I read again from the 7th chapter of Acts, commencing with verse 57, in which we have a record of the death of Stephen: “Then they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, ‘Lord Jesus receive my spirit.’ And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, ‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.’ And when he had said this he fell asleep.” (Acts 7: 57 — 58).
Then in 2 Timothy 4: 14 — 16: “Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works. Of whom be thou ware also: for he hath greatly withstood our words. At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me: I pray God that it be not laid to their charge.” (2 Timothy 4: 14 — 16).
I have read to you three prayers, one of Christ, one from Stephen, and one of Paul. It is on these brief statements that I would have us to concentrate our thoughts and studies in this essay.
A lot has been said and written about the character of our Lord. We have regularly from this place encouraged you to follow the example of our Lord in all its facets and in each particular. Following such things can only steer us in the right, helping us to avoid the slings of Satan and the miscalculations and repercussions to actions that prove to send us along the wrong paths, with the wrong ends in sight. By following the footsteps of Jesus in the figurative we can always then ask the question of ourselves, “Am I walking in his footsteps, and always doing that which is good?” We can likewise follow the inspired examples of the hand chosen ambassadors of Christ and end with the same surety and result. That is why the apostle said, “be followers of me even as I also am of Christ.”
Now, the purpose of Christ was to execute the gospel plan of salvation. As part of this is the example set in which our Lord also purposed to show mankind how to live before God and man, as well as how to die. Part of the elevation that is inherent in becoming a member of the household of God is the application of new ways to pass our existence here — how we live our lives. Beyond this also comes the living out of our lives until death is sent and puts forth his lifeless hand to carry us into that part of eternity that is hidden from our view here. In these things we have examples from both our Lord and his hand chosen ambassadors.
So the things which were taught by our Lord are not only theoretical, but practical. His very life was the pattern for ours.
It seems the Lord did not teach just theory and principle, but also application and example. His life was the practical application of these great principles enumerated time and again.
Along the first of his career he preached the memorable sermon that has in time come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount. In this he said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven. For he makes the sun to rise upon the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
Was he a mere theorist? Did he act as many of us might — contrary to the very temper of these words?
Paul also taught lessons like this. Romans 12: 19 — 21: “Dearly beloved, avenge not your selves, but rather give place unto wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine: I will repay,’ saith the Lord. Therefore if your enemy is hungry, feed him, if he thirsts, give him drink; for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good. If any man does not have the spirit of Christ he is none of His.” (Romans 12: 19 — 21).
These are the statements and theories announced by the Man of Galilee, and like the words of many philosophers and teachers these were spoken when there were no enemies gathered about. As yet the pathway was clear and the sky was unclouded.
Now, you know that as long as everything is lovely, and as long as matters are going our way, that it is an easy thing to be even tempered, sweet-spirited, kindly disposed, and wonderfully charitable in our relationships toward mankind. But when we get hard against the winds of trouble, and run into the currents of those around us then things oftentimes end differently and (if you’re like me) you might have different thoughts and words in mind. You might not be so kindly disposed. The kind thoughts and noble swelling may fade into a certain coarseness and a show of common behaviors. When we come face to face with carrying out the noble issues we espouse, and the putting into effect of our philosophies, a different story may be told.
I wonder how it shall be in the study of the life of the One who said, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you.
I read to you a moment ago from Luke 23. In verse 34 of that reading is the quoted portion of Christ’s prayer. He is standing at the very end of his earthly pilgrimage, with life’s conflicts largely past, and the relationships to those conflicts in the background. He has withstood the vile treatments and poisonous words intended to bring hurt and harm to his being. With all the rebukes, the troubles, the storms, and the sarcasm’s cast at him in the past, Christ comes to make good the declaration of that Sermon on the Mount. He is standing at the time of what appears (by all means) to be the enemies’ triumph. The dark hour has come to him. He is in the custody of those whose only thought and intent has been to destroy him, and death is staring upon him. On the tree of the cross he hangs suspended, and receives one final time the jeers and sneers of the cruel world.
Will he make good that which he had previously taught on the mount? Will he verify those principles upon which he seemed to so solidly stand?
In this ignominious place, surrounded by the opposition and enemy, the enemy which rejoices at his humility — Christ comes out gloriously, lifting his head a final time, gazing heavenward, he states in presence of all: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
How great the contrast, how noted the distinction, from the time when thousands had gathered to here his words, and were held sway by his matchless power. How different from the times when he had raised the dead, healed their sick, and solved every manner of question over God’s purpose. Those were the hours of grandeur and glory. But now it is the reverse of that — there is only hurt and evil conspiracy afoot. There is no friend: all of those who had followed him have forsaken him.
Now, he could have pronounced a curse on them, and scolded all for their falseness. Then at the blink of an eye, ten thousand angels could have appeared to slay those who stood in false witness, and had contrived justice. The skies could have parted as he was born down off the cross in their presence, while they all knelt in fear of their lives.
