Denis Clapham, Birmingham
Minister - Messenger - Martyr
Acts 6. 1 to 8. 3 by D. Clapham, Birmingham
'And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.' These are the pathetic words with which the short account of his bright career concludes. No marble monument marks his tomb; nothing remains for our appreciation but the imperishable Scripture record. Years after his martyrdom, however, a fitting epitaph was penned by the young man who, forefront with the witnesses, was to see, and never to forget, the spectacle of his stoning. It runs: 'For they that have ministered well, procure to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus', 1. Tim. 3. 13 (Newberry).
The beginning and all but the very last phase of Stephen's vigorous life are unrecorded. God has marked the importance of his last days, and the manner of man he was at the end of them. Like the path of the just which begins at the dawn and shines more and more unto the perfect day, so his way on earth drew to its close with his walking for a short time, as it were, in the full blaze of the Sun destined to rule the eternal day. He was a good reflector, ground and polished for the purpose of reflecting the Light of Life shining above all heavens, into the darkness below them. And when brought out by God he caught rays from the glory, and cast them into the hearts of men at a time that was both momentous in the history of the Church and crucial in the history of the Jewish people.
'And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring'. The Grecians had a grudge. Their widows were being neglected. They were going short while the Hebrews' were getting fat. All were not receiving the same good measure. But where was the lack? The cry of need, the supposed hunger, should have been unnecessary, but faith was in short supply. Faith, that is the evident, complete dependence of believers at all times, and in all circumstances, on God, was lacking in some of the number. Through them God was being made to appear insufficient, His faithfulness was being called in question, and His Word was being threatened. But the wise Apostles were not deceived. 'Look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom', they said. 'And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost'. So it was that with grace equal to the need, and a readiness to serve by appointment, Stephen's grace provided God's answer to the first recorded instance of collective disbelief in the church. As a result, 'The word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly'.
How deep the need today for Stephen-like ministers. Is it possible that when the Word of God increases, and the number of the disciples multiplies, invariably there are to be found those with grace like his? And when the quickening Word is scarce, and the number of true disciples is seldom added to, is the absence of men full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, faith and power, one of the causes?
'And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.' If a man serves well in the church, in addition to gaining a good standing among the saints he also increases in boldness in faith which is in Christ Jesus. It was so with Stephen. His service in the assembly is not to be separated from his suitability to be God's choice for a special work outside of it, a work connected with the Jewish people.
The Lord Himself had first spoken salvation to this people, and through the Apostles His Word had been confirmed to them. To each of these testimonies God also had borne witness, 'Both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to His own will', Heb. 2.4. But they had crucified the Lord, and threatened and beaten the Apostles. Having therefore refused salvation there was nothing left for them but inescapable wrath. The time when God was about to charge them with their crimes, prove their guilt, and if they still would not repent, condemn them to their doom, had now come. That they did not repent we know, for 'They stoned Stephen'. And that they received the proper penalty which they had incurred we learn from one of them who acted in ignorance, but obtained mercy: 'Wrath is come upon them to the uttermost', 1 Thess. 2. 16.
Stephen, a gentle servant of the Lord, loving, joyful, peaceable, good, and moderate as well, encountered the antagonism of the fanatics of the synagogues as he witnessed to the Lord, and worked great wonders by His power. Such men did not love good. They were haughty, headstrong and fierce, and although Stephen meekly sought to instruct them they only became more wickedly unreasonable. His words winged arrows of conviction deep into their hearts. It was impossible for them to confute him. So they bribed corrupt men to bring lying charges against him, and incited the people, the elders and the scribes; they waylaid and seized him, and brought him to their council. Thus, without their realizing it, the Jewish ecclesiastical council and all the representatives of that nation were arrayed by God at their own bar which upheld His law. From the guileless lips of one with a face like a messenger from the throne of the Majesty on high, they heard the full charge which He preferred against them.
The Lord Jesus had been silent before His accusers. Before his, the Apostle Paul was to make his own defence. In contrast to both, Stephen stood and stated the irrefutable facts of their history, based upon the Scriptures that they acknowledged were given by God. Then he charged them with guilt equal to that of all their forefathers in always resisting the Holy Ghost, and with the added and unparalleled crime of betraying and murdering the Just One. Maddened by this condemnation, 'When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth'.
Martyr In the face of his imminent death Stephen was without any kind of fear. Had he been overwhelmed by the seething, shouting Sanhedrin, or thought with a forlorn hope to escape with his life, he might well have quailed, and turned coward. But the grace that had been his sufficiency in life was not to fail him in the hour of his death. What a triumph! 'He, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God'. Such a man had no place in this world; he had no part with men at all. His was a place prepared in heaven, and part with the Lord Himself. When his course was finished, what did it matter what his enemies could do to him? Their worst only made way for him immediately to go up higher. One in spirit with the Lord Jesus, he kneeled down 'without the gate', and as the stones came hard upon him, he 'cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge'.
Thus our brother, so soon to receive that which his name signifies - a Victor's Crown - was kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving to the last. Let us all be like him.