On hearing this, the members of the Sanhedrin were enraged, and they gnashed their teeth at him.
I. THE RAGE OF CONVICTED CONSCIENCES. Pierced to the heart with the pain of the sense of guilt, though judges, they gnashed with their teeth upon Stephen, "like chained dogs who would bite those who would set them free. Contempt pierces through the shell of the tortoise, says the Indian proverb. On their high seat they were reached by the stinging words of the servant of Jesus; their obstinacy exposed, the contradiction between the part they were playing as the representatives of the Law and outwardly, while their spirit and aims were deadly opposed to its spirit, brought into the most glowing light. The most hellish of wrath is that where the mind is felt to be at variance with itself and seeks a victim on which to discharge its fury. If the truth does not convert men, it turns them into its foes.
II. THE INNER JOY OF THE MARTYR. The martyr is he whose life-interests are bound up with the truth, to whom nothing in the world can afford satisfaction in which truth and reality are not. He cannot separate his consciousness of life and its sweetness from his consciousness of God's light and love in him, which are dearer than life. With this clear light within his breast, he" sits in the center and enjoys clear day." "No greater thing can man receive, no more august boon can God bestow, than truth," said one of the noblest of heathen writers, Plutarch. This is the feeling in which the martyr lives, in which he is willing to die. And he may be and doubtless is often favored with peculiar visions, which foretell the triumph of truth and of faith. Stephen sees the heaven opened, and the crucified One, the "Son of man," standing in the place of glory and power, at God's right hand. There are secrets in the life of individual piety which if known, might go far to explain the cheerfulness with which privation or persecution has been borne. God opens an inner door into heaven to others inaccessible, and speaks of things, which cannot be uttered, and offers visions, which cannot be described. We know little more than the outside of others' lives. The bad man in power, the good man in weakness and suffering, each has another side to his life.
III. CONVICTION STIFLED IS VIOLENCE. Here are two resources of hypocrisy.
1. To pretend indignation against the person of an opponent. It is easy to feign a pious horror of sentiments we do not care to examine, and to cast obliquely the reproach of blasphemy upon one who utters truths which are evil in their bearing upon us, Jesus, Stephen, Paul, and in their turn all reformers, have had to incur this reproach.
2. To end the matter by violence. Cast the offender out of the synagogue; hand him over to the civil power; or put him to death under the show of law and justice. So was Stephen done to death. The worst crimes have been done in the name of law and under the cloak of religion.
IV. THE MARTYR'S END. In many features it repeats that of the Master.
1. Stephen is thrust out of the city, like him who suffered "without the gate." Nor can any man expect to live at all places and times the true life, without having to suffer some form of social expulsion. In suffering for our convictions we come to know the deeper fellowship of the spirit of Jesus. Better to go with Jesus "without the gate "and suffer, than to tarry within the city and to purchase ease at the expense of compliance with evil.
2. Life is yielded up in prayer. As he had sighed, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit," so his servant, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." As he," Father, forgive them," so Stephen, "Lay not this sin to their charge." Love, the animating principle of the Christian in life,, the secret energy which prompts all, his words and deeds, in the cause of truth, - love is the temper in which he dies. Christ's religion, in teaching us this love and making its practice possible, proves itself Divine. And this active love is rooted in the sense that we have been loved and sought of God. He who has once found us and blessed us with fatherly hand, gives courage for struggle and resignation in defeat.
3. The effect on others. We think of the young man Saul who stood by. What effect upon him had not this spectacle of love in death? And what evidence amidst wild scenes of savage life has not the end of the good man blessing, not cursing his foes, given to the love of God and what it can accomplish in the human heart! The red Indian, as he binds his captive to (he stake, expects him to prove his manhood, when escape is hopeless, by bitter taunts and blasphemies to the last. And this is the fruit of cruelty in many lands. It is the marvel in human nature, the appearance of the lamb where we looked for the lion - the reaction of love against hatred, which betokens the presence of a power and a will beyond experience. The life of the world had passed into a new phase when men could die in the very arms of love and fall asleep with the smile of blessing on their brow. - J.
When they heard these things they were cut to the heart.I. THE NARRATIVE. Full of faith and power, he did great wonders and miracles among the people. He is, therefore, singled out for special attack, not in relation to the reality of his miraculous pretensions, but on what, no doubt, his assailants felt with such a man would be their higher vantage ground, the open field of theological controversy. And herein they were foiled. Chosen as the disputants were most probably for their superior learning and abilities, they would doubtless look upon Stephen with much the same scorn as the armed warrior of Gath regarded the stripling of Bethlehem. But on coming to close hand strife, they found that human learning was a poor match against Divine gifts, and they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spoke. This signal defeat compelled a change in their mode of attack. Satan has more than one arrow in his quiver, and whenever he has set upon a man to destroy him, will never be wanting. If reasoning fail, the adversary will try invective; invective silenced, he has recourse to falsehood; falsehood confuted, there are well laid engines of subtlety and fraud and brute force. All these means were successively employed against Stephen. The refuted argument was followed by the charge of blasphemy. The groundless charge of blasphemy had to be propped up by bribed witnesses, as these could only obtain a judicial hearing by the violent dragging of the case before the council; and in the very act of making his defence before this body, Stephen is seized, cast out of the city, and put to death.
