Alexander Maclaren.

Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

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windows of our hearts opened towards Jerusalem, that all the guidance
and light that can come from Him may come into us. Depend upon it,
unless we have God's guidance in the trivialities of life, ninety per
cent., ay! and more, of our lives will be without God's guidance;
because trivialities make up life. And unless my Father in heaven can
guide me about what we, very mistakenly, call 'secular' things, and
what we very vulgarly call trivial things, His guidance is not worth
much. The Holy Ghost will give you wisdom for to-morrow, and all its
little cares, as well as for the higher things, of which I am not going
to speak now, because they do not come within my text.

'Full of grace,' - that is a wide word, as I take it. If, by our faith,
we have brought into our hearts that divine influence, the Spirit of
God does not come empty-handed, but He communicates to us whatsoever
things are lovely and of good report, whatsoever things are fair and
honourable, whatsoever things in the eyes of men are worthy to be
praised, and by the tongues of men have been called virtue. These
things will all be given to us step by step, not without our own
diligent co-operation, by that divine Giver. Effort without faith, and
faith without effort, are equally incomplete, and the co-operation of
the two is that which is blessed by God.

Then the things which are 'gracious,' that is to say, given by His
love, and also gracious in the sense of partaking of the celestial
beauty which belongs to all virtue, and to all likeness in character to
God, these things will give us a strange, supernatural _power_ amongst
men. The word is employed in my third text, I presume, in its narrow
sense of miracle-working power, but we may fairly widen it to something
much more than that. Our Lord once said, when He was speaking about the
gift of the Holy Spirit, that there were two stages in its operation.
In the first, it availed for the refreshment and the satisfying of the
desires of the individual; in the second it became, by the ministration
of that individual, a source of blessing to others. He said, 'If any
man thirst, let him come to Me and drink,' and then, immediately, 'He
that believeth on Me, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living
water.' That is to say, whoever lives in touch with God, having that
divine Spirit in his heart, will walk amongst men the wielder of an
unmistakable power, and will be able to bear witness to God, and move
men's hearts, and draw them to goodness and truth. The only power for
Christian service is the power that comes from being clothed with God's
Spirit. The only power for self-government is the power that comes from
being clothed with God's Spirit. The only power which will keep us in
the way that leads to life, and will bring us at last to the rest and
the reward, is the power that comes from being clothed with God's

I am charged to all who hear me now with this message. Here is a gift
offered to you. You cannot pare and batter at your own characters so as
to make them what will satisfy your own consciences, still less what
will satisfy the just judgment of God; but you can put yourself under
the moulding influences of Christ's love. Dear brethren, the one hope
for dead humanity, the bones very many and very dry, is that from the
four winds there should come the breath of God, and breathe in them,
and they shall live, 'an exceeding great army.' Forget all else that I
have been saying now, if you like, but take these two sentences to your
hearts, and do not rest till they express your own personal experience;
If I am to be good I must have God's Spirit within me. If I am to have
God's Spirit within me, I must be 'full of faith.'


'Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the
right hand of God' - ACTS vii. 56.

I. The vision of the Son of Man, or the abiding manhood of Jesus.

Stephen's Greek name, and his belonging to the Hellenistic part of the
Church, make it probable that he had never seen Jesus during His
earthly life. If so, how beautiful that he should thus see and
recognise Him! How significant, in any case, is it he should
instinctively have taken on his lips that name, 'the Son of Man,' to
designate Him whom he saw, through the opened heavens, standing on the
right hand of God! We remember that in the same Council-chamber and
before the same court, Jesus had lashed the rulers into a paroxysm of
fury by declaring, 'Hereafter ye shall see the Son of Man sitting at
the right hand of power,' and now here is one of His followers, almost,
as it were, flinging in their teeth the words which they had called
'blasphemy,' and witnessing that he, at all events, saw their partial
fulfilment. They saw only the roof of the chamber, or, if the Council
met in the open court of the Temple, the quivering blue of the Syrian
sky; but to him the blue was parted, and a brighter light than that of
its lustre was flashed upon his inward eye. His words roused them to an
even wilder outburst than those of Jesus had set loose, and with yells
of fury, and stopping their ears that they might not hear the
blasphemy, they flung themselves on him, unresisting, and dragged him
to his doom. Their passion is a measure of the preciousness to the
Christian consciousness of that which Stephen saw, and said that he saw.

