Gateway to the Classics: St. Mark by J. Paterson Smyth
 
St. Mark by  J. Paterson Smyth

LESSON XXIII

Faithful unto Death

Acts VI. 18; VII. 54 to VIII. 5.


"I will give thee a crown of life."


T EACHER should not attempt to deal with St. Stephen's speech except in the very brief summary of it in this Lesson. The chief object of the Lesson is to arouse admiration for a beautiful life lived for Christ, and desire to emulate such life in some degree at least.

Recapitulate. Why deacons appointed? Name them. What were their duties? Now, we have to talk about one especially. How described? (v.  8). A greater man probably than most of the Apostles. Why do you think not elected Apostle instead of Matthias? See ch.  i. 21, 22. He could not be a "witness of Resurrection," as he probably had not seen the Lord. Yet, though so clever and holy and great, he took lowest place—going to see the widows and poor, and seek and look after their food and comforts, doing common, lowly things well for Christ's sake. But, being "filled with the Holy Ghost," he could not but show it. Could you carry about dried rose leaves concealed? Perfume would be discovered. So with real religion of man filled with Holy Ghost. Nonsense to think as some people do, "I have real religion, but I never show it." It may be that you don't talk about it, which for children may be a good thing; but if you have it, it cannot be hid. Your life must show it. If not, it is because you have not got it.

Stephen's enthusiastic religion could not be hid. Gradually the widows and the sick and the poor began to talk much about him, his holiness, wisdom, miracles. Then outsiders began to take notice—to listen to his teaching—to watch his beautiful life. Then jealousy and hostility began, perhaps because of the crowds of disciples and great company of the priests coming to Christ (v.  7). Congregations of foreign Jews in Jerusalem (name them, v.  9) began to dispute with him. Notice "them of Cilicia." Tarsus was in Cilicia, and Saul of Tarsus was in Jerusalem then. Think of these two young men meeting in debate. Saul very clever. In intellect quite a match for Stephen or for any man. But he and his comrades could not resist (v.  10). Why? Because Stephen had on his side truth, and the "wisdom and spirit of God."

Not pleasant to be defeated in open argument. Very irritating. What did they do? (v.  11). I don't believe Saul had a share in that. He was too high a type of man for that, even before his conversion. What did they say? (v.  11). Do you think it was true? Probably some truth in it. The worst lie to defend oneself against is the "half truth."

"You may face a lie outright,

But a lie that is half the truth is a harder matter to fight."

Show me that this was exactly what happened in our Lord's case also? (Mark xiv. 5-13). Stephen had a broader mind and a wider view of truth than any of the Apostles then. He was the forerunner of St. Paul's broad views. He could see that Christianity was not to be a mere branch of Judaism, that Judaism must vanish away. Probably said something like what our Lord said (John iv. 21; Mark xiii. 2). Such words could be easily twisted just then when the people were in a frenzy of jealousy for Mosaic institutions. So nowadays if a man is decidedly Low Church or Broad Church or High Church, his words are often twisted to look like dissent or unbelief or Romanism. Very wicked and dishonest to do such things. See the clever malice. This was just the cry to stir up "the people," who had been friendly before (v.  12). So poor Stephen had not only the rulers and Pharisees against him, but also the howling, raging mob. What did they do and say? (vv.  12-14). Did he care? Not he! Truth at any cost! Do you think God does not rejoice in fearlessness like that for truth's sake?

The King of France told Palissy the potter, "If you don't give up your Protestant opinions, I shall be compelled to give you up to the Inquisition." To which the brave potter replied, "You are a king, yet you say you will be compelled;  I am only a potter, but no one can compel  me to do wrong; I can die for the right, but I cannot give it up." This is the spirit that God loves.

"He's a slave who dares not choose

Hatred, scoffing, and abuse,

Rather than in silence shrink

From the truth he needs must think.

He's a slave who dares not be

In the right with two or three."

