1 “And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied,
there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews,
because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.”
Now in these for and in those, Authorized Version (it is not ἐκείναις – ekeinais -
those - answering to בַּיָמַים הָהֵם, but ταύταις – tautais - these); multiplying for
multiplied, Authorized Version; Grecian Jews for Grecians, Authorized Version.
The Grecian Jews; the Hellenists, for this is the appellation of them in the Greek;
it means properly those who spoke Greek or otherwise followed Greek usages,
applied to foreigners, here of course to Jews. Of a similar form and meaning is the
word “to Judaize,” translated “to live as do the Jews” (Authorized Version,
Galatians 2:14), and the forms “to Demosthenize,” “to Platonize,” “to Atticize,” etc.
The Hellenists were those Jews of the dispersion who lived in countries
where Greek was spoken, and who themselves spoke Greek. It was for the
sake of such that the Alexandrine Version of the Scriptures, commonly
called the Septuagint, was made. Hebrews; Palestinian and other Jews, who
spoke Aramean (ch. 21:40; II Corinthians 11:22; Philippians 3:5), as opposed
to the Hellenists. Their widows. We learn incidentally by this phrase that one
of the earliest Christian institutions was an order of widows, who were maintained
at the common cost. We find them in the
to works of mercy. Daily; καθημερινός – kathaemerinos – daily - only occurs here
in the New Testament, and rarely in Greek writers; ἐφημερινός – ephaemerinos -
of a daily fever, is used by Hippocrates, and may possibly have suggested the
use of this rare word to Luke the physician.
2 “Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and
said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables.”
And for then, Authorized Version; fit for reasons, Authorized Version; forsake
for leave, Authorized Version. It is not fit; literally, pleasing; ἀρεστόν is often
the rendering of טוב in the Septuagint; e.g. Genesis 16:6; Deuteronomy 12:28. In
Exodus 15:26, Deuteronomy 6:18, etc., it stands for יָשָׁר, that which is right. Serve
tables. The English reader should remember that the “ministration” of v. 1,
the “serve” of this verse, and the “deacon” which was the name of the new officers,
are all forms of the same Greek word (διακονία – diakonia – ministration,
dispensation, διακονεῖν – diakonein – serve; to be serving, διάκονος – diakonos -
deacon; servant). In v. 4 “the ministry of the Word” is opposed to
“the daily ministration” of meat. The passage gives a necessary warning to
the ministers of God’s Word not to spend too much time and strength
upon any secular work, even though it be a work of charity. They must
give themselves to the Word of God and to prayer. There are Christian
laity to serve tables.
The Call for Order in the Church (vs. 1-2)
It arose out of the very fact of increase. The association of people together
demands organization and order. A few persons may have such an interest
in each other and such a knowledge of each other as will enable them to
dwell together in peace without formal rules, and this is abundantly
illustrated from family life; but large aggregations of people, mostly
unknown to each other, that are based only on some common sentiment on
a particular subject, must be set under rule and order; society, as distinct
from the family, requires organization and government. The first occasion
of difficulty arose out of the party spirit, and out of the jealousy some felt
on account of others getting undue advantages. These two verses suggest
two subjects for consideration.
later, society, clubs, and nations find out that order is necessary to secure
both the general and the individual well-being, comfort, and success in life.
Illustrate by the consequences of civil commotion, class conflicts, or
society jealousies. The same is true within Christ’s Church. Offences will
come. Jealousies and envies do arise. But Church members soon cry out
for the order and rule which alone can ensure peace, growth, or prosperity.
Every man who joins a community has to learn that he must give up his
independence to some extent, and fit into the order if he is to enjoy the
benefits of the communion. As against the ambitious and aggressive man,
and as against the man who overpresses his individuality, the Church, as a
whole, calls for order. And in view of the practical difficulties that arise
when numbers meet, or worship, or dwell together, orderly arrangement,
and even a central and acknowledged authority, are demanded. It may be
shown that order need never unduly repress life, and that exactly the order
which men ask for, in Church and in state, is that which will efficiently
repress all forms of evil, but leave the freest possible room and scope for
the due and useful expression of individual character and individual gifts.
LEADERS. The difficulty that arose was viewed by the apostles from quite
a different side. They felt the increasing pressure of the claims which the
enlarging Church made upon their interest, their care, and their toil. And
they further felt that the work demanded was both beyond their power to
compass, and unsuited to their apostolic mission; nay, to concern
themselves with formal things of money and provisions and daily meals was
to imperil that very spiritual life and culture on which the due fulfillment of
their true mission depended. So they called for order in the arrangement of
the work demanded, and such order would at once meet their need, giving
them due relief, and meet the people’s need, assuring that each class
received due attention. It is interesting to note that the apostles consulted
the Church in their scheme for the removal of the difficulty, and it has been
found wise, both in the CHURCH and in the STATE, to adopt methods by
which the people can be made to share in the responsibility of keeping order,
and the dignity and impulse of a conscious self-government can be assured.
Impress that both theoretically and practically the Church still needs order
and government. But these must be secured on two conditions.
Ø That order shall never crush, only guide, the expressions of life.
Ø That order shall secure efficiency, comfort, and peace for all who come
within its rules. The Church has in each age known peril in two directions.
o Resistance to all organization in the supposed interests of the
o Over-organization giving no room for the natural and healthy
expressions of life.
3 “Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report,
full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.”
Look ye out therefore, brethren, from for wherefore, brethren, look ye out,
Authorized Version; good for honest, Authorized Version; Spirit for Holy Ghost,
Authorized Version and Textus Receptus; of wisdom for wisdom, Authorized
Version. Good report; literally, borne witness to; i.e. well spoken of. So in
Hebrews 11:5 it is said of Enoch that “he had witness borne to him that he pleased
God,” and in Ibid. v.4 of Abel that “he had witness borne to him that he was
righteous;” and so in ch.10:22 Cornelius is said to be a man “well reported of by
all thenation of the Jews.” In ch.16:2 Timothy is said to be “well reported
of (ἐμαρτυρεῖτο – emartureito – was witnessed; was attested) by the brethren.”
The Spirit. The number seven was, perhaps, fixed upon with reference to the
exigencies of the service, some think because there were seven tables to be supplied;
and partly perhaps from seven being the sacred number, the number of completeness
— seven Churches, seven spirits, seven stars, seven children (I Samuel 2:5),
seven times (Psalm 119:164). From seven having been the number of
the first deacons arose the custom in some Churches of always having
seven deacons, which continued some centuries in the Church of Rome.
One of the Canons of the Council of Neo-caesarea (An). 314) enacted that
“there ought to be but seven deacons in any city,” and Mark is said to
have ordained seven deacons at
vol. 1. p. 232). But the needs of the Churches gradually superseded all
such restrictions. Whom we may appoint. The multitude elect, the
apostles appoint. The apostolate appears as the sole ministry of the Church
at first. From the apostolate is evolved first the diaconate, afterwards the
presbyterate, as the need for each arose (ch.14:23).
The True Fitness for Church Offices (v. 3)
Much interest properly attaches to the first instance of election to Church
office, and according to educational or ecclesiastical bias prominence is
given to one or other of the leading features narrated. It may be going too
far to assert that here is given an absolute model of all Church elections.
The details of Church management may well be left to the guidance of
Christian wisdom and prudence, and need not be made matters of faith.
The apostles acted upon their best judgment in the difficult circumstances
that arose, but in later times we find that their experience led them to adopt
other modes in filling Church offices. In this case the multitude exercise the
right of selection, and the apostles retain the right of ratifying the choice.
The democratic element prevailed, but from the first it was put under
wise limitations and restraints. “So long as the Christian spirit continued to
display itself vigorously in the Church, the public voice might well be
consulted; but when this spirit afterwards disappeared, it would have been
ruinous to the Church if the plurality of voices had been allowed to decide.
A glance at the rudeness of the masses in the Middle Ages may convince us
of the necessity of their being guided by those above them” (Olshausen).
We turn from the controversial aspect of the subject to observe what the
apostles regarded as constituting true fitness for any place of service in
Christ’s Church. Here we may find principles that will be of permanent
application and interest.
report;” “good report;” “good repute;” held in general esteem; attested;
well reported of. Their private character must be such as to win confidence
and respect. Their integrity must be unquestioned. The importance of
personal character may be urged in view of the trusts that would be
committed to them — trusts of money, trusts of impartial dealing, trusts
of just decisions in cases of difficulty, etc. Christian officials must be
beyond suspicion of interested motives, unfaithfulness, or time-serving.
Guarantee of fair and honorable dealing is found in established and
acknowledged integrity. This is still the first requirement for all who would
serve Christ in the lesser and material, as well as in the higher and spiritual,
offices of the Church. In public esteem they must be BLAMELESS!
Ghost,” or “full of the Spirit.” The Church, to be enabled to judge who had
such a baptism, must observe some things which were recognized signs of
a fullness of the Divine indwelling and sealing. They would be two:
Ø A high fervor of religious feeling, seen in rapidly developed Christian
experience, advanced Christian knowledge, and unusual prayerfulness.
Ø Active and energetic and self-denying labors for the welfare of the
fellow-Christians and for the spread of the gospel. Men of the self-indulgent
type are mischievous in Church offices; men of the retiring and
monastic type are unfitted for Church offices; men of characteristic energy
and business activity, if these are combined with warmth and fervor of
devotion, are the men “full of the Holy Ghost,” who still may nobly serve
the Church and the Master.
wisdom;” i.e. of practical sagacity and skill for the management of the
particular work to which they are called. The Church must seek fitness.
Each man must be set in his right place, and given his right work. Each can
serve best in the sphere for which natural disposition and Divine
endowment have fitted him. Such men have always been provided in the
Church, but they usually need to be sought out. The best men are very
seldom found forward to press themselves into office, but when their
fitness is made plain to others, and leads to their selection and
appointment, it is no true humility on their part to refuse the service.
Impress that counted worthy to serve is the Christian’s supreme honor.
4 “But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry
of the word.” Continue steadfastly in for give ourselves continually to, Authorized
Version; in (the ministry) for to, Authorized Version. Steadfastly. The verb
προσκαρτερήσομεν – proskarteraesomen – shall be persevering; continually - is of
frequent use in the Acts (see ch.1:14; 2:42, 46; 8:13; 10:7; see also
Colossians 4:2). It is used of persons and things to which any one
adheres closely and perseveringly, which are put in the dative case, as here.
