DEACON STEPHEN, CHRISTIAN MARTYR.
--ACTS 6:7-15--FEB. 23.--
"Fear not them which kill the body,
but are not able to kill the soul."
STEPHEN may be acknowledged the second Christian martyr--for surely our Lord Jesus was the first. We must begin with the first verse of our lesson-chapter in order to trace the history of this worthy soldier of the cross. An emergency arose in the Church, calling for a force of seven deacons to look after various temporal matters, and Stephen was one of these seven, all of whom were chosen by the congregation, not by the apostles, as men of honest reputation, wise, and full of the holy spirit. This incident suggests to us the loose character of the organization of the early Church. It had not cast-iron rules and laws, except that the Lord, the Redeemer, was the Head of the Church, and that none could be recognized as members thereto except as they recognized him as their Savior and Lord, and made consecration to him, receiving his spirit, and recognized as of his appointment and of the holy spirit's designation his specially chosen apostles, as the authorized instructors of the Church. Aside from this, the necessities of each case seem to have guided: and yet, we may safely presume that in all the arrangements in the Church, as well as in the teachings of the apostles, the holy spirit directed; --for the benefit also of those believing on the Lord through their word, throughout the entire age.
In a previous lesson we saw that a measure of communism was early established in the Church; but the incidents of this lesson clearly imply that it was only limited, and not a complete division of property. It was evidently the intention of the early Church to provide for the poor of their number who were without means of livelihood. Prominent amongst those provided for, if not the only ones, were widows without income; such at that time must have been comparatively helpless and dependent upon charity, since there were so few opportunities for earning a living, especially amongst women.
We are not to suppose that there was any intentional partiality or neglect of the Grecian more than of the Hebrew women. Apparently it was unintentional, and possibly arose from the fact that the apostles, native-born, appreciated more keenly the needs of the native widows than of the foreign-born. These were all Jewesses, of course, whether born in Palestine or born in Greece. Up to this time the Gospel had not been sent to others,--Gentiles. No doubt there was some reasonable cause for the murmur. In any event the apostles manifested their honesty of purpose in the matter by promptly instituting measures for the correction of the difficulty. There is a lesson in this for all of the Lord's people: if difficulties arise, based upon temporal questions, likely to sprout a "root of bitterness" or to cause a schism in the Church, the proper course would be to throw the responsibility upon the shoulders of the whole congregation--to ask for the election of some of the number who could give the matter better attention, and see that all were justly dealt with. We are not to forget that in this as in other ways the Lord has clearly indicated that the Church as a whole is under his supervision, his care, and that it is [R2951 : page 44] therefore proper that the general affairs of the Church be conducted by the congregation and not by one man, nor by a clerical class.
No doubt some of those chosen for the serving of tables--the money collection and the food distribution --were representatives of the Grecian brethren who, knowing the peculiarities of the Grecian customs, would be the better able to see to the welfare of the Grecian widows. It is here that we get acquainted with Stephen, as one of the seven chosen deacons. The word "deacon" signifies runner, attendant, servant. The "elders" of the Church were more particularly chosen according to their Christian character and aptness to teach, while the deacons were chosen according to Christian character and aptness in business affairs. In both instances, however, the Christian character, the holiness of spirit and wisdom were primary considerations. So with the Lord's people to-day: those chosen to any part of the service should first of all be recognized as the best and the wisest of the number--the possession of a holy, meek and quiet spirit, of great value, being carefully considered --then natural abilities.
In Stephen's case we see an illustration of the Lord's methods of advancing his people step by step in his service: (1) He was honored with a knowledge of the truth: faithful in his acceptance of it, and zealous toward the Lord, he ere long manifested these qualities; and under the guidance of the holy spirit, was chosen a deacon. (2) Faithfulness in this, serving tables, prepared him for further opportunities, and (3) we find him exercising the gift of healing and performing signs in attestation of his ministry of the truth; which implies that he had actually attained to the position of an elder in the Church tho' the apostles residing in Jerusalem, perhaps, made an unnecessary election of [R2952 : page 44] elders,--for they were all elders. (I Pet. 5:1.) Stephen was so full of the spirit of the truth and devotion to its service that he had the high honor (4) of being the first one of the brethren to follow the Master's footsteps in a sacrificial death. Here surely was an advancement in service and its honor that may well quicken and energize all of the Lord's people to greater efforts to serve and please the same Master. He who thus accepted the consecrated Stephen, and advanced him step by step in his service, is ready and willing to-day to take and use those who are similarly consecrated, and burning with heavenly zeal. He is willing to make of such burning and shining lights in the Church, if they in turn are willing to suffer with him, that they may also be glorified together in due time.-- Rom. 8:17.
