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§ I. The Seven Deacons of the Church at Jerusalem. Stephen.
THE Church could not always remain on the calm heights to which the Spirit of God had at first carried her. It was needful that the truth, of which she was the depositary, should be made her own by laborious assimilation; that she should follow it out to all its issues, and attain, as it were, her moral majority by breaking the bonds of Judaism. But this could not be achieved without many a severe struggle; there were inveterate prejudices to be subdued, which would only yield after a sharp resistance. The disputes which arose between the Hebrew and Hellenist Jews gave forewarning of the storm soon to burst upon the Church.
Christian charity had spontaneously found a noble mode of expression in the new society. In the first fervor of zeal the wants of all the poor members were supplied. It was only subsequently that certain jealousies began to arise about the distribution of the alms. The Church had been formed on the occasion of a great festival, when numbers of foreign Jews were assembled at Jerusalem. Among these a large proportion of its members were found. These Jews were designated Hellenist because they spoke the Greek language. They had lost some of their Jewish peculiarities under the influence of the lands in which they lived. The Church found among them the readiest proselytes. The Jews of Hebrew origin, whose national pride was stimulated to excess by the Pharisees, despised these Hellenist Jews. They regarded them as their inferiors, on the pretext that they consorted with Gentiles; they were wont almost to rank them in the vanguard of paganism. These prejudices found their way into the Church, and the Hebrew widows had the largest share in the almsgiving, while the Hellenist widows were neglected. The Jews of foreign extraction complained loudly of this injustice. Thus within the very inclosure of Judaism arose the great question which was to excite so much controversy in the first century. It became necessary at once to decide if the differences of nationality were or were not abrogated by Christianity; if the new religion was to perpetuate or to annul Jewish tradition. The Apostles engaged in no theoretical discussion; they would not at this period have been capable of it, but they provided, by the institution of a new office, for the removal of any inequality in the distribution of alms.
Until now there had been in the Church no office but the apostolate; the nomination of the seven Deacons at Jerusalem was the first new wheel introduced into the simple machinery. This primitive diaconate must be distinguished from that which was subsequently established in a definite form. The further we go back in the history of the Church the more indefinite in character are all ecclesiastical offices. Their limits are not clearly or precisely laid down. The regular division of labor is not yet a necessity. The seven Deacons chosen to superintend the almsgiving are all men distinguished for their missionary zeal, and one of them for a time stands out even more prominently than the Apostles. In the primitive Church all speak and act as they are moved by the Holy Ghost—there are no hierarchical distinctions. But this condition of things ceases when the ecclesiastical organization is definitely completed; the various offices in the Church are then distinguished by a clear line of demarkation.2222Vitringa, "De Sygnag. Vetere," Lib. III, pars ii, c. v, shows perfectly the difference between the seven Deacons of Jerusalem and the Deacons spoken of by Paul. He points out, in the first place, that the name "Deacon" is not given to the former. He then shows that while these had, as their special function, to superintend the almsgiving, that duty is not mentioned by St. Paul among those devolving on the Deacons of his day. Lastly, he rests upon the opinion of Chrysostom, "Homily XIV, in Act." II, 3.
The institution of the primitive diaconate shows how free and spontaneous is every thing in the apostolic Church. None of its ordinances are appointed like the Mosaic institutions; there is not even the semblance of any official declaration of them. They arise out of the necessities of new circumstances. The organization of the Church is as supple as it is simple, and accommodates itself to the various exigencies of its situation, avoiding only any concession to error or to evil. It is evident that this first ecclesiastical office springs from the apostolate, and is again cut off like a bough from the parent trunk; it is not imposed by the Apostles on the Church, nor conferred by way of sacramental transmission. The seven Deacons are not nominated by the Apostles, but chosen by the whole assembly. The imposition of hands which they receive bears no resemblance to a priestly consecration. It is the sign of their entry upon their office, accompanied with a solemn prayer.2323Acts vi, 5, 6. We shall speak again of the question of the laying on of hands in the primitive Church. To maintain, as do the advocates of hierarchical principles, that the Deacons were chosen by the assembly instead of being appointed by the Apostles because their duties were essentially temporal and administrative,2424Thiersch, "Die Kirche im Apostolischen Zeitalter," p. 98. is to misconceive the part which belonged to them in the primitive Church; it is to depreciate their office—one which was filled at first by the Apostles themselves; it is to ignore, in fine, the fact which we shall presently establish, that all offices, without exception, were by election.
