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THE INSTITUTION OF DEACONS, AND THE HISTORY OF STEPHEN.
“YE have the poor always with you, but me ye have not always.” These words were spoken by our Lord in vindication of a woman who had poured a box of precious ointment upon his head, and was accused by the disciples of having profusely wasted what might have been devoted to a charitable use. They might well bear with this occasional testimony of respect for their Master, of whose presence they were soon to be deprived, since, the poor, for whose interests they seemed to be so zealous, should always remain with them. To the poor the gospel was preached. Our Saviour did not address himself exclusively to persons in the higher ranks, whose names would reflect honour on their teacher, and whose munificence would reward him; but he selected, as the particular objects of his gracious instructions, those who were suffering the inconveniences and hardships of life. “God has chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith, and heirs to the kingdom.” In this choice, we see an instance, not only of the sovereignty of God, who in distributing his favours, disregards those distinctions which are so much valued among men, but also of wise provision for the trial and improvement of his people. If they were all rich and prosperous, few occasions would occur for performing the offices of charity; whereas, while some possess, and others want, the comforts and often the necessaries of life, there are constant calls to the exercise of condescension, sympathy, and beneficence. Thus a strong bond of union is formed between the giver and the receiver; and the Church “makes increase unto the edifying of itself in love.”
Among those who first turned to the Lord in Jerusalem, there seem to have been many in necessitous circumstances. But large 99as was the demand for the relief of so numerous a class, it was cheerfully and liberally supplied, by a forward zeal and unbounded charity, of the more wealthy believers, who “sold their possessions, and laid the price at the Apostles’ feet, that distribution might be made to every man, according as he had need.” In a society so distinguished by the love which prevailed among its members, we should have expected, that the utmost harmony would reign, and that jealousy and discontent would be unknown. It is, therefore, with surprise, that we find this chapter opening with an account of the same complaints, which we are accustomed to hear among persons, whose principles are not so pure and disinterested.
“And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.” Those Grecians were not Greeks, but Jews born in foreign countries, who used the Greek language in common conversation, and in the service of the synagogue. Having taken up their residence in Jerusalem in consequence of their conversion, or for other reasons, they composed a part of the Church in that city. They are distinguished, in this passage, not from Jews, for under this appellation both they and the inhabitants of Judea were comprehended, but from Hebrews, by whom are meant such Jews as spoke the Hebrew language, or the mixed dialect, which went under that name. These were accused by the Grecians of neglecting their widows, “in the daily ministration,” while they seem to have attended to their own. The distribution of the public charity, it was alleged, was not made on fair and equitable terms. How weak a being is man! How apt to be turned aside from the path of rectitude and honour! Instead of acting on grand and liberal principles, he often permits selfishness to cramp the best affections of his heart, and draws around himself a narrow circle, of which he is the centre. Whatever is in any way connected with himself, acquires importance in his eyes; whatever is distinct or detached, is undervalued. The comparatively insignificant circumstances of being born in the same country, speaking the same language, and descending from the same remote ancestors, shall recommend a per son more to our good will and friendly assistance, than the best qualities of the heart, and the strongest claims of necessity, in an absolute stranger. Thus, in the primitive Church, some widows 100were overlooked, because they spoke Greek, and others were punctually supplied because they spoke Hebrew; or, to give a more accurate statement, the former were neglected, because they were the widows of strangers; and the latter were attended to, because they were the widows of fellow-citizens and acquaintance. The administration was in the hands of the Hebrews, who allowed this low consideration to bias them in the management of their trust.
But how could any just ground for this complaint exist under the ministry of the Apostles, to whose care the contributions of the faithful were committed? Were not the wisdom, the piety, the zeal, the independence of mind, for which they were so eminent, sufficient to preserve them from the influence of local and vulgar prepossessions? If we admit, that they were chargeable with partiality in this matter, how does it appear, that they were worthy of their office, or proper persons to be employed in promulgating a religion, intended to abolish national distinctions, and to make of Jews and Greeks, bond and free, “one new man in Christ?” In answer to these questions, I observe that there is no evidence, that, at this time, the Apostles did manage the affairs of the poor. It is probable, that having found the time and attention which this business required to be more than could be spared from the immediate duties of their office, they had devolved it upon others; and it is to these deputies that the blame of partiality attaches.
