Whoever sets out to preach on what the Holy Scriptures record concerning the Apostle St. Paul must give special heed to three things: first, the wonder of divine grace wrought in this man's own person, when from a passionate, bloodthirsty Pharisee he was changed into a fervent believer and apostle of Jesus Christ; secondly, the wonders of divine grace wrought through this man's tireless zeal and devotion, when he evangelized Asia Minor and parts of southern Europe; and finally, the wonders of divine grace and truth, which the Holy Ghost by this man's inspired pen set down for the illumination of all future ages. First a Pharisee; then a Christian; then a missionary; then an inspired writer; finally a martyr for the faith; surely a theme worthy of the greatest masters our pulpits will ever see.
In any review of what God wrought in and through this man, especially in a survey intended for the pulpits of our day, we must understand well the kind of man God here first dealt with. It is one whom we all, if we met him in life to-day, would in our human judgment pronounce hopeless as far as bringing him to Christ is concerned. The Scriptures purposely introduce him to us for the first time when the blood of the first martyr stained the stones that were used in his murder. St. Luke might have mentioned Saul at an earlier point in his narrative, namely when he records Stephen's victorious disputes with the Jews in the synagogues of the Libertines, the Cyrenians, the Alexandrians, and them of Cilicia and Asia, in Jerusalem. We must recall that Tarsus, the home of Saul, was a city of Cilicia. The entire account of St. Luke justifies the conclusion that Saul was implicated in these disputes with Stephen, but he is not mentioned by name until the tragedy of this first martyr comes to its climax. But now that his name is brought forward, at once all the dark colors are put into the portrait. It is he who fans the blaze of Jewish bigotry and hate into the first "great persecution" (διωγμὸς μέγας) of the followers of Jesus, and who makes himself the chief agent of this terrible and in part bloody work. He afterwards described himself at this period of his life as "a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious," 1 Tim. 1:13. He laid waste the church; he spared neither men nor women; he haled them to prison; punished them oftentimes in all the synagogues; strove to make them blaspheme the name of Jesus; and when they were put to death because of their steadfastness, it was his vote that invariably went against them, though others might hesitate. Acts 26:10-11. Could a darker picture be drawn? Could a more hopeless case, humanly speaking, be conceived? And yet divine grace triumphed: it was this man who by the grace of God in Christ Jesus came to be one of the foremost, if not the foremost of the apostles of the Lord. He who helped bring Stephen and others to a bloody -death because of their faith in Christ and his Word, became the instrument to bring thousands to life everlasting through faith in this Christ and his saving Word.
These, then, are some of the lines we must draw in treating the first text here presented on St. Paul: Saul—the Pharisee—the most violent hater of Christ and his followers—the most bitter opponent of the Gospel and its doctrine of salvation by grace without works,—yet Christ's grace made him a chosen instrument for his work among men. It is altogether a picture so dramatic in its essentials, as well as in its setting, that it leaves far behind anything ever portrayed by mere genius in secular literature. Let the gripping interest of it enter the preacher's heart when he proceeds to set God's work in this man's heart and life before his hearers. This captive of the Gospel shows all its triumphant power in fullest, grandest measure. And wielding such a Gospel among men to-day, there is only one thing for us to do, namely to go forth with triumphant assurance and joy in our hearts, against any and all the bulwarks that Satan may erect. He who stormed this citadel is bound to win again and again.
The story of Stephen is the background for what we desire to. gather from our text concerning the Pharisee Saul. Chosen as one of the seven deacons, to minister unto the poor, in order to release the apostles from the duty of serving tables (Acts 6:1, etc.), Stephen proved to be "a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost;" for besides the special duties allotted to him and his companions in this diaconate he used the talents and spiritual gifts bestowed upon him by God to carry the Gospel forward in the different synagogues of Jerusalem. He chose the synagogues of the so-called Hellenists or Grecian Jews, and came into sharp conflict with two of these, namely the synagogue of the Libertines, and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and the synagogue of them of Cilicia and of Asia (Luke, in Acts 6:9, marks the division into two: τινες τῶν ἐκ... καὶ τῶν ἀπὸ...).
