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THE MARTYRDOM OF STEPHEN.
IN the last Lecture, I entered upon the history of Stephen. We have seen, that, rendered conspicuous by his office, his gifts, and his activity, he was regarded with a jealous eye by the unbelieving Jews; that their hostility was exasperated by the ill success of the disputation to which they had challenged him; and that, with the revenge natural to base and little minds, they were impatient to destroy by violence, the man whom they could not vanquish by argument. I shall pass over his speech before the Sanhedrim, recorded in the preceding part of the chapter, because, being an abridged narrative of the history of the Jews, it does not fall within the limits of this course of Lectures, which is intended to illustrate the principal events connected with the rise and progress of the Christian Church. There is one observation, which must occur to every reader, namely, that the speech is incomplete. He sets out with a detail of the divine dispensations towards the patriarchs and their seed, and goes on, in regular order, till he come down to the days of Solomon, when he suddenly breaks off, and addresses his audience in the language of accusation and reproach. It is probable that his hearers gave signs of impatience; and Stephen, perceiving that they were about to interrupt him, seized the moments which remained, to tell them a few unwelcome truths, which, if they did not arrest them in their headlong career, would serve as his dying testimony against the incorrigible enemies of his Saviour. From the strain in which he speaks of the temple towards the close of his discourse, we may collect, that he would have proceeded to show that that magnificent structure was a typical temporary building; that there was no blasphemy in affirming that it should be destroyed; and that its fall might now be expected, as, by the incarnation 112and death of the Messiah, the end of its erection was accomplished. His audience seem to have perceived his design; their zeal was roused to fury at the most remote hint, which appeared disrespectful to their sacred institutions.
“When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed upon him with their teeth.” The word rendered, “to cut,” has been chosen to express, in tile strongest manner, the effect of the speech upon his accusers and judges. It signifies to saw asunder, and alludes to that cruel mode of putting criminals to death. The men, in whose presence Stephen now stood, entertained lofty ideas of their own character, and were fully persuaded that they were the favourites and devoted servants of heaven. With what indignation must they have heard, from one whom they so much hated, that they were “uncircumcised in heart,” hypocrites, who had the seal of the covenant in their flesh, but wanted all the qualities of which it was a sign; that they “always resisted the Holy Ghost,” by whom they believed themselves to be moved; and that they had now filled up the measure of the iniquity of their fathers, by betraying and murdering the Messiah? Such accusations inflicted a wound upon their pride, the pain of which goaded them on to madness. When a good man is unjustly reproached, he will feel the injury, and vindicate himself with the dignity of virtue; but he will, at the same time, commit himself, with all meekness, to him “that judgeth righteously.” But when a bad man is charged with his crimes, wanting the support of a good conscience, and that steady confidence in heaven, which is the reward only of innocence, he frets and rages against those who have insulted his honour, and dissipated the pleasing illusions of self-love. Perhaps, his heart, for a moment, misgives him; a sudden ray of conviction, darting into his mind, discovers the hollowness of his pretences, and the baseness of his motives.; stung by transient remorse, he is impatient of the anguish; his passions become ungovernable; and he bursts into fury, which torments himself, while it seeks to destroy the disturbers of his peace. Such were the feelings, and such was the behaviour of the enemies of Stephen. “They were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth;” expressing at once the torture which they suffered, and the ferocity of their temper. They resembled beasts of prey, eager to devour the man who has dared to attack them.
The situation of Stephen was critical. Every look and gesture 113of those who surrounded him menaced him with death; and had he betrayed symptoms of perturbation and alarm, we must have pitied the weakness of humanity thus severely tried, and have condemned him with a sigh. Trembling for his life, an ordinary man would have had resource to tears and supplications to melt the hearts of his persecutors; or, pale with fear, and stupified with despair, he would have sullenly submitted to his fate. How different was the conduct of the saint! With that calm dignity which religion inspires, he observed the rage of his enemies; and turning away from a scene, which exhibited the malignant passions in all their horrors, he lifted his eyes to heaven, in testimony of his resignation and his hope. In the moment of danger, and in the agony of distress nature itself teaches man to appeal to his Maker. The first cry which. he utters is a prayer; and his eyes are directed to the sanctuary on high, from which God beholds the children of men. But it is the Christian alone, who feels that confidence of protection, who is cheered with that hope of sympathy and aid, with which a son runs to shelter himself in the arms of his father.
