Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. CHEERFUL OBEDIENCE. (Vers. 2-4.) God bade Abraham leave his home and kindred, and he left them. He did not know whither he was going (Hebrews 11:8), but at the call of God he set forth promptly and willingly. So Matthew at the summons of the Savior (Matthew 9:9). So many thousands since his day; men and women who have heard the Master say, "Go," and they have gone, relinquishing all that is most cherished by the human heart. When God distinctly speaks to us, whatever he may bid us do, at whatever cost we may be required to obey, it behooves us to comply instantly and cheerfully.
II. TRUST IN THE DARKNESS. (Ver. 5.) There is little faith in trusting God when everything is bright and hopeful. When we can see our way we can easily believe that it is the right one. Living faith shows itself when we "do not see and yet believe" (John 20:29). Abraham was promised the land of Canaan "for a possession," yet God "gave him none inheritance in it." "By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country" (Hebrews 11:9). This might have seemed to him as a "breach of promise" (Numbers 14:34) on the part of him who brought him out of Chaldaea, but he does not seem to have entertained any doubts or misgivings. Moreover, he believed that the land would be the property of his seed, though "as yet he had no child." "By faith also he offered up Isaac," etc. (Hebrews 11:17). Even in the thick darkness, when he could not see one step before him, Abraham trusted God. We profess to "walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7), but we are often fearful and doubtful when the way is clouded. But it is in the night of adversity that the star of faith must shine.
"When we in darkness walk, III. CONFIDENCE IN THE FUTURE. (Vers. 6, 7.) God told his servant that, after being in bondage four hundred years, his seed should serve him in that country. It was a long time to look forward to. But the believing patriarch rested in God and was satisfied. We are impatient if our schemes do not come to maturity in a very brief time; we cry "failure" when only a small fraction of four centuries is passed without the redemption of our hope. We are bound to remember that we "have to do" with the Eternal One. We must wait his time, whether it be a day or a thousand years. - C.
III. CONFIDENCE IN THE FUTURE. (Vers. 6, 7.) God told his servant that, after being in bondage four hundred years, his seed should serve him in that country. It was a long time to look forward to. But the believing patriarch rested in God and was satisfied. We are impatient if our schemes do not come to maturity in a very brief time; we cry "failure" when only a small fraction of four centuries is passed without the redemption of our hope. We are bound to remember that we "have to do" with the Eternal One. We must wait his time, whether it be a day or a thousand years. - C.
I. THE HISTORY OF ISRAEL IS ROOTED IN DIVINE REVELATION. Her God is the "God of glory." Power, holiness, perfect freedom, are included in this idea of the "glorious God." History is a Divine revelation, because it unfolds his counsel. In times of doubt the rulers of a nation, the guides of a community, should retrace the past to its beginnings, for a Divine idea lies at the basis of the national life and of every sacred institution.
1. The self-revelation of God to Abraham. Every new epoch in religious history starts with a fresh self-revelation of the spiritual nature and attributes of the glorious God. Amidst idolatrous scenes, the depths of Abraham's spirit were stirred, and a light from above shone in. From idols, from Sabaean fetish-worship, he turned, "to serve the living and the true God."
2. The call to Abraham. He was to be the reformer of religion, the founder of a nation, whose life was to root itself in the acknowledgment of a living and a holy, spiritual Being as their God.
(1) Such calls involve ever sacrifice. Home must be quitted; its loved associations in fancy and feeling torn up; kindred left behind. It is the type of those moral changes and those consequent sacrifices which accompany God's call to souls at every time.
(2) They involve the exercise of faith. Future good, in the shape of a new home and land, are promised to the patriarch, but the when and the how of their possession are left - as we say to imagination; as the Bible says, to faith. "He went out, not knowing whither he went." It has been said that life is an education by means of "illusions;" were it not better to say that life is an education by means of ideals? They are of their nature future, indefinite, must be left for time to unfold, as with the prospect of good vaguely shadowed forth before the mind of Abraham.
(3) They require unquestioning obedience. Such was that of Abraham. He had nothing to rely on but the promise of God; all else was against him. When he came to the "land," he found no inheritance in it, no resting-place for his foot. Spiritual trials consist in the perplexity of the will, caused by the contradiction between the unseen truth and the opposition of appearances to it. Facts stubbornly resist our ideals; the world, perhaps, scoffs at the ideals themselves. To "endure as seeing him who is invisible," is part of the certain calling, and at the same time the high joy, of the called soul. And faithfulness is certain to know repetitions and confirmations of the assuring - promise.
(4) The light of promise ever leads, on. It is to be remarked that the Divine forecast of the future is not of unmixed brightness. A sorrow and a struggle for the young nation is to prepare for its enjoyment of freedom. It is to be cradled and rocked in slavery. By the stern and cruel knowledge in itself of the tyrant's oppression, Israel will learn to fly to Jehovah its Deliverer, and find in his service emancipation from every secular yoke.
(5) Divine institutions confirm Divine promises. Israel had its peculiar sacramental institution of circumcision. A sacrament is a species of religious language, the more impressive because addressed to the eye than merely to the ear. In it an act of God and an act of man are expressed; surrender on the side of man, acceptance and blessing on the side of God. Thus the sacrament becomes the channel of tradition; the tribe and the nation have a common and visible bond of union. Such were the Divine beginnings of Israel's life.
II. THE STONY OF JOSEPH. His career was in many points typical of that of Jesus.
1. He was the object of envy and unnatural hatred on the part of his brethren. So was Jesus envied and hated by the rulers of the nation, and on the like grounds - the manifest favor of God which was with him. Such is the law - superior spiritual energy at first arouses opposition (2 Timothy 3:12). And especially from those nearest of kin (Matthew 10:36). Such, too, was the experience of Jesus. Nothing is more painful to the heart than to see one, hitherto supposed an equal, rising to eminence above our heads. The best will suffer from jealousy; how much more those whose evil is thus set in the light of contrast, exposed and condemned!
2. But he enjoyed Divine compensations. "God was with him," "delivered him from all his troubles," imparted to him grace and wisdom in the presence of the earthly great. So was it with Jesus. Hate and envy may be defied by force or intellect; but better is it when the envious and hateful are themselves revealed in their hideousness by the bright shining of God's grace upon the good man's life.
3. Again, the wrath of men is often made the instrument of good to them. The force which would undermine is made to exalt. Joseph becomes prime minister to Pharaoh; the crucified Jesus is, through his cross, exalted to be Prince and. Savior.
4. The living soul will find an opportunity of overcoming evil with good. The famine in Canaan gave Joseph the opportunity of a glorious revenge. The account of his recognition of his brothers, and forgiveness of them, is most touching and rich in typical suggestiveness. Those who love allegories may find much food for fancy in the details. Those who prefer broad spiritual lessons may also find in the figure of Joseph the very ideal of the gentle side of Israel's national character, which was fulfilled in the suffering Savior, who triumphs over his foes by the might of forgiving love.
5. The result of the chain of events. The settlement of Israel in Egypt. How strangely is the web of destiny spun! How deeply laid the train of causes and effects which result in great histories and revolutions! Any course of events is highly improbable beforehand, which after it has taken place unfolds a providential logic and profound design. So with Christianity Nothing can seem beforehand more improbable than the whole story of its foundation. At Athens the story of the crucified One was folly, and at Jerusalem a scandal. Yet in it lay hidden the wisdom and the power of God. Hatred to Joseph was the first moving spring of a long religious history and triumph Hatred to Jesus was now being proved the spring of his triumph and the mighty prevalence of his religion. God works through the evil passions of men as well as through the good; and all powers in rivalry with love must sooner or later be brought submissively to follow in the wake of her eternal progress of blessing. In humiliation and in exaltation Joseph presents a lively type of Jesus. And the Sanhedrim must have felt this as they listened to the old familiar story of the origin of the nation. They are face to face with the fact of a new origin. Will they learn the lesson of the past for the present? Do we learn the lessons of the past for our present? - J.
I. THE TESTIMONY TO THE WORD OF GOD. Christianity is no novelty discarding the past. Yet not a mere development, but a new gift in Christ. A great lesson on the study of the Old Testament, which is too much neglected. A help to trace the line of the spiritual manifestations. A warning against unbelief. A declaration of the grace of God, apart from human merit.
II. THE BOLDNESS OF THE INSPIRED PREACHER. Fearlessness of man. Courage of deep conviction. Freedom from Jewish prejudice. Gospel liberty not rationalistic license. Spiritual conception of God and his worship. Charge of the Jews.
III. THE POSITION OF CHRISTIANITY plainly set forth as the final revelation, and the challenge founded upon it. Receive the gospel or you resist the Spirit. This position evidently rested on the person and work of Christ, "the righteous One," whose message was above that "ordained by angels" (see Hebrews 1., 2.). The circumcision of the Old Testament was declared worthless in view of the new circumcision of the "heart and ears," otherwise the sign of the new covenant, the baptism of the Holy Ghost. Although evidently broken off by the murderous riot which ensued, the address was advancing to an appeal to faith on the basis of the new outpouring of the Spirit: "Now is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation." A great example to us to lead men through conviction of sin to acceptance of grace - through the sense of what they are to the hope of what they may be in Christ. - R.
defense may very justly be applied to the long stretch of these verses. They no doubt do stand for Stephen's formal defense. He has been very mildly challenged by the high priest to say whether the "things" laid to his charge "are so." And he loses not a minute in replying. He replies, however, in his own way. That way is somewhat indirect. His tone betrays some sense of his being in some sense also master of the situation. He tempts us much to feel that much may be read between the lines, and we soon come to convince ourselves that the real drift of the personal defense is laid on the lines of a national indictment - and that national indictment very little else than the barest recital of the pedigree of the nation in question. Stephen does not make it too apparent at first - any mere than once on a time Nathan did, when he appeared to condignly judge David - but he puts before himself and hearers the nation of Israel as it now is, and takes in hand to say what it came from and along what way it has come to this present. The places of judge and judged almost seem turned, both in the matter and the manner of Stephen. It is very possible that (as Stephen never lived to put in writing nor to repeat what he now said) there is some disjointedness in the language as it is now before us, and some lacunoe, and (though many doubt the suggestion) that interruptions, especially just at the close, determined the form of some parts of Stephen's strong accusation. On the other hand, we have to remember that probably nowhere do we read language fresher from the dictate of the Holy Spirit. The recital of the spiritual lineage of this nation reveals -
I. A SERIES OF PROVIDENTIAL INTERPOSITIONS OF THE MOST MARKED CHARACTER. These occur in more shapes than one.
1. There is the originating sovereign choice and sovereign call of Abraham (ver. 2).
2. The express command to him whither he is to go and where awhile to dwell (ver. 3).
3. Express promises vouchsafed to him and his seed, and covenant, made with him (vers. 6-8).
4. An unfailing, providential guidance of him and his linear descendants, Isaac and Jacob and Joseph. This name Joseph does not fail to lead Stephen to recite
(1) the providence that wonderfully overruled the worst of the work of envy;
(2) the providence that exalted Joseph, an alien, to Egypt's highest place;
(3) the providence that was aiming at and that did secure the more remote result of settling awhile the nation in Egypt.