Some of these Grecian Jews had already come to faith, for they were the ones who complained about the neglect of their widows in the daily ministrations, Acts 6:1. These were the Jews whose every-day language was Greek, who accordingly used the Septuagint translation as their Bible, who were open to many of the ideas of Greek culture and philosophy (for instance Philo), and whose great center of influence was Alexandria in Egypt. While scattered extensively through the countries where Greek was the medium of intercourse, we see that they were numerous and powerful in Jerusalem itself. We dare not be hasty in drawing the conclusion that Stephen originally belonged to this class, for we see that in one of their synagogues he came in contact with Saul, who cannot be classed as a Hellenist, for he calls himself a "Hebrew of the Hebrews." This refers to the other great class of Jews, called "the Hebrews," Acts 6:1; these were Aramaean Jews, whose language in daily life was the Aramaic, who used the Targums or Chaldee paraphrases in working with the Scriptures, whose homes were mostly in Palestine, Syria, and the countries of the Tigris. But while Saul came from this great class of Jews, and in his home training, under his Pharisee father, and under the teaching of Rabbi Gamaliel at Jerusalem, imbibed the sterner spirit of the Hebrews, he had broadened out beyond the things they stood for. We see that he knew Greek from his boyhood days on, that he was acquainted with the Greek literature of the day, that he was fully conversant with the Septuagint, and that he did not hold himself aloof from the Hellenistic Jews. His native town was Tarsus in Cilicia, and it is thus that we find him in the synagogue of the Cilicians in Jerusalem, when there the conflict with Stephen waxed hot, and when none of those zealots for the old faith and traditions were able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit by which Stephen spoke, Acts 6:10.
We know what happened: foul means were employed when fair means failed; perjurers were hired (6:11); the people and the Sanhedrim were stirred up; Stephen was brought to trial; he made a defense which at the same time laid bare the chief sin of Israel in all ages and especially in this last age. Stephen spoke at length on God's gracious dealings which Israel constantly rewarded with unbelieving disobedience. 1) He was so far from blaspheming God that he acknowledged him in the fullest possible way by the manner in which he recounted the story of the patriarchs, Israel's progenitors; but he wove in the bitter story of Joseph, whose brothers' jealousy sold him into Egypt. 2) He likewise refuted the charge of blaspheming Moses and the Law, by acknowledging both in a signal manner; but he showed that Israel opposed Moses who testified of Christ, made the golden calf, and went so far in its idolatry in the wilderness that God abandoned the whole nation "to serve the host of heaven" (sun, moon, and stars). 3) Nor had he blasphemed the temple, for he acknowledged both the tabernacle and the Solomonic temple, though God is infinitely greater than both. Now, however, with the picture complete, Stephen turned upon his accusers and judges, and, like one of the old time prophets, hurled the full accusations of the Law against them: they had completed the work of their wicked forefathers who had killed the prophets, by themselves becoming the betrayers and murderers of the Righteous One of whom the prophets had testified. This precipitated the tragedy. Stephen, no doubt, meant to follow the blows of the Law by a strong Gospel appeal. Instead, the Savior himself intervenes by revealing himself in his glory at the right hand of God, causing Stephen to exclaim: "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God." As Saul afterwards, when on the road to Damascus, so the Jews here knew with whom they had to do: the Son of man in glory. But their unbelief would not only not yield, it drove them on to commit another bloody outrage, to shed the blood of the first martyr of our holy Christian religion.
And Saul was there. Let us remember that.
(57) But they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and rushed upon him with one accord; (58) and they cast him out of the city, and stoned him.
The word κράζω here is equal to our English scream or yell. We have the participle in Greek, followed by a finite verb, where in English the two actions are simply coordinated: "they cried out and stopped their ears." The aorist participle is at times simultaneous with the following aorist tense of the main verb; so here, the screams and yells of the outraged crowd were uttered while they held their ears shut. The singular φωνῇ μεγάλῃ, "with a voice that was loud," gives in one term the effect of what the many did at the same moment: the noise was one great outburst of sound.—And stopped their ears, συνέσχον, like the following ὥρμησαν, has the historical aorist which simply records the fact as such. To stop the ears and to yell at top voice meant, of course, in a double way to prevent any further utterance of Stephen from reaching them. It was the strongest kind of a verdict that not only in the past had he spoken, but was now continuing to speak, and. in the most intolerable way, damnable blasphemy. Meyer's idea that the Sanhedrists began this yelling and stopping the ears, and especially that they made the first move in rushing upon Stephen, is entirely in keeping with the situation as described by Luke. The Sanhedrists, we may say, would be affected the more by Stephen's last utterance, because this vividly reminded them of the ominous prophecy of Jesus: "Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven." Matth. 26:64. At that time, too, they had given the verdict: "He hath spoken blasphemy... He is guilty of death." But here the added sting of the reference to Jesus at God's right hand in glory and power stirs them to immediate violence against Stephen. They will not hear it said or even hinted that Jesus shall make his word to them true.—And rushed upon him with one accord, both to stop him from saying anything further, and also to drag him away to immediate death. The dreadful unanimity of all present is shown by the addition of ὁμοθυμαδόν. There was no one to advise even a moment's delay or second and soberer thought. This blaze of sudden fury was characteristic of the Jews on many similar occasions. Here, in the beginning, the regular forms of trial were used with Stephen: after the formal charge was preferred, and substantiated by the testimony of the witnesses brought forward, the high priest, as the presiding judge, demanded of the accused: "Are these things so?" (Acts 7:1), and then the defendant was permitted to make answer to the charge. But when he was through, all forms of legal and regular procedure were for the moment cast to the winds. The utterance of what they deemed the worst kind of blasphemy, right in the presence of the High Court itself, carried them away and overthrew the formalities they had held to up to this point.