How transporting was the prospect which was presented to Stephen! In this world, good men walk by faith; and are supported amidst their sufferings, by a well-founded assurance of the invisible glories and joys of eternity. They see nothing more than others; they only believe more, and believe on better grounds. By an extraordinary dispensation, the evidence of sense was, in the present case, superadded to the evidence of faith. He, who was first called to seal the truth of the gospel with his blood, was favoured with a particular testimony of the divine approbation, to encourage others: to follow him in the same arduous service. The interest which Jesus Christ takes in his faithful servants, who, for his sake, love not. their own lives, was made manifest, to assure them in every age,. that although they may not see him, as Stephen did, yet he looks on, while they are suffering in his cause, and opens his arms to receive their spirits, as they rise from the scaffold and the stake.; But he being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God.”
The whole of this dispensation was miraculous. Stephen was: probably in the hall in which the Sanhedrim was assembled, and; his natural sight was bounded by the roof. Even in the open air, the human eye, which perceives the sun and stars at the distance 114of many millions of miles, could not, in its ordinary state, have discerned the throne of God, placed beyond the limits of the visible creation. But, as we read in the next verse, “the heavens were opened.” Shall we say, that by divine power, a representation of the celestial glory was made to his senses, in the same manner as objects, not really present, were shown to the Prophets in vision; or that his eyes were supernaturally strengthened to penetrate through the immense space which separates heaven from earth, and the veil which conceals the mansions of the blessed? To form conjectures upon a subject, of which we are completely ignorant, is idle; let us, therefore, content ourselves with the simple statement of Luke. He saw “the glory of God,” God himself is invisible. “No man hath seen him;” and it is physically impossible that any man should see him, because eyes of flesh are capable of perceiving only material objects. The glory of God must therefore signify some symbol of his presence, perhaps a brightness surpassing that of the sun, which pointed out the place where he reveals himself to angels and saints, who contemplate with admiration his infinite perfections, and, at, the uncreated source itself, imbibe the delicious draught of immortality and joy. Such a view of heaven revives the spirits of a dying saint; and he would willingly pass through a sea of blood to participate of its bliss.
But this was not the only sight which gladdened the last moments of the martyr. He saw “Jesus standing on the right hand of God.” The Saviour ascended to heaven in our nature, which he will wear for ever, and in which the righteous will behold and admire the perfection of beauty; and he sits at the right hand of the Father, invested with the highest honours, and exercising sovereign authority. But on this occasion Stephen saw him standing. And why does he appear in this unusual posture? One of the Apostles, with a design to demonstrate his superiority to the Levitical priests, remarks that they “stood” when they ministered; but that he, having offered his sacrifice for sin, “for ever sat down on the right hand of God.” A saint was surrounded with enemies thirsting for his blood, and in a few moments was to fall a victim to their rage. Jesus Christ rose up from his throne to observe the courage, the patience, and the faith of his disciple; to meet and welcome his spirit as soon as it had escaped into the peaceful asylum of heaven; and to introduce him into the presence of his Father, that he might receive from his hands the crown of glory. “When the 115heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing, he sits still and laughs at them.” Their wild uproar does not disturb his tranquillity. But when a poor saint, despised and outraged by the world, is dying under its murderous hands, he rises; his heart is interested; his compassion is excited; he makes haste to succour the forlorn sufferer, and waits to embrace, and to solace him in his arms. How comfortable to Stephen was the sight of Jesus, standing on the right hand of God! How it elevated his soul! how it animated his resolution! how it inflamed his love! how it stript death of its terrors! “Let the flesh,” he could say, “feel a few short pangs, and then I shall be with my Saviour, whose hand will wipe away all my tears.”
In such a state of mind, Stephen could not be silent. Pleasurable emotions of the lighter or gentler kind may be suppressed, as pride or prudence shall direct; but when the heart is strongly affected, and overcome by sudden and excessive joy, it breaks through all restraints, and gives unequivocal signs of its sensations. “Behold,” exclaims the martyr, “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.” Although none were near him who feared God, yet he could not forbear to declare “what God had done for his soul.” But his words are not to be considered merely as expressive of his triumph. They were a new testimony to the truth of the religion for which he was to lay down his life, and to the glory of, his Saviour; and in this view, they were fitly spoken in the presence of his enemies. “It is no cunningly devised fable which I follow, when I believe, that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, and that he has ascended from the cross to the throne. it is no longer the subject of my faith. I see it with my eyes; I behold him reigning with his Father, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion. The sentence which you dared pronounce upon him as a blasphemer is reversed. There stands the Son of Man, whom you persecuted under that humble title, placed, as he foretold to you, on the right hand of power. Over me it will be easy to prevail; but know that you are contending with him, who can dash his enemies in pieces as a potter’s vessel.”
