All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
Exodus 34:29, 30; 2 Corinthians 3:7), and Jesus himself (Matthew 17:2; Luke 9:29) on the Mount of Transfiguration. It is being given to Stephen to ripen into an "angel of God" even on earth. The fact of the distinct record of Stephen's appearance now justifies our paying even some additional attention to what in itself would naturally have attracted our interested inquiry. The interest gathers round this central inquiry - Why was such special and such peculiar kind of distinction vouchsafed to Stephen? "His face was as it had been the face of an angel."
I. A HIGHLY SPIRITUAL FORCE OF CHARACTER MARKED HIM AS AT LEAST FIT OBJECT OF THIS LUSTER. It is not open to us to say that this was the cause in any sense, but much less the one cause, of the luster with which the countenance of Stephen shone. But we must remark on it as showing the presence of one essential condition. In a biography almost as brief (omitting his defense) as that of Enoch, three things are reiterated, intimating to us the highly developed spirituality of Stephen.
1. He was "full of faith." Every true disciple of Jesus Christ must, no doubt, be "rooted in" faith. He must "know whom he believes." But to be "full of faith" probably signifies something beyond this. A man may truly have faith, and if he have it he will live and "walk" by it, yet may be the very man who will need to have full allowance made for him as respects the distinction of faith and sight. Not just so the man who is "full of faith." For him faith has come to be such an "evidence of things not seen," and such an embodied "substance of things hoped for," that his "conversation is in heaven" already, and his countenance more really fitted to shine with celestial radiance. In fact, we may rest assured there is a great difference between even a very genuine possession of faith and a being "full of faith." The former is true of very many who are exceedingly far removed from the latter. That faith which scripturally and apostolically postulates the distinction of sight has in its fullness the power to efface the very distinction itself has made, and throws two worlds into one. We do not at all doubt it was so now with Stephen, who for the fulness of faith now lived and thought, spoke and worked, "as seeing him who is invisible" (Hebrews 11:27); and that was in itself the earnest of a radiant countenance.
2. He was "full of the Holy Ghost." It must be allowed on all hands that this fact justifies us much more in an affirmation of the presence now of something in the nature of a predisposing qualification. In the modern Church the work and the fruit of the Spirit is grievously underrated. Hence its weakness, hence its want of enterprise, hence its comparative deadness. We have ample Scripture warrant for distinguishing degrees in the Spirit's operation; nor can we forget how, while to others according to measure the gifts of the Spirit are vouchsafed, of One it is said, "God giveth not the Spirit by measure" to him (John 3:34). How intensely full was St. John of the Spirit, when as he rather puts it, "I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day" (Revelation 1:10)! What the countenance of St. John then was we know not, nor was there one to see it and tell us; but we are in no ignorance of what his rapt state of mind was, and to what the Spirit exalted him. It is not, therefore, the unwarranted thing to think that the Spirit's force in the nature of the man in whom he largely dwells should betoken itself in physical manifestation. The legitimate conclusion would rather lead us to a conviction that restraint is self-imposed on the Spirit, in order that his blessed manifestation should neither overpower the individual in whom he largely may dwell, nor supersede moral attraction and moral evidence for all who stand by. How humiliating, how unspeakably mournful, to think how seldom it appears true of any in these ages that they are "full of the Holy Ghost," or that in their case the Spirit needs to shade off any of his effulgence!
3. He abounded in zeal. The zeal of Jesus and his truth, of Jesus and "this life" that came through him, went far "to eat him up" (John 2:17). Though Stephen was not an apostle, and though he was and had only just been formally elected and appointed a deacon, yet he did the works of an apostle, and, if we may judge from appearances, did much more than the more part of them. He was first to be chosen deacon (ver. 5), a circumstance which marks probably not his high spiritual character alone, but also his repute for practical diligence. It is then distinctly testified of him (ver. 8) that he "did great wonders and miracles among the people." Nor this alone. He stood to his position, did not refuse to maintain by disputation the truth he had spoken, and did so hold his own that, unscrupulous though his opponents were, "they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake." This was to be a thorough believer and a thorough-going champion. Argument will often fire the passions and light up the countenance; and holy argument will fire noble passions and will make a luster dawn upon the face. Yet still it is God's sovereign act to select his "chosen vessel," and his surpassing mercy that fits any one to be such.