This conclusion is supported, I think, by the second verse. Having called the disciples together, to propose an expedient for terminating the present dissension, and preventing any future cause of complaint, the Apostles begin with observing, that it was not reasonable, “that they should leave the word of God, and serve tables.” The expression, “to serve tables,” is of the same import with ministering to the necessities of the poor. Their tables were to be supplied with food convenient for them; such things as they wanted, were to be provided; and it would have been neither right nor becoming, that the Apostles should be so much engaged in this service, as to omit the more important duties of their office. Jesus Christ had sent them to preach the gospel; and no inferior design, however useful and urgent, should interfere with the great object of their commission. The words of the Apostles have much the appearance of a reference to a complaint, that if they had cared for the poor as they ought to have done, the widows of the Grecians 101would not have been neglected; or to a suggestion, that if they would now take them under their inspection, the evil would be redressed. To this complaint or suggestion, they reply, that as their past conduct was justifiable upon the principles of reason and duty, so they were determined still to confine themselves to their appropriate work, the dispensation of the word. They at once vindicate themselves from the charge of criminal neglect, and state the ground, on which they would not even now become stewards of the property of the Church. If this view of their words is just, it follows, that as they did not distribute the public stock, they could not be blamed for the mismanagement, which had occasioned the murmuring, of the Grecians.
The remedy for the present disorder, which was proposed by the Apostles, and adopted by the multitude, was the institution of a new order of office-bearers, who should make the care of the poor the sole object of their attention. “Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.” The institution accords with the compassionate, benevolent spirit of the religion of Christ. We find nothing similar to it in the superstitions which prevailed in the Heathen world; no peculiar provision for the poor; no order of men appointed to relieve the fatherless, widows, and orphans. These unhappy persons, the religions of Greece and Rome left to perish, or to drag out an uncomfortable existence upon the precarious bounty of those, whom nature had inspired with some sentiments of humanity. It is the amiable character of the Messiah, that, in a temporal as well as in a spiritual sense, “he delivered the needy when he cried, the poor, also, and him that had no helper.” The charitable spirit of the gospel excited the wonder and the envy of the Gentiles; and Julian, the mortal foe of Christianity, reluctantly confessed its unrivalled excellence, when he attempted to graft upon the decayed, sapless trunk of Paganism, it fairest fruits of love and beneficence.99Jul. Epist. ad Arsacium apud Soc. lib. v. cap. 15.
The design of creating the new office-bearers, who are known by the appellation of deacons, was to distribute to the necessities of the indigent members of the Church. To preach the gospel was no part of their duty. The Apostles say, that they would appoint the 102persons whom the people should choose, “over this business.” If Philip, one of the deacons, afterwards preached, it was in consequence of his being raised to the office of an Evangelist. Stephen did not preach, but only disputed with the enemies of the faith, as any private member of the Church might have done. The office was instituted, because the preaching of the gospel, and the requisite attention to the poor, were found to be incompatible.
