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55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

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55. Forasmuch as he was full. We cannot almost express into what straits the servant of Christ was brought, when he saw himself beset round with raging enemies; the goodness of his cause was oppressed, partly with false accusations and malice, partly with violence and outrageous outcries; he was environed with stern countenances on every side; he himself was haled unto a cruel and horrible kind of death; he could espy succor and ease no where. Therefore, being thus destitute of man’s help, he turneth himself toward God. We must first note this, that Stephen did look unto God, who is the judge of life and death, (turning his eyes from beholding the world,) when he was brought into extreme despair of all things, whilst that there is nothing but death before his eyes. This done, we must also add this, that his expectation was not in vain, because Christ appeared to him by and by. Although Luke doth signify, that he was now armed with such power of the Spirit as could not be overcome, so that nothing could hinder him from beholding the heavens; therefore Stephen looketh up toward heaven, that he may gather courage by beholding Christ; that dying he may triumph gloriously, having overcome death. But as for us, it is no marvel if Christ do not show himself to us, because we are so set and tied upon the earth. Hereby it cometh to pass, that our hearts fail us at every light rumor of danger, and even at the falling of a leaf. And that for good causes; for where is our strength but in Christ? But we pass over the heavens, as if we had no help any where else, save only in the world, Furthermore, this vice can be redressed by no other means than if God lift us up by his Spirit, being naturally set upon the earth. Therefore, Luke assigneth this cause, why Stephen looked up steadfastly toward heaven, because he was full of the Spirit. We must also ascend into heaven, having this Spirit to be our director and guide, so often as we are oppressed with troubles. And, surely, until such time as he illuminate us, our eyes are not so quick of sight, that they can come unto heaven. Yea, the eyes of the flesh are so dull, that they cannot ascend into heaven.

He saw the glory of God. Luke signifieth, as I have said, that Christ appeared forthwith to Stephen so soon as he lifted up his eyes towards heaven. But he telleth us before, that he had other eyes given him than the fleshly eyes, seeing that with the same 474474     “Quorum perspicacia,” by their perspicacity. he flieth up unto the glory of God. Whence we must gather a general comfort, that God will be no less present with us, if, forsaking the world, all our senses strive to come to him; not that he appeareth unto us by any external vision, as he did to Stephen, but he will so reveal himself unto us within, that we may indeed feel his presence. And this manner of seeing ought to be sufficient for us, when God doth not only, by his power and grace, declare that he is nigh at hand, but doth also prove that he dwelleth in us.

56. Behold, I see the heavens. God meant not only privately to provide for his servant, but also to wring and torment his enemies; as Stephen doth courageously triumph over them, when he affirmeth plainly that he saw a miracle. And here may a question be moved, how the heavens were opened? For mine own part, I think that there was nothing changed in the nature of the heavens; but that Stephen had new quickness of sight granted him, which pierced through all lets, even unto the invisible glory of the kingdom of heaven. For admit we grant that there was some division or parting 475475     “Scissuram,” rent or opening. made in heaven, yet man’s eye could never reach so far. Again, Stephen alone did see the glory of God. For that spectacle was not only hid from the wicked, who stood in the same place, but they were also so blinded within themselves, that they did not see the manifest truth. 476476     “Apertam veritatis lucem,” the open light of truth. Therefore, he saith that the heavens are opened to him in this respect, because nothing keepeth him from beholding the glory of God. Whereupon it followeth that the miracle was not wrought in heaven, but in his eyes. Wherefore, there is no cause why we should dispute long about any natural vision; because it is certain that Christ appeared unto him not after some natural manner, but after a new and singular sort. And I pray you of what color was the glory of God, that it could be seen naturally with the eyes of the flesh? Therefore, we must imagine nothing in this vision but that which is divine. Moreover, this is worth the noting, that the glory of God appeared not unto Stephen wholly as it was, but according to man’s capacity. For that infiniteness cannot be comprehended with the measure of any creature.

The Son of man standing. He seeth Christ reigning in that flesh wherein he was abased; so that in very deed the victory did consist in this one thing. Therefore, it is not superfluous in that Christ appeareth unto him, and for this cause doth he also call him the Son of man, as if he should say, I see that man whom ye thought ye had quite extinguished by death enjoying the government of heaven; therefore, gnash with your teeth as much as you list: there is no cause why I should fear to fight for him even unto blood, who shall not only defend his own cause, but my salvation also. Notwithstanding, here may a question be moved, why he saw him standing, who is said elsewhere to sit? Augustine, as he is sometimes more subtle than needs, saith, “that he sitteth as a judge, that he stood then as an advocate.” For mine own part, I think that though these speeches be diverse, yet they signify both one thing. For neither sitting, nor yet standing, noteth out how the body of Christ was framed; but this is referred unto his power and kingdom. For where shall we erect him a throne, that he may sit at the right hand of God the Father, seeing God doth fill all things in such sort, that we ought to imagine no place for his right hand?