But sometimes it has the prepositions ἐν – en - in or εἰς – eis – into - after it,
as in ch. 2:46; Romans 13:6.
An Earnest Ministry the Greatest Need and Blessing of the Church (v. 4)
“But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the
Ø Apostles held an exceptional position, but in all main respects examples
of singleness of mind and wisdom.
Ø Distinguish between faithfulness in office and officialism. Special gifts
adapted to special work; should be stirred up.
Ø The hope of the Church is in the spirituality of its ministers. If they lower
the conception of their office and regard themselves as mere popular
leaders, they let in a flood of evils both into the pulpit and into the Church.
PEOPLE. The chief agency — prayer and the ministry of the Word.
Charity secondary, not primary. Philanthropy is not a substitute for
Christianity. The apostles put their own office as preachers before that of
the deacons. In these times a temptation to put the “tables,” the bodily
necessities, before the spiritual wants. We must wait for results, but Christ
understood the work of His Church. Stand by the apostolic method, and the
end will vindicate it. The world must be changed by spiritual forces. The
Church must use all the material and social advantages supplied, but not as
though they were sufficient by themselves; “By my Spirit, saith the Lord.”
The Work of the Ministry (v. 4)
In no age of the Church has it been more necessary than it is in this to exalt
the ministry of the Church, to secure its freedom from secular cares, and to
culture its spiritual life and efficiency. Thousands of Christian clergy long
to be able to say the words of our text, and hopelessly repeat after Dr.
Chalmers, “I am bustled out of my spirituality.” We may help to a better
understanding of the work of the ministry if we consider:
continually to prayer.” The term “prayer,” as here used, is a comprehensive
one, and includes all that belongs to private piety and soul-culture, the
nourishing of the Christian vitality, and enriching of the personal spiritual
stores of thought, feeling, and truth. Ministers know, by a constant
experience, how immediately their pleasure and their power in their work
depend on their personal spiritual conditions. The soul must be full of God
that is to speak well for God; and Christian congregations should take it
upon them, as a burden of duty, to free their pastors from care, both in his
family and in the temporal matters of the Church, so that he may “give
himself unto prayer.” Prayer may here be taken to include:
Ø Self-culture — the full mastery of a man’s own disposition and habits.
Ø Mental culture — a sufficient training of the intellectual powers to
ensure full and wise teaching of the people.
Ø Scripture-culture — adequate acquaintance with the actual contents of
God’s revealed Word, and quickness of spiritual insight into its deeper
meanings, suggestions, and mysteries.
Ø Soul-culture — that kind of sympathetic, persuasive force which seems
to bring God near to man, in us, and man near to God, through us; the
kind of power that only comes to us through “prayer and fasting.” These
things are the absolute essentials of true and successful ministerial work
today. The men of prayer are the men of power.
Word,” or the service of the revealed Word. This may be set in two forms.
Ø The ministry of the Scriptures; not merely in their contents, but in their
o comfortings, etc.
Our ministers are the teachers of a Book, and each has more than a
lifetime full of labor if he sets his heart upon declaring THE WHOLE
REVEALED COUNSEL OF GOD! (ch. 20:20,27)
Ø The ministry of the Christ, as the very essence of the Scriptures. In this
bringing out the special redemptive features OF THE DIVINE
REVELATION and claiming:
o personal surrender to,
o personal obedience to, and
o personal homage to,
THE RISEN, GLORIFIED AND REIGNING LORD! “The testimony
of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” (Revelation 19:10) It may be
further pressed that:
o The Word, or message of salvation, needs a human ministry; “by the
foolishness of preaching God would save them that believe.”
(I Corinthians 1:21)
o That it also needs the entire devotion of men’s time and talents and
influence. If apostles needed to step aside from common cares to keep
their efficiency for spiritual work, much more do the modern clergy
in this busy and anxious age. It should seriously be considered how
far the modern ministry has become weakened, especially in spiritual
power and prophet-like energy, by becoming crowded with worldly
cares, so that private soul-culture is neglected and prayer
preparations are crowded out. Only from the “secret place of the
Most High” can Christian teachers come forth in power. “While
they are musing the fire burns;” and then they can “speak
with their tongues.” (Psalm 39:3)
5 “And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose
Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and
Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a
The mention of Stephen, and the narrative which follows leading up from
Stephen’s martyrdom to Paul (ch. 7:58), show to what the writer is tending.
He selects the incidents in the history of the Church at
connect themselves most directly with that after history which was the
object he had in view. It has been thought by some that the Greek character
of all seven names is an indication that they were Hellenists. Such a conclusion,
however, is not warranted, as many Jews who were not Hellenists had Greek or
Latin names, e.g. Paul, Sylvanus,
Didymus, etc. At the same time, it is likely that some of them were. One, Nicolas,
was a proselyte. The object, doubtless, was to ensure perfect fairness of distribution
of the Church charities. Stephen and Philip (ch. 8:5, etc.; 21:8) are the only two of
whom we know anything beyond their names.
6 “Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they
laid their hands on them.” When they had prayed, they laid their hands on
them. They did not pray without imposition of hands, nor did they lay hands on
them without prayer. So in the sacraments, in confirmation, and ordination, the
outward sign or rite is accompanied by prayer for the thing signified. And
God’s grace is given through the sacrament or rite in answer to the prayer
of faith (see ch. 8:15, and the Office for Baptism, the Prayer of Consecration
in the Office for Holy Communion, and the Confirmation and Ordination
Services). (For the laying on of hands as a mode of conveying a special grace
and blessing, see Numbers 27:23; Deuteronomy 34:9; Matthew 19:13-15;
Luke 4:40; here ch. 8:17; 13:3; I Timothy 5:22; Hebrews 6:2).
Institution of Deacons (vs. 1-6)
1. The increase of officers was the natural outcome of increase in number
of disciples, illustrating the great principle that the life of Christianity
develops the organization and not depends upon it.
2. The spirit of charity was the under-working cause of the need of more
rule. Had there been little to distribute, there would have been no ground
3. The Jewish element was still uppermost in the Church. It was as yet an
unordered community; but the two principles of care for the weak and
equality among brethren were there to be appealed to.
4. The apostles, while guiding the Church with inspired wisdom, usurped
no authority as rulers, claimed distinction only as servants of the Lord,
called the whole body of believers together, and committed this first
distinct act of constitutional appointment to the free vote of the Church as
5. The men elected were the best men spiritually as well as in adaptation to
the special office.
6. The whole transaction was an appeal to Divine direction, being carried
through in the spirit of prayer and in dependence on the apostolic
superintendence of the Church which was instituted by Christ Himself.
7. The deacons’ office was instituted for the relief of the spiritual officers
of the Church. The ministry of the Word is chief in importance. The
“serving tables” requires character, wisdom, spiritual gifts, but is separated
from the higher offices of prayer and preaching. The deacons are
8. Nothing should be done in the Church except by spiritual men, IN
DEPENDENCE AND DIVINE DIRECTION IN PRAYER, and in
harmony with that form of Christian life already appointed.
The First Crystallizings of Ecclesicastical Institution (vs. 1-6)
This short section has much to say, more to suggest, to us. The day of
Pentecost had receded no distance whatever into the past; the holy
enthusiasm of the days when new-born disciples sold their individual
property in order to turn it into common property was literally but of
sacredness of which was now superseded by a new, a young, a surpassing
sacredness, had not yet been left of the apostolic missionaries. If other
things were to date their “beginning from
and more blessed omen, so also the Church’s earliest acquaintance with
division and strife was to be made and in part provided against within the
precincts of that same city, center of cities, and “mother of all.” However,
the strife was not fierce at present, nor the division malignant in its tyre.
Yet, looked at under the light of the centuries that have succeeded, there
can be now no doubt of the significance of the symptoms which then
appeared. Let us notice in this passage:
ON FORM. Effort though it was, there can be little doubt that it was most
unconscious of its nature. The occasion, interesting from a merely
historical point of view, is much more so from a moral point of view.
Hitherto the brief and wonderful career of the Church had been all “spirit
and life” — stem and bough and twig all concealed beneath flower and
fruit. Suddenly, however, the rudiments of organization commence to be
seen; and it was a consequence of some of the less lovely aspects of human
nature. These do not fail to thrust themselves into notice at a time one
would have most desired their absence, and while they labor under the
rebuke of many a faithful suggestion of Christian feeling and principle.
Plainly up to this time the apostles had themselves distributed the offerings
that had been laid at their feet (ch. 4:35; compare with v.2),
availing themselves of just such help as might offer. Inspired apostles could
not do everything. Though “murmuring” might not be lovely, and very
probably was not so now, yet, as they recognize some foundation for it,
they proceed to propose a remedy (compare Exodus 18:13-26).
Ø They summon the whole body of the disciples together, and point out to
them the aspects of the case.
Ø They throw upon this body of disciples the responsibility of choosing
those helpers who shall serve the needs of the occasion.
Ø They insist on the moral, nay, more, the high spiritual, qualifications of
these. Though they are only “to bear the vessels of the Lord,” yet must
they in high sense be “pure” and “clean;” for they must be men “of good
report, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.”
Ø By a service most simple, of prayer and laying on of hands, they set
them apart for what might seem their comparatively humble and business
kind of duties. Christian dignity and honor are set upon the work of these
men, as dignity and honor belong to it, in the Name of the Master for
whom and for whose Church it was to be done.
FROM THIS OCCASION.
Ø Division of labor is a principle to be observed within the Church as
Ø A gradation in importance of work (though not necessarily of the
workman) is plainly implied by the words of the apostle (v. 2).
Ø The character of Church organization, whatever of it there might come
to be, seems plainly shadowed forth. It is not to be place and office and
dignity for the sake of them, or for the show of hierarchy. The offices of
the Church are not to be the filling up of an á priori constitution. They are
only justifiable in the interests of the use of the Church, and are to be
assigned in faithful analogy with the illustrious model-principle of “the
sabbath made for man, not man for the sabbath.”
Ø The possession of the Spirit is the foundation-qualification of every
order of Christian workman. Men “of good report, and… of wisdom” may
be the manifest qualifications of men of business, whether Church business
or not. But the apostles require that those who are “appointed over this
business,” i.e. “to serve tables,” shall be also “full of the Holy Ghost.”
