The Jewish feast of Pentecost may be called the birthday of the Christian church. It was also the anniversary of the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, though it does not appear that a day was observed by the Jews in commemoration of the event. Fifty days after our Lord's resurrection the church was formed — its history commenced. The Old Testament saints form no part of the New Testament church. It had no existence in fact until the day of Pentecost.
All saints, from the beginning, have the same eternal life, they are the children of the same God and Father, and the same heaven will be their home for ever; but the Old Testament saints belong to another dispensation, or to the different dispensations which ran their course before Christ came. Each dispensation has its own rise, progress, decline, and fall, in scripture; and will have its own reflection in heaven. Neither persons nor dispensations will be undistinguished there.
Hence the Apostle in Hebrews 11, when speaking of the ancient worthies, says, "And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect."
Surely if God has provided a better thing for us, it must also be a different thing. Let us not object to God's own word. Besides, our Lord in Matthew 16 says, "On this Rock I will build My church." And at the same time, He gave the keys to Peter to open the doors of the new dispensation. Then He had not begun to build His church, and the doors of the kingdom were not opened. But the difference between the old and the new will be more distinctly seen when we speak of the great events of the day of Pentecost. We begin with the types of Leviticus, chapter 23.
The children of Israel were commanded to bring a sheaf of the first-fruits of their harvest to the priest, that he might wave it before the Lord, to be accepted for them. This rite, we believe, shadowed forth our Lord's resurrection on the morning after the Jewish Sabbath, the ground of the Christian's acceptance before God in the risen Christ.
"Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye be come into the land which I give unto you, and shall reap the harvest thereof, then ye shall bring a sheaf of the first-fruits of your harvest unto the priest: And he shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, to be accepted for you: on the morrow after the sabbath the priest shall wave it." (See Matthew 28 and Mark 16.)
Seven full weeks after the waving of the sheaf, the feast of Pentecost was celebrated. The former was reckoned to be the first day of the harvest in Judea; the latter supposed the corn to be fully gathered in. Then they had a solemn festival of thanksgiving. Two loaves of bread, baken with the flour of the new harvest, characterised this festival. They were to be baken with leaven, and brought out of their habitations. Some have thought that the two loaves prefigured the out-calling of the church as composed of Jew and Gentile. Be this as it may, the number is significant. Two witnesses were necessary for a testimony in Israel. The leaven indicates, we doubt not, indwelling sin in the believer, and, of course, in the church, viewed in its time condition.
With the wave sheaf — beautiful type of the risen Christ, pure and holy — sacrifices of a sweet savor were offered, but no sacrifice for sin. With the two wave loaves — type of those who are Christ's — a sin-offering was presented. Sin, being there, a sin-offering was needed to cover it. Though the one perfect sacrifice of Christ answered to God for both indwelling sin, and the many actual sins of the life; still, as a matter of fact and experience, sin dwells in us, and will do so as long as we are in this world. All acknowledge this, though all may not see the completeness of the work of Christ. The Christian has by one offering been perfected for ever, though he may humble himself and make confession to God for every failure.
The typical significance of Pentecost was remarkably fulfilled in the descent of the Holy Ghost. He came down to gather together the children of God that were scattered abroad. (Joh 11:52.) By this great event the system of Judaism was set aside, and the new vessel of testimony — the church of God — was introduced. And now, observe, the order of events. First,
Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, are the great facts, or foundation truths, of the church — of Christianity. Incarnation was necessary to crucifixion, and both to resurrection. It is blessedly true that Christ died on the cross for our sins; but it is equally true, that the believer died in His death. (See Romans 6; Colosians 2.) The Christian's life is life in resurrection. The church is built on the risen Christ. No truths can be more blessed and wonderful than incarnation and crucifixion; but the church is associated with Him who is risen and glorified.
In Acts 1 we have that which is connected with the Lord's resurrection and ascension; and also with the actions of the apostles before the descent of the Holy Ghost. The blessed Lord, though in resurrection, still speaks and acts by the Holy Ghost. It was "through the Holy Ghost" that He gave commandments unto the apostles whom He had chosen. This is worthy of special note as teaching us two things.