Picture the trial—the hostile people crowding around the judges on the high bench, Annas and Caiaphas and Gamaliel probably amongst them. The men of Cilicia and Cyrene amongst the accusers. One young man especially, who never forgot this trial, to whose recollection probably we owe the story. Who? And the prisoner brave and calm and quiet in the midst of it all. He listens to the lying charge. The natural feeling would be indignation at the lie, and perplexity as he saw it had some truth and would be hard to deny, and fear at the attitude of the judges and people. Were those Stephen's feelings? Calm and serene he looked at the excited crowd, and all saw his face as if—what? (v.  15). With God's friendship and approval, why should he care for men's anger! Angel faces come from angel characters. Do you believe that a life of wickedness affects appearances of a face? e.g.,  drunkenness, ill-temper, etc. If we let evil possess us, it will write its mark on our faces. So goodness, nobleness, holiness. Sometimes a very plain man or woman looks quite beautiful owing to a good and noble expression of face. I read once of a saintly missionary called by the Indians "Gloryface." God sends us into the world with a face on which to write good or evil record. Let us mark a lovely record on it by a lovely life.

Now listen to Stephen's speech. Not a word of self-defence—or fear—or effort to escape. He quietly leaves all that in God's hand, and uses his opportunity of straight and fearless speaking to them. "Have I said that God's majestic presence not confined to temples made with hands? Well, did not Isaiah say the same? Have I denounced the vanity of sacrifices and offerings unworthily offered? Your prophets have done the same. I have spoken the truth, and by it I stand." And then, as he sees the anger and fierce opposition rising in their faces, he lets fearlessly forth his righteous indignation. He could bear lies against himself, but not resistance against God. What does he say? "Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised," etc. (vv.  51-53). Yes, their repeated defiance of God rouses his holy indignation. Was his anger wrong? Is anger ever right? (Ephesians iv. 26). Was our Lord ever angry? (Mark iii. 5). Moral indignation is a necessity to keep the world sweet and pure. In wilful sin there must be no flattery or compliments, but determined, straight speaking, whether it offend or not.

What a rage they were in! Describe it? (vv.  54-57). Poor Stephen! His martyrdom was very close now. Where did he look for sympathy and help? To judges? To the Roman police? No (v.  55). Looked up steadfastly into heaven.  What did he see? Jesus standing  as in attitude of help. What a glorious comfort to him at the hour of death! Often God grants such sights to dying people. Often they cry out to Him with glowing eyes and hands stretched forth eagerly as if seeing heaven. Did the people believe Stephen? Yet one amongst them within two years saw the same sight, and was converted by it. Who? (Acts ix.)

Now comes the end. Rough mob law. He is dragged through the streets to the rock of stoning, and flung down about twelve feet. (Lightfoot: Horæ Hebraicæ). Then the witnesses prepare to throw great stones on him, and lay by their robes. Who holds them? How he must have wondered at the fearless young deacon. Could he ever, all his life, forget that noble prayer, as the poor crushed youth lifts up his hands to the open heaven and the watching Christ? What was the prayer? For safety? For vengeance? What? (v.  60). Like what other prayer? (Luke xxii. 34). St. Augustine says that that prayer won St. Paul for the Church. (Si Stephenas non orasset, ecclesia Paulum non haberet,  "If Stephen had not prayed, the Church would not have had Paul.")

How is his death described? (v.  60). When we want to go to sleep we like quietness and closed shutters. Poor Stephen had to go to sleep in the midst of agony and noise. Is it not a beautiful description of a Christian's death, like a tired child going to sleep in the dark night to waken in the glorious sunshine? The early Christians loved this thought. Epitaphs on Catacombs—"Victoria sleeps."  "Zokeus is here laid to sleep."  "Arethusa sleeps in God."  "Clementia, tortured, dead, sleeps, will rise again."

LESSONS—

(1) Could you be a martyr for Christ? Not necessarily to bear death, but to bear loss, or mockery, or dislike of comrades? Do you care enough for Christ to do and bear unpleasant things for His sake? It may be the only martyrdom asked of you. Very little compared with Stephen's. But if the Lord expected even that much of you, would He be disappointed?

(2) See close of last Lesson about "tide flowing in." Here is another assault—resistance to progress of the Church. Did it stop it? No. See persecution arose (ch.  viii. 1), which scattered them all abroad, and therefore spread the Gospel more than ever. See Stephen replaced by Paul, the greatest of all the Apostles. "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."


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