Ø The discretion of the Spirit is still reserved — unfettered in each order
and in each individual. For of these seven “deacons,” now elected and with
solemn service set apart, we hear no more, except of two of them; and
both of these are doing distinguished work, not as deacons, but as
“preaching Christ,” and doing “great wonders and miracles” (compare
ch. 8:13-15, with ch. 7 and ch. 8:5-8). The conclusion of all may be
understood to be that the truest Church will be that which earnestly
bids for life and movement, and allows only so much form as the tide
of life and the directing of that life may fairly require.
The Laying on of Hands (v. 6)
This is the first mention of the custom in connection with the Christian
community. It does not appear that our Lord set apart his apostles to their
work by any formal ceremony. A little while before His passion He
“breathed on them, and said, Receive ye the Holy Ghost.” The imposition
of hands was an instance of carrying over and adapting a Jewish custom.
“It had an analogous meaning in the ritual of Israel (Numbers 27:23) in
acts of blessing (Genesis 48:13-14) and the transmission of functions.”
It appears to have been used in the Jewish schools on the admission of a
scribe to his office as a teacher. Its primary symbolism would seem to be
that of the concentration for the moment of all the spiritual energy of
prayer upon him on whom men lay their hands; and so of the bestowal of
any office for which spiritual gifts are required. For other Scripture
references, see ch. 13:3; I Timothy 5:22; Hebrews 6:2. The
origin of this rite is to be looked for in patriarchal times, when it seems to
have been a form simply of solemn benediction, as in Genesis 48:14. In
the New Testament we find the laying on of hands used by our Lord both
in blessing and in healing; and again He promises to His disciples that they
too should lay hands on the sick and they should recover. At the time when
the Epistle to the Hebrews was written, the doctrine of the ‘laying on of
hands’ was one of the elements of Christian teaching” (‘Dict. of Christian
Antiquities;’ see art. “Imposition of Hands” for the ceremonies in which
the Christian Church has adapted the custom). This is an illustration of the
importance of preserving valued ancient practices. It cannot be said that we
have any Divine commands in regard to the laying on of hands, but the
Church has found the practice to be significant and useful. It may be
out. For some particular office he is chosen. The selection is made by the
whole Church. It is represented by the act of imposition done by one
person, or by several, in the Church’s name. The public nature of the act
sets the individual forth prominently before the whole Church as the
the form of imposition practiced by what are known as the Free Churches.
At their ordination services the laying on of hands is done by the assembled
presbyters, each laying a single hand on the head of the selected one, and
the custom is mainly valued as an expression of mutual confidence in the
Divine call of the selected one, and in his spiritual fitness for the office
which he is about to undertake. It becomes an important part of an
ordination service as a comforting assurance given to the candidate for
office; and with this simple meaning of the rite some of the Free Churches
acts that presupposed the communication of a spiritual gift. Through well
nigh all changes of polity and dogma and ritual, it has kept its place with
Baptism and the Supper of the Lord, among the unchanging witnesses of
the Church’s universality and permanence.” Hackett takes it as “a symbol
of the impartation of the gifts and graces which they (the deacons) needed
to qualify them for the office.” Olshausen says, “The idea embraced in the
laying on of hands was really just this, that by means of it there was
effected a communication of the Spirit from the individual consecrating to
the one ordained.” Two questions need treatment.
Ø Was the imposition an actual impartation of Divine gifts or the Divine
Spirit? or was it only the outward symbol or sign of a Divine impartation
which was beyond man’s control?
Ø If there was apostolic power to communicate the gift or the Spirit, have
we sufficient ground for assuming that the power is retained by the
teachers of the Church whom we regard as the successors of the apostles?
Decision on and treatment of these questions must depend on our
ecclesiastical bias. No earnest Christian need fail to realize the spiritual
value and suggestiveness of this custom. It may, no doubt, be made to
serve purely ritual purposes; but it may also be an important and useful
Church ordinance, when it is observed on due consideration, and with
suitable solemnity and prayer.
7 “And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples
were obedient to the faith.” Exceedingly for greatly, Authorized Version.
Were obedient to the faith. Compare the phrase, obedience of faith or
“to the faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:25). The addition of a great multitude of priests
was an important incident in the Church’s history, both as they were a higher
order of men, and a class very liable to be prejudiced against the faith which
would rob them of their importance.
Prosperity and Peace within the Church (vs. 1-7)
These opening verses prove to us that a condition of exceptional virtue
may abruptly pass into one of common infirmity. From the height of holy
enthusiasm the Church falls down, by steep and quick descent, into the
depth of unlovely wrangling. From all the verses of the text we gather:
CHURCH AS WELL AS TO INDIVIDUAL SOULS. “When the number
of the disciples was multiplied there arose a murmuring” (v. 1).
Enlargement often brings with it pride, or false confidence, or sloth, or
worldliness. It is a “slippery place,” where there is great danger of falling.
It is frequently the condition of disagreement and even serious discord.
When the number is small and the band feeble, each member of the
community feels that he must stand by the rest, and let all his strength be
put out in advancement of the common cause; but when there is a
consciousness of strength, the sense of responsibility is lessened, and men
permit themselves to indulge a spirit and to manifest signs of impatience,
querulousness, complaint. But no Christian Church can afford to have any
of its members introduce the discordant note. It may, indeed, be lost and
silenced in the harmonies which prevail; but it may throw everything out of
tune and be the beginning of endless dissonance and dire confusion.
LARGELY DEPENDENT ON THE WISE APPORTIONMENT OF ITS
FUNCTIONS. “It is not reasonable that we [the apostles] should leave the
Word of God and serve tables” (v. 2). It was altogether undesirable that
the apostles of Christ, who were charged with such high functions, should
expend their strength and time in small monetary arrangements. They
would probably do that ill when they might be doing their own proper
work admirably. They wisely divided the duties of the Church into two
different parts, of which they would take one, and leave the other to those
whose habits and faculties made them suitable for its discharge: then all
went well. If we do not assign functions with discretion, all affairs will
speedily be out of joint; the machinery will work with the maximum instead
of the minimum of friction. Let the minister take his post or posts, and
there be found in full activity; let the other officers have theirs, and keep
them. Let activity be well directed, and there will be peace as well as
CONSULT THE COMMUNITY INSTEAD OF SETTLING
EVERYTHING THEMSELVES. “The twelve called the multitude… and
said,… look ye out,” etc. (vs. 2-3). The members of the Church should
remember that affairs are greatly expedited, order maintained, and peace
preserved by their delegating much business to a few chosen men; on the
other hand, the leaders should remember that even the inspired apostles of
our Lord did not stand upon their dignity as such, but consulted “the
multitude of the disciples,” and that what they did with propriety we may
do with advantage.
SOME STERLING CHRISTIAN GRACES ARE NEEDFUL. The seven
men now appointed “to serve tables” were to be “men of honest report, full
of the Holy Ghost, and wisdom” (v. 3); i.e. they were
Ø to enjoy a good reputation;
Ø to be spiritual men in whom God dwelt by His Spirit;
Ø to be men of prudence and capacity.
They who do not possess these qualifications have no right to expect any
position in the
Ø Without the confidence and esteem of their brethren they could not
make a good beginning;
Ø without Christian character they would be out of place altogether;
Ø without requisite gifts of the understanding and disposition they
would certainly not make a good ending.
FOLLOWED BY ABOUNDING AND EVEN SURPRISING
TRIUMPHS. When the apostles were relieved of other more secular
duties, and “gave themselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of
the Word” (v. 4), then “the Word of God increased” (v. 7);
Ø then came abounding success — “the number of the disciples
Ø surprising success — “a great company of the priests were obedient
to the faith.” It does not necessarily follow that ministerial faithfulness
will be attended with such results; prayerlessness, or discord, or
inconsistency on the part of the members may defeat the exertions
of the holiest and ablest minister of Christ. But, nothing being in the
way, the Church itself being in sympathy, an earnest, faithful ministry
WILL WITNESS VERY BLESSED SPIRITUAL RESULTS!
o some that will rejoice, and
o some also that will surprise the hearts of the holy.
There will be added unto the Church many, and of these some who seemed
utterly and hopelessly removed, by their prejudices, their temporal interests,
the heinousness of their wrong-doing, or their long continuance in sin.
The Appointment of Deacons (vs. 1-7)
Ø It arose between the Hellenists and the Hebrews, members of the same
nation, of the same blood, of the same Church, but of different places of
birth, education, and, above all, of different languages. Language is,
perhaps, the greatest divider between man and man. So many of those
associations which govern the mind are rooted in the sound of our native
tongue. We may notice that Christianity reconciles the difference of the
Palestinian Jew and the Greek-speaking Jew; the Book, the New
Testament, is the thought of the Jew in the tongue of the Greek.
Ø It was on a question of pecuniary benefit. Most disputes of the bitterest
kind in the family life turn on questions of money — property and its
distribution. Hence the Christian duty of strict justice and exactitude in
all dealings with the goods of this world.
Ø Jealousy was at the root of the strife. No feeling more painful than the
sense of neglect and of the preference of others. All Christian principle is
rooted in love, which alone can conquer jealousy. All Christian graces are
but forms of the “love that seeketh not its own.” (I Corinthians 13:5)
Love must seek to remove this “root of bitterness,” which otherwise
will trouble many and pollute the pure flow of peace in the Church.
piety of the multitude the appeal of wisdom and of justice may ever be
safely made. But without strong leading, even Christian congregations may
become scenes of anarchic passion. It is composed of many wills. If none is
present to represent with conscientiousness and firmness the will of the
Head of the Church, nothing but confusion can be expected. When that will
is clearly apprehended, and the duty thence arising firmly laid down, the
majority, if not the whole, will be found ready to obey. Such was the case
Ø The division of Christian functions is necessary. It is not “pleasing,”
either to the Head of the Church or to the judgment of its enlightened
members, that callings and duties should be confused; above all, that the
higher calling should suffer in efficiency from being joined with a lower.
The “Word of God,” or thought and utterance in the Church — the
Christian ministry in the special sense — was the special function of the
apostles. The “serving of tables” was another kind of function, evidently
important and necessary. But for the two to be fixed in the same persons
would have been a want of congruity, or of harmony. For the ministry of
the Word freedom from the distractions of business is peculiarly necessary.
