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Chapters 3 and 4
Chapters 6 and 7
Chapters 10 to 11:18
Chapters 11:19 to 30
Chapters 18:1 to 19:7
Chapters 19:8 to 41
The flesh showing itself; wisdom given by the Spirit meets the difficulty
Other evils, unhappily, assail the church (Acts 6). The flesh begins to show itself, in the midst of the power of the Holy Ghost, the trouble arising from the different circumstances of the disciples, and in those things in which grace had been especially manifested, on the side on which they were connected with the flesh. The Hellenists (Jews born in Grecian or heathen countries) murmur against the Hebrews (natives of Judea), because the widows of the latter were favoured, as they imagined, in the distribution of the goods bestowed on the assembly by its wealthier members. But here the wisdom given by the Spirit meets the difficulty, profiting by the occasion to give development to the work, according to the necessities that were growing up; and seven persons are named to undertake this business, for which the apostles would not forsake their own work. We also find, in the case of Philip and Stephen, the truth of what Paul says: "Those who have used the office of a deacon well, purchase to themselves a good degree and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus."
Observe here, that the apostles put prayer before preaching in their work, their conflict with the power of evil being more especially carried on in it, as well as their realisation of the power of God for the strength and wisdom they needed; and, in order that they might act directly on God's part, it was necessary that grace and unction should be maintained in their hearts.
Observe also the grace that discovers itself under the influence of the Spirit of God in this matter: all the names, as far as we can judge, are those of Hellenists.
Evil bearing witness to the efficacy of the Spirit's presence
The influence of the word extended, and many priests were obedient to the faith. Thus, until now, the opposition from without, and the evil within, did but minister occasion to the progress of the work of God, by the manifestation of His presence in the midst of the church. Take especial notice of this fact. It is not only that the Spirit does good by His testimony, but, although evil is there without and within, yet where power displays itself, that evil does but bear witness to the efficacy of His presence. There was evil, but there was power to meet it. Still it showed there was leaven even in the Pentecostal cake.
Stephen rendering the Spirit's last testimony to the nation's heads; judgment pronounced by the Holy Spirit
The energy of the Spirit manifests itself especially in Stephen, who is full of grace and power. The Hellenist Jews oppose him; and, not being able to answer him, they accuse him before the council, and in particular of having announced in the name of Jesus the destruction of the temple and of the city, and the change of the customs of their law. Here, observe, we see the free power of the Holy Ghost, without any sending by any other to the work, as in the apostles appointed by Christ Himself. It is not authority in the apostles, it is not in the Jews of Palestine. He distributes to whom He will. It is the godly and devoted Hellenist who renders the last testimony to the heads of the nation. If priests believe on the one side, Jews from without Judea bear testimony on the other, and prepare the way for a still more extended testimony; but at the same time for the definitive rejection, morally, of the Jews as the basis and centre of the testimony, and of the work of gathering together. For as yet Jerusalem was the centre of testimony and gathering. Peter had testified of a glorious Christ promising His return on their repentance, and they had stopped His testimony. Now judgment is pronounced on them by the Holy Ghost through the mouth of Stephen, in whom they show themselves open adversaries to this testimony. It is not the apostles who, by official authority, break off with Jerusalem. The free action of the Holy Ghost anticipates a breach, which did not take place so as to form a part of the scripture narrative. The thing is done by the power of God; and the taking up to heaven of the witness raised up by the Spirit to denounce the Jews as adversaries, and to declare their fallen condition, placed the centre of gathering in heaven according to the Spirit — that heaven to which the faithful witness, who was filled with the Spirit, had gone up. Already, while on earth, he had the appearance of an angel to the eyes of the council who judged him; but the hardness of their hearts would not let them stop in the path of hostility towards the testimony rendered to Christ — a testimony which comes out here in a special way as the testimony of the Holy Ghost.