5. The providential saving of the life of the infant Moses, educating of him, endowing him with a spirit of both goodness and power, preparing him well by chastening delay and discipline, and finally calling him to see and know and take up his mission, after an interval of forty years (vers. 23, 30, 35). The name of Moses, again, does not fail to lead Stephen to commemorate
(1) the chief features of his work, in leading the people of Israel out of Egypt and through the Red Sea, and in his own life's remaining forty-years wanderings with those people in the wilderness;
(2) the distinct prophecy with which his lips were charged, relating to the "Prophet," the Messiah, the late well-known Jesus (ver. 37);
(3) the typical "tabernacle in the wilderness," so carefully and in minute detail designed in heaven, yet so temporary in its use for the service of the wilderness and the early settlement under Joshua in "the possession of the Gentiles"
6. By two hurried touches, the reason of which is scarcely far to find, Stephen implies rather than mentions the providence which raised up David to conceive and Solomon to execute the building of the temple (Acts 6:14; ver. 48); when, for whatever exact reason, the climax of the occasion is reached. The moment has come for the dropping of the mere recital of history, every step of which, however, was telling its own very plain and very significant tale. In words of flame and impassioned thrusts, the solemn, unanswerable, conscience-stinging charge is flung at the packed body of accusers and sympathizers. And the force came, not of bad spirit, but of the Spirit, the Spirit of truth and conviction, of light and life, and, when needs be, of "consuming fire." So far Stephen's recital of the moral lineage of the people is crowded with the tokens of providence, Nay, it is one chain of tokens of Divine love and Divine care. But on reading again the recital we find -
II. A SERIES OF PERVERSE THWARTINGS AND "CONTRADICTIONS OF SINNERS," To us the things working in the mind of Stephen are not obscure, but even to those who heard him, light must have glimmered in before the final disclosure. When this came, no man doubted what it meant nor to what it was equivalent. Not exactly side by side, and not exactly paripassu with the originating, directing, overruling, and protecting "dispositions" (ver. 53) of Heaven, but certainly in many a most mournful and untoward conjuncture appeared the perverseness of human insubjection and ingratitude and presumptuous opposition. The worst growths of ingratitude sprang up where had fallen the richest showers of heavenly grace. The worst forms of resistance assorted themselves in front of the kindest and most distinguished of heavenly leading. And it had been thus too systematically. It had been so once and again, and the indications were to the effect that," So my people love to have it. Thus the whole length of exceptional and most beneficent grace was disfigured by the intrusion of surprising ingratitude and rebellion; and of late, Stephen has to show, things have grown worse, nay, they are come to a climax. The seed of evil grew up into plain sight.
1. In those patriarchs, moved with envy," who "sold Joseph into Egypt" (ver. 9).
2. In the two cases, that grew upon one another in degree of blindness, when Moses himself was so taken by surprise in that his own brethren did not perceive his mission, and that it was one for their benefit, at whatsoever risk to himself (vers. 25, 28, 35).
3. In the rebellion and fickleness of Israel under "Mount Sina," and their patent idolatry there, a career of crime, Stephen implies, which begun there never got purged out of their system, but brought on the crushing punishment of the Captivity. This was a marvelous stroke of Stephen's just rhetoric - suggestion of the Spirit's light and force - to run up in the compass of one sentence that initial act of idolatry into the flourishing continuation of it which both courted and caused the captivity of ever-memorable shame (vers. 38-43).
4. But never so plainly, never so terribly as now; the present generation complete the circle of the evil works of their fathers. They "resist the Holy Ghost;" they are "the betrayers and murderers" of him for prophesying of whom men were both persecuted and slain by their fathers; they have not honored their own "Law," so boasted in, in the only acceptable way of honoring it, viz. in the "keeping" of it; and they have branded themselves with the names "stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and in" their very "ears." These are the formidable interruptions to the purity, honor, nobility of their lineage. They are stains on their escutcheons - ineffaceable in themselves. But even all this is as nothing, for they now drag their glory in the dust, and are for flinging it away for ever. The recital shows -
III. A SERIES OF SUGGESTIVE RETRIBUTIONS. This aspect of his subject, it may be supposed, Stephen purposed to keep in some check for a time. Yet:
1. It is implied, for those who certainly well knew all the history of Joseph and his brethren, in the allusion to the exaltation of Joseph, and his brethren's repairing to him for corn, and finally his father and family becoming as it were his permanent guests (vers. 9-14).
2. It is again implied (see the manifest hint of some kind of ver. 35) in the justifying of Moses' unconscious taking up of his role as reformer and deliverer of his brethren (vers. 24-26), and in the parallel condemnation of those whose blindness, not seeing it, led them to say tauntingly, "Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us?"
3. It is most emphatically stated of the idolatrous Israelites. God "turned, and gave them up (ver. 42). And the fact of this being able to be viewed either as one long-continued course of retribution or retribution frequently repeated shows that, as Stephen approaches the end of his speech, he is preparing to give greater prominence to this matter. So far, then, the striking moral features of this history consist of unparalleled opportunity, reckless disregard of it and Heaven's own distinctest and most impressive kind of warnings. But the whole case of Stephen is not over till it is observed how he either purposely exhibits or is made the means of exhibiting -
IV. THE AIM, THE USE, THE LESSONS OF THAT FAMILY LINEAGE, MADE TO BE ILLUSTRIOUS, ALL MISERABLY FORFEITED, AT LEAST FOR THE FAMILY ITSELF. For:
1. The aim and use of all, if they had not been absolutely lost, would have obviated the necessity of any defense at all on the part of Stephen; and in particular would have rendered unnecessary his allusion to David, to Solomon, and to the nature of the dwelling-place of the Most High," as also his quotation of the prophet's rapt, inspired, and foreseeing language (vers. 46-50). It seems evident that Stephen was far from being supremely anxious on the subject of his own personal defense; he is bent on something fir beyond and above this. But so far as he was at all anxious about it, it was here that the point of it lay. Whatever he had said about "this place," and about "the customs of Moses," and about "this Jesus of Nazareth," who had power to "destroy this temple and build it up in three days," and who was the end and aim and substance of all "the Law and the prophets," was near to finding its solution, for those who had "ears to hear," at the point at which Stephen is found quoting that prophet (ver. 50). But all was lost on those whose nation had been educating fourteen hundred years if haply they might see this very thing and not lose it.
2. The lessons of a moral and individual nature are now to be yet more shown spilled on the ground. Yes, spilled, as Stephen's blood itself was spilled. Instead of having learnt or now learning, they are "cut to the heart;" they gnash with their teeth; they cry out with a loud voice; they stop their ears; they run upon Stephen with one accord; they cast him out of the city; they stone him. It was the evening of hope for many of that audience when Stephen began to speak. When he has ended evening has declined into a mournful, dark, despairful night. A hundred times they have been warned in their own family history, and their fathers cry to them from the very tombs. But what can they hear who "stop their ears "? And what can any hear who do likewise? - B.
i.e. the temple], and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us." But while this was the definite charge, we find that the real offence must have been his bold and unqualified assertion of the Messiahship and divinity of Christ. Stephen's crime, in the eyes of bigoted Jewish rulers, was his discernment of the spirituality of Christ's mission; but this Stephen saw on its antagonistic side, and therefore we cannot wonder that he should excite such prejudice against himself. Olshausen well says, "The Jews, with a disposition of mind that looked to outward things, did not rightly comprehend the thoughts of Stephen, but took a distorted view of them. What he had represented as a consequence of the operation of the Spirit of Christ, whose design it was to consecrate the world as a great temple of God, and to guide religion from externals to the heart, that the Jews conceived as a purpose to be accomplished by violence, and thus they ascribed to him the destruction of the temple and the abolition of Jewish usages - things which he had never attempted." We may dwell on -
I. THE FORM OF THE SPEECH AS ADAPTED TO THE JEWISH AUDIENCE. It is a historical resume. With such a Jewish audience is always pleased, and for such marked attention and interest can now be secured. It is remarkable:
1. For the knowledge of Scripture which it reveals - a knowledge not concerned only with facts and persons, but with principles and their permanent applications.
2. For the skill with which he selected his Scripture points; so that not until "he had patiently traversed the whole period from Abraham to Solomon, selecting such facts as made for his own case, and setting them in skilful array, did he suffer one word to escape him at which even his most adverse hearer could take open exception." Stephen illustrates for us the power that lies in
(1) command of Scripture;
(3) skill in the art of rhetoric and of argument;
(4) spiritual insight of the deeper meanings of Divine revelation.
II. THE RELATION OF THE SPEECH TO THE SPECIFIC CHARGES. He was accused of teaching what would materially change the old Jewish customs. He replies in effect
(1) that God had given a new revelation, and that he was only asking them to hear God's message and receive God's Messenger; and
(2) that, in rejecting a new message from God, they were only acting as their fathers had done in all the previous generations. This Stephen, in a very subtle way, hinted at by his historical references; but he reserved the full unfolding of it until the close of his speech. Then he presses two points home upon the heart and conscience of his audience.
(1) In reference to the charge that he proposed the destruction of the temple and its ritual, he urged that God's direct spiritual dealings with men were and always had been strictly independent of forms, or ritual, or temple. And
(2) in reference to the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, he urged that the Jews, under every succeeding form of Divine revelation, had resisted the Spirit. Dr. Dykes says, "As often as it had pleased God, through chosen messengers of his will, to lead Israel forward through a new moment of change into a fresh spiritual epoch of blessing, so often had God's thoughts been misunderstood, his purposes hindered, and his messenger rejected by the bulk of Israel. This had been their national failing - to cling to the present and material, whenever God was calling them to higher spiritual good. This they had done so often that their doing it now, by rejecting a spiritual Christ and idolizing a material temple, was only of a piece with their entire history." We must suppose that the excitement of the Sanhedrim, who detected his point, and the clamor of the crowd, who followed the cue given by the council, reached at last such a height that Stephen could only close his speech suddenly with the few intense words given us in vers. 51-53. It was a noble boldness and a sublime testimony, but we cannot wonder that it fed the flame of excitement and made a violent death for the heroic champion almost a certainty. There are times in life when what colder natures call imprudence is the immediate duty to which men are called. Stephen's burning words have carried their conviction to human consciences through the long Christian ages. Literature has no intenser warning against losing the spiritual by doggedly clinging to the bare and formal and literal. - R.T.
Acts 7:6, etc
1. It may be noticed that the Scriptures, as we have them, are translations, i.e. they are the thoughts of the inspired writers expressed in words chosen by other men, and there is no reason why men nowadays, who can grasp the thought of the original writer, should not give it expression in other, better-chosen, and better-adapted terms.
