And all that sat in the council, looking steadfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.
(text, and 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.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.