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Do I ever turn from the dictates of conscience, which would warn me against that which I mean to follow? Do I dislike the portions of Scripture which seem to point to a similar warning? Am I unwilling to observe such a tendency in surrounding circumstances? Am I in any of these ways, resisting the Holy Ghost?
5. The conduct of Stephen was rewarded, even at the moment of its most painful consequences, with the sight of Jesus in glory; and although such a miraculous manifestation of him as Stephen enjoyed is not to be looked for while we are in this life by any warrant of Scripture, yet the realizing power of faith supplies the sight of things unseen, as well as a foretaste of the enjoyment which is only yet hoped for. (Heb. xi. 1.) Every christian who acts according to the power of the Holy Spirit under trying circumstances may expect that his faith will be strengthened so as to realize in a more perfect manner, the presence of his Saviour, and His prevailing intercession at the right hand of God, in proportion as he is called upon to a more earnest exercise of faith and patience. The glorious sight which Stephen saw drew from him that address to Jesus as God, which confirms our faith in praying to Him as our God; and as Stephen, in thus addressing Him, was led to imitate the Saviour's own prayer for his murderers while they were placing him on the cross (Luke xxiii. 33, 34), so we may be sure that the clearer view our faith conveys to us of the divinity and mediation of Jesus, the more readily we shall forgive the injuries which we receive from those who act in darkness for want of this faith; and the more will our hearts pour out the christian prayer for pardon, that their sin may not be laid to their charge.
When under any trial, do I exercise more earnestly the realizing power of faith in the divinity and the intercession of the Lord Jesus Christ? What effect has this on my heart? Does it lead me the more readily to forgive and pray for those who injure me?
Thou gracious God of truth, have compassion on me, I beseech thee, and draw my heart to receive thy truth in the love of it. Keep me from prejudice; and let me not love to hold any error against the convictions of thy word. Let me not give way in one step of opposition to thy truth, nor follow on the path of error in anger, or in uncharitableness. Give me grace to stand for that once in defence of thy word and thy people, whenever they are spoken against in my presence, that I may readily confess thee before men; and that I may not give place to the devil, nor harden my heart. Give me the Spirit which filled thy martyr Stephen when he stood before his enemies. Let that Spirit be unto me a Spirit of wisdom, of calm patience, and of bold faithfulness, that my dependence may rest on thee, and not on the powers of man. Quicken me, that I may never resist the Holy Ghost, in whatever way He pleases to influence me in withdrawing me from sin, and directing me in holiness. And O gracious Lord, increase my faith, that I may realize the presence of my Saviour, and the power of His intercession at the throne of the Father of mercies, on behalf of me and of my fellowsinners, even of such as injure and distress me. Lord, lay not these sins to their charge, but do thou pardon them, O merciful Saviour, my Lord and my God. AMEN.
Persecution in Jerusalem, and dispersion of the disciples.
May God, for the sake of Jesus Christ, give me the Holy Spirit, that I may understand this portion of His Holy Word, and profit by it. AMEN.
ACTs, chap. VIII. verses 1 (latter part) to 4; XI. 19. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout
2 the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. 3 As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, 4 and haling men and women committed them to prison. Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word.
ACTS XI. 19.
Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only.
As soon as the Sanhedrim had taken the law into their own hands, and murdered Stephen, they grew bold in their rage, and persecuted the disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ with extreme violence. Probably they gave way to this illegal excess, because it happened that at that moment they were left for a time without a governor.
Pontius Pilate had been recalled to Rome sometime before; and Vitellius, the President of Syria, who succeeded him, had just left Jerusalem, having received the news of the death of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. This news was brought to Jerusalem in May of this year, which must have been just before the martyrdom of Stephen. The Jewish rulers had legally no power to inflict the punishment of death, even upon a criminal properly convicted of a capital crime. (John xviii. 31.) But having in the impulse of their rage assumed this power, without convicting Stephen, they went on in the liberty they had ventured to take; and as there was no governor present to restrain them, the members of the Church of Christ at Jerusalem were exposed to their cruel vengeance.