The risen Lord next exhorts the apostles to wait in Jerusalem for "the promise of the Father," which, saith He, ye have heard of Me. "For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence." It is no longer a question of temporal promises to Israel; that field must be left till a future day. The Father's promise of the Holy Ghost was an entirely distinct thing, and widely different in its results.
Several things "pertaining to the kingdom of God" having been spoken of between the Lord and His apostles, He ascends to heaven, and a cloud receives Him out of their sight. The Lord's return is also most plainly and distinctly taught at the same time. "And when He had spoken these things, while they beheld, He was taken up; and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly towards heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven." It is quite evident from these words, that He ascended personally, visibly, bodily, and that He shall so come again in like manner — that He will again appear beneath the heavens, and be manifested to people on the earth, personally, visibly, and bodily; but then it will be in power and great glory.
The apostles and disciples had now learnt two things:
1. That Jesus was taken up out of this world into heaven:
2. That He was coming back again into this world. On these two great facts their testimony was founded. But Jerusalem was to be the starting-point of their ministry, and they were to wait for power from above. We now come to the second great event, important beyond all others, with respect to man's condition in this world — the gift of the Holy Ghost. Now, it is to be, not only God for us, but God in us. This took place on the day of Pentecost.
The time was now fully come. Redemption was finished — God was glorified — Christ at His right hand in heaven, and the Holy Ghost come down to earth. God inaugurates the church; and this He does in a way suitable to His own wisdom, power and glory. A mighty miracle is wrought, an outward sign is given. The great event is thus recorded.
Acts 2. "And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance."
It may be well here to pause for a moment, and note a few things connected with the descent of the Holy Ghost and the display of His power on this important day.
There was, in the first place, the accomplishment of the Father's promise; the Holy Ghost Himself was sent down from heaven. This was the great truth of Pentecost. He came from above to dwell in the church — the place prepared for Him by the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ. There was also the fulfillment of the word of the Lord to the apostles, "Ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence." Not that the disciples then knew the meaning of this word, but the fact was now accomplished. The full revelation of the doctrine of the "one body" awaited the ministrations of Paul; as he elsewhere says,
"For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12.)
But further, besides the various gifts dispensed for the work of the Lord, we have something most blessedly personal, and quite new on the earth. The Holy Ghost Himself came down to dwell, not in the church only, but also in each individual who believed in the Lord Jesus. And, thank the Lord, this most blessed fact is as true today as it was then. He dwells now in every believer who rests on the finished work of Christ. The Lord had said, looking forward to this day, "For He dwelleth with you, and shall be in you." These two grand aspects of the Spirit's presence were fully accomplished on the day of Pentecost. He came to dwell in each Christian and in the church; and now, blessed truth, we know that God is not only for us, but in us, and with us.
When "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power," He appeared in the form of a dove — beautiful emblem of the immaculate purity, of the meekness and lowliness, of Jesus. He was not to make His voice heard in the streets, or break the bruised reed, or quench the smoking flax. But in the case of the disciples who were waiting at Jerusalem, it was altogether different. He descended on them in cloven tongues — tongues of fire; and sat upon each of them. This was characteristic. It was the power of God in testimony — a testimony that was to go forth, not only to all Israel, but to all the nations of the earth. The word of God was also to judge all that came before it — it was as tongues of fire. God's judgment on man because of sin had been judicially expressed in the cross; and now the solemn fact is to be made known, far and wide, by the power, of the Holy Ghost. Nevertheless, grace reigns — reigns through righteousness, unto eternal life, by Christ Jesus. Pardon is proclaimed to the guilty, salvation to the lost, peace to the troubled, and rest to the weary. All that believe are, and ever shall be, blessed in and with a risen and glorified Christ.
The astonishment and consternation of the Sanhedrim and the Jewish people must have been great indeed at the re-appearance, in such power, of the followers of the crucified Jesus. They had doubtless concluded that, as the Master was now gone, the disciples could do nothing of themselves. For the most part, they were plain uneducated men. But what must have been the people's amazement, when they heard that these plain men were preaching boldly in the streets of Jerusalem, and making converts by thousands to the religion of Jesus! Even historically viewed, the scene is full of the most thrilling interest, and has no parallel in the annals of time.