As the trust, implied in this office, was important, and the peace of the Church, as well as the private good of not a few of its members, would depend upon the manner in which it was executed, the qualifications of those to whom it should be committed, were pointed out by the Apostles. The choice of the people was confined to such persons among them, as were of “honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom.” They must be men of “honest report,” of tried integrity and blameless reputation, that the members of the Church might place full confidence in them, and enemies might find no occasion of reproach. They must be “full of the Holy Ghost;” an expression which imports, that they should be richly furnished with his sanctifying influences, as Christians in general are exhorted to be “filled with the Spirit;” or that they should possess his extraordinary gifts, agreeably to the meaning which the phrase bears, in other passages of this book. Both senses may be admitted. The sanctifying grace of the Spirit was necessary to inspire them with the love, the fidelity, the zeal, the activity, which their office required; and his extraordinary gifts, although not indispensable, might be considered as highly expedient in men, who sustaining a public character, would have frequent opportunities to demonstrate the truth of the gospel by signs and miracles. In the last place, they must be “full of wisdom,” to distinguish real, from pretended, cases of necessity, to judge of the proportion, and the manner in which the public charity should be distributed, and to administer consolation and seasonable advice to the needy and afflicted. Such were the qualifications required in the first deacons, which rendered them worthy substitutes of the Apostles, in the superintence of the poor. To them they could safely entrust the whole charge, and consequently give themselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.”
There are two particulars which deserve attention, in the appointment of these men to their office. The choice of them was committed to the people. “Look ye out among you seven men.” 103Thus the right of the people to elect the office-bearers in the Church was recognised. It is a right founded in the positive institution of Jesus Christ, made known, on this occasion, by the Apostles, and agreeable to the dictates of reason. To choose their own teachers and rulers was for many ages, regarded as a sacred privilege of Christians; and there are on record decrees of bishops, and councils, and popes, confirming it, and declaring the invalidity of such ordinations as had taken place in violation of it. It was in the progress of corruption, that this right began to be questioned, and was at length set aside. The advantages resulting from it are a proof of the wise care of Jesus Christ for his Church, and call upon Christians to maintain it against the usurpations of men. On the one hand, the choice which the people have made of their pastors and governors; the consideration that they have freely and deliberately committed themselves to their inspection, is calculated to keep alive an attachment to their persons, and to ensure respect to their instructions and reproofs. On the other hand, the esteem, which the people have expressed for them, by voluntarily placing themselves under their care, obviously tends to conciliate the affection of their spiritual guides, and to stimulate them to active exertions for the good of their charge. Thus a foundation is laid for that harmony and mutual good-will, without which the interests of religion cannot be expected to prosper. When pastors are set over the Church without its consent, both parties will regard each other with the indifference of strangers; or, what is worse, the people will hate the teacher, as an unhallowed intruder, and he will hate them, as insurgents against what he deems lawful authority.
But the right of the people extended no farther than the election of the deacons. They had no power to exercise in their appointment to office. Their separation to it, their investiture with authority to perform its duties, was the province of the Apostles. “Look ye out seven men,—whom we may appoint over this business.” It is the ordinance of Christ, that to those who sustain any office in the Church, authority shall be transmitted from himself, its original source, by the medium of its ministers and rulers. The exclusion of the private members from any share in the transmission is clearly marked in the passage before us. The limits are distinctly drawn. The people elected, and the Apostles appointed. We never read in the Scriptures, that there is a power lodged in the Church at large, to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, and govern itself. 104This power was committed to Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, and Teachers, whom Jesus Christ has given to the Church, as an absolute sovereign delegates his authority to certain persons, bearing such titles, and exercising such functions as he is pleased to confer upon them. When a voluntary society is to be formed, the members first meet, and determine what shall be the form of government, and who shall be the governors. But in the case of the Church, the governors were before the society. The Christian Church did not exist when the Apostles received their commission; and those who at present bear rule in it, are their successors in every thing pertaining to their office, which was not extraordinary. It is manifest, therefore, that their power does not flow from the people, unless an express law can be produced, altering the original constitution, and ordaining, that, although the Apostles received the “keys of the kingdom” immediately from Christ, and the first office-bearers derived their power from the Apostles, it should be afterwards communicated by the Church in its collective capacity.
