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of their need. Neither do his servants draw back in the moment of danger. Stephen plainly perceived what must now be the end of his bold and uncompromising rebuke. But this does not move him, and he finds support equal to his trial.
Such support is not confined to cases like that of Stephen. In more ordinary seasons it is enjoyed by the disciples of Christ. In the extremity of pain, in the bitterness of sorrow, in the crisis of death, many are permitted to receive such a foretaste of heaven, such an assurance of glory, as has conquered nature, and given the feelings of triumph in the midst of anguish. Stephen describes an actual vision. Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. This we do not expect: we "walk by faith, and not by sight:" but faith will be to us "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."
The mention of Jesus and his glory enrages still more those who were disputing with Stephen.
57. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord,
58. And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul.1
1 If Stephen had been fairly tried, and justly convicted, death by stoning was the punishment ordained in the law for blasphemy. Lev. xxiv. 16. "He that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him." And it is added, Deut. xvii. 7, "The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hands of all the people. So thou shalt put the evil away from among you." 2 See 2 Tim. vi. 12.
59. 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.
Such is the blessing of faith. Suddenly and unexpectedly is Stephen called to resign his life. But he is not found unprepared. He knows on whom to rely for the help he needed. His thoughts are such as these. "I am leaving this world, and entering another state. But I am not alone. My Saviour is with me. My soul is in his hands; to him I have committed it, for life and for death, for this world, and for that world to which I am going. And he is able to keep what I have committed to him; to save unto the uttermost. Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."
Nothing here is vague or uncertain. Stephen knew on what he was trusting.2 Not on a wild hope of God's mercy, to be shown him he knew not why: but on the clear assurance of Christ, "Whosoever liveth and believeth on me, shall never die." Therefore, with the confidence of one who had secured a ground to rest on, and who was sure that the ground was firm, he exclaims, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.
But had one of Stephen's persecutors fallen suddenly down in the agonies of death, could he have uttered the same prayer, or uttering it, could he hope that it should be answered? Those who have shown no faith in Christ whilst living, can ill expect to be heard by him when dying. He has warned of them of this beforehand. "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven."
Remember this, while yet there is time. So live, as you would desire to die.
The state of Stephen's heart towards his fellow men is as evident as the state of his heart towards his Saviour. Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. Many who had heard the severe rebuke which he uttered, might be inclined to say, If this man had any regard for his brethren, he would not so bitterly inveigh against them. But his rebuke had proceeded from no want of love, but from an excess of love. He earnestly desired that they might be converted and live, and therefore he showed them how much they needed conversion. And now that he can do no more, he entreats mercy for them. Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.
This was the true christian spirit, learnt of Christ himself, who also had prayed for his own murderers, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!"
Such is the frame of mind, which is prepared for a more perfect state, "where the wicked cease from troubling." Of one who dies in this exercise of faith and love, it may be truly said, as we read of Stephen, he fell asleep.
And here, in concluding the subject, it is impossible not to compare the Christian with the enemies of the Christian. See on the one side these angry, violent men, hating they knew not what, treating the object of their jealousy with gross injustice, proceeding from malice and enmity to cruelty and murder. On the other hand, see the disciple of Christ with the utmost meekness committing his cause to God: meeting their blind fury with sedate composure, and yielding up his soul to that Redeemer who had poured out his soul for him.
It cannot, I think, be doubted, which character our reason and our consciences approve, or in which state of heart we should desire to be found when summoned from this world. We should desire to have our lot with Stephen, and not with Stephen's enemies.
Now, his mind grew out of his faith. Zeal and love were his peculiar qualities. And zeal for God and love for man are the sure fruits of the Spirit upon the heart which is united to Christ Jesus through a true and lively faith.
Let the same faith be evidenced by the like fruits. Cherish the same zeal, exercise the same patience and charity; and you may safely and composedly, like Stephen, resign your soul, saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.
PERSECUTION DRIVES THE DISCIPLES FROM JERUSALEM INTO THE NEIGHBOURING COUNTRIES, -a. D. 33.
Acts viii. 1—4.
1. 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 Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.
It was not to be expected that they should spare the flock, who had already in so many cases attacked the shepherds. The first object of the chief priests and rulers must be to restrain the apostles. This had been tried. But now the persecution extended to those who followed them.
Looking onward to these difficulties, the Lord had given a general direction, "When they persecute you in this city, flee into another." * The apostles themselves could not at present do so; it was needful for them, at all hazards, to remain at Jerusalem, and conduct the affairs of the church. But others were at liberty to seek safety in flight; and were scattered abroad throughout all the regions
1 Matthew x. 23.