The passions of his audience, already wound up to the highest pitch, now burst forth with ungovernable fury. “They cried out with a loud voice,” to drown the voice of the blasphemer, and “stopped their ears,” lest they should hear more of his words; and disregarding the solemnity of the place, and the gravity and deliberation, 116with which all judicial proceedings should be conducted, they “ran upon him with one accord,” and “cast him out of the city,” which his presence profaned, and “stoned him.” Yet notwithstanding the excess of their rage, they could so far command themselves as to observe some of the forms of law. They did not murder Stephen with the first weapons which they could find, but stoned him, as God had commanded the blasphemer to be punished. “He that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him.” They did not execute this sentence upon him in the streets of Jerusalem, but first dragged him out of the city, because God had said concerning the son of an Israelitish woman, who blasphemed in the wilderness, “Bring forth him that hath cursed without the camp.” Although they were all eager to testify their zeal, by taking a part in his death, yet they waited till the witnesses had thrown the first stones; for the law required, that “the hands of the witnesses should first be upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people.” It seems, therefore, that amidst the disorder with which the trial was conducted, the council had regularly pronounced sentence upon him. But the observance of legal forms could not atone for the neglect of material justice in condemning him on false evidence, and interrupting his defence. Alas! this is not the only instance, in which law has been perverted to the destruction of the innocent, and the most nefarious deeds have been coloured over with an appearance of respect for order and equity.
“And the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.” Saul was neither a witness nor a judge; but his furious zeal had brought him to the place, and he expressed his approbation, we may presume, by gestures and words. I see him standing, with the rage of bigotry depicted on his countenance, encouraging the witnesses to avenge the honour of Moses upon the wretch who had dared to revile him, himself hurling a stone at his head, and relaxing into a vindictive smile, when the blessed martyr fell lifeless to the ground. In the school of GamalieI, he had imbibed no portion of the moderate spirit of his teacher. The fire of youth, blown up into a flame by religious prejudice, could not be repressed by the calm lessons of reason and humanity. A career which commenced with such unfavourable symptoms, promised to be marked, in its progress, with violence and blood. A 117young man, who could thrust himself forward as an accomplice in such a transaction, seemed to discover a mind too arrogant and overbearing to be convinced, and a heart too callous to relent. The fervour of his passions might abate as he advanced in years, but the same dispositions would continue; and the impetuosity of zeal would be exchanged for more deliberate and systematic cruelty. Who could have recognised in this man “a vessel of mercy?” Who could have supposed, that ere long his zeal would be transferred to the service of Jesus of Nazareth; that it would glow with equal ardour, but with a purer flame, for the advancement of that religion, which it now sought to consume; that the persecutor would become an Apostle; and that he who joined in the murder of a disciple, would, in the same cause, willingly submit his neck to the stroke of the executioner’s sword?d?
Let us return to Stephen, whom we left in the midst of his enemies. His courage was unshaken, and his mind was calm. “And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” God is a supplement, which would have been better omitted; and the verse should have been rendered thus. “They stoned Stephen, calling upon Jesus, and saying,” &c. Whether we adopt the one translation or the other, the verse furnishes an example of religious worship, offered to Jesus Christ by one of the primitive disciples, standing on the verge of the eternal world, and under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. There is not a higher exercise of faith, nor a more solemn act of religion, than to commit our departing spirits to the care of Him whom we address. This is the last and most important step; and the consequences of a mistake would be irretrievable. And to whom should this homage be paid, but to our faithful Creator? In whose hands can we safely entrust our souls, but in those of him who made them? Here, then, is a proof that our Lord Jesus Christ is a divine person, entitled to the same worship with the Father, unless Stephen died an idolater, and the Holy Ghost had suddenly abandoned him; a proof, which the adversaries of his Deity cannot evade, except by such pitiful shifts, as are sure indications of a desperate cause.