Therefore, the whole text is a metaphor, when Christ is said to sit or stand at the right hand of God the Father, and the plain meaning is this, that Christ hath all power given him, that he may reign in his Father’s stead in that flesh wherein he was humbled, and that he may be next him. And although this power be spread abroad through heaven and earth, yet some men imagine amiss that Christ in every where in his human nature. For, though he be contained in a certain place, yet that hindereth no whit but that he may and doth show forth his power throughout all the world. Therefore, if we be desirous to feel him present by the working of his grace, we must seek him in heaven; as he revealed himself unto Stephen there. Also, some men do affirm ridiculously out of this place, that he drew near unto Stephen that he might see him. 477477     “Ut videri posset ab eo,” that he might be seen by him. For we have already said, that Stephen’s eyes were so lifted up by the power of the Spirit, 478478     “Per fidem,” through faith, omitted. that no distance of place could hinder the same. I confess, indeed, that speaking properly, that is, philosophically, there is no place above the heavens. But this is sufficient for me, that it is perverse doting to place Christ any where else save only in heaven, and above the elements of the world.

57. Crying with a loud voice. This was either a vain show of zeal, as hypocrites are almost always pricked forward with ambition to break out into immoderate heat; as Caiaphas when he heard Christ say thus, After this ye shall see the Son of man, etc., did rent his clothes in token of indignation, as if it were intolerable blasphemy; or else certainly the preaching of the glory of Christ was unto them such a torment, that they must needs burst through madness. And I am rather of this mind; for Luke saith afterward, that they were carried violently, as those men which have no hold of themselves use to leap out immoderately. 479479     “Subito et intemperanter prosilire,” break out suddenly and intemperately.

58. They stoned. God had appointed this kind of punishment in the law for false prophets, as it is written in the 13th chapter of Deuteronomy; but God doth also define there who ought to be reckoned in that number; to wit, he which doth attempt to bring the people unto strange gods; therefore the stoning of Stephen was both unjust and also wicked, because he was unjustly condemned; so that the martyrs of Christ must suffer like punishment with the wicked. It is the cause alone which maketh the difference; but this difference is so highly esteemed before God and his angels, that the rebukes of the martyrs 480480     “Martyrum probra,” the ignominy. do far excel all glory of the world. Yet here may a question be moved, How it was lawful for the Jews to stone Stephen, who had not the government in their hands? For in Christ’s cause they answer, It is not lawful for us to put any man to death. I answer, that they did this violently and in an uproar. And whereas the president did not punish this wickedness, it may be that he winked at many things, 481481     “In populo turbulento et prope indomito,” in a turbulent and almost untameable people, omitted. lest they should bring that hatred upon his own head which they bare against the name of Christ. We see that the Roman presidents did chiefly wink at the civil discords of that nation, even of set purpose; that when one of them had murdered another, 482482     “Ut mutuo confecti,” that having mutually destroyed each other. they might the sooner be overcome afterward.

And the witnesses. Luke signifieth, that even in that tumult they observed some show of judgment. This was not commanded in vain that the witnesses should throw the first stone; because, seeing they must commit the murder with their own hands, many are holden with a certain dread, who otherwise are less afraid to cut the throats of the innocent with perjury of the tongue. But in the mean season, we gather how blind and mad the ungodliness of these witnesses was, who are not afraid to imbrue their bloody hands with the blood of an innocent, who had already committed murder with their tongues. Whereas he saith, that their clothes were laid down at the feet of Saul, he showeth that there was no let in him, but that being cast into a reprobate sense he might have perished with the rest. 483483     “Per eum non stetisse quominus in sensum reprobum conjectus, cum aliis periret,” that it was not owing to himself that he did not fall into a reprobate mind, and perish with the rest (of the Jews.) For who would not think that he was a desperate, [desperado,] who had infected his youth with such cruelty? 484484     “Tirocenio,” training. Neither is his age expressed to lessen his fault, as some unskillful men go about to prove; for he was of those years, that want of knowledge could no whit excuse him. And Luke will shortly after declare, that he was sent by the high priest to persecute the faithful. Therefore he was no child, he might well be counted a man. Why, then, is his youth mentioned? That every man may consider with himself what great hurt he might have done in God’s Church, unless Christ had bridled him betimes. And therein appeareth a most notable token both of God’s power and also of his grace, in that he tamed a fierce and wild beast in his chief fury, even in a moment, and in that he extolled a miserable murderer so highly who through his wickedness was drowned almost in the deep pit of hell.

59. Calling on. Because he had uttered words enough before men, though in vain, he turneth himself now unto God for good causes, and armeth himself with prayer to suffer all things. For although we have need to run unto God’s help every minute of an hour during our whole warfare, yet we have greatest need to call upon God in the last conflict, which is the hardest.

