The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Almighty God, thy mercy meets us everywhere. It is not far to seek. Thy mercy in Christ Jesus is round about us, we breathe it, we live under its influence, without it we must surely die. We speak of thy great mercy, and thy tender mercy. Thou dost fill us with amazement, because of the wondrousness of the mercy which covers all thy works. We come by the way of mercy, the way of judgment we dare not tread. On that road there are swords that slay us, and lions that devour, and wrath that burns. We come by the way of the cross. We put our feet in the footprints of Jesus Christ. We stand beside the Priest slain for us by his own hand, and because of this blood we have hope that our sin may be forgiven. We would that every night might see the destruction of the day"s transgression. We would not carry the guilt of today into the unsullied light of to-morrow. We would bury it by the cross of Christ in the darkness of the night, never to be seen again. Thus do thou give us assurance that our guilt shall not be piled up against us into infinite aggravation, but shall be destroyed day by day, so that if we sleep the unwaking sleep, we shall be found in heaven, forgiven souls. Come to us in Christ Jesus, Thy Song of Solomon, today, and make festival in our souls. May we enter into the Lord"s banqueting house, and enjoy the hospitality of infinite love. May this be no common day in our experience. From the dawn even until the eventide, and the shining of the night stars, may there be joy in our hearts, singing as of angel voices, and lights that shine from the upper places. We would enjoy the Christian Sabbath. We would understand in our hearts the meaning of the resurrection of our Lord, and having looked into the place where the Lord lay, we would look up into the place where the Lord stands, and find in his intercession the utterance of all our prayers. We bless thee for such desires. Thou didst bring the heart out of the darkness, and gave it the joy of light. Once we had no such feeling. We were content with our chains, and found our miserable joy in our mean bondage. Now we have breathed the higher air. Now we have had gleams of the higher light. Now we begin to feel the enjoyment of a nobler fellowship, and our souls are inflamed with high and spiritual desire. Surely thou wilt open thy book with thine own hands. It shall not be to us a book of letters only, but it shall glow with divine presences and sacred influences, and out of the living pages there shall come living gospels. God grant that so it may surely be.
Show us how little we are and frail, always walking upon the brink of our own grave; feeling even in the warm summer air the chill breath of death. Show us that the flowers wither, even whilst they unfold. Give us to feel that winter is at both ends of the spring, and is a continual threatening of its life. So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom. Still lift up our lives above all mean fearfulness, and give us the inspiration of heroism, the noble and glorious courage of men to whom the issues of a great battle are confided. May we be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. May we know what it is to enjoy the assurance of the Divine favour. Being no more tossed about by every wind of doctrine, may we stand in the sanctuary of thy truth, and fear not fire, or tempest, or famine, or sword. Lord God of Elijah, of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the great and glorious company of the Apostles, lift us, the children of modern days, up into very noble manhood, and may the last estate of the world be better than the first.
Comfort us according to the sharpness of our pain. Our eyes are often weary because of the burden of tears. Our sleep sometimes flees away before the ever encroaching anxiety which devours the mind. We have pain of body, sorrow of soul, darkness of outlook. Our property has dwindled, our prosperity has been shaken to its foundation, or there is sickness at home, the little one is ill, the oldest of our loved ones is saying—farewell. The heart knoweth its own bitterness. We pray thee, therefore, in Christ thy Son our Saviour, come to us with the comforts that heal the heart, and make us glad because of recovered confidence.
To others thou hast given great joy. Every day sees a battle won. Every night closes upon a fortune advanced. All the days are triumphs. There is no aching of the head, no pain of the heart, no distress of the imagination. Anxiety is a bitterness unknown, and fear has no place in the life. The Lord sanctify such experience, and restrain those who enjoy it, lest they fight against God.
Look over our little life, and repair it every day. The wind blows it down, the fire burns it, the enemy undermines it. Poor little life! So small to begin with, so weak at its best! Oh, pity it! Continue to redeem it. Thou hast not spared the blood of thy Son to ransom it, and therefore at the last it shall be found in thine own hand. Thou that dwellest between the Cherubim shine forth! Amen.