“Lord Jesus receive my spirit.” His earthly tabernacle was battered and broken, and ready to fall down into the dust. But Jesus had taught his disciples, “not to be afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do.” The 118immortal spirit cannot be pierced with the sword, nor consumed by the flames. It eludes the rage of persecutors; it escapes from the murdered body, and rises to heaven. Of the soul, as a substance distinct from the body, the light of nature gives some notices; and hence the celebrated saying of the philosopher Anaxarchus, when he was condemned by the tyrant of Cyprus, to be brayed to death in a mortar, “Beat the case of Anaxarchus; but thou dost no, strike Anaxarchus himself.” 1010Diog. Laert. in vita Anaxarch. But surer are the hopes of the Christian who knows, by infallible evidence, that although his body claims no higher origin than the dust, and in its frailty resembles the dust, which every wind may scatter; yet his spirit is a vital spark, kindled by the breath of the Almighty, and destined to glow for ever in the pure and serene atmosphere of heaven. The soul of Stephen was about to leave this world, and to pass into eternity. How dark and doubtful is the passage to those, who have nothing to guide their steps but the uncertain twilight of reason! “Whither art thou going? Into what region shalt thou enter Art thou doomed to sink into insensibility and non-existence, or to wander for ever in darkness and sorrow?” A bright ray, piercing through the gloom, shines upon the dying saint, and leads his eye to those glorious mansions, in which he shall enjoy eternal repose beyond the reach of calamity and death. He beholds by faith what Stephen saw with his bodily eyes, “Jesus standing at the right hand of God,” and expires with this prayer upon his lips, “Lord Jesus receive my spirit.” “Lord,” said the holy martyr, “I am dying for the honour of thy name. I willingly part with this mortal life at thy command. Now, while I yield up my body to be bruised and mangled by these men, take my soul to thyself, in whose presence it will speedily forget its sorrows.” With the same language of faith and hope did Jesus himself close his agonies upon the cross. “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” And thus after having received, during the course of his life, many pleasing testimonies of the favour and guardian care of heaven, does a good man, supported by the consolations of religion, pass without fear into another world, where the same protection will be continued, and the same love will bestow its blessings in greater abundance.e.
The few moments of life which remained, Stephen spent in prayers for his murderers. Calm amidst their fury, full of charity, 119while they breathed revenge and blood, “he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” Human nature, in such circumstances, is apt to harbour very different sentiments. To be persecuted without a cause, to be loaded with foul imputations which we do not deserve, to be deprived of life by the hand of injustice, and, instead of being pitied under our sufferings, to be insulted; these are wrongs too irritating to be borne by an ordinary measure of patience. The victim exclaims against the unrelenting cruelty of his enemies. Finding no redress upon earth, he appeals to the tribunal of heaven, and dies invoking its vengeance. Our natural feelings concur in the appeal, and approve of the prayer; for, is it not right that the cry of blood should be heard, and that the violence of the wicked should recoil upon their own heads? How much nobler are the sentiments which religion inspires? It teaches us “to render blessing for cursing,” and to seek the good of those who are inflicting upon us the greatest evils. Christian heroism is not of a stern and unrelenting character; it is associated with the milder virtues; the same bosom, which is fortified by invincible courage, cherishes all the tender affections; and while the saint encounters danger with the firmness of a philosopher, he melts with compassion towards his persecutors, upon whom the wrath of heaven is ready to fall. “Lord,” cries exasperated nature, “let their sin be remembered, and do thou reward them according to their deeds.” “Lord,” says the heaven-born soul, “lay not this sin to their charge.”
Such language, indeed, is now so common, in consequence of the example exhibited by Stephen, and by our Lord upon the cross, and of the general strain of the doctrines and precepts of our holy religion, that we hear it without much admiration. Almost every profligate, who is brought to the scaffold for his crime, professes to forgive his enemies, and to die in peace with all the world. But the difference is great between the unmeaning cant of virtue, and the real practice of it. It is no vulgar attainment to love the man who hates us; to divest ourselves of a wish to retaliate upon him who has poured bitterness into our cup; sincerely to desire the salvation of those, who, if their power were equal to their malice, would consign us to the flames of hell. Such benevolence never lodged in a soul, whose ideas and affections the Spirit of love had not first purified and elevated.
“Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” Stephen was fully apprized 120of the atrocious nature of the conduct of his persecutors, which implied the complicated guilt of murder and impiety; and of the dreadful punishment which was prepared for them by the justice of the insulted Saviour. Yet to that Saviour he made intercession in their behalf. The words must be understood as a prayer, that they might receive repentance unto life, and be pardoned through that blood, which they now despised as a common thing.g.
