The first name in the list of the seven deacons is, as we have seen, that of Stephen; and it is to him that the sacred narrative now calls our attention.
Although primarily appointed for a secular object, the deacons, in the discharge of their special duty, frequently came in contact with home and foreign Jews; and since men had been chosen for the office endowed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, they possessed both the inward call and the ability to make use of their opportunities for the spread of the Gospel among the Jews. In these endeavors Stephen remarkably distinguished himself; nor were miraculous deeds wanting to attest the authority of his words. This soon awakened a fresh and vehement persecution, in which we might feel some surprise to find the Pharisees the active parties, notwithstanding their recent toleration, did we not closely examine the circumstances. The fact itself may suggest that some fresh, and to them abhorrent, aspect of Christian teaching had been produced, which had not indeed been previously suppressed, but which had not before been so strongly enforced upon their attention. If we look into the specimens of apostolic teaching which have hitherto occurred, we shall find it turn chiefly on this head—that the Jewish rulers had incurred deep guilt by the rejection and murder of Jesus, whose Divinity and Messiahship had now been attested beyond all question by his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension into heaven, where He sits, glorified, to bestow blessings upon his followers, and remission of sins to the contrite, and whence He shall hereafter appear to judge the world. But we do not find a word directly applicable to the discontinuance and abrogation of the Mosaic system, as a thing that had become old and must pass away—and had already, as a ritual system, lost all force and binding obligation, by its complete fulfillment in Christ. This truth even the apostles were slow to perceive, as we see by the disputes which, at a later time, arose between Paul and Peter on this very subject. But such a man as Stephen, who was in some respects a harbinger of Paul, had, as a Hellenist, undoubtedly from the first entertained freer notions of the Old Testament dispensation, in its relation to Christianity, than a Jew of Palestine could easily realize; and therefore the Holy Spirit might the more bring into his view that aspect of Christianity, by which it was to draw the heathen world within the circle of that higher spiritual life which formed its essence, but which necessarily pre-supposed the dissolution of the temple of Jerusalem as a center of union.
There were at Jerusalem a great number of synagogues, founded by the foreign Jews for their own use when at the holy city, and for that of their sons who were sent thither to complete their education, and to which schools and colleges were in most instances attached. With the members of these synagogues Stephen naturally came into especial contact, as he, on the assumption of his being a Hellenist, must have belonged to one of them. The fearless zeal with which Stephen declared to them the whole counsel of God, on points upon which the Jewish mind was most open to offence, and the power of argument and force of eloquence with which he enforced them, soon awakened the strongest opposition of some of these synagogues, the members of which united their forces to put him down—by dint of argument and insult, or, if that failed, by strength of hand. The synagogues foremost in this design were those of the Alexandrian and Cyrenian Jews; of Cilician Jews—to which the young Saul of Tarsus then belonged; of the Jews from Lesser Asia; and of the “Libertines.” This last has given occasion to some controversy. That they belonged to some unknown city called Libertum, is a conjecture to which no weight is now attached. It is better, and is indeed usual, to apprehend that it was a synagogue for the use of those who were freed-men; that is, Jews and proselytes who had been Roman slaves, and had obtained their freedom, and their descendants. We are not, however, to suppose that freed-men only were connected with this synagogue, any more than that the other synagogues numbered among their members only men of Alexandria, Cyrene, or Cilicia. It is sufficient to understand that persons of this class preponderated in them. The young men must have formed an unusually large proportion of the members of these synagogues, seeing that so many were there engaged in their studies, the adult members of whose families were far away; and this fact, together with the certainty that one of Stephen’s most active opponents did belong to this class, warrants the conclusion that this movement against Stephen originated among the Hellenistic students, and was conducted by them. It was not for this the less formidable. Jewish students were, in the essentials of student life and character, the same at German, English, or French students—heady, reckless, intolerant, prejudiced, and often ferocious young men, more vehemently carried away by party zeal than those, to whom more extended years have given broader views of men and things.
The first step taken under these influences was, that the synagogues put forward some of their members, of different nations, and skilled in the subtleties of the later Jewish teaching, to argue the points in dispute with Stephen. But they “were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.” Ashamed of being thus openly defeated by a single adversary, and incensed that the religion which they opposed had thus received such signal confirmation, they suborned men of profligate consciences to accuse him of blasphemy before the Sanhedrin; and then brought him tumultuously before the council, in order to obtain a formal decree of condemnation against him.
