Acts 8:1
These verses suggest -

I. HOW FAR FROM RIGHT FEELING WILL WRONG THOUGHTS LEAD MEN ASTRAY. Saul was consenting [rejoicing] unto his death (ver. 1). "Saul made havoc of [was ravaging] the Church," etc. (ver. 3). The death of the first martyr, which was so utterly shameful to those who compassed it, and so deeply regrettable from a human estimate, was, in the eyes of Saul, a thing in which to triumph with savage pleasure. And this dreadful satisfaction of his grew out of strong religious convictions - he hated Stephen so passionately because he clung to "the Law" so tenaciously. Nor was this his only manifestation of distorted feeling. He was not satisfied with the stoning of Stephen; he joined heartily in the persecution which broke up Christian families and caused their general dispersion (ver. 2), himself being the most prominent agent of the council; neither ordinary humanity, nor the gentleness which should come with a liberal education, nor the tenderness which is due to womanly feeling, laying any restraint upon him. Every wiser, kinder, more generous sentiment was lost in a violent, relentless, unpitying fanaticism. So does error pervert the mind and distort the impulses and abuse the energies of the soul. Before we lend ourselves to any cause, before we plunge into any strife, let us very carefully and devoutly weigh the question whether we are really right, whether our traditions are not leading us astray as men's inherited notions have led them astray from the truth, whether, before we act with a burning zeal, we must not alter our position or even change our side. Not till we have an intelligent assurance that we are in the right should we act with enthusiasm and severity; else we may be cherishing feelings and doing actions which are diabolical rather than Divine.

II. How MUCH HOLY EARNESTNESS MAY BE CALLED TO SUFFER, The Christians of those early times were called:

1. To sympathize, with painful intensity, with a suffering man. If Saul was consenting to his death, with what lacerated and bleeding hearts did his Christian friends see the first martyr die! They" made great lamentation over him" (ver. 2).

2. To be distressed for a bereaved and weakened Church. The cause of Christ could ill spare (so they would naturally feel) such an eloquent and earnest advocate as he whose tongue had been so cruelly silenced; they must have lamented the loss which, as men bent on a high and noble mission, they had sustained.

3. To endure serious trouble in their own circumstances. There was "great persecution... and they were all scattered abroad" (ver. 1). This must have involved a painful severance of family ties and a serious disturbance in business life. Holy earnestness has similar sufferings to endure now.

(1) Its personal attachments are peculiarly deep and its sympathies peculiarly strong. When injury or death comes to the objects of them, there is corresponding pain and sorrow of soul.

(2) It is often deeply distressed for the cause of Christ in its times of loss, weakness, wrong.

(3) It suffers, in virtue of its fidelity, from the scorn, the opposition, the persecution, in some form or other, of those who are the enemies of God and truth. But, thus doing, it treads closely in the footsteps of the best of men, and in those of the Divine Master himself. And thus suffering with him, it will be crowned with his honor and joy (Romans 8:17; 2 Timothy 2:12; 1 Peter 4:13).

III. HOW WONDROUSLY GOD OVERRULES EVERYTHING. (Ver. 4.) He:

(1) used the machinations of the enemy and

(2) recompensed the faithfulness of the suffering Church by causing the dispersion of the disciples to result in "the furtherance of the gospel." What misguided men hoped would be a death-blow to the new "way" proved to be a valuable stroke on its behalf, increasing the number of its active witnesses, and multiplying its adherents largely. So shall it be with the evil designs of the wicked; they will be made to subserve the gracious purposes of God.

1. How vain and foolish, as well as guilty, is it to fight against God!

2. How confidently may we who are co-workers with him await the issue! The angry and threatening storm which is on the horizon will perhaps only speed the good vessel of the truth and bring her sooner to the haven. - C.







