Three great figures in the Church – Acts 8:1

I. The persecuting Saul. In this part of the narrative the name of Saul occurs three times (Act 7:58; Act 8:1; Act 8:3). How quick the development and how sure! First of all, he watched the clothes of the men who stoned Stephen; then he expressed in every feature of his face satisfaction at the martyr’s death; and then he took up the matter earnestly himself with both hands. He struck the Church as it had never been struck before. The taste for blood is an acquired taste, but “it grows by what it feeds on.” This man Saul began as he ended. There was nothing ambiguous about him. A tremendous foe, a glorious friend! We see from this part of the narrative–

1. The power of the Christian religion to excite the worst passions of men. It is a “savour of life unto life, or of death unto death.” Christianity either kills or saves. We have become so familiar with it externally as to cast a doubt upon this. It has become possible for nominal Christian believers to care nothing about their faith. The age has been seized with what is known as a horror of dogmatism. But Christianity has no reason for its existence if it be not positive. Poetry may hold parley with prose fiction, because they belong to the same category. But arithmetic does not say, “If you will allow me, I may venture to suggest that the multiplication of such and such numbers may possibly result in such and such a total.” Now, in proportion as any religion is true, can it not stoop to the holding of conversation with anybody. It is not a suggestion–it is a revelation. It is not a puzzle, to which a hundred answers may be given by wits keen at guessing; it is an oracle. Can you wonder, then, that a religion which claimed to be the very voice and glory of God, should have encountered unpitying and most malignant hostility? If it could have come crouchingly, or apologetically, and have said, “I think, I suggest, I hope,” it might have been heard at the world’s convenience. But being with angels’ songs true, it raised the world into antagonism and deadly conflict. So will every true life. We have no enemies because we have no gospel. We pass along pretty easily, because we annoy no man’s prejudices or naughtinesses. We dash no man’s gods to the ground; we stamp on no man’s idolatries; and so we have no martyrs. In olden times Christianity attacked the most formidable citadels of thought, prejudice, and error, and brought upon itself the fist of angry retaliation.

2. That the success of the enemy was turned into his deadliest failure. “They that were scattered” (Act 8:4), did not go everywhere with shame burning on their cheek, nor whining and moaning that they were doomed to a useless life. They were made evangelists by suffering. That is the true way of treating every kind of assault. When the pulpit is assailed as being behind the age, let the pulpit preach better than ever and more than ever, and let that be its triumphant reply. When Christianity is assailed, publish it the more. Evangelisation is the best reply to every form of assault.

3. Christianity followed by its proper result. “And there was great joy in that city.” Joy was a word that was early associated with Christianity. Said the angel, “I bring you good tidings of great joy.” Where now is that singing, holy joy? We have lost the music, we have retained the tears. The revelling is now in the other house.

II. The dead Stephen. Already there are two graves in the early Church. In the one lie Ananias and Sapphira, in the grave opened to-day there lies Stephen. In one or other of these graves we must be buried! Over the first there was no lamentation. Sad grave! The liars’ retreat, the hypocrites’ nameless hiding-place! Will you be buried there? Then there is the good man’s grave, which is not a grave at all, it is so full of peace and promise, will you be buried there? The road to it is rough, but the rest is deep and sweet, and the waking immortality! Will you so live that you will be much missed for good-doing?

III. The evangelistic Philip (Act 8:5). Stephen dead, Philip taking his place–that is the military rule! The next man, Forward! “Who will be baptized for the dead?” When Stephen was killed the remainder of the seven did not take fright and run away in cowardly terror, but Philip, the next man, took up the vacant place, and preached Christ in Samaria. Who will take up the places of the great men and the good men? Is the Church to be a broken line, or a solid and invincible square? These three great figures are still in the Church. Our Stephens are not dead. We see them no more in the flesh, but they are mightier than ever since they have ascended to heaven, having left behind them the inspiration of a noble example. John Bunyan is more alive to-day than he was when he wrote the “Pilgrim’s Progress.” John Wesley is more alive to-day than he was when he began to preach the Word in England. Your child is not dead when its memory leads you to do some kindness to some other child. Our fathers, heroic and noble, are not dead, when we are able at their graves to relight torches and go on with our sacred work. We cannot peruse a narrative of this kind without feeling that we are in a great succession, and that we ought to be in proportion great successors. (J. Parker, D. D.)

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