Verse 60. "He kneeled down" - That he might die as the subject of his heavenly MASTER-acting and suffering in the deepest submission to his Divine will and permissive providence; and, at the same time, showing the genuine nature of the religion of his Lord, in pouring out his prayers with his blood in behalf of his murderers! Lay not this sin to their charge.] That is, do not impute it to them so as to exact punishment. How much did the servant resemble his Lord, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do! This was the cry of our Lord in behalf of his murderers; and the disciple, closely copying his Master, in the same spirit, and with the same meaning, varies the expression, crying with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge! What an extent of benevolence! And in what a beautiful light does this place the spirit of the Christian religion! Christ had given what some have supposed to be an impossible command; Love your enemies; pray for them that despitefully use and persecute you. And Stephen shows here, in his own person, how practicable the grace of his Master had made this sublime precept.
"He fell asleep." - This was a common expression among the Jews to signify death, and especially the death of good men. But this sleep is, properly speaking, not attributable to the soul, but to the body; for he had commended his spirit to the Lord Jesus, while his body was overwhelmed with the shower of stones cast on him by the mob.
After the word ekoimhqh, fell asleep, one MS. adds, en eirhnh, in peace; and the Vulgate has, in Domino, in the Lord. Both these readings are true, as to the state of St. Stephen; but I believe neither of them was written by St. Luke.
The first clause of the next chapter should come in here, And Saul was consenting unto his death: never was there a worse division than that which separated it from the end of this chapter: this should be immediately altered, and the amputated member restored to the body to which it belongs.
1. THOUGH I have spoken pretty much at large on the punishment of stoning among the Jews, in the note on Leviticus xxiv. 23, yet, as the following extracts will serve to bring the subject more fully into view, in reference to the case of St. Stephen, the reader will not be displeased to find them here.
Dr. Lightfoot sums up the evidence he has collected on this subject, in the following particulars: - "I. The place of stoning was without the sanhedrin, according as it is said, bring forth him that hath cursed without the camp, Lev. xxiv. 14. It is a tradition, the place of stoning was without three camps. The gloss tells us that the court was the camp of the Divine Presence; the mountain of the temple, the camp of the Levites; and Jerusalem, the camp of Israel. Now, in every sanhedrin, in whatever city, the place of stoning was without the city, as it was at Jerusalem.
We are told the reason by the Gemarists, why the place of stoning was without the sanhedrin, and again without three camps: viz. If the Sanhedrin go forth and sit without the three camps, they make the place for stoning also distant from the sanhedrin, partly lest the sanhedrin should seem to kill the man; partly, that by the distance of the place there may be a little stop and space of time before the criminal come to the place of execution, if peradventure any one might offer some testimony that might make for him; for in the expectation of some such thing: - "II. There stood one at the door of the sanhedrin having a handkerchief in his hand, and a horse at such a distance as it was only within sight. If any one therefore say, I have something to offer in behalf of the condemned person, he waves the handkerchief, and the horseman rides and calls back the people. Nay, if the man himself say, I have something to offer in my own defense, they bring him back four or five times one after another, if it be any thing of moment that he hath to say." I doubt they hardly dealt so gently with the innocent Stephen.
"III. If no testimony arise that makes any thing for him, then they go on to stoning him: the crier proclaiming before him, 'N. the son of N. comes forth to be stoned for such or such a crime. N. and N. are the witnesses against him; if any one have any thing to testify in his behalf, let him come forth and give his evidence.' "IV. When they come within ten cubits of the place where he must be stoned, they exhort him to confess, for so it is the custom for the malefactor to confess, because every one that confesseth hath his part in the world to come, as we find in the instance of Achan, &c.
"V. When they come within four cubits of the place, they strip off his clothes, and make him naked.
"VI. The place of execution was twice a man's height. One of the witnesses throws him down upon his loins; if he roll on his breast, they turn him on his loins again. If he die so, well. If not, then the other witness takes up a stone, and lays it upon his heart. If he die so, well. If not, he is stoned by all Israel.
"VII. All that are stoned, are handed also, &c." These things I thought fit to transcribe the more largely, that the reader may compare this present action with this rule and common usage of doing it.
