"But he, 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" (Acts 7:55).
"The glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God," and a man upon earth full of the Holy Spirit, unafraid of that glory and in living union with the Man exalted there-this was the revelation of an entirely new order of things, a heavenly order of things, which can only be known on earth by the Holy Spirit who has come from that glory. Let us diligently seek to understand this-and it is only by the teaching of the Holy Spirit that we can understand it-then we shall understand Paul's gospel and "the mystery" of it (see Ephesians 6:19; Colossians 1:25-27).
The truth of the assembly, the body of Christ upon earth, really commences with this that Stephen saw. His eyes were turned away from the world; he probably never was held by the gross things in it, but he had had his part in the religious side of it; but now we see him separated from it, the temple, the priests, the learned leaders of the Jewish system, all have faded from his view; even an earthly kingdom with the divine Messiah at its head is surpassed and entirely eclipsed by that which now enthralls him-the glory of God, and a Man at the right hand of God. This wonderful revelation is the more arresting in that the Man who could stand at God's right hand, in the presence of that glory before which the highest angels fall prostrate with covered faces, was the One whom the world had judged to be only worthy of a malefactor's cross, but it is not that which we wish to emphasize here.
It is the fact of the glory of God and Man being in absolute consonance. We know that that Man was "Christ, who is over all, God blessed for ever" (Romans 9:5), but that is not the point of this passage. The Lord is spoken of by His personal human name. It was JESUS whom Stephen saw, the One who was born in the manger at Bethlehem, who died upon the cross of Calvary, who was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, and who had ascended bodily to that glory. He was and is for ever absolutely agreeable to that glory, nay, altogether necessary to