Ø The central function in the Church is that of the teacher. If this languish
or be in any way fettered, the life of the congregation must suffer. It
demands a whole man and whole energies. The resolve of the apostles is,
therefore, to persevere in prayer and in the ministry of the Word. These
two words sum up the life of the preacher. By prayer he draws from the
fountain of truth and Divine strength; and in preaching he gives forth that
which he has thus received. Without the inner communion with God there
can be no power to prevail over the hearts of men.
Ø Directions for the appointment of deacons. Seven are to be selected; the
number has sacred associations, which were doubtless helpful to the mind.
A sevenfold band symbolizes strength, Divine presence and assistance.
o They are to be “full of the Spirit” — an expression which cannot be
defined, but the meaning of which can be felt. Divine presence in the
soul is ever indefinable, and is known by its effects on the tone of the
man, and on the energy, the gentleness, and persuasiveness of his
speech and action.
o They are to be wise men — who are always needed for tasks so delicate
as that here assigned them. Goodness and sense: these are the great
qualities needed in Church officers every day. Neither weakly good
men nor merely shrewd men fulfill the desired qualifications.
unanimously; and seven brethren are chosen out and presented to the
apostles, who ratify the choice of the Church by the devout ceremony of
the imposition of hands.
Ø The eminence of Stephen. He is specially mentioned as “full of faith and
of the Holy Spirit.” Faith, a most comprehensive word in the New
Testament, may mean here either constancy, fidelity, or the habit of the
living and strong believer. But really the two meanings unite. The believing
man in the genuine Christian sense is alone the true, the steadfast man. The
trustworthy man is so because he himself is a truster IN GOD. He who has
no certain faith in the Divine is no object of human confidence.
Ø The obscurity of useful lives. Except of Philip, of whom we have an
after glimpse, nothing is known of these worthies (ch. 8:5, 26; 21:8).
“He has not lived amiss whose life and death have escaped the notice of the
world,” said the Roman poet. The “path of a hidden life” is the lot of most
Christians. A niche in the temple of fame is not set as an object of Christian
ambition; but the approval of the Divine Master is.
Ø There may be good service without the title of servant. These men had
no official designation of “deacons.” They were simply “the seven.” It is
good to resist the weakness for titles and for status in the Christian Church.
Good men and useful are sometimes spoiled when these imaginary
distinctions are placed upon them. So susceptible is our fancy that, as dress
seems to magnify our personality, so does the consciousness of office and
rank. We cannot crush vanity by the singularity of dropping titles; it will
nestle just as well under the affectation of plainness. But the simplicity of
this example may remind us that there is a danger in vanity for the ministers
of Christ of every degree.
in three features.
Ø The growth of the Divine Word. The Logos, or Word, of God is a very
wide expression. It includes all spiritual activity and all expressions of it.
The meaning, then, is that there was a great growth of spiritual thought
and life. And this by the Divine favor as human means. When the affairs of
any Church are conducted in the spirit of wisdom and love, this blessing
may be expected. It is foolish to expect manifestations of growth and
prosperity where these have not been sought and wrought for.
Ø Growth of numbers. Which is one of the most obvious marks of success.
The popular reception of a new creed is a mark of its adaptation to the
wants of the many. But we must not infer that the unpopularity of a
principle, or a person, or a teaching condemns it. There is a popular and an
unpopular side to all truth. The divinely winning aspect of Christianity is
not always to be seen; and there are days when the faithful must struggle
with discouragement. The prophets with their lofty teaching complained
that their report was not believed. The gospel, when seen to be the source
of peace, prosperity, and wealth, is readily believable; not so widely so
when it asks for sacrifice and leads to suffering.
Ø The submission of the priests. This was most significant of all.
Ecclesiastical orders are the most stubborn in resistance to change; priests
the most conservative of religionists, as prophets are the friends of advance
and of freedom. The giving way of the priests was indeed a remarkable
triumph of Christ and His gospel. The evidence of the facts, the present
facts, was too strong to be resisted. The evidence of a religion lies at last in
its power to help and bless the life of society. So long as this evidence is
presented by the Church “apologies” for Christianity will for the mass of
men be quite unnecessary.
The Fruits of Faith (v. 7)
“And the Word of God increased,” etc. Connect with the preceding
description of a prayerful, obedient, spiritually minded Church. How
different the result might have been had the murmuring gone on to increase
and become a strife which would have:
Ø broken up fellowship,
Ø dishonored the Name of Jesus, and
Ø stopped the mouths of the preachers!
Ø In some measure prepared for the new seed. God works by a deeply laid
method of orderly progress The gospel the beginning of the new world
because it was the end of the old; taking up into itself all that was really
Divine m Judaism.
Ø Broken up by the new ministry, so different from that of scribes and
Ø A continuation of Christ’s own work, upon the basis of the great facts of
Ø Apostles. Their spirit and method adapted to achieve spiritual success;
informal; earnest; devout; inspired. Accompanied with miraculous
Ø The multitude of believers. All spoke more or less. Their fellowship was
an eloquent fact. Their order and self-denial and separation from the world.
Immense population of
Ø Representative of the future. The center of religious life, sending streams
of light over the world; devout men of all nations. Special adaptation of the
Jewish mind to preaching. Knowledge of the Old Testament. Connection
Ø Wonderful. Overcoming Jewish prejudice; winning many of the priests,
notwithstanding opposition and persecution; foretelling the downfall of
Judaism. Multiplication of disciples a spiritual fruit. Let God add to the
Church. Preserve the distinction between the Church and the world.
Convincing Testimonies to the Force of the New Faith (v. 7)
“And a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.” The
obedience of “a great company of the priests to the faith” was beyond a
doubt, in the nature of things, a commanding witness to the force of that
faith. When that faith made its successful assault upon the serried ranks of
such “a company,” and persuaded the throwing away of weapons so
peculiarly their own, and endeared to them by an almost inveterate
attachment, a great victory was won. The glory and especially the moral
impressiveness of victory will often be proportioned in the directest
manner, not to the strength only, but to the very nature of the opposing
forces. Special mention is made of the triumph of the gospel over this
“great company of priests,” not without good reason. In addition to the
usual causes of the enmity of the human heart to the “faith” of Jesus Christ,
and which must in all cases be triumphed over, others were present here,
and such as asked a strong hand to overmaster them. Notice, therefore,
that “the obedience to the faith” of those here spoken of was —
NAME OF PREJUDICE. It is very clear that, let alone any of the forms of
class prejudice, prejudice itself, pure and simple, was at the root of a very
large preponderance of the enmity shown to Christ and His “faith” on the
part of all those who would make any assumption of superior knowledge
or position. Settled on the lees of self, they had no relish for anything that
tended to disturb their opinion of self. And this bred more of prejudice
toward Christ and His truth than of anything else, while the mischief of
prejudice answers to no name more appropriately than the name Legion.
The assumption of knowledge, of goodness, of superiority, was the native
element of the priest in the days of Christ’s flesh and of His apostles.
Against assumption of this kind any one or anything that dared self-assertion
dared at the same time the prompt encounter of prejudice the most unreasoning.
Ø The simplicity alike of the life and of the doctrine of Christ would sin,
from a priest’s point of view, against his own faith in professionalism.
Ø The unmistakable language of Christ, in reference to the overthrow or
the superseding of an order of religious officers, forms, ceremonies, and
sacrifices, would clearly sin against the same.
Ø The very genius of the character of Christ would be felt to militate
unerringly against it, however feebly that genius might be appreciated.
PRIESTISM, The love of the priest’s office was one of the devoutest
feelings with the true priest. As the office lay with an appointed class in the
constitution of the Jewish people, we cannot say that individual preference
or bent of disposition decided who should bear it. While no constitutional
predilection determined the Jew’s choice of the ecclesiastic profession, it
makes perhaps more distinctly visible the effect of the office upon him and
his character. And very visible for bad was this effect in the time of our
Savior, when an earnest and devout priest was the exception. The love and
simplicity and devoutness of the true priest was indeed “precious in those
days.” And certain it is, for whatever reason, that “chief priests and elders”
led the opposition to Jesus, created it, and for the most part utterly
constituted it. The same parts they sustained towards the apostles now
from day to day. Moral blindness and moral insensitiveness are the constant
avengers of the temper. Two things go far to explain why it should be
Ø The confident and familiar tampering with unseen realities is one. The
conventional temper will dogmatically pronounce upon the things which
ask for the more reverent touch in that they are unseen and must be largely
Ø Its pride is to intrude into that most sacred domain, the domain of the
innermost life of others. The saying might have been made for it that it
“rushes in where angels would fear to tread.” And for a bold challenge like
this, no one who has at all observed the phenomena of man’s moral nature
can for a moment doubt that the recoil must be perilously dangerous.
“Have any of the rulers or the Pharisees believed on him?” was a question
that came, in point of fact, from the lips of a Pharisee (John 7:48), but
for all that was the unwitting tell-tale of saddest and surest facts, deep
down in the moral nature of himself and of his most intimately related
associates, the priests. And they amounted to self-blight’s confession —
the self-blight that came of profane presumptuousness towards Heaven and
arrogant assumption towards the spiritual life of their fellow-men, and that
consisted of ingrained obstinancy of prejudice, infolded affections, and
shriveled sympathies. To throw life and a healthy beat into the hearts of
such men has ever been beyond human resources. They have been hopeless
of the hopeless, and despair has been most familiar with their face. The
sovereign touch alone can reach their case. Great, then, was the victory of
the faith on this occasion, for they were “priests,” and they were “a great
company of priests” over whom it prevailed. The force of Jesus prevails
betimes over every worst form and every worst degree of evil in human
nature. Why it does not always is a question to which man knows not the
answer, or at all events not the explanation of the answer. But that force
did prevail now, and it made a great day and great joy. Greatest of all,
however, was the mercy that sped not by, but now rested on the wing and
alighted with the gift of salvation for this unlikeliest company. Let it be the
light of hope and the encouragement of effort for those who work, amid
the darkest, blankest, hardest material. Not less should this touch of history
warn with most ominous suggestion all those whose native bias, whose
solemn profession, whose self-undertaken series of duties, charge them
with the dreadest responsibility, not in its bearing on others only, but
“chiefly” and “first” on themselves.
