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A Practical Commentary On Holy Scripture by Frederick Justus Knecht D.D.

[Acts 6–7]

As the number of the disciples increased, it happened that some poor widows were neglected in the daily distribution. Hence it was that the apostles, calling together the multitude of the disciples, said: “It is not fit that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, look out among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Ghost and of wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.”

This proposal was pleasing to the disciples. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, with Philip and five others. These they presented to the apostles, who prayed over them, and imposed hands upon them.

Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders amongst the people. Some of the most learned of the doctors, envying his fame, began to dispute with him, but even they were no match for the marvellous wisdom with which he spoke.

Ashamed of their defeat, they stirred up the people against him. He was seized and brought before the Council. They then brought up false witnesses, who testified that he ceased not to speak against the holy place and the law. All the members of the Council looked angrily upon him, but they saw his face shining like that of an angel.

Filled with divine love and the Spirit of God, Stephen reminded them of the wonders which God had wrought for their fathers in Egypt and other places. After showing them how ungrateful their fathers had been, he concluded with these words: “With a stiff neck and uncircumcised heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Ghost, as your fathers did. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they have slain those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you have been now betrayers and murderers.”

When they heard him speak thus, they raged and gnashed their teeth with fury. But Stephen, being filled with the Holy Ghost, looked steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. When the Jews heard him tell his vision, they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and rushing upon him with one accord, drove him out of the city and stoned him.

Whilst Stephen was being put to death, a young man, named Saul, held the garments of the murderers. But Stephen, falling on his knees, cried with a loud voice: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge!” When he had said these words, he expired.

The Divinity of Jesus Christ. St. Stephen testified to our Lord’s Divinity in three ways: by his prayer, by his vision, and by his blood, 1. He confessed Jesus to be his “Lord” or his God, and prayed to Him to receive his soul into heaven; and he prayed to Him also not to condemn his murderers, but to forgive them. 2. He declared that he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God in heaven. He was therefore an eye-witness of our Lord’s glory in heaven. 3. On account of this testimony he suffered a violent death, bearing witness with his own blood to the Divinity of Jesus, and being therefore a martyr for his faith. Being, moreover, the first disciple to give his life and blood for Jesus, he is known and venerated as the proto-martyr, or first martyr.

The Diaconate. The word “deacon” means minister or helper. The diaconate is a spiritual office, and is a stepping-stone to the priesthood; for a man must be a deacon before he can be a priest. We are told how the apostles ordained the deacons. The outward sign of their sacramental ordination was the imposition of hands, with prayer; and thereby the seven men received grace and authority to perform their sacred duties. The duty and office of the deacons consisted in helping the apostles not only in the care of the poor, but also in the cure of souls. In the chapter we have just read, we have seen that Stephen the deacon taught and preached, and in the following chapter we shall see that Philip, another deacon, baptized. Deacons are still ordained in the Catholic Church by the bishop, as successor of the apostles; and the order is conferred in the same way as the apostles conferred it, namely, by the imposition of hands with prayer. Deacons are assistants to bishops and priests, having authority to preach, to baptize, to assist the priest at the holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and to give Holy Communion; but they have not the power to change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of our Lord, or to remit sins. This power belongs to priests alone.

The Virtues shown by Stephen are as follows:

1. Living faith, in virtue of which he performed great signs and wonders.

2. Love of God; for he loved God more than his own life.

3. Love of his neighbour, and especially of the poor. In his death-agony he thought more of the sins of his enemies than of his own sufferings. While their sins were crying to heaven for vengeance, Stephen cried to the Lord of heaven to have mercy on his tormentors.

4. Zeal for souls, which proceeded from his love for God and his neighbour.

5. Wisdom, as shown in his explanation and defence of his faith.

6. Patience under suffering. He stood like an angel in the midst of his furious enemies, and no word of complaint crossed his lips.

7. Fortitude, in the strength of which he confessed his faith without fear, and sealed it with his blood.

The Gifts of the Holy Ghost. It is said of Stephen that he was “filled with the Holy Ghost”; consequently he possessed all the gifts of the Holy Ghost. The story which we have read proves that he did, indeed, possess them, and especially the gifts of wisdom, fortitude, piety and holy fear.

