SUNSET ON THE MOUNT OF
"And devout men carried STEPHEN to his burial, and
made great lamentation over him." –Acts 8:2.
Where the funeral lamentations of these devout mourners
took place, we cannot tell. There is a story (which, however, rests on
doubtful tradition,) that Gamaliel, Paul's instructor, himself in secret a
Christian, had the mangled body of STEPHEN conveyed to a private
burial-ground in his own villa, twenty miles distant from Jerusalem--that,
in accordance with oriental used, he mourned for him seventy days--and that,
when he himself was approaching death, he gave directions that his own ashes
were to mingle with those of the venerated martyr.
Be this as it may, let us gather, in thought, around the
crude death-couch of this spiritual hero, and watch the going down of his
earthly sun. It is a "sunset" alike mournful and glorious. The sky itself is
stormy and lowering; but the peaceful orb descends in calm majesty, bathed
in the light and glory of a brighter hemisphere.
The death and martyrdom of Stephen has been, to the
Church in every age, a hallowed memorial of faith, stern endurance,
Christian meekness, and love. It was a testimony specially needed in the
apostolic age; for well has it been observed (though the remark is a sad
one) that, "the first apostle who died was a traitor; the first disciples of
the apostles were hypocrites and liars--the kingdom of the Son of man was
founded in darkness and gloom." But here, at last, was a true sun, amid
these wandering stars, shedding a chastened and mellowed glory in the olden
skies. Doubtless, the simple but sublime narrative of Stephen's dying
moments, nerved the arm and braced the faith of many of the noble army of
martyrs who immediately followed him, and whose blood became the seed of the
Let us mingle, in thought, among the crowd of "devout
men" who are "carrying him to his burial," and gather a few instructive
Of his earlier history we know little, except that he was
a Grecian, or foreign Jew, converted to the faith of Jesus of Nazareth, and
selected by the Church as one of the seven deacons who were to have the
administration of the fund for destitute Christian widows. As a Hellenist,
his mind was not warped with the weak prejudices which beset the Jewish
converts resident in Palestine. Many of these still fondly clung to the old
nationality. They looked with pride on their ritual, their temple, their
ancestral privileges. Stephen was, in this respect, a step in advance even
of the apostles themselves. He saw a nobler spiritual shrine rising on the
ruins of the temple of Jerusalem--true worshipers from every nation
gathering within its sacred courts, and confessing that "Jesus Christ was
His character is delineated in a single sentence--He was
"a man full of faith, and of the Holy Spirit"--"full of faith and power,"
(Acts 6:8). These are equivalent terms--for the power this man of faith
had was God-derived. The faith of his life, and the superhuman heroism of
his death, have this as their exponent--"Not by might, nor by power, but
by my Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts," (Zech. 4:6). That Holy Spirit
seemed mightily to strengthen him, as he stood alone, confronting the
learning, and, worse than all, the furious bigotry, of the supreme
ecclesiastical court of the nation. His Lord appeared, in his case, to
afford the first fulfillment of a promise given, in the course of His
personal ministry, to all His true disciples--"But when they shall
deliver you up, take no thought how or what you shall speak, for it shall be
given you in that same hour what you shall speak. For it is not you that
speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you." Even to the
very last, he was upborne by the same "Spirit of power."
It was this same omnipotent Agent who smoothed his
martyr-pillow; for we read, "And he, being full of the Holy
Spirit, looked up steadfastly to heaven," (Acts 7:55). Moreover, if, as
we shall immediately see, it was Jesus, and a vision of Jesus,
which formed the secret of support and holy transport in his dying
hour--have we not, in the two statements combined, a beautiful illustration
of the words of the apostle--"No man can say that Jesus is the Lord but
by the Holy Spirit?" (1 Cor. 12:3.) As it was the Holy Spirit who
revealed the infant Savior to aged Simeon, so it was the Holy Spirit who
revealed the vision of the exalted Savior to the dying martyr.
Let us seek to glorify this blessed Agent, more than we
do, as "the revealer of Jesus." "He shall glorify me," says Christ;
"for he shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you." Why is it
that we see the words of feeble, stammering tongues, often owned and
acknowledged, while human learning and eloquence are powerless and
unblessed--the golden arrows from the best human quivers falling
short of their mark, while "the smooth pebbles of the brook" from the lowly
sling, and that, also, in untutored hands, are "making the people fall under
them?" Paul tells us why--"My speech and my preaching was not with
enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of
power; that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the
Power of God," (1 Cor. 2:4).
