Taken from The Bible Treasury Number 330 - November 1883
In these verses we have the conclusion of the address, a most grave and pointed appeal to the consciences of the Jews who, under the form of a most instructive and wonderfully compressed summary of their national sins from first to last, heard of God's unparalleled dealings with Israel. The facts were beyond question, the language (even when most unsparing) that of their own confessedly inspired writers, the accusation therefore as unutterably solemn as it was impossible either to rebut or to evade.
"Stiffnecked and uncircumcised in hearts1 and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers, so ye. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? and they slew those that announced beforehand of the coming of the Righteous One,2 of whom now ye became betrayers and murderers, ye which received the law as ordinances of angels and kept [it] not." (Ver. 51-53.)
"I have beheld this people" said Jehovah to Moses at the Mount Sinai; and behold, it is a stiffnecked people" (Εκ. xxxii. 9); again (Εx. xxxii. 3), "I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiff-necked people, lest I consume thee in the way." For the Lord had said unto Moses, " Say unto the children of Israel ye are a stiff-necked people" (5). But this very fact is turned into a plea by the skilful advocacy of the mediator: " If now I have found grace in thy sight, 0 Lord, let my Lord, I pray thee, go among us, for it is a stiff-necked people; and pardon our iniquity and sin, and take us for thine inheritance" (Εκ. xxxiv. 9). If Stephen repeated the word at the end of their history, it was fully borne out from the beginning. "How much more after my death? " said Moses (Dent. xxxi. 27). "For I knew that after my death ye will utterly corrupt yourselves and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you; and evil will befal you in the latter days" (ver. 29). The predicted evil was about to be, as it had been already, fulfilled to the letter, and as the latter days are not yet run out, so neither is this evil exhausted: " this generation" still repeats the same sad tale of unbelief and departure from the living God,
It is Moses again who lets Israel know in Lev. xxvi. how Jehovah will avenge the breach of His covenant: and yet if then, their " uncircumcised hearts" be humbled,. and they then accept the punishment of their iniquity, then will He remember His covenant with Jacob, and with Isaac and with Abraham, and will remember the land.
But there was another, and the main, fatal charge: "ye do always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers, ye also." Before the deluge He strove with man, though Jehovah said it should not be so always, and thus set a term to His patient testimony of a hundred and twenty years. After that judgment of the race Israel was the theatre of His operations, according to the word that Jehovah covenanted with them when they came out of Egypt. But they rebelled, and vexed His Holy Spirit: therefore He was turned to be their enemy, He fought against them. Here again Stephen had the surest warrant for vindicating Jehovah and His Anointed, and for convicting the proud stubborn Jews of their old iniquity and opposition to every dealing of His grace. Alas! they were, as Moses told them at the outset, a very forward generation, children in whom is no faith; and without faith there is no life, nor is it possible to please God. Faith working by love seeks His glory and is subject to His word, the expression of His mind and will. Israel without faith was the sad and constant witness of a people outwardly and in profession near to God, their heart ever far from Him and pertinacious in antagonism to Him. Their rejection of the Messiah, their indifference to, or malignant contempt of, the Pentecostal Spirit, were only of a piece with their history throughout. Far yet from being the light of the blind heathen, the instructor of the benighted nations, they are the ringleader of the world's rebellion against God, uniform only in this from father to son throughout their generations.
"Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute?" The prophets dealt with the people's sin, exposing it fearlessly in the light of truth, righteousness, and God's judgment, while looking onwards to the kingdom of God which should set aside all evil, and the suffering Messiah be exalted and extolled and very high. It was this confronting the wicked will of man with the light of God that condemned it, which drew out the enmity of Israel, and made the prophet an object of dishonour and hostility nowhere so much as in his own country. God was brought near; and guilty man will not have God at any price. Had Stephen gone outside the record, or misinterpreted its spirit? Jeremiah, who was not a whit behind the rest in the bitter contempt and positive persecution he had to bear from priests, prophets and princes, bears a plain testimony to God's sending on the one hand, and to Israel's rebellion on the other. So in 2 Chron. xxxvi. 15, 16 we read, "The Lord God of their fathers sent to them by His messengers, rising up betimes and sending; because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place; but they mocked the messengers of God, and despised His words, and misused His prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against His people, till there was no remedy." Was Stephen then right in asking " Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? "
But did not the Jews delight in the promised Messiah? Did they not eagerly anticipate His kingdom, when they will be delivered out of their' enemies, and all that hate them be covered with shame and dismay, and glory dwell in their land, and blessing chase away the gross darkness of the earth? What ever their thoughts afterwards, their bitterest rancour broke out against those that announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One. If there was any difference, such "they slew." It was a kingdom they wanted with ease and honour for themselves; not a king to reign in righteousness, and princes to rule in judgment. No care had they for the inalienable principles of His kingdom; no love, but heart-hatred of every quality of the divine nature, and of God's rights, which, if in abeyance, can never be abdicated. He was in none of their thoughts, nor His Anointed; and those who held Him before them were most obnoxious, so that the occasion failed not to work their violent death, And if their children built the tombs of the prophets, and flattered themselves that they were of wholly different temper and condition, the farthest remove from participation in the guilt of the prophets' blood, they only proved thereby that they were blinded by the enemy, and they witnessed to themselves that they were sons of those that slew them. For faith does not act in garnishing sepulchres, or in monumental tablets to the holy sufferers of days gone by; it walks and suffers reproach, if not worse persecution, in the days that are, looking for heaven and glory only when Christ appears.
Unbelief on the contrary seeks present satisfaction and credit in the honouring of those who render no more a living testimony to their consciences, and falls under the cheat of the enemy who builds up the higher that hypocritical temple of worldly religion where those once despised and slain as martyrs now fill a niche as idols.
And the Lord tested, as He always does, delusion and falsehood. He sends fresh testimony, and will till judgment. He sent His servants when on earth; He sent them from on high, as He continues to send. And the world hates the true and faithful, as it loves its own. But He Himself is ever the most searching of all tests; and how did He fare at their hands? "Of whom now ye became betrayers and murderers."
It was possible to complain of others. No saint, no prophet, was immaculate or infallible. " In many things we all stumble "—I say not must, .but do. And if it be so now since redemption and the gift of the 'Holy Spirit, it was assuredly so in the less privileged times that succeeded. The unfriendly eye of man could descry even in the most blessed of God's servants words and ways, which were sadly short of Christ, and might be perverted into an excuse for slighting their testimony. But what could they say or think of the Righteous One who appeals to them, " Which of you convinceth Me of sin? " " If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why smitest thou Me?" He was indeed the Holy One of God, who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth, yet was He treated with altogether unprecedented and most aggravated scorn; and though lawless men had their hand in the cross, the heart and the will of the Jews were engaged in an incomparably deeper way. (John xix 11.) They wer ο betrayers and murderers of their Messiah, God's Messiah; and Stephen only applies to the living Jews around him what the prophets had declared fully of old, what David had written in the Spirit lung before Isaiah, and Micah, and Zechariah, to speak only of the plainest.
By one more characteristic does this most resolute witness of the Lord further explain their position and their guilt, "Which received the lawns ordinances of angels and kept it not." That law in which they boasted was their shame, certainly from no fault in it, for all the evil was in them. But so it is with man, and most of all with man professing to have a religion from God. His boast is most manifest condemnation. It matters little what he boasts in; it is at best worthless. There is indeed a resource given in God's infinite grace, where he may and ought to boast; but it is in the Lord; it is not in the law which he fondly flattered himself he was keeping, when in fact he had utterly and miserably failed, and in all its parts, Godward and manward, in himself and toward others. The Lord he had definitively disdained; nor in truth dues any soul receive Him till sense of sin before God breaks him down overwhelmingly, whilst notwithstanding he casts himself on God's mercy, till he sees the rich and perfect provision made for such as he is in the offering of the body of Christ once for all. Then he does truly boast in the Lord, as is meet.
The apostle's language in Gal. iii. 19 materially helps to clear up the words of Stephen here, though it is painful to observe how few seem to have profited thereby. Each word of the phrase (εἰς διιξτατγὰς ἀγγέλων) has been the occasion of strange perplexity and dispute among the learned to the depravation of the sense. Winer (xxxii. 4, 6,) refers to Matt. xii. 41 as illustrative of the force here too of the preposition; but the difference of the phrases seems to render the desired sameness impossible. "Repenting at" the preaching of Jonah is very intelligible and clearly meant; not so " receiving " at ordinances of angels. Hence Alford, who follows this later suggestion of the German grammarian, understands it as "at the injunction " of angels. But this departs from the sense we had got for διαταεγάς from Gal. iii. which signifies beyond just doubt "ordained" or administered through angels, not "enjoined" by them, a very distinct idea, as is else "promulgated." Now what is the meaning of receiving the law at ordinances of angels? Those who take εἰς here as "at" are obliged therefore, in order to make sense, to interpret δ as "injunctions," swerving in this from the true force of the participle in Gal. iii. 19. It appears to me accordingly, that if it be "ordinances" here in keeping with " ordained" there, we must understand εἰς in the very common Hellenistic sense of "as" rather than "at," the accusative of the predicate, to which Winer had inclined in earlier editions, and, as I believe, more rightly. Israel received the law, not as a code drawn up by human wisdom, but as administered by angels, and so, through their intervention, from God. Hence the solemnity of their failure to keep what was divine. The allusion seems to be to Dent. xxxiii. 2, Jehovah came from Sinai, rose up from Seir unto them; He shone forth from Mount Paran, and He came from myriads of holiness ( οr, holy myriads)— from His right hand a law of fire (or, fiery law) for them. Compare Ps. lxviii. 17. It is needless to cite Josephus, Philo, or the Rabbis. What is of more moment, Rob. ii. 2 quite falls in with the Galatians and our text. In the Septuagint we find singular confusion; for first instead of "holiness" they seem to have read it " Kadesh"; and yet, secondly, they bring "his angels" into the last clause, instead of "a law of fire"; so that this version errs greatly from the text.
The discourse thus is brought to a due conclusion, and this terse and pointed application does not sustain the notion of an abrupt stop which shut out words needful to complete Stephen's answer to the accusation. The facts adduced throughout, and now condensed in the final and most cutting appeal which laid bare their pride not more than their persistent rebellion and extreme ruin, appear to my mind singularly effective and complete. He begins with their habitual antagonism, fathers and sons alike, to the Holy Spirit; so that their prime religious badge had lost all meaning—their circumcision was become uncircumcision. They had persecuted the prophets, they had slain those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One; they had now actually betrayed and murdered Himself; and of course the law (received so solemnly through angels)3 they kept not, notwithstanding all these self-righteous pretensions, as if to have the law were to do it.
It was man, not left to himself, like the nations suffered to walk in their own ways, but governed as Israel was by God's law, enlightened by prophets, blessed with the coming of the Messiah, and according to the word that Jehovah covenanted when they came out of Egypt, so His Spirit stood among them: no people till then so privileged, none so guilty, and, we may add, so convicted; for they had broken the law, persecuted the prophets, slain the Messiah, and always resisted the Holy Ghost.
1) There is a question of reading between καρδιαίς (with, or withoat, ταῖς), and τῇ καρδιᾳ. A few of the oldest, א A C D, with some cursives, support the plural; but E H P with the mass of cursives, ancient versions, &c., give the singular The reading of the Vatican is a clerical error of καρδιας, for καριάις probably. Some, as the Sinitic, add ὑμῶν .
2) The chief uncials (א A B C D E), well supported by cursives, present ἐνγένεσθε "became"; the majority, including H P, have γεγένησθε "ye have been," which seems to have slipped, or been put in to add force to the simple fact.
3) There is not the least ground to take angels here as human messengers: the corresponding scriptures refute the idea; and the moaning which would thus result is us unworthy of the context as it is illegitimate. Again, "by troops of angels" is not more opposed to grammar than to philology; as also