And Saul was consenting to his death.
I. THE PERSECUTING SAUL. In this part of the narrative the name of Saul occurs three times (Acts 7:58; Acts 8:1, 3). How quick the development and how sure! First of all, he watched the clothes of the men who stoned Stephen; then he expressed in every feature of his face satisfaction at the martyr's death; and then he took up the matter earnestly himself with both hands. He struck the Church as it had never been struck before. The taste for blood is an acquired taste, but "it grows by what it feeds on." This man Saul began as he ended. There was nothing ambiguous about him. A tremendous foe, a glorious friend! We see from this part of the narrative —

1. The power of the Christian religion to excite the worst passions of men. It is a "savour of life unto life, or of death unto death." Christianity either kills or saves. We have become so familiar with it externally as to cast a doubt upon this. It has become possible for nominal Christian believers to care nothing about their faith. The age has been seized with what is known as a horror of dogmatism. But Christianity has no reason for its existence if it be not positive. Poetry may hold parley with prose fiction, because they belong to the same category. But arithmetic does not say, "If you will allow me, I may venture to suggest that the multiplication of such and such numbers may possibly result in such and such a total." Now, in proportion as any religion is true, can it not stoop to the holding of conversation with anybody. It is not a suggestion — it is a revelation. It is not a puzzle, to which a hundred answers may be given by wits keen at guessing; it is an oracle. Can you wonder, then, that a religion which claimed to be the very voice and glory of God, should have encountered unpitying and most malignant hostility? If it could have come crouchingly, or apologetically, and have said, "I think, I suggest, I hope," it might have been heard at the world's convenience. But being with angels' songs true, it raised the world into antagonism and deadly conflict. So will every true life. We have no enemies because we have no gospel. We pass along pretty easily, because we annoy no man's prejudices or naughtinesses. We dash no man's gods to the ground; we stamp on no man's idolatries; and so we have no martyrs. In olden times Christianity attacked the most formidable citadels of thought, prejudice, and error, and brought upon itself the fist of angry retaliation.

2. That the success of the enemy was turned into his deadliest failure. "They that were scattered" (ver. 4), did not go everywhere with shame burning on their cheek, nor whining and moaning that they were doomed to a useless life. They were made evangelists by suffering. That is the true way of treating every kind of assault. When the pulpit is assailed as being behind the age, let the pulpit preach better than ever and more than ever, and let that be its triumphant reply. When Christianity is assailed, publish it the more. Evangelisation is the best reply to every form of assault.

3. Christianity followed by its proper result. "And there was great joy in that city." Joy was a word that was early associated with Christianity. Said the angel, "I bring you good tidings of great joy." Where now is that singing, holy joy? We have lost the music, we have retained the tears. The revelling is now in the other house.

II. THE DEAD STEPHEN. Already there are two graves in the early Church. In the one lie Ananias and Sapphira, in the grave opened to-day there lies Stephen. In one or other of these graves we must be buried! Over the first there was no lamentation. Sad grave! The liars' retreat, the hypocrites' nameless hiding-place! Will you be buried there? Then there is the good man's grave, which is not a grave at all, it is so full of peace and promise, will you be buried there? The road to it is rough, but the rest is deep and sweet, and the waking immortality! Will you so live that you will be much missed for good-doing?

III. THE EVANGELISTIC PHILIP (ver. 5). Stephen dead, Philip taking his place — that is the military rule! The next man, Forward! "Who will be baptized for the dead?" When Stephen was killed the remainder of the seven did not take fright and run away in cowardly terror, but Philip, the next man, took up the vacant place, and preached Christ in Samaria. Who will take up the places of the great men and the good men? Is the Church to be a broken line, or a solid and invincible square? These three great figures are still in the Church. Our Stephens are not dead. We see them no more in the flesh, but they are mightier than ever since they have ascended to heaven, having left behind them the inspiration of a noble example. John Bunyan is more alive to-day than he was when he wrote the "Pilgrim's Progress." John Wesley is more alive to-day than he was when he began to preach the Word in England. Your child is not dead when its memory leads you to do some kindness to some other child. Our fathers, heroic and noble, are not dead, when we are able at their graves to relight torches and go on with our sacred work. We cannot peruse a narrative of this kind without feeling that we are in a great succession, and that we ought to be in proportion great successors.

(J. Parker, D. D.)

One of the greatest demands that the Church makes on us is when she summons us to pass abruptly from Christmas Day to the feast of St. Stephen; from the peaceful joy of the holy family and angel songs to the violence of the mob; from the King of angels to the first who bore witness to his faith and patience. At a scene like that of St. Stephen's martyrdom it is a relief to place ourselves in the position of a bystander. There stands Saul, the very antithesis of Stephen, young and enthusiastic as he, but passionately attached to Pharisaism as Stephen was to the gospel. As we know Paul in his Epistles, his great characteristic gift was sympathy. How then could he have consented to this tragedy?