(58) And they cast him out of the city etc. The action of ἐκβαλόντεϛ precedes that of ἐλιθοβόλουν. On another occasion the Jews took up stones against Jesus in Solomon's porch, to stone him for blasphemy then and there, John 10:31. Also when Jesus warned the Jews of the bloodguilt they were heaping upon themselves, he mentioned the blood of Zacharias, son of Barachias, whom they had slain between the temple building and the altar in front of it, Matth. 23:35. In the case of blasphemy the Jews had an explicit command: "He that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him," Lev. 24:16. This law was given in connection with an actual case of blasphemy, in regard to which the divine direction had been sought, and which for this blasphemer included that he be brought forth without the camp and there stoned (verse 14). While such bringing forth was not made a general command, we still see peculiar instances in which it was observed. Innocent Naboth was "carried forth out of the city and stoned with stones, that he died," 1 Kgs. 21:13; and the charge against him was blasphemy. The people of Nazareth led Jesus forth, when they wanted to make away with him, Luke 4:29. And afterwards Jesus did actually "suffer without the gate," Heb. 13:12. Summary procedures in the lawless application of the law, or in lawlessly satisfying the supposed claims of justice, seem after all to demand a certain line of formality, with all their undue haste, possibly in order to satisfy the feeling that otherwise the act might look too much like a mere crime of violence. So Stephen was not dragged out into the street and stoned close to the hall of trial; he was taken out of the city entirely, in this respect making his death like that of his Lord and Savior before him. It is a strange trait of perverted human nature thus to cling to some empty outward formality, and to observe it perhaps at great expense and trouble, while the deep essentials of the law, justice, right, godliness, and holiness are utterly gone.—And stoned him, ἐλιθοβόλουν, imperf. tense: they were stoning, or continued to stone him; this, following the previous aorists, dwells as it were upon the sad and terrible fact, pictures it and describes it to the mind. The dragging out, too, took some time, but though also violent and dreadful, it is the stoning that Luke by this tense lays the emphasis on. No need here to have the aorist in order to show that the bloody deed was completed and this martyr stoned to death; Luke means to tell us that in a more impressive way. Yes, Stephen at last lay lifeless under the heavy rock that was used to crush his loins and his chest. We may well question just how the stoning was done here. The old way was to throw the condemned man down and to crush his loins with a great rock, then if necessary his breast; if not dead then many stones were hurled upon him. This way may have been used here; or the general stoning, after the witnesses had cast the first stones, may have set in at once. Whatever the Jews might say of it, they here contravened the law of their rulers, the Romans, who alone could inflict capital punishment. But it need not surprise us to find that the thing was done with impunity, at least in this case. Pilate had consented to Jesus' death although he knew that Jesus was innocent. With not a few grave crimes to his own discredit, he most likely let this pass by, without bringing the leaders to justice.
(58) ...And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.
Even this formality was complied with. Οἱ μάρτυρες, with the article, refers back to the witnesses as already named in 6:13: μάρτυρες ψευδεις. The ἱμάτια here mentioned are the outer robes; usually a long and wide cloth, with bright colored stripes, thrown over the left shoulder and fastened under the right arm; at night the ἱμάτιον might serve as a covering. Naturally garments like this would be in the way when violent movements were to be made. The mention of the person at whose feet they were laid is quite incidental; the laying aside of the garments, however, is a significant formality, although with a great mob of people about, it was natural at any stoning that someone should keep the ἱμάτια.—It was required of witnesses, when on their testimony a criminal was to be stoned, that they cast the first stones: "The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people," Deut. 17:7. A double guilt would thus lie upon a false witness, his perjury, and the murder of the innocent man he himself helped to stone to death. Beginning with verse 54 we have a line of plural participles and verbs which refer to all the people addressed by Stephen, the Sanhedrists, the members of the Hellenistic synagogues, and any others who chanced to be present. They all acted in unison, and so ἐλιθοβόλουν, stoned Stephen. The witnesses with their significant action are not mentioned until this point. We accordingly conclude that in regular order they began the stoning, the crowd after that joining in, until Stephen lay dead upon the ground.