John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: October 15

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John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: October 15


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The Persecution

Act_8:1

It has always been, that the ground on which the fertilizing blood of a martyr has been shed, has brought forth fruit, thirty, sixty, or a hundred fold. Nations have been slow to learn this, and have been continually making the great mistake of supposing, that a great truth could be quenched in the blood of those who upheld it. So, in this case, the blood of Stephen cried from the ground with a voice more eloquent and persuasive than the accents of his living tongue had been. By showing that the Christian faith was stronger than death, the last resort of man’s oppression, it ensured its triumph; and thenceforth every death, thus nobly and cheerfully endured, where it dismayed one dastard spirit, quickened a hundred noble hearts, and made them, or prepared them, to be proselytes. To receive a man’s testimony with implicit reliance, it is necessary to be assured that he is himself sincerely convinced of that which he teaches; and to lay down his life for the truth which he teaches, is the most certain sign of his sincerity which it is possible for a man to give. His death thus brings credit upon the doctrines he taught, as proclaimed by surviving teachers.

In this case, the ever active Pharisees were now on the alert; and, enraged to find that the death of Stephen had no effect in suppressing the new religion, the Sanhedrin, now unanimous by the concurrence of the Pharisees with the Sadducees, brought into action all the resources it possessed, in a most rancorous and general persecution of the infant church—the nature of which may be judged from the proceedings of Saul of Tarsus, who took a most active and violent part in the proceedings, having, assuredly at his own application, been specially commissioned for this work by the Sanhedrin, who doubtless regarded with encouraging complacency the ardent zeal for Pharisaism of this promising and already distinguished young man. There is indeed reason to suppose that he was himself at this time a member of the Sanhedrim. Some think that his “consenting” to the death of Stephen, implies that he was so when the martyr was condemned. Whether so or not, it is thought probable that he was at least afterwards elected into the supreme court of judicature, perhaps to recompense the zeal he had shown against the new doctrines on that occasion; for, in referring to the affairs of this time at a later period, he says not only that he exercised his powers by a commission from the high-priest, but also that, when the followers of Christ were put to death, he gave his vote against them. He could only have given his vote as one of the Sanhedrin; and it may reasonably be doubted whether the very important commission which he subsequently received, when he went to Damascus, would have been entrusted to any one who was not a member of that body—his introduction into which might be materially promoted by the fact that Gamaliel, whose favorite pupil he seems to have been, was its president.

Out of this arises an important consideration—that to be a parent was a condition of admission to that assembly, because those whose hearts were softened by the paternal relation were supposed to be more humane, more inclined to mercy than others. Besides, among the Jews it was accounted scarcely reputable for a man to remain unmarried after eighteen years of age; and marriages in general were very early. If, therefore, Saul belonged to the Sanhedrin, the probability is that he was at this time married, and the father of a family. But if so, it would seem that his wife and child, or children, did not long survive, for otherwise it is scarcely possible but some allusion to them would be found in the subsequent narrative, or in the Epistles; and it is clear that, if he ever had a wife, she was not living when he wrote the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1Co_7:7-8.

In describing the proceedings of this man against the Lord’s disciples, St. Luke says: “As for Saul, he made havoc of the church.” How strong this expression! He ravaged abroad, as a tiger hunting for his prey; “entering every house, and haling men and women,”—separating the parent from the child, distressing the protector and the orphan—“committed them to prison,” whence probably, in many cases, death alone delivered them. But it is to be remembered that this strong language is employed by one who was in after years the intimate friend and associate of St. Paul, and is but an echo of the terms in which he himself always speaks of this part of his career. In fact, that Saul was quite the foremost acting man in this persecution, is clear from all the incidents which transpire, particularly from the high commission which subsequently acknowledged and rewarded his service against heresy. How widely and prominently his name was connected with this persecution, appears from the circumstance that Ananias of Damascus had “heard by many of this man, how much evil he had done to the saints at Jerusalem,” Act_9:13.

From the cruelties practised upon them, and from the efforts made to compel them, as Paul afterwards confessed—(Act_26:11)—“to blaspheme that holy name whereby they were called,” the disciples naturally fled in all directions, probably at the instance of the apostles, who, however, as the governing body, felt it their duty to face the peril of remaining at Jerusalem, that the dispersed disciples might know where to apply for the counsel and aid they might require under their altered circumstances Their departure, also would have imparted too desultory a character to the dispersion, and might have tended to render it comparatively unproductive (humanly speaking) of the advantages which resulted from it.

These advantages were great—so great as to open a new and advanced period of Christian history. In its first epoch, over which we have passed, the Christian society consisted of Jews only, who had hitherto remained in the city of Jerusalem. Many, indeed, of those who, on the day of Pentecost, had come thither from various regions, seem, after their return home, to have imparted to their countrymen some idea, however imperfect, of Christian doctrine; yet its appointed teachers had hitherto remained within the walls of Jerusalem, nor had they taught in any other country. The congregation at Jerusalem was, therefore, numerous. But it had not separated itself from the Jewish communion; for we read that, during all this period, the apostles and all other Christians yielded obedience to the Sanhedrin in all matters not contrary to what they knew to be God’s will, and frequented, at the stated hours of prayer, the temple, where the apostles taught. But this persecution had a most salutary widening influence, both externally and internally, upon the church. Instead of confining the benefits of Christianity to the limits of Jerusalem, where its glorious Author had so lately finished his course upon earth, the believers of this faith, trained under the apostles, and disciplined by adversities, went forth prepared and eager to make known the truth in which they believed, and many of them well qualified by natural and acquired endowments, and by the gifts of the Spirit, to labor effectually for its advancement; and hence we shall soon see Christian societies growing up in each of the various regions to which they were dispersed abroad. With this outward expansion there was a corresponding inward expansion. Away from Jerusalem the disciples became more free from the trammels of Judaism, and grew to be increasingly conscious of the independence of their Divine faith, and its intrinsic sufficiency as a doctrine destined, without foreign aid, to impart Divine life and salvation to all men, among all nations without distinction.

These were splendid results from what, at the first view, seemed so threatening as the persecution following the death of Stephen. But if there be any circumstance which particularly displays the supreme majesty of God, and his controlling power over the affairs of men, it is when these events, which we ignorantly call evil, and which appear to us teeming with destruction, are not only removed without those accumulated horrors which we dreaded, but actually leave behind them the most beneficial effects. Then are we satisfied that “the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men;” then do we gratefully acknowledge: “This is thy hand, and Thou, Lord, hast done it.”