2. It may be shown that the apostles and New Testament speakers and writers did not put themselves under any such severe limitations. They quoted freely, jealous of the sense, but not unduly concerned about repeating the precise phraseology. Of this we have instances in Stephen's speech, to which we direct attention; premising that our space does not admit of our pointing out every instance of deviation or addition, and that we can only attempt to open an interesting line of study. It is to be noticed that Stephen quotes from the Septuagint translation rather than from the original Scriptures, but even from the Septuagint he makes what seem to be important alterations; and he blends traditional references with Scripture quotations, as if some recognized authority attached to them. It is very probable that "ancient genuine elements were preserved traditionally among the Jews, which received their higher confirmation by admission into the New Testament. If we consider the general prevalence of oral tradition among all ancient nations, and particularly the stationary posture of things which was common among the Jews, such a descent of genuine traditionary elements through a succession of centuries wilt lose the astonishing character which it seems to have." Illustrations may be given of the following points : -
I. TRANSLATION AFFECTS THE LITERALITY, BUT NEED NOT AFFECT THE TRUTH. Show that:
1. Truth must get a form of words if it is to be communicated to and received by men, whose intercourse is so largely dependent on language.
2. A particular truth is not, of necessity, confined to one particular form of words. Each man may give it his own form of expression, and, conceivably, each man's form may adequately represent the truth, and convey it to another mind.
3. The utmost importance would attach to the ipsissima verba of Scripture, if they could be recovered.
4. That they cannot be recovered, and can only be known in translation, may be designed to convince us of the comparative unimportance of the mere form.
5. The Bible is translated into many languages, and in its varied dress it is found efficiently to retain its spirit and its power.
II. MEMORY AFFECTS THE LITERALITY, BUT NEED NOT AFFECT THE TRUTH. Stephen spoke from memory; St. Paul, in his writings, quotes from memory. Ministers and teachers must often quote from memory. The power of memory is of two kinds -
(1) the power to retain exact words;
(2) the power to retain the thought, the truth, or the principle, which found expression in the words. It may be easily said that the verbal memory is alone the correct one, but, more carefully considered, we would recognize the superior correctness of the memory that held the truth rather than the words.
III. WITH DUE CARE TO PRESERVE THE LITERALITY, WE SHOULD HAVE MORE CARE ABOUT GAINING SPIRITUAL HOLD OF THE TRUTH. Of this Stephen gives effective example. And it may be shown that a precise and adequate expression of any truth depends, not on the exact remembrance of a form of words or an accepted creed, but on spiritual insight, on the clearness of our visions of the truth: he who sees the truth will never find it difficult to make his brother see it too. - R.T.
I. THE UNDULATORY CHARACTER OF OUR HUMAN LIFE. This in the eventful experiences of Joseph (vers. 9, 10). First rejoicing in his father's peculiar favor, then sold into Egyptian slavery, then rising to a position of trust in the house of his master, then cast into prison, then raised to the premiership; up on the height of comfort, down into the depth of misfortune, up again on the crest of honor, then down again into the trough of shame, etc. So with Israel the man and Israel the people (vers. 11-19). The patriarch at first in a position of relief and advantage, then in one of distress and disadvantage; the nation falling into the dark gulf of bitter bondage until raised up "with a strong hand and stretched out arm into liberty. Thus is it with men and with nations. With none does the course of things prove to be a straight line, either of ascent or of descent. It is always undulatory. Light and shadow, sweetness and bitterness, hope and fear, joy and sorrow, alternate from the cradle to the grave.
II. THE OVERRULING PROVIDENCE OF GOD. How clearly Joseph felt that his distresses had been overruled by the Divine hand, we know (Genesis 50:20). We can also see how the descent into Egypt and even the long slavery in that land of bondage were a discipline which wrought ultimate good, of the most solid and enduring kind, to Israel. By the sufferings which they endured together in those broiling brickfields, under those cruel taskmasters, and to which in happier times their sons looked back with such intense emotion; by the marvelous deliverances which they experienced together in the land of the enemy and in the "great and terrible wilderness," and of which their descendants sang with such reverence and such rapture; - by these common sufferings and common mercies they were welded together as a nation, they became rich in those national memories which are a people's strength, they became a country for which, through many a succeeding century, patriots would cheerfully risk all their hopes and proudly lay down their lives. We learn these lessons.
1. Be prepared for coming changes in circumstance. No man has a right to feel secure in anything but in a wise and holy character, in that which makes him ready for any event that may happen. At any hour human prosperity may pass into adversity, joy into sorrow, honor into shame; or at any hour straitness may be exchanged for abundance, lowliness for elevation, gloom for gladness. We all urgently need the fixed principles, the rest in God, the attachment to things eternal and Divine, the heritage in the heavenly future, which will keep us calm in the most agitating vicissitudes of earthly fortune.
2. Trust God when things are at their worst. In the first days of Egyptian slavery, and still more in Potiphar's prison, things must have looked dark indeed to Joseph. "But God was with him" (vers. 9, 10). It was a terrible time, too, for the children of Israel when the king "which knew not Joseph" dealt subtly with and, evil entreated them, slaying their young children at their birth (vers. 18, 19); but God saw their affliction (vers. 34, 35; Exodus 3:7), and was preparing to send the deliverer in due time. And to the upright in any scene of disappointment and distress there will arise "light in the darkness" (Psalm 112:4). Trust and wait; the longest and severest storm will pass, and the sun shine again on the waters of life.
3. Realize that God has large and long purposes in view. Jacob died far off from the promised land, but his bones were to rest there in due course, and there his children were to have a goodly heritage. It matters little what happens to us as individuals; enough if we are taking a humble share in working out his great and beneficent designs. - C.
typical of the Christian time or as expressive of an inner meaning, a Divine logic of history. We may learn, then, from this passage -
I. THAT DIVINE BEGINNINGS IN HISTORY ARE NEVER WITHOUT STRUGGLES, The people grew and increased, but a sudden check was given to their prosperity by the accession of a new king. Israel might have settled in Egypt and have achieved no great thing for the world, had not persecution compelled her to struggle for existence and for liberty. Times of national danger throw the nation back upon its true consciousness. They vivify and purify that consciousness. It was England's struggle against a tyrant two centuries and a half ago which made England. So the War of Independence made America into a nation. The truth applies to the individual also. We may depend upon it that permanent good must sooner or later be struggled for - either that it may be gained, or, if gained, that it may be kept.
II. THAT THE EXTREME HOUR OF HUMAN NEED IS THE HOUR FOR DIVINE INTERPOSITION; or, man's extremity is God's opportunity. "When the tale of bricks is full," says the proverb, "then comes Moses." Great stirrings among the people, movements towards liberty and purity of religion, seem to produce at the right moment the patriotic leader and the reformer. When the hour comes the man is not wanting. It may be argued that until the leader appears the movement is not ripe. God reveals his will for change in the words and work of great men.
III. THE SIGNIFICANT PERSONALITY OF GREAT MEN. The child was divinely fair. He was wonderfully preserved from death; rescued by the very daughter of the persecutor, and cradled in the very house of his foes. His education among one of the most richly civilized of ancient peoples was complete; and the influence of his person was most commanding. God does not bestow such graces for nothing. Whenever we see such a one marked out by beauty, knowledge, intellectual power above his fellows, we are entitled to ask - What is his significance for the world? What does God mean to do with him for the good of mankind? Again, the life-ideas in such great men are often of slow ripening. Not till he was forty years of age did his thoughts turn to the condition of his nation, and the delivering purpose come to fruit in his heart. Some men conceive much earlier the ambition and the call of their life, and move toward the goal with extraordinary velocity and energy. Others appear to be long dormant, like the oak that tarries to put forth its leaf in the woodland. Great careers have been run, great works achieved, by the age of thirty-seven: Alexander, Raphael, Byron, arc well-known examples. Cromwell, on the other hand, was about the age of Moses when God called him from the fens of Huntingdon to save our nation. The age matters little; men in this respect resemble plants - "Ripeness is all."
IV. GREAT TRAINS OF EVENTS SPRING FROM SLIGHT VISIBLE CAUSES. A single spark is sufficient to fire the train of powder which is to explode the mine. When the mind is full of an idea, a trifling circumstance may stimulate all its energies to action. A forming purpose waits only for the decisive action to fix and crystallize it. Thus the act of Moses in delivering the individual Israelite from his oppressor fixed him in his national design. In everything let us follow the lead of God. Let us remember that we are here first to be acted upon by him, that we may then act from him upon others. If we are really in earnest, the opportunity will never be wanting. God makes his servants ready for great enterprises by first inspiring them for lesser duties. The large and distant project may hold the mere visionary's view; but the practical and really useful man begins with his neighbor next door. The man who actually helps his friend in need is the man who may be trusted to help a community or a nation. But how many dreamers are there whose projects of amelioration begin and end with eloquent speeches or articles in newspapers! The old lesson comes back from Moses' life to all who would do and be something in the world: "Do the thing that lies nearest to thee; the second will have already become clearer."
V. MOSES EXAMPLE WAS THAT OF LOYALTY UNDER MISCONCEPTION. There is much pathos in the simple word that he thought his brethren understood that God was delivering them by his band; but they did not understand. So mighty is the strength derived from the sympathy of numbers, the common soldier becomes a hero at its electric touch. So chilling is misconception and want of sympathy on the part of friends, it damps the spirit of the Heaven-born leader. For this reason, when we sift the examples of moral courage presented by any time, those are the bravest and the greatest, and most prove their call of God, who show that they can go on, if needs be, not merely in spite of their open enemies, but in spite of their friends. The misconstruction of friends will be most felt when the action is in the conscience known to be most disinterested and sincere. Moses aims to reconcile contending brethren; unity among themselves is now above all necessary. His action is misconstrued as ambition (ver. 28). Thus does the sick man turn on the kindly physician, the subject on his prince, the slave on his deliverer. Man often ignores the day of his salvation. Moses, like his great Antitype, was baffled in his saving designs by the ignorance and folly of those who would not be blessed. But he simply uses prudence and waits for a future opportunity. We can hardly construe the flight of Moses otherwise than as an act of prudence. He saw his life and with it his design endangered. To have remained would have been foolhardiness, often confounded with true courage. He took the course of prudence, which is the course of the higher courage. Far easier to rush on an heroic death than to nourish a noble purpose under disappointment, solitude, and exile. The history of a nation's greatness is summed up in that of its great men. And in the life trials and struggles of great men God reveals himself from age to age as the persevering, unvanquishable, and loving Savior of mankind. His undying purpose, manifested in all his heroes, is to set us free; and this in the knowledge of him and obedience to his laws. - J.
I. DIVINE INTERVENTION. The hand of God is sometimes visible though it is usually unseen. We see the Divine working in
(1) the creation of such a mind as that of Moses;
(2) the fashioning of such a frame as was his (ver. 20; Hebrews 11:23);
(3) the deliverance of the child from the dangers of the river;
(4) his being confided to the guardianship and instruction of Pharaoh's daughter, where he would learn "all the wisdom of the Egyptians" (ver. 22), and thus be prepared for future work. We can have no doubt as to the operation of Divine wisdom in such a case as this. May we not say - Ex uno disce omnes? May we not conclude that there is the handiwork of God in all our lives, if we could but discern it; that he is directing our course; and that, though it is evidently best for us that we should not see so much of Divine intervention as to be unwisely waiting for it or injuriously dependent on it, we may console ourselves with the belief that "we are not driftwood on the wave," but rather as noble ships which a heavenly hand is steering to the desired haven?