—Saul is mentioned by Luke for a purpose, the story of the Acts will deal extensively with this man. He is called a young man, but this is rather indefinite, since νεανίας, juvenis, may mean a man anywhere between 20 to 40 years. Saul was apparently nearer the latter than the former age. The term seems to imply that he was unmarried, to which such other evidence as we have agrees. Some have concluded from the fact that the garments of the witnesses were laid down at his feet, that he must have held some official position in connection with the proceedings recounted by Luke; they suppose that he had been empowered by the Sanhedrim to take action against the propaganda of the Christians. But the basis for this surmise is too slight. This, however, is certain that while Saul himself was not one of the false witnesses, he willingly consented to such witness, for he guarded the clothes of these perjurers. We may properly infer that in the synagogue frequented by the Cilicians Saul, as a Cilician, with the others opposed Stephen, and was worsted like the rest; but just what part he had in securing false witness and bringing Stephen before the Sanhedrim is difficult to determine. He was present, it seems, at the trial, and at least consented to all that had been done in bringing it about. So, finally, we meet him at the stoning of Stephen, and this first mention of his name shows him taking a significant part. Afterwards he himself says of it:
"I was standing by and consenting to his death, and kept the raiment of those that slew him." Acts 22:24. So the guilt for this crime lay upon the soul of Saul just as fully as upon the others. Nor dare we think of anything like remorse or misgivings on his part. In the face of his immediate further action as the prime mover in the "great persecution," especially his voting for the death of other Christians when brought to trial, it is impossible for us to follow those who speak of "the pangs of remorse for Stephen's death among the stings of conscience against which Saul vainly writhed." The notion that he was troubled in the least by his part in Stephen's death, and that any pangs of remorse in his heart were instrumental in bringing him to conversion, is a decided mistake. Saul continued his blind assent until on the way to Damascus the great change was wrought in his soul.—The name Saul befitted one who was of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, Phil. 3:5; it recalled the first king of Israel who was chosen from this tribe. "Circumcised the eighth day," as the same passage states, this old Jewish name was given the boy; perhaps his father bore it before him; and by it he was known in his family and among his Jewish friends. So Luke mentioned this name here. It indeed remained his proper name through life, nor did the apostle afterwards change his name. He had another name from his boyhood on which afterwards for good reasons he employed, thus allowing the name Saul to lapse. Since this name was his as a Jewish child, Christian writers and preachers generally have put a typical construction upon it, making Saul stand for the unconverted man, and Paul for the converted one. But this differentiation is something that others have superadded.—It is an interesting question, whether Saul was in Jerusalem during the time Christ labored in the Holy Land. We know that some years ago he studied here under Gamaliel; it is almost certain that this was before Christ began his work. Where Saul was after that and up to the martyrdom of Stephen we simply do not know. He nowhere even intimates that he met Jesus during the years of the latter's ministry. Olshausen and a few others, in 2 Cor. 5:16, draw κατὰ σάρκα to Χριστόν, and thus make the apostle say that he was acquainted with Christ while he walked on earth; but this construction is incorrect, and the thought of the passage follows an altogether different line. See Eisenach Epistle Selections I, 487.—Saul at this time was one of the most thoroughgoing Pharisees. This was the Jewish party which laid utmost stress upon the strictest outward observance of the Law, and in order to guard it against any possible infraction built up around it a forbidding hedge of traditions and human commandments. Their one aim was to establish thus a perfect righteousness of their own. They emptied out the real inner things of the old covenant religion, and left what remained of the whole only a vain outer show. Their formalism was ostentatious to a degree, especially in ceremonialism, in fastings, almsgivings, the making of long prayers, the paying of tithes down to the tenth part of the smallest garden herbs, and in carrying the most casuistic and painful distinctions into the little details of daily conduct. Yet they were enthusiasts for the glory of Judaism; they "compassed sea and land to make one proselyte." With their national independence lost they centered their efforts in their own hollow way upon the Law and the observance of everything connected with their religion. "It was no longer possible to fortify Jerusalem against the heathen, but the Law could be fortified like an impregnable city. The place of the brave is on the walls and in the front of the battle, and the hopes of the nation rested on those who defended the sacred outworks and made successful inroads on the territories of the Gentiles." Conybeare and Howson. So the people all reverenced them, and even the Sadducees, who scoffed at many things, found it quite convenient to practice many of their requirements. Paul afterwards frequently referred to his blind Pharisaic zeal; "a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee," brought up in the "strictest sect of the Jews' religion," he writes: "I advanced in the Jews' religion beyond many of mine own age among my countrymen, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers." Gal. 1:14. And again: "as touching the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless." Augustine's word fits Saul at this stage: "Seek what ye seek, but it is not what ye seek."
(59) And they stoned Stephen, calling upon the Lord, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.
