But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God…
It is not impossible that the foregoing defense of Stephen may own to some slight ellipses; if so, to be accounted for partly by the fact of his immediate martyrdom, which prevented his rehearsal of it to any penman. But if it be not so, and if we have here in due connection all that Stephen said that is material to a right apprehension of the exact position of things, then his outburst recorded in vers. 51-53 is indeed full of suggestion, hints at much that lay behind, and invests itself with great additional interest. For we must suppose that his discernment, all on fire at that moment, enabled him to see, both in the eyes of the council of judges and in some of their movements, perhaps of the most unconscious and involuntary character, that the crisis had arrived when, without another minute's delay, he should deliver himself of truth's scathing rebuke. And this superior illumination and quickened intelligence was, perhaps, but the stealing on, and with no very stealthy pace either, of the dawn of heavenly light itself. Whatever might be coming upon the enraged persecutors, to the brave and dignified persecuted was near at band the luster of the perfect day, the perfect truth, the perfect love. Let it be that the "age of miracles" has passed, how often all along up to the present have last moments of the servants of Christ, specially of his suffering ones, been visited in sight and sound by quickened perceptions of the eternal realities. With those realities Stephen is already in company in a degree beyond, possibly not in a manner altogether different from, manifestations vouchsafed in later days. The circumstances surrounding the death of Stephen have ever attracted special attention. The death is a martyrdom; it is the first distinct martyrdom for the name of Jesus. It is in some aspects of it not an altogether unworthy or unfaithful copy from the great original, and it is, on the other side, a type of many a close to earthly life which should hereafter come to pass. The surroundings of the death of Stephen well justify the gaze of all who pass by the way, the breathless listening of all who have an ear to hear, the deeper inquiry of all who are moved to deeper faith. And they 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;
He gave to him to keep
The soul his great love had redeemed,
Then calmly went to sleep.
And as a tired bird folds its wing
Sure of the morning light,
He laid him down in trusting faith,
And dreaded not the night." = -B.
Parallel VersesKJV: But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,