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Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

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itself as having been absolutely right in its main trend, and to feel
that the dawning light of Eternity confirms the choice that we made.
And I pray you to ask yourselves, 'Is my life of that sort?' How much
of it would bear the scrutiny which will have to come, and which in
Paul's case was so quiet and calm? He had had a stormy day, many a
thundercloud had darkened the sky, many a tempest had swept across the
plain; but now, as the evening draws on, the whole West is filled with
a calm amber light, and all across the plain, right away to the grey
East, he sees that he has been led by, and has been willing to walk in,
the right way to the 'City of habitation.' Would that be your
experience if the last moment came now?

There will be, for the best of us, much sense of failure and
shortcoming when we look back on our lives. But whilst some of us will
have to say, 'I have played the fool and erred exceedingly,' it is
possible for each of us to lay himself down in peace and sleep,
awaiting a glorious rising again and a crown of righteousness.

Dear young friends, it is for you to choose whether your past, when you
summon it up before you, will look like a wasted wilderness, or like a
garden of the Lord. And though, as I have said, there will always be
much sense of failure and shortcoming, yet that need not disturb the
calm retrospect; for whilst memory sees the sins, faith can grasp the
Saviour, and quietly take leave of life, saying, 'I know in whom I have
believed, and that He is able to keep that which I have committed to
Him against that day.'

So I press upon you all this one truth, that faith in Jesus Christ will
transform, will ennoble, will make joyous your lives whilst you live,
and will give you a quiet heart in the retrospect when you come to die.
Begin right, dear young friends. You will never find it so easy to take
any decisive step, and most of all this chiefest step, as you do
to-day. You will get lean and less flexible as you get older. You will
get set in your ways. Habits will twine their tendrils round you, and
hinder your free movement. The truth of the Gospel will become
commonplace by familiarity. Associations and companions will have more
and more power over you; and you will be stiffened as an old tree-trunk
is stiffened. You cannot count on to-morrow; be wise to-day. Begin this
year aright. Why should you not now see the Christ and welcome Him? I
pray that every one of us may behold Him and fall before Him with the
cry, 'Lord! what wilt Thou have me to do?'



THE DEATH OF THE MASTER AND THE DEATH OF THE SERVANT


'And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus,
receive my spirit. 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.' - ACTS vii. 59, 60.

This is the only narrative in the New Testament of a Christian
martyrdom or death. As a rule, Scripture is supremely indifferent to
what becomes of the people with whom it is for a time concerned. As
long as the man is the organ of the divine Spirit he is somewhat; as
soon as that ceases to speak through him he drops into insignificance.
So this same Acts of the Apostles - if I may so say - kills off James the
brother of John in a parenthesis; and his is the only other martyrdom
that it concerns itself even so much as to mention.

Why, then, this exceptional detail about the martyrdom of Stephen? For
two reasons: because it is the first of a series, and the Acts of the
Apostles always dilates upon the first of each set of things which it
describes, and condenses about the others. But more especially, I
think, because if we come to look at the story, it is not so much an
account of Stephen's death as of Christ's power in Stephen's death. And
the theme of this book is not the acts of the Apostles, but the acts of
the risen Lord, in and for His Church.

There is no doubt but that this narrative is modelled upon the story of
our Lord's Crucifixion, and the two incidents, in their similarities
and in their differences, throw a flood of light upon one another.

I shall therefore look at our subject now with constant reference to
that other greater death upon which it is based. It is to be observed
that the two sayings on the lips of the proto-martyr Stephen are
recorded for us in their original form on the lips of Christ, in
_Luke's_ Gospel, which makes a still further link of connection between
the two narratives.

So, then, my purpose now is merely to take this incident as it lies
before us, to trace in it the analogies and the differences between the
death of the Master and the death of the servant, and to draw from it
some thoughts as to what it is possible for a Christian's death to
become, when Christ's presence is felt in it.