I. THE REASONS FOR HIS CONSENT.

1. He was following the stream of opinion. All Jerusalem agreed that Stephen deserved his fate; and Paul had as yet no reason for resisting the will of the majority.

2. He was following the instincts of religious loyalty as he understood them. To him Stephen was a rebel against authority.

3. He was following the instincts of piety. The charge against him was that he calumniated God, Moses,the temple, and the law. The first was clearly an inference from the rest, and about the rest there was this much truth, that he no doubt preached to the Christians against attending temple worship. This he thought was at variance with the world-wide mission of Christ. Accordingly he proved before the Sanhedrin that there was nothing to show that God's presence was confined to the Promised Land, much less to a particular spot in it. All this to Paul was a blasphemous novelty.

II. HIS REFLECTIONS ON THE TRAGEDY. When all was over the memories of what had passed came back, and as he saw Stephen's death in retrospect he felt the force of three forms of power — suffering, sanctity, truth.

1. Suffering is power —(1) When it is voluntary. This stirs in us a fellow feeling even when undergone for an object we condemn.(2) This power is great in proportion to the sacrifice it involves. The deaths of the very old or young touch us less than that of a young man just reaching and conscious of the maturity of his faculties. He gives the best human nature has to give. So it was with ,Stephen, and Saul as he remembered this young manly life crushed out felt the power of suffering.

2. Sanctity is power, greatest when associated with suffering. Stephen was not merely good, keeping clear of what is evil; he was holy. He had a spirit that reflects a higher world — "full of faith and of the Holy Ghost." This sanctity illuminated his bodily frame, and was made perfectly plain in his dying prayer. This was not lost on Saul.

3. Truth is power. When Saul heard of Stephen's declaration his whole soul rose against it; yet the ideas of Stephen's speech haunted the young Pharisee, and became the great characteristic positions of his after ministry.

4. These three characteristics of the martyr find their perfect ,embodiment only in Christ.

III. CLOSING CONSIDERATIONS.

1. The view a Christian should take of an opponent of Christian truth — that of a possible convert and ally.

2. What persecutors can and cannot do. They can put clown a given belief by extermination as Christianity was crushed out in Northern Africa and Protestantism in Spain. But if persecution does not exterminate it only fans the flame, as did the persecuting emperors and Queen Mary. The persecution begun by the death of Stephen only contributed to the spread of the gospel.

3. The criminal folly of persecution by Christians since it is an attempt to achieve by outward and mechanical violence results which to be worth anything before God must be the product of His converting grace.

4. The signal service which martyrs have rendered to the world — enriching his country, church, age, with new and invigorating ideas of truth, and therefore while other sufferers die and are forgotten, the martyr rightly has his place in the calendar of the Church and in the hearts of her faithful children.

(Canon Liddon.)

It is said of John Huss that, on a countryman throwing a faggot at his head, he exclaimed, "Oh, holy simplicity! God send thee better light! You roast the goose now, but a swan shall come after me, and he shall escape your fire." Oddly enough, "Huss" is the Bohemian for "goose," while the meaning of "Luther" is "a swan."

(texts, and Acts 9:5, 11): — Here is moral character —

I. QUIESCENTLY CONSENTING TO THE WRONG (ver. 1). From Stephen's death Saul would no doubt catch the inspiration of his future life. His Jewish education has fitted him for this crisis. He was quite prepared to guard the clothes of those who would slay a Christian. Here, then, he stands at his post calmly and unmoved, the subject of two extreme influences, the surging, passionate mob, and the earnest prayer of the martyr. This event was educational to Saul. The manly conduct, earnest speech, and saintly death of Stephen, would appeal to his diviner sentiments; while the tumult and murderous intentions of the crowd would influence his baser side. To which will he yield? All the force of his past life inclines to the latter. But cannot that pale face and devout appeal to heaven overcome his prejudice? No! he leaves the scene with a cold determination to make it typical of his future. But, as a thought may lurk in the mind, concealed and unrecognised, so the impulses awakened in the heart of Saul by this event only awaited the further touch of the Divine Spirit to make them the master powers of his soul. Who can tell the formative power which one event may exercise upon our lives? But let us not think that we can stand to look at sin without sharing its guilt.

