54. Furthermore, when they heard these things, they were cut asunder in their hearts, and they gnashed upon him with their teeth. 55. But forasmuch as he was full of the Holy Ghost, he looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; 56. And he said, Behold, I see the heavens open, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God. And they cried with a loud voice, and stopped their ears; 57. And with one accord they ran upon him: 58. And having cast him out of the city, they stoned him.
54. When they heard. The beginning of the action had in it some color of judgment; but at length the judges cannot bridle their fury. First, they interrupt him with murmuring and noise, now they break out into envious and deadly cryings, 1 lest they should hear any one word. Afterward they hale the holy man (out of the city,) that they may put him to death. And Luke expresseth properly what force Satan hath to drive forward the adversaries of the word. When he saith that they burst asunder inwardly, he noteth that they were not only angry, but they were also stricken with madness. Which fury breaketh out into the gnashing of the teeth, as a violent fire into flame. The reprobate, who are at Satan's commandment, must needs be thus moved with the hearing of the word of God; and this is the state of the gospel, it driveth hypocrites into madness who might seem before to be modest, as if a drunken man who is desirous of sleep be suddenly awakened. Therefore, Simeon assigneth this to Christ, as proper to him, to disclose the thoughts of many hearts, (Luke 2:35.) Yet, notwithstanding, this ought not to be ascribed to the doctrine of salvation, whose end is rather this, to tame men's minds to obey God after that it hath subdued them. But so soon as Satan hath possessed their minds, if they be urged, their ungodliness will break out. Therefore, this is an accidentary [accidental] evil; yet we are taught by these examples, that we must not look that the word of God should draw all men unto a sound mind.
Which doctrine is very requisite for us unto constancy. Those which are teachers cannot do their duty as they ought, but they must set themselves against the contemners of God. And forasmuch as there are always some wicked men, which set light by the majesty of God, they must ever now and then have recourse unto this vehemency of Stephen. For they may not wink when God's honor is taken from him. And what shall be the end thereof? Their ungodliness shall be the more incensed, so that we shall seem to pour oil into the fire, (as they say.) But whatsoever come of it, yet must we not spare the wicked, but we must keep them down mightily, although they could pour out all the furies of hell. And it is certain that those which will flatter the wicked do not respect the fruit, 2 but are faint-hearted through fear of danger. But as for us, howsoever we have no such success as we could wish, let us know that courage in defending the doctrine of godliness is a sweet-smelling sacrifice to God.
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 3 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 4 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. 5 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. 6 For we have already said, that Stephen's eyes were so lifted up by the power of the Spirit, 7 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. 8
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 9 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, 10 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, 11 they might the sooner be overcome afterward.