Jesus had been crucified; His claims to be the Messiah, in popular estimation, had been buried in His grave. The soldiers, who guarded His sepulcher, had been bribed to spread a false report as to His resurrection; the popular excitement had no doubt passed away, and the city, and temple worship, had returned to their former course, as if no great event had taken place. But on God's part things were not to be thus quietly passed over. He was awaiting the appointed time to vindicate His Son, and to vindicate Him in the very scene of His humiliation. This took place early in the morning on the day of Pentecost. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, His scattered followers reappeared in miraculous power. They boldly charged the rulers and the people with the guilt of His apprehension, trial, and crucifixion — that they had killed their own Messiah; but that God had raised Him up, to be a Prince and a Savior, and to set Him at His own right hand in heaven. "Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound." (Ro 5:20.)
The sentence of Babel, we may also say, was reversed on that wonderful day. In the different languages, to which man had been doomed in God's just displeasure, salvation is proclaimed. This mighty marvellous work of God attracts the multitude. They are amazed, and speculate as to this strange thing. Each one, in the language of the country from whence he came, hears from the lips of poor Galileans the wonderful works of God. The Jews who dwelt at Jerusalem, not understanding these foreign languages, mocked. Then Peter stood up, and declared to them in their own tongue, and proved from their own scriptures, the true character of what had taken place.
Thus we read:
"And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Capadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God. And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this? Others mocking said, These men are full of new wine. But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said unto them, Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words: for these are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day,"
or, as we should reckon, nine in the morning — the hour of prayer in the temple.
Thus Peter takes the lead, and explains to the Jews, that the wonderful things they had seen and heard that morning, were not the result of excitement, but rather that which ought to have been looked for according to their own prophetic scriptures. "This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel." But mark the ground on which Peter stands and preaches with such boldness. He stands on the ground of the resurrection and exaltation of Christ. This is carefully to be noted, as showing the foundation on which the church rests, and when and where her history commences. This was the first day of her existence, the first page of her history, and the first triumphs of God's ineffable gift to man.
"This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, He hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear. For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he saith himself, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on My right hand, until I make Thy foes Thy footstool. Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ."
We quote the words of another, on the blessed effects of Peter's first sermon, and of the presence of the Holy Ghost on the earth.
"It was not merely a moral change, but a power which set aside all the motives which individualized those who had received it, by uniting them as one soul, and in one mind. They continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine, they were in communion with each other, they broke bread, they spent their time in prayer: the sense of God's presence was powerful among them; and many signs and wonders were wrought by the hands of the apostles. They were united in the closest bonds, no man calling anything his own, but all divided their possessions with those that needed. They were daily in the temple, the public resort of Israel for religious exercises, whilst having their own, apart, breaking bread at home daily. They ate with joy and gladness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people around them. Thus the assembly was formed, and the Lord added daily to it the remnant of Israel, who were to be saved from the judgments which should fall on a nation which had rejected the Son of God, their Messiah. God brought into the assembly — thus owned of Him by the presence of the Holy Ghost — those whom He spared in Israel. A new order of things had commenced, marked by the presence of the Holy Ghost. Here was found the presence and the house of God, although the old order of things still existed until the execution of the judgment.
"The assembly was formed, therefore, by the power of the Holy Ghost come down from heaven, on the testimony that Jesus, who had been rejected, was raised up to heaven, being made of God both Lord and Christ. It was composed of the Jewish remnant who were to be spared, with the reserve of bringing in Gentiles whenever God should call them."
This, then, is the church of God; a gathering together of those whom God has called to the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of God. Love rules and characterizes the newly formed assembly. The mighty victories which grace achieved on that memorable day fully attested the power of the exalted Lord, and the presence of the Holy Ghost on earth. Three thousand souls were converted through one sermon. Those who had been the avowed enemies of the Lord, and who had participated in the guilt of His murder, agonised under the power of Peter's word. Alarmed at the awful thought of having killed their own Messiah, and that God, in whose presence they now were, had exalted Him to His own right hand in heaven, they cried out, "Men and brethren, what shall we do? "
Peter now seeks to deepen the good work in their souls — He seeks to humble the once proud and scornful Jews. "Repent," he says, "and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost." He does not say simply, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved;" though, of course, faith and repentance must go together wherever the work is genuine. But Peter, in this case, presses repentance. Their guilt had been great, and a deep moral work in their conscience was needful for their humbling. They must see their guilt in the sight of God, and receive the remission of their sins at the feet of Him whom they had rejected and crucified. Nevertheless, all was grace. Their hearts were touched. They sided with God against themselves — they truly repented, were pardoned, and received the gift of the Holy Ghost. Now they are the children of God and have eternal life: the Holy Ghost dwells in them.
