Such are two of the main thoughts presented in this striking and instructive chapter. God was rejected, let Him speak or act as He might, and never more than when He displayed His grace. “Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost.” It is true, these Christ-rejecting Jews boasted in the law; but if they had received the law by the disposition of angels, had they kept it? They had persecuted the prophets; they had slain those who foreshadowed the coming of the Just One; they had now betrayed and murdered Himself.
It was no new feature in their history. Their fathers had done the same as themselves. Man is ever resisting what God sends in blessing. Joseph and Moses had been rejected, the two prominent types of the Lord Jesus. Their fathers despised and hated Joseph; they had done the same by Christ. God exalted Joseph; and Stephen’s testimony was to Jesus standing on the right hand of God. And if Joseph sent and called his kindred in grace, did not and will not Christ do the same?
Moses appears. He abandons the house of Pharaoh in love to his brethren; but they resisted him, as Christ was resisted. “As your fathers did, so do ye.” All boasting then was ended. They were constant only in opposing the Holy Ghost. This is ever the case with the natural man. He cannot trust God. He ever resists the Spirit of God. There is no power in him to rely on the word of God; but the moment a thing is built up which can be seen, man can trust in that, no matter what it may be. God may be gone; but if it be the tabernacle or the temple, some settled thing for the eye, man will trust in it, though it is the very thing God is about to judge.
The testimony God gave was resisted; and man was clinging to that which God is going to pull down. All that is not founded upon the word will be shaken, and this, terrible though it be to flesh and blood, is a positive promise to us. “Whose voice then shook the earth; but now he hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven. And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace whereby we may serve God acceptably, with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire,” Heb. 12. How far can you take this as a promise? If your hearts are resting here, you cannot. This may be easily known by the test—how far are your hearts attached to Christ in heaven, unseen save to the eye of faith?
How beautifully was this brought out in the case of Stephen! He was a bright reflection of his blessed Master, resisting unto blood in his strife against sin. What is more, he brings before us a vivid picture to be followed in our everyday life. For we are called always to testify for Christ, through the power of the Spirit, though it may not be unto death.
Besides, the rejection of the testimony by Stephen was a turning-point of the ways of God with Israel, with man, though the principle had already come out at the death of Christ. God never could directly bless the world after that. He could forgive guilty Israel if they repented, and send Christ back again, in answer to the prayer on the cross. And this is just what Peter preaches in Acts 3 that, if the people were converted, to the blotting out of their sins, Jesus was ready to return, and to bring in the times of restitution of all things—a truth which their present impenitence postpones, but does not destroy: for He is coming again. But now Stephen’s testimony is utterly refused, and the witness of Christ’s heavenly glory is cast out of the city and stoned without mercy. It was the fitting sequel of such a testimony.
God had been dealing with man in all sorts of ways since Adam, but it only brought out the greater evil, for man continually resisted Him. Before the law they were lawless; they were transgressors when they had the law. God had given priests, kings, prophets in vain. Then He sent His Son. But they only rejected God in all ways, and at all times. When Christ came, sin added another crime to the terrible list. The deepest of all evils was there—rejection of the Son of man in His humiliation, and of the Spirit’s testimony to His exaltation in heavenly glory. Jesus came not in the sternness of the law, but in love, yet He met only with enmity and hatred. If men, as such, could have been connected with God, they must have been when Christ came. But man needs a new nature for such a link; and this Christ does give to all who believe, and has sent down the Holy Ghost to maintain it in power.
So Stephen, “being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.”
Such is the true place of the believer, rendered capable by the Spirit of fixing his eye on Jesus in glory, and this in presence of the world and its prince, who crucified the Lord of glory. It is not simply nor vaguely his eye opened to glory, but he sees the Son of man there, and the Spirit forms his heart, and mind, and walk according to that pattern. For the veil is rent, and Jesus is seen in heaven.