It is not often that the Scriptures go beyond the simple narration of what they recount concerning Christ and his followers, but here Luke puts in a tragic repetition: καὶ ἐλιθοβόλουν τὸν Στέφανον, adding the name of the martyr with a pathetic touch, and then his first dying prayer. It is again the imperfect tense, holding our attention to the act as at its first mention.—Stephen is a Grecian name, στέφανος meaning crown, and by a significant coincidence he was the first to receive the crown of martyrdom in the Christian church. His Grecian name and the tenor of his speech before the Sanhedrim has led to the conclusion that he was a Hellenist himself; of course, the proof is not really conclusive. His traditional Syriac name is merely a translation, namely Cheliel = crown.—᾿Επικαλούμενον is simultaneous with the time of ἐλιθοβόλουν; so we may say, while the stones began to rain upon him he prayed aloud to the Lord. This, as well as the form of his prayer, he had learned from Jesus himself, who when about to die commended his spirit into his Father's hands. Who will recount how many others have followed this precious double example, both martyrs who died for their faith, and others who were not granted such honor? The significance of the prayer is the greater when we recall the vision of Jesus in glory vouchsafed to Stephen at the close of his trial. In the opened heavens he beheld the Son of man, the glorified Messiah, him who was man indeed, but man like none other ever before or after, God in the form of man; and he beheld him on the right hand of God, in the full majesty and power of his, glorified state, man still, yet now with all the glory of heaven at his feet; and the vision was of the Son of man "standing," ἕστωτα, having risen and thus erect, as if he had just risen from his throne of glory to come to the aid of his disciple. To him Stephen now appeals in the face of death.—He uses the address Lord Jesus, in all simplicity as when Jesus cried Father on the cross. He who once had walked upon earth as Jesus is Jesus still in heaven. And all that clusters about the name Jehoshuah or Jeschuah and its blessed meaning "Jehovah is help or salvation"—Jesus, through whom Jehovah effects salvation,—lies in the cry of dying Stephen. This Jesus who has wrought salvation for the world by his death and resurrection will complete his work upon this his dying disciple.—Δέξαι, the strong aorist imperative, refers to a single act, the kind and gracious reception of Stephen's soul as it is about to leave the body in death. Τὸ πνεῦμά μου names the soul or immaterial part of man from the higher side, the side which is able to receive the divine impress and the renewal of the image of God. He who stood aloft, in heavenly glory, we may well imagine, stretched forth his almighty hands ("Father, into thy hands") to receive and conduct into heavenly glory the soul that now came to him. Here is a powerful proof against the lie of Russellism, and all like delusions, which declare death to be the annihilation of the soul; the end of its existence. So an animal dies, its life and immaterial part cease to be; but never the spirit of man. Here again is the clearest answer to the question as to where the soul goes after death: not into an intermediate place, to remain there until the resurrection of the body, but at once to its final abode. The soul of the true believer is received by the glorified Jesus to be with him in his glory until afterwards the body shall follow and likewise enter the glorified state. This is the "building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal, in the heavens," which when the earthly house of our tabernacle is dissolved, shall be ours at once and forever. Comp. Eis. Epistle Sel., on 2 Cor. 5:1 etc., I, p. 129 etc. Those scholars err, and spoil the Christian hope badly, who teach that hades is the receptacle of all the dead until the day of resurrection—hades with an upper compartment called paradise for the souls of the godly, and a lower one, an antechamber of hell, for the souls of the wicked. Beyond a doubt, Stephen's soul went to Jesus in heaven.
(60) And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (8:1) And Saul was consenting unto his death.
The δέ is merely transitional, hence the translation "and." Stephen's kneeling was his own deliberate act; he was not thrown down by the stones that hit him. As Besser puts it, a sacred propriety governed his actions. "When he prayed for himself and commended his spirit, he stood erect; but at last, when he prays for his murderers, he kneels down; moreover, he cries with a loud voice, a thing he did not do for his own sake. Ο how much more serious (since it meant wrestling with God) this prayer came to be for him, than the prayer for himself! How must his heart have glowed then, how must his eyes have melted, and all his body been moved and warmed at the misery of his enemies which he had seen." Luther. The kneeling posture suited both the prayer and the death following so immediately.—Compare ἔκραξεν φωνῇ μεγάλῃ with Luke 23:46: φωνήσας φωνῇ μεγάλῃ.