Let us pass to Stephen's ACCUSATION AND TRIAL.
Though introduced to our notice in the sacred page, only as a deacon, (an
distributor of temporal bounty,) yet, being "a man full of faith and of
the Holy Spirit," he could not be silent in proclaiming the name of his
great Master. We read that "he did great wonders and miracles among the
people," (Acts 6:8).
There were in Jerusalem a number of synagogues, belonging
to the Jews of various countries. In these, Stephen took the opportunity of
vindicating the cause of his Lord, and more especially in that of the
Libertines--a word which seems to refer to those Hebrews who had at one time
been Roman slaves, but who had obtained or purchased their freedom. Finding
his wisdom and arguments irresistible, his hearers betook themselves to the
last base expedient for silencing truth. They resolve to get a conviction
against him for blasphemy--they forget for the time their mutual jealousies
and hostilities, and combine for the overthrow of a common enemy. The
Sadducees--the infidel party--hated and denounced, with the utmost
vehemence, the new Christian tenet of the resurrection. The Pharisees, with
a still more bitter animosity, repudiated a sect who were bold in advocating
the death-blow to their national and ancestral pride--the superseding of the
Mosaic ritual by a system which was to know neither Jew nor Greek, and by
which God's house was to be made "a house of prayer for all NATIONS."
What is their unworthy policy? They bribed witnesses to
exaggerate these dogmas, and put them in the most distasteful and disturbing
light--"We have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy
this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us."
What! "the holy and beautiful house where our fathers worshiped to be
destroyed, and all our pleasant things to be laid waste!" What blasphemous
words against the Temple and the Law! The most honored name and most honored
locality defamed and dishonored, and that too by a reputed "son of Abraham!"
Their blood was stirred--a popular tumult was easily fermented--the
Sanhedrin are convened in their ancient hall or stone chamber, on Mount
Moriah, and Stephen stands confronting the seventy-two judges.
In calm majesty, he begins his defense. He arrests the
attention of his auditors by commencing with a recapitulation of their
national annals. Beginning with the call of Abraham, he descends from age to
age, until he reaches the era of Solomon, and the building of the temple
under whose august shadow he then stood. But he couples his reference to the
sacred shrine, with the scope and spirit at least of Isaiah's gospel words--"Howbeit
the most High dwells not in temples made with hands; as says the prophet,
Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool--what house will you build
me? says the Lord--or what is the place of my rest?"
This startling assertion creates a stir in his hitherto
silent audience. A scene of noise and confusion takes place. Stung to the
quick by the anticipated inference from the quotation of one of their own
seers, they refuse any longer to listen to his defense. He himself watches
the tempest gathering round his head; and seeing how hopeless it is to
combat malicious rage by calm argument, he abruptly breaks off his
historical discourse, and, in an outburst of righteous vehemence and
indignation, he denounces them as the slayers of the prophets, and the
betrayers and murderers of Christ.
The commotion in the Sanhedrin now culminates in
ungovernable rage. The gray-headed elders of the nation--the scribes, the
expounders of the law, the phylacteried Pharisees, the infidel Sadducees,
the high priest or president of the assembly--all with one accord rise from
their stone seats, their eyes flashing with fire--"When they heard this,
they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him."
How true is it, that the word of God is either the savor
of life unto life or of death unto death! There is, in many respects, a
striking similarity between Peter's recent sermon on the day of Pentecost,
and Stephen's present address to the Sanhedrin; but how different the
results! In the one case, thousands were pricked to the heart--the tear of
genuine penitence rolling down their cheeks, and the cry rising from the
depths of their stricken spirits, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?"
In the other, unbelief only settled down into deeper and more confirmed
obduracy. Those with the prestige of authority and sanctity became the
abettors of one of the foulest crimes that stained the annals of waning
Judaism. It loaded the cloud of judgment, long brooding over the nation, and
which was before long to burst in dreadful vengeance.
That same sword of the Spirit is still a two-edged
sword--mighty to save, or mighty to destroy. Grace received, has more grace
given--"Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord," (Hos.
6:3). Grace resisted, makes "the hard and impenitent heart" harder
still--"treasuring up for itself wrath against the day of wrath."
Let us attend now to Stephen's VISION.