8 “And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and
miracles among the people.” Grace for faith, Authorized Version and
Textus Receptus; wrought for did, Authorized Version; signs for
miracle, Authorized Version. Power (1:8, note); power to work miracles
especially, but also other spiritual power beyond his own natural strength
(see v. 10). This power showed itself in the signs and wonders which he
Wise Counsels (vs. 1-8)
The prosperity of the Church was great. The first hypocrisy had been
plucked up by the roots and burnt, so to speak in the presence of the whole
congregation. A holy awe had mingled with faith and love to give intense
reality to the religion of the disciples. The Spirit of God had borne active
witness to the word of the apostles by signs and wonders; and the healing
of many sick had conciliated multitudes and attached them to the Church.
The apostles had been strengthened and encouraged by the supernatural
ministration of an angel bringing them forth from prison, and bidding them
preach afresh in spite of their enemies; and at length their very enemies
were silenced, and one of the chief of them had advised his fellows, “Leave
these men alone.” With a fresh burst of zeal, the preaching of Christ had
been carried on, and the number of the disciples was greatly multiplied. But
now a new danger arose. One of the first institutions of the growing body
had been to supply the wants of the most desolate class — the widows —
and to gladden their hearts by a daily ministration of food out of the
common fund. But, in the rapid increase of numbers, the steps taken at first
to secure abundance and fairness in the distribution had proved insufficient.
The apostles, who hitherto had been the sole rulers and officers of the
Church, had greater things to attend to than even the distribution of
Church charities, and in their absence abuses had arisen. While the widows
of the Hebrew converts, so called, were well cared for, the Hellenist
widows, through some partiality on the part of those who had the
management of the tables, were neglected. They were put off with worse
places and scantier fare than their Hebrew sisters, or, maybe, found no
place at all provided for them. Naturally their friends felt aggrieved, and
murmured at such inconsiderate treatment. And the Christian body, before
so closely united in the bonds of love in Jesus Christ, showed signs of
being split into two bodies, Hebrews and Hellenists. What was to be done?
Was the danger to be despised, and were the complaints to be slighted
because they only related to the meat that perisheth? Were the widows and
their friends to be told that they ought to be occupied only about that meat
which endureth unto eternal life, which the Son of man would give them
freely and impartially, and their grievances to remain unredressed? Or,
taking a more just and graver view of the matter, should the apostles diminish
their spiritual labors, and give up their time and strength to the
organization of the public charities and the distribution of the daily bread?
They did neither. But with conspicuous wisdom they at once founded a
new order of men, whose special business it should be to attend to the daily
ministration, and see that none were favored and none left out. And, to
conciliate confidence in the thorough impartiality of the distribution, they
invited the whole Church to elect seven men of approved wisdom and
piety, to whom this important trust should be committed. The plan seems
to have been eminently successful, as we hear no more of murmurs and
complaints. The practical lessons to be learned are these:
1. Never despise other people’s grievances or make light of them because
they do not affect you. Especially let no pastor of a flock underrate the
temporal and personal vexations of any parishioner who may lay them
before him. To poor people even small losses seem very serious things.
And if to the sense of loss there is added a sense of injustice or unfairness,
the murmurs are very real, and represent deep-seated wounds. They must
be kindly and judicially attended to.
2. Again, all, and especially the clergy, should feel the full importance of
impartiality in dealing with their people. Favoritism in dispensing charity or
even pastoral care must be resolutely eschewed, nobody must be
“neglected” because others are preferred. Murmurs are not always loud;
but be sure that any unfair or supercilious treatment will rankle in the
breast; that, if extended to classes, it will make a serious crack in the unity
of the Church; and that it effectually prevents those who think themselves
unfairly treated from reaping any profit from the ministrations of those by
whom they think themselves so treated.
3. Lastly, the example of the apostles in this matter teaches those in
authority not to attempt to do everything with their own hands, and not to
be jealous of having able coadjutors to do the work thoroughly which they
themselves of necessity can only do imperfectly. In leaving the choice of
the new deacons to the congregation at large, instead of selecting them
themselves, they showed a thoroughly liberal and wise spirit, and have left
a lesson to the Church in all ages to trust the laity with all fitting power,
and to evoke the latent energies of the body, by giving to every capable
person some work to do for the glory of God and the welfare of His people.
Stephen, the Proto-Martyr (vs. 5-8)
Very little is known of his history. And, except for the sake of introducing
Saul of Tarsus, and indicating the influence that Stephen’s teachings and
martyrdom exerted upon him, it is difficult for us to trace why the brief
record of his work and death are preserved for us by Luke. We judge
that he was a Hellenist, by his name; but it is not known from what country
he came. He is represented by Epiphanius as one of the seventy disciples
chosen by Christ. Others think that he was one of Peter’s converts on
the day of Pentecost. Dr. Dykes fixes on the point most demanding our
attention when he says, “The elevation of Stephen to official rank had this
for one of its results, that the spiritual and intellectual gifts with which God
had endowed this man found at once a wider and more public sphere.
Stephen was more than an almoner. He was a deep student of the Old
Testament, a theologian of unusual insight, a powerful reasoner and an
advanced Christian. In him, too, we find that promise fulfilled which had
hitherto been fulfilled to Peter, the promise of such wisdom in speech as no
adversary could gainsay. His manner of speech, however, was unlike that
Ø Peter was a witness, and preached by witness-bearing.
Ø Stephen was a student, and preached by exposition and controversy.”
We dwell on the mission of Stephen as suggested by the terms of the above passages.
faith” — an expression which may be taken to mean:
Ø That he was unusually open and receptive to the Christian truth and
grace; for some manuscripts read, “full of grace.”
Ø Or that he was unusually zealous and active in proclaiming Christ. Faith
is sometimes the equivalent of piety, sometimes of activity. The man of
faith is, from one point of view, the man of piety; from another point of
view he is the man of activity, who readily overcomes hindrances, and,
relying on Divine help, goes on in his work, consecrating himself
wholly to it. Faith is too often thought of as a cherished sentiment; it
is for Christians the inspiration of practical life and duty. They
should be earnest in service, and find the earnestness maintained by
their trust. Faith evidently kept very near to Stephen the vision of
the exalted and living Christ.
Ø the influence of his personal character;
Ø in his indomitable energy and perseverance;
Ø in his stores of scriptural knowledge;
Ø in his intellectual gifts;
Ø in his unanswerable arguments;
Ø in his ability to add miraculous attestations. Men could not resist the
“wisdom and the Spirit by which he spake.”
simply endowed with intellectual gifts, but under special constraining of
the Holy Ghost; called to a special work, and suitably enriched and inspired
for that work. Where there is a full consecration of heart, and an entire
openness of life, there the Holy Spirit will come, making the man His agent,
and assuring to his labors full success.
true relations between Judaism and Christianity dawn upon the apostles.
But Stephen saw them, and boldly announced them, putting them on men’s
thoughts, if he might not win for them a present acceptance. Perhaps, as a
Hellenist, he had not so great prejudices to overcome as had the Palestinian
Jews. Stephen paid the penalty which usually comes to those whose
thoughts and teachings are in advance of their age. His enemies were quite
right. From their point of view he was a most dangerous man — no one of
the Christian band was so dangerous. But he was one of the noblest of
men. He is a sublime example. His brief life is an abiding witness. Being
dead, he speaks with a martyr’s voice, bidding us do noble things for
Christ, and trust him to give us strength for the doing.
9 “Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of
the Libertines, and Cyrenians,
and Alexandrians, and of them of
them that were for certain, Authorized Version; of the Cyrenians and of the
Alexandrians for Cyrenians and Alexandrians, Authorized
have been four hundred and eighty synagogues in
time of our Savior (Olshausen, on Matthew 4:23). But this is probably
a fanciful number; only it may be taken as an indication of the great number
of such places of Jewish worship. Tiberias is said to have had twelve
synagogues. Ten grown-up people was the minimum congregation of a
synagogue. It seems by the enumeration of synagogues in our text that the
foreign Jews had each their own synagogue at
supposes, where men of the same nation attended when they came to
Kuraenaion – of Cyrenians and again before Ἀλεξανδρέων – Alexandreon –
of Alexandrians - the same words as precede Λιβερτίνων – Libertinon – Libertines;
freedmen , viz. καὶ τῶν ἐκ τῆς συναγωγῆς τῆς λεγομένης – kai ton ek taes
sunagogaes taes legomenaes - , so as to mean “and certain of them that were of
called” and so on. The very numerous Jews of
Libertines were, as Chrysostom explains it, “freedmen of the Romans.”
They are thought to consist chiefly of the descendants of the Jews who
were taken prisoners by Pompey, and deported to
afterwards emancipated and returned to
Libertini, infected with Jewish or Egyptian superstitions, as banished to
who tells the same story as Tacitus, though somewhat differently, says they
were all Jews (‘Ant. Jud.,’ 18, 3:5). The Cyrenians.
settled there in the time of Ptolemy Lagus (‘Cont. Apion.,’ 2:4), and are
said by Josephus (quoting Strabo) to have been a fourth part of the
inhabitants of the city (‘Ant. Jud.,’14. 7:2). Josephus also quotes edicts of
Augustus and of M. Agrippa, confirming to the Jews of Cyrene the right to
live according to their own laws, and specially to send money for the
are mentioned at Pentecost in ch.2:10; Simon, who bore our Savior’s cross, was
“a man of
the persecution that arose about Stephen (ch.11:19); and “Lucius of
Cyrenians should have a synagogue of their own at
equal to two-fifths of the whole city. The famous Philo, who was in middle
age at this time, was an Alexandrian, and the Alexandrian Jews were the
most learned of their race. The Jews settled in
Alexander the Great and Ptolemy Lagus. The Septuagint Version of the
Scriptures was made at
therefore, that they had a synagogue at
The transition from the African Jews to those of
changing the form of phrase into καὶ τῶν ἀπὸ Κιλικίας – kai ton apo Cilicias.