Stephen,* as far as we are
told, had not known the Lord during His life on earth. Certainly he
was not appointed, like the apostles, to be a witness of that life. He
was simply the instrument of the Holy Ghost, distributing to whom He
The nation's history and full measure of guilt summed up
He begins therefore their history from the beginning of God's
way, that is, from Abraham, called out by the revelation of the God of
glory, slow indeed to obey, but at length led by the patient grace of
God into Canaan. Nevertheless, he was a stranger in the promised land;
and bondage was to be the portion of his descendants, until God
interposed in grace. The lot, therefore, of the blessed patriarch was
not that of possessing the promises, but of being a stranger; and that
of his descendants was to be captives until God delivered them with a
strong arm. Nothing can be more striking than the calm superiority to
circumstances displayed by Stephen. He recites to the Jews a history
they could not deny, a history they boasted in, yet it condemned them
utterly. They were doing as their fathers had done. But two persons
are specially prominent in Stephen's account, in connection with the
goodness of God towards Israel at this period — Joseph and
Moses. Israel had rejected them both, given up Joseph to the Gentiles,
rejected Moses as judge and leader. It was, in cases which the Jews
could not deny or object to, the history of Christ also, who, too, at
the time appointed of God, will indeed be the Redeemer of Israel. This
is the substance of Stephen's argument. The Jews had always rejected
those whom God had sent and in whom the Holy Ghost had acted, and the
testimony of the same Holy Ghost in the prophets who had spoken of the
Christ whom they had now betrayed and slain. Besides this, according
to Moses, they had worshipped false gods, even from the time of their
deliverance out of Egypt* — a sin which, however great the
long-suffering of God, would cause them to be carried away, now that
they had filled up the measure of their iniquity, beyond the Babylon
which had already been their punishment.
It is a most striking summing up of their whole history — the history of man with all the means of restoration supplied. The full measure of guilt is stated. They had received the law and had not kept it, rejected the prophets who had testified of Christ, and betrayed and murdered Christ Himself — always resisted the Holy Ghost. What they did trust in, the temple, God rejected. God Himself has been, as it were, a stranger in the land of Canaan; and if Solomon built Him a house, it was in order that the Holy Ghost might declare that He who had heaven for His throne, and earth for His footstool, whose dominion was universal, would not dwell in houses of stone, which were the creation of His own hand. Thus we have the complete summing up of their history, connected with the last days of their judgment. They always resisted the Holy Ghost, as they had always disobeyed the law. Judaism was judged, after the long patience of God and all His ways of grace with man as means were exhausted. For Israel was man under the special dealings and care of God. Man's guilt now is not only sin, but sin in spite of all that God has done. It was the turning-point of man's history. Law, prophets, Christ, the Holy Ghost, all tried, and man at enmity against God. The cross had really proved it, but this had added the rejection of the testimony of the Holy Ghost to a glorified Christ. All was over with man, and began anew with the second Man ever in connection with heaven.
Man's rejection of a glorified Christ; the heavens opened to faith; the Son of Man in the glory
Their conscience convicted, and their heart hardened, their will unchanged, the members of the council were filled with rage, and gnashed upon him with their teeth. But if Stephen was to bear this definitive testimony against Israel, he was not merely to render the testimony, but much more to place it in its true relative position, by a living expression of that which a believer was in virtue of the presence of the Holy Ghost here below dwelling in him. In their history we have man always resisting the Holy Ghost; in Stephen, a man full of Him consequent on redemption.
Such are the elements of this touching and striking scene, which forms an epoch in the history of the assembly. The heads of Israel gnash their teeth with rage, against the mighty and convincing testimony of the Holy Ghost, with which Stephen was filled. They had rejected a glorified Christ, as they had slain a humbled one. Let us follow out the effect as to Stephen himself. He looks stedfastly up to heaven; now fully opened to faith. It is thither that the Spirit directs the mind, making it capable of fixing itself there. He reveals to one who is thus filled with Himself the glory of God on high, and Jesus in that glory at the right hand of God, in the place of power — Son of man in the far higher place than that of Psalm 2, that of Psalm 8, though all things were not yet put under Him (compare John 1:50-51). Afterwards He gives the effect of the testimony borne in the presence of the power of Satan, the murderer.
Stephen as the first example of the state of the believer's soul after death with Christ glorified
"I see," said Stephen, "the heavens opened." Such then 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! Nor is it to the glory of God that he testifies (this was natural to heaven) but to the Son of man in the glory, heaven being open to him, and then looks to Him as the Lord Jesus, to receive his spirit, the first example and full testimony of the state of the believer's soul after death with Christ glorified.