II. IN DETERMINED HOSTILITY TO THE RIGHT (ver. 3). This hostility was —

1. Daring. "The Church," He might strive to pluck the stars from the Divine grasp, but to touch the object of God's peculiar care was beyond description bold. We wonder that men dare to attack the Church, or to plot injury against it. Such conduct is a proof of their hardihood, or they would be awed by her holy presence and Divine Protector.

2. Extensive. "Made havoc." It often appears strange that God should permit men to pursue, sometimes unchecked, a course of determined harm to His Church. This fact almost staggers reason, and only faith can repose in its rectitude and wisdom. But men need not take the sword; the tale of the tattler, the formality of the hypocrite is sufficient.

3. Impudent. "Entering into every house." What right had Saul in another man's house, and especially for such a purpose? A man's house is sacred, consecrated to family union and love. No stranger unbidden, no foe should enter. But religious bigotry thinks not of social usage, much less of Christian courtesy.

4. Inhuman. "Haling men and women." When bigotry once gets possession of a man, it yields to no argument, not even to that of tender womanhood. See what quiescent sin comes to. Men that commence by keeping the clothes of persecutors, soon become persecutors themselves. The path of sin is ever downward.

III. AROUSED AND INQUIRING (Acts 9:5). The transitions of moral character are often —

1. Sudden. Saul little expected in a few months to be praying to the very Being whose followers he was murdering; he was on an errand of rage, and he never thought that it would turn out a mission of mercy to himself

2. Overwhelming. Saul is almost stunned. His moral being is altogether confused. The change now working within his soul is too great to be made calmly. The only relief of his half-unconscious soul is the cry, "What wilt Thou have me to do?"

3. Astonishing to others. What would the Jewish council say to the change that had come over Saul? The disciples of Christ received him half with suspicion. What an impression would his conversion make upon the general public!

4. Productive of great results to mankind. How many have received truth and benefit through the toils of the Apostle Paul during his life; and how many minds has he instructed, how many souls has he aided in life's struggles by his writings! Thus we see that the sudden changes that come over moral character are often productive of great results to the individual himself, and to mankind at large.

IV. IN COMMUNION WITH GOD (Acts 9:11).

1. Prayer is an index to character. The praying man is not Saul the persecutor, but Saul the penitent sinner. Persecutors do not pray to Jesus Christ. Whenever you see a man in earnest prayer to Christ, you may have some idea of his moral character.

2. Prayer is a reason for help. Ananias was to go to Saul and instruct him, "for behold he prayeth." No matter what our circumstances, if we will but pray, God will send His aid and comfort. It is not the rule of heaven to help a prayerless soul. Do you know of a penitent soul, it is your duty to take to it a message of peace and hope.

3. A life commenced by prayer is likely to be useful. Has not Paul been useful to the Church and the world? And why? Was it not because God could say of him, "Behold, he prayeth."

4. God notices the first prayer of contrition and calls attention to it. "Behold." It is an interesting sight even to heaven.

5. God sends succour to contrite souls. Has He not frequently sent an Ananias to you, fellow sinner? What have been the moral contrasts of your life? Is there a Damascus journey amongst them? Conclusion: Learn not to entirely estimate the character of men from a past remembrance of them. Suppose an associate of Saul's who had known him in the earlier part of his life, but who had not seen him for some time, had spoken of him as a persecutor and Jewish bigot, how mistaken would have been his opinion, and how unjust to the converted apostle! We should not be hasty to pass an opinion on our friends from a past remembrance of them. They may have since undergone a moral change for the better.

(J. S. Exell, M. A.)

1. The martyr Stephen waters the Church with his blood.

2. The raging Saul serves, even as a persecutor, unconsciously to the extension of the kingdom of Christ.

3. The fugitive Christians are the first messengers of the gospel to a distance.

(K. Gerok.)