The reality of the change was made manifest by a complete change of character. "Then they that gladly received His word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers."
Baptism, on the confession of faith; reception into the assembly; the Lord's supper; the fellowship of saints, and prayer; were their distinguishing observances. For the moment, the Lord's prayer, "that they may all be one," was answered, as we read in Chapter 4. "And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common." We will now turn for the sake of connection to chapter 10.
Cornelius, the centurion, a devout man, and those that were with him, are now received into the assembly of God. Peter had intimated their call in his first discourse. He is now summoned of God in a special way and with special indications of His purpose, to open the door to those God-fearing Gentiles. Up to this time the assembly consisted chiefly, if not solely, of Jews. But God dealt tenderly with His ancient people considering their national prejudices. "Cornelius was a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway." They could have no objection, personally, to receive such a one. Thus God is gracious, tender and merciful. But no doubt was left on Peter's mind as to the divine will. God graciously silenced his reasonings, and overcame his unwillingness, with the mild reproof, "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common."
Peter now proceeds, though slowly; it was a new kind of work for him. But nothing seems more surprising to Peter, than that the Gentiles should be brought into blessing, without either becoming Jews, or submitting to any Jewish ordinances. This to Peter, to the Gentiles, and in itself, was an immense step. It strikes at the very root of Popery, Puseyism, Apostolic Succession, and every system of ordinances. In this fact a flood of light is shed on the character of the present dispensation. "Then Peter opened his mouth and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons; but in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him." Clearly, it was no longer necessary to become a Jew, or submit to external rites and ceremonies, in order to enjoy the richest blessings of heaven. Without the imposition of apostolic hands — though Peter himself, in divine power and authority was present — and before being baptized with water, they were baptized with the Holy Ghost. While the word of God was falling from Peter's lips, the Holy Ghost fell on all who heard it. Before this, however, a blessed work, through God's grace, had been going on in the heart of Cornelius: he was a divinely quickened soul.
The quickening operations of the Spirit are quite distinct from being sealed with the Spirit. Before the Holy Ghost can seal, there must be something for Him to seal. He cannot seal our old nature; there must be a new nature for Him to seal. So that there must be a moment in every Christian's history, when he is quickened and not sealed; but sooner or later the work will be completed. (Eph 1:13.) For example, the prodigal son was quickened, or converted, when he left the far country, but he was a stranger to the Father's love and grace; and, consequently, had not yet the faith that calmly rests in Christ as the source of all blessing. He was legal if not unbelieving, though quickened. Certainly he was not sealed of the Spirit, as to his pardon and acceptance, until he received the kiss of reconciliation, or the ring, the symbol of eternal love. The gospel of salvation is more than concern for the soul, however real. Christ-dishonoring unbelief may accompany, for a while, a genuine work of God's Spirit in the soul. The prodigal had a certain belief, that there was something good in his Father's heart, therefore he ventures to draw near. But surely this is short of evangelic fullness of faith. "He that hath received His testimony hath set to his seal that God is true." Wherever there is faith in Christ and His work, there is the seal of God. Paul himself was at least three days in the deepest exercise of soul, without the peace and rest which the sealing of the Holy Spirit gives. "And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink." (Acts 9.)
But we return to the main point before us.
The Sealing of the Gentiles
Notice, then, this important fact connected with the bringing in of the Gentiles — they receive the gift of the Holy Ghost simply through the preaching of the word. At Jerusalem the Jews were baptized before they received the Holy Ghost. At Samaria the Samaritans were not only baptized, but had the apostles' hands laid on them with prayer, before they received the Holy Ghost. But at Caesarea, without baptism, without the laying on of hands, without prayer, the richest Christian blessing was given to the Gentiles; though the doctrine of the church as the body of Christ was not yet revealed.