The measure proposed by the Apostles was unanimously approved, and was executed without delay. “And the saying pleased the whole multitude; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch: whom they set before the Apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.” The imposition of hands was a rite used on different occasions; in blessing a person, in curing diseases, in imparting spiritual gifts, in setting one apart to an office. For the last of these purposes, it may still be practised, although miraculous communications have ceased. Prayer, which preceded the imposition of hands, was offered up for the divine blessing upon the new institution, and the persons elected, that they might be enabled to perform their duty with fidelity, and to the satisfaction of the Church.
The names of the seven deacons being Greek, it has been thought, that, with the exception of Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch, a Gentile formerly converted to Judaism, they were all Grecians, or Jews of the dispersion, who spoke the Greek language. No persons were so likely to quiet the jealousies and murmurs of the Grecians, because, being of their own number, they would not be suspected of neglecting their widows. How noble was the conduct of the Hebrews, who, with a view to remove every ground of discontent on 105the part of their foreign brethren, were willing that the entire management of the funds of the Church should be confided to some of themselves! And how high must have been the character of the deacons for integrity, when, although they were all of one party, the Hebrews were under no apprehension of partiality in their conduct, and cheerfully entrusted them with the care of their poor?
We are informed, in the next verse, that “the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.” Without stopping to make any remarks upon this verse, although the conversion of so many priests, who were engaged in opposition to the gospel, by their prejudices, and pride, and secular interests, might be illustrated as an evidence of its wonderful efficacy, I proceed to consider the history of Stephen.
In the fifth verse, he is described as a man “full of faith and of the Holy Ghost;” a firm believer of the gospel, and possessed not only of the graces, but likewise of the extraordinary gifts, of the Spirit. Accordingly, it is said in the eighth verse, that “full of faith and power, he did great wonders and miracles among the people'” By these he established those who already believed, and presented evidence to others, by which some were undoubtedly gained over to the gospel. A person so eminent and active, would not long remain unnoticed by the adversaries of the Church. “There arose certain of the synagogue, which is called synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia, and of Asia, disputing with Stephen.” They challenged him to a public disputation about the new religion, of which he was so zealous a partisan, in the hope that they should be able to confute his arguments, or at least, to draw from him some unguarded words, for which they might accuse him to the rulers. But “they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.” We have no ground to think, that Stephen was a learned man, instructed in the arts of reasoning, and practised in, controversy; and his eloquence was of the same kind with that of the Apostles, simple and unadorned. But he was endowed with heavenly wisdom, which sophistry could not withstand, and assisted by the suggestions of the Divine Spirit, who can overwhelm the proud polemic with irresistible conviction. When Stephen spoke, his antagonists were confounded. In vain did they torture their invention to devise objections to the gospel; they were instantly repelled. 106In vain did they attempt to reply to his arguments; to his reasoning from prophecy and miracles they could find nothing to oppose. Their ingenuity was exhausted; and they stood abashed and silent in his presence. A mortifying situation for men who had provoked the contest, and had entered upon it, in the full confidence of victory!
But, when arguments failed, their malice furnished an inexhaustible resource. “Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God.” They hired witnesses, and instructed them what to swear; not scrupling to make use of any means, however dishonourable and unjust, of effecting their purpose; and contriving, perhaps, to conceal the baseness of their conduct even from their own consciences, by the pretext of zeal for the glory of God. The charge, which the witnesses were directed to bring against Stephen, was that “they had heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God.” Blasphemy strictly signifies any thing spoken with a design to vilify the character of God, or to injure him in the opinion of others, by creating unfavourable thoughts of his attributes, his commands, or his dispensations. It conveys, therefore, the idea of the most atrocious and daring' sin of which a creature can be guilty. The term has an odious sound, and awakens ounr abhorrence of the crime, and of the criminal. Hence it has been frequently employed, by religious controvertists, with great address, and with much latitude of application, to stigmatize the opinions and character of their opponents. Honest indignation. may have sometimes had recourse to it, to brand those impious tenets, which subvert the foundations of our faith; but in not a few cases, it has served insidious malignity as an admirable expedient for discrediting a particular doctrine, and exciting clamour and persecution against its author and abettors. It was evidently with this intention, that the charge of blasphemy was now advanced against Stephen; and it had all the success which his enemies wished. The people, the elders, and the scribes, were alarmed; and hastening, with common consent, to bring to condign punishment the man, who had dared to revile the God of Israel, and Moses, his illustrious minister, they apprehended, and arraigned him before the council. This was the Sanhedrim, which had authority to take cognizance of cases of blasphemy.