The Election of Deacons
THERE is nothing concealed in the action of the New Testament Church. Verily this whole thing was not done in a corner. The case of Judas Iscariot is not covered up, nor made the least of. It is not referred to furtively as if the writer would gladly escape from the subject. Ananias and Sapphira are not names withdrawn from the sacred record because of the lies which they told. And the murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews is not passed over without reference. The whole life of the Church is brought under the shining light, and everything is narrated, with almost abruptness, as it is with certain minuteness of detail. The Church is not a secret institution. The Church of Christ was never meant to be a concealed force in society, or to have its inner life and inner mechanism, upon which outsiders were not allowed to gaze. Christianity abhors all official secrecy. It is a religion which lives in the daylight. Its registers are not hidden away in iron safes, its writing is written as with a pencil of the sun. It is well known that in consequence of its frankness the Bible has brought upon itself the opprobrium of those who are accustomed to hide all undesirable and repulsive features of character or habits of life. Who would publish an expurgated edition of the Bible! We undertake to adapt our poets to modern tastes and modern readers. There are transactions recorded in the Bible, which, if taken out of their proper atmosphere and setting, cause a sensation of revulsion in the heart, but taken in their places, read according to their surroundings, not torn out of their natural atmosphere, and perused in a high and noble spirit, they are as much part of the Bible as they are part of human life; and they have their high and noble uses in the Bible, which uses can only be understood by those who read in the spirit, and who see in death itself an element out of which life may be brought. It is refreshing to belong to a Church that is so open and fearless, whose judgments are not secret censures, and whose excommunications are not vengeful anathemas, but the just expression of well-argued conclusions.
How was this difficulty of the early Church adjusted? It might have ended in a rapture. To-day it would surely terminate in many instances with a secession. What was it that guided the Church aright in this first misunderstanding and difficulty? The spirit of love ruled the mechanism of the Church. There can be no permanent difficulties in any Church in which the spirit of love is supreme. If a Church is only a religious debating society, then we shall determine many issues merely by Numbers, or merely by accidental force of some kind or other. He who introduces the spirit of debate into any community, incurs the very gravest responsibility. We do not meet to argue, to controvert, to oppose one theory to another, we meet to pray. But who can define that great word pray? We have narrowed it, and impoverished, and mechanized it, until now it has become a species of routine. If the Church could meet to pray, to bring a thousand hearts into confluence, to dismiss every dividing force, and quality and quantity, and with a thousand-fold voice to cry from the foot of the Cross to the throne of Heaven, the devil of debate would be burned in his native fire. It is most interesting to watch the rise and culmination of this first difficulty in Church government. The Apostles look well in this relation. What is their starting point? They argue all the question out, from the standpoint of a clear conception of apostolic work. Your first conception will generally determine the whole course of your argument. Starting with a noble conception, a man will naturally fall into the outworking of a noble course, and will generally reach a useful, because worthy and righteous, conclusion. What was the conception of the Apostles of their own work? They magnified their office. "We will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the Word." And the Apostles could pray! Just lately, in this very story, we heard them pray, and the place where they were assembled was shaken! And the Apostles could also preach. They divided their hearers into two classes, friends and enemies. There was no languid opinion about Apostolic preaching. The mere critic could not play his little game at pedantry under the Apostolic sermon. It was one of two things in an Apostolic sermon, repentance, surrender, crying to Heaven for pardon, or gnashing of teeth, and malignant hatred, the very fire of hell! We have come to new definitions, and definitions of a most unfortunate and disastrous kind. We pray quietly, easily, superficially, mechanically, respectably; without sensation, without passion. We could almost write our prayers and read them, and sleep over them, and so could others. The suppliant is never maddened by his own inspiration, so that he shall pray the sun down and open his eyes in unexpected midnight. These regulation hours have ruined us. These beginnings and endings have played havoc with the inspiration of the Church.