II. THE RESPONSIBILITY OF A HIGHLY CRITICAL OCCASION NOW LAY WITH STEPHEN.
1. From our modern point of view, interest in watching him now would have been possibly not a little increased by the thought that we were watching the first layman on his trial. Though the thing would not have been so worded then, yet we may readily imagine a quickened gaze on the part at least of all the apostles, and probably of many others, it was gradually dawning upon the Jewish nation and the world that a prophet, a priest, an apostle, was what he did; and Peter begins to be impressed with what leads him soon to say, "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons, but... he that feareth him and worketh righteousness is accepted with him." Neither Peter nor any of his fellow-apostles was an hereditary or trained priest, but they were all conscious that they were "called to be apostles." The vast circle of the true Christian preachers and prophets begins further still to enlarge when Peter and the apostles fall behind a while, and Stephen, just now a plain man and only most recently titled deacon, fills up the whole foreground, in an episode of almost unsurpassed interest in the whole of the Acts of the Apostles. Since, then, Stephen was not "called apostle," the luster which now lighted up his countenance was in part his Master's gracious and bountiful substitute. God does not forget the special needs of special occasions, and if, as is probably the case, Stephen was not aware of his own appearance, there cannot be a doubt that it secured for him, from the first word of his opening defense, a special attention. The occasion was one of special responsibility, therefore, for Stephen, inasmuch as he is employed to bring into uncommon prominence, in one aspect of it, the dawning comprehensiveness of Christianity.
2. The number of those present, the very various description of them that they were led on to the attack by a very confederacy of infuriated synagogues, the determined and excited tactics resorted to of false witnesses, wresting words and statements of Stephen out of their connection, - all these contributed to give
(1) a violence to the occasion, that asked for something unusual to hold it for some moments at least in check. It was an occasion to which the interrogatory fits, "Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things?" And it meant mercy to the maddened in heart, far more than respite to Stephen. Against themselves they shall hear, and if needs be that they may hear, they shall also first see. If thereafter they will still refuse, it is more than ever their own deed that proffered mercy turns into judgment. So upon the madness and fury of Saul's persecuting journey to Damascus gracious check was placed by the directest Divine interference. And in this case that interval of calmed time was sanctified to the saving of Saul, and of many others through him. Even beyond what we very clearly read, it may be that there were peculiarities in the occasion, and in the excited audience that Stephen had now to address, which should explain this peculiarly gracious - we had almost said graceful - and considerate interposition of the supernatural. For certainly
(2) the event proved that the occasion was, in point of fact, one of the most supreme sort. Most remarkable and most fatal was the chill taken by "the people." It had looked as though Jerusalem would not have been in vain "begun with in the" preaching of the gospel. It had looked as though that "great company of priests" who became "obedient to the faith" decided the tide of victory and made the day one ever notable and glorious. But the prospect terribly clouds over, and fair hopes are dashed to the ground. This the event proves. But the foreseeing eye, the foreknowing great mind, heeded not the event, yet treats that oncoming decisive struggle as though there were still hope, and gives it every help, if haply Jerusalem may be still snatched from its self-chosen destruction. It is so constantly, that God, though he foreknows, still lengthens out the opportunity and the offer of grace and help. Behind the fact lies, doubtless, one of the great mysteries, as yet unapprehended, nay, untouched, by the apprehension of man. Certain it is that foreknowledge with us would peremptorily strip off from us alike impartial conduct and courage, whether for what awaited ourselves or for what awaited others. We should never keep a steady hand or hold on a steady way. But is Jerusalem in the very act of sealing her fate - still to the last the hand, the voice, the features of Divine pity and love, continue or redouble their appeal.
III. THE SEALING OF HIS FAITHFUL TESTIMONY WITH HIS LIFE-BLOOD WAS NOW IMMINENT FOR STEPHEN. And this is like the grace and free liberality of the Master. Has Stephen's career been very short? - yet he has run bravely the race, he has fought well the fight. And even before the crown above, and before the glorious witness there, he shall have a telling and to-be-remembered witness here also, on the very scene of his conflict, and in the very eyes of those whom he sought to save, but who sought to destroy him. Either we do often call that a miracle which needs not the name, or we very often fail to call that a miracle which begs the name; for tender analogies to the thing wrought now for Stephen have been even frequent since and up to the present. When the end comes very near for the faithful, how mellowed his feeling and how calmed his temper and how serene his countenance! When the last hour approaches, how often does physical pain resign her hitherto implacable tyranny, and mental aberration subside into a resumption of childlike instead of childish disposition and docility of thought and feeling! When the last moments arrive for those who have "struggled long with sins and doubts and fears," but who nevertheless have been faithful both to work and to love, how often does the actual countenance speak of the peace that reigns undisturbed within, and sights are seen and songs are heard which nothing but the callousness of the infidel can possibly deny or throw doubt upon! This very thing was going to be so for Stephen, while he is being stoned. But it is anticipated by - shall we say - a brief half-hour. For his last argument he shall have more light within than ever before - the logic of very light; and in his last gazing and impassioned looks turned on the gainsaying people his face shall reflect the light of God. - B.
And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly upon him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angelI. STEPHEN'S CIRCUMSTANCES AND TRANSFIGURATION.
1. It was A.D. 37 that he died. The circumstances of that year in the government of the Jewish people were altogether exceptional. Pilate had left the country, and Judaea was, for the time, without any representation of the Imperial Government, and thus the power over life and property remained absolutely in the hands of the Jewish council.