Stephen's faith and power and opportunities for service came to him along the same lines as faith and power have come to the Lord's people since--whole-hearted devotion to the Lord, to his people and to his truth. "He that humbleth himself shall be exalted." Had Stephen been selfseeking and ambitious for honor of men or of the brethren we may be sure we would have heard little of him, unless, like Ananias, his approbativeness had resulted in his being made an example of evil-doing. This is a danger which besets every brother chosen by the church to any service. Hence the apostle's caution "Be not many of you teachers brethren." Hence the necessity that the Church choose for its servants only those of humble mind; and the need of care amongst these servants that they fall not into the snare of the Adversary, and after having preached to others, themselves become castaways.-- Jas. 3:1; I Tim. 3:6,7; I Cor. 9:27.
Stephen in preaching got into a debate with some of his day, and was more than a match for them. As we read, "They were not able to withstand the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake." We are not to suppose that Stephen was the greatest of all orators, nor even that he had no peers amongst those with whom he disputed. In this case the adage was well applied, "Thrice armed is he who hath his quarrel just." It was because Stephen had the truth, the right side of the controversy, and because God was with him, that he was more than a match for any of his adversaries.
The same God is still with his people; and the Lord's Word, therefore, is still worthy of all acceptance, --"I will give you a mouth and wisdom which none of your adversaries shall be able to gainsay or resist." (Luke 21:15.) Do we not see this same principle illustrated to-day, when humble ones amongst the Lord's people are more than a match for all their adversaries? The truth being powerful, prevails, though it is not always acknowledged to prevail, even as it was not acknowledged by Stephen's enemies.
We are not advocating public debating of the truth. We believe that debates, as a rule, accomplish little good; because the opponents of the truth are apt to conduct their arguments unfairly, deceptively--apt to strive for victory, rather than to strive for the truth. However, there are cases to-day, like this case of Stephen's, in which the opponents of the truth are the aggressors; and in such cases those who have the truth are not to be ashamed of it, nor fearful, but to trust in the promise of the Lord for words and wisdom for the occasion. We are not given a report of the discussion, but from what we know of Stephen's character, so well illustrated in the discourse subsequently delivered, we cannot escape the conviction that he spoke to his opponents in a kind, generous, reasonable manner-- that he neither ranted nor stormed nor endeavored to throw a dust of false arguments. He had the truth, which is sharper than a two-edged sword, and we may be sure that he spoke the truth "in love," according to the apostolic command.--Eph. 4:15.
Stephen's disputants were evidently of the Grecian Jews, and Stephen himself was also probably of this class. Possibly Saul of Tarsus, afterwards the Apostle Paul, was amongst those who disputed with him, as he himself tells us that he was a sort of ringleader amongst those who killed him. (Acts 22:20.) We cannot help wondering to what extent young Saul, the lawyer, instructed by Gamaliel, and an adept in logic, may have taken some lessons and caught some ideas from Stephen's reasoning--not enough, however, to make transformation of his career.
It was Stephen's turn to be called before the Sanhedrin, that he might give the leaders of his people a gospel sermon, the basis of which was Jesus and the resurrection. His opponents, who could not down him [R2952 : page 45] in argument, were determined to destroy him; and, like other zealots, deluded by superstition, they were nevertheless influenced by their higher principles to desire to accomplish his destruction legally--that is to say, with a form of law. Alas, how many people now, as well as then, of comparatively noble mind, succeed in "deceiving their own selves" into thinking that a wrong becomes a virtue, becomes right, if to any extent they can wrap it in the folds of the law! The Lord's people need to have the spirit of the law, the spirit of justice, the spirit of righteousness: without this even the best balanced minds may be led astray under the pressure of zeal, superstition, or error.
