Faithful unto Death
Acts VI. 18; VII. 54 to VIII. 5.
"I will give thee a crown of life."
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
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?
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
"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?
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."
(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."