There were many Jews in
there, as well as the fact of its being his own native province (see ch.15:23, 41;
Galatians 1:21). Josephus makes frequent mention of the Jews in the wars between
the Ptolemies and Antiochus the Great, with whom the Jews sided, and in
consequence were much favored by him. And it is thought that many who had
been driven out from their homes by the wars, and others who were brought by
him from Babylonia, settled in his time in
Asiatic dominions. Seleucus also encouraged the Jews to settle in the towns of
on an equal footing (ἰσοτίμους – isotimous - ) with Macedonians and Greeks
see note). Evidence of the abundance of Jews in
Acts (ch. 13:16,24,42,45; 14:19; 16:13; 18:26, 28; 19:17; 20:21). That the Jews
10 “And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which
he spake.” Withstand for resist, Authorized Version. This was a part of the
“power” mentioned in v. 8.
11 “Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak
blasphemous words against Moses, and against God.”
Then they suborned, (bribed). The resource of those who are
worsted in argument is violence or treachery. Blasphemous words
against Moses. It must be remembered that at this time the whole Jewish
people were in a state of ill-suppressed frenzy and most sensitive jealousy
for the honor of the Mosaic institutions — feelings which broke out in
constant revolts against the Roman power. The accusation against the
apostles of speaking blasphemies against Moses was therefore the most
likely one they could have pitched upon to stir up ill will against them.
The Weakness of Persecutors (vs. 10-11)
Attention is drawn to the fact, which has received frequent illustration
through the martyr-ages, that men only resort to persecuting tactics when
they become conscious of their moral helplessness and theological
inefficiency. The persecutor is like the swearer; No man ever needs to
curse if his word is known to be truthful. No man ever needs to persecute
if he has the right on his side, and faith in those moral forces which ever
uphold the right. As the line of thought is directly based on the incident as
narrated in the verses, a brief outline will suffice. We find these advocates
of strict Judaism:
there was not merely controversial skill, adequate knowledge, and a good
theme; there was a spiritual power which made him irresistible. Perhaps
nothing rouses anger more readily than defeat in discussion. Few men can
retain self-control at such times. And the permanent value of religious
public disputations may be very seriously questioned. Happily the tone of
religious controversy in our times is greatly improved.
Sadly illustrated in Calvin and Servetus, and similar cases of condescending
to use the power of the magistrate in purely intellectual and moral disputes.
Properly, the public magistrate has only to do with the breaking of the
social order, but it has always been found easy to fashion charges
cognizable by the magistrate when the real purpose has been to silence a
triumphant intellectual or religious foe. Truth-lovers never need ask aid
from the world’s coarse government weapons. Magna est veritas, et
prevalebit (Truth is mighty and will prevail!)
prompting false witnesses. So did the prejudiced Sanhedrin in dealing with
our Lord. Honorable men descending to the lowest depths to carry out
their malicious schemes. Their spirit and conduct are fully shown up by the
company they keep. Loyalty to the right and to God cannot endure
fellowship with false witnesses.
people.” The fickleness of the populace is proverbial. Their susceptibility to
excitement makes them the easy tool of the demagogue. And Jewish
crowds were remarkable for their sudden impulses. Theudas and Judas and
Barchocheba played their purposes on this tightly strung string. When
Stephen’s enemies had no fair charge to urge against him before the courts,
their only hope of accomplishment for their malicious purposes lay in the
violence of a popular uprising. Their utter weakness and their shameful
badness are revealed in their schemes. Seeming to succeed, they really
failed more utterly than with their arguments. They could kill the body, but
what more could they do? They could not fly after the winged words
which, like seeds, had found their lodgment in the minds and hearts of
Barnabas and Saul, and would surely spring up and bear blossom and
fruitage to the dismay of all Stephen’s enemies. Let the persecutor do his
weak and foolish work, for “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the
12 “And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and
came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council,”
Seized for caught, Authorized Version; into for to, Authorized Version.
And they stirred up; i.e. by means of the reports spread by the men whom
they suborned, and by working upon the feelings of the people and the elders
and scribes, these men of the synagogues so excited them that they obtained
permission to arrest Stephen and bring him before the Sanhedrin.
13 “And set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to
speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law:”
Words for blasphemous words, Authorized Version and Textus Receptus.
Set up false witnesses. The similarity of Stephen’s trial to that of our Lord
· the same set purpose to silence a true-speaking tongue by death;
· the same base employment of false witnesses;
· the same wresting of good words into criminal acts; and
· the same meekness and patience unto death.
Blessed servant to tread so closely in thy Lord’s steps! (compare Matthew 5:11-12;
I Peter 4:14-16). This holy place; the Sanhedrin sat in one of the chambers of
the temple, called Gazith. This had been prohibited by the Romans, but the
prohibition was in abeyance in the present time of anarchy.
14 “For we
have heard him say, that this Jesus of
this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.”
Unto us for us, Authorized Version. We have heard him say, etc. These
false witnesses, like those who distorted our Lord’s words (Matthew
26:61; John 2:19), doubtless based their accusation upon some
semblance of truth. If Stephen had said anything like what Jesus said to the
what the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews wrote (8:13), or what
Paul wrote to the Colossians (Colossians 2:16-17), his words might
easily be misrepresented by false witnesses, whose purpose it was to swear
away his life. This Jesus of
This (οῦτος – houtos - this), so often rendered in the Authorized Version
“this fellow” (Matthew 26:61,71; John 9:29, etc.), is of itself a scornful
expression (compare ch. 7:40), and the ὁ Ναζωραῖος – ho Nazoraios -
the Nazarene, is intended to be still more so.
15 “And all that sat in the council, looking steadfastly on him, saw his
face as it had been the face of an angel.”Fastening their eyes for looking
steadfastly, Authorized Version. (see above, ch.3:4). The council would
naturally all look at him, in expectation of his answer to the evidence just
delivered against him. In his face, illuminated with a Divine radiance,
they had an answer which they would have done well to listen to (for the
brightness of an angel’s face, compare Matthew 28:3; Daniel 10:6;
The Service of the Lip and the Glory of the Countenance (8-15)
The wise step of appointing seven deacons “to serve tables,” and thus to
liberate the apostles for prayer and preaching, like other good causes, had
results which reached beyond the first object of it. It led to the formation of
a most useful body of men, who have served Christ and His Church in other
things beside mere “tables” or temporalities. It brought out Stephen; and
who shall say how much that had to do with the conversion of Saul, and so
with THE EVANGILIZATION AND ENLIGHTENMENT OF THE WORLD?
WILL LEAD TO ENTRUSTMENT WITH A HIGHER ONE. (vs. 8-9)
Stephen, having acquitted himself well as a deacon, and showing
powers of speech and argument, was encouraged to visit the synagogues,
and there “dispute” on behalf of Christian truth. And not only so, but God
honored him as the channel of His Divine healing power, and he “did great
wonders and miracles among the people” It is always wise to begin at or
near the bottom of the scale; to do the simplest thing well, and then rise to
that which is next above it. It is well, in Christian service as in secular
callings and in the affairs of state, to go through the various grades until
the higher and perhaps the highest are reached. Faithful work in a humbler
sphere will fit for useful and honorable service in a higher; this is true of
our life on earth, and will doubtless prove true respecting the life which is
to come (Matthew 13:12; Luke 16:10).
POWER WITH MEN ON GRACE FROM GOD. Stephen was full of
“grace and power” (v. 8); full of power with men because full of grace
from God. From the Divine resources there came down heavenly influences
into his soul:
Ø zeal, and he was strong:
o to interest,
o to instruct,
o to convince, and
o to persuade.
We shall remain unsuccessful as workers for Christ, however great our natural
gifts may be, except we have GRACE FROM ON HIGH to PENETRATE and
POSSESS OUR SOUL, and we be endued “with all might by His Spirit in the
SACRED SERVICE. Stephen “disputed” with the Hellenistic Jews in the
synagogues (v. 9), and so effectively that “they were not able to resist the
wisdom and the spirit by which he spake” Statement of Christian doctrine
and enforcement of Christian truth may take higher rank, in usefulness,
than the defense of Christian theology; but the latter has its place in the
field of sacred service, and those who work elsewhere should not disparage
or decry it. Everything in its time and in its turn.
ONLY AGGRAVATED BY THE EXHIBITION OF THE TRUTH.
(vs. 11-14.) These men who were in the wrong, instead of being
enlightened and benefited by Stephen’s forcible exposition, were led into
folly and sin. They hired others to give testimony which was virtually if not
literally false, and they did their best to compass the violent death of the
man who was seeking to lead them into the kingdom of truth and life.
When men are not only wrong in theory, but also bad at heart, interested in
maintaining that which is false, any endeavor to enlighten them will often
fan the flame of their folly and rouse to its fullest exercise the perversity
which is in their souls.
HEAVENLY BRIGHTNESS. (v.15.) We may continue to dispute
whether the “angel-face” of Stephen was natural or supernatural radiance.
It matters little; but it is of consequence to know that the higher Christian
graces will write their sign upon our countenance. As sin makes its sad and
shameful traces on the frame, so purity, faith, love, devotion, will make the
face to be aglow with heavenly light. Nothing but a devoted Christian life
could give us such angel-faces as some of those which we see worshipping
in our sanctuaries and laboring in our holy fields of love.
Stephen’s Work and Witness (vs. 8-15)
rather than define the force of those words. Grace is first the favor of God
felt in the man’s soul, then manifested in his whole bearing, tone,
conversation, and way of life. The effect is like the cause; the recipient of
Divine favor makes a deeply favorable impression upon others. Power,
again, is the Divine will making itself felt in the man as his will; and the
effect is powerful upon others. Thus Stephen was a man felt to be
extraordinary kind among the people. The Jew craved signs and wonders,
and from long habit and education was accustomed to see in these the
great evidence of a Divine mission. But true faith is never without power
to work some kind of wonders. Moral wonders are the most impressive
and the most evidential.
must have prompted it. The most fruitful lives invite most criticism.
“Stones are not thrown except at the fruit-laden tree,” says the proverb.
Ø Its character: disputatious. School wit and wisdom are brought to bear
against him. When facts cannot be denied, nor made the foundation of
charges, fancies are found to be convenient as material of attack. The man
who is mighty in deed shall, if possible, be shown an imbecile in argument,
a novice in knowledge. But there are more things in heaven and earth than are
dreamt of in school philosophy; and the power of God and wisdom of God
in His servants set at naught the “disputer” of the world.