The apostles conceiving their work to be of this high and supreme kind, were rather anxious than otherwise to escape the daily ministration of the tables. Up* to this time they had taken part in the distribution of the public stock, and now they gladly seized the opportunity of leaving this necessary routine to others who were ready to undertake it, whilst they went forward to do the large and inclusive work. This supreme conception of Apostolic service, was itself ennobled by the trust which the Apostles reposed in the people. Who were called together? The whole multitude. The apostles "called the multitude of the disciples unto them." He is the great apostle who has faith in the people. Christianity is the people"s religion pre-eminently. There are those in the ministry of Christ who can testify that they owe all their comfort, prosperity, and influence, to the trust which they reposed in the people. The Apostles did not form a little company. They did not select certain notables, or approved specimens, but having to deal with a people"s question, they consulted the people"s instinct, and therein they have set an example to all Christian associations. Let it never be forgotten, that in this first difficulty of the Church the Apostles did not undertake to settle this matter themselves, nor did they call representatives of the Church, they called the whole multitude, and left it to be adjusted and determined by the whole Church.
Whilst this was the case at the outset, it was impossible that the whole Church could constitute a committee of action, therefore the apostles said, "Look ye out seven men," who shall really be yourselves condensed. Such men as shall themselves be equal to the whole multitude. Large-minded generous men, who can see every aspect of a case, and deal with noble wisdom with the practical difficulties of life. The qualifications of the seven are plainly stated. They were to be, "men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom." There are no merely secular duties in the Church. We have divided Church service into the temporalities and the spiritualities. I am not aware that such a distinction was acknowledged by the Apostles. But allowing that some things might be called temporalities, even they were to be handled by men, "full of the Holy Ghost." Church matters are not merely matters of political system. There is nothing done in Christ"s Church, whether the opening of a door, the lighting of a lamp, or the preaching of the everlasting Gospel, that is not to be done under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. A door may be so opened as to affront the Spirit of God; a visitor may be so shown to a seat as to manifest a truly Christian spirit on the part of the indicator. There is no part of our work in any section that is not holy unto the Lord. Art thou weary in well doing? Remember thy weariness is an offence to God. If man engaged me to be in the ministry I might sometimes be annoyed by it, and be tempted to flee away from it, but when God ordains a man to the ministry, and ordains him in the mountain somewhere, and ordains him at the Cross of His own Song of Solomon, he is not at liberty to take offence, he does not live within the region where whims and prejudices ought to take effect. He is God"s servant, whether called by this name or not, and he must take his orders from God and to God must submit his work. Song of Solomon, as I read Christian history; I see that the ministry is one. We are all the ministers of Christ; the doorkeeper and the preacher are both in the same ministry, there are no priests and outsiders. There is no outer circle and inner circle in my conception of the Church. You have the gift of opening a door, I may have the gift of expounding a passage, both the gifts are from the same Giver. I have no doubt that the men chosen in this text were better able to serve tables than the Apostles. We have not all the same gifts. We must rid ourselves of the mischievous sophism which teaches us that some kinds of service are menial. There is no menial service in the Church, unless you make it menial by an unworthy spirit.