And
Here we have —

I. A MAN WHO BECAME THE GREATEST APOSTLE OF CHRISTIANITY ACTING AS ITS MOST MILIGNANT FOE.

1. Saul was an accomplice in the martyrdom of Stephen, and rejoiced in it (Acts 7:58; Acts 22:20).

2. He was an infuriated leader in the general persecution. The word "made havoc" is commonly applied to wild beasts (Acts 21:10; Galatians 1:6). Now the fact that this man became the greatest apostle Demonstrates —

(1)The greatness of his conversion.

(2)The power of the gospel.

(3)The infinitude of Divine mercy.

II. MEN RISING ABOVE THE MOST POWERFULLY HOSTILE CIRCUMSTANCES.

1. The apostles stood calmly in the scene where their lives were in the most imminent danger, and when most of their fellow disciples had fled.

2. Devout men discharged a duty most exciting to the rage of their enemies. Away, then, with the dogma that man is the creature of circumstances. He is only so as he loses his manhood.

III. THE MOST INTOLERANT PERSECUTION FURTHERING THE CAUSE OF TRUTH Persecution —

1. Throws the persecuted more and more on their God.

2. It enables them to furnish in their lives a nobler manifestation of Christianity to the world; more earnest, united, devout.

3. It awakens general sympathy among men on their behalf, and thus disposes them to attend to their teachings.

(D. Thomas, D. D.)

The sacred fire, which might have burnt low on the hearth of the upper chamber of Jerusalem, was kindled into fresh heat and splendour when its brands were scattered over all Judaea and Samaria, and circumcised Gentiles were admitted by baptism into the fold of Christ.

(Archdeacon Farrar.)

They were all scattered abroad
Jerusalem was naturally the chief scene of the persecution, and the neighbouring towns, Hebron, and Gaza, and Lydda, and Joppa, became places of refuge. It was probably to this influx of believers in Christ that we may trace the existence of Christian communities in the two latter cities. The choice of Samaria was, perhaps, suggested by the hatred of that people to the Jews. Those who were fleeing from a persecution set on foot by the priests and rulers of Jerusalem were almost ipso facto sure of a welcome in Neapolis and other cities. But the choice of this as a place of refuge indicated that the barriers of the old antipathy were already in part broken down. What seemed the pressure of circumstances was leading directly to the fulfilment of our Lord's commands, that the disciples should be witnesses in Samaria as well as in Judaea (Acts 1:8).

(Dean Plumptre.)

I. GOD INTENDED THAT HIS CHURCH SHOULD BE SCATTERED ALL OVER THE WORLD.

1. There was a tendency in our humanity at first to remain together; hence the first grey fathers endeavoured to build a central tower around which the race should rally. But God confounded their language, and scattered them that they might people the world. Jerusalem was first the central point of Christianity, and the tendency doubtless was to keep the centre strong. I have often heard the argument, "Do not have too many out-stations, keep up a strong central force." But God's plan was that the holy force should be distributed; the holy seed must be sown — to do this the Lord used the rough hand of persecution. One went this way, and one the other; and the faithful were scattered.

2. Every Church endowed with the Spirit will be spread abroad. God never means the Church to be shut up in a shell or, like ointment, enclosed in a box. The precious perfume of the gospel must be poured forth to sweeten the air. Now that persecution has ceased godly men are scattered through the necessity of earning a livelihood. Sometimes we regret that young men should have to go to a distance, that families should have to migrate. But does not the Lord by this means sow the good seed widely? It is very pleasant to be comfortably settled under an edifying ministry, but the Lord has need of some of His servants in places where there is no light; and they ought of themselves to scatter voluntarily. Every Christian should say, "Where can I do most good?" And if we will not go afield willingly, God may use providential necessity as the forcible means of our dispersion.

II. GOD'S DESIGN IS NOT THE SCATTERING IN ITSELF, BUT SCATTERING OF A PURPOSE — to preach the Word. The word "proclaim" is not quite so subject to the modern sense which has spoiled the word "preach." The latter has come to be a sort of official term for delivering a set discourse; whereas gospel preaching is telling the gospel out in any way. Note —

1. The universality of the work of evangelising. All the scattered went everywhere; there does not seem to have been any exception. You thought it would read "the apostles," but they were just the people who did not go at all. Generals may have to stand still in the centre of the battle to direct the forces; but this was soldiers' battles, and of this sort all the battles of the Cross ought to be.