Ø Its failure. The dialecticians were met by simple spiritual wisdom. It was
a plain story that Stephen had to tell; its very simplicity and dignity foiled
step. If dishonesty is in a man’s use of words and arguments, he will be
likely to carry it out in deeds. If we bribe our reason in the interests of
passion, why should we hesitate to corrupt the minds of others? Bribed
testimony may produce a great effect for a time. It can craftily be made
closely to resemble the truth. If a teacher upholds the spirit of Scripture, he
may be represented with the ignorant as despising its letter. The charge of
“speaking evil against Moses and God” must have been made colorable.
Stephen taught that the old dispensation was in decay, and that the temple
must pass away. This was easily misrepresented as speaking against the
temple and the old institutions. The institutions of God are living, therefore
must grow, and change their forms from age to age. To assert the necessity
of change may be perverted to mean the assertion of the necessity of
overthrow. The highest teaching is ever most liable to misrepresentation. It
cannot respect men’s vested interests. And interest, with all the “hell-deep
instincts” which rally in support of it, can ever find plausible arguments
against the innovator. Stephen’s experience repeats that of Jesus and
anticipates that of Paul.
and all its sacred associations in religion and national feeling were
threatened, as they thought. The Sanhedrin, the “elders and scribes,”
trembled for their power. Stephen was apprehended and brought before
them. The false witnesses repeat their story. Though doubtless verbally
true, it was in spirit false. That Jesus of Nazareth should “dissolve the
sacred place and change the old religious customs” was indeed the sublime
truth in a sentence. Christianity dissolves Judaism — by fulfilling it. To
break up one home to found another is not to destroy the first home. To
cast off an old garment because a new one is needed and at hand, is not to
discredit the old. Destruction absolute and final is different from abolition
with a view to progress. The witnesses were thus near to the truth, yet far
from it. When opposites meet, the idea of dissolution and that of life, the
half-truth may be the most malicious of lies.
The people were now again united with their rulers. The Sanhedrin no
longer feared to go against the general feeling. It was “Stephen against the
world.” Among all the eyes fastened upon him there was probably no
friendly glance. Yet at this moment, like the sun breaking through the
blackness of a thunder-cloud, a glory of unearthly splendor irradiated the
brow of the witness. In such moments God chooses to show His love to His
chosen. Forsaken — not forsaken; cast down — not destroyed; fettered
and hemmed in on every side — yet free; such is the experience of the soul
that confides in God. (II Corinthians 4:8-9) It throws itself in the extremity
of its helplessness at the feet of God — nay, upon His very breast. Never do
we know what heights and depths are in the kingdom of spirit, till we are thrust
into them by the frowns or the force that bars all other ways. The spirit touches
its height of triumph and joy in the very moment when the man to outward
appearance is lost. And there are brief moments when God reveals His
presence in a manner not to be forgotten on that noblest of His mirrors, the
human countenance. (Thus the dangers of the condition mentioned in
Psalms 42:5,11; 43:5 - “Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art
thou disquieted in me? Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise Him for
the help of His countenance!” – perhaps He will shine on you too! – CY –
2016) God’s eagles rise in the storm; His stars shine in the darkest night.
Compare the face of Stephen with that of Moses (II Corinthians 3:7-8).
We learn from Stephen:
Ø The might that comes to man through faith and the Holy Spirit; ability:
o to work,
o to witness, and
o to suffer.
Ø The glory of the martyr.
o Accused, God favors him;
o slandered, the truth is illustrated by him;
o overcome and overclouded, he rises and he shines like
the sun in his strength.
Stephen Before the Council (vs. 8-15)
The conflict between the spirit of Judaism and the Spirit of Christ. Show
the importance of this conflict in the early Church, lasting for more than a
whole generation, lingering into the second century. But chiefly brought to
an end through one (Saul
out of the very midst of the fiercest fire of Jewish bigotry.
Ø Natural gifts; Jewish training;
Ø Special gifts of the Spirit. Leader of the seven. “Grace and power.”
Wrought wonders and signs. The wisdom and spirit; raised the highest by
Ø From the foreign synagogues. Therefore probably not so much on the
ground of a narrow Pharisaism, but as a resistance of the Holy Spirit’s
manifestations in the spirit of rationalism and literalism.
Ø The resort to the Sanhedrin, already leagued with the Sadducees, and
therefore kindred with the Alexandrian latitudinarians. Instructive as
showing that Judaism was going off into rationalism, as it still does.
Ø The falsehood and the violence which wrought in the persecution. Suborned
men. Appeal to the Pharisaic party, though the synagogues had no real
sympathy with them. They were not really guardians of the Mosaic
customs. People, elders, scribes, — all stand up by the Alexandrian party.
His face “as the face of an angel” (cf. the similar manifestation on the face
Ø Spiritual manifestation appealing to faith.
Ø Testimony to the purity and angelic character of Stephen.
Ø Contrast between the heavenly and the earthly in the men, the methods,
the doctrines, and the final results.
Fanaticism (vs. 9-15)
Fanaticism has one respectable feature, that it is sincere. The fanatic
believes what he asserts to be true, and he is earnest and zealous in the
maintenance and propagation of his belief. But when we have said thus
much we have said all that can be said in his favor. In fanaticism there is a
culpable neglect of the reason which God has given to man to be his guide.
The fanatic shuts his eyes and closes his ears, and rushes on his way with
no more reflection or discrimination than a wild bull in its fury. Fanaticism,
too, has a fatal tendency to deaden all moral considerations and to blunt a
man’s perceptions of right and wrong. It is in vain to look for justice, or
fairness, or truth, or mercy, from a fanatic. There is no violence of which
he is not capable if he thinks his faith is in danger, no wiles and baseness to
which he will not stoop if he thinks it necessary for the defense of his
cause. Murder, perjury, bribery, subornation of witnesses, and defamation
of opponents by lies and slander, have constantly been the weapons by
which fanaticism of various kinds has ever defended itself. The end justified
the means. It is, however, a curious feature in the history of fanaticism that
it is often so closely allied with self-interest. And this is a feature which
derogates considerably from its only merit, that of sincerity. In a pure love
of truth there is no thought of self-interest. Truth, is a holy, Divine thing,
loved for its own sake. But the fanatic’s creed is not pure truth; and so it
seems it cannot be loved with the same pure, disinterested love with which
truth is loved. Hence it has often been the parent of crime; and hence it is,
as we have just said, often allied with self-interest. It is so with
Mohammedan fanaticism; it has been so and still is with Romish and
specially Jesuitical fanaticism; it was so with Puritan and fifth-monarchy
fanaticism; it is so with other existing forms of fanatical and unreasonable
zeal. In the case before us in this chapter we need not doubt that these
Hellenistic Jews had a very strong and ardent attachment to the Law of
Moses, and that their dread and dislike of Stephen’s teaching arose from
their apprehension that Christian doctrine was in its nature destructive of
their own tenets. But if their attachment to the Law of Moses had been
intelligent and pure, they would have welcomed the gospel of Christ as
being the fulfillment of THE LAW. If they had been actuated by a holy love of
God’s truth, they would not have sought to uphold the Mosaic institutions
By violence, by injustice, and by fraud. Nor can we doubt that, as in the
case of the chief priests and scribes and elders, who conspired to take away
the life of Jesus Christ, so in the case of these heated partisans, the fear of
losing their own places of influence and power, and having to yield the
place of honor to the Galilaean teachers whom they hated and despised,
had much to do with the unrighteous zeal of the members of the Hellenistic
synagogues. The Christian should strive to have a zeal for CHRIST AND
HIS GLORY quite as ardent as that of any fanatic, but at the same time to keep the
eyes and ears of his reason always open for the correction of any error into
which he may inadvertently have fallen, and for the addition of any truth
which he may not hitherto have known. Above all, he will never seek to
bear down reason by violence, or to defend truth with the carnal weapons
of unrighteousness, whether violence or fraud.
The Logic of Heavenly Luster (v. 15)
“And all… saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.” The two
occasions of the mention of Stephen have already apprised us of an
exceptional spirituality marking his character, and it cannot but be that the
exceptional splendor and luminousness of his countenance here spoken of
are more or less connected with that fact. The hour of martyrdom is
drawing on apace for Stephen, and he is already raised to that little
company which numbered in it — Moses in one of the most critical
portions of his history (Exodus 34:29-30; II Corinthians 3:7), and
Jesus Himself (Matthew 17:2; Luke 9:29) on the Mount of
Transfiguration. It is being given to Stephen to ripen into an “angel of
God” even on earth. The fact of the distinct record of Stephen’s
appearance now justifies our paying even some additional attention to what
in itself would naturally have attracted our interested inquiry. The interest
gathers round this central inquiry — Why was such special and such
peculiar kind of distinction vouchsafed to Stephen? “His face was as it had
been the face of an angel.”
AS AT LEAST FIT OBJECT OF THIS LUSTER. It is not open to us to
say that this was the cause in any sense, but much less the one cause, of the
luster with which the countenance of Stephen shone. But we must remark
on it as showing the presence of one essential condition. In a biography
almost as brief (omitting his defense) as that of Enoch, three things are
reiterated, intimating to us the highly developed spirituality of Stephen.
Ø He was “full of faith.” Every true disciple of Jesus Christ must, no doubt,
be “rooted in” faith. He must “know whom he believes.” (II Timothy 1:12)
But to be “full of faith” probably signifies something beyond this. A man may
truly have faith, and if he have it he will live and “walk” by it, yet may be the
very man who will need to have full allowance made for him as respects the
distinction of faith and sight. Not just so the man who is “full of faith.” For
him faith has come to be such an “evidence of things not seen,” and such
an embodied “substance of things hoped for,” that his “conversation is in
heaven” already, and his countenance more really fitted to shine with
celestial radiance. In fact, we may rest assured there is a great difference
between even a very genuine possession of faith and a being “full of faith.”
The former is true of very many who are exceedingly far removed from the
latter. That faith which scripturally and apostolically postulates the
distinction of sight has in its fullness the power to efface the very
distinction itself has made, and throws two worlds into one. We do not at
all doubt it was so now with Stephen, who for the fullness of faith now
lived and thought, spoke and worked, “as seeing him who is invisible”
(Hebrews 11:27); and that was in itself the earnest of a radiant countenance.
Ø He was “full of the Holy Ghost.” It must be allowed on all hands that
this fact justifies us much more in an affirmation of the presence now of
something in the nature of a predisposing qualification. In the modern
Church the work and the fruit of the Spirit is grievously underrated. Hence
its weakness, hence its want of enterprise, hence its comparative deadness.
