Acts vi: 1, to viii: 3.
E have read how the members of the church in Jerusalem gave their money freely to help the poor. This free giving led to trouble, as the church grew so fast; for some of the widows who were poor were passed by; and their friends made complaints to the apostles. The twelve apostles called the whole church together, and said:
"It is not well, that we should turn aside from preaching and teaching the word of God, to sit at tables and give out money. But, brethren, choose from among yourselves seven good men, men who have the Spirit of God and are wise, and we will give this work to them; so that we can spend our time in prayer and in preaching the gospel."
This plan was pleasing to all the church; and they chose seven men, to take charge of the gifts of the people, and to see that they were sent to those who were in need. The first man chosen was Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Spirit of God; and with him were Philip and five other good men. These seven men they brought before the apostles; and the apostles laid their hands on their heads, setting them apart for their work of caring for the poor.
But Stephen did more than look after the needy ones. He began to preach the gospel of Christ; and to preach with such power as made every one who heard him feel the truth. Stephen saw before any other man in the church saw, that the gospel of Christ was not for Jews only, but for all men; that all men might be saved if they would believe in Jesus; and this great truth Stephen began to preach with all his power.
Such preaching as this, that men who were not Jews might be saved by believing in Christ, made many of the Jews very angry. They called all the people who were not Jews "Gentiles," and they looked upon them with hate and scorn; but they could not answer the words that Stephen spoke. They roused up the people and the rulers, and set them against Stephen, and at last they seized Stephen, and brought him before the great council of the rulers. They said to the rulers:
"This man is always speaking evil words against the Temple and against the law of Moses. We heard him say that Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the laws that Moses gave to us!"
This was partly true and partly false; but no lie is so harmless as that which has a little truth with it. Then the high-priest said to Stephen, "Are these things so?"
And as Stephen stood up to answer the high-priest all fixed their eyes upon him; and they saw that his face was shining, as though it was the face of an angel. Then Stephen began to speak of the great things that God had done for his people of Israel in the past; how he had called Abraham, their father, to go forth into a new land; how he had given them great men, as Joseph, and Moses, and the prophets. He showed them how the Israelites had not been faithful to God who had given them such blessings. Then Stephen said:
"You are a people with hard hearts and stiff necks, who will not obey the words of God and his Spirit. As your fathers did, so you do also. Your fathers killed the prophets whom God sent to them; and you have slain Jesus, the Righteous One!"
As they heard these things, they became so angry against Stephen that they gnashed on him with their teeth, like wild beasts. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up toward heaven with his shining face; and he saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on God's right hand, and he said:
"I see the heavens opened and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God!"
But they cried out with angry voices, and rushed upon him, and dragged him out of the council-room, and outside the wall of the city. And there they threw stones upon him to kill him, while Stephen was kneeling down among the falling stones and praying:
"Lord Jesus, receive my spirit! Lord, lay not this sin up against them!"
And when he had said this he fell asleep in death, the first to be slain for the gospel of Christ.
Stephen fell asleep.
Among those who stoned Stephen was a young man named Saul. He showed his fierce hate against Stephen and against the gospel which Stephen preached by holding the loose garments which the slayers of Stephen flung off, so that they might the more easily throw the stones upon him. Saul had heard Stephen speak; and he saw his glorious face, but he gave his help to those who killed him. And after Stephen had been slain, Saul went out to seize those who believed in Christ. He dragged men and women out of their houses, and thrust them into prison. He went into the synagogues and seized them as they were worshipping, and stripped off their garments, and caused them to be beaten.
By the hands of Saul and those who were with him the church of Christ, where so many had lived in love and peace, was broken up, and its members were scattered far and wide over the lands. The apostles stayed in the city, and no harm came to them, for they were kept hidden, but all the rest of the believers were driven away; and for the time the church of Christ seemed to have come to an end.