Scenes From the History of the Early Christians

 •  8 min. read  •  grade level: 10
"Devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him,”
LET us place ourselves once more in thought in the Holy City, about a year after the ascension of our Lord. Jerusalem is now full of the disciples of Christ; multitudes of men and women assemble constantly in Solomon's porch, a place which was perhaps counted sacred, as a relic of the old Temple; but if we were to inquire for the Christians in the city, we should be met only by looks of wonderment; the followers of Jesus of Nazareth did not yet bear that name. It is early, and the threefold blast of the priests' trumpets, as they called morning prayer, has but just died away, the smoke of the morning sacrifice is still lingering about the courts of the Temple, as we take our way through the narrow streets, meeting men of many nations and languages and varied dress. In whichever direction we walk, the same beautiful object fixes our eyes, for above the city of God rises the Temple,
“... a mountain of white marble, steeped
In light, like floating gold.”
As the day advances we are aware that something unusual is taking place. A crowd is gathered near a building not far from the Temple courts. They speak in eager, indignant tones, and as we draw nearer we catch the word "blasphemy," often repeated.
If we ask the cause of this stir and excitement, we shall receive different answers. An Essene, as he gathers the flowing folds of his white robe more closely round him lest he be defiled by our touch, will tell us that the members of the Sanhedrin are met to-day in the council-chamber to try a Hellenist who has spoken against the Temple, and the law which Jehovah the God of Israel gave to His people. That white hall is the council-chamber, and there it will go hard with the one who has that day to answer for himself before the high priest and the judges. The high priest is of the sect of the Sadducees—they who say there is no resurrection. He will find no mercy at their hands. The accused does not belong to the holy city, there is something foreign about his speech and ways; but he was a good man; he did great wonders and miracles among the people, he cared for the poor and the widow. He spoke of Jesus of Nazareth, saying that He whom they crucified, liveth.
Can we not picture to ourselves the disciples of Jesus, saying, "The Lord told us so. He told us that we should be delivered up to the councils, and scourged in the synagogues. It is well. Let each of us be even as His apostles, who rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His Name. ‘It is enough for the disciple that he be as his Master, and the servant as his Lord "? And we can see the vehement gestures of many who, pointing to the glittering heights of the Temple, exclaim of the accused," He hath not ceased to speak blasphemous words against this holy place.”
Within that council-chamber, the trial proceeds. The court is specially convened to try those who are accused of any offense against the law or the religious customs of the Jews. The high priest sits in the chief place, and around the hall, in a half-circle, are ranged the members of the court, chief priests, elders, lawyers and scribes, to the number of seventy, as judges.
Before them the Hellenist, Stephen, stands alone, confronted by those who have been brought forward as witnesses against him. His accusers charge him vehemently, and again we hear the words, "blasphemy," "this holy place," "the law;"—the accusation is summed up in one sentence: "We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.”
Then, as the high priest puts the question, "Are these things so?" every eye in the assembly is fixed upon the prisoner. Surely, as he stands alone before them, the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon him, for his face seems, even to the eyes of those judges, like the face of an angel.
Let us watch their faces as he speaks. As he begins his narrative of God's dealings with His chosen people, and the familiar names "Abraham," "Joseph," "David," fall upon their ears, the assembly listens with a smile of approval. But the smile fades and the brows darken as, after speaking of the house which Solomon built for the God of Jacob, he goes on to say, "Howbeit the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands." Then, passing from those who were, in their rejection and their glory, but types of Christ, he speaks of how their fathers had persecuted the prophets, and slain those who spoke before of the coming of that righteous One, of whom they had been the betrayers and murderers, and they forget all else in their blind fury against the accused who has dared to accuse them—the chief priests and scribes, the teachers of the nation—in such words as these, "Ye have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.”
The angel-light upon his face awes them no longer, and in bitter rage they gnash on him with their teeth.
But to Stephen, as, full of the Holy Ghost, he looks up steadfastly into heaven, a far different scene is opened. The council-chamber, the witnesses, the angry judges, all disappear, and in triumphant language he tells what has been revealed to him by that steadfast gaze.
“Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.”
With loud cries the judges rush upon him, stopping their ears from hearing such blasphemous words; they drag him from the council-chamber and through the narrow, crowded streets until the place is reached outside the city gates where the blasphemer is to be stoned.
According to the law, those who have borne witness against him are to cast the first stones. Throwing off their long upper garments, they lay them at the feet of a young man, who was afterward to say—speaking to that same Jesus whom Stephen had just seen in the glory of God—"When the blood of Thy martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by, consenting unto his death, and kept the raiment of them that slew him." Yes, Saul the persecutor, who did so much evil to the Lord's saints in Jerusalem, is there. He has seen that heavenly light on Stephen's face; he has heard the words in which Christ's martyr gives up his spirit to the Lord Jesus; he has seen him kneel amid the cry and tumult and deadly volley of stones falling like hail around him, and, ere he calmly falls asleep, pray for his persecutors that the sin of his death be not laid to their charge.
That heavenly light which transfigured the martyr's face is to shine again before the eyes of Saul of Tarsus, but the time has not yet come. As the disciples of the Baptist took up his headless body and buried it, and went and told Jesus, so we imagine devout men gathering the mangled remains of the martyr Stephen, and, with great lamentation, bearing him upon an open bier to his burial. We see them lay him in some garden or cave, or rock-hewn sepulcher. We know not how far their spirits, little instructed as yet in what was subsequently revealed as to the blessedness of those who depart to he with Christ, can rejoice over the brother who has gone before them into the presence of the Lord, but we may be sure that He who once on the midnight sea came to His disciples in their storm-driven boat, saying to them those words of cheer, "It is I; be not afraid," is very near to His own as they stand around the grave of Stephen. Very near them, too, as they return to meet the full tide of persecution, which his death seems to roll in upon them.
Surely we may believe that there were many nameless martyrs in Jerusalem during that terrible time when Saul "made havoc of the church," entering into every house, and haling men and women, committed them to prison. We know, from his own lips, that he persecuted "unto the death" the disciples of Christ, besides punishing them in the synagogues and shutting them up in prison, and trying to compel them to blaspheme His Name; for he verily thought with himself, in this time of his ignorance and unbelief, that he "ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth." He had not yet heard that voice from heaven which said, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?.. I am Jesus of Nazareth whom thou persecutest.”