II. HUMAN NOBLENESS. (Vers. 23-28; see Hebrews 11:24-26.) It was" in Moses' heart to visit his brethren," and he took their cause in hand in a very practical and decisive way (ver. 24). He may have been mistaken in the method which he adopted, but that is of very small moment. The great thing is that it was in his heart to sympathize with and succor his brethren. The temptation to become naturalized as an Egyptian must have been great indeed. High honors, great wealth, abundant gratification of the lower instincts, - these prizes and pleasures, which are dear to men in general, were well within his reach. He deliberately chose to forego them all that he might play a nobler and braver part. Well has the event justified his choice. For as a rich and powerful Egyptian, he would have achieved nothing of any value to mankind; he would long ago have been forgotten; but as it is, he has rendered a service to the human race second to none that lived before the Savior, and has a name that will never die while the world has any place in its memory for its heroes and its martyrs. Not on the same splendid scale, but in the same estimable spirit, can we emulate his nobility, preferring an honorable affliction to unholy pleasure, a sacred and useful life among the lowly to ungodly distinction among the great, the service of Christ anywhere to the smiles and favors of the world.
III. DIVINE MANIFESTATION. (Vers. 30-33, 38.) God there revealed himself to the bodily senses in a wondrous form; in such form that Moses felt that, in a very unusual degree, he stood near to his Creator. Jesus Christ now manifests himself to us as he does not unto the world:
(1) in the privileges of his house and table;
(2) in the inspiration and indwelling of his Spirit;
(3) in the spiritual wonders he works in the hearts and lives of men with whom we have to do.
IV. DIVINE COMPASSION. (Ver. 34.) To the toiling and suffering Israelites God must have seemed very far away. It must have appeared to them as if he were blind to their miseries, deaf to their sighs and groans, indifferent to their wrongs. But they were mistaken. All the while he was observing and pitying them, and was ready to interpose at the right time on their behalf. When to our fainting and distrustful heart it seems as if our Divine Lord were unobservant or unmoved, we may rest assured that he sees, that he compassionates, that he holds himself ready to put forth his redeeming strength on our behalf when the hour for our deliverance has struck.
V. HUMAN INAPPRECIATIVENESS. (Vers. 35-39.) If we were to contend that the best and noblest men who have rendered the most signal and splendid service to our race are certain to be appreciated according to the height of their virtue and the value of their help, we should go in the teeth of human history. Some of the very best and wisest have been least understood, most despised and ill used. Moses, one of the very greatest, "attaining to the first three," most eminent in privilege, in character, in accomplishment, was one "whom they refused" (ver. 35), "whom our fathers would not obey" (ver. 39). We may work, hoping to he appreciated and honored of men, accepting gladly and gratefully the esteem and the love they award us; but we must not build upon it as a certain recompense of our endeavor. We must be prepared to do without it, to be able to say, "I will work on, 'though the more abundantly I love the less am I loved.'" Our true reward is in the smile of the Savior, the approval of our own heart (1 John 3:21), the consciousness that we are serving our generation, the blessing which awaits the faithful in the land of promise.
VI. HUMAN RESEMBLANCE TO THE DIVINE. (Ver. 37.) The Christ that should come was to be "like unto" the faithful servant in the house of God (Hebrews 3:5). As he was to be like one of us, so we are to strive to be "like unto him." And we may bear his image, breathe his Spirit, live his life, do in our sphere the work he did in his: "As he is, so are we in this world." "As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you." - C.
special providences purport to make the forces of native character hide themselves, and supersede them by what is artificial and in a sense even superficial, though it comes from heaven. It is, indeed, doubtful whether we have a very happy phrase in the expression "special providence. Perhaps we rather mean that providence occasionally strikes us more because it does what is unexpected or what seems to us specially remarkable for some reason or another. In any other sense, there certainly was a time when the most "special" providence might have seemed to be found in the fact that "not a sparrow falleth to the ground without" God's "notice," or in the fact that "all the hairs of our head are numbered" of God. While, therefore, we may believe readily that Moses was "raised up" of God, "called of God," watched over and graciously trained by the providence of God, this will none the less yield us the opportunity of observing the illustrations of the born reformer which he affords, and of noticing, for important uses, how parallel they run to those of one whom we might hesitate to describe as in any similar sense at all events "raised" or "called of God." That we may, therefore, the more clearly feel how little of the mere made and artificial there was in Moses, we may stop and note how the very brief sketch before us reveals some of the plain marks of the born reformer, whether for the better or the less good.
I. A MOMENT ARRIVES, CHARGED WITH A STRONG IMPULSE TO FIND A NEW POINT OF DEPARTURE FOR LIFE AND WHATEVER IS ITS CHIEF MEANING.
1. The impulse comes. It "came into his heart." It comes, and it comes very much as matter of feeling - out of his heart as surely as into it.
2. It comes under some comparatively unpretentious guise. Moses has a prompting to "visit his brethren the children of Israel." Out of sight is not out of mind with him, where it would have been so in a million of cases to one. He does not despise, forget, or ignore as much as possible poor relations. His heart is toward them, and perhaps at the time conscious of nothing else, he will "visit" them and throw in his lot with them.
3. The impulse is of uncommon strength.
(1) It asked for the decision of a moral question, and "refusing to be called" what he was not (Hebrews 11:24); he quickly settled that.
(2) It encountered the adopting of a lot of "affliction," and a share of suffering, in place of pride, wealth, luxury, and power (Hebrews 11:25); and the choice was unhesitatingly made.
(3) It asked force and perspicuity of spiritual vision, and that far sight that can not merely see afar, but that will find "a hand to reach through time," to catch the "far-off interest of tears "-that genuine ,'recompense of reward" (Hebrews 11:26).
(4) Lastly, it dares to face the wrath of a foster father king, a despot, whose will, whose whim, whose passion, whose cruelty would not stop at anything that crossed his purposes; but "they feared not" (Hebrews 11:27), for "he endured as seeing" the King eternal, immortal, and "invisible." These things all help to speak a reality and a strength in the impulse, which promise well to make the prophet master of the man, and which will fit the theory of a born reformer, while yet it is matter of theory.
II. TWO SUCCEEDING DAYS REVEAL MOSES - THE ONE IN THE CAPACITY OF A WRESTLER, AND VERY SUCCESSFUL ONE; THE OTHER CLOTHING HIMSELF IN THE AUTHORITY OF A JUDGE AND ARBITER; IN BOTH CASES UNSOLICITED. His action on either day is spontaneous. It was doubtless as great a surprise to the brother he would befriend as to his adversary for the time. Yet in either case Moses steps into the various arena, as though to the manner born.
1. This stepping boldly into action is very noticeable. How wide often the gulf that separates thought, feeling, wish, conviction, and even resolution from action itself!
2. Much more significant is the stepping from Egypt's court and palace and lap of luxury into practical conflict of this kind. It meant something unusual, and something unworldly and of the right sort unusual. It was the kind of thing to hold men who didn't like it spell-bound for at all events twenty-four hours. It provoked the question, "From whence hath this man" this authority and these mighty deeds (vers. 22, 28)? It meant a "new man" (Luther's hymn) on the spot.
III. A GREAT MARK OF A BORN REFORMER APPEARS NOW IN MOSES, IN THE ABSENCE OF SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS WHICH HE BETRAYS. What he did, what he said, what he tried to work, all came to thought, heart, and hand, as things under existing circumstances the most natural in the world. He saw himself only in the light of an instrument in the hand of God, and took for granted that his brethren would see him and all else in the same light. Probably his eye did not look on himself at all at the time; probably at the time, even what "he supposed" about his brethren understanding his mission on their behalf, was an utterly unconscious supposing. For it is the historian afterwards whose language is here read, and it was probably when Moses first received a check, and was taken aback by it, that his "supposing" precipitated itself. Circumstances, opposition, persecution, do not fail soon to open the eyes of almost any reformer, specially of any reformer in matter moral, but it is of the born reformer to plunge prompt, fearless, nothing hesitating, in medias res. And Moses did just this. The pain and the smart and their useful lessons were yet to come.
IV. IT REMAINS NO POOR SIGN OF THE BORN REFORMER THAT AT FIRST MOSES OVERSTEPS THE MARK. For exceptions to this experience are few. Even in a delicious unconsciousness and simplicity and naturalness lurks that very thing nature, human nature, and too much of it; self, and too much of it. God would not have overstepped the mark - never does. All his work fits perfectly to time, to place, to issue. Yet he who holds the threads of all human things in his fingers, and rules the mysterious vicissitude of human history, makes allowance beforehand for their error in his most faithful, most willing servants. Their pace must be moderated, and his purpose will not be lost, nor so much as suffer. More haste, worse speed for Moses - for the precipitancy of two days relegates him to forty years' absence from the scene and the holy enterprise into which he had flung himself with zeal so passionate. What will forty years do for him? What will they make of him? They will temper him, subdue much the confidence of self, and will make him more meet for the Master's service, at the very time that he shall appear less zealous for it. - B.
I. THE MESSAGE BY FIRE. Fire is the sign of the presence of Jehovah. It denotes spiritual agency in its intensity. Fire penetrates and it purifies. It is, therefore, inimical to evil and conservative of good. Darkness of mystery is round about God, and when he comes forth from it to reveal himself to men it is in the form of fire. It is an emblem of the Holy Spirit. In the bosoms of men he glows, and the musing poet bursts forth into inspired song, and the prophet into "words that burn and thoughts that breathe of truth and power." When we ask that God will answer us by fire, we ask that be will make known his presence in the most vivid manner in feeling, and with the most mighty effect on the life. Specially the vision of the burning bush was a type of Israel unconsumed notwithstanding its fierce persecution in Egypt; of the glory of his great Representative, the Messiah - a bright flame springing from the lowly bush; of the Church amidst its age long conflicts and trials; lastly, of all truth, which "like a torch, the more it's shook, it shines;" the more the breezes of controversy blow about it, the purer and clearer its illumination.
II. THE LIVING VOICE OF THE ETERNAL. The sense of hearing as well as that of sight is addressed. So ever in the disclosures of the Divine. What we have felt in part through the hearing of the car is illustrated and confirmed by the evidence of the more skeptical organ, the eye. Or what we have witnessed with a certainty not to be gainsaid, in actual fact is presently interpreted and connected with the great principle to which it belongs by some similar voice of teaching. The utterance here is simple. It is a declaration that the God of history is the ever-present God. He who was with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is here with Moses. Faith has always its past to fall back upon; it can renew its life in moments of weakness out of the living fount of memory.