Whatever more the great designation, 'Son of Man,' means, it
unmistakably means the embodiment of perfect manhood. Stephen's vision
swept into his soul, as on a mighty wave, the fact, overwhelming if it
had not been so transcendently strengthening to the sorely bestead
prisoner, that the Jesus whom he had trusted unseen, was still the same
Jesus that He had been 'in the days of His flesh,' and, with whatever
changes, still was 'found in fashion as a man.' He still 'bent on earth
a brother's eye.' Whatever He had dropped from Him as He ascended, His
manhood had not fallen away, and, whatever changes had taken place in
His body so as to fit it for its enthronement in the heavens, all that
had knit Him to His humble friends on earth was still His. The bonds
that united Him and them had not been snapped by being stretched to
span the distance between the Council-chamber and the right hand of
God. His sympathy still continued. All that had won their hearts was
still in Him, and every tender remembrance of His love and leading was
transformed into the assurance of a present possession. He was still
the Son of Man.

We are all too apt to feel as if the manhood of Jesus was now but a
memory, and, though our creed affirms the contrary, yet our faith has
difficulty in realising the full force and blessedness of its
affirmations. For the Resurrection and Ascension seem to remove Him
from close contact with us, and sometimes we feel as if we stretch out
groping fingers into the dark and find no warm human hand to grasp. His
exaltation seems to withdraw Him from our brotherhood, and the cloud,
though it is a cloud of glory, sometimes seems to hide Him from our
sight. The thickening veil of increasing centuries becomes more and
more difficult for faith to pierce. What Stephen saw was not for him
only but for us all, and its significance becomes more and more
precious as we drift further and further away in time from the days of
the life of Jesus on earth. More and more do we need to make very
visible to ourselves this vision, and to lay on our hearts the strong
consolation of gazing steadfastly into heaven and seeing there the Son
of Man. So we shall feel that He is all to us that He was to those who
companied with Him here. So shall we be more ready to believe that
'this same Jesus shall so come in like manner as He went,' and that
till He come, He is knit to us and we to Him, by the bonds of a common

II. The vision of the Son of Man at the right hand of God, or the glory
of the Man Jesus.

We will not discuss curious questions which may be asked in connection
with Stephen's vision, such as whether the glorified humanity of Jesus
implies His special presence in a locality; but will rather try to
grasp its bearings on topics more directly related to more important
matters than dim speculations on points concerning which confident
affirmations are sure to be wrong. Whether the representation implies
locality or not, it is clear that the deepest meaning of the expression
'the right hand of God,' is the energy of His unlimited power, and
that, therefore, the deepest meaning of the expression 'to be at His
right hand,' is wielding the might of the divine Omnipotence. The
vision is but the visible confirmation of Jesus' words, 'All power is
given unto Me in heaven and on earth.'

It is to be taken into account that Scripture usually represents the
Christ as seated at the right hand of God, and that posture, taken in
conjunction with that place, indicates the completion of His work, the
majestic calm of His repose, like that creative rest, which did not
follow the creative work because the Worker was weary, but because He
had fulfilled His ideal. God rested because His work was finished, and
was 'very good.' So Jesus sits, because He, too, has finished His work
on earth. 'When,' and because 'He had by Himself purged our sins, He
sat down on the right hand of God.'

Further, that place at the right hand of God certifies that He is the

Further, it is a blessed vision for His children, as being the sure
pledge of their glory.

It is a glorious revelation of the capabilities of sinless human nature.

It makes heaven habitable for us.

'I go to prepare a place for you.' An emigrant does not feel a stranger
in new country, if his elder brother has gone before him, and waits to
meet him when he lands. The presence of Jesus makes that dim, heavenly
state, which is so hard to imagine, and from which we often feel that
even its glories repel, or, at least, do not attract, home to those who
love Him. To be where He is, and to be as He is - that is heaven.