The seven men chosen to serve the tables were for the most part Hellenist Jews, as may be inferred from their names. We even find among them a proselyte named Nicholas.2525The fathers of the third century make this Nicholas the father of the Nicolaitan heresy. (Irenæus, "Contr. Hæres.," II, c. xxvii; Epiph., "Hæres.," § 27.) We shall discuss this opinion when we come to speak of the heresies of the early Church. His election indicates that the liberal tendency had already gained the ascendant, and that the primitive Church was not so much in bondage to Jewish prejudices as has been asserted. The most remarkable man among the seven Deacons is unquestionably Stephen. The sacred historian is sparing of personal details in his case, but the few scattered traits in the narrative suffice to give us the outline of one of the noblest and most beautiful figures of Christian antiquity. Stephen appears to us a man of ardent and energetic nature, formed for conflict, full of the fire of an enthusiastic conviction. His spirit is remarkable for breadth; he was the first Christian emancipated from Jewish prejudices. The love of truth consumes him; for it he is ready to make any sacrifice—not withholding his life. His death is the crowning evidence of the disinterested love by which he was impelled; for, like his Master, with the same lips which had hurled the anathema at hypocrisy and formalism he forgives his murderers, proving at once his holy indignation against sin and holy pity for the sinner. Stephen is the ideal witness for truth, and therefore he was the first of the martyrs. He was the forerunner of St. Paul, for he laid down the principles which the great Apostle was to develop and victoriously to defend. Is not this abundantly evident from the terms of the charge brought against him: "We have heard him," say the false witnesses, "speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God." "This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law." "For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us." Acts vi, 13, 14. It is evident that the words of Stephen are represented in a false light; it is a calumny to accuse him of having blasphemed God or Moses, and of having declared the destruction of the temple by Jesus Christ and his disciples. But it is easy to discern the true beneath the false. Stephen had, doubtless, insisted, in his argument with the formalist Jews, on the transitory character of the old covenant. He may have commented on those discourses in which the Master showed how the Mosaic law was at once accomplished and abolished in himself. He may have repeated the Master's sayings with reference to the true spiritual worship, which has no more need of holy places; and he may have proclaimed the substitution of a new and final order of things for the old and evanescent. In the eyes of the Jews this is his high crime; this is also the glory of his mission. His defense before the Sanhedrim would alone suffice to show to what an elevation he had been raised by the Spirit of God.
At the first glance, Stephen's apology may seem too remote, too far fetched.2626Baur, "Paulus," 43-45. It is not immediately evident for what reason he traces in so much detail the history of the Jewish people. All is clear, however, when the drift of his argument is once perceived. In this position, as in all others, Stephen forgets himself, and thinks only of the truth of which he is the organ. He seeks not to be himself acquitted; he desires only to defend well his principles. He cares nothing for himself—the cause of Jesus Christ absorbs him wholly. Thus considered, nothing can be more admirable than his address. He has been charged with blasphemy against Moses and against the institutions and revelations of the old covenant. He proves that the blasphemy and impiety are not on his part, but on the part of his adversaries—the worthy descendants of a rebellious people, which through every stage of its history had received with a hard and uncircumcised heart the unwearying love of God.
Stephen makes good his statement by drawing a broad historic picture, in which he shows, in parallel lines, the goodness of God and the ingratitude of the people of the Jews. We feel that he has ever in view the last and highest manifestation of that ingratitude, and that he perpetually gives to the history a symbolic and prophetic meaning. He brings to mind, first, the origin of the nation and all the promises which rested on its cradle, all the blessings and deliverances which were granted to it in the person of Abraham. This recital shows, on the one hand, how deeply Stephen has been calumniated in the charge of blasphemy against the God of his fathers, and on the other, brings out the guilty obduracy of a people so richly blessed. The largest part of the address is taken up with the history of Moses, and this for the reason, that the contrast between the goodness of God and the unbelief of the chosen people never appeared in characters more strongly marked than at that time. This Moses, chosen to be the deliverer of Israel, miraculously saved by God and visibly prepared for this mission, is rejected by his own people on his first attempt to aid them. Acts vii, 26-29. He meets with the same reception when he returns from the desert, where God has trained him for his great work. Acts vii, 29-35. He has still to contend with the same slowness of heart to believe, after the miracles of the deliverance; and during the very time when he is speaking to God on the mountain, the people give themselves up to abominable idolatry. Who does not see that Moses is set forth by Stephen as a type of Messiah? That his hearers may by no possibility mistake, he calls him a redeemer,2727Αυτρωτὴν, Acts vii, 35. and suddenly in the midst of his narrative, as if to illuminate the whole, he brings in the prophecy in Deuteronomy of the prophet like unto Moses, whom the Lord should raise up. Acts v, 37. Stephen thus transforms his apology into a bold accusation. He shows that if Moses has been blasphemed it has been not by him, but rather by the forefathers of his accusers and by those very accusers themselves, who have treated Jesus Christ as their fathers treated his precursor. Stephen sums up in a few words the later period of the history of his nation. He refers to the building of the temple, without a word of the condemnation with which he had been charged; on the contrary, he sees in it a striking proof of the favor of God toward the family of David. Acts vii, 46-50. He protests only against the gross materialism which has made this temple the national idol: "God dwelleth not," he simply reminds them, "in temples made with hands." The history of the Prophets furnishes him with new proofs of the unbelief of his nation. These heralds of Christ were treated as Christ himself had been treated. At this thought, the indignation long repressed seems to burst in a torrent from his heart, and he concludes his whole address with this tremendous apostrophe: "Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye."2828The address of Stephen shows great freedom in the manner of quoting the Old Testament. Thus, in verse 14, he says that the family of Jacob consisted of seventy-five persons, while, according to Genesis xlvi, 27, it numbered only seventy. In verse 16 he says that Abraham bought the sepulcher at Sychem for a sum of money. But, according to Genesis, it was Jacob who did so. Gen. xxxiii, 19. See a beautiful paraphrase in Thiersch of the speech of Stephen. The typical point of view is, however, there given with exaggeration.