II. ITS LESSON. In reading narratives like this, we are prompted to look for some principles on which to account for the bitterness and violence which usually characterises religious persecution. Men, we know, will get angry sometimes if people differ from them in politics, and will even forget their charities when contending on the most ordinary topics of dispute; but the fury, the gnashing with the teeth, and the showers of stones, are only met with when that which is to be put down is the pure truth of God; when the object of popular hatred can have no end of his own to compass. The fact is a standing, undeniable testimony to the doctrine, that the carnal mind is enmity against God. If the feeling of the natural heart, which supervened upon the fall, had been only the negation of a former love towards God, leaving man to settle down into a Gallio unconcerndness, we should never have heard anything of the blood of martyrs. Men would no more have risen up against an apostle than against a philosopher. But the case we know to be far otherwise. Press upon the consciences of men in any age the obligations of spiritual religion; carry the lamp of God's condemning truth into the heart's chambers of imagery; disturb that untempered mortar with which men daub over the walls of their refuge of lies, and in an instant you wake up the old feud of our nature; the embers begin to glow again of an ancient but long-slumbering fire; you have touched the man in the very quick of his cherished delusion, and at once he stands up in stout and rebellious front against God. Neither has advancing civilisation done more than restrain the outward expression of this feeling. It may have taught men, when convinced of the utter futility of their own religious principles, that they cannot now have recourse to the rude retributions of a rude age — but it has not dispossessed them of their malignity, or altered the original antagonism of the natural mind to the reception of Bible truth, or the practice of Bible requirements. If I tell a Socinian, that in the sight of God his moralities are no more than so many disguised and garnished sins; if I tell a man of right creed and pious activities, that if he has not something besides this, the publicans and harlots shall go into heaven before him; if I say to the proud, the worldly, the over-reaching, the slander-dealer, the uncharitable, the blasphemer, and the Sabbath-breaker, "Ye have not the Spirit of Christ, and therefore can be none of His" — yea, if I can so bring home these evidences of an unchanged heart to the individual conscience as that a man shall feel as if I were saying to him, Thou art the man whom, in your present state, the blood of Christ cannot reach; for whom the mansions of heaven can make no room; whose peace is a delusion, and whose hope is but a spider's web — spared though I may be from the gnashing teeth of unbridled rage, yet, while determined to stand out against conviction, the spirit of the persecutor is in that sinner's heart, and only to the age, and other accidents of social life, is it owing that men are not found to rush upon a faithful messenger with one accord, and to cast him out of the city, and to stone him. By nature men hate truth as the midnight robber hates the light.
(D. Moore, M. A.)I. THE MAN. The form of his name would indicate that he was a Hellenist; that is, a Jew born among the Gentiles, speaking the Greek language, tits name also signifies a crown.
1. He was versed in the Scriptures. "When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart." Cranmer and Ridley learned the New Testament by heart. They also saw its truths in relation to present duties of life. This was the case of the first Christian martyr. He exposed the false view of the Jews toward the temple and the law. "They were cut to the heart," or, literally, they were sawn asunder in their hearts. It was not one staggering blow which did the work. The truth, laden with rebukes, was gradually making its way through their hearts, The personal application completed the work.
2. Stephen was spiritually enlightened. "But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven." We may not all have the privilege of Stephen to look into heaven in this life, but the Holy Spirit furnishes enlightening power. Spiritual breadth of vision follows. That creates confidence. Moses endured, seeing Him who is invisible; and the angel of God revealed himself unto Paul, saying, "Fear not." Here was the basis of Stephen's confidence. Facts of the visible world were newly impressed upon him. We see things here from a short range. Hence mystery and perplexity arise. He is sustained by a higher power, and looks with joy to the end.
3. He possessed a forgiving spirit. "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." This prayer is without a parallel outside of Biblical history and its influence. , , Seneca, and other Gentile writers hinted at the golden rule in a partial or negative form. But praying for one's enemies has thus far been discovered only in the Bible and in the line of its influence. The Cross first brings it to view.
II. STEPHEN WITNESSING TO THE TRUTH.
1. He witnessed that God's presence and favour were not limited to any set place. Stephen taught that God's presence was not limited to a favoured few. This was one link in the chain which drew away Christians from Jewish rites. The disciples loved the temple. Who could blame them? Here Jesus gave some of His choicest revelations. But lingering amid the incense and smoking sacrifices too long they may bind these practices, only belonging to the past, on the new society, and fetter its future course. They were providentially thrust out into new fields, as we may be, by apparent disasters, to secure in the end the best results.
