THE FIRST CHRISTIAN MARTYR
--ACTS 6:8-15; 7:54; 8:3.--FEBRUARY 21.--
Golden Text:--"And they stoned Stephen calling upon God,
and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."--Acts 7:59.
THE infant Christian Church prospered at Jerusalem. Not only was the Lord's blessing upon the apostles in their ministries, but upon others of the Church also, who, full of love and zeal for the Truth, told the good tidings as they had opportunity. They had the Gospel message in its purity, and it was a pleasure to tell it. They needed not inducements of social advancement, financial prosperity, honorable titles and good salaries. The message itself incited love and devotion, and enkindled a flame of sacred love in their hearts which tended to make each believer a burning and a shining light, as the Lord himself had enjoined. This same condition of things prevails again today, since the smoke of the dark ages is being washed from the eyes of our understanding, and since the dust and must of human tradition are being brushed from the Word of the Lord. Now, as then, the Truth charms, sanctifies, energizes all who receive it. And each, according to his ability, is quickened to its service, regardless of cost or time, of energy, of human disapproval and ostracism.
THE ADVERSARY ACTIVE ALSO
Our great Adversary will usually leave us comparatively at ease, if we are not actively engaged as heralds of the Truth. Indeed, his policies seem to be to minister opiates wherever the Truth is dispensed. He prefers that we sleep and dream, rather than that we be awake and on the alert, putting our lights upon candlesticks, that they may give light to those about us. It is not surprising, therefore, that he stirred up a great persecution against the early Church, because of its activity. We must expect that similarly we will draw his fire upon ourselves, in proportion as we patiently and faithfully fight the good fight against sin and error--darkness.
Stephen, a young man of prominence who had [R4328 : page 43] been chosen a deacon at Jerusalem, was very zealous for the Truth. He got into a public discussion, and his opponents, finding their arguments inferior to his, were angered instead of convinced. This shows their insincerity. Had they hungered and thirsted for the Truth, they would have been glad to receive it from Stephen, or from anybody. Let us beware of such a spirit in ourselves, knowing that it is dangerous. In this case it led on to murder; not merely the murder accomplished when Stephen died, but they were murderers in advance, from the Lord's standpoint, because hatred of him was in their hearts; "And he that hateth his brother is a murderer." They had, however, respect to the outward forms of the Law, and sought any pretext to justify them in killing their opponent. Had they no fear of God! Apparently it is possible for men to get into such a condition of heart that they will not only speak evil of us and plot mischief against us, but to the extent that they can do so will be glad to effect our death. This is a part of the murderous spirit, whether they stop short of the actual death or not. It went to the limit with Stephen and with our Lord, and it may do so with us some day. Let us be on the side of the martyr rather than on the side of those whose wrong condition of heart our Lord explained, saying, "Satan hath filled thine heart."
Stephen's opponents were crafty. They hired witnesses to describe the teachings of Stephen in an unjust manner, saying he talked dishonorably of the Law and of Moses. Blasphemy in that day was the worst of crimes. As a result the people, the Elders, the scribes came upon him, seized upon him and brought him to the Council, or place of trial. Then the prejudices of the people were again appealed to through witnesses who perverted the truth, saying that Stephen was continually saying things against the holy city and temple and the Law and claiming that Jesus would destroy the place and change the customs. There was, perhaps, considerable truth in this statement, rightly understood. But as it was stated it was untrue; and so today in traducing us, some may tell partial truths, which really are falsehoods. It is weakness of human nature to suppose that such misrepresentations are excusable. They should remember how impossible it is to lie to the holy Spirit, as Ananias and Sapphira learned. The lesson to the Lord's faithful is that it is far better to be the sufferer under such circumstances than to be the one who causes the suffering and who must eventually answer for his crime.
"AS THE FACE OF AN ANGEL"
There is an inspiration of the heart and an illumination of the features which accompanies the presentation of the Truth by those who are indwelt by the Lord's holy Spirit and who are speaking as his ambassadors. Many have noticed this peculiarity amongst those who are now rejoicing in what we designate "Present Truth." Doubtless this is akin to what is mentioned in our lesson respecting Stephen's face-- that it was bright, happy, radiant "as the face of an angel." Ah! Stephen was an angel. An angel is a messenger, and if Stephen, by the grace of God, was permitted to be the Divine messenger or mouth-piece and permitted to convey the "good tidings" to others, surely, then, we also are angels in the highest sense conceivable. No wonder there is no need since Pentecost that the angels should appear in human form! The sons of God, indwelt by his Spirit, can be God's [R4329 : page 43] mouthpieces in the very highest sense.
Stephen's sermon is not directly a part of our lesson, but indirectly it should be borne in mind. It was a comprehensive view of Divine favor in Israel, bringing the matter down to date and showing Jesus the son of Abraham, according to the flesh, rejected and crucified by those who should have received him. This was the galling feature of the Gospel amongst the Jews--their responsibility as murderers of their Messiah. We read that his hearers
"GNASHED ON HIM WITH THEIR TEETH"
This signifies chagrin, disappointment, savage animosity. We read that they were "cut to the heart." Stephen's words were sharp and their force consisted not in any angry or bitter denunciation, but in plain, simple narration of the Truth. This should be the style of all preaching. It is not necessary for us to say angry or bitter things. The Truth itself is "sharper than any two-edged sword," and needs no unkind language, no profanity, no epithets to drive it home. Where immoderate and unchristian language is considered necessary it is a sure sign that the argument is correspondingly weak, and it warns us to beware. The Truth itself is mighty, even if spoken by a little child.