Here the cry (κράζω) was in imitation of Jesus, as also the prayer itself, which Stephen meant all his enemies to hear. It beat upon the stony ears of Saul, but afterwards when they were opened Paul knew that in himself God had in part answered that prayer.—Κύριε appeals to him who as the true Lord of all shall judge all men in life, in death, and at the last day. For negative injunctions the aorist subjunctive is used; so here μὴ στήσῃς. The verb is used as in Matth. 26:15: "do not place in the balance for them this sin," i. e. to note its weight and thus to charge it against them. Meyer prefers: "do not fix this sin for them." The English idiom is able to convey in either case only the general meaning: lay not to their charge; and Stephen's prayer is only a variation of that of his Savior: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." In both cases the prayer asks that God shall not consider the sin final, but shall continue with the work of his grace upon these sinners, if possible to bring them to repentance at last. Neither Jesus nor Stephen thought for a moment of changing God's order of salvation and of his granting forgiveness to men in their wickedness. Both prayers were effectual. In answer to that of Jesus God granted Jerusalem forty years more of the preaching of the Gospel, and thousands were saved. As regards Stephen's prayer Augustine says: "If St. Stephen had not prayed thus, the church would not have had a Paul; therefore was Paul raised up, because Stephen kneeling down was heard." It is remarkable indeed that a man with Stephen's gifts, though cut off in the first vigor of his blessed work, should be followed so shortly and directly by a man of like gifts and placed in even a higher office.—Having rendered this highest and most precious service to the church, he was now compelled to leave: Stephen fell asleep, ἐκοιμήθη; the passive, like the middle, used of lying down, or going, to sleep. Let us note that the word is never used in regard to Christ's death. His death was a different thing, for he died with the curse of all our sins upon him; the Christian dies with this curse completely removed. Because Christ died as he did, we now can die as Stephen died. When his mother named him Stephen she may have thought of some earthly crown or honor coming to her child in after years; the church has given him a fadeless martyr's crown, and the Lord, the eternal crown of glory. The church year celebrates Stephen's victory on the day after Christmas, with this thought:
"Yesterday Christ was born on earth, that to-day Stephen may be born in heaven." Sleep is a sweet thing for the tired body; so our bodies at last shall sleep (not the souls), until the great morning of eternity wakes them from slumber. Κοιμητηρία, cemetery, sleeping-place.—Very significant is the addition of Luke (8:1): Saul was consenting unto his death; ἦν with the present participle, the circumscribed imperfect, marks the continuance of the action with special emphasis. The thing was bloody and terrible, but it never checked Saul for a single moment.
’Αναίρεσις is not just "death" in the ordinary sense; it means putting someone out of the way: murder. This is a flash-light picture of Saul's mind and heart: he was ready to go to the limit of antagonism against Christ. "I verily thought with myself that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth." Acts 26:9. Even the possibility that he might thus be fighting against God, as his great teacher Gamaliel had ventured to put it, did not disturb him. One of the terrible things in men's darkened minds is the fullest conviction that they are entirely right when in fact they are entirely wrong. "I did it ignorantly in unbelief," Paul afterwards says; but how desperate and deadly is that ignorance.
(8:1) ...And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church which was in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.
It took the fire of Saul to bring about the first "great persecution." The high priests and others had made various attempts, but all had stopped short; Saul opened the flood-gates. The thing started that very day, for ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ἡμέρα is quite definite. Luke offers no details, but the term διωγμὸς μέγας is very significant; likewise the scattering. But it is providential that an outbreak like this was delayed up to this time. Thousands had been converted in Jerusalem: first the 3000 souls; then the number grew to 5000 ἄνδρες (4:4); then Luke stops counting and writes merely: "the number of the disciples was multiplying" (61); finally: "the disciples multiplied exceedingly, and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith" (6:7). To scatter the ἐκκλησία (assembly, church) now would simply mean to spread it.—The disciples did not at first go far away, only throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, many no doubt expecting to return when the fury of the attack had spent itself. This was not cowardice, but Christian prudence, Matth. 10:23.—On the other hand, the apostles, not personally attacked at this time, remained fearlessly at their posts, most likely awaiting their Lord's directions. Besser thinks they waited to gather some of the harvest of Stephen's prayer for his murderers.
(2) And devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him.
Who are these ἄνδρες εὐλαβεῖς? Hardly Christians, but pious Jews, who as such could not well be interfered with by the authorities, if any such thought was in their minds. Compare the term used for these men with Acts 2:5 and 22:12. They were grieved at what had occurred; they had something of the spirit of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus who came forward to bury the body of Jesus and also met no interference. There are two traditions as regards the place of Stephen's martyrdom, one that he was stoned beyond the Damascus gate on the north, and another, more modern, near what is now called the Gate of St. Stephen, over against the Garden of Gethsemane. Fanciful legends have grown up about his burial, and portions of his body are said to have been taken to various places afterwards, as relics. Like his Savior he had an honorable burial, and this is enough. The κοπετὸς μέγας refers to the Jewish custom of lamenting the dead by striking (κοπτω) the chest and head, at the same time uttering loud and mournful cries. In this case the Jewish mourning exceeded the usual demonstrations, and shows the esteem of these Jews for Stephen. They were most likely Hellenists, probably the class to which he himself had belonged.
(3) But Saul laid waste the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.
