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in such terms both of their ritual and place of worship, as evinced his high veneration for them, and refuted the charge of blasphemy, for which he had been arraigned. He proved, that the base spirit of opposition to God and his plans, which they then discovered, had appeared at different times among their progenitors, and intimated their danger of incurring a tremendous condemnation.
The sermon is not to be considered as complete: it is only a part of what he seems to have intended, if they would have given him a patient hearing. But, probably, as he opened his design, they began to show marks of violent commotion, so that he might perceive, from their countenances, a purpose of interrupting his discourse. He endeavoured, therefore, to draw towards a conclusion, by making a warm and pointed application to his audience. He boldly charged them with imitating the perverseness of the ancient Israelites, obstinately resisting the Holy Ghost, murdering the very Saviour, whom their own prophets had foretold, and contemptuously violating that law, of which they boasted. This was more than they could bear: they were cut to the heart,' not with godly sorrow, as the converts on the day of Pentecost, [Acts ii. 37.] but with indignation and rage. They could not preserve even an external decorum, through the violence of their resentment; they gnashed upon him with their teeth,' like beasts of prey, ready to tear and devour him.
St. Stephen, then, had nothing to expect, but immediate destruction: yet he remained undaunted. The Lord God conferred upon him a more signal honour than before. Such abundant consolations were administered to the poor persecuted saint, as enabled him to be collected in the face of his furious enemies, though he seemed to lie at their mercy. The glories of the heavenly world were unfolded to his view, and he experienced within his enraptured soul a large measure of its blessedness. What a striking contrast is here exhibited between him and his adversaries! They felt diabolical tempers, which constitute a part of infernal misery: he, pos sessing peace and joy unspeakable, exulted, as if he had been translated into the immediate presence of God. Under the full influence of the Holy Ghost, he disregarded their rage, and looked up with fixed attention, as if he were appealing to the righteous Judge of all. He saw the splendour which
encircles the throne of God, and the Saviour himself standing at the right hand of the divine Majesty, engaged for his defence, and waiting to receive him.
The man of God, fired with a holy transport, and not attending to his own situation, declared the delightful vision. The believer, when favoured with heavenly consolations, may frequently be unable to conceal his emotions, and, without consulting the dictates of worldly prudence, may call upon others to admire the greatness of his joy. But it is not probable, that sinners will credit such accounts, as accord not with their own experience. Thus the persecutors of St. Stephen, so far from being convinced by his relation of the wondrous fact, were the more incensed. Confirmed in their former opinion, they concluded that he was a blasphemer, who ought not to be permitted to live. The council broke up in the utmost confusion: they stopped their ears, that they might not be shocked by his profaneness, rushed upon him with furious rage, and hurried him out of the city, that they might destroy him by stoning.
We turn our eyes from the madness of the murderers, to contemplate the conduct of the dying saint. With unshaken courage, with sweet composure, with lively faith, and fervent love, he closed his valuable life, and left a bright pattern for the admiration of the Church in every succeeding age. While they hurled upon him the instruments of destruction, he looked up in prayer, and commended his soul into the hands of his Saviour, whom he beheld in glory. Knowing in whom he had believed, and being persuaded that he was able to keep that which he committed unto him against that day,' [2 Tim. i. 12.] he exclaimed, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.'
We remark, to whom his solemn petition was addressed, and we are at no loss to collect his opinion of the divine naturė of Christ. He considered him, evidently, as possessed of power to preserve the sacred deposit, then intrusted to him, and as the true God,' who demands supreme reverence and worship. Shall any presume to insinuate, that this eminent saint, being full of the Holy Ghost,' could die in the commission of idolatry! But this horrible position must be main tained, if it be not allowed, that Jesus Christ is God, equal with the Father. It is observable, that Stephen here paid the same adoration to the Redeemer, in delivering up to him
the care of his departing soul, which the Redeemer himself offered to the Father, when he said, 'Into thy hands I commend my spirit.' [Luke xxiii. 46.]
Amidst volleys of stones, which were cast upon his bruised body, Stephen continued unshaken in his mind. Confident of his own security, he felt the tenderest compassion for the persons, who were bringing upon themselves the guilt of innocent blood; and prayed aloud upon his bended knees, that their heinous offence might not rise up in judgement, to their condemnation. He cried, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.' How amiable the temper here manifested! What a striking resemblance between the dying conduct of this holy martyr, and that of the blessed Redeemer, who likewise, in his last moments, thus interceded for his murderers, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do!' [Luke xxiii. 34.]
The whole of St. Stephen's deportment proved, that he was superior to all the menaces and cruelties of his enemies. When he had offered up his devout supplications for them, he fell asleep: he met his dissolution with as much composure, as if he were retiring from the fatigues of the day, and seeking rest and refreshment in sleep for his weary body. Such is the close of life to the believer in Jesus. Surely, we are constrained to say, Blessed are the dead, which die in the Lord, from henceforth. Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.' [Rev. xiv. 13.]-Them, also, which sleep in Jesus, will God bring with him.' [1 Thess. iv. 14.]