2. Stephen bore witness that Christ had been elevated to glory and power. "I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God." Stephen was the first to bear witness to the fact of seeing Christ after His ascension. Paul and John were granted such visions later (Acts 9:3, 4; 1 Corinthians 9:1; Revelation 1:12-17). Perhaps such witnessing was needed to encourage the early Church. It made visible things appear as a positive reality. It also confirmed Stephen's teaching. Christ had taught that spiritual worship anywhere was pleasing to the Father. It would follow that a peculiar privilege had been granted to Stephen. Any rabbi might have coveted it. The glory of God had appeared to him as well as Abraham and to Moses. If his face had shone like that of an angel, his words now had a heavenly support.
3. Stephen bore witness that Jesus receives His people after death. He did not formally affirm this fact, but prayed to Jesus to receive his spirit; or, in bold literalness, "Take my spirit by the hand."
(J. H. Allen.)
I. STEPHEN WAS A MAN OF AFFAIRS. He was no dreaming enthusiast, however intense his spiritual life. He was equal to the demands of new enterprises where originality in planning and fertility of resource were requisite.
II. HE, ONLY A DEACON, A LAYMAN, WAS FULL OF FAITH AND POWER.
III. THIS TESTIMONY HE GIVES WHEN HE MUST SEAL HIS SINCERITY WITH HIS LIFE. He knew what extremes Jewish hate could reach.
IV. HE HAD GIVEN ABUNDANT PROOF OF MENTAL SOUNDNESS AND GRASP IN HIS RESUME OF JEWISH HISTORY AND GOD'S DEALINGS.
V. HIS SPIRITUAL ELEVATION AND FELLOWSHIP APPEAR, BEAUTIFULLY AND GLORIOUSLY, IN HIS AGREEMENT IN WORDS AND DISPOSITION WITH HIS DYING MASTER. Such a witness we can trust, however momentous the questions upon which he speaks. Points of Stephen's testimony —
1. Heaven's glory gladly and easily appreciable by redeemed souls. Infinite the necessary remove of heaven's life from earth's, but God's redeemed ones can enter it with delight. However stupendous the transition, it is easy and quick; no narrowed and doubtful reception; the finite easily joins the infinite; the imperfect is neither shamed nor crippled by the perfect; the lowliest estate does not shrink or tremble as the highest glory suddenly bursts upon it. Stephen looked steadfastly.
2. Heaven is heaven because fined with God's personal presence. God's glory apart from His presence is inconceivable. The soul is made for God, and reposes only in Him. There its satisfactions are supreme and complete. Is God's conscious presence welcome here now? If not, how can we meet Him face to face when this life shall open upon the next and His flooding glory appear on every side?
3. Jesus, in His glorified humanity, has the highest place in heaven's honour, and welcomes His disciples as they follow Him. We are strongly impressed with Jesus' manifold offices for His disciple band when with them in visible leadership. The story is dramatic in vividness and suggestive in teaching. But His personal relations now, His invisible leadership, mean much more every way. The glorified Jesus is the firstfruits of our redeemed humanity — in the fulness of time He will gather to Himself, to a full sharing of His glory, all who are washed in His blood and trained by His grace.
4. Dying saints are strengthened by foregleams, sometimes brilliant sight of heaven's inhabitants' bliss.
5. The spirit survives the body, its powers expanded and quickened. We reason about continued life, the body laid aside; but hear the proof in the experience of one qualified to speak. Stephen saw Jesus, and to Him committed his soul. We shudder at the thought of going into utter oblivion, life annihilated. From this fear the dying Stephen brings sure release.
6. The saved soul, redeemed by the blood of Christ and quickened by Divine grace, can thoroughly forgive. No test of Christian character is more trustworthy than this. No personal resentments embittered His dying hour. Will our pillow be free from such thorns? They are sharp and fatal to dying peace or eternal safety.
7. Divine Providence utilises all events to the forwarding of its world-embracing plans. A great apostle was needed for the Gentile world. Here that coming apostle had his first special training. As has said, "But for Stephen's prayers the Church would not have had its apostle Paul."
8. A significant fact that this detailed account of Stephen's martyrdom stands alone. We needed it, that we might have this one vivid illustration of dying grace in a crisis so remarkable.
9. A typical instance of an apparent triumph of hostility to Jesus in His followers turning into overwhelming defeat. We tremble before assaults upon the Word of God, the organised Church and all related institutions; but such assaults, however successful in appearance, are but for the moment. Converts to Christ are, in most cases, born through the travail of some one.
10. Lighter trials may avail themselves of the same supports as came to the dying martyr.
(S. Lewis B. Speare.)
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