2. Stephen, young, full of vigour, and as bold as he was intellectually strong, had stung into activity the furious hatred of the fiercest fanaticism. Foiled in argument, exposed to the jeers or contempt of those who watched the contest, they determined to have their revenge.
3. There were probably three component elements in the gathering of that fatal day..(1) The mob of spectators no way uninterested in the trial. The question at issue was one which seemed to touch the quick of national exclusiveness — the tenderest point in a Jewish mind.(2) The bench of judges, which included the rank and learning of the Jewish hierarchy. Some had grown old in the lore of Judaism; some were young in years but versed in the study of the law; all were the possessors of the sacred Scriptures, whose meaning was shrouded from them in the dismal fog of darkened minds; all were the slaves of an iron tradition and the victims of a distorting prejudice.(3) Last in that strange assembly was one young man, with the hopes of life still fresh before him. With the joy, felt by all men who in any sense deserve it, of conscious strength and rectitude, he had committed an unpardonable crime; he had loved truth better than custom, faithfulness to conviction better than popularity; he had hated the stagnation of an unworthy tradition, and risen above the temper of the habitual respectability of his time.
4. The trial began. The witnesses were examined and performed their expected duty of falsehood. Then as the president's interrogation came, the eyes of the assembly were turned on Stephen. Certainly Jesus was with him, and His promise, that the true words would be "given" in the hour of need, supported his spirit. Certainly heavenly powers were upon him, and the light of God's glory was streaming through his soul. Every eye was riveted on the face of Stephen, and the vision of that inner splendour flashed upon them with an unearthly loveliness. "His face was like the face of an angel." A face is the dial-plate of the soul. It takes the lights and shadows of varying feelings, hopes, and fears, and by expression records for others the inner variation of the movements of the soul. Hence the effect upon us frequently of a face in a crowd. Our eyes, resting for the moment upon the features of one happening then to be in rapturous joy or overwhelming sorrow, have rested — and we feel it — on the revelation of a human life. So some faces come to us, remembered indistinctly, and yet haunting our very dreams, moving us — by their slight and delicate tracery of pathos and suffering — moving us to the deepest, keenest sympathy. Now, what was the power of this face on which was riveted the gaze of the council? What? why, the angels are God's messengers; they see the face of the Father; they catch some expression of the uncreated beauty. Once on earth that had been seen in its real loveliness. Once it had awed the multitudes, subdued the intrusive band in the garden, flashed on Peter and melted him to penitence, gazed on the Magdalene and wakened her to heavenly love; now the likeness of its loveliness was seen on the face of the martyr, because in his soul was Jesus the crucified.
II. His DEFENCE. The vision of the martyr was a mighty message; but his lips threw that message into words. There, at least, is outlined his message; there for us is trace his character. Note —
1. That earnest desire for truth which is the first real requisite to its attainment. To kindle curiosity, to keep alive an honourable ambition in the young, not merely for reward, but for the acquisition of knowledge, is the duty of every good teacher. To know and apply the best that has been done and thought by those before us is the duty of all of us. And this desire for knowledge, when sanctified and ennobled by a reverent spirit and eager thoughts of God — how beautiful, how good it is! Alas I the fashionable spirit of doubt and unbelief, so often a mere cover for the laziness of an utterly worldly temper, is turning the 'noble-hearted young men of England into mere childish triflers. St. Stephen had evidently desired truth, and searched and studied the Scriptures, and that eager and loving spirit had had its reward. One reward was the vigorous intellectual grasp of the subject which he had to handle with readiness and under the appalling pressure of a trial for life.
2. Turn to the speech itself.(1) It indicates the noblest eloquence. True eloquence is one of God's choicest gifts. To abuse it is always terrible; because the possession of no weapon can involve a greater responsibility than of that one by which a single mind can sway a multitude. But eloquence has its degrees; the truest is primarily and intrinsically the eloquence of thought. If clear and powerful thought — alive with the vis vivida of genuine pathos or fiery feeling, and expressed in shapely words — be presented to the ear and mind of man, he has the rarest and the best. And in such cases even all we possess is the written record; even then the words have something of a power of life to penetrate through the thickest wrappings of the human soul. This has been felt in Demosthenes, Cicero, Chrysostom, Bossuet, Massillon, and Lacordaire. From the few recorded words of St. Stephen we feel the same.(2) Before the mind of the martyr was the vision of a world-wide religion, and this was in sharp contrast with the narrow and passing character of Judaism. Before his mind, also, was the true, the necessary, issue of the Mosaic teaching — viz., Christ and the wide reach and sacred sovereignty of the Catholic Church. The dignity of the speech was, of course, enhanced by the danger of the speaker; but in it, on the points of the argument, every syllable told. The subjects he handled needed all his vigour, as centuries have conclusively proved. They are just those subjects of the deepest importance which concern and interest us still — the character, office, and claim of the Church of our Master.(3) Stephen's elucidation of the meaning of Jewish history and worship was the fulfilling in word of the duty performed so nobly in his life, and so heroically in his death. In this he is to the humblest of us a splendid and real example. The beginning, middle, and end of that duty now as then, is — Jesus Christ. To be faithful to Him, in each of us, is to make sense of fact and of history. He gave a reasonable explanation to accepted facts. An everlasting Judaism, with all the rest of men excluded, would have been a senseless solution of the history of the Jewish Church. That Church was like a broken clue unless it eventuated in Catholic Christianity; Moses and his teaching would have been an insoluble problem unless worked out in Jesus Christ. The power of this first argumentative statement of these important truths was in the fact that it made Jewish history hang together; its astonishing dignity lay in this, that it was the first.