The resemblance of Stephen to His master
With regard to the progress of the testimony, it is not now that
Jesus is the Messiah, and He will return if you repent (which,
however, does not cease to be true), but it is the Son of man in
heaven, which is open to the man that is filled with the Holy Ghost — that heaven to which God is about to transport the soul, as it is the
hope and the testimony of those that are His. The patience of God was
doubtless still acting in Israel; but the Holy Ghost opened new scenes
and new hopes to the believer.* But remark that Stephen, in
consequence of seeing Jesus in heaven, perfectly resembles Jesus upon
earth — a fact precious in grace to us: only that the glory of His
Person is in all cases carefully guarded. Jesus, though heaven was
opened to Him, was Himself the object to which heaven looked down, and
who was publicly owned and sealed of the Father. He did not need a
vision to present an object to His faith, nor did it produce any
transformation into the same image by revelation of the glory. But
"Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit" is found in "Lord Jesus,
receive my spirit." And the affection for Israel which expresses
itself in intercession, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what
they do," is found again in "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge";
save that here the Holy Ghost does not now affirm that they are
Stephen's position and the divine character and Person of Jesus, the object of heaven
But it is well to dwell a moment on that which brings out more clearly the especial position of Stephen, the vessel of the Spirit's testimony, so definitively rejected by the Jews; and the divine character and Person of Jesus, even where His disciple is most like Him. Heaven is open to Jesus, the Holy Ghost descends upon Him and He is acknowledged the Son of God. Heaven opens on Jesus, and the angels descend upon the Son of man: but He has no object presented to Him; He is Himself the object on which heaven is gazing. Heaven will open at the end of the age, and Jesus Himself come forth on the white horse (that is, in judgment and triumph). Here, too, heaven opens, and the disciple, the Christian, full of the Holy Ghost, sees into it, and there beholds Jesus at the right hand of God. Jesus is still the object, before of heaven, now of the believing man who is filled with the Holy Ghost; so that, as to the object of faith and the position of the believer, this scene is definitively characteristic. Jesus has no object, but is the object of heaven when it opens; the saint has, and it is Jesus Himself in heaven when it is open. Rejected, and rejected by the Jews, like Jesus, partaking in His sufferings, and filled with His Spirit of grace, Stephen's eyes are fixed on high, on the heaven which the Holy Ghost opens to him; and he sees the Son of man there ready to receive his spirit. The rest will come later; but it is not only Jesus, whom the heavens must receive until the times of restitution, but also the souls of His believing people until the moment of resurrection, and the whole church, in spirit, detached from the world that rejected Him, and from Judaism that opposed the testimony of the Holy Ghost. The latter, Judaism, is no longer at all recognised; there is no longer any room for the long-suffering of God towards it. Its place is taken by heaven, and by the assembly, which, so far as it is consistent, follows her Master there in spirit, while waiting for His return.
Acts 8. Saul was present at Stephen's death,
and consenting to it.*
The end of the first phase of the assembly of God
This is the end of the first phase of the assembly of God — its history in immediate connection with Jerusalem and the Jews, as the centre to which the work of the apostles related, "beginning at Jerusalem"; carried on, however, in a believing remnant, but inviting Israel, as such, to come into it, as being nationally the object of the love and care of God, but they would not. Some accessory events follow, which enlarge the sphere of labour and maintain the unity of the whole, previously to the revelation of the call of the Gentiles, as such, properly speaking, and of the assembly as one body, independent of Jerusalem, and apart from the earth. These events are — the work of Philip in the conversion of Samaria and of the Ethiopian; that of Cornelius, with Peter's vision that took place after the vocation of Saul, who himself is brought in by a Jew of good report among the Jews as such; the labours of Peter in all the land of Canaan; and, finally, the connection established between the apostles at Jerusalem and the converted Gentiles at Antioch; the opposition of Herod, the false king of the Jews, and the care which God still takes of Peter, and the judgment of God upon the king. Afterwards comes the direct work among the Gentiles, having Antioch for its starting-point, already prepared by the conversion of Paul, through means and with a revelation that were quite peculiar. Let us follow the details of these chapters.
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