I. Consider, in general terms, this death as the last act of imitation
to Christ.

The resemblance between our Lord's last moments and Stephen's has been
thought to have been the work of the narrator, and, consequently, to
cast some suspicion upon the veracity of the narrative. I accept the
correspondence, I believe it was intentional, but I shift the intention
from the writer to the actor, and I ask why it should not have been
that the dying martyr should consciously, and of set purpose, have made
his death conformable to his Master's death? Why should not the dying
martyr have sought to put himself (as the legend tells one of the other
Apostles in outward form sought to do) in Christ's attitude, and to die
as He died?

Remember, that in all probability Stephen died on Calvary. It was the
ordinary place of execution, and, as many of you may know, recent
investigations have led many to conclude that a little rounded knoll
outside the city wall - not a 'green hill,' but still 'outside a city
wall,' and which still bears a lingering tradition of connection with
Him - was probably the site of that stupendous event. It was the place
of stoning, or of public execution, and there in all probability, on
the very ground where Christ's Cross was fixed, His first martyr saw
'the heavens opened and Christ standing on the right hand of God.' If
these were the associations of the place, what more natural, and even
if they were not, what more natural, than that the martyr's death
should be shaped after his Lord's?

Is it not one of the great blessings, in some sense the greatest of the
blessings, which we owe to the Gospel, that in that awful solitude
where no other example is of any use to us, His pattern may still gleam
before us? Is it not something to feel that as life reaches its
highest, most poignant and exquisite delight and beauty in the measure
in which it is made an imitation of Jesus, so for each of us death may
lose its most poignant and exquisite sting and sorrow, and become
something almost sweet, if it be shaped after the pattern and by the
power of His? We travel over a lonely waste at last. All clasped hands
are unclasped; and we set out on the solitary, though it be 'the
common, road into the great darkness.' But, blessed be His Name! 'the
Breaker is gone up before us,' and across the waste there are
footprints that we

'Seeing, may take heart again.'

The very climax and apex of the Christian imitation of Christ may be
that we shall bear the image of His death, and be like Him then.

Is it not a strange thing that generations of martyrs have gone to the
stake with their hearts calm and their spirits made constant by the
remembrance of that Calvary where Jesus died with more of trembling
reluctance, shrinking, and apparent bewildered unmanning than many of
the weakest of His followers? Is it not a strange thing that the death
which has thus been the source of composure, and strength, and heroism
to thousands, and has lost none of its power of being so to-day, was
the death of a Man who shrank from the bitter cup, and that cried in
that mysterious darkness, 'My God! Why hast Thou forsaken Me?'

Dear brethren, unless with one explanation of the reason for His
shrinking and agony, Christ's death is less heroic than that of some
other martyrs, who yet drew all their courage from Him.

How come there to be in Him, at one moment, calmness unmoved, and
heroic self-oblivion, and at the next, agony, and all but despair? I
know only one explanation, 'The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of
us all.' And when He died, shrinking and trembling, and feeling
bewildered and forsaken, it was your sins and mine that weighed Him
down. The servant whose death was conformed to his Master's had none of
these experiences because he was only a martyr.

The Lord had them, because He was the Sacrifice for the whole world.

II. We have here, next, a Christian's death as being the voluntary
entrusting of the spirit to Christ.

'They stoned Stephen.' Now, our ordinary English idea of the manner of
the Jewish punishment of stoning, is a very inadequate and mistaken
one. It did not consist merely in a miscellaneous rabble throwing
stones at the criminal, but there was a solemn and appointed method of
execution which is preserved for us in detail in the Rabbinical books.
And from it we gather that the _modus operandi_ was this. The
blasphemer was taken to a certain precipitous rock, the height of which
was prescribed as being equal to that of two men. The witnesses by
whose testimony he had been condemned had to cast him over, and if he
survived the fall it was their task to roll upon him a great stone, of
which the weight is prescribed in the Talmud as being as much as two
men could lift. If he lived after that, then others took part in the
punishment.

Now, at some point in that ghastly tragedy, probably, we may suppose as
they were hurling him over the rock, the martyr lifts his voice in this
prayer of our text.