III. THE FORCE BEHIND HIM AND ITS EFFECT.
1. No mental vigour on such a desperate crisis would have availed to any purpose unless it had been seconded by intrepidity of spirit. And this courage of St. Stephen was no physical excitement nor vulgar audacity. He was essaying the rugged and difficult track of Christian martyrdom on which many indeed have travelled after him, but none had passed before. And here be it not forgotten that we are scarcely conscious how strongly we are swayed by the voiceless testimony of those who have gone before. If public opinion is a mighty power in life, stronger at times is the public opinion of the dead. To feel behind him a long array of public witnesses, of tim achievements of brave generals and successful politicians, is for a soldier or a statesman to be confident in the inspiring genius of a great people. Noble ancestors help to noble deeds. And even in daily life, for some one else to have first succeeded, is to ourselves at least half the powerful element in our own success. Stephen, however, knew no merely human example; struggling for a cause, new, untried, and deemed altogether contemptible, he "possessed his soul" with a heroic patience, and bore his part with literally unexampled courage. Christian, do you flinch from the duty placed upon you? Think — around you is a "cloud of witnesses"; behind you the long array of the greatness and the suffering of the Christian Church. I pause in passing to remind you that as it is easy to follow a multitude to do evil, so it is not altogether difficult to go on the side of goodness if it chance to acquire the patronage of the majority. But the real test of principle, the real exhibition of Christian courage is, when standing alone, perhaps the object of scoffs and taunts, you sternly take the path of duty and witness to Jesus Christ.
2. "Sternly," did I say? — that brings me to another feature in the martyr's character: its extraordinary wealth of tenderness. Tenderness in a Christian comes first — we cannot doubt it — from his sense of human weakness and human need. The scene at the death of St. Stephen reminds us of that at the death of Christ. And both are the outcome of the deepest tenderness; no mere softness of a natural kindliness, or a natural shrinking from others' pain, but the true tenderness of a soul awakened to the depth of man's sorrows, and the greatness of his destiny.
3. Do you ask the secret of such a combination of tenderness and courage in any tempted man? There is one answer: An unshaken, a deep, a supernatural union with Jesus Christ. He first, in the fullest sense, obeyed the precept, or realised the prediction — "Ye shall be witnesses unto Me."
4. Thus came the end. There are times when, from the spiritual blindness or the profound prejudice of an audience, the possibility of persuasion is gone. In such cases one duty remains to an honest man, the duty at all hazards of a faithful testimony. Such was the case with Stephen. All else tried in vain, this at last was left. It was the inspiration of such a duty that prompted his daring peroration. Obstinate resistance to Divine remonstrances had been their national, their historic danger; if persisted in, it was sure to be their ruin. At least they should be warned. "Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears," etc. Hell was opened upon the souls of the judges, but heaven was, not merely on the face, but in the heart and on the lips of the criminal. Not to bow before Divine revelation is to join the ranks of the rebel angels. The judges had chosen sides; so had the martyr!
IV. THE ISSUES OF HIS MARTYRDOM. A great life, even though it seems to end in failure, must have great consequences. Stephen was a pioneer in suffering and in the spread of truth. The immediate consequence was "an open door" to a wider world than the Church could act upon in Jerusalem, because there the door seemed closed. Stephen was the first to clear men's minds, in some measure, of the mistaken dream that Christianity must pass through Judaism. And further, the impression made by his courage and his constancy could not have failed to be deep and lasting on many minds. On one we know it was. Saul had heard words that longed in his mind and rankled in his memory; had seen a vision that he could not forget, a first faint outline, surely, of that face which afterwards he saw in completed dignity amid the noonday glory of the Damascus road. We know that, to the end of his days, in deep penitence, in touching humility, in most loving sorrow, the intense and tender nature of the great apostle was penetrated by the sad memory of the death of Stephen. The revelation of the richer details of results is reserved for "that day when the secrets of all hearts shall be revealed."