In the following verses, and in the next chapter, we have an account 107of his trial, which commenced with perjury, was abruptly terminated by the impatient zeal of his accusers and judges, and was succeeded by the cruel murder of this righteous man. It was begun with perjury; for the witnesses, being suborned, accused him, upon oath, of a crime, of which, for aught that they knew, he was innocent. “They set up false witnesses, which said, this man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law.” It was his constant practice to speak, in threatening and disrespectful terms of Jerusalem, the holy city, and of the temple, the habitation of God, and of Moses, the most eminent of his servants. On this account, he was guilty of blasphemy, according to the loose sense, in which that crime was then understood. No accusation could have been contrived, which would more certainly rouse the indignation of his judges; for notwithstanding their extreme degeneracy, the Jews still pretended to feel, and actually felt, an ardent zeal for the glory of God, and the religion which they professed. In support of this charge, it was farther affirmed by the witnesses, that they had heard him say, “that Jesus of Nazareth would destroy that place, and change the customs which Moses delivered them.” Such assertions were shocking to a Jew, who believed that Jerusalem would be the capital of the Messiah’s kingdom on the earth; that the temple would always be the place for offering victims and incense; and that the institutions of Moses would retain their authority and sanctity through all generations.
Upon the supposition, however, that Stephen did say what the witnesses testified against him, as perhaps he had done on the authority of Christ and the Prophets, what crime had he committed? in what did the alleged blasphemy consist'? Had not Shiloh, where the tabernacle once stood, been laid desolate? Was not the first temple destroyed by the Chaldeans? Why, then, should the second temple be permitted to stand, if it was turned into a “den of robbers;” and especially, if the Messiah was come, and had made the “sacrifice and oblation to cease,” by offering himself upon the cross? With respect to the law, it was indeed framed by the wisdom, and enacted by the authority, of God; but it was subservient to a better dispensation, and was no longer useful when that dispensation was introduced. Why should the shadow be retained, when the substance was enjoyed? Of what value was the image to those, who possessed the original? In the sacred writings of the Jews, there were many intimations, that the religion of the Messiah 108should be universal; and nothing more was necessary than dispassionate consideration, to convince any man, that its universality was incompatable with the perpetuity of the law. The temple of Jerusalem could not be a sanctuary to the whole earth; nor could the solemn feasts, which were celebrated thrice a-year, and at which all the males were commanded to be present, be observed by persons living in distant continents and islands. But these reflections never occurred to the Jews. They could not conceive, and they had no wish to enjoy; a more perfect system of worship than their own. As they had long been the peculiar people, the idea of abolishing the distinction between them and other nations, and placing them all on a level in respect of spiritual privileges, was so mortifying to their pride, that they could not hear it mentioned without impatience and rage. “It is blasphemy,” they exclaimed, “against the holy place and the law. The fall of our temple, and the abrogation of our ritual, would be a failure of God’s promises, and the utter ruin of religion.”
Under the charge of having expressed sentiments so offensive and impious, Stephen had every thing to fear from the furious zeal of his judges. Nothing but his blood could atone for a crime of such magnitude. Yet his confidence did not forsake him, nor was his tranquillity disturbed. Conscious innocence, firm faith in his Saviour, and the hope of immortality, supported and cheered his mind in this trying hour. “All that sat in the council, looking steadfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.” The precise meaning of these words cannot perhaps be ascertained. They seem to signify, that on this occasion there was something preternatural in his countenance, a divine splendour similar to that on the face of Moses when he came down from the mount, and which was a manifest token of the presence and approbation of God; or that there was such a mixture of majesty and mildness in his looks as may be imagined in the face of an angel, if he should become visible to men, and indicated the perfect composure of his mind, and the magnanimity with which he disregarded the malice and rage of his adversaries. He was as a rock in the midst of the ocean, upon which the tempests blow, and the waves dash in vain.