We have ample Scripture warrant for distinguishing degrees in the Spirit’s
operation; nor can we forget how, while to others according to measure
the gifts of the Spirit are vouchsafed, of One it is said, “God giveth not the
Spirit by measure” to Him (John 3:34). How intensely full was John
of the Spirit, when as he rather puts it, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s
day” (Revelation 1:10)! What the countenance of John then was
we know not, nor was there one to see it and tell us; but we are in no
ignorance of what his rapt state of mind was, and to what the Spirit exalted
him. It is not, therefore, the unwarranted thing to think that the Spirit’s
force in the nature of the man in whom He largely dwells should betoken
Himself in physical manifestation. The legitimate conclusion would rather lead
us to a conviction that restraint is self-imposed on the Spirit, in order that
His blessed manifestation should neither overpower the individual in whom
He largely may dwell, nor supersede moral attraction and moral evidence
for all who stand by. How humiliating, how unspeakably mournful, to think
how seldom it appears true of any in these ages that they are “full of the
Holy Ghost,” or that in their case the Spirit needs to shade off any of His
Ø He abounded in zeal. The zeal of Jesus and His truth, of Jesus and “this
life” that came through Him, went far “to eat him up” (John 2:17).
Though Stephen was not an apostle, and though he was and had only just
been formally elected and appointed a deacon, yet he did the works of an
apostle, and, if we may judge from appearances, did much more than the
more part of them. He was first to be chosen deacon (v. 5), a
circumstance which marks probably not his high spiritual character alone,
but also his repute for practical diligence. It is then distinctly testified of
him (v. 8) that he “did great wonders and miracles among the people.”
Nor this alone. He stood to his position, did not refuse to maintain by
disputation the truth he had spoken, and did so hold his own that,
unscrupulous though his opponents were, “they were not able to resist the
wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.” This was to be a thorough
believer and a thorough-going champion. Argument will often fire the
passions and light up the countenance; and holy argument will fire noble
passions and will make a luster dawn upon the face. Yet still it is God’s
sovereign act to select His “chosen vessel,” and His surpassing mercy that
fits any one to be such.
NOW LAY WITH STEPHEN.
Ø From our modern point of view, interest in watching him now would
have been possibly not a little increased by the thought that we were
watching the first layman on his trial. Though the thing would not have
been so worded then, yet we may readily imagine a quickened gaze on the
part at least of all the apostles, and probably of many others, it was
gradually dawning upon the Jewish nation and the world that a prophet, a
priest, an apostle, was what he did; and Peter begins to be impressed with
what leads him soon to say, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter
of persons, but… he that feareth him and worketh righteousness is
accepted with him.” (ch. 10:34-35) Neither Peter nor any of his fellow-
apostles was an hereditary or trained priest, but they were all conscious that
they were “called to be apostles.” The vast circle of the true Christian
preachers and prophets begins further still to enlarge when Peter and the
apostles fall behind a while, and Stephen, just now a plain man and only
most recently titled deacon, fills up the whole foreground, in an episode of
almost unsurpassed interest in the whole of the Acts of the Apostles. Since,
then, Stephen was not “called apostle,” the luster which now lighted up his
countenance was in part his Master’s gracious and bountiful substitute.
God does not forget the special needs of special occasions, and if, as is
probably the case, Stephen was not aware of his own appearance, there
cannot be a doubt that it secured for him, from the first word of his
opening defense, a special attention. The occasion was one of special
responsibility, therefore, for Stephen, inasmuch as he is employed to bring
into uncommon prominence, in one aspect of it, the dawning
comprehensiveness of Christianity.
Ø The number of those present, the very various description of them that
they were led on to the attack by a very confederacy of infuriated
synagogues, the determined and excited tactics resorted to of false
witnesses, wresting words and statements of Stephen out of their
connection, — all these contributed to give:
o a violence to the occasion, that asked for something unusual to hold it
for some moments at least in check. It was an occasion to which the
interrogatory fits, “Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain
things?” (Psalm 2:1) And it meant mercy to the maddened in heart, far more
than respite to Stephen. Against themselves they shall hear, and if needs be
that they may hear, they shall also first see. If thereafter they will still refuse,
it is more than ever their own deed that proffered mercy TURNS INTO
JUDGMENT! So upon the madness and fury of Saul’s persecuting journey
And in this case that interval of calmed time was sanctified to the saving of
Saul, and of many others through him. Even beyond what we very clearly
read, it may be that there were peculiarities in the occasion, and in the
excited audience that Stephen had now to address, which should explain
this peculiarly gracious — we had almost said graceful — and considerate
interposition of the supernatural. For certainly:
o the event proved that the occasion was, in point of fact, one of the
most supreme sort. Most remarkable and most fatal was the chill taken by
people.” It had
looked as though
vain “begun with in the” preaching of the gospel. It had looked as though
that “great company of priests” who became “obedient to the faith”
decided the tide of victory and made the day one ever notable and glorious.
But the prospect terribly clouds over, and fair hopes are dashed to the
ground. This the event proves. But the foreseeing eye, the foreknowing
great mind, heeded not the event, yet treats that oncoming decisive
struggle as though there were still hope, and gives it every help, if haply
(Matthew 23:37-39) It is so constantly, that God, though He foreknows,
still lengthens out the opportunity and the offer of grace and help. Behind
the fact lies, doubtless, one of the great mysteries, as yet unapprehended,
nay, untouched, by the apprehension of man. Certain it is that foreknowledge
with us would peremptorily strip off from us alike impartial conduct and
courage, whether for what awaited ourselves or for what awaited others.
We should never keep a steady hand or hold on a steady way. But is
the voice, the features of Divine pity and love, continue or REDOUBLE
LIFE-BLOOD WAS NOW IMMINENT FOR STEPHEN. And this is like
the grace and free liberality of the Master. Has Stephen’s career been very
short? — yet he has run bravely the race, he has fought well the fight. And
even before the crown above, and before the glorious witness there, he
shall have a telling and to-be-remembered witness here also, on the very
scene of his conflict, and in the very eyes of those whom he sought to save,
but who sought to destroy him. Either we do often call that a miracle
which needs not the name, or we very often fail to call that a miracle which
begs the name; for tender analogies to the thing wrought now for Stephen
have been even frequent since and up to the present. When the end comes
very near for the faithful, how mellowed his feeling and how calmed his
temper and how serene his countenance! When the last hour approaches,
how often does physical pain resign her hitherto implacable tyranny, and
mental aberration subside into a resumption of childlike instead of childish
disposition and docility of thought and feeling! When the last moments
arrive for those who have “struggled long with sins and doubts and fears,”
but who nevertheless have been faithful both to work and to love, how
often does the actual countenance speak of the peace that reigns
undisturbed within, and sights are seen and songs are heard which nothing
but the callousness of the infidel can possibly deny or throw doubt upon!
This very thing was going to be so for Stephen, while he is being stoned.
But it is anticipated by — shall we say — a brief half-hour. For his last
argument he shall have more light within than ever before — the logic of
very light; and in his last gazing and impassioned looks turned on the
gainsaying people his face shall reflect THE LIGHT OF GOD!
The Angel-Face on Man (v. 15)
Something of a proverbial character rests on the expression, “Saw his face
as it had been the face of an angel” (compare Esther 5:2, Septuagint).
Some think that this description may be traced to the impression made at
the time on Paul and reported by him to Luke.” There was “calm
dignity,” but there was something more and better; there was the vision of
Christ as present with him, and the radiant face was the result of the vision.
Compare the skin of Moses’ face shining, and the glory of the
Savior on the Mount of Transfiguration. The face of Stephen was already
illumined with the radiancy of the new Jerusalem. The words describe
the glory that brightened the features of Stephen, supported as he was by
the consciousness of the Divine favor. Illustrate the truly wonderful
power of varied expression which is found in the human face. It responds
at once to the moods of the spirit, changing suddenly at changing moods,
and gaining fixity of form and feature according to the settled character
and habit of the mind. What a man is can be read from his face. How true
this was of Stephen may be shown by dwelling on the following points:
CHERISHED FEELING. It tells us the tone and mood of his mind —
what he was thinking about, and what he was feeling. Reveals to us the
man of God and man of faith and man of prayer, who lived in communion
of spirit with the glorified Savior. Lines of care come into faces of worldly
Christians. Heart-peace, rest in God, absorbing love to Christ, make smile play
over the face. “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he,” and so is he in
expression of countenance. And the pleasant, the angel, face makes holy
witness for Christ before men, winning them to the love of Him who thus
can glorify His saints.
SUPERIORITY TO HIS SURROUNDINGS. Describe them, and show
how reasonably we might have looked for alarm and fear. Well Stephen
knew that all this wild rage and tumult and false witnessing meant his
death. But there is no quailing. It might have been a day of joy and
triumph, to judge by Stephen’s face. Compare Paul’s words, “None of
these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself.” (ch. 20:24)
Outwardly a man may be tossed, tempted, tried, imperiled, tortured, but inwardly
he may be kept in perfect peace, having his mind stayed on God (Isaiah 26:3).
Such mastery of circumstance is just as truly the great Christian triumph now,
though our circumstances are rather those of perplexity and pressure than
of peril to life and property. Overcoming the world, as Stephen did, we too
may win and wear the “angel-face.”
THE CONSCIOUS NEARNESS OF JESUS. Of this we have intimation in
ch. 7:56, but we are apt to regard Stephen’s exclamation as indicating
a sudden and passing vision. It is much more probable that it kept with him
all through the wild and exciting scene. When they set him before the
council, the “angel-face” was there, and the vision of the Christ was in his
soul. While he spoke his defense, the Lord stood by him and strengthened
him; and when the stones flew about him and struck him down, the vision
kept in his soul; the blinded eyes saw it, and it never passed until it became
the enrapturing and eternal reality — his bliss for evermore to be with
Jesus. The light on Stephen’s face was the smile that recognized the best of
Friends, who was so graciously fulfilling His promise, and being with His
suffering people always. That smile told on the persecuting Sanhedrin.
They would not forget it or ever get the vision out of their minds. It would
secretly convict, if it did not openly win. Can there be still, and now, in our
milder spheres, the angel-face on man — on us? And if so, then on what
things must the winning and the wearing of that angel-face depend?
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