The doctors of the law and members of the Sanhedrin (Saul of Tarsus is supposed to have been a member) did not wish to be parties directly to the charges, nor to seem to be interested in the destruction of a noble man. They therefore procured others to give testimony that would be of the kind desired--testimony upon which it would be possible for their distorted judgments and consciences to render a death verdict. Strangely enough, the second martyr, like the first, was convicted of blasphemy against God and against the Temple, and without any more foundation for the charges than in the case of his illustrious Master. Of course the charges were distorted, and yet there was a measure of truth in them. Just how much allowance should be made for those who convicted the Lord and Stephen on such evidence is perhaps difficult for us to judge. Nor is it necessary, because the judgment of such matters is not yet put into our hands. The Lord alone knows to what extent the prejudiced mind was unable to discern the truth, and to what extent the Adversary succeeded in blinding the judgment, so as to make the light appear darkness, the truth appear error.
Doubtless, as Stephen heard the charges against him, and noticed the advancement of the case, he mentally remarked the correspondence between these charges against him and those upon which his Master was convicted. We may be sure that some such thoughts were passing through his mind when his face was so wonderfully lit up with the indwelling joy, that it is recorded that all sitting in the Sanhedrin "looking steadfastly on him saw his face, as it had been the face of an angel." But even an angelic face could not move such hearts, some of the same, doubtless, that had sat in condemnation of the Master himself. Seemingly, Stephen's witness was fruitless, so far as his auditors were concerned; the same might have been said respecting our Master's trial and testimony. And yet, as the latter bore fruit on the day of Pentecost and afterward, so, doubtless, Stephen's testimony bore fruit subsequently. Who can say that that beaming and angelic face was not one of the "pricks" against which Saul of Tarsus had been contending for some time, when the Lord interrupted him enroute to Damascus?
Who can tell that experiences connected with this martyrdom may not have been valuable not only to Saul, but to others? At all events, it was Stephen's duty, as it is our duty, to be faithful under all circumstances, under all conditions, regardless of whether appearances indicate the accomplishment of much, or of little good. We are to remember that the Lord's work is in his own hands, and that our part is to be faithful to him and to the truth, to the extent of our opportunities.
The Editor would like, for himself and for all the Pilgrims, and for all the elders of the Church everywhere, and for all the brethren who speak at all, publicly or privately, in the name of Jesus, that Stephen's beaming face might be impressed upon our memories. If it is, and if every time we stand forth before men publicly or privately, as the representatives of our Lord, we could so realize his blessing and our privilege as his servants, that it would fill our hearts, and beam forth from our faces, in gladness, in thankfulness, for the privilege of serving, then indeed we would have the highest degree of blessing to ourselves, and doubtless also would bring the largest degree of blessing to all those whose hearts would be prepared for the truth, and also for those not yet ready for it, but who are under the Lord's discipline and guidance, in preparation for it, as was Saul of Tarsus.
Our Golden Text is very appropriate in this connection. It is well that the Lord's people, especially when they come into trying positions on account of their fidelity to the truth, should remember these, the Master's words. Men may kill our bodies, or they may speak evil of them, or despitefully use them otherwise; but it is beyond their power to injure us as new creatures, or to ruin our prospects as respects the future life. That life which the Lord has promised to his faithful,--the resurrection life,--is beyond the power of man. It is the eternal, the invaluable life. If we gain it, no matter what the cost may be, as respects the present life, and mortal-body condition, we shall have made a great bargain, we shall have gained a great prize. All who really appreciate it see it to be a "pearl of great price," for which they, like the Master, are willing to lay down all,--to sell all that they have, that they may obtain it. [R2953 : page 45]
God is able to kill the soul--able to blot out existence entirely--and he has threatened to do so in all cases of wilful deliberate sin, against full light and knowledge. This is a cause both for comfort and for fear. For comfort, as opposed to the false human teaching that the masses will spend an eternity of woe: for fear, lest after having tasted of divine goodness and learned of God's gracious provisions for such as obey him, any of us should seem to come short and lose our all--life!
To have the proper course in life, to be able to meet the trials and difficulties of life as they come to us, and to meet them in the proper spirit which the Lord directs--in the spirit of rejoicing in tribulation, and counting such experiences all joy,--it is necessary that all fear of man, which brings a snare, shall be removed. And it is our Lord's direction that we shall fear Jehovah, and not fear our mortal fellows. The righteous are bold as a lion, as well as gentle as a dove, and meek as a lamb. This peculiar combination should be found in every Christian, and we doubt if it will be found elsewhere.