The remainder of this interesting history will be the subject of 109the next Lecture. In the mean time, I conclude with a few observations.
First, All the institutions of the Gospel bear a relation to the exigencies of the Church. There is nothing superfluous, nothing intended merely for show, nothing which could have been left out without inconvenience and detriment. In the kingdoms of men. we observe offices which serve no purpose but to augment the splendour of the sovereign, to increase his influence, and to provide honours and emoluments for his favourites. In corrupt Churches, superstition has introduced an expensive and useless appendage of bishops, archbishops, patriarchs, cardinals, and popes. But in the Church modelled after the Scriptural plan, we see no office without its appropriate duties, of which the beneficial tendency is obvious. There are pastors to “feed the people with knowledge and understanding; there are elders to rule over them with vigilance and love; there are deacons to supply the necessities, and sooth the sorrows, of the poor. Every thing has evidently proceeded from him, “who is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in working.”
I observe, in the second place, that the best method to promote the glory of God, and the public good, is for every man to attend to his peculiar duties. “Let every man abide in his calling, and study to do his own business.” This is the sphere in which providence has appointed him to move. To grasp at something farther, “to stretch ourselves beyond our measure,” is to violate the order which God has established, and to forget the limited nature of our faculties, which are distracted and embarrassed by a multiplicity of objects. The care of the poor would have been a specious apology for interfering with the management of their affairs; it had the appearance of great diligence, and great humanity. Yet, the Apostles declared, that it would have been unreasonable and incongruous in them to have neglected for this service, the proper duties of their office. Men never go out of their way without going wrong. They either mismanage the affairs, with which their inconsiderate zeal has. incited them to intermeddle, or, when engaged in them, they forget the business of their own station. “As we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office; so we being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.” On this ground, the Apostle addresses the following exhortation to Christians. “Having then gifts, differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy, according 110to the proportion of faith; or ministry, let us wait on our ministering; or he that teacheth, on teaching; or he that exhorteth, on exhortation; he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness.”
In the last place, We are admonished by the conduct of the enemies of Stephen, to examine, with care, the nature and motives of our religious zeal. It may be an unhallowed fire, kindled by hell, or by our own passions; not a pure flame, proceeding from love to God and man. “It is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing;” but zeal in a bad cause is the worse, the keener and more vehement it is. “The Jews had a zeal for God, but it was not according to knowledge;” and it hurried them on to the most dreadful excesses; to crucify the Lord of glory, to blaspheme his religion, to murder his servants, to add crime to crime, till, in the righteous judgment of God, they perished in their rage. How little are we acquainted with the spirit by which we are actuated! How apt are we to mistake error for truth, to be misled by fair appearances in ourselves as well as in others, to fancy that our hearts glow with ardour for the glory of God, when it is pride, or self-love, or party affection, which is stirring within us! We may be certain that our zeal is false, when it is excited by matters of less, but is indifferent to such as are of greater, moment; when it is violent against the sins of strangers, but indulgent to those of our friends; when it extinguishes love to the persons against whose opinions or practices it is directed; when it takes pleasure in exaggerating their faults, in expatiating on their blemishes, in holding them up to public detestation; when it is disposed to curse rather than to bless, not to save, but to destroy. May the Spirit of gentleness and love descend into our hearts! The man, in whose bosom he resides, is not the sport of the selfish and malignant passions. He only is a man of disinterested benevolence. He loves the persons whom duty commands him to oppose; his heart melts with tenderness, while he reproves and admonishes them; and the only triumph which he seeks, is the triumph of truth and grace in the salvation of their souls.111
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