Here δέ marks a contrast; Saul's conduct is the opposite to that of the devout men who buried Stephen. Luke gives only a summary statement, but he uses a strong verb: ἐλυμαίνετο, he continued to ravage, waste, destroy the church—like a wild beast amid a flock of sheep, or some brute in a beautiful garden. This he did by the authority of the Sanhedrim, although the idea of Conybeare and Howson that, perhaps for his energy displayed against Stephen, he was made a member of the Sanhedrim, is certainly without foundation. What authority he had Luke records, and beyond that it is unsafe to go.—Κατὰ τοὺς οἴκους is distributive: from house to house; hence the translation "into every house." The article refers to the special houses, where he expected to make a find. The thoroughness with which this persecutor proceeded is shown further by the participial clause: σύρων τε ἄνδρας καὶ γυναῖκας; both men and women he dragged to prison. This gives a hint of the extent of his depredations among the flock. We must add his own later statements: "I persecuted this Way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women." Acts 22:4, etc. "And this I also did in Jerusalem: and I both shut up many of the saints in prison, having received authority from the chief priests, and when they were put to death, I gave my vote against them. And punishing them oftentimes in all the synagogues, I strove to make them blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto foreign cities." Acts 26:10-11. Even in Damascus Ananias "heard from many of this man, how much evil he did to the saints at Jerusalem," 9:13. So Stephen had a number of followers in death; how many, and how well they followed the example of his fortitude and love for His enemies the day of judgment will make plain. It was sad in one respect, glorious in another.
(4) They therefore that were scattered abroad went about preaching the Word.
The confessors might be bound, the Word was not bound. As the wind scatters the winged seeds of many plants and trees, so the blast of persecution scattered the Word winged by its believers. Stephen was dead, but his murderer had to aid in making the dead martyr speak with a hundred tongues in as many places. It was Luther who praised God by singing at the death of the two martyrs Henry Voes and John Esch in Brussels:
Naught stops their scattered ashes now,
Blown out afar to every land;
In vain is stream, hole, pit, and grave,
Their foes a poor defeated band.
Their living tongues by murder crushed
In death will never now be hushed—
The world shall hear their singing.
And so (οὖν) they went about—not as they would have planned, but as a greater and wiser mind planned for them. How far they went at last we see in Acts 11:19. God still directs the cause of his Gospel even in the midst of the greatest upheavals in the church and in the world, and ever the result glorifies his name. In εὐαγγελιζόμενοι τὸν λόγον Luke states the duty of all Christians in all the world. It is only the Word which can serve as such a glad message. All Pharisees hate about it the very thing that makes it so delightful and glorious a message, preaching of grace and pardon for sinners. "The forgiveness of sins is preached in the whole world; which is the peculiar office of the Gospel." Smalcald Articles VI.
In the line of texts here presented on the life and work of St. Paul the first is intended as a text on human sin and perversion, and the doctrinal trend of the sermon on it will to a large extent be that of the Law. The great sin that lies at the bottom of all the individual sins here shown is unbelief, the wicked and wilful unbelief of the Sanhedrim and others, the blind and perverted unbelief of Saul. The distinctive character of this unbelief is that of work-righteous, self-satisfied Judaism. With this guide it will be easy to follow out the individual sins here described: there are false witnesses, and men who employ them; there is the hypocrisy and self-deception which thinks it protects the honor of God, his temple, and worship by resorting to perjury, false accusation, judicial murder, and general persecution. The Pharisaism which meets us here is only one form of unbelief, but this is akin to all the other forms that have filled the world and that fill it to-day. One of its widespread manifestations to-day is work-righteousness in the churches, which opposes with a thousand lies and deceptions every true presentation and confession of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; besides this, moralism in the world generally, which thinks it enough to avoid some of the coarser sins and crimes and to follow a few "moral principles," say of some secret order, or of other similar teaching, and therefore in all manner of ways opposes the doctrine of sin and grace as laid down in the Gospel. In the Sanhedrim and in Saul we see this root-sin come to full development and flower. It did not always reach this development in those early days, nor does it do so in many cases to-day, but the sin in its essence is always the same, no matter where it appears or what final stage it eventually reaches. The danger and deadliness of this sin, wherever present, and in whatever degree present, should be set forth by the preacher, and the full condemnation of the Law pronounced upon it.
The other side of the text has to do with the Gospel. Here is Jesus himself at God's right hand, the Savior who died for us and now lives and triumphs in heaven; and here is one of his followers who has embraced the full Gospel with all its saving effects, especially also its spirit of love and mercy toward the erring. There lies thus in the text the strongest kind of a contrast: unbelief, all manner of wickedness, centering in the Sanhedrim and in Saul—Christ, the Gospel, faith, and a new life, love, faithfulness unto death, centering in Stephen. But there is more than the contrast, for this text is not the end, with the final judgment to follow, it is a beginning, with much lying between it and the final hour of reckoning. So we must add that all that comes out in Stephen is intended to meet and vanquish all that comes out in his foes, especially also in Saul. This is the synthesis which gives unity to the text, and should do the same for the sermon.