"1. It may be questioned for what crime this person was condemned to die? You will say for blasphemy for the have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God. But no one is condemned as a blasphemer, unless for abusing the sacred name with four letters, viz. hwhy YeHoVaH. Hence it is that although they oftentimes accused our saviour as a blasphemer, yet he was not condemned for this, but because he used witchcraft and deceived Israel, and seduced them into apostasy. And those are reckoned among persons that are to be stoned: He that evilly persuades; and he that draws into apostasy; and he that is a conjuror.
"2. It may farther be questioned whether our blessed martyr was condemned by any formal sentence of the sanhedrin, or hurried in a tumultuary manner by the people; and so murdered: it seems to be the latter." 2. The defense of Stephen against the charges produced by his accusers must be considered as being indirect; as they had a show of truth for the ground of their accusations, it would have been improper at once to have roundly denied the charge. There is no doubt that Stephen had asserted and proved JESUS to be the Christ or MESSIAH; and that the whole nation should consider him as such, receive his doctrine, obey him, or expose themselves to the terrible sentence denounced in the prophecy of Moses: Whosoever will not hearken unto my words, which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him, Deut. xviii. 19; for they well knew that this word implied that Divine judgments should inevitably fall upon them.
To make proper way for this conclusion, Stephen enters into a detail of their history, showing that, from the beginning, God had in view the dispensation which was now opening, and that his designs were uniformly opposed by their impious forefathers. That, notwithstanding all this, God carried on his work: First, by revealing his will to ABRAHAM, and giving him the rite of circumcision, which was to be preserved among his descendants. Secondly, to MOSES and AARON in Egypt. Thirdly, to the whole congregation of Israel at Mount Sinai, and variously in the wilderness. Fourthly, by instituting the tabernacle worship, which was completed in the promised land, and continued till the days of Solomon, when the temple was builded, and the worship of God became fixed.
Fifthly, by the long race of prophets raised up under that temple, who had been all variously persecuted by their forefathers, who departed from the true worship, and frequently became idolatrous; in consequence of which God gave them up into the hands of their enemies, and they were carried into captivity. How far St. Stephen would have proceeded, or to what issue he would have brought his discourse, we can only conjecture, as the fury of his persecutors did not permit him to come to a conclusion. But this they saw most clearly, that, from his statement, they could expect no mercy at the hand of God, if they persisted in their opposition to Jesus of Nazareth, and that their temple and political existence must fall a sacrifice to their persevering obstinacy. Their guilt stung them to the heart, and they were determined rather to vent their insupportable feelings by hostile and murderous acts, than in penitential sorrow and supplication for mercy.
The issue was the martyrdom of Stephen; a man of whom the sacred writings give the highest character, and a man who illustrated that character in every part of his conduct. Stephen is generally called the proto-martyr, i.e. the FIRST martyr or witness, as the word martur implies; the person who, at the evident risk and ultimate loss of his life, bears testimony to TRUTH. This honour, however, may be fairly contested, and the palm at least divided between him and John the Baptist. The martyrdom of Stephen, and the spirit in which he suffered, have been an honour to the cause for which he cheerfully gave up his life, for eighteen hundred years.
While Christianity endures, (and it will endure till time is swallowed up in eternity,) the martyrdom of Stephen will be the model, as it has been, for all martyrs, and a cause of triumph to the Church of God.
3. I cannot close these observations without making one remark on his prayer for his murderers. Though this shows most forcibly the amiable, forgiving spirit of the martyr, yet we must not forget that this, and all the excellent qualities with which the mind of this blessed man was endued, proceeded from that HOLY GHOST of whose influences his mind was full.
The prayer therefore shows most powerfully the matchless benevolence of GOD. Even these most unprincipled, most impious, and most brutal of all murderers, were not out of the reach of HIS mercy! His Spirit influenced the heart of this martyr to pray for his destroyers; and could such prayers fail? No: Saul of Tarsus, in all probability was the first fruits of them. St. Augustine has properly remarked, Si Stephanus non orasset, ecclesia Paulum non haberet. If Stephen had not prayed, the Church of Christ could not have numbered among her saints the apostle of the Gentiles. Let this example teach us at once the spirit that becomes a disciple of Christ, the efficacy of prayer, and the unbounded philanthropy of God.