As they were stoning him he 'called upon' - not _God_, as our Authorised
Version has supplied the wanting word, but, as is obvious from the
context and from the remembrance of the vision, and from the language
of the following supplication, 'called upon _Jesus_, saying, Lord
Jesus! receive my spirit.'

I do not dwell at any length upon the fact that here we have a distinct
instance of prayer to Jesus Christ, a distinct recognition, in the
early days of His Church, of the highest conceptions of His person and
nature, so as that a dying man turns to Him, and commits his soul into
His hands. Passing this by, I ask you to think of the resemblance, and
the difference, between this intrusting of the spirit by Stephen to his
Lord, and the committing of His spirit to the Father by His dying Son.
Christ on the Cross speaks to God; Stephen, on Calvary, speaks, as I
suppose, to Jesus Christ. Christ, on the Cross, says, 'I commit.'
Stephen says, 'Receive,' or rather, 'Take.' The one phrase carries in
it something of the notion that our Lord died not because He must, but
because He would; that He was active in His death; that He chose to
summon death to do its work upon Him; that He 'yielded up His spirit,'
as one of the Evangelists has it, pregnantly and significantly. But
Stephen says, 'Take!' as knowing that it must be his Lord's power that
should draw his spirit out of the coil of horror around him. So the one
dying word has strangely compacted in it authority and submission; and
the other dying word is the word of a simple waiting servant. The
Christ says, 'I commit.' 'I have power to lay down My life, and I have
power to take it again.' Stephen says, 'Take my spirit,' as longing to
be away from the weariness and the sorrow and the pain and all the hell
of hatred that was seething and boiling round about him, but yet
knowing that he had to wait the Master's will.

So from the language I gather large truths, truths which unquestionably
were not present to the mind of the dying man, but are all the more
conspicuous because they were unconsciously expressed by him, as to the
resemblance and the difference between the death of the martyr, done to
death by cruel hands, and the death of the atoning Sacrifice who gave
Himself up to die for our sins.

Here we have, in this dying cry, the recognition of Christ as the Lord
of life and death. Here we have the voluntary and submissive surrender
of the spirit to Him. So, in a very real sense, the martyr's death
becomes a sacrifice, and he too dies not merely because he must, but he
accepts the necessity, and finds blessedness in it. We need not be
passive in death; we need not, when it comes to our turn to die, cling
desperately to the last vanishing skirts of life. We may yield up our
being, and pour it out as a libation; as the Apostle has it, 'If I be
offered as a drink-offering upon the sacrifice of your faith, I joy and
rejoice.' Oh! brethren, to die _like_ Christ, to die yielding oneself
to Him!

And then in these words there is further contained the thought coming
gleaming out like a flash of light into some murky landscape - of
passing into perennial union with Him. 'Take my spirit,' says the dying
man; 'that is all I want. I see Thee standing at the right hand. For
what hast Thou started to Thy feet, from the eternal repose of Thy
session at the right hand of God the Father Almighty? To help and
succour me. And dost Thou succour me when Thou dost let these cruel
hands cast me from the rock and bruise me with heavy stones? Yes, Thou
dost. For the highest form of Thy help is to take my spirit, and to let
me be with Thee.'

Christ delivers His servant from death when He leads the servant into
and through death. Brothers, can you look forward thus, and trust
yourselves, living or dying, to that Master who is near us amidst the
coil of human troubles and sorrows, and sweetly draws our spirits, as a
mother her child to her bosom, into His own arms when He sends us
death? Is that what it will be to you?

III. Then, still further, there are other words here which remind us of
the final triumph of an all-forbearing charity.

Stephen had been cast from the rock, had been struck with the heavy
stone. Bruised and wounded by it, he strangely survives, strangely
somehow or other struggles to his knees even though desperately
wounded, and, gathering all his powers together at the impulse of an
undying love, prays his last words and cries, 'Lord Jesus! Lay not this
sin to their charge!'