Looked at as a piece of Church statesmanship, can you suggest a single amendment to this policy? Do not the Apostles vindicate their Apostleship by their noble wisdom and their general strength of mind, and by their practical sagacity? It is not every man in the Apostleship who could have settled a case so. The ancient proverb tells us that "every fool will be meddling." The reason why some ministers are uncomfortable and unsettled is that they will meddle with things that they really cannot arrange. I have confidence in the people. Impose a duty upon a friend, and show by your manner of doing it that you mean him to reveal his best quality. When this spirit seizes us all distribution of labour will not be a division of front, but will rather show that the front is more united because the labour is wisely divided. This instance gives us a glance into the inner life of the early Church. There was great success in those days. We long to have lived amid that tumult of triumph. It is dull now. It is weary monotony today. To have lived when the war-horses went out in thousands, and their riders returned with infinite spoil! Oh, they were brave days of old! There were giants on the earth in ancient times. Men were converted in multitudes. There came against the Church daily a great human flood. It is not so now. It is easy to take the census of religious attendance today. The old grave days of tumult and uproar, and rush, and sacred eagerness to be first at the sanctuary, read like a species of religious romance. Who is to blame? Has God changed, or has man become weary? In the ancient Church you see an illustration of the possibility of there being superiority without jealousy. There were the twelve Apostles and the seven helpers, and the seven did not entertain jealousy about the twelve, nor did the twelve make censorious remarks about the seven. They divided their labour, and went to work with both hands to serve the Master. Jealousy kills us all today. We dare not speak to one man lest another man should see the action. There are those who would gladly give something to know if we shake hands more warmly with one man than with another. How did this evil spirit get into the Church? Mark, I am not speaking about any particular Church, but about the whole Church of Christ, the whole world over. Jealousy is as cruel as the grave; it can only be cast out by the Spirit of God. If a man feel himself the very least under the influence of jealousy, he ought at once to betake himself to fasting and prayer. You know well enough whether there is any jealousy in your heart. If there Isaiah, I beseech you, by the mercies of God, that you kill it this very day. Could I be jealous of the success of another minister, I would be no minister of Christ myself. His success is mine. To that spirit must we come. Tell me of any Church that is crowded with eager thousands, that is the scene of daily triumphs in Christ, and I am a member of that Church. Its triumphs are ours, we are not divided householders; we are one great family.
What was the effect upon the public? When this matter was settled, the result upon the public mind is given in these words, in Acts 6:7, "The word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly." It is equal to cause and effect. A united Church means a world impressed by the noble scene. The Church of Christ is not united today. There are Christians of high and noble quality who are not, would not, could not occupy a pulpit out of their own communion. The law forbids them. High ecclesiastical authority interdicts them and yet we are said to be all Christians. The noble purpose of Christ is marred by certain geographical distinctions and ecclesiastical arrangements, in the making of which Providence had neither part nor lot. The Church must be united before the world will be redeemed. Hence Christ"s great prayer, "May they all be one, that the world may believe." We want the apostle now who can bring men together, who can magnify points of union, who can show that the Church, though divided on many minor points, ought to realize its vital union, magnify and display it, and thus Christ"s soul would be satisfied.
The8th verse deals exclusively with Stephen. We shall have something to say about Stephen presently. They made him a minister of tables, and he became the first martyr of his Master. Stephen was developed by circumstances. Being put into this office, he developed his true quality of mind and heart. There are those who cannot be kept in obscurity, and who cannot be limited to merely technical publicity. What if Stephen had been the predestined successor of Iscariot? What if this man had been unintentionally neglected? Who can tell? Into these matters we may not enter; but whoever is full of faith and power will do great miracles and wonders in every age, and if he escapes martyrdom it will be by some supreme miracle of God.
Almighty God, how good it is to draw unto thee in the name of Jesus Christ the Priest. Our souls warm at the thought of thy love. Our spirits are filled with noble desires when the door of thine house is opened, and the way to thine altar made clear. We turn away from thee, and for a moment may be glad with social joy; we return unto the Lord, and are made glad with the delight of heaven. We are here this day to magnify thee as thou art revealed by thy Son—to call thee Father—to hide our hearts in thy love—to ask thee for Christ"s sake to forgive all our sins. This is our sacred business with thee. This is our one concern. We have come to hold communion with God, through Christ, by the Holy Spirit, and we would that our communion might be simple, deep, loving, long-continued, a hint and pledge of the fellowship of heaven. We have come to thy house without worthiness of our own. We have spoiled every day of the week. We have sent back every moment to thee, stained with some evil. We have not seen thee in all the way of our life as we ought to have done. We have imagined thee to be absent when thou wast really near at hand. We have broken the two tables of the law. We have done despite to the Spirit of thy grace. We have grieved the Spirit. There is no sin we have not attempted, and our success is our ruin. Thou art revealed in Jesus Christ as the Saviour of all men. He has disclosed thee to us as the God of pardon, and grace, and tender love. Infinite in righteousness, yet boundless in mercy. Stern as thine own law, yet tender with unutterable love. To thee we want all to come; and the least and feeblest standing back on the outskirts of the host would feel after thee by a spirit of reverent inquiry. Oh! that we knew the place where we might find thee; our hearts desire one look of thy glory. This we could not bear, but thou wilt surely cause thy goodness to pass before us. Show us the unseen day. Teach us that this light we now see is but the dim emblem of the further glory, infinite in lustre, which makes the very burning and splendour of heaven. Help us to see the unseen meaning of all things; so that in time we may see the going of eternity, so that above the clouds we may see the shining home of the good, and across the roaring flood may see the green shores of the everlasting garden.