The grace of God, thus shown to the Gentiles at the commencement of the dispensation, has characterised it ever since. We are Gentiles; we are neither Jews nor Samaritans. Therefore God's ways in grace, and His order of things with the Gentiles, have a special application to us. There is no instance recorded by the inspired historians of one being baptized without professing faith in Christ; but if we are to follow the pattern of things at Caesarea, we must look for sealing as well as quickening — for peace with God as well as faith in Christ before baptism. The case of Cornelius stands at the very head of our dispensation; it was the first direct expression of grace to the Gentiles; and surely it ought to be a model for Gentile preachers and disciples. When the word of God which was then preached to Cornelius is now believed, the same effects, as to peace with God, we may rest assured, will follow.
Preaching, believing, sealing, baptizing, is the divine order of things here. God and His word never change; though "times change," as men say, and human opinions change, and religious observances change; but the word of God — never. Jews, Gentiles, and Samaritans, professed faith in Christ before they were baptized. Indeed baptism supposed eternal life possessed through faith, not communicated by its observance, as Anglican catholics teach. "Grace is communicated, life is communicated, by sacraments," they say, "and is only effected through these means; irrespective of any exercise of the intellect on the part of the person brought into union. Holy baptism is the means of conferring on the recipient a new and spiritual life."
Such notions, we need scarcely say, are utterly opposed to scripture. Baptism, we affirm, confers nothing. Life is conferred by other means, as the scriptures plainly teach. Conversion, or "being born again," is effected, in all cases, without exception, by the Holy Spirit. As we read in 1 Peter, "Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently: being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever." Here the truth of the Gospel is viewed as the means, and the Holy Spirit as the power, in conversion. Christ, or God in Christ, is the new object of the soul. It is by the Spirit and truth of God that this blessed change is effected. Those who trust to water baptism as the means of effecting it trust, alas! to a great and fatal delusion.
In the case of the Gentiles, now under consideration, even more than life was possessed before baptism was administered. They had the seal of God. Baptism is the sign of full deliverance and salvation as secured for the believer by the death and resurrection of Christ. Cornelius had life, was a devout man, but he must send for Peter, and hear words whereby he would be saved or fully delivered. The Old as well as the New Testament teaches this blessed truth most plainly. Israel, as a typical people, after being brought to God and sheltered by the blood of the lamb in Egypt, were baptized to Moses in the cloud and in the sea. Thus they were delivered out of Egypt, and saw the salvation of Jehovah. Again, Noah and his family were saved through the flood — not by it. They left the old world, passed through the waters of death, and landed in a new condition of things altogether.
"The like figure, [or antitype,] whereunto even baptism doth also now save us... by the resurrection of Jesus Christ." (Exodus 14; 1Pe 3:21.)
But what was the word, some may inquire, that Peter preached, which was accompanied with such remarkable blessing? He preached peace by Jesus Christ, as Lord of all. Christ risen, exalted, and glorified, was the grand object of his testimony. He sums up with these words:
"To Him give all the prophets witness that through His name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins."
The blessing follows. The Jews present were astonished; but they bow, and own God's goodness to the Gentiles.
"While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them that heard the word. And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God. Then Peter answered, Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then prayed they him to tarry certain days."
We now retrace our steps a little way, and notice some of the leading events, which, in order, precede chapter 10.
The First Christian Martyr
Stephen, the deacon and evangelist, is the first to receive the crown of martyrdom for the name of Jesus. He stands at the head of "the noble army of martyrs." He is perfect as a type o as the proto-martyr. Firm and unwavering in his faith; bold and undaunted before his accusers; pointed and faithful in his defense before the Sanhedrim; free from malice in his strongest statements; full of charity towards all men, he seals his testimony with his blood, and falls asleep in Jesus.
In some respects Stephen resembles the blessed Lord Himself. "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," is like "Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit;" and again, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge," resembles "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do;" only Stephen does not plead their ignorance.