And Luke expresseth again how furious mad they were, because their cruelty was not assuaged even when they saw the servant of Christ praying humbly. Furthermore, here is set down a prayer of Stephen having two members. In the former member, where he commendeth his spirit to Christ, he showeth the constancy of his faith. In the other, where he prayeth for his enemies, he testifieth his love towards men. Forasmuch as the whole perfection of godliness consisteth upon [of] these two parts, we have in the death of Stephen a rare example of a godly and holy death. It is to be thought that he used many more words, but the sum tendeth to this end.

Lord Jesus. I have already said, that this prayer was a witness of confidence; and surely the courageousness and violentness 485485     “Animi magnitudo,” magnanimity. of Stephen was great, that when as he saw the stones fly about his ears, wherewith he should be stoned by and by; when as he heareth cruel curses and reproaches against his head, he yet stayeth himself meekly 486486     “Secure,” securely. upon the grace of Christ. In like sort, the Lord will have his servants to be brought to nought as it were sometimes, to the end their salvation may be the more wonderful, And let us define this salvation not by the understanding of our flesh, 487487     “Non carnis nostrae sensu,” not by our carnal senses. but by faith. We see how Stephen leaneth not unto the judgment of the flesh, but rather assuring himself, even in very destruction, that he shall be saved, he suffereth death with a quiet mind. For undoubtedly he was assured of this, that our life is hid with Christ in God, (Colossians 3:3.)

Therefore, casting off all care of the body, he is content to commit his soul into the hands of Christ. For he could not pray thus from his heart, unless, having forgotten this life, he had cast off all care of the same.

It behoveth us with David (Psalm 31:6) to commit our souls into the hands of God daily so long as we are in the world, because we are environed with a thousand deaths, that God may deliver our life from all dangers; but when we must die indeed, and we are called thereunto, we must fly unto this prayer, that Christ will receive our spirit. For he commended his own spirit into the hands of his Father, to this end, that he may keep ours for ever. This is an inestimable comfort, in that we know our souls do not wander up and down 488488     “Fortuito,” fortuitously. when they flit out of our bodies, but that Christ receiveth them, that he may keep them faithfully, if we commend them into his hands. This hope ought to encourage us to suffer death patiently. Yea, whosoever commendeth his soul to Christ with an earnest affection of faith, he must needs resign himself wholly to his pleasure and will. And this place doth plainly testify that the soul of man is no vain blast which vanisheth away, as some frantic fellows imagine dotingly, 489489     “Ut quidam phrenetici delirant,” as some phrenzied persons rave. but that it is an essential spirit which liveth after this life. Furthermore, we are taught hereby that we call upon Christ rightly and lawfully, because all power is given him of the Father, for this cause, that all men may commit themselves to his tuition. 490490     “Un ejus fidem,” to his faith.

60. Kneeling down, he cried. This is the other part of his prayer, wherein he joineth the love of men with faith in Christ; and surely if we desire to be gathered to Christ for our salvation, we must put on this affection. Whereas Stephen prayeth for his enemies, and those most deadly, and even in the very instant when their cruelty might provoke him unto desire of revenge, he declareth sufficiently what affection he beareth toward all other men.

And we know that we are all commanded 491491     “A Christo,” by Christ, omitted. to do the same which Stephen did; 492492     “Quod autem Stephanum fecisse narrat Lucas,” which Luke relates that Stephen did. but because there is nothing more hard than so to forgive injuries, that we will wish well to those who would have us undone, (Matthew 5:43, 44;) therefore we must always set Stephen before our eyes for an example. He crieth indeed with a loud voice, but he maketh show of nothing before men which was not spoken sincerely and from the heart, as God himself doth witness. Yet he crieth aloud, that he may omit nothing which might serve to assuage the cruelty of the enemies. The fruit appeared not forthwith, yet undoubtedly he prayed not in vain; and Paul is unto us a sufficient testimony 493493     “Illustre documentum,” an illustrious proof. that this sin was not laid to all their charges. I will not say as Augustine, that unless Stephen had prayed the Church should not have had Paul; for this is somewhat hard; only I say this, that whereas God pardoned Paul, it appeareth thereby that Stephen’s prayer was not in vain. Here ariseth a question, how Stephen prayeth for those which he said of late did resist the Holy Ghost; but this seemeth to be the sin against the Spirit which shall never be forgiven? We may easily answer, that that is pronounced generally of all which belongeth to many everywhere; therefore, he called not the body of the people rebellious in such sort that he exempted none. Again, I have declared before what manner of resisting he condemned in that place; for it followeth not by and by, that they sin against the Holy Ghost who resist him for a time. When he prayeth that God will not lay the sin to their charge, his meaning is, that the guiltiness may not remain in them.

And when he had said thus, he fell on sleep. This was added, that we may know that these words were uttered even when he was ready to yield up the ghost, which is a token of wonderful constancy; also this word sleep noteth a meek kind of death. Now, because he made this prayer when he was at the point of death, he was not moved with any hope of obtaining pardon, to be so careful to appease his enemies, but only that they might repent. When this word sleep is taken in the Scripture for to die, it must be referred unto the body, lest any man imagine foolishly with unlearned men, that the souls do also sleep.