We come with our psalm of adoration, our hymn of praise, our anthem of triumph, our chant of holy delight. Few and poor are the offerings we bring, but we bring them by the way of the cross, and they are enlarged into sacrifices and are made precious by the baptism of blood. We remember all the way along which we have come, sometimes a weary way, hot because of the scorching sun, cold because of the wintry wind, often up hill, and then steeply down again, with turns sudden, and precipices deep and threatening, so that we cannot tell whether we shall arrive at home. Yet there we shall surely arrive, because we do not guide our own way; the reins are not in our hands; the Lord is sovereign, and all things work together for good to them that love him. Thou dost teach us in many ways. Thou dost make us strangers and foreigners in our own land. Thou takest away the friend that made the land our home. Thou dost suddenly put out with a great flood the fire at which our friendship warmed itself. The grave holds all that is precious of our social life. So dost thou make the old man long for heaven. He does not know those who touch him, nor is he known by them. His history is a sealed book, and he longs to rejoin those who can go over the pages with him. Thou hast given unto us a strange life, full of mystery, full of pain, brightened with occasional lights, thrilling with occasional joys, and then a great burden, an infinite blackness, a night without a star to break its gloom. Lord, be pitiful and kind unto us all in Christ Jesus. Spare us a little while that our repentance may be made complete, and our contrition may shed its last tear of regret and pain over days misspent.
Undertake all our life for us, make us rich or poor, put us in chariots of gold, or thrust us into the dark corner; give us purple and fine linen, and fare most sumptuous every day, or shut us out of the castle and make us lie at the gate, hungry and weary, desolate and full of sorrow, as thou wilt, but in all the process give us the sweet sense of thy nearness as purifier of our life. The Lord made the great sky like shining wings stretched over us in sign of infinite protection. In every wind that blows may we now catch some odour of heaven. As the days come and go with hastening rapidity, give us to feel that they do but bring the nearer and the sooner the house of liberty and the land of summer. Amen.
9. Then [rather, But] there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, [libertini, freedmen] and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, [Jews resident in Alexandria] and of them of Cilicia [at the south-east corner of Asia Minor. Chief town, Tarsus] and of Asia, disputing with Stephen.
10. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.
11. Then they suborned [Suborn—provide, but nearly always in a bad sense] men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God.
12. And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council,
13. And set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place [the Temple was the object of great admiration and pride] and the law:
14. For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered U6.
15. And all that sat in the council, looking steadfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.
The Trial of Stephen
IN the8th verse you will find the twofold and complete character of Stephen. The verse divides itself into two parts, and so gives the two phases of Stephen"s great character. First of all, he was "full of faith and power." That was his spiritual condition. His inner life was made up of these two elements. Instead of "faith" read "grace," and then the representation will be "Stephen, full of grace and power." Not all power, so as to be stern, tyrannous, overwhelming, but also characterized by grace, tenderness, love, geniality, sympathy, gentleness. Not all grace, lest he should be mistaken as a mere sentimentalist, a man who uttered beautiful words without deep meanings, and who contented himself with exquisite expressions without seeking their realization in the sterner qualities of character. Stephen was by so much a complete man; full of grace and full of power. Approach him on the one side of his character, and you would suppose he was "all tears;" so soft was the touch of his hand, so gentle and tender the glance of his eye, so winsome his smile, that you would suppose it impossible for such a man ever to utter one sharp or harsh word. Approach him on the other side of his nature, he was stern, unbending, rigorous, insisting upon right and justice, and utterly unaware of the sentiment or practice of concession. Read again the second part of the8th verse, and you find Stephen "did great wonders and miracles among the people." That was his outer life. Mark the beautiful correspondence between the spiritual and the active. The one accounts for the other. With less of a spiritual quality there would have been less of social demonstration and influence. The "wonder" was not a trick of the hand; it was an expression of the deep spiritual history of the soul"s life. The "miracle" was not painted on a board; it flamed forth from an inner and sacred fire.
This description of Stephen should be the description of the Christian Church. Not a line can be added to this picture. It does not admit of an additional line of colour that can add to its ineffable beauteousness. In this verse, then, we find a complete delineation of the Christian man and of the Christian Church.
We do no wonders and miracles. Why? Because we have so little faith, or grace, and power. We have concerned ourselves in looking at the wrong end of this business. We have been wanting more "wonders" and more "miracles" instead of looking into the inner condition of the heart in its most secret recesses. Make the tree good, and the fruit will be good. Bestow the faith and the power, and the wonders and the miracles will come by the force of a happy and gracious sequence. They never come alone. Things that look like wonders and miracles may come—the grim irony—but not until we have the faith and the power will our palsied right hand be plucked out of our breast to lift the Lord"s royal banner high in the thickening fight.
This becomes a question of serious import to us, whether we have not been looking at this business at the wrong end, looking about for effects, instead of inquiring into the causes; touching with regretful look, the cheek so pale, instead of feeding the fire of the heart. This, then, is Stephen, the man who is for a little while to figure so largely and nobly in our outlook.
Compare him with the men that assailed him. Their character is also divisible into two parts. First of all, they were controversial, they "disputed" with Stephen. Controversy is not Christianity. It is most difficult for any man to be both a debater and a Christian. The spirit of debate is opposed to the spirit of love. It delights in victory. It gets itself up for occasions. It addresses itself to technicalities, and to transient details. It is clever in the trick of words. It seizes with eagerness upon an epithet misapplied. Debate is sometimes large, noble, magnanimous, inspired, self-sacrificing, self-forgetting. So long as the Church was in the era of suffering she had no time for debate. Her controversies were then fights for life. They were not fencings in words, small duels, paper wars, column of abuse answering some other column of abuse. The Christian life is always a controversy; but "we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world." Let us all beware of the spirit of controversy, which delights in the rearrangement of words and forgets that Christianity is a sacrifice, a life of obedience, an offering up of the whole nature to the Divine will, to be inspired and sanctified by God the Holy Ghost.