There is something very sublime in this apocalypse of
glory! He stands confronting his infuriated judges in their temple hall. But
in the midst of that scene of unholy vehemence and rage, as he looks up,
perhaps while engaged in silent prayer, the walls and pillars of the earthly
court of justice seem to dissolve; and, to his enraptured vision, a house,
not made by mortal hands, discloses itself! He beholds the heaven of
heavens! The victim of earth's unhallowed malice is transported all at once
into "the general assembly and church of the first-born." Turning
from the dishonored throne of an earthly tribunal, he gazes on the throne of
One who "judges righteous judgment."
What "the glory of God" was, which he saw, we cannot
pretend to conjecture. Like Paul's subsequent heavenly vision, it must have
been something beyond the power of human language to describe--not "possible
for man to utter." But there was one part of the vision clearly defined--one
Object which stood forth in bold relief, in this celestial picture. That
adorable Savior who, but a few weeks before, he had himself possibly seen
hanging as a criminal on the cross, was now beheld "standing at the right
hand of the throne!"
There are two things specially noticeable in the
vision--First, The designation given to Christ by the martyr. While the
evangelist in his description says, "He saw JESUS standing on the
right hand of God," Stephen himself, in relating the vision, uses another,
and, in the circumstances, a more touching and expressive title--"Behold, I
see the heavens opened, and the SON OF MAN standing on the right hand of
God." At that entrancing moment--as the celestial portals flew open, and his
eye wandered through the burning ranks which surrounded the central
throne--he may have expected to behold the Lord he loved, seated in dazzling
glory, surrounded with some dreadful symbols of deity. But lo! it is the
Son of MAN! It is the same Brother of humankind he had so
recently seen on earth--He who, as man, and as "the Son of man," had
undergone, near where he now stood, sufferings and tortures, in comparison
with which, all that awaited him were but as dust in the balance!
And, secondly, more than this, he sees Jesus "STANDING."
There is a volume of tender meaning here. Thirteen times is Christ spoken of
in Scripture as "seated at the right hand of God;" only once
is He spoken of as "standing," and that once is here. He is
"seated"--there is comfort indeed in that truth also; that, on
the close of His earthly work and warfare, He was enthroned in Heaven as
"Lord of all." On that royal seat, "set as king in his holy hill of
Zion"--He is quietly "waiting" until all His enemies are put under His feet;
and then, once more will He "rise," that He may "come and receive
them to Himself." Indeed, Paul's words are remarkable as viewed side by side
with those of Stephen's vision--"He has FOREVER sat down at the right
hand of God, from henceforth waiting until his enemies be made his
Why, then, this strange exception in the text? Why has
the seated Savior changed His posture so that He is seen "standing"
by His dying saint? Oh, blessed testimony to the deathless sympathy and
tenderness of that loving Savior's heart!--Seated though He be--it is
as if He had heard the stir in that court on earth--as if He had heard (as
indeed He did) every malicious taunt that was hurled at His holy servant. He
cannot remain still. He rises--(or, if we dare use a human expression to
give force to the heavenly vision)--He starts from His seat at the
"call" of His injured disciple--He feels the cruelties inflicted on him
as if they were inflicted on Himself. He, the same gentle, tender,
Shepherd that He ever was, sees one of the choicest sheep of the fold in the
fangs of ravening wolves! Roused by these wild beasts who were scattering
His flock--touched with the tender bleat of that holy and innocent victim of
their rage--the good Shepherd stoops down from the hills of glory; and, as
Stephen enters the valley of the shadow of death, He comforts and supports
him with His rod and staff!
Who knows, when the martyr was thus surrounded by that
infuriate rabble, but some such thought as this may have crossed his
mind?--"Would that it were with me as in months past--when that Savior-God
was personally present with His Church on earth--when He cheered them on the
lake-shore, or comforted them in the midnight sea, or wept with them in
Bethany's graveyard!--would that He were here, to cast upon me His loving
eye of sympathy, or cheer me with His tender words, or with His strong arm
to pluck me from the fangs of these merciless destroyers. But, alas! I am
alone--the gates of heaven have closed on my ascended Lord. I cannot tell
whether, now that He is seated amid the hosannas of eternity, He can bend a
look of pity upon me. I may be left unthought of and unsuccoured in this
No, no! Behold! not only "heaven opened," and the "Son of
man"--(Jesus unchanged in human form)--seated there; but, (more amazing than
all,) behold Him, roused from His posture of repose, bending down from the
skies--the songs of heaven for the moment hushed, that He may cast a look of
loving sympathy on a saint struggling in the earthly billows. That great
Shepherd who "calls His own sheep by name, and leads them out," will not
listen unmoved to that dying cry. The disciple has made a good confession
before many witnesses, and his Lord (holding the portal of heaven open with
one hand, and the martyr-crown with the other) seems to say--"Well done,
good and faithful servant," "you have been faithful unto death; I will give
you a crown of life!"