III. THE WONDER AND THE TERROR OF THE DIVINE PRESENCE. First, Moses wonders at the burning bush. Wonder is the reflection in feeling of the extraordinary, and it is the parent of curiosity. Why and whence, the spirit asks, this irruption into the course of nature? It is the appearance of the living God, is the only answer to the question. Here wonder passes into fear and trembling, which betray man's sense of utter dependence in the presence of the Almighty and the All-holy. The sight of the unspeakable glory is shrunk from. In ordinary life nature and custom conceal God, and mercifully; for how could one glimpse of absolute truth, of Divine perfection, be endured? But terror passes into reverence, which is the blending of fear with love and confidence as the mind becomes more inured to the experience. The sandals are thrown off, as in the presence of an august sovereign. How good to feel that nature, the daily scene of a wondrous drama, the occasional theatre of magnificent spectacles, as in the tempest, the thunder-voices and fiery revelation betokening the presence of creative might, - is holy ground! But the mind becomes deadened by custom. And well is it, therefore, that in those places specially consecrated to meetings with God - the church, the private oratory - habits of outward submission and reverence should be cultivated which may have their right influence on the whole moods of the soul.
IV. THE CALL.
1. The call of man by God is ever to service on behalf of the suffering. All human suffering has an echo in the heart of God. He is the God of all compassion. He is not merely love, but love as an active will. He determines to save. Now it is a nation from outward captivity, now a generation from bondage to ignorance and fear. Light and health are the images of his energy and influence.
2. The called man is a man sent. He has a mission, and it is ever a mission to the lowly and the meek. So has it been with all the great prophets; so above all with the Christ. "I send thee into Egypt." "Where lies the Egypt to which I am sent, and where the fulfillment of my life-call must lie?" the Christian may ask. John Howard found his Egypt in the prisons of Europe, and "trod an open but unfrequented path to immortality." Our Egypt may be close at hand. Wherever we see an obsolete custom, a corrupt habit of thought, an ignorance of any kind, a spell laid upon the imagination, or a vice tyrannizing over the will of others, there is a house of bondage. God needs the co-operation of many finite deliverers that his design of an infinite deliverance may go forward. If we, like Moses and like Elijah and Isaiah, are ready with our "Here am I; send me," it will not be long before we receive our directions and our marching orders. - J.
I. The REJECTED OF MEN WAS IN EACH CASE THE HONOURED OF GOD. The Israelites refused Moses as their ruler and judge; and God sent him as ruler and as emancipator to the people. Moses went into exile, and there was honored by a revelation of the glory of God; and with a special mission Jesus had been slain in Jerusalem, and in that very city had come back in the power of the Spirit, to clothe the disciples with fiery eloquence, to vibrate through their hearts with power, and to put forth mighty power to heal through their means - thus being proved Leader and Savior of the people. Human blindness and folly only bring a new reaction of the power and mercy of God. So often with us all. We resist the leading thoughts of the day. We hate the new truth which brings change with it, the fresh revelation which calls us to larger freedom. We think to silence the new teacher by contempt. But lo! in some unexpected quarter power breaks forth to seal the teacher and his message, and we are silenced.
II. THE CAREER OF MOSES AND THE CORRESPONDENCE IN THAT OF CHRIST. Grandly the figure of the desert lawgiver rises before us in the sketch of Stephen.
1. His mighty works. Those in Egypt, when he outdid the profound magicians, and established the supremacy of Jehovah over Pharaoh and all the gods of Egypt, were one of the originating causes of Israel's freedom. The memory of those deeds lived in the heart, could never be forgotten. They laid the foundation stones of the great structure of their history. So did Jesus lay the foundation of his kingdom in works, the power of which and the purport of which he could appeal to as evidence of his Divine mission.
2. His prophetic forecast and its fulfillment. The memorable prophecy of the great Teacher to come, found in the Book of Deuteronomy, was one of Israel's lights shining in a dark place. Though Stephen does not identify the prophet to come with Jesus in so many words, his meaning is evident to all the Sanhedrim. Was there a hint in that prediction which was wanting in the actual character of Jesus? And if the Sanhedrim had rejected him, how could they fail to incur the judgment threatened in that great passage of the Law? Some of the later parables of Jesus (as that of the wicked husbandmen) were also, perhaps, fresh in the recollection of many. Thus did the lines of ancient and recent evidence converge upon the present, and give to it a solemn significance.
3. The renewed contrast of the divinely accepted and the humanly rejected. (Vers. 38, 39.) Moses was the channel of ancient revelation. He received loving words to give to the people. And Jesus had said that the words he spake were not his, but the words of him that sent him. Yet Israel in the desert and Israel now were found alike unwilling to obey. The Divine presence was manifestly with Moses. In the desert the angel of God was ever at his side. So had it been with Jesus. Had not one of this very Sanhedrim confessed to Jesus that God must be with him, seeing the works that he did? Yet both Moses and Jesus had been rejected. And in both cases, when the voice of God said, "Forward!" the heart of Israel turned back. In the one case they longed for the comfort and the luxury of Egypt, in the other for the sensual joys of an earthly kingdom. Better to retain power and position than to go on the idle chase after the ideal and the spiritual; so the low mind, the carnal heart, argues in every age. It was the choice of the flesh and the denial of the Spirit that was in each case the cure of the sin, as it is everywhere and always.
4. The lapse into idolatry. The worship of a visible form is far easier than the lifting of the spirit to an invisible God. Idolatry is the making to one's self a god; spiritual religion is the constant exertion to rise to him who cannot be reproduced in finite forms of the intelligence or of art. The element of self-denial or of self-pleasing predominates in each and every form of worship. An upward and a downward movement is always proceeding in the religious life of a people. Some are ever trying to bring God into the service of their passions and interests; while true religion tries to mould all life into conformity with God's will. Idolatry brings penal consequences. Men are given up to their hearts' desire. The moral nerve decays. Spiritual energy being lost, they become weak in the presence of their enemies. Those touches of reminiscence from the past were enough to touch tender chords in the minds of Stephen's hearers. Well they knew idolatry had been the curse of the nation. Defeat, slavery, exile, - all came in its train. All might be traced back to the bitter root of disobedience, as that to unbelief in the living God. And what if now a similar vista of calamity were opening; if history were to repeat itself, and disobedience to the voice from heaven in Jesus should lead to a final downfall? Our history mirrors our sins and our mistakes. If we do not heed its warnings, nothing can avert our fate. No act of disobedience to conscience has passed unpunished in our lives. The worst of madness is deliberately to repeat old errors and stereotype our moral failures. If the ghosts of the past, as they appear in memory and reflection, do not deter us, what will or can? - J.
Deuteronomy 18:18, and, as introduction, the difficulties which Moses found in executing his mission may be vividly described. In Stephen's day it was the fashion to exalt Moses and the Mosaic system, but this was done in forgetfulness of the facts connected with Moses' career. Again and again his leadership was refused. The stiff-neckedness and unspirituality of the people tried him very sorely; once, to so great an extent, that he spake unadvisedly with his lips, and threw down the tables of the Law. This Moses, in whom now they trusted, they were not really willing to heed, any more than their fathers had been; for Moses had himself prophesied of the Messiah, and any one who chose could make the comparison between Moses and Jesus of Nazareth, and see that the one answered to the other just as the great lawgiver had indicated. Some of the points of similarity between Moses and Messiah may be considered and illustrated.
I. EACH HAD A DIVINE CALL. Both in childhood: Moses in his mysterious preservation; Messiah in his mysterious birth. Both in early manhood (each early relatively to the age they lived): Moses in the vision of the flaming bush; Messiah in the dove-vision and heavenly voice at his baptism.
II. EACH HAD A SPECIAL PREPARATION. Moses in the experience of the Egyptian court and in the solitudes of Horeb; Messiah in the experiences of the carpenter's house at Nazareth, and in the temptations of the Jordan desert.
III. EACH FOUNDED A DISPENSATION. Moses, one which was both an advance and a decline from the older patristic dispensation; an advance as a fuller revelation of God's will, and a decline as imprisoning spiritual truth, for a time and purpose, in stiff religious rites and ceremonies. Messiah, one which was in every way an advance, liberating men from all ritual bonds, and bringing to open hearts the fuller revelations of the Father.
IV. EACH WAS A NEW SPIRITUAL FORCE. As bringing God near to men; exhibiting afresh his claims, and revealing himself. Every man who sees God thereby becomes a power on his fellows. Moses, in a surprising manner, saw God on Sinai; and with his vision there may be compared our Lord's vision on the Mount of Transfiguration.
V. EACH WAS A TEACHER. Precisely of that which man could not gain by any studies and inquiries of his own. Both were
(1) moral teachers;
(2) religious teachers;
(3) teachers of a specific Divine truth;
(4) each enabled, by the power of miracle, to attest their teaching claims.
VI. EACH CLAIMED A HEARING ON DIVINE AUTHORITY. Moses made it continually known that God sent him and God spake by him. Messiah made it fully known that he did not speak of himself, but the words which the Father gave him he gave forth to men. This claim, based on Divine authority, Stephen presses on the attention of the Sanhedrim, urging that it makes their rejection of Christ positively criminal.
VII. EACH WERE REJECTED BY THEIR OWN GENERATION. See ver. 35 and compare the rejection of Messiah. Impress that the many-sided and abundant proofs that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of God, and the Savior, bring his personal claims closely home to us, and make great indeed the guilt of our rejecting him. "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?" - R.T.
I. THAT SIN LIES IN THE WRONG ACTION OF THE SOUL. (Vers. 39, 40.) Stephen says that the children of Israel "in their hearts turned back again into Egypt;" they were as guilty before God as if they had actually faced round and marched back into bondage. The sin was in the spirit of disloyalty and disobedience which dwelt within them. "Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, blasphemies" (Matthew 15:19). "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he" (Proverbs 23:7). It is the secret thought, the hidden motive, the cherished purpose, the lingering desire, the burning passion, that constitutes the essence of the evil in the sight of him who looketh on the heart, and not on the outward appearance. Beneath a fair exterior some men hide a false and guilty heart; beneath a broken and faulty behavior others have a soul that is struggling on and out - on to a better life, out of the entanglements of an evil but regretted and repudiated past.
II. THAT SIN'S WORST PENALTY IS PAID IN THE SPIRITUAL DETERIORATION IN WHICH IT ENDS. (Vers. 41-43.) For their rebelliousness the children of Israel were punished by being made to wander in the wilderness, instead of being at once admitted to their inheritance; also by being subjected to the rule of foolish and faulty kings like Saul, instead of wise and righteous prophets like Samuel; also by being sent away into captivity, even "beyond Babylon." But the worst effect of their sin was in their being led into darker and more aggravated evil. Their culpable impatience - "We wot not what is become of him" - led them to an act of positive idolatry: "Make us gods go before us;" and "they made a calf... and offered sacrifice unto the idol;" and this act of theirs led on, in course of time, to idolatrous actions more flagrant and. heinous still (ver. 42); and their wrong-doing culminated in the worship of Moloch, an iniquity of the very deepest dye. This is the course and penalty of sin. One wrong act leads to another and a worse; one sin to a number of transgressions; and these to a habit of iniquity; and this to a dark, baneful life and a hateful and odious character. By far the worst penalty which sin has to pay is the spiritual damage and deterioration to which it leads - the blinded eyes of the understanding, the weakened will, the enfeebled conscience, the masterful unbridled passions, the foul soul. Suffering of body, exile, loss of worldly prospects, the death of the body, - all these are nothing to this spiritual ruin.