It is an echo, as I have been saying, of other words, 'Father, forgive
them, for they know not what they do.' An echo, and yet an independent
tone! The one cries 'Father!' the other invokes the 'Lord.' The one
says, 'They know not what they do'; the other never thinks of reading
men's motives, of apportioning their criminality, of discovering the
secrets of their hearts. It was fitting that the Christ, before whom
all these blind instruments of a mighty design stood patent and naked
to their deepest depths, should say, 'They know not what they do.' It
would have been unfitting that the servant, who knew no more of his
fellows' heart than could be guessed from their actions, should have
offered such a plea in his prayer for their forgiveness.

In the very humiliation of the Cross, Christ speaks as knowing the
hidden depths of men's souls, and therefore fitted to be their Judge,
and now His servant's prayer is addressed to Him as actually being so.

Somehow or other, within a very few years of the time when our Lord
dies, the Church has come to the distinctest recognition of _His_
Divinity to whom the martyr prays; to the distinctest recognition of
_Him_ as the Lord of life and death whom the martyr asks to take his
spirit, and to the clearest perception of the fact that He is the Judge
of the whole earth by whose acquittal men shall be acquitted, and by
whose condemnation they shall be condemned.

Stephen knew that Christ was the Judge. He knew that in two minutes he
would be standing at Christ's judgment bar. His prayer was not, 'Lay
not my sins to my charge,' but 'Lay not this sin to their charge.' Why
did he not ask forgiveness for himself? Why was he not thinking about
the judgment that he was going to meet so soon? He had done all that
long ago. He had no fear about that judgment for himself, and so when
the last hour struck, he was at leisure of heart and mind to pray for
his persecutors, and to think of his Judge without a tremor. Are you?
If you were as near the edge as Stephen was, would it be wise for you
to be interceding for other people's forgiveness? The answer to that
question is the answer to this other one, - have you sought your pardon
already, and got it at the hands of Jesus Christ?

IV. One word is all that I need say about the last point of analogy and
contrast here - the serene passage into rest: 'When he had said this he
fell asleep.'

The New Testament scarcely ever speaks of a Christian's death as death
but as sleep, and with other similar phrases. But that expression,
familiar and all but universal as it is in the Epistles, in reference
to the death of believers, is never in a single instance employed in
reference to the death of Jesus Christ. He did die that you and I may
live. His death was death indeed - He endured not merely the physical
fact, but that which is its sting, the consciousness of sin. And He
died that the sting might be blunted, and all its poison exhausted upon
Him. So the ugly thing is sleeked and smoothed; and the foul form
changes into the sweet semblance of a sleep-bringing angel. Death is
gone. The physical fact remains, but all the misery of it, the
essential bitterness and the poison of it is all sucked out of it, and
it is turned into 'he fell asleep,' as a tired child on its mother's
lap, as a weary man after long toil.

'Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages.'

Death is but sleep now, because Christ has died, and that sleep is
restful, conscious, perfect life.

Look at these two pictures, the agony of the one, the calm triumph of
the other, and see that the martyr's falling asleep was possible
because the Christ had died before. And do you commit the keeping of
your souls to Him now, by true faith; and then, living you may have Him
with you, and, dying, a vision of His presence bending down to succour
and to save, and when you are dead, a life of rest conjoined with
intensest activity. To sleep in Jesus is to awake in His likeness, and
to be satisfied.



SEED SCATTERED AND TAKING ROOT

'And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a
great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they
were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria,
except the apostles. 2. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial,
and made great lamentation over him. 3. As for Saul, he made havock of
the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women
committed them to prison. 4. Therefore they that were scattered abroad
went everywhere preaching the word. 5. Then Philip went down to the
city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them. 6. And the people with
one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and
seeing the miracles which he did. 7. For unclean spirits, crying with
loud voice, came out of many that were possessed with them: and many
taken with palsies, and that were lame, were healed. 8. And there was
great joy in that city, 9. But there was a certain man, called Simon,
which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the
people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one: 10. To
whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This
man is the great power of God. 11. And to him they had regard, because
that of long time he had bewitched them with sorceries. 12. But when
they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of
God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and
women. 13. Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized,
he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and
signs which were done. 14. Now when the apostles which were at
Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent
unto them Peter and John: 15. Who, when they were come down prayed for
them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: 16 (For as yet he was
fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the
Lord Jesus.) 17. Then laid they their hands on them, and they received
the Holy Ghost.' - ACTS viii. 1-17.

The note of time in verse 1 is probably to be rendered as in the
Revised Version, 'on that day.' The appetite for blood roused by
Stephen's martyrdom at once sought for further victims. Thus far the
persecutors had been the rulers, and the persecuted the Church's
leaders; but now the populace are the hunters, and the whole Church the
prey. The change marks an epoch. Luke does not care to make much of the
persecution, which is important to him chiefly for its bearing on the
spread of the Church's message. It helped to diffuse the Gospel, and
that is why he tells of it. But before proceeding to narrate how it did
so, he gives us a picture of things as they stood at the beginning of
the assault.

Three points are noted: the flight of the Church except the Apostles,
the funeral of Stephen, and Saul's eager search for the disciples. We
need not press 'all,' as if it were to be taken with mathematical
accuracy. Some others besides the Apostles may have remained, but the
community was broken up. They fled, as Christ had bid them do, if
persecuted in one city. Brave faithfulness goes with prudent
self-preservation, and a valuable 'part of valour is discretion.' But
the disciples who fled were not necessarily less courageous than the
Apostles who remained, nor were the latter less prudent than the
brethren who fled. For _noblesse oblige_; high position demands high
virtues, and the officers should be the last to leave a wreck. The
Apostles, no doubt, felt it right to hold together, and preserve a
centre to which the others might return when the storm had blown itself
out.

In remarkable contrast with the scattering Church are the 'devout men'
who reverently buried the martyr. They were not disciples, but probably
Hellenistic Jews (Acts ii. 5); perhaps from the synagogue whose members
had disputed with Stephen and had dragged him to the council. His words
or death may have touched them, as many a time the martyr's fire has
lighted others to the martyr's faith. Stephen was like Jesus in his
burial by non-disciples, as he had been in his death.

The eager zeal of the young Pharisee brought new severity into the
persecution, in his hunting out his victims in their homes, and in his
including women among his prisoners. There is nothing so cruel as
so-called religious zeal. So Luke lifts the curtain for a moment, and
in that glimpse of the whirling tumult of the city we see the three
classes, of the brave and prudent disciples, ready to flee or to stand
and suffer as duty called; the good men who shrunk from complicity with
a bloodthirsty mob, and were stirred to sympathy with his victims; and
the zealot, who with headlong rage hated his brother for the love of
God. But the curtain drops, and Luke turns to his true theme. He picks
up the threads again in verse 4, telling of the dispersal of the
disciples, with the significant addition of their occupation when
scattered, - 'preaching the word.'

The violent hand of the persecutor acted as the scattering hand of the
sower. It flung the seeds broadcast, and wherever they fell they
sprouted. These fugitives were not officials, nor were they
commissioned by the Apostles to preach. Without any special command or
position, they followed the instincts of believing hearts, and, as they
carried their faith with them, they spoke of it wherever they found
themselves. A Christian will be impelled to speak of Christ if his
personal hold of Him is vital. He should need no ecclesiastical
authorisation for that. It is riot every believer's duty to get into a
pulpit, but it _is_ his duty to 'preach Christ.' The scattering of the
disciples was meant by men to put out the fire, but, by Christ, to
spread it. A volcanic explosion flings burning matter over a wide area.

Luke takes up one of the lines of expansion, in his narrative of
Philip's doings in Samaria, which he puts first because Jesus had
indicated Samaria first among the regions beyond Judaea (i. 8).
Philip's name comes second in the list of deacons (vi. 5), probably in
anticipation of his work in Samaria. How unlike the forecast by the
Apostles was the actual course of things! They had destined the seven
for purely 'secular' work, and regarded preaching the word as their own



Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 17 of 57)