But, rather knowing that his appointed hour had come, he gracefully yielded to the will of his Father is this as in all other things and simply said: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Jesus lived upon the earth and left us an example, that in his footsteps we should walk. He gave us occasion to hear his words based not only upon their soundness, but in conjunction with the example he set, carrying his words to a higher status — as it is the word of God.
I ask — did a spirit of earnestness characterize this prayer? Did the Father above lend a listening ear to that last petition of his dying Son?
I tell you friends, if I thought that prayer was not heard, I would never be encouraged to lift up my own voice in prayer with any hope of response from the eternal word. If I were to decide that the prayer of Christ was not heard, it would destroy my faith and overthrow me.
But I want to also ask — was this a conditional prayer? When Christ here raised that voice and said, Father forgive them, did he mean that they should be given forgiveness regardless on any act on their part. Was it implied that they might go ahead on their wayward murderous way and still expect God to forgive them? Has it ever been a principle of God’s dealings with humanity to forgive mankind unconditionally?
Now, you know that this is the main principle in many of the denominational teachings — that God’s forgives unconditionally, that all will be saved. Would the same one’s that teach that state that it so applied to the very men who crucified our Savior? I don’t think so.
I believe upon second thought, that you are constrained to say that that prayer must have implied certain conditions with which those for whom he prayed had to comply.
So far as I know, have right or reason to believe, there is not a statement in all of the Bible announcing forgiveness to humanity independent of its submission to the terms that have been interposed.
Therefore, I am going to conclude, in perfect harmony with the entire Bible, that when Christ prayed, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” there was an implication that time might be granted. There was an implication that opportunity might be presented when their hearts could be touched by the story of redemption and of redeeming love. A time might come when they would then come to a state of penitence, bowing in submission to heaven’s will, and thus bring about an answer to the positive to the prayer here offered by the Son of God.
This petition was made on the cross. That afternoon he died, was buried, and then three days passed, but that prayer was not then answered. He arose from the dead, walked about among men, demonstrated his identity beyond reasonable doubt for a period of forty days, and yet to that point that prayer remained unanswered.
Another ten days passed, and Jesus bids goodbye to his hand chosen ambassadors, to the things of this earth and wends his way heavenward and to the right hand of the throne of God in the heavens.
As yet the prayer he uttered 53 days earlier is unanswered.
The day of Pentecost finally comes. At this date the record tells Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven are present in Jerusalem to attend to the earlier feast days and to conclude their offerings on this day. On that day, the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, and a great demonstration was made: multitudes gathered together with various theories and explanations as to the meaning of the early events of that day. Yet all of these fail to explain what has been heard and seen by all.
Finally, Peter, to whom had been granted the keys to the kingdom, stands up, gaining the attention of his audience, and speaks to them. And for the first time he publishes the report of the resurrection of the Son of God. The Gospel was that day first proclaimed, and in the sermon, there is evidence that this prayer is not yet answered. For Peter said to the crowd, a great part of whom had earlier gathered around the cross consenting to the death of Christ:
“You men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as you yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, you have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.”
This was the same company who some time ago had stood by at the mock trials and through the agony of the cross, and had put to death the Son of God. Here they are today on the day of Pentecost, with their hearts filled with the guilt that came as a result of their having been participants in the most notorious trial and murder of all time. Peter brings home their guilt by saying, that they are the one’s responsible for the murder. The stain is on their hands. He made them feel guilty in the presence of God Almighty, and opened to them the possibility of forgiveness through the same Jesus who they had crucified.
For this reason he ended his sermon by saying, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom you have crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
As yet that prayer, prayed by the Son of God, when he said Father forgive them, has not been answered.
And when they cried out and were cut to the heart and said, Men and brethren, what shall we do? There is again the implication that they were not yet freed from this sin: that they had not been forgiven — they stood before God condemned. The prayer is as yet unanswered.
In response to the query, Peter said, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.”
“And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation.”
“Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.”
Friends, the very minute that they became obedient to the gospel plan of salvation as was stipulated and demanded, there was a glad response from heaven, and the prayer some 53 days earlier stood answered. The angelic host rejoiced with those who rejoiced upon the earth, for salvation had been brought down to men and the Father could now forgive them their trespasses. Christ’s prayer in their behalf was now answered.
Now, that is what God’s book teaches from beginning to end. And there was never a prayer answered where man did not do his part. Mankind has always had to comply with the conditions given.
Therefore, it is my duty to pray for those around me everywhere. If I walk in his steps, I must do so.
And the prayers of Stephen and Paul are the same — the forgiveness must always be conditional. God does not forgive for no reason — not these, not you, not me.
What we should pray is that time and opportunity should be given to all those who are rebellious, who are contrary, who have not heard, or who have not responded, for God wills that all should come to repentance.
I pray for those today just this way. I know that God will not save them as they are. I know that Christ has never promised to pardon any man or woman, until they have submitted to the terms of heaven. My prayer is that God will forgive them as they do his will, and that I will have the courage of Peter to present it to them, as plain and truthful as I find it. I know that when I do this faithfully, and they hear, repent, confess, are immersed, and as they remain in obedience, that God will pardon their sins as he has mine. And he will add them to the church that bears his name and the name of his Son.