Hearing Stephen with impatience, aggravated by the fact that his argument was true, they were gnashing their teeth with chagrin, because they were unable to detect a flaw or excuse for his death.
Finally, however, when he declared that he saw a vision of Christ at the right hand of God (whether he actually saw such a vision or merely pictured it before his hearers, we do not know), his statement of the matter furnished the excuse they had been waiting for, and, seizing it, they rushed upon him, crying out in a loud voice and stopping their ears, as though to convince one another that to willingly hear anything more on that line would be a participation in the blasphemy. They rushed him out of the city gate and stoned him. A young man, Saul, supposedly an officer of the Council, being present, gave his sanction by taking charge of the outer-garments of those who stoned him to death.
Such a martyrdom is not the style in our day; hence none of us will probably suffer death in that form. We have more refined forms of persecution. Christian people may get themselves into such a wrong attitude of heart as to think that they do God service in hurling slanders at those who have sought to do them good. And indeed who does not know that the blow of slander may be even more cruel and even more painful and more shameful than the literal stoning? Yet, strange to say, there are many who would read the account of Stephen's stoning, or Jesus' crucifixion, and who would roundly condemn all who took part in either, and who, nevertheless, would either unthinkingly or under supposition of doing God service engage in the worst form of persecution--stoning and crucifying and spearing with their tongues. We ask ourselves what was the matter with those Jews who thus maltreated our Lord and Stephen, and the answer comes back, "Ye have not the love of God in your hearts." Similarly we must answer in respect to those who in our day persecute through slander, vituperation, evil-speaking, evil-surmisings, evil-insinuations, etc.
FATHER, FORGIVE THEM
Stephen's attitude of heart towards his enemies indicates that he had not only received the holy Spirit as a gift, but that he had it as a living power, and that its fruitage was in his heart. He had only love for his enemies. Having done his very best to serve them with the Truth, he had prayers for them in return for their imprecations and their cruel stones. He prayed, "Lord, [R4329 : page 44] lay not this sin to their charge." But it was not for Stephen to direct Divine justice as to what should be the reward of those who stoned him. We cannot suppose that he was attempting to direct the arm of the Infinite. We must assume that he was speaking merely for himself; that, so far as he himself was concerned, he had no desire that they should be punished. This beautiful condition of heart should be ours. "Owe no man anything but to love one another"--and to desire one another's welfare is the application of the Divine rule to all the affairs of our lives.
We read that Saul (afterwards Paul) was amongst those who consented to this martyrdom. How strange the anomaly--that so many should think right and the Divine service that which we know was very reprehensible in the sight of God! Seeing such great blindness on the part of one who subsequently declared, "I verily thought I did God service," should surely cause us to be very circumspect, very critical, in respect to our thoughts and deeds. We must remember that it is not a question of whose servants we claim to be, but, as our Lord said, "His servants ye are unto whom ye render service."
THEN STEPHEN FELL ASLEEP
No suggestion was given that the first Christian martyr passed immediately to heaven, and that with his expiring breath he became more alive than he ever was when he was alive. On the contrary, here as elsewhere in the Scriptures, death is pictured as a sleep.
"Asleep in Jesus, blessed sleep,
From which none ever wakes to weep."
How glad we are that this is so! The awakening time will be after the close of the reign of sin and death; after our Redeemer's Second Advent, when the power Divine will be in control, as instead of that of the prince of this world. Truly, "Weeping may endure for the night," but it ceases with our sleeping, and "joy cometh in the morning" of the resurrection.--Psa. 30:5.
"THEY WERE ALL SCATTERED ABROAD"
The death of Stephen marked the beginning of an epoch of persecution, especially in Jerusalem, where for some years peace had prevailed and the message of the Gospel found considerable root in the hearts of "Israelites indeed." The Lord allowed these new beginners to attain a fair degree of development in grace and knowledge, and then permitted the persecution which scattered them everywhere throughout Judea and Samaria. The effect was that, so far from the Truth being injured, it was carried to larger numbers, for every true disciple is a light-bearer. Saul was one of the chief persecutors, apparently. We read that he made havoc of the Church, entering every house, and, armed with the necessary legal authority, he effected the imprisonment of many, and thus led to the scattering of others. But in some unaccountable manner this persecution seems to have passed by the apostles. The Lord probably wished to keep Jerusalem as the center for the Apostolic ambassadors of the Truth for a season.
The lesson for us all is faith, courage, zeal, a loyal heart, a shining face, love and prayers for our enemies, and to see that we learn a lesson from the evil course of others, "See that no man render evil in return for evil," as the Apostle says.
The fact that the Jews had not power to put our Lord to death, but did have the power to stone Stephen, is explained by the fact that stoning to death for blasphemy was the Divinely instituted punishment, according to the Law. But the Jews, being subject to the Romans, were not permitted by them to exercise the death penalty. Following the death of our Lord, Pilate was ordered to Rome to stand trial on certain charges brought against him and thus the Roman power in Palestine was somewhat abated, and the Jews, in the absence of a dominating force, exercised their own laws.