III. THAT RIGHTEOUSNESS IS AN EARNEST ASPIRATION AND ENDEAVOUR AFTER GOD AND GOODNESS. (Vers. 44-46.) It does not consist in the possession of privilege; otherwise the fathers of the Jewish race - having "the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness" and afterwards in the land where the Gentiles were driven out before them (ver. 45), all things having been made "according to the fashion" which Moses had seen - would assuredly have been godly and holy men. True human righteousness is rather found in such Godward aspiration and endeavor as we find in David, the man "who found favor before God" (ver. 46). And how came he to enjoy this Divine regard? Not because he was faultless in behavior - we could wish he had been far less blameworthy in certain particulars than he was - but because he strove earnestly to worship and serve God, repenting bitterly when he sinned, struggling on again with contrite spirit, continually seeking to gain God's will from his Word, and honestly endeavoring, spite of inward imperfection and outward temptation, to do what he knew to be right. This is human goodness; not angelic purity, not flawless rectitude, but earnest seeking after the true and good, hating the evil into which it is betrayed, casting itself on Goal's mercy for the past, facing the future with devout resolve to put away the evil thing and walk in the paths of righteousness and integrity.
IV. THAT THE CONSOLATION OF RIGHTEOUSNESS IS IN THE NEARNESS OF GOD TO OUR SPIRIT. (Vers. 47-50.) David was not permitted to "build an house for the Lord." It was a deep disappointment to him, but he had a very real consolation. God was near to him everywhere. Was he not, indeed, much nearer to the father who did not build the house, than to the son who did? David might have written (if he did not), "I am continually with thee" (Psalm 73:23). "The Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands" (ver. 48), and though we do not build him costly and splendid sanctuaries, though we should be deprived of the opportunity of meeting him in his house at all, yet when we survey "all these things" his hand has made and is sustaining, we may feel that he is at our right hand, and that we stand "before the Lord." Nay, if we be "in Christ Jesus," we know that, though no magnificent temple can contain him, he dwells abidingly within our hearts, to sustain and to sanctify us. - C.
I. THE SACRED PLACES OF ISRAEL.
1. The tabernacle. It was the tent of witness or of attestation; otherwise the "tabernacle of the assembly," or of the congregation. It was the visible center of Israel's natural and spiritual life, the hearth and home of the people and the altar of God. He met with them to declare his will, to make known his laws, and they with one another as a community having a common weal. Religion is the true foundation of society. She is the" oldest and holiest tradition of the earth." When a house of God is erected in the wilds of Australia or of America, a center of civilization is fixed. It is the earthly representation of a heavenly reality. Moses made the tabernacle after a Divine archetype or model given to him. So worship on earth must ever aspire to and reflect the "life above," the risen life, the life of spiritual freedom and victory. God is ever saying to new societies, as to the new society in the desert, "Make me a house after the pattern you have seen;" that is, have a place and a recognition in your life for the holiest ideals, the most sacred purposes of life.
2. The temple. Both the tabernacle and the temple were designed and constructed after the analogy of human dwellings; the tabernacle was but a more richly furnished tent. As the wealth and power of the nation increased, it was fitting that this should be reflected in the greater magnificence of the house of God; and as they became settled in the Holy Land, that the tent of the nomad should give way to the palace of a King. The temple of Solomon represented in its magnificence the greatness of the victorious kingdom of David. The outward institutions of religion in a people should keep pace with its growth in material prosperity. It is miserable that the church should be worse furnished than the ordinary dwellings of the worshippers, or that the minister of religion should fare in poverty while he supplies their spiritual wants. A rich man can surely afford to contribute as much to the pastor's necessities as he pays in stipend to his cook. But there are higher truths. The tabernacle passed away; the temple, as Stephen had predicted, was to pass away; the spiritual verities eternally remain.
II. THE TRUE SACRED PLACE IS EVER THE SOUL OF MAN.
1. The dwelling of God in visible temples is a symbolic thought, the reality to which it points is his intercourse with the soul of man. This was the great truth of prophetic teaching. The prophets were themselves living illustrations of it. God dwelt in them, spake through them, breathed upon them, turned their hearts unto his shrine, communed with them face to face, as a man with his friend. "The true Shechinah is man," said a great Father of the Church.
2. It is the spiritual indwelling which is at the heart of all true religion. When it is once grasped, great consequences follow. The priest and the ritual and the fixed place are no longer necessary. Every one who has a truth from God, and feels that it must be spoken, is a prophet. New oracles may be opened at any moment, new witnesses may arise, the truth find a fresh utterance from unexpected lips. If this truth be not recognized, the sacred building becomes an empty shell, the priests mere mummers, the ritual a pantomime. To believe that God can care for splendid temples and ritual, for themselves, is imbecile superstition. To believe that he values all the expressions of living and loyal hearts is a part of rational piety. But at the highest point of religious intelligence it may be well asked, "What need of temple, when the walls of the world are that?"
3. The denial of the spiritual truth is the source of error, superstition, and crime. The earlier Jews killed the prophets, leaving posterity to find out their value and raise their monuments. Posterity did the like. The very men who waved the torch of truth more brightly in darkened ages, and those who had the best news to toll their times, were silenced and suppressed. The culmination of all was the betrayal and murder of Jesus. Such a story of miserable persecution and suicidal hatred of the good carries its deep and permanent warnings. How dishonest if we take occasion from this passage to form an idle opinion of the peculiar bigotry of the Jews! Was ever a corporation, a body with vested interests, or a Church, known to act otherwise towards the new truth and the new teacher? Has any great teacher in the Christian Church been received at first with welcome and owned as "sent from God"? Grudging toleration is the most he can expect. Only those who know that religion is an affair of the individual soul, not of the Church or the formal confession, will welcome him in whom religion now embodies itself, and through whom, in the decay of systems, God speaks with freshness and power to the world. - J.
I. FAITHFULNESS FINDING UTTERANCE IN VEHEMENT REPROACH. (Vers. 51-53.) Stirred (as we suppose) by the impatient interruptions of the senators, who at this point showed themselves unwilling to listen, Stephen rebuked them in the strong and stringent language of the text. They who imagined themselves to be "the cream of the cream," the very best specimens of the holiest people, were setting themselves to resist the gracious dealings of God, who was willing to bless them with his fullest blessing; they were resisting the "Holy Ghost" and injuring, in the worst of all ways, the people they were chosen to serve. Unqualified condemnation is sometimes the duty of the servant of God. Not often, indeed; for usually it is our wisdom and our duty to hold our feelings of indignation in check. But there are times when holy resentment should overflow in words of unmeasured indignation, when we shall not "deliver our soul" unless we denounce the wrong that has been done and warn against the evil which impends.
II. SIN IN THE MOMENT OF EXASPERATION. (Vers. 54, 57, 58.) Sometimes sin is checked and cowed by the strong voice of holy censure, and it holds its hand if not its tongue. At other times it is only driven by exasperation to say and do its very worst. So here, it
(1) yielded to frenzy;
(2) proceeded to unmannerly exhibitions of rage - "they gnashed on him with their teeth;" and
(3) ended in brutal and fatal violence "they stoned him." There is something, not only painful and horrible, but also contemptible in this resort to physical violence. It seems to say, "We cannot answer your words; we cannot resist your influence. We will do the only thing we can do; we will break your bones and draw your blood." Such a fearful sight is sin driven to its worst. How needful to keep clear of its dominion!
III. DIVINE MANIFESTATIONS IN THE HOUR OF TRIAL. (Vers. 55, 56.) To his devoted servant in this trying hour God vouchsafed an exceptional manifestation of himself, an extraordinary proof of his Divine favor and assurance of support. We do not look for anything of this kind. But to us, if we are true and loyal to our Savior's cause, when the time of special trial comes, our Lord will grant some tokens of his presence and of his sympathy. He will not leave us alone; he will come to us. And if the heavens be not opened, and if a vision of the Son of man be not granted us, we shall have "the comfort of the Holy Ghost," and the strong inward assurance that he who was with Stephen at this solemn scene is laying beneath us "the everlasting arms."
IV. CHRISTIAN MARTYRDOM AND MAGANIMITY. (Vers. 59, 60.) "They stoned Stephen... and he cried... Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." We can hardly conceive a nobler end than this: a man sealing his testimony to Christian truth, with his life-bleed, and with his last breath praying for mercy to be granted to his murderers. To few of us is it thus given," not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake." But in the course of every Christian life there are offered many opportunities of
(1) showing the martyr spirit, and of
(2) acting in the spirit of large-heartedness. Though we may gain no applause for so doing, and expect no notice to be taken of it by any chronicler, we may remember that "great is our reward in heaven," that we have the approval of the Divine Master, when in any sphere and in any degree we cheerfully "bear his reproach" and show a generous spirit toward those who do us wrong.
V. A CHRISTIAN EXODUS. (Vers. 59, 60.) In the midst of such agitating scenes Stephen was perfectly trustful; he said, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." In the midst of such tumult he was calm; it seemed natural to the historian to write of his death as if he were going to rest - " he fell asleep." We often look on to the time of our departure, and perhaps wonder what will be the manner of our "going out into the light." If we nourish our faith in Christ as we have the means of doing, by use of sacred privilege and seizure of manifold opportunity, then when the end shall come, in whatsoever form it may appear, our hearts will be
(1) trustful in our Divine Savior - we shall tranquilly resign our spirits to his charge, as into the hands of our Almighty Friend;
(2) peaceful - our death will be to us as a pleasant sleep. Weary with the toil and strife of earth, we shall lie down to die as those who commit themselves to the darkness of the night, to the restfulness of the couch, in sweet assurance that the eyes which close on this side the grave will open on the other side, to be filled with the light and to behold the glories of immortality. Live in Christ, and you will die in reverent confidence and unbroken serenity of soul. - C.
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.
I. An EXAMPLE.
1. Distinguished faith overcoming the world, the flesh, the wicked one.
2. Spiritual vision. Heaven opened. New world under the government of Christ.
3. Patience and love, after the example of Jesus. The influence of Christ's martyrdom on all other martyrs. The sermon on the mount exemplified.
II. A new Divine SEAL upon the truth.
1. Sufferings and death in their relation to testimony. Necessity of martyrdom in a world like ours. Effect on the popular mind.
2. Contrast of the old and the new in the scene. The weakness of the persecutors, the strength of the persecuted. The two kingdoms must be set face to face. Righteousness against falsehood and violence. Argument is renounced, therefore the martyr's death is a public exhibition of the enemy's weakness; he is compelled to resort to violence. Show that all through Church history this is the case. The conversion of Constantine quickly followed the persecution of Diocletian. The cruelty of Rome brought about a reaction in the popular mind which paved the way for the Reformation.
3. In every darkest hour of God's people there is some point of light which holds the future within it. Saul is in that scene. His conversion partly the fruit of it. The Spirit began to work, goading him with conviction. So the blood of martyrs has always seed of truth to water: the blood of Stephen watered conviction in Saul's heart.