The melting charity of this prayer was sufficient to have softened the hearts of savages. Yet, it did not suspend the rage of the murderers of this holy man; but as he closed it, the mortal blow was inflicted, which filled up the measure of their guilt, and dismissed the saint to everlasting rest. “And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” Nature had suffered violence; but the struggle was over, and its convulsive agitation was succeeded by a calm. “He fell asleep.” The word is happily chosen, to express the peaceful nature of the death of the righteous, who, worn out with labour, and exhausted with sorrow, sink down upon the bed of dust to enjoy sweet repose. There let the blessed martyr rest, till the dawn of the last morning, when, awaked by the voice of his Saviour, he shall rise to receive an unfading crown, and to participate in the triumph of truth, which, by patience, and meekness, and blood, shall have overcome the rage of the world, and the malice of hell.
To this Lecture I subjoin the following improvement.
First, None are more violent and implacable enemies of the truth, than those who live in an insincere profession of religion. They have peculiar reasons for disliking it. It detects their hypocrisy, reproves their backslidings, condemns their innovations and corruptions, and disturbs their proud confidence and presumptuous hopes. With what indignation and fury do they rise up against such ungrateful doctrine? They hate it, because “it never speaks good concerning them, but evil.” We have a pertinent example in the conduct of the Jews towards Stephen. The apostate Church of Rome has faithfully trodden in their steps. The most ferocious savages never exercised greater cruelty upon their deadly foes, than the genuine disciples of Jesus have suffered from the followers of Antichrist. And what evil had the victims of their barbarity done. Had they blasphemed the God of heaven; or committed crimes against the peace of society? No; but the Scriptures informs us) that they “tormented them who dwelt on the earth,” not by fires, 121and racks, and other infernal engines, but by “prophesying,” or by publishing truths, which exposed and condemned their errors and corruptions. This is the true history of persecution. It is the war of the seed of the serpent against the seed of the woman; the effect of that hatred which holiness excites in the unregenerate heart.
In the second place, Jesus Christ will not be wanted to his servants under those sufferings which they endure for his sake. He is too much pleased with their zeal in offering themselves as a sacrifice to his glory, to leave them unpitied and unfriended in distress. Does any man afflict a poor helpless saint, who passes for a mere cipher in the world’s arithmetic? He says, “Thou hast touched the apple of mine eye. I feel the pain, and will avenge the injury.” Are his disciples reproached, tortured, and put to death, by the wanton cruelty of the wicked? A voice cries to them from heaven. “Why persecute you me?” Our exalted Redeemer has a fellow-feeling with his people; and his hand is always ready to obey the suggestion of his sympathizing heart. Invisible to mortal eyes, he stands in the heavenly sanctuary, praying for grace to help them in time of need. Hence human nature has often been so powerfully supported as to astonish the spectators. It has not startled at the sight of death in its most horrible forms; it has shed no tears, and uttered no groans, when it was slowly consumed by fire, and torn in pieces by instruments of iron. Delicate women and children have tired their persecutors by their patience under tortures; and it was only when nature could hold out no longer against the approaches of death, that they yielded with a smile. “My grace is sufficient for thee; for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”
In the third place, In whatever form death may befall a Christian, his latter end is peace. What! is it peace, if he should expire in agony, in indigence, and in solitude, without a friend to watch his bed, or a physician to administer cordials; or should die by the hands of the public executioner? Even in those cases my brethren, it is peace, because he dies in the Lord, and falls asleep in the hope of a resurrection to life. He may be carried away by a whirlwind; but it will convey him, like Elijah, to heaven. Do you think rather of the rich and honourable man, who is stretched upon a bed of down, surrounded with weeping relatives, and attended by men of skill, who exhaust their art to alleviate his pain? Ah! you do not consider, that perhaps remorse embitters 122his last hours; he shudders at the approach of death, and quits life in horror and despair. How much happier was Stephen, although bruised, and broken, and aching in every limb? The joy of hope refreshed his soul. Looking up to heaven, he beheld his Saviour waiting to receive him; and he committed his spirit to the care of this faithful and affectionate friend.
Who, then, will not say, “Let me die the death of the righteous; and let my last end be like his?” Who would not wish to leave the world with the same inward peace, and the same animating prospect? Remember that this shall be the privilege of those alone, who resemble Stephen in faith and holiness. It is faith in the atonement and intercession of Jesus, and the testimony of conscience to the sincerity of faith, which will cheer the evening of our days, and make the grave appear under the image of a place of rest; a blessed refuge from the malice of men, and the calamities of life.123
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