And what Christ was to Stephen of old, He is to His
people still. In every season of sore calamity--whether to His Church
collectively, or to its members individually, He is ready to rise from His
throne and bend over them in tender love!
What a source of comfort this Vision of Jesus must have
been to the suffering Christians of a future age. How they would revert to
it, as the ax of the executioner gleamed before them, or the faggots were
piled around them! How they would rejoice in the thought that, far above the
unsympathizing crowd of human tormentors, there was ONE in heaven who was
Himself the "faithful and true Martyr" (Rev. 3:14), bone of
their bone, and flesh of their flesh; and who could say, with all the
intensity of dearly-bought experience--"I know your sorrows."
Observe, next, Stephen's twofold PRAYER.
He is dragged by a ruffian crew outside the city
gates--and somewhere near (probably within sight of) that Gethsemane
where his great Lord had suffered, Stephen is to seal his testimony with his
blood. As the showers of stones are hurled upon his guiltless head, the meek
sufferer utters a twofold supplication.
1st, Prayer for HIMSELF. He looks upward to that
same all-glorious Son of man; but, knowing that infinite Deity is in
union with humanity, he invokes His support, not as man, but as God.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my
spirit." Like Christ in His calmness and meekness, he resembles Him in this
final prayer. It was almost a repetition of the closing utterance of the
Savior Himself--"Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit." As we
have already remarked, possibly Stephen had himself been a spectator of that
dreadful scene on Calvary. He may have been among the group we read of, as
having been "near the cross of Jesus;" and the prayer of his beloved Lord
may have molded his own in a similar hour.
2nd, His other prayer was Christ-like too--more
remarkable even than the former. Having besought the Savior's mercy for
himself, he proceeds to implore the same FOR HIS MURDERERS--and again, (as
if he drank in his inspiration from recollections of Calvary,) "he
kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice"--and in the spirit at least of
his Lord's words for His crucifiers--"Lord, lay not this sin to their
Oh, there is more than nature here! Let those who scorn
the word GRACE--who treat it as a figment and illusion--let them come to
this dreadful death-bed and say, 'Is there not something more than human, in
the divine, forgiving charity of this tortured hero of truth?' We know what
nature would have done in the circumstances. We know its look of mad
defiance, the frown of malicious revenge. We know what its malediction would
be on that perverse throng. How its last shout would be--"Let not my mangled
body be cast unavenged in its tomb--let no murderer here go to his grave in
How different! His last moments of consciousness are
spent in prayer for these guilty assassins. No wonder it is said, "He
being full of the Holy Spirit." It was the Spirit of God, the blessed
Spirit of peace, that, dovelike, hovered around him, in these dying
moments! A few years later, the Roman legions, under the victorious Titus,
were to be ranged in that very spot where Stephen now lay; and these gates
and walls--temple and tower--were to fall under the terrific assault. The
conquest of Jerusalem was, even to a Roman, a proud achievement. But a
nobler victory, though of a different kind, was being achieved by that one
Christian hero, when, bleeding and mangled, he rises to his knees and prays
for his murderers--for "he that rules his spirit is greater than he that
takes a city." (Prov. 16:32).
And observe, in Stephen's character, a noble combination
of qualities. Indeed, as has been well remarked, there is nothing more
striking than the manly, uncompromising way in which he denounces the sin
of his persecutors, and the loving, tender way he prays for
themselves. Let us never forget this refined and beautiful distinction.
Be as bold as you please in the denunciation of all iniquity--withstand to
the face, whenever there is conduct to be blamed; but deal tenderly and
forgivingly with the persons and character of offenders. No heathen
philosophy ever inculcated such a maxim as this--"Love your enemies."
There is no more brilliant testimony to the reality of religion than when
that maxim is exemplified.