2. There were no personal distinctions. It is not said that ministers preached the Word, scarcely anything has been more injurious to the kingdom of Christ than the distinction between clergy and laity. No such distinction appears in the Bible. "Ye are God's Kleros": all God's saints are God's inheritance. "Ye are a royal priesthood." Though God gives to His Church apostles, teachers, pastors, etc., yet not by way of setting up a professional caste who are to do all the work while others sit still. Every converted man is to teach what he knows.

(C. H. Spurgeon.)

History is God teaching by example. The worst things in history are not necessarily without some elements which may be Divinely used for good. The reins never fall out of the guiding hand. The heathen rage. But the Lord sits as King in Zion. The contrasted lights and shadows of this narrative deserve, and will repay, closest attention.

I. HUMAN SYMPATHY AND KINDNESS MANIFEST THEMSELVES AMID EXULTANT CRUELTY. The phrase in relation to Saul means to approve, take pleasure and delight in what others have done. He was "exceedingly mad" against the believers in Jesus. Amid such manifestations of cruel depravity there were devout men who carried the mangled remains of the martyred deacon to a reverent burial. The phrase refers to the better elements of Jewish society — the moderate men who hated persecution. Violence always overreaches itself. Sympathy is awakened when wrong is boasting its victories. Stephen dies; but those who fear God, although they have not adopted his faith, are emboldened to breast the currents of unjust opinion and to go in the face of the mob who applaud an infamous deed. It was the same in the case of Jesus, who was buried by Joseph and Nicodemus in Joseph's garden. History is full of such contrasts. Humanity has its recoil from injustice and violence. Successful villainy is always ruinous. Passions, ecclesiastical or political, satiated with blood, involve blunder as well as crime. Religious animosities are met by this immense force in human nature, and there is no withstanding the influence of that pity which unjust violence evokes. The tears shed over a martyred corpse are more potent than the mightiest engines of persecution.

II. ADVERSITY AND PERSECUTION ARE OVERRULED BY THE ASCENDED LORD FOR THE EXTENSION OF THE CHURCH. The signal, by Stephen's death, was given for a general outbreak to exterminate the Christians. When wild beasts taste blood their fury becomes madness. "As for Saul." The word used means violent outrage and physical maltreatment. He made a ruin of the Church by brutal and bloody assaults on the persons of its members. Oriental religious fanaticism has always been tigerish in its cruelty. Beneath the Crescent have been wrought deeds of blood which have cursed and doomed Mahomedan fanaticism. The Lord reigneth. Christians are fugitives; but they carry Christianity wherever they go. New centres of Christian life and organisation spring up everywhere. When Rome drove out our own reformers they found leisure on the Continent to perfect translations of Holy Scripture in the mother tongue. God's hand was in it when the power of Rome was established in our land. Caesar "meant not so, neither did his heart think so." Beneath his eagles was borne the cross. Britain was conquered by the Romans that it might be conquered by Christ.

III. A PRINCIPLE AND AN ENCOURAGEMENT RESPECTING CHURCH EXTENSION. Fugitive believers are the first messengers of the gospel to distant regions. Philip was not an apostle, nor a pastor. His was a secular Office. But when those duties ceased through the scattering, he was still ready for service. Changing his place, he did not change his disposition. He found, new work for himself. While within the Church, for teaching and ruling, men receive a special call and ordination of the Lord, there is a service of Christ for which official appointment is not indispensable. Men who are Christians can and ought to make Christ known to those who are not. Order is seemly; but it is not to displace energy and zeal.

(W. H. Davison.)

Except the apostles
They might be east into prison, or even put to death, but they would not go. They must be there to help and comfort the poor people in their danger. I have often read of shipwrecks, and have generally found that when the terrible waves were dashing over the ship, and the sailors were letting down the boats that the passengers might escape, the captain and the officers remained on deck to the very last. The apostles were like those brave officers. Will the ship sink? No; but if it should they will sink with her. But many others left the city. It was as right for them to go as for the apostles to stay. Several of them may have had little children dependent on them, for whose sake they must try to live and work. Then while they lived they could speak for Christ, and so do good to others.

(S. G. Green, D. D.)

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