1. The soul must be true to itself. There may be a disloyalty to self, which is rather a spiritual suicide than a spiritual treason. "Every soul seeking God faithfully is led by Him who is the Guide to truth. To be faithless to the voice that warns and teaches is so far forth to mar in us the image of the Eternal, and to paralyse spiritual power.
2. In the world of revealed faith all power of witness depends upon conviction. To act upon conviction is to work your lever from a fulcrum which affords scope to move a world. Conviction is the fruit of a temperate, a true, a prayerful life. Doubt is no basis of action. Do not trifle with your faith; hold prayerfully what you know; and pray, when there is any dimness, for the clearer light which is never withheld from those who earnestly seek it.
3. Act with courage upon conviction, and act with charity. The Christian needs unflinching firmness, with unflagging love. Whence come such powers so needed and so majestic? The answer is, from Christ.
4. Begin at once; begin now. None are too young to witness to Jesus. The young creature whose soul was battered out of the shattered body on that morning of martyrdom, might have pleaded youth as a reason for reserve. He did not. How noble, how beautiful, is a young life given to Christ!
5. When all possible struggle is over we may witness to Jesus by the calmness of a loving resignation.
(Canon Knox-Little.)Exodus 34:30): — In reading this account one is led to think of a similar scene in the life of Moses.
1. To be servants of the same God, they could scarcely be more unlike in their history, and they show in what divers ways the Divine workman may use his spiritual instruments. The life of Moses is probably the most complete of any man's. But not a single ray of light falls upon his death. Of the life of Stephen we know almost as little as of the death of Moses. But his last hours stand before us distinct and bright.
2. So unlike in other things, they have this in common, that each of them, on a great occasion, had a transfiguration — the reflection of the vision of God when He comes very near.
3. In setting these transfigurations over against one another, we have no thought of comparing the two men. Stephen fills a small range in the Book of God beside Moses. We shall compare them, then, in the periods to which they belong in God's revelation. We may compare —
I. THAT VIEW OF GOD WHICH IS REFLECTED FROM THE FACE OF EACH OF THEM.
1. In the case of Moses it was "God's glory" (Exodus 33:18, 22) — an appearance like that which was seen by him in the bush, and which hovered over the mercy-seat without any definite form, for one fixed aim of that dispensation was to check the tendency to shut up God in figures made with hands. It was a great and significant vision, raising the Mosaic system above all religions, and proclaiming that there is one God, who is light, and who yet can visit man in love. For corresponding to this vision came the voice with it (Exodus 34:6, 7). There was much that was reassuring, but much also that was doubtful. It revealed the purity of God, but the image had no distinct features; and it promised mercy, but the way of pardon was not made plain.
2. Stephen "saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God." The glory which Moses beheld has now opened its bosom, and, issuing from it, there is seen "the brightness of the Father's glory and the express image of His person." The purity which in the day of Moses had no distinct features has formed itself into the countenance of the Son of God, and the mysterious mercy descends from God's throne by a new and living way in the person of the God-man Mediator, a Saviour risen from the Cross and grave.
3. These, then, were the views of God presented to Moses and Stephen. That the first was in the same line with the second cannot be doubted if we believe in the unity of the Bible and in the plan of God running through all the ages. It would be impossible to invert these views, for there was a fitness in their order.
II. THE EFFECT OF THE VIEW ON THE IMMEDIATE WITNESSES.
1. In the case of Moses the effect was mainly, if not entirely, an external brightness — "the skin of his face shone." Its beauty had something of terror with it. Those who were near could not bear its open look, and required to have it veiled. Moses was the representative of a system which was not characterised by profound spirituality, as is proved by the sad stains and inconsistencies which mark the history of some of its best members, and the readiness of the great mass of its adherents to cast aside its profession in the hour of trial. In some few it was a strong reality, but in the majority their religion was an illumination cast on them from without — a separable and perishable surface thing.
2. The illumination on the face of Stephen came from the action of the soul itself. It is said, "the children of Israel were afraid to come nigh Moses," but "all that sat in the council looked steadfastly at Stephen." It did not turn them from their purpose, their passion was too fierce, but it brought them to a pause, imprinted itself upon them, and, may we not suppose, came back in waking thoughts and nightly dreams, and deserted some of them never till they saw it again before the throne of God? For there is this difference further between mere brightness of face and the beauty of the soul which beams through it, that the one is seen entire at first and grows no more. It tends constantly to fade, and must fade. But the soul's expression grows evermore as we gaze into it, and it is in reminiscence above all that it rises to its perfect ideal. It was this angelic beauty which shone in the face of Stephen, and it was there because of the object he looked upon. "His eyes were beautiful," because you saw that they saw Christ.
