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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

Acts 7



Verse 55


‘Stephen, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven.’

Acts 7:55

The life and death of St. Stephen are full of lessons for those who would be faithful, loyal, and true Christian workers.

I. The qualification for service.—St. Stephen could bear his witness to the Lord in the midst of an ungodly and unbelieving world, where everything seemed against him, because he was ‘full of the Holy Ghost.’ The great need of the Church to-day is of men and women who are so filled with the Holy Ghost.

II. The inspiration for service.—And as we go on bearing testimony for the Master we need to get fresh strength, fresh inspiration every day. Whence may it be obtained? St. Stephen ‘looked up steadfastly into heaven,’ and there he saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. No wonder, with that precious vision before Him, he testified more potently than he had ever done, and that when he was stoned he could pray for his murderers. If we want to feel an inspiration for service, if we want to be strengthened for our work, let us always ‘look up’ even to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith.

III. The reward of service.—St. Stephen had his reward, even though his life seemed a failure. To him was granted the blessed privilege of being the first Christian martyr, and so long as the world lasts so long will his name be honoured. But the greatest of all rewards was that just when the last stone killed his body he ‘fell asleep,’ and awoke in the Paradise of God.


‘St. Stephen’s case teaches us that a man needs to be filled with the Holy Ghost, not only for great and heroic achievements, which come but rarely in any man’s life, but far more for the daily round, the common task, the daily vexations, the wear and tear, the friction incidental to the ordinary working of life’s machinery in our dealings with our fellow-men, in our homes, in our social converse, in ordinary life. Let any Christian say whether the greatest strain upon his spirituality is not there; whether there is not as great a need of strength for little things as for important engagements; whether it is not, in fact, a far severer test of a man’s real likeness to Christ to live consistently in his home and in his daily ordinary occupations than to take, it may be, a prominent part in religious services. Depend upon it, we need to be filled with the Spirit for faithfulness in little things. St. Stephen was so filled, and hence he was ready when the great crisis in his history came.’


Verse 56


‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.’

Acts 7:56

Many do not think Christ worth living for: St. Stephen thought Him worth dying for. St. Andrew was the first Christian missionary. St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. Some faces haunt us: we think of St. Stephen as the martyr with the shining face and the praying lips.

I. A wonderful vision.—‘He … saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God.’ The Lord Jesus was ‘not sitting as in peace and ease; but standing up, as One Who felt the pain that His member on the earth endured.’

II. Wonderful prayers.—‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ ‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.’ We cannot help thinking of our Lord’s first and last Sentence on the Cross. ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ ‘Father, into Thy Hands I commend My Spirit.’

III. A wonderful sleep (Acts 7:60).—The dying martyr outside the city wall casts himself like a tired child into the Everlasting Arms and ‘fell asleep’ amid a shower of stones. St. Paul’s first Epistle to the Thessalonians is the earliest of St. Paul’s Letters, earlier probably than the four Gospels. And in that Epistle believers are said to sleep and not to die. Sleep does not destroy the powers of the mind. It is the emblem of repose. Then there, is the certainty of waking.

—Rev. F. Harper.


‘The murderers have never been able to hear the dying testimony of the victims. In an age comparatively recent, they beat the drums to drown the last words of the Scottish Covenanters. “Argyll’s sleep,” on the night before his execution, made the blood run cold in his enemies’ veins.’

Verse 59


‘And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’

Acts 7:59

The early martyrs were affectionately revered by the members of the early Christian Church because of their sincere and lasting devotion to the cause of their glorified Lord. Hence, among others, the anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Stephen, which occurred in the thirty-fourth year of the Christian era, was duly and meetly observed. Some have spoken of him not only as the first of Christian martyrs, but as the greatest of all Christian martyrs.

I. His character.—He was a man of good repute. This is evident from the office he sustained in the Apostolic Church. He was elected to be a deacon in it; and, according to the Fathers, he held the primacy over the other deacons. He was also a man of strong faith. It is Divinely said that He was ‘full of faith.’ This kept the eye of his soul fixed on Jesus, fitted him for earth, and matured him for heaven. He was likewise a man of deep piety. Luke affirms that he was ‘full of the Holy Ghost.’ Full of light and love because full of Deity, his peace flowed like a river. He was a man of great courage. The advocacy of the truth as it is in Jesus exposed him to fierce persecution, but he stood up nobly for it. And when he exclaimed with rapture, ‘Behold I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God,’ they stopped their ears, and with one accord fell upon him, and cast him out of the city, stoned him.

II. His martyrdom.—The tragic punishment they inflicted upon him was one legally denounced against notorious criminals. This was the punishment of a blasphemer, and to this awful kind of death St. Stephen yielded himself. Yet how fiendish the conduct of the men who accomplished it! But this death, albeit inhuman and diabolical, was met with prayer. No better proof could be given of the power and goodness of the religion of Jesus Christ. Death, though it came to Stephen in this merciless way, was but a sleep. This beautiful representation is indicative of rest and peace. Stephen had done his work, had accomplished his warfare. ‘Absent from the body,’ he was ‘present with the Lord.’


‘If you are faithful witnesses, you cannot hope to escape the stones. That is the last resource of the enemy. If he cannot refute you, he has a much shorter method—he will stone you. That is a short and easy way of getting rid of awkward truths—stone the man who preaches them. That is what has been done thousands of times since St. Stephen’s day. There are many ways of pelting people without resort to the actual brickbats. Words spoken and written sometimes hit harder than stones. Take care how you shrink back when you begin to feel the stones. After all, you will not have so bad a time as Stephen. Hard words break no bones, though they may break hearts sometimes, and in this way test us nearly as severely. But Christianity has wrought a wonderful change since St. Stephen’s day. It is not so easy, in England at any rate, to stone people for their faith; but still, if you mean to be faithful to Christ, you will come in for a twentieth-century edition of the stones.


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Acts 7:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.

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