III. The vision of the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God, or
the ever-ready help of the glorified Jesus.

The divergence of the vision from the usual representation of the
attitude of Jesus is not the least precious of its elements. Stephen
saw Him 'standing,' as if He had risen to His feet to see His servant's
need and was preparing to come to his help.

What a rush of new strength for victorious endurance would flood
Stephen's soul as he beheld his Lord thus, as it were, starting to His
feet in eagerness to watch and to succour! He looks down from amid the
glory, and His calm repose does not involve passive indifference to His
servant's sufferings. Into it comes full knowledge of all that they
bear for Him, and His rest is not the negation of activity on their
behalf, but its intensest energy. Just as one of the Gospels ends with
a twofold picture, which at first sight seems to draw a sad distinction
between the Lord 'received up into heaven and set down at the right
hand of God,' and His servants left below, who 'went everywhere,
preaching the word,' but of which the two halves are fused together by
the next words, 'the Lord also working with them,' so Stephen's vision
brought together the glorified Lord and His servant, and filled the
martyr's soul with the fact that He not only 'worked,' but suffered
with those who suffered for His sake.

That vision is a transient revelation of an eternal fact. Jesus knows
and shares in all that affects His servants. He stands in the attitude
to help, and He wields the power of God. He is, as the prophet puts it,
'the Arm of the Lord,' and the cry, 'Awake, O Arm of the Lord!' is
never unanswered. He helps His servants by actually directing the
course of Providence for their sakes. He helps by wielding the forces
of nature on their behalf. He 'rebukes kings for their sake, saying,
Touch not Mine anointed, and do My prophets no harm.' He helps by
breathing His own life and strength into them. He helps by disclosing
to them the vision of Himself. He helps even when, like Stephen, they
are apparently left to the murderous hate of their enemies, for what
better help could any of His followers get from Him than that He
should, as Stephen prayed that He would, receive their spirit, and 'so
give His beloved sleep'? Blessed they whose lives are lighted by that
Vision, and whose deaths are such a falling on sleep!

THE YOUNG SAUL AND THE AGED PAUL [Footnote: To the young.]

'...the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose
name was Saul.' - ACTS vii. 58.

'...Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.' - PHILEMON

A far greater difference than that which was measured by years
separated the young Saul from the aged Paul. By years, indeed, the
difference was, perhaps, not so great as the words might suggest, for
Jewish usage extended the term of youth farther than we do, and began
age sooner. No doubt, too, Paul's life had aged him fast, and probably
there were not thirty years between the two periods. But the difference
between him and himself at the beginning and the end of his career was
a gulf; and his life was not evolution, but revolution.

At the beginning you see a brilliant young Pharisee, Gamaliel's
promising pupil, advanced above many who were his equals in his own
religion, as he says himself; living after its straitest sect, and
eager to have the smallest part in what seemed to him the righteous
slaying of one of the followers of the blaspheming Nazarene. At the end
he was himself one of these followers. He had cast off, as folly, the
wisdom which took him so much pains to acquire. He had turned his back
upon all the brilliant prospects of distinction which were opening to
him. He had broken with countrymen and kindred. And what had he made of
it? He had been persecuted, hunted, assailed by every weapon that his
old companions could fashion or wield; he is a solitary man, laden with
many cares, and accustomed to look perils and death in the face; he is
a prisoner, and in a year or two more he will be a martyr. If he were
an apostate and a renegade, it was not for what he could get by it.

What made the change? The vision of Jesus Christ. If we think of the
transformation on Saul, its causes and its outcome, we shall get
lessons which I would fain press upon your hearts now. Do you wonder
that I would urge on you just such a life as that of this man as your
highest good?