Already we see that troubles both within and without assail the young assembly. True, the word of God increased, multitudes were converted, and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith. But the Grecians, or Hellenists (Jews of Greek origin), murmured against the Hebrews (natives of Judaea), because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. This led to the appointment of seven deacons. (Acts 6.) From their names here given it would appear that the seven chosen were "Grecians" — all from the side of the murmurers. Thus the Spirit of God ruled in grace. Stephen was one of the number; and in his case the word of the apostle was exemplified: Those who "have used the office of deacon well, purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus2' He was full of faith and power, and did great wonders and miracles among the people. The energy of the Holy Spirit was especially manifested in Stephen.
There were different synagogues in Jerusalem appropriated to the different races of Jews. It was the synagogue of the Libertines, Cyrenians, etc., that opposed Stephen. But "they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake." Then followed that which has usually been the case with the confessors of Jesus in all ages: unable to answer him, they accuse him before the council. False witnesses are suborned, who swear that they had heard him speak "blasphemous words against Moses, and against God," and that Jesus of Nazareth would destroy this place, and change the customs delivered to them by Moses. The case was now before the Sanhedrim — the trial commences. But what must his judges have thought when they saw his face radiant, as the face of an angel?
We have the noble address of Stephen to the heads of the nation before us. To them it was convincing, perplexing, overwhelming. Doubtless, it was the testimony of the Holy Ghost to the Jews, from the mouth of Stephen; and all the more humbling to the proud Jews to hear their doom from the lips of a Hellenist. But the Spirit of God, when unhindered by man's arrangements, works by whomsoever He will.
Stephen recapitulates in bold language the chief points in their national history. He refers especially to the history of Joseph and of Moses. The former their fathers sold to the Gentiles; the latter they despised as a ruler and a judge. He also charges them with always resisting the Holy Ghost — with always disobeying the law; and now with having been the betrayers and murderers of the Just One. Here Christ's faithful witness was interrupted. He was not allowed to finish his address: — a picture, too true, of the treatment of martyrs from that day even until now. The murmurs, the indignation, the fury of the Sanhedrim, were beyond control.
"When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth." But in place of pursuing his discourse, he turns in ecstasy of heart to the Lord, and fixes his eyes on heaven — the home and center of gathering for all His people.
"I see," said Stephen, "the heavens opened." He is full of the Holy Ghost as he looks on high, and he sees the Son of man standing there ready to receive his spirit. "Such, then," as another has said, "is the position of the true believer — heavenly upon the earth — in presence of the world that rejected Christ, the murderous world. The believer, alive in death, sees by the power of the Holy Ghost into heaven, and the Son of man at the right hand of God. Stephen does not say, 'Jesus.' The Spirit characterises Him as 'the Son of man.' Precious testimony to man! It is not to the glory that he testifies, but to the Son of man in the glory, heaven being open to him... As to the object of faith and the position of the believer, this scene is definitively characteristic."
"Foremost and nearest to His throne ,
By perfect robes of triumph known ,
And likest Him in look and tone ,
The holy Stephen kneels ,
With steadfast gaze, as when the sky
Flew open to his fainting eye ,
Which like a fading lamp flashed high ,
Seeing what death conceals .
He, though he seem on earth to move ,
Must glide in air like gentle dove ,
From you unclouded depths above
Must draw his purer breath :
Till men behold his angel face
All radiant with celestial grace ,
Martyr all o'er, and meet to trace
The lines of Jesus' death."
We have now gone over, with some care, the first section of the church's history. And we have been the more careful, as church histories in general commence at a later period. Most of them begin where scripture ends, at least as to details. None that we have yet seen refer to Matthew 16, and few attempt a critical examination of the Acts of the Apostles, which, after all, is the only part of her history which commands our faith, and has an absolute claim upon our obedience.
In chapter 8 we find the Holy Ghost in Samaria working by Philip. He has, as it were, left Jerusalem. This marks a distinct epoch in the history of the church; and especially in her connection with Jerusalem. We leave, for the present, the enraged and persecuting Jews, and follow the path of the Spirit to the city of Samaria. But we must glance for a moment at what some have called the third persecution.
Chapter 3 - The Disciples Persecuted and Scattered