3. Now these two forms of transfiguration belong each to its own period. The one is bright but formless, the shadow of the Shechinah on him who sees it, and inspiring even its friends with awe till they can look no longer. The other is the beauty of the soul that has beheld Christ, distinct and expressive, reflecting His Divine purity and tenderness, so mild that even those who hate it cannot choose but look and wonder, and, when they would thrust it from the world, must stop their ears upon the voice of Stephen, and summon blind passion to do its work.
III. THE CRISIS OF LIFE IN WHICH EACH OF THESE TRANSFIGURATIONS OCCURRED.
1. In the history of Moses it was in the fulness of his power and success as a Divine messenger. Great through his whole history, he had never been so great to the eye of man as at this moment. He had scattered, as God's vicegerent, disaster upon all opposition, and had led through the lied Sea an oppressed and terror-stricken nation to breathe into them a new life. He had been admitted amid scenes that, for outward grandeur, still stand unparalleled, into the closest intercourse with God, and the glory is there like God's mark on his forehead to tell where he has been and with whom. This hour is also in the very height of his natural and intellectual life. Many men gain their heart's desire as God's servants, only to die. Before Moses there lay stretched out years of usefulness and honour, which took their character and bore their results from this crowning period.
2. Stephen, on the contrary, is placed as a criminal before those who sat in Moses' seat, and is charged with breaking in pieces the law which Moses gave. He has done nothing to shake the earth with wonder. He professes only to be a humble follower of One who died on a Cross. A cruel and ignominious death looks him full in the face. But the transfiguration of Stephen is far grander than that of Moses. The one is impressed with the temporal and external magnificence of the Old Testament, the other full of the spiritual glory of the New, which begins with a death as the salvation of the world, and shows us the shame of the Cross on its way to become the brightest crown in the universe. It is more honouring to the power of God to see it not merely sustaining a man in such terrible extremity but glorifying him. It is, indeed, most significant, that while, in the Old Testament, the approving light of God falls upon His servant in the midst of life, in the New it descends in the presence of death. It crowns him conqueror after a course of labour very ardent but very brief. Among God's servants, those who fail in the outward life may rise to the highest rank in the spiritual, and the fore-glancing tokens of it can be granted here.
IV. THE EFFECTS ON THE SURROUNDING SPECTATORS.
1. The impression made on the Israelites by the view of Moses was at first very great. A growth of obedient homage took place that was rarely equalled in their history. But it had not much depth, and soon withered away. They had seen many more wonders in Egypt, and had equally forgotten them. They went on to murmur against God and against Moses.
2. In the case of Stephen it may seem as if the impression were still less. Those who saw his face as it had been that of an angel, did not spare his life. But we know how a look lives years after the face is hidden in the grave. We can scarcely doubt it was so here. Can we question that the look of Stephen burned its impression into the heart of Paul, and that from the martyr's death the living preacher rose with an angel's power and zeal?
3. Here again these results are entirely characteristic of the two systems. The Old Testament began with outward demonstrations of the most striking kind, and they were needful in their time and place. But their effects were transitory. They served a purpose only as they helped the introduction of spiritual principles, in some such way as thunder accompanies spring showers, where the power lies not in the peal or the tremor, but in influences more gentle and less marked. Even in that ancient dispesation a practised ear can hear the words all through — "Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord." And, in the New Testament, this mode of working becomes fully apparent. It begins with the death of Christ as the grand means by which men are to be drawn to God. It manifests its Teal strength in the meekness and patience of its humblest followers — in their calmness in trial, their fortitude in danger, their forgiving spirit to their enemies, their unquenehed hope in the presence of death. Outward demonstrations have their use, but they are only the band of clay round the young graft to keep it safe till the current of inner life has established itself.
V. THE PERMANENCE OF THE TRANSFIGURATIONS IN THE SUBJECTS OF THEM.
1. The brightness in the face of Moses faded away into the light of ordinary life as he receded from the great vision. It partook in this of the transitory character of the dispensation to which he belonged, and had its brightest light turned to our world.
2. In Stephen it was no passing glimmer of a setting sun, but that lustre in the morning clouds which shows him before he is above the horizon, and which is lost only in perfect day. In the death of Stephen it is intended we should see how thin the veil is between the two worlds — how the Lord stands on the very confine, sending across His look and arm and voice, so that ere His servant left the earth he saw his heavenly Master, heard His words, and returned His smile.
(J. Ker, D. D.)I. A RESPLENDENCE OF THE GLORY OF CHRIST, who says to His own "In the world ye shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer," etc.
II. A RADIATION OF THE INNER CONFIDENCE OF FAITH, which knows that "if God be for us who can be against us?"
III. A REFLECTION OF THE FUTURE GLORY, with which the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be Compared.
I. WHAT WAS IT MEN SAW ON THE FACE OF STEPHEN?
1. Not a supernatural aureola such, as the painters love to depict. But —
2. The transformation of the human by the Divine, according to the natural law which connects spiritual states with corresponding bodily manifestations. The most transient emotions and impulses will betray their presence thus; how much more, therefore, the more constant elements of character and disposition? The changes of expression upon the face are, next to speech, the surest index to that inward world of thought and feeling and will which affects so powerfully our entire outward life.