We have heaven opened four times in the New Testament; and of these the first when the Lord was upon the earth. There was nothing in the actual condition of man which God could look on with pleasure till the Man Christ Jesus was seen on earth. That the heavens should open on Him was no marvel. God had found perfect rest upon earth, and said, when the heavens opened, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” On the last occasion, namely, in Revelation 19, heaven is opened for the fourth time, and Christ is seen as coming to judge. In each of these heaven opened to Christ. But there was a third scene when heaven opened, and not to Christ. He had been rejected from earth, and was no longer a link between it and God. Where then is He? At God’s right hand. When He was crucified, the whole world was condemned, and the prince of this world judged. All had joined together—governor, priest, people—against the Lord and His anointed. The world deliberately rejected the holiness of God, and had no heart for the love of God. Yet after this, and in spite of this, we get heaven opened once more before Christ comes to execute judgment. Heaven is opened upon a believer in Christ, upon a witness to His glory outside the world. “Behold, I see the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” Christ Himself was the object on earth upon whom heaven opened. Christ is now the object in heaven presented to the believer on earth.
Stephen’s testimony only drew out the murderous opposition of the world. It had been guilty of rejecting Christ down here. It equally rejected Him, now that He is proclaimed as the exalted One in heaven. But Stephen only thus saw and testified, when “full of the Holy Ghost.” To have the Holy Ghost is one thing; to be filled with the Holy Ghost is another. When He is the one source of my thought, I am filled with Him. When He has possession of my heart, there is power to silence what is not of God, to keep my soul from evil, and to guide in every act of my life and walk; so that in both I am kept apart from the world. Compare Ephesians 5:18: “Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.”
Are we then looking steadfastly into heaven? Alas! what inconstant hearts we have: how fickle and changing! The Holy Ghost ever leads the eye to, and would keep it fixed on, Jesus. He is the object of the Spirit from all eternity; whether as the Son in the bosom of the Father; or as the rejected Messiah on earth; or as the Son of man exalted at the right hand of God. To reveal and glorify Him is the habitual aim of the Spirit. When we have not much power for prayer, or even to follow others, and our hearts get full of distracted thoughts—when there is little energy in our souls for praise and worship, we have but a feeble measure of the power of the Spirit; we are not filled with the Holy Ghost.
The heavens, then, can be opened upon a believer here below, when Christ, the Son of man, is up there. What a thought, what a truth for our heart! Indeed, more than this; for in Ephesians 2 we learn the blessed fact, that God has quickened us together with Christ, has raised us up together, and seated us together in Christ in heavenly places. He has taken His place at the right hand of God: and we are made to sit there in Him, because united to Him who is there. “He that is joined to the Lord is one spirit.”
It is no longer, then, the heavens opening and Jesus acknowledged in humiliation to be the beloved Son of God. It is not the heavens open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of man, the object of service to those who were the most dignified and holy creatures of God. It is not yet heaven opened and a rider upon a white horse, issuing thence in triumphant judgment. It is a precious and interesting scene, where the disciple on earth sees the heavens opened, and, filled with the Spirit, sees the glory of God and Jesus standing at His right hand. It is the manifest and characteristic picture of the true position of the Christian, rejected like Jesus, because of Jesus, with Jesus, but withal his eyes opened by the Holy Ghost to higher hopes and glory than any dependent on the Lord’s return to and judgment of the earth, and restoration of His ancient people. Heavenly glory is the portion with which his soul is in present fellowship and with Jesus therein.