The precise accusation was, “That he had spoken blasphemous words against Moses and against God;” and again, “That he ceased not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law: for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and change the customs [or rites] which Moses delivered us.” This is said to have been the deposition of false witnesses. From this it does not, however, follow that it was entirely a fabrication of theirs, but only that they had so colored and exaggerated what he did say, as to give it an aspect of blasphemy which did not properly belong to; though it must be admitted that even a fair report of what the teaching of his Lord authorized him to declare, might have been deemed blasphemous by those before whom Stephen appeared. There can be little doubt that what this holy man had said, afforded some basis for the misrepresentations of the witnesses; for before this time nothing similar had been advanced against the teachers of the Christian doctrine. Hence we may be able to collect, that what Stephen really did say was to the tenor already indicated. It is also observable that his defence plainly intimates that he by no means intended to repel the accusation as altogether a falsity, but rather to acknowledge that there was truth mixed up with it; that which he had really spoken, and which was already so obnoxious to the Jews, he had no wish to deny, but only to place what he had stated in its right connection, and to show that it was not open to the charge of blasphemy which had been laid against it. The “blasphemy against Moses,” of which he had been accused, was probably found in his assertion that the authority of Moses was inferior to, or superseded by, that of Christ. “The blasphemy against God” may have been involved in the blasphemy against Moses, inasmuch as God was the great Author of that religion which Moses had taught the Israelites by His command; or it may have lain in his ascribing Divinity to one who had lately suffered publicly as a malefactor. “The blasphemy against the holy place and the law,” seems to have consisted in a prediction that the temple was to be destroyed, and the ritual law of course abolished.
When these charges were set forth, with a formality which, as before that assembly, invested them with ominous purport to the safety and even life of the prisoner, every eye was directed towards him to observe the impression produced upon him, as well as to scan the personal appearance of one, concerning whom so much had been lately said in the city. There he stood, serene, collected, and undismayed—if something more be not meant by the declaration that “all that sat in the council saw his face as it had been the face of an angel”—words which have led many, not unreasonably, to conclude that it pleased God to manifest his approbation of his servant by investing his countenance with a supernatural and angelic brightness, such as that with which the face of Moses shone when he had been speaking with the Lord.
Stephen in his defence took a rapid and interesting survey of Jewish history from the days of Abraham to those of Solomon, refuting the erroneous notions of the Jews concerning the excellence and the permanency of the Mosaic dispensation, and proving to them from the records of their own Scriptures that Abraham and the patriarchs had been chosen of God, and had served him long before the Law was given by Moses; and the tabernacle and temple were built; that Moses himself, commissioned as he was by God to be “a ruler and deliverer” of the people by whom he had been previously “refused,” and to be the giver of the Law to them, had nevertheless foretold the giving of a new law, inasmuch as be had announced, “a prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren like unto me; Him shall ye hear.” The Law of Moses was therefore avowedly of a temporary nature; and had on many occasions proved insufficient to keep the people to their obedience; and the temple, like the tabernacle before it, which had been made by Divine command, and after a Divine pattern, was but of a transient and temporary duration, and was of no essential value in the sight of God. He then burst forth into a strain of severe reprehension, condemning the wickedness of their fathers in resisting the Holy Ghost, and their own hereditary stubbornness of heart, charging their fathers with having slain the prophets who had foretold the coming of the Messiah, and themselves with having betrayed and murdered the Messiah himself, thus rebelling against the Law of which they professed themselves such zealous maintainers—a Law which had indeed been delivered to them by the ministry of angels, and which the Messiah came but to perfect and fulfill.
Longer than this the audience could not endure to hear him. They would not suffer him to proceed with the application of his arguments. They broke in upon his defence with all the signs of malice, rage, and fury. “They were cut to the heart, and they gnashed upon him with their teeth.” But he, regardless of their rage, and “being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw” the splendor of the Divine presence, and Jesus himself—the crucified Jesus—arrayed in glory, and in a posture of readiness to succor and receive him. As he saw, he spoke: “Behold I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” Jesus is usually represented as sitting on the right hand of God; the difference here is therefore noticeable, as if the glorified Redeemer had risen from his seat in sign of his readiness to aid his servant.
If these words do not mean to assert the Divinity of Christ, they have no meaning; and that the Jews understood them in this sense is clear, for, bearing in them a confirmation and aggravation of the “blasphemy” which he had been before accused of “speaking against God,” they raised a tremendous outcry, and rushing upon him with one accord, cast him out of the city, and stoned him; thus inflicting upon him the death which the law awarded to blasphemers, but not awaiting in their tumultuous impatience for blood, all the tedious formalities of judicial procedure. The last breath of the holy man was spent in a prayer to Jesus, first for himself, and then for his murderers. The words employed are more remarkable than they may seem. “They stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” The word God is not in the original, but is supplied, and so printed in italic letters. Omitting this, the passage may read: “They stoned Stephen, invocating and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And, as the stones rained their cruel blows upon his frame, he prayed, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge,” and then he sank to the ground in death; and such was the composure with which he yielded up his soul, under circumstances so tumultuous and so terrifying, that, as if he had died quietly upon his bed, the sacred historian says with beautiful simplicity, “And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”