3. The transmission of the Divine through the human.(1) In that upward gaze Pharisee and Sadducee were confronted with the reality of a spiritual world.(2) It served to hold them spellbound until the grand remonstrance had been uttered — as when Bishop Stanley, of Norwich, faced the tumultuous mob at his cathedral door, or Marshman was borne from his sick bed to quell the Birmingham rioters by his gentle presence.
II. THAT OF WHICH THIS TRANSFIGURED FACE WAS THE PROPHECY AND TOKEN. What if it were intended to present the chief end of man to be a minister and interpreter of the Divine? Who more adapted than he, standing as he does between two worlds, and enjoying if he wills the suffrages of both.
(A. F. Muir, M. A.)1. The Jews were familiar with angels, and knew that some of the greatest things in their national history had been accomplished by their agency. It was easy, therefore, for them to see any resemblance between a human creature and an angel of God.
2. Here is a man who had the look of an angel, and yet was still a man. Nay, in this trying yet favoured moment, he towered as it were to the height of his manhood, and put on all its bloom. It was Stephen's beauty that shone in the face. It was the real qualities of Stephen's character that made that beauty. It would seem, then, that a perfect man and an angel are brothers. Or say an imperfect man, in a mood of perfectness, or when he is wholly Christian, a child of God when he is looking homewards, And if this be the way of it, then surely there is many an angel-face on earth, and much beholding of the same from the higher spheres.
3. Of course we do not associate the angel-look with any particular style of face. We know nothing about the personal appearance of Stephen: only this seems plain, that such as he was in type and by Divine intention, that he now became with great clearness, and in becoming that, of necessity put on the likeness of the angel. Yet, I think we may say that there are certain things common to the angel-face on man amid all the endless variety of type and form.
I. BRIGHTNESS. We cannot be wrong in supposing that there was something luminous on the face of Stephen. We always associate brightness with the angels. If they come like common men (as they did to Abraham on the plain), the veiled brightness soon begins to shine through. If they come in their own nature, and proper state, then "the countenance is like lightning, and the raiment white as snow." If Stephen's countenance had been dull or sad on that day, this in the text bad never been recorded of him. Why should any man wear darkness or heaviness on his face? There is something in the world which we may learn, there is something from God which we may have, that will change all to brightness. The true philosophy of life is to get the light within ourselves; and then to get the habit of looking for and seeing the light everywhere, according to that profound and beautiful Scripture, "In Thy light shall we see light."
II. CALMNESS. Stephen was preternaturally calm in a scene of the utmost excitement. The test of a man's soul-state is often thus made very practical. He is tried by the pressure of the hour, by the hurry of the happening events. And it is not enough to have a general cheerfulness as the result of a survey of life and the world on the whole. There must be superiority to particular disquietudes, and a keeping of the heart in the stillness of grace, in the great and deep peace of God. It need not be disguised. that this is sometimes a matter of supreme difficulty. But no one can hope to get the angel-face who furrows and flushes his own with daily excitements. The peace of God is to keep the heart and mind as a garrison is kept. Surely "the helmet of salvation" should keep the head cool and quiet. The very feet should be "shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace."
III. BENIGNITY. This is the family likeness. For "God is love," and told us so in the visible form of His Son. And he that loveth not is not of God, and cannot wear an angel-face. The devil wears a kind of shattered splendour on his face. He is intellectual, he is calm; but there is no flush of benignity on his face; and by a long course of rebellion he has forgotten how to love. But those who, like Stephen, learn the lesson at the feet of Christ, and practise it among those who return good for evil, and seek the salvation of souls, they put on the image of the heavenly, and look like what they are — the children of the King!
IV. FEARLESSNESS. In Stephen's case consequences were what we call "fatal." But in the nomenclature of heaven fatal sometimes means vital. Courage in the highest sense always means safety. If an angel were here, to live for a while the life of a man, you would see what it is to be brave. You. would see him pass through sorrows smiling, his heart borne up already with foretaste of the after-joy. Conclusion:
1. He who would have the angel-face must look high and far. He must learn to look not so much at things, as through them, to see what is in them, and what is beyond. In a little while Stephen "looked steadfastly up into heaven." There is a look for a mortal man to give! A look which in his case was well rewarded, for "He saw the glory of God," etc. And that look gave him final victory. Men were gnashing their teeth, etc., beside him; they did not know that to him the pains of death were over. He had "looked" himself into heaven. He had trodden the streets of gold. But this was not the first time he had looked into heaven. Ever since he became a believer he had been looking that way. "If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth." You find them everywhere — in daily duties, in commonest things — but it needs the angel-eye to see them. Be an angel, or be a child in this; for the little child is not unlike the angel in its looking. Did you never see it on the little face — that calm, dreamy, distant look, that pierces quite through your world, and transcends all your ideas of prudence, and care, and duty, with a sublime indifference which is none the less grand that it is so simple?