Being controversial, the enemies of Stephen were also, as if by a necessary logic, unjust. Injustice and controversy are twins. The enemies of Stephen "suborned" men—hired and primed men to tell lies; instructed men to utter false words; bribed them to commit spiritual suicide. This is the almost necessary direction of all controversy. Controversy seems to make up its mind to win. The aim of debate is not to secure truth, but to secure some petty triumph, or to carry out to its melancholy end some rooted prejudice, or some discreditable antipathy. This is my fear of some collateral institutions which are formed in Christian churches. I do not take special delight in the formation of men into companies for the purpose of debating. There are limits within which debate may be conducted to high intellectual advantage; but whoever enters upon a course of debate merely as such, and merely for the purpose of striving in words, without having as a supreme end and purpose the illumination of the subject with a view to knowing, loving, accepting, and obeying the truth, puts his spiritual life to a severe strain. The temptation is a strong one. It is particularly strong in the time of youth. Who does not love to hear the echoing applause which follows a smart reply, a happy retort, an unexpected and felicitous criticism? There may be no harm in such applause, within given limits; but the man who is the subject and occasion of it may be urged on to further lengths in which he will find nothing but danger and ultimate discomfiture. The enemies of Christianity, as represented by these men, were mere controversialists—trying to find flaws in the statement and reasoning and conduct of the argument: they were not inquirers after truth, pledged to find it, and bound to obey its mandate. To hear men controvert and dispute about Christian truth, one would suppose to be a sign of intense earnestness and sincerity. You will always find behind intellectual hostility to Christianity an explanatory moral condition. A man who does not love the light will use any excuse for getting out of it. Christianity disdains to accept any merely intellectual homage. Christianity will not be called astute, well-contrived, admirably-adapted, keen of insight, and potent in eloquence. Christianity comes among men to save them, by first humbling them into penitence, breaking them down with contrition, causing them to burn with penitential shame, and then leading them to reverent thought—only out of death can life come, and only by sacrifice is exaltation.
Further looking into the case, you will observe the danger which often accrues to truth from its supposed friends. You find men saying, "We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God." Imagine the irony of such men supposing that they could distinguish between orthodoxy and heterodoxy! This is one of the earliest instances in the Christian Church of heresy-hunting. Once for all, let us lay it down as an impossibility that bad men are judges of truth and falsehood. Men who had accepted a bribe came up to defend orthodoxy! We have heard it said more than once that "such and such a man may not be morally all that he ought to be, but he knows the truth when he hears it." No! No bad matt knows the truth. No man with a lie in his right hand can tell whether the sermon was good or bad. These are the pains to which rectitude of opinion has been subjected, that righteousness in doctrine should be judged by unrighteousness in conduct. No man who keeps a false balance can tell whether the doctrine was orthodox or heterodox—as no blind man can tell whether the colour was ardent or subdued. Some of you are probably hardly aware that in some cases bad men go to churches for the purpose of discovering whether the doctrine is orthodox! This is an irony that would not be allowed on common ground. No blind man will be appointed as a judge of pictures in the Academy this year or any other year; no deaf man will be appointed to adjudge the merits of competitive students in music. But a bad man goes to church, and ventures upon an opinion as to the orthodoxy or heterodoxy of the preacher, and says, with intolerable impertinence, that he himself may not be what he ought to be, but he knows the truth when he hears it! I would say, shame be upon him—only that he has passed out of the region of shame altogether, and is not worthy of the dignified condemnation he would otherwise deserve. Who dares arise in the Church of Christ and say, this man is orthodox—that man is heterodox? Who after drinking wine up to the point of dizziness, and eating beyond the boundary of gluttony, and grasping with both hands as iron avarice only can grasp—will dare to say where orthodoxy begins and ends? What is your life? What is your spirit? What are your wonders and miracles? And what is the interior condition of heart which explains them? These are the questions that ought to be answered; when men who listen to doctrine and examine Christian argument are pure of heart, true, and upright of mind, noble in spirit, catholic in sympathy—the one man that will be dreaded more than another is the man who imagines that he was fated by heaven to find out the heterodoxy of other people.
They said, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God!" The men who had just put a bribe into their pockets were horrified at the blasphemy of another man! Those who had done blasphemy were horrified at the man who had only spoken it! Search into narrow, envenomed, and ignoble criticism in every age, and you will find that the men who speak most against blasphemy in doctrine are often the men who could not live otherwise than by telling lies.
What was Stephen"s condition at the time? Hearing these lies spoken about him, he will surely spring from his seat and indignantly deny the impeachment! Some men say they "cannot sit still and hear false statements about themselves." If they were greater men they would learn the art of patience. Great bodies are calm. Stephen sat still, but his face gleamed like an angel. Could you have seen the other faces—with the significant leer, the harsh mouths, and the unresponsive features—you would have known, without hearing the defence, who was right and who was wrong. Would that we could look more and say less!