Such is the apology of Stephen—so simple, so noble; it contains, in an historic form, ideas the most fresh and sublime, and reveals an important development of Christian thought. And, strange to say, we owe this development to a man who is not an Apostle, and who appears in this crisis superior to the twelve. We have in this fact an irrefragable proof that nothing like a monopoly of revelation was enjoyed by the Apostles.
Fiercely interrupted by the rage of his hearers, Stephen is dragged out of the assembly. The fury of the Jews is so great that all the forms of justice are set aside; he is, in the wild commotion, stoned without a trial. His death is truly sublime.2929His death is said to have taken place in the year 36, the time of the deposition of Pilate. Such a murder can be more readily understood in an interim of authority; but the sudden excitement of a mob is never stayed by scruples as to legality. His countenance beams with a heavenly light. It is the pure radiance of love. A vision of glory is granted him; he dies while breathing pardon on his murderers. His last prayer is addressed distinctly to Jesus Christ, and, by his final homage, he renders dying testimony to his divinity. It was fitting that this great truth should be thus proclaimed by the first of the martyrs—by the man who most fully comprehended the superiority of the new covenant over the old; for Christianity rises above Judaism just in proportion to the recognition of the divinity of Christ. There was great lamentation over Stephen. The pious men who carried him to his burial with tender respect simply obeyed one of the truest impulses of the human heart. And yet that very sentiment, in an exaggerated form, became subsequently the parent of wretched superstitions, and found its ultimate expression in the adoration of the dust of the martyrs.
The death of Stephen, like that of all the confessors, set to his testimony a truly sacred seal, and gave it redoubled power. It not only served Christianity in a general manner, but specially advanced that truth for which he had given his life. His cause was gained. The glorious thought which had inflamed his zeal was to be caught by a man who stood as yet among the enemies of the Church, but whom God designed to use for the casting down, with a strong hand, of the barrier between Judaism and the Gentile world. This was that young man whom the sacred writer points out to us, holding the garments of them that stoned Stephen. Saul of Tarsus had heard Stephen's defense with the indignation of a Pharisee of the Pharisees, but in the midst of his anger God had darted into his soul one of those piercing goads which cannot long be resisted. The memory of that day never faded from his mind. The redoubling of his persecuting zeal denotes the disquiet of his spirit. Of this we shall find further proof when we trace the story of his conversion. "If Stephen had not prayed," beautifully says Augustine, "the Church had not had Paul."3030"Si Stephanus non orasset, Ecclesia Paulum non haberet." St. August., "Sermo" XCIV.
The persecution of which Saul of Tarsus was the instigator is an indication of the sudden change in the disposition of the Pharisees toward the Church. This sect, at first favorably disposed, took little part in the first persecution: now it takes the initiative in measures of violence, and soon surpasses the Sadducees in cruelty. In truth, the religious parties which lay their crimes to the charge of God, and pretend to avenge the cause of Heaven, are the most dangerous of all, because they hold themselves bound to no moderation in their transports of rage. The first result of this second persecution was the dispersion of the Christians. They were to learn more than one lesson in this exile. Salutary experience was to give confirmation to the words of Stephen, and the successes gained by the Church on foreign soil were to raise it above the exclusiveness of Judaism.
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