse any special hostility. He was reputed learned and honourable, he had refinement of manner, and as the Church's almoner his office was benevolent and kind. But he was faithful, and his reproofs stung his adversaries to the quick. He was consistent, and his life was a perpetual rebuke to those who lived otherwise. He was unanswerable, and that was a crime too great to be forgiven, and so they stoned Stephen. And persecution has been the lot of the Church in all ages.
III. I gather thirdly from this subject that strength and grace are always given most liberally when they are most needed. With special and onerous duty there came to Stephen specially replenished supply. How it rushed in upon him when he needed it! He went into that fierce council unprepared; but how it came upon him—the grace, the strength, the manliness, the utterance—just as he required it, and lighting up, making him so translucent, so to speak, with glory, that, breaking through the serge and sackcloth of his humiliation, the inner glory mantled out upon the countenance as the morning mantles upon the sky! "As thy days, so shall thy strength be."
IV. We gather from the narrative that death is not death to a believer in Jesus.
"Brutal oaths and frantic yells
And curses loud and deep"—
these were the lullaby that sang him to his dreamless slumber. But when God wills a man to sleep, it does not matter how much noise there is around him. "He giveth His beloved sleep."
W. M. Punshon, Christian World Pulpit, vol. vi., p. 385.
References: Acts 7:59, Acts 7:60.—P. Robertson, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xv., p. 179; J. C. Jones, Christian World Pulpit, vol. vi., p. 385; Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xx., No. 1175; Clergyman's Magazine, vol. v., p. 31. Acts 7:60.—Christian World Pulpit, vol. x., p. 148; C. J. Vaughan, Church of the First Days, vol. i., p. 261; Three Hundred Outlines on the New Testament, p. 112. Acts 7—E. G. Gibson, Expositor, 2nd series, vol. iv., p. 425; Homiletic Quarterly, vol. ii., p. 213. Acts 8:1.—H. P. Liddon, Contemporary Pulpit, vol. vi., p. 366; Ibid., Thoughts on Present Church Troubles, p. 63; Ibid., Sermons, vol. ii., No. 1132. Acts 8:2.—Homiletic Quarterly, vol. iii., p. 283; E. M. Goulburn, Acts of the Deacons, p. 189; Bishop Simpson, Sermons, p. 421.
And he said, Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken; The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran,
And said unto him, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall shew thee.
Then came he out of the land of the Chaldaeans, and dwelt in Charran: and from thence, when his father was dead, he removed him into this land, wherein ye now dwell.
And he gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on: yet he promised that he would give it to him for a possession, and to his seed after him, when as yet he had no child.
And God spake on this wise, That his seed should sojourn in a strange land; and that they should bring them into bondage, and entreat them evil four hundred years.
And the nation to whom they shall be in bondage will I judge, said God: and after that shall they come forth, and serve me in this place.
And he gave him the covenant of circumcision: and so Abraham begat Isaac, and circumcised him the eighth day; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat the twelve patriarchs.
And the patriarchs, moved with envy, sold Joseph into Egypt: but God was with him,
And delivered him out of all his afflictions, and gave him favour and wisdom in the sight of Pharaoh king of Egypt; and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house.
Now there came a dearth over all the land of Egypt and Chanaan, and great affliction: and our fathers found no sustenance.
But when Jacob heard that there was corn in Egypt, he sent out our fathers first.
And at the second time Joseph was made known to his brethren; and Joseph's kindred was made known unto Pharaoh.
Then sent Joseph, and called his father Jacob to him, and all his kindred, threescore and fifteen souls.
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 Emmor the father of Sychem.
But when the time of the promise drew nigh, which God had sworn to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt,
Till another king arose, which knew not Joseph.
The same dealt subtilly with our kindred, and evil entreated our fathers, so that they cast out their young children, to the end they might not live.
In which time Moses was born, and was exceeding fair, and nourished up in his father's house three months:
And when he was cast out, Pharaoh's daughter took him up, and nourished him for her own son.
And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds.
And when he was full forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren the children of Israel.
And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended him, and avenged him that was oppressed, and smote the Egyptian:
For he supposed his brethren would have understood how that God by his hand would deliver them: but they understood not.
And the next day he shewed himself unto them as they strove, and would have set them at one again, saying, Sirs, ye are brethren; why do ye wrong one to another?
But he that did his neighbour wrong thrust him away, saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us?
Wilt thou kill me, as thou diddest the Egyptian yesterday?
Then fled Moses at this saying, and was a stranger in the land of Madian, where he begat two sons.
And when forty years were expired, there appeared to him in the wilderness of mount Sina an angel of the Lord in a flame of fire in a bush.
When Moses saw it, he wondered at the sight: and as he drew near to behold it, the voice of the Lord came unto him,
Saying, I am the God of thy fathers, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Then Moses trembled, and durst not behold.
Then said the Lord to him, Put off thy shoes from thy feet: for the place where thou standest is holy ground.
I have seen, I have seen the affliction of my people which is in Egypt, and I have heard their groaning, and am come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send thee into Egypt.
This Moses whom they refused, saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge? the same did God send to be a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the angel which appeared to him in the bush.
He brought them out, after that he had shewed wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red sea, and in the wilderness forty years.
This is that Moses, which said unto the children of Israel, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear.
This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sina, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us:
To whom our fathers would not obey, but thrust him from them, and in their hearts turned back again into Egypt,
Saying unto Aaron, Make us gods to go before us: for as for this Moses, which brought us out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.
And they made a calf in those days, and offered sacrifice unto the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands.
Then God turned, and gave them up to worship the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, O ye house of Israel, have ye offered to me slain beasts and sacrifices by the space of forty years in the wilderness?
Yea, ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Remphan, figures which ye made to worship them: and I will carry you away beyond Babylon.
Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as he had appointed, speaking unto Moses, that he should make it according to the fashion that he had seen.
Which also our fathers that came after brought in with Jesus into the possession of the Gentiles, whom God drave out before the face of our fathers, unto the days of David;
Who found favour before God, and desired to find a tabernacle for the God of Jacob.
But Solomon built him an house.
Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet,
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?
Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.
Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers:
Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.
When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.
But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,
And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.
Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord,
And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul.
And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.
And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.