There is no other way of salvation or forgiveness outlined in the book of God. Implicit and absolute obedience is demanded of all.
But from this I will now turn to the second. Stephen was a man full of the Holy Spirit. He was selected to be a deacon of the church by the church itself. He was a teacher and preacher of power. Such preaching always elicits criticism and bitterness on the parts of those who stand condemned by it. He was finally accused of blasphemy against the Law of Moses and blasphemy against God. They came and carried him before the council. The scribes and elders there assembled were told that he had said that Jesus of Nazareth would destroy the temple and change the customs delivered to Moses. To all the Council, his face appeared as if it had been the face of an angel.
To these charges Stephen felt privileged to reply. His response is not a defense, but a history of the patriarchs and the history of Israel. He spoke of Abraham. He told of their deliverance by Moses. He recited the story of Aaron and the calf. He mentioned the building of the temple, but then assured them that the most high God does not dwell in temple mad by men’s hands. He concluded by saying, “you stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do you.”
And in this phrase and the harsh and condemning words that he spoke that followed, Stephen became the most unpopular of preachers — the direct and fire-breathing type who spare no feelings, but only tell the truth in its unvarnished clarity.
But his audience was conscious of the fact that they could not successfully answer his charges and his speech. So they cursed him, and bit upon him. The record says they stopped their ears. They determined to hear of him no more. They led him through the eastern gate of the city; the gate that today still bears his name. They took him to the brook Kidron, opposite the Garden of Gethsemane, and there those pious and holy men laid down their outer garments and stoned him to death.
While Stephen was under their blows, he knew that he should walk in the steps of his master and he said, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” The record says that having so said, he fell asleep.
My friends, how did he come to manifest such a spirit? The answer is — he had learned what it means to be a Christian. The influence of the Master made a lasting impression upon him. It didn’t dry off him as he dried his body after baptism: it did not wear away due to the lack of interest around him. It did not mold over in a short season. It did not grow cold.
Rather, he remembered his Master’s teaching and was determined to carry it out. He walked in his steps. Therefore he died praying a similar prayer.
But, I wonder if Stephen meant for God to overlook the crime committed against him? Was his prayer without implied conditions?
Stephen knew then, just as we know now, that the gospel demands obedience on the part of humanity. He understood full well just when those who killed Christ were pardoned. His prayer implied that those who stoned him might come to themselves.
But friends, that is not all. There was a young man named Saul who watched this great tragedy. At that time he was not at all interested in Christianity. He was then a young Jew, a Pharisee of Pharisees, who believed that Jesus Christ was an impostor and that the followers of that Way should be put to death. But, in spite of that he was evidently impressed with the manner of Stephen’s death. Such a scene could not readily be forgotten.
Finally Paul was led to accept the Christian faith. On the road to Damascus he was arrested by the shining of a great light brighter than the sun, and there heard the words, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”
The result of that miracle was that it led to the ultimate conversion of him who had stood by holding the clothing of those that stoned Stephen some time before. From that moment, Paul became the champion of the truth that he had once sought to destroy. From that time on he became the outspoken and fearless apostle to the Gentiles, who carried the flag of heaven raised high: who heard and raced to fill the Macedonian call. It was Paul who sowed the seed that would in time conquer Rome.
He led a wonderfully checkered career. His experiences were such as you and I will never be called upon to endure. He counted all but loss that he might win Christ. He walked in his footsteps. Yet he spent his last days under guard and in prisons, where he writes his last letter to his son in the faith, Timothy. In 2 Timothy 4: 14 he penned this, as we had read earlier:
“Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works: Of whom be thou ware also; for he hath greatly withstood our words. At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me: I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge.”
I ask you friends, where did Paul learn how to die as a Christian? He never saw Christ crucified, but he had seen Stephen suffer and die. While at that time he was not a member of the body, that incident left a permanent mark, so that near the end of his journey here he duplicated the words of Stephen, and in doing that, the words of the Master when he said, “I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge.”
Brothers and sisters, if we do not have that same spirit we are none of his. It matters not how much of God’s Word I proclaim, nor whether or not I can sing, “Oh, How I Love Jesus.” I am conscious of the fact that if I have not this same spirit, that I am weighed in the balance and found wanting.
If you have never bowed in submission, and are not walking then in his footsteps, this is the very hour that you should do so. Life is wonderfully uncertain — but death is absolutely sure. Tragedies are happening round about us. Today is therefore the day of salvation. If you would hear his voice, harden not your hearts, but respond to his call. Put yourself in that attitude where God may forgive you. If you have sinned against your neighbor, seek to set it aright and if you have sinned against God, won’t you seek God’s forgiveness. There is not a shadow of a doubt that he will forgive you if you but do his will.[This lesson was originally conceived by N. B. Hardeman.]