4. A wonderful testimony to the reality of the work of the Spirit. How the signs increased. From the gifts of Pentecost to this manifestation of Divine glory to a dying man, calling upon Jesus to receive his spirit, and so confirming, as with a light coming down directly out of heaven, all the facts of the gospel - a risen and glorified Redeemer, able to forgive sins, receiving the spirits of his disciples into heaven, giving them complete victory over the sufferings and darkness of their last hour. May we die the death of the righteous! - R.
rebuke. It must be confessed, however, that the place which belongs to rebuke is (if comparison may be given to the word) far more unique in its character. Whatever it may intend, it is nothing better than the merest impertinence, except under certain very definite conditions. In connection with the ill reception, ill even to fatality, given on this occasion to the vigorous rebuke of Stephen, let us take opportunity to consider -
I. THE RIGHTS AND JUST GROUNDS OF CHRISTIAN REBUKE.
1. All rebuke must mean the assertion of authority, and naturally presumes some footing of rightful authority. The rebuke of parent, of teacher, of master, of age, of experience, of knowledge, each rests on its own special authority. We are, therefore, justified in demanding the authority of Christian rebuke or what may claim to be such. And we may ask of what sort its authority professes to be.
2. While some may be prepared most unhesitatingly to answer these questions, others, and these the very persons most nearly affected by the answer, may refuse to defer to them or to accept their dicta. Still, this will not disprove the authority claimed for the exercise of Christian rebuke, nor put it in any other position than some other cases of disputed authority. The decision for such persons may be deferred till the dawn of eternity; and the person who exercises rebuke of this solemn sort must be prepared, and will readily acknowledge himself prepared, to await also the same date and abide its issue.
3. The authority of the man who honestly exercises Christian rebuke is of the same sort and in part of the same origin with that which bids him, for his own sake and for the sake of all others, "have no fellowship" whatsoever with evil, "but rather reprove" it is his native right, if he will but do this very thing, to war ceaselessly with evil. Reason might have been supposed equal to teaching this. Conscience certainly teaches it. The light of revelation, where it is possessed, says it, and the only thing remaining to clinch the rightful act of the person who rebukes is present in the fact (where least confessed) of the amen, uttered in some way or other by the conscience of the person justly rebuked. The honest Christian rebuke claims to rebuke that which is bane, misery, curse, to all the world; which, because it is the duty of every one to discountenance and do his best to destroy it, infers no presumptuousness in the few who do this, but does infer laches, and most criminal laches, in those who do it not. Men may doubt, disbelieve, deny the written authority of revelation, and are answerable for the consequences of doing so. But still they are held; and they are held by a bond they cannot break or rid themselves of, when, being rebuked, their conscience either honestly owns to the justice of the rebuke, or owns to it no less conclusively though in a more painful manner by a certain violent refusal of it. And it is evident that the true Christian rebuker is not to wait till such time as the person rebuked is ready to confess his faith in things to come and his apprehension of things unseen: no; he is to speak because of his own calm, firm, yet modest and tenderly compassionate apprehension of eternal verities, the things of God, of Christ, of the soul, and of eternity. No end of other responsibility lies with him who poses as the Christian rebuker; but if he be truly this, then and then first is his responsibility rightly met. So souls are quickened, and death is startled into life. So the messages of revelation are spread with their sterner significance, and the tender words of Jesus are multiplied. So hearts that have been touched themselves, and souls that own to the earnest of salvation within them, illustrate the one compassion left to them when, other means having failed and the right moment of rebuke having arrived, they utter forth the burden with which they are charged. And Stephen now spoke before men many times himself in number, and in repute and worldly estimation - many of them - far placed above himself; yet he assumes the tone and place of authority, and plainly speaks the words of authority. Moreover, the character of that authority is that which beyond a doubt is most offensive to others. It deals in censure, reflects on the motives and conduct of men, and of a long line of their ancestors as well; and yet, provided his indictment is true and not slanderous, Stephen is right. Let alone the fact that he is fired with the light and the fervent flames of the Holy Spirit, he is right on the broadest ground of humanity, on the simplest principles of Christianity, in the name of truth, and in that service so often forgotten, the kind and faithful service of fellow-man. It is by no means a frequent thing to find the man who is ready to sacrifice himself in order to say and do those things of truth which have for their present reward loss even of life to claim, but for their remoter fruit the highest benefit of mankind.
4. But lastly, none who are believers in great leading doctrines of the Christian religion, and in particular in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as the force and the principle of life in that dispensation, will for a moment doubt that, in the last analysis, his authority is the beginning and the end of the rightful exercise of moral and spiritual rebuke. He finds the right for all those whom he moves in his own sovereign right. And his light, knowledge, and impulse conferred, submit to no limit except that which is self-imposed. His uncreate freedom, which so often blesses men to make them even sons of God, will yield none of its right, nor be robbed of its prerogative. When resisted, slighted, "grieved," it freely reproves through human lip; or when on the point of being "quenched" for any, it comes freely to rebuke, as now though by human lips only in words and suggestions, which "cut to the heart" men to whose heart nothing but the qualities of hardness and resistance seemed left. The rebuke of God's Spirit, albeit coming forth only from man's lips, can no more be restrained than the scathing lightning can be stopped in its mid-career. The rebuke of God's Spirit carries legitimately the credentials of its right in its might. And Christian rebuke, in the highest sense, postulates just this authority, ought to postulate it, and needs no other.
II. THE ILL WORK THAT COMES OF JUST REBUKE DETERMINEDLY REFUSED.
1. It certainly does not necessarily lose aught of its power to pain. "When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart. That certainly means pain, whatever the character of the pain.
2. The character of that pain is inevitably all-malignant. It is not of the pain that, sudden and sharp, lends itself also to the salutary use of calling attention to symptoms of inmost danger. It is a foregone conclusion that it shall not have any beneficial operation of this sort, and in this sad sense too to be forewarned proves to be forearmed, namely, against what might be the best of friends. It is left to such pain to work all it can, according to its own evil pleasure, purposed in its own self, without a single redeeming feature.
3. It stirs up anger's muddiest depths. It excites anger to the turn of insanity. Anger rages first, then raves. What else is said, what less is true, when it is testified that they gnashed on him with their teeth." Anger so mastered them that it would not let them heed or even hear its own best Mentor, - "Be ye angry, and sin not." This anger is all sin. It is sin in its causelessness; it is sin in its excess; it is sin in its character of a demonstration of opposition so unequal as against one undefended man; it is sin against conscience and against that Spirit whose mightiest office is to touch livingly the conscience; it is sin in its blind, tumultuous desperation of conduct.
4. According to the intrinsic seriousness or otherwise of the individual occasion, the inevitable tendency of the determined refusal to hear rebuke is either to that stricken heart and conscience that are equivalent to moral paralysis, or to an activity equally frantic and disastrous. The revenge which rebuke, unheeded, though it be just, takes is found to vary within many degrees. Sometimes its work is slow and secret, sometimes it is even "open beforehand" in the force of its demonstrations, and these "go before to judgment." It can scarcely be otherwise now. The present instance is typical. When arrived at a certain point, human nature seems to have it in it, rapidly indeed, "to fill up the measures of its iniquities." "How much better" is reproof listened to than rebuke resented! But if instead we have resented reproof, then how much better is it to listen to rebuke, to kiss the rod that smites, and, though it smite severely, while still there is left us time to pray, "O Lord, rebuke me not in thine anger, neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure!" For pain and anger in concert know no compassion, and show mercy least of all and last of all to those who court their company and soon find themselves their driven slaves. Ill is the promise of fair entrance to haven for the vessel that is tossed in storms of anger, lashed by those blasts of pain, which are the avengings of an insulted, an aggravated, and disobeyed conscience. - B.
reward these, abundantly reward them. There can be no mistake as to where the closing scene began. It began from the point at which the enemies of Stephen "gnashed their teeth on him." And from this beginning of what may well be called here "the pain, the bliss of dying," we may notice the things which shall seem chiefly to distinguish the death of the first Christian martyr - a death which is plainly offered for an open vision to all the world.
I. THE "FULL" POSSESSION "OF THE HOLY GHOST" ON THE PART OF THE MARTYR. This had long commanded life for Stephen and for his work. This had made him "full of faith" and "full of power," and able to "work great wonders and miracles among the people." This commands all Christian life, energy, and usefulness. It is the secret of life, but, more than that, the strong, sure force of it. And as the Holy Ghost had been the mighty Quickener of spiritual life and "work and wonder "for Stephen while he lived, so he is with him the strong Director and Supporter when he must face death, None can tell all the force of the Holy Spirit. He who has most only knows up to what he has; but is it not very plain, as the more a man has of him so he is the more strong and the more full of spiritual life and work, that we may therefore safely conclude that with him rests the complete transforming of our nature, no doubt, as well body as soul and spirit? Well may it be that we need not to "fear them who kill the body on]y," when we have with us One, the Holy Spirit, who can, who does vanquish their killing work, even while they are yet in the act, himself pouring fuller streams of life into the soul. Is it not greatly to be feared that the modern Church is guilty (though unconsciously, yet guilty in that very thing) of dishonoring the Spirit? We dishonor the Spirit
(1) in not owning our entire dependence on him for spiritual life;
(2) in not taking far higher views than we generally do of the circle of his influence and of the degree of it; and
(3) in not obeying, and that both sensitively and trustingly, such impulses as he does graciously vouchsafe.
II. A POWER OF THE EYE TO SEE BEYOND THE USUAL HUMAN POWER OF SIGHT. Glorious is the contrast, and surely it must have been all designed, when Stephen can turn away his saddened gaze from the vision of malignant, hostile, and infuriate faces, to what an opened heaven now proffers to his sight. But even a more essential glory than the substituted objects of vision may be said to have been found in the new-born or all but new-born realization of the power itself that lay sleeping there so long - sleeping and confined beneath the eyelid of flesh all life's length, till the moment had come before "the last trump" to startle it into proving its unknown gift. So we live daily amid the presence of most momentous realities, nor know by how fine a veil, how frail a partition, they are separated from our sight, while any moment may do one or both of these same things for us - rend open the veil or give the piercing sight to see through, past, and far, far above all the hindrances of sense and matter, let them be what they may. Glory now dawns on the horizon for Stephen; while he is yet in the strangest place and with a repulsive foreground, the distance is most radiant. It is far less of a miracle than a very simple fulfillment of assertions of Scripture and assurances of spiritual natures. The pure - " blessed arc the pure in heart: for they shall see God." He "looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God."