We may feel certain, that in the case of Stephen, that
strange, godlike demeanor would not be lost upon the bystanders, or even
upon his murderers. We know, at all events, that one was there--a
passive, but not uninterested spectator of the scene--of whom Augustine
perhaps says truly, "The Church owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen."
That wondrous dying prayer for forgiveness could not have entered the ear of
the young man from Tarsus in vain; that angel-like countenance he saw in
Stephen, conjoined with these last faint utterances of Christian
forgiveness, may have hovered before him, when the voice of "that same
Jesus" reached his own soul, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?"
They may have done much in instigating the reply--"Lord, what would
You have me to do?"
Once more, let us notice Stephen's CALM DEPARTURE.
"He fell asleep." Sleep is a beautiful image and
type of death; but does it not seem strange to use the figure with reference
to such a death as this? We can understand its beauty, when the death-bed is
surrounded by hearts beating with tender affection--kind eyes looking down
on the struggling soul--kind hands smoothing the pillow; but it is hard to
think or speak of death as "a sleep," amid a horde of
murderers. Yet the sacred historian, simply and touchingly, thus describes
Stephen's closing scene!
What was the secret of that quiet repose--so gentle a
breathing away of his spirit, in the midst of circumstances so dreadful?
It was the sight of Christ. This had enabled him to
triumph over all that was outwardly repulsive--that vision in the
Sanhedrin-hall soothed and smoothed that dreadful death-pillow. Just as we
have seen a glorious Alp, with its diadem of virgin snow bathed in the hues
of purple sunset, while its base was wreathed with stormy clouds and scarred
with the path of the recent avalanche--so, the tempests are raging around
his perishing body, but the great Sun of Righteousness is shining upon the
departing soul, and gilding it with undying splendor. "BEHOLD!" he exclaims,
(as if the vision was something so overpowering that, though he stood
alone--no one to share in his emotions of transport--yet he could not resist
proclaiming it even to the unsympathizing crowd of persecutors,) "Behold!
I see the Son of man STANDING--He is waiting, with outstretched arms, to
receive and welcome me, His poor servant. Can I be afraid of death under any
form, if it be the portal to unite me to this ever-living, ever-loving
And is not this the secret of support in ten thousand
death-beds still? It is, indeed, delightful to think, as in the parable of
the rich man and Lazarus, of troops of angels hovering around the saint's
death-pillow, and waiting to bear his spirit into Abraham's bosom. But more
comforting still, to think of Him who has at His belt "the keys of the grave
and of death"--the Son of man on the throne--to think of Him stooping
from the heights of heaven and uttering the prayer--"Father, I desire
that they also whom You have given me be with me where I am, that they may
behold my glory."
Let any who may be mourning the loss of departed
Christian friends, rejoice; they are "with Christ," which is
"far better." Their absence may be a sad deprivation to the Church on earth;
they may leave a sorrowful gap in the home-circle; the devout (as in the
case of Stephen) may be making a great and sore lamentation over them; but
they have "fallen asleep in Jesus;" no--at the hour of death, Christ stooped
from His throne to receive their spirits. Theirs was an immediate entrance.
The gate of death and the gate of Heaven was one!
They only are to be pitied and mourned who, while
living, are living a life of death; and who, when they come to die, (oh! sad
contrast with the departure of the first martyr!) can have no heavenly
vision; no "Son of man" standing to receive them; no angels waiting to
conduct them to glory, and to chant the requiem--"So gives He His beloved
Reader, whoever you are, if still without these hopes
"full of immortality," Christ is now stooping from His throne to you!
He is standing, with His outstretched arms of reconciliation and love,
calling upon you to be "reconciled unto God." Oh! postpone not, until a
dying hour, responding to His overtures of mercy. Be assured, all death-beds
are the same in this, whether they be beds of feathers, or pallets of
straw--whether under the thatched roof or under gilded ceilings--they can
afford no ease to the aching head that has postponed until then, the great
question of salvation! Be it yours to live the life of the righteous, if you
would die their death. Let existence be one sacred mission to "please
God"--and then, yours shall be a peaceful "SUNSET." The last enemy cannot
appear too suddenly or unexpectedly. Whether a season of lingering, wasting
sickness be appointed you--or "in a moment"--with the speed of the
lightning-flash--the summons may come--in either case, you can, in humble
faith and confidence, appropriate that beatitude, traced by the finger of
God the Spirit--a benediction better than all sculptured epitaphs of man's
device--"blessed are the dead who die in the Lord!"