2. Of course it is quite vain to attempt to put it on — the angel-face — directly, and by mental intention, as a soldier puts on his armour, or a king his royal robe. Could anything more absurd be conceived than this, that a man should say, "Now I am going to look like an angel!" If you try to put any particular emotion into the features, it will not be suprising if the very opposite emotion should come instead. Try to look grand, and you may make yourself little. Try to look innocent, and (although you may not remember a single sin) the general consciousness of guilt may seize you and put its colour into your face. Have the angel within, and leave all else to come, as it will. Or, as in the case of Stephen, be "full of faith, and of the Holy Ghost," i.e., be a Christian man, through and through, and the Lord.. your God will put His "beauty" on you, in one or other of its many forms, and in some supreme moments of life, in suffering, in trial, in death, may give your friends beholding you the privilege and joy of looking as it were upon the face of an angel.
(A. Raleigh, D. D.)
I. IS A LIFE OF VICE.
1. Evil passions and deeds trace the handwriting of sin; and every crime deepens the lines, and every bad thought extends them further. Beastliness of habit makes a beastly face. Hatred and revenge ossify the features to their own hardness. Drunkenness puffs up the drunkard's bloated face. The young have not written these characters on themselves so plainly as yet — they are hardly legible; — but age has imprinted them as indelibly as if they were carved in the rock. And this is the transfiguration of vice.
2. It is so perfect that there need be no other book of record for men than that which they write themselves upon themselves. Did Cain bear a mark on his forehead? It was the type or prediction of the thousands of marked brows which at the judgment shall require no testimony, and no sentence of the Judge, but shall, to all beholders, proclaim the sinfulness and the punishment.
3. Do we often enough think of this, that it requires not great crimes to debase the features of the form Divine, but that what we call little sins are just as surely day by day leaving their imprint? We suffer anger to possess us, and think that when it has passed we shall be the same. We cherish impure thoughts, supposing that they will in no way permanently affect us. We deceive our fellows without a thought that "hypocrite" will be written in our faces. How often are these said to be little things which will be like stains upon the hands, easily washed away! But there is truth in the thought that blood of murder will not wash from the palm, and an equal truth that our so-called little faults, too, do daily stain or mould our countenances. Take care, then, of the inward impurity, that it may not come to it; that not only God, who reads the heart, but men also who read the face, may see the wrong of a wrong life by its marks.
II. IN THE LIFE OF VIRTUE.
1. This also is a change which may progress from the earliest age at which moral character can exist. And we have often seen the good man's goodness written upon his outward appearance, and his purity of heart, like a subtle ether, penetrating through until it has surrounded him with a kind of atmosphere, and sat upon his head like a halo. Have you not seen it? — gentleness on the brow; calmness and purpose in the eye; purity of heart on the lips; temperance stamped on the features; the love of man in every gesture; and love and faith toward God in the air and expression. It is seen more in the aged, for it is a change which grows through long years. It grows sooner in such as have borne pain and sorrow, since they are the native soil of virtue. But it is, more or less, in all who live good lives. It is the mark by which God marks His beloved. It is the transfiguration of virtue.
2. This, too, is an evident preparation for the judgment or life to come. For it is written by ourselves — our own handwriting on the white page in which we come to this world clothed; our own signature which we shall carry when we go hence. And shall we fail to write this lovely record as we live here? — by faith marking on ourselves the graceful letters of faith; by brotherly kindness writing it on our face; by excellent and passionless emotions smoothing our brows; by holy love illuminating the beauteous margin of the whole manuscript; by patience and pain providing the border of glory which shall appear in the white hairs which are, in the good, a crown of glory. Ah! it is ours to rise at the last day with God's seal of baptism made a visible stamp on every feature by our daily fulfilment of baptismal vows. Conclusion: How does all this impress on us the folly of the thought that we can safely put off a holy life until near the end of life. Surely, if vice and virtue do thus stamp themselves upon the features, a man cannot for long years let avarice pinch his features and passions deform them, and then in a short time expect God's Spirit to paint upon them the beauty of goodness. The evil spirits against which we strive are slowly to be killed and drawn forth; and the good that shall he unto life will be slowly planted and nourished. Begin early. For it were better for the saint even to die young and have the glow of heaven on his face, and see his Lord on the right hand of God, and say in rapture, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," than a long life would have been, even crowned with all worldly prosperity.
(Bp. Phillips Brooks.)1. As the glorious setting of an earthly life, ended in the peace of God.
2. As the glorious rising of an approaching eternity with its heavenly light.
(A. F. Muir, M. A.)
(T. Hudson Taylor.)
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