Indeed Stephen’s discourse to the Jews had strikingly paved the way to this; for while he had sketched the history of the people from the very first, he had singled out Abraham, called away from his country and kindred by the appearing of God in glory. Abraham, a stranger in the land of promise, and not a foot of it as yet his own. He had traced the sins, sorrows, and bondage of “our fathers,” till God delivered the people out of Egypt, as He had previously called Abraham from Mesopotamia. Two individuals stood out most significantly; but they were scarcely more characterised by the honour of God, than they had been previously by the rejection of Israel. Joseph given up to the Gentiles, afterwards the most exalted in the personal administration of the kingdom, and the instrument of the goodness and wisdom of God, in behalf of the very brethren who had persecuted and sold him; Moses, the refused ruler and judge, whom God sent, long after, to be a ruler and a deliverer; just such had been the features of their recent sin, and such should be the path of God in His grace. But they had no ear for Him as yet. From the very first, their idolatrous hearts had departed from Him, however slow He had been in executing judgment. And however their pride might rest complacently in this holy place, God Himself in truth was, and had been, as great a stranger, so to speak, in Canaan, as had been Abraham His friend. It was true that “Solomon built him an house.” But this had furnished the occasion for the prophet to tell them in due time, that the Most High, whose hand had made all things, would not rest in a temple made with hands; and this, in connection with restored idolatry in the temple, and the consummated wickedness and judgment of Israel in the latter day, before the Lord shall create Jerusalem a rejoicing and her people a joy.
And now, the history of Christ had been the fresh and full verification of these varied principles of God, and all was caused to flash on their unrenewed and rebellious consciences by the Holy Ghost through Stephen. But heaven opened to him, as it can to us in virtue of our being members of Christ; as we see in John 14, “ye in me and I in you.” We see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. We are made the righteousness of God in Him. He has vindicated the holiness of God, whose righteousness is now for me and justifies me. And the Holy Ghost gives me competency to look up into heaven, and see my Forerunner there—my righteousness there. I am there, for Christ and the believer are united. I am one with Him. It is Paul who shews us this truth fully. It was made known to him from his very conversion, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.” The other apostles never developed it as he did. Paul was the fitted vessel for disclosing this great truth, not yet unfolded—the secret hid in God— and thus for completing the word, as we read in Colossians 1. There had been, as it were, a blank left for it.
Stephen looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the Son of man standing at God’s right hand—a Man in heaven seen by one on earth! What an immense step! truly blessed to have Christ in heaven, to see Him there, and be livingly associated with Him in that glory.
But the Son of man was seen standing there. Why standing? He could not sit until the last act of rejection was completed. What a tale! What sin man has wrought: what woe he has entailed on himself! But Christ is set down waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. So must we wait. The righteousness we are made—we are not waiting for that, but for the hope of righteousness by faith. We are set down in Christ, in spirit and purpose, at God’s right hand, until the heavens open for the last time, and the Son of man comes to judge all that can be shaken. Does this alarm me? No. I am safe to the end. I have the city which hath foundations. I am linked in with what God has settled, and cannot be moved.
What an effect this sight in heaven should have upon our souls! In Stephen it produced a thorough practical likeness to Christ. If you look at Christ, He witnessed the good confession before Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, the people, etc. What is Stephen? A faithful follower of the One he sees in heaven. He bears witness to his Master, forgetful of himself, or his danger, without a thought of consequences. The Holy Ghost guides and fills him with holy joy that ran over. His heart was filled with Christ to the exclusion of care for his life, or what should follow. Christ was the only object before him. He was like Christ in confession, like Him in suffering too, “filling up that which was behind.” What a picture of practical conformity to Christ in grace—perfect confidence in looking up to the Lord, into whose hands he committed his spirit— strong intercession, as he thought of those who stoned him to death. “And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”
The ungrieved Spirit displayed in Stephen the reflection of the character and ways and words of Christ; but this brought on trial, and it ever will be so. The cross we shall have: and what of that? It is a good thing for us; it draws us away from the world; it breaks the will; it delivers from self, by cutting, it may be, the next link to the heart. The cross has a delicious power, though not a pleasant thing; it would be no cross if it were. But it lifts up the believer, and makes him see what a portion he has in Christ, who waits to take those He has redeemed to Himself, “that where I am, there ye may be also.”