A serious review of this singular narration will suggest various instructions.
1. It will confirm us in the belief of the gospel. Among other evidences in support of our holy faith, we may produce the sufferings of its primitive teachers, as furnishing a very strong argument. They, surely, who had the best opportunities of examining, were persuaded of its truth and excellency, since they cheerfully endured the severest tortures in its defence. Stephen was the first that died in the cause; but many others soon followed his example. Could they be actuated by interested views? Did they conduct themselves like impostors? The holy martyr, whom we here contemplate, plainly found, in his last moments, the reality and blessedness of that religion, which he so powerfully maintained. By the peaceful and triumphant
manner of his death, in such circumstances of bodily pain, he has left an unquestionable proof, that our Redeemer is mighty. Many private Christians likewise, at the hour of their depar ture, though they suffer not by the hand of violence, yet put it beyond a doubt, by their heavenly tempers and lively joys, that their system is not a cunningly-devised fable,' or their faith a vain delusion. Let us listen to their testimony, and be animated by their example! May our last end be like theirs; and, when we are closing our eyes upon every thing below, may we be able to say, 'I know that my Redeemer liveth !'
2. It will teach us how to meet the fiercest opposition for the truth's sake. We grant, that the same violence of persecution, which occurred in former times, does not now prevail. But there is still the strife of tongues,' the trial of cruel mockings,' which cannot be restrained: and these have considerable influence in deterring men from a zealous profession of religion. Though we are not called to martyrdom, it must be felt as extremely painful to be despised and calumniated by those, whose friendship we are anxious to preserve.
We learn, however, from Stephen's example, to resist our enemies with prudence and courage. If, like him, we would 'put to silence the ignorance of foolish men,' we should be able to give a consistent account of our faith, and defend our principles. Much wisdom, also, will be requisite, in order to adapt our discourse to the circumstances in which we may be placed. Yet let us beware of cowardice; and while we behold Stephen's intrepidity, determine never to desert the cause of truth, for the sake of conciliating the esteem of its opposers. What have we to fear, if we serve the Lord Christ?
The present history teaches us, likewise, to unite with an immovable firmness the exercise of meekness and love. Stephen complained not of the injurious treatment which he received. Instead of throwing out bitter invectives, he testified his readiness to pardon, by commending his murderers to the mercy and forgiveness of God. By such a singular display of forbearance and kindness, he brought more credit to the gospel, than he could have done by any other arguments. Have we learnt to suffer with a similar disposition? How much do we dishonour the cause of Christ by the peevishness of our spirit, and the keenness of our resentment against those, who reproach or insult us! Or rather, do we not prove, that we
have not yet understood the extent of that holiness, which our religion requires ?
3. It encourages us to expect sufficient strength and comfort, under all our persecutions for righteousness' sake. This primitive martyr stands as a witness for the grace and faithfulness of his divine Master, who will never abandon or deceive his upright servants. That ancient promise is verified in the case of every sincere believer: As thy days, so shall thy strength be;' [Deut. xxxiii. 25.] And will not this suffice us? If the world frown, yet God will smile: if they curse, He will command a blessing. Whatever may be taken from us for our attachment to him, he will make us abundant compensation. Though the most numerous and powerful adversaries declare against us, we may exult in dependance on his veracity, and say, 'The Lord is on my side, I will not fear.' [Psalm. cxviii. 6.]
We need not, we ought not, to stagger at the most terrible appearance of death. We perceive in St. Stephen's countenance, how Christ can lighten the dark valley, and even in that tremendous passage, fill our souls with peace and joy. Why should we not hope to maintain such a holy confidence? This, at least, the grace of our God can bestow. Indeed, without a vision, we are sure of what is beyond the present scene: the veil of the heavens is even rent to us, and we contemplate our Saviour, waiting to receive us to mansions of eternal blessedness. Let us persevere in faith and patience, and soon shall the portals be thrown wide open for our honourable admission. If we suffer, we shall also reign with him;' [2 Tim. ii. 12.] For thus he addresses every Christian soldier, enlisted under his banner, Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.' [Rev. ii. 10.]
We pray therefore with our Church;
Grant, O Lord, that in all our sufferings here upon earth, for the testimony of thy truth, we may steadfastly look up to heaven, and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed; and, being filled with the Holy Ghost, may learn to love and bless our persecutors by the example of thy first martyr, St. Stephen, who prayed for his murderers, to thee, O blessed Jesus, who standest at the right hand of God to succour all those who suffer for thee, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.'
[REV. T. ROBINSON, of Leicester.]