Any kind of false religion, or irreligion, however absurd, is more suitable to the carnal mind than the spiritual truth and worship set before us in the Scriptures.—When we most plainly perceive that men are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity, and when we most solemnly warn them of their guilt and danger, we should still exhort them to repent of their wickedness, and to turn to God, if peradventure it may be forgiven.
When a fire breaks out the alarm is rung; when the enemy approaches the signal shot is fired; when danger and persecution come upon the Christian the cry arises: Lord Jesus! Lange.
A man may be highly educated, as was Saul at the feet of Gamaliel; he may even be educated in religious matters to a notable degree; and yet he may be ignorant, blind, erring, groping in darkness, lost. Christ alone is the true light of the soul.
Verbum λυμαίνεσθαι, vastare, non solum de lupis, ursis, reliquisque feris rapacibus, agros depopulantibus, et pecudes interimentibus dicitur, verum etiam de hominibus. Rosenmueller.
Just as a vicious dog at his chain, says an old commentator, bites at him who would unfasten the chain, so the ungodly cannot tolerate the touch of those who would free them, they think it a disgrace, and try to rend them. Beloved, even to-day this is one of the saddest effects of the divine Word, when for the obdurate world it becomes a savor of death unto death; when the proud heart will not let the Spirit of God correct it; when the blinded soul can no longer understand the love, the seeking and saving love, that lies hidden beneath the severity of the divine Word; when he who feels himself hit by the preaching of the Word, instead of turning his anger against himself and his sin, turns it rather against the Word of God, as though this were an hard saying, and against the preacher, as though he had offered an insult, yea against the Spirit of God himself, so that the heart is closed the more obdurately against its admonitions. These are the souls that call down the judgment of hardening upon themselves, and heap up unto themselves wrath against the day of wrath. Gerok.
These are still to-day the brutal means by which the world shields itself against the impressions of divine truth. They start an uproar, whether in their saloons or in their newspapers, whether against this or against that preacher of the divine Word, in order to drown the voice of truth. And they shut their ears, in order not to consider the thing and perhaps to be compelled at last to admit: God's Word is right; so as to go on upon their erring way, undisturbed, with blind eyes and deaf ears. Gerok.
The seed of the Word has been dropped into frozen furrows; and when the melting comes it is there ready to spring.
Thus the Word from Stephen's lips dropped into Saul's memory. Arnot.
The early loss of so eminent a minister of Christ must indeed have been a heavy affliction of the church; but how animated was his end, how suited to confirm the faith of the disciples! What an example also were his boldness and tenderness, even for his murderers! The instruction and encouragement of this simple scene might produce the most beneficial effects on multitudes, and that permanently; even far greater than the long continued labors of many eminent ministers. Such in general has been the event of bloody persecution; and the noble army of martyrs has done more perhaps towards the success of the Gospel by their sharp but transient suffering, than the whole company of those who have professed and preached the truth in quiet times.
Stephen's, three crowns: the crown of grace with which the Lord adorned him in his life and work; the bloody crown of thorns, which he bore with his Lord in suffering and death; the heavenly crown of glory, which was kept for the faithful witness in heaven. Gerok.
What the Spirit wrought in Stephen: faith and courage; love, patience, kindness, tenderness; hope, victory, triumph. He concluded his sermon and defense by that grandest of all Gospel calls, the prayer for forgiveness, as he sank in death.
The disciples fled; among them many priests. Had they fled through fear of death, they would have taken care not to provoke persecution to follow them, by continuing to proclaim the truths that cost Stephen his life.—One of the fathers has well observed, that "these holy fugitives were like so many lamps, lighted by the fire of the Holy Spirit, spreading everywhere the sacred flame by which they themselves had been illuminated."—A Stephen rose up in every Christian who visited a spot where God's Word had not yet been preached. Stier.
Sleep is a very impressive and appropriate Christian name for death. If we were not made indifferent by familiarity with it, natural sleep would seem a very solemn and mysterious experience. We might well be familiar with death, for we have a symbol and rehearsal of it every night. We might be familiar with the resurrection, for we have a symbol and rehearsal of it every morning. If faith were lively, we might lie down every night as an infant lies down to sleep in a mother's arms: we might be comforted in the morning when we awaken by remembering that this same Jesus stands yet at the right hand of the throne, girt for mighty work, as our protector, and alert to receive all his own, when life is over, into the joy of the Lord. Arnot.
It was a battle when Saul and Stephen met. The latter with his faith in Christ died, the other with his Pharisaic zeal seemed the victor; but the triumph was the Lord's.
Adapted from Lisco.
I. Its root. II. Its form. III. Its fruits. IV. Its judgment. V. Its defeat. (It must either prove its own destruction; or be vanquished by the Gospel against which it fights.)
—Preaching from Paul