Happy death. Holy Scripture says that Stephen “fell asleep in the Lord”. As regards the body, death is a sleep, as was explained in reference to the raising to life of Jairus’ daughter (chapt. XXX). But, further, Stephen fell asleep “in the Lord”. Such a death is truly happy, for the soul which leaves the body in a state of grace is sure to go to heaven. “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. From henceforth now, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours, for their works follow them” (Apoc. 14:13). The souls of the just do not all go to heaven immediately after death, not being quite purified. St. Stephen, however, went immediately to heaven, for not only did he die in the Lord, but also for the Lord. All stains of sin and all temporal punishment are wiped away by martyrdom, and the soul of a martyr goes at once to God in heaven, and is rewarded with an especial degree of glory—a martyr’s crown.

Comparison between the Martyrdom of Stephen and our Lord’s Death on the Cross, 1. Our Blessed Lord was sentenced to death on the charge of blasphemy, because He had affirmed on oath: “I am the Son of the living God, and hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of God.” In the same manner Stephen was stoned on the assumption that he was a blasphemer, and because he professed his belief in the Divinity of Jesus, and said: “I see heaven open, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” 2. Both our Blessed Lord and St. Stephen were treated as outcasts, and put to death outside the city. 3. Both, when dying, prayed for their enemies: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”—“Lay not this sin to their charge.” 4. Both, before dying, commended their souls to God: “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit.”—“Lord Jesus, receive my soul!”

The Feast of St. Stephen. The first Christian martyr has from the beginning of our era been highly honoured by the Church on account of his great holiness. From the earliest times the Church has kept a special feast in his honour, on the day after Christmas Day.

The power of prayer. Stephen’s dying prayer for his enemies was not offered up in vain. God granted it by giving the grace of conversion to Saul, the fiery persecutor of Christians. St. Augustine writes thus: “If a Stephen had not prayed, the Church would not have had a Paul.” We ought therefore to have great confidence in the power of prayer.

The Invocation of the Saints. If Stephen and other Saints could obtain so much from God by their prayers even while they were on earth, how much more efficacious must their prayers be now that they are in heaven and united by love to God? It is, therefore, right and reasonable to ask the Saints in heaven to intercede for us.

Sins against the Holy Ghost. How did the unbelieving Jews resist the Holy Ghost? St. Stephen, inspired by the Holy Ghost, proved to them the truth of the Christian faith, and answered all their objections, so that they had nothing more to say, and could bring forward no arguments against him. Added to this, the incontestable miracles of the apostles and of the holy deacon bore irresistible testimony to the truth of Christianity. Nevertheless, the Jews wilfully resisted the truth. They hardened their hearts against all exhortations, and remained resolutely impenitent. Thus they sinned against the Holy Ghost in three ways: they resisted the known truth, they remained obstinate in sin, and were finally impenitent.

False witness. Those witnesses who brought false accusations against Stephen sinned against the eighth commandment.

Wilful murder is one of the sins which cry to heaven for vengeance.

Sharing the guilt of the sins of others. Did Saul actually cast stones at Stephen? No! Was he, then, guiltless of the death of Stephen? No! He was guilty of it, because he consented to it, and therefore shared the guilt of those who actually stoned him.

Care of widows. The early Christians always took especial care of them.

Comfort in suffering. A glance at heaven can give us courage and consolation in suffering and adversity. Heaven is open for us, as well as for Stephen, if we too persevere to the end in what is good. Jesus looks down on us from heaven as we strive and suffer, and assists us by His grace if we put our confidence in Him.

Lies and violence have, from the beginning, been the weapons of the enemies of Jesus Christ and His Church. We see that they were so in the case of Stephen.

APPLICATION. Stephen gave his life and blood for love of Jesus. Jesus does not ask for your life and blood, but He does ask for your heart. “Son (or daughter), give Me thy heart!” (Prov. 23:26.) Stir up within your heart great love for Jesus, and perform all your duties in life faithfully, for His sake; and pay Him homage even unto death.








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