III. THE SIGHT OF REALITIES MOST SIGNIFICANTLY APPROPRIATE TO STEPHEN. It may be observed that, alike, the historian affirms the resplendent objects that Stephen's elevated gaze beheld, and also gives in quotation the words of his lips, uttered while yet his eyes beheld the ecstatic sight. We cannot err in understanding that what Stephen said he saw was keenly noticed and thought of by the historian and many a contemporary devout brother. Nor can we miss for ourselves the point - the less that this is the only occasion on which we find Jesus Christ directly styled "the Son of man by any one but himself (but see Revelation 1:13). For announcing, defending, advocating these facts; for preaching them with a zeal and faith in them that would not be silenced and could not be gainsaid, - it was that Stephen was in his present place and position. The facts were these exactly: that
(1) the Jesus, whom they were none of them unwilling to call Son of Man," and who called himself so, was, though "betrayed and murdered," not only "Son of man;" and
(2) that he now stood, manifest in the opened heaven, in a position that offered no doubtful evidence of all the rest. This had been the preaching of Peter and the rest of the apostles and of Stephen - that the Jesus whom the Jews had slain was "exalted to the right hand of God." Yes; is Stephen going to seal his testimony with his blood? before that shall be, God will seal his testimony, and give to Stephen the vision of what is close awaiting his sacrifice. The "everlasting gates" are already flung "open." The "King of glory" has already gone through. Glory in all its effulgence is there, for God and Jesus, the Light and Glory, the Strength and Love of the universe, are there; and "an abundant entrance" is about to be given to Stephen. Oh what a sight for Stephen! What a contrast! What an infinite reward! What supreme grace of Heaven! And what a thought for us is Jesus is there, and he is "standing" there, to take at the first possible moment the hand of Stephen, and welcome his feet to the golden floor. The correspondence between the work of Stephen and the peril into which he had been brought by it, and the gracious manifestations now made to him, tells its own tale.
IV. A FAITHFUL AND EMPHATIC FULFILMENT UP TO THE LAST MOMENT OF THE RIGHT PARTS OF EARTHLY DUTY. NOW literally hurried away by force by his enemies, we are not told. of any struggle whatever on his part, nor of any murmur, nor of any expression of instinctive horror and dread. But we are told:
1. How, when the first storm of stones gave him the clear signal of what was to be expected for earth, he "calls upon God," and, by no means forgetting the full meaning of his own "preaching and faith," cries, "Lord Jesus, receive my sprat. The care of his own soul is ever the first duty of any man.
2. And how, with marvelous memory, he
(1) does not omit to pray for his murderers; nor
(2) omits to" kneel down," as he prays," Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." We have in all this, not the signs of an enthusiast merely or a fanatic. Here is something very different - a man with the splendor of the glory of God and the realities of heaven and the exalted Jesus bursting on his vision, and yet, amid storms of stones, recalled to prayer for himself and the trustful committing of his soul to the charge of Jesus, and to intercession on bended knees for his murderers. To disregard the suggestions of the patience of Stephen, the dying charge of his spirit, and the prayer for those who kill him, in their power to recall the temper and the trust and the forgivingness of his great Master and Savior, were to disregard Christ's own grandest achievements. Of such achievements his force, his word, his Spirit, have now wrought in Stephen so early an illustrious and ever-enduring monument. Nor, amid all the rest of the splendor of the surroundings of Stephen's departing from this world, was there any more intrinsic mark of what it all meant than the copy which he himself exhibited of a character and a portrait "after the Master" - the Master Jesus.
V. A WORD APPLIED IN THE NARRATIVE TO DESCRIBE THE DEATH OF THE MARTYR AS SINGULARLY IN HARMONY WITH THE WHOLE WORLD'S IRRESISTIBLE CONVICTION OF THE PERFECT PEACE OF THE SPIRIT, AS IT WOULD SEEM INAPPROPRIATE TO THE SUFFERINGS OF THE BODY. "And when he had said this, he fell asleep. The beautiful expression was not unknown nor unused before Christians used it; but men may be pardoned if they felt (perhaps against strict letter of fact) it could never be appropriately drawn upon without Christian revelation. But its use now, its use in the circum- stances presented here, is a sign and a mark indeed. This is not some occasion where truth is complimentarily sacrificed, and facts dragged in disgraceful chains in the train of words. On the contrary, facts, in spite of all appearances, deeper facts, despite the sight and the sounds and stones that are flying about, facts that insist on giving expression to themselves, triumph over words and over all opposing forces, and demand that, as the last thing we know of Stephen in this world, we shall know this - that his death was as though a sleep," and his yielding to it as though he yielded to Heaven's gracious remedy for nature's deepest need - sleep! "He fell asleep " - in Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:14). "Well done, good and faithful servant" - "faithful unto death." And in death also faithful - a faithful witness of the Lord's faithfulness to his own.
"He fell asleep in Christ his Lord;
I. A COMFORT TO THE PERSECUTED ONE. Recall the promises of the Savior's presence always with his people, but especially when they should be brought before kings and governors for his Name's sake. Even making due account of the excitement produced by the surroundings of martyrdom, and its power to raise a heroic spirit, it has never been found an easy thing to face torture and death. But the story of the martyrs provides abundant illustration of the varied ways in which Christ has comforted his witnesses. Stephen was comforted by the vision in three ways.
1. It assured him that what he had testified was true. Christ was living and exalted.
2. It declared that he was not suffering alone. The Christ was in fullest sympathy with him.
3. And it encouraged him to full trust in all his Lord's promises of strength and grace for the enduring and final triumph over his foes. The vision seemed to say, "When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee."
II. A CONFIRMATION OF THE CHRISTIAN TRUTH. At different times different parts of the Christian truth have been the citadel or the redan round which the chief fighting has raged, and on which the issue of battle has depended. In the early Church the conflict was mainly over the question of our Lord's resurrection from the dead. Two things were seen to depend on this resurrection.
1. Our Lord's claim to Messiahship.
2. The spiritual character of our Lord's mission. If risen and exalted, his kingly authorities are declared to be no coarse earthly dominion; he is King of souls, Deliverer of sinners, the living One who saves.
III. A WITNESS AGAINST STEPHEN'S PERSECUTORS. And that the witness was effective is shown in its increasing their rage. A dying testimony that was more effective than anything he had spoken in life. But the hated name, spoken of as being at God's right hand in the glory, "let loose the tide of rage which awe had for a moment frozen, and with illegal tumult, councilors and bystanders, turned through sheer passion into a mob, swept him from the chamber with a rush, and hurried him for execution beyond the northern city gate." The times have brought round again the most serious conflict over the truth of the Resurrection. Show the importance of Stephen's life-testimony to this fact, especially as being given when men would have refuted it if they could, and could if it had not been true. Show how the dying testimony sealed the witness of Stephen's life. - R.T.
I. SAUL SHARING BY HIS PRESENCE. He "was consenting unto Stephen's death." "He gave his voice against him." He watched over the clothes. He regarded the scene with satisfaction. A delusion sometimes possesses men that they cannot be guilty of a crime unless they took actual part in it. Saul had nobler moral sentiments. The approver is as guilty as the actor; for he also would have done the thing had opportunity served. But how searching and how serious becomes the consideration that, before God, we may be judged guilty on the ground of our approval and consent! With what limitations and qualifications must this point be pressed? St. Paul does not hesitate to take on himself the guilt of Stephen's death, though he never lifted a stone.
II. SAUL AVOIDING SHARING IN THE EXECUTION. This may be explained on one or other of the following grounds: -
1. The law of the execution, which required the witnesses against the victim to effect and complete the death.
2. The position Saul occupied as one of the judges. He gave his vote, and it is never regarded as becoming in a judge to execute his own sentence. Whether Saul was a member of the actual Sanhedrim, or of some committee appointed to deal with these followers of Jesus of Nazareth, does not appear.
3. Aristocratic sentiments might keep Saul from actually engaging in the stoning. Nothing could free Saul from his share of the guilt of Stephen's death.
III. SAUL RECEIVING IMPRESSIONS AS AN ON-LOOKER. Endeavor to estimate his conflict of feeling. While actually watching, rage and hatred may have prevailed, but his mind was receiving its picture of the calm and heroic sufferer; and presently Saul lost sight of judges, witnesses, and crowds, and the vision on his soul alone was before him. He saw the saintly man fall asleep; he heard again those dying cries; he seemed to look through and see what Stephen saw, the Son of man glorified; and, strive how he would to blot out the vision, it was there; rush desperately into persecuting ways how he might, still the vision was there. Stephen, we may fairly say, awakened Saul to anxiety, and prepared the way for that vision of Christ which bowed clown Saul's pride and won him to penitence, to faith, and to service. Better than the fable of the phoenix is the truth of Saul. Out of Stephen's death he sprang to a nobler, longer life of witness for the living Christ than Stephen could have lived. Death is often found the way, and the only way, to life. "Dying, and behold we live." - R.T.
Deuteronomy 13:9, 10; Deuteronomy 17:5-7). Stephen's dying cries should be compared with those of our Lord Jesus Christ, in order that the measures in which Stephen caught the Christly spirit may be realized.
I. THE PRESENCE OF CHRIST TO HIS SPIRIT MADE STEPHEN DEAD TO THE PRESENCE OF HIS FOES. In this we learn the secret of our elevation above the world, care, suffering, or trouble. It lies in our being so full of" Christ and things Divine "as to have no room for them. Our hearts may be so full of God's presence, and so restful in the assurance of his acceptance and smile, that we may say, "None of these things move me." "If God be for us, who can be against us? 'One of the greatest practical endeavors of life should be to bring and to keep Christ closely near to heart and thought. If outward circumstances reach to such an extremity as in the case of Stephen, we shall then say with him, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."
II. To HIM WHO WAS SO NEAR, STEPHEN PRAYED FOR HIMSELF. Observe that:
1. His prayer indicates submissive acceptance of the fact that he must die. He does not ask for any bodily deliverance, any miracle-working for his personal release. Compare in this our Lord's submission when his life came to its close.
2. His prayer indicates superiority to bodily suffering. There is no petition for relief from pain or even for speedy release. Exactly what was God's will for him he would bear right through. Compare our Lord's triumph in Gethsemane, and his going forth to bodily sufferings calm and trustful. Stephen fulfilled his Lord's words that his disciples should drink of the "cup" that he drank of.
3. And his prayer indicates supreme concern, but absolute confidence concerning his soul and his future. There is no tone of questioning; with full faith in the Lord Jesus, he commends his spirit to him - a last and unquestioning testimony to his faith in the living, spiritual Christ.
III. To HIM IN WHOM HE HAD SUCH CONFIDENCE HE PRAYED FOR HIS FOES, Compare our Lord's words, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." In the older clays of political execution by the axe, the headsman used to kneel and ask the forgiveness of the victim, before proceeding to place his head upon the block. Stephen knew how blinded by prejudice and false notions of religion his persecutors were, and he gives a beautiful illustration of heavenly, Divine charity in thus pleading for his very murderers. One point should not be lost sight of. Even in this last word of the noble man he asserted his characteristic truth once more. The Lord Jesus is living, and the exalted Savior, for he controls the charging and the punishing of sin. "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge " - an unmeaning prayer if he had not fully believed that Jesus had power on earth to deal with, to punish, and to forgive sin. Close by showing the wondrous calmness and the exquisite tenderness of the words of the narrative, "He fell asleep." We hear the howlings of the people, the whirr and smash of the stones, but amid it all and "in the arms of Jesus," the saint and hero and martyr softly "falls asleep " - asleep to earth, waking to heaven and peace and the eternal smile of the living Christ, for whose sake he died. - R.T.