If we could watch the accused and the accuser, we should very rarely call upon the defendant for his case. I have heard a debate in which, judging merely by the tone and facial expression, and the graciousness of manner of the speakers, I should have supposed that the Christian was the Atheist and the Atheist the Christian. The man who undertakes to advocate Christianity without the Christian light, the Christian voice, the Christian expression, is a man who has undertaken the cause at other bidding than God"s.
The face of Stephen shone like the face of an angel. This is typical of character. Whenever character is under the influence of Christian inspiration it shines. "Ye are the light of the world." It is typical also of the resurrection, the last grand miracle that shall be performed upon these common bodies. The face once dull shall be lighted up with an inward light that shall transfigure it into nobility and gracious expressiveness. "It doth not yet appear what we shall be." Christianity never takes hold of any man without making him a new creature, and without investing him, I would say, with new beauty, nobility, and occasionally even splendour of expression. Not beauty by the rules of art, but a subtle, spiritual, marvellous, argumentative beauty that carries with it its own exposition and defence. But whether this can take place in the body or not, it always takes place in the character, and the character determines the man.
The modern uses of this incident I have not failed altogether to indicate in the course of these remarks. But if you would hear more about its modern uses, let me tell you we can all be full of faith or grace, and we can all do miracles and wonders.
I cannot believe the ages are living backward. I never could accept the suggestion that the world is getting less advanced, less glorious, less competent, than men were three thousand or two thousand years ago. Why, this would be an inversion that would constitute the deadliest of all arguments against Christian inspiration and Divine supremacy. We can all do miracles, wonders, and mighty deeds. Perhaps some of us only needed the suggestion, as the fuel in the cold grate only needs the spark to make it glow and burn. We have been too content to sit down under the impression that miracles and wonders and signs have all ceased, and that the world is now living towards a dwindling point instead of expanding into wider development. What a wonder it would be, for example, if some of us ever helped a fellow-creature under any circumstances whatsoever! That wonder is possible to you. What a wonder it would be for some of us could we ever be met in a good humour! What an astonishing miracle to be really good, magnanimous, sympathetic! Not with a painted smile upon the mocking face, but a laugh from the heart, diffusing itself all over the gladdened and shining countenance! What a "wonder" it would be for some of us to ever give a sovereign to any good cause upon earth! Wonders, miracles, signs! Why, the difficulty is to escape them! What a wonder it would be if some of us could be patient under suffering! If they could honestly say downstairs, "He suffers much, but he is nobly patient; very thankful; and it is a means of grace to be near him!"
You thought the age of "wonders" was passed, because the merely introductory signs have disappeared! The blossom is gone that the fruit may come. And we of these latter times are called to exhibit the wonder of a disciplined character, the marvel of a sanctified temper, the glittering phenomenon of a truly obedient sonship.
Who then will do wonders and miracles and signs in the name of Christ? What a wonder it would be for some of us to forgive. It is hard for some of us to pardon. We pardon with reservations and qualifications, and with long parentheses, and the liberty of construing which we reserve to ourselves. Forgiveness with a parenthesis is no forgiveness, but an aggravation of the original obduracy. The bolder heroism which gives history new themes, and makes the poet"s lyre quiver into new music, it is not for us in these days to realize. There is now no persecutor to "drag us into fame and chase us up to heaven." The fagot and the axe are words faint as echoes in the immemorial past. But we can toil with loving diligence; we can suffer with uncomplaining patience; in the morning we can sow our seed, and in the evening we can still be busy in the field; we can stifle the hot word of passion, and extend the warm hand of forgiveness; to the blind we can be as eyes, and to the dumb as a tongue of noble eloquence! A thousand acts of charity may glitter in our daily life, like dew transfigured by the sun. In ways so modest, yet so useful—so unknown on earth, and yet so prized in heaven—it is possible for us to show that Jesus Christ is not merely a figure in the horizon of the religious imagination, but the living power of the renewed and adoring heart. To such miracles let us rise.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Acts 6". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://beta.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25