I. I would note, then, first, that faith in Jesus Christ will transform
and ennoble any life.

It has been customary of late years, amongst people who do not like
miracles, and do not believe in sudden changes of character, to allege
that Paul's conversion was but the appearance, on the surface, of an
underground process that had been going on ever since he kept the
witnesses' clothes. Modern critics know a great deal more about the
history of Paul's conversion than Paul did. For to him there was no
consciousness of undermining, but the change was instantaneous. He left
Jerusalem a bitter persecutor, exceeding mad against the followers of
the Nazarene, thinking that Jesus was a blasphemer and an impostor, and
His disciples pestilent vermin, to be harried off the face of the
earth. He entered Damascus a lowly disciple of that Christ. His
conversion was not an underground process that had been silently
sapping the foundations of his life; it was an explosion. And what
caused it? What was it that came on that day on the Damascus road, amid
the blinding sunshine of an Eastern noontide? The vision of Jesus
Christ. An overwhelming conviction flooded his soul that He whom he had
taken to be an impostor, richly deserving the Cross that He endured,
was living in glory, and was revealing Himself to Saul then and there.
That truth crumbled his whole past into nothing; and he stood there
trembling and astonished, like a man the ruins of whose house have
fallen about his ears. He bowed himself to the vision. He surrendered
at discretion without a struggle. 'Immediately,' says he, 'I was not
disobedient to the heavenly vision,' and when he said 'Lord, Lord, what
wilt Thou have me to do?' he flung open the gates of the fortress for
the Conqueror to come in. The vision of Christ reversed his judgments,
transformed his character, revolutionised his life.

That initial impulse operated through all the rest of his career.
Hearken to him: 'I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. To me to
live is Christ. Whether we live, we live unto the Lord; or whether we
die, we die unto the Lord. Living or dying, we are the Lord's.' 'We
labour that whether present or absent, we may be accepted of Him.' The
transforming agency was the vision of Christ, and the bowing of the
man's whole nature before the seen Saviour.

Need I recall to you how noble a life issued from that fountain? I am
sure that I need do no more than mention in a word or two the wondrous
activity, flashing like a flame of fire from East to West, and
everywhere kindling answering flames, the noble self-oblivion, the
continual communion with God and the Unseen, and all the other great
virtues and nobleness which came from such sources as these. I need
only, I am sure, remind you of them, and draw this lesson, that the
secret of a transforming and noble life is to be found in faith in
Jesus Christ. The vision that changed Paul is as available for you and
me. For it is all a mistake to suppose that the essence of it is the
miraculous appearance that flashed upon the Apostle's eyes. He speaks
of it himself, in one of his letters, in other language, when he says,
'It pleased God to reveal His Son _in_ me.' And that revelation in all
its fulness, in all its sweetness, in all its transforming and
ennobling power, is offered to every one of us. For the eye of faith is
no less gifted with the power of direct and certain vision - yea! is
even more gifted with this - than is the eye of sense. 'If they hear not
Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose
from the dead.' Christ is revealed to each one of us as really, as
veritably, and the revelation may become as strong an impulse and
motive in our lives as ever it was to the Apostle on the Damascus road.
What is wanted is not revelation, but the bowed will - not the heavenly
vision, but obedience to the vision. I suppose that most of you think
that you believe all that about Jesus Christ, which transformed
Gamaliel's pupil into Christ's disciple. And what has it done for you?
In many cases, nothing. Be sure of this, dear young friends, that the
shortest way to a life adorned with all grace, with all nobility,
fragrant with all goodness, and permanent as that life which does the
will of God must clearly be, is this, to bow before the seen Christ,
seen in His word, and speaking to your hearts, and to take His yoke and
carry His burden. Then you will build upon what will stand, and make
your days noble and your lives stable. If you build on anything else,
the structure will come down with a crash some day, and bury you in its
ruins. Surely it is better to learn the worthlessness of a
non-Christian life, in the light of His merciful face, when there is
yet time to change our course, than to see it by the fierce light of
the great White Throne set for judgment. We must each of us learn it
here or there.

