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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 manhood.
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 Judge.
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 1
Act_7:58 . - Phm_1:9 .
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 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?’
1 To the young.
THE DEATH OF THE MASTER AND THE DEATH OF THE SERVANT
Act_7:59 - Act_7:60 .
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.
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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Acts 7". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19