This conduct of the Jewish rulers produced a general dispersion amongst the christians; to avoid the persecution, vast numbers of the disciples left Jerusalem, and went into various parts of the countries of Judea and Samaria, as circumstances happened to direct them. The apostles however remained in the holy city; in spite of the violence they had already experienced (Acts iv. 1—3; v. 17, 18, 40), they felt it their duty to be where the persecution was most severe, rather than to fly from it. There were not wanting devoted persons with sufficient boldness to undertake the burial of the martyred Stephen; and it was
an occasion of great and general mourning, no customary token of respect being omitted.
The bloody deed in which Saul had taken part seems to have excited him to join with zealous earnestness in the general persecution of the christians. He took advantage of the occasion to distress the disciples as much as possible; searching for them from house to house, and dragging them forth, without sparing the tender sex, he committed to prison all whom he found. The consequence was, that as the christians were alarmed at the dangers which thus beset them in Jerusalem, they spread themselves widely, even into distant lands, not expecting any immediate opportunity of returning. They went beyond Samaria, into the country to the north of it, on the sea coast, called Phoenice: they crossed over to the island of Cyprus, which lay opposite to this coast; and extended themselves even to Antioch, the capital of Syria, which lay still further north.
Though they were driven by the persecution from the city of Jerusalem, yet they did not fear to declare their profession of christianity, wherever they went, they preached the Gospel. But as they had not yet separated from the Jewish ordinances, nor were yet able rightly to understand the admission of the Gentiles into the christian covenant, they confined their preaching entirely to Jews; and, as it would seem, to Jews born in Palestine (called Hebrews), as distinguished from the Jews who, being dispersed into other countries, were called Hellenists, or Grecians (see page 60).
1. The restraints which are put upon the passions of men, by the fear of lawful power and by the general requirements of society, prevent us from estimating the force of those passions, even in ourselves; and it is commonly imagined that few men would allow themselves to commit acts of cruel violence, however strong might be their prejudices, and their opposition to those who offend them. When however these external restraints are by any circumstances removed, and the internal passions are left to be controlled by the will of the individual alone,
experience has constantly shewn that there is no excess of cruelty to which men will not allow themselves to be carried. The record of almost every besieged town taken by assault shews, that when there is no law in force, men will indulge in cruel violence, even where no personal enmity exists; how much more may it be expected that the natural hearts of men, which are described as "hateful and hating one another" (Titus iii. 3), will give way to the power of a motive, the strength of which they know not until the counteracting influences are laid aside for a time. Whenever this is the case, the first act of violence, which may have been excited without premeditation, if it be not checked at once, imparts to the mind a new sense of liberty in acting evil and in indulging hatred, which tempts forward the heart in its own course. In breaking down the fence of restraint by expressing revenge in an act, we let the evil passion run loose and lose itself in reckless excess. Illustrations of this may be seen in the conduct of the Sanhedrim, and of Saul. The Jews brought Stephen to trial according to the forms of law; but being excited to put him to death beyond the bounds of law, they rushed forward indulging their cruelty on all the companions of Stephen; and as the power was absent that might have restrained them, they seized the opportunity to carry on their revenge. The same effect was produced in the mind of Saul by similar circumstances. He had not
intended to assist at the death of Stephen, but he went with the crowd-he saw their rage, and partook of its excitement he was only withheld from active participation in the murder to which his heart consented, and which he passively promoted. And when he had thus stained himself with blood, the impulse to action was given-the passion, which had found the possibility of indulgence, would not be restrained-it was vented in "making havoc of the Church," and in "haling men, and even women, to prison." Such is ever the nature of hatred; and such is ever the effect of a first act of indulgence, followed by impunity.
Do I allow my opinions to produce a feeling of hatred towards those who oppose them? Do I foster such a feeling? Do I ever indulge it, even in the most trifling acts?