II. Faith in Christ will make a joyful life, whatever its circumstances.

I have said that, judged by the standard of the Exchange, or by any of
the standards which men usually apply to success in life, this life of
the Apostle was a failure. We know, without my dwelling more largely
upon it, what he gave up. We know what, to outward appearance, he
gained by his Christianity. You remember, perhaps, how he himself
speaks about the external aspects of his life in one place, where he
says 'Even unto this present hour we both hunger and thirst, and are
naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling-place, and
labour, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being
persecuted, we suffer it; being defamed, we entreat. We are made as the
filth of the world, and as the offscouring of all things unto this day.'

That was one side of it. Was that all? This man had that within him
which enabled him to triumph over all trials. There is nothing more
remarkable about him than the undaunted courage, the unimpaired
elasticity of spirit, the buoyancy of gladness, which bore him high
upon the waves of the troubled sea in which he had to swim. If ever
there was a man that had a bright light burning within him, in the
deepest darkness, it was that little weather-beaten Jew, whose 'bodily
presence was weak, and his speech contemptible.' And what was it that
made him master of circumstances, and enabled him to keep sunshine in
his heart when winter bound all the world around him? What made this
bird sing in a darkened cage? One thing - the continual presence,
consciously with Him by faith, of that Christ who had revolutionised
his life, and who continued to bless and to gladden it. I have quoted
his description of his external condition. Let me quote two or three
words that indicate how he took all that sea of troubles and of sorrows
that poured its waves and its billows over him. 'In all these things we
are more than conquerors through Him that loved us.' 'As the sufferings
of Christ abound in us, so our consolation aboundeth also by Christ.'
'For which cause we faint not, but though our outward man perish, yet
our inward man is renewed day by day.' 'Most gladly therefore will I
rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon
me.' 'I have learned in whatsoever state I am therewith to be content.'
'As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as
having nothing, yet possessing all things.'

There is the secret of blessedness, my friends; there is the fountain
of perpetual joy. Cling to Christ, set His will on the throne of your
hearts, give the reins of your life and of your character into His
keeping, and nothing 'that is at enmity with joy' can either 'abolish
or destroy' the calm blessedness of your spirits.

You will have much to suffer; you will have something to give up. Your
life may look, to men whose tastes have been vulgarised by the glaring
brightnesses of this vulgar world, but grey and sombre, but it will
have in it the calm abiding blessedness which is more than joy, and is
diviner and more precious than the tumultuous transports of gratified
sense or successful ambition. Christ is peace, and He gives His peace
to us; and then He gives a joy which does not break but enhances peace.
We are all tempted to look for our gladness in creatures, each of which
satisfies but a part of our desire. But no man can be truly blessed who
has to find many contributories to make up his blessedness. That which
makes us rich must be, not a multitude of precious stones, howsoever
precious they may be, but one Pearl of great price; the one Christ who
is our only joy. And He says to us that He gives us Himself, if we
behold Him and bow to Him, that His joy might remain in us, and that
our joy might be full, while all other gladnesses are partial and
transitory. Faith in Christ makes life blessed. The writer of
Ecclesiastes asked the question which the world has been asking ever
since: 'Who knoweth what is good for a man in this life, all the days
of this vain life which he passeth as a shadow?' You young people are
asking, 'Who will show us any good?' Here is the answer - Faith in
Christ and obedience to Him; that is the good part which no man taketh
from us. Dear young friend, have you made it yours?

III. Faith in Christ produces a life which bears being looked back upon.

In a later Epistle than that from which my second text is taken, we get
one of the most lovely pictures that was ever drawn, albeit it is
unconsciously drawn, of a calm old age, very near the gate of death;
and looking back with a quiet heart over all the path of life. I am not
going to preach to you, dear friends, in the flush of your early youth,
a gospel which is only to be recommended because it is good to die by,
but it will do even you, at the beginning, no harm to realise for a
moment that the end will come, and that retrospect will take the place
in your lives which hope and anticipation fill now. And I ask you what
you expect to feel and say then?

What did Paul say? 'I have fought the good fight, I have finished my
course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a
crown of righteousness.' He was not self-righteous; but it is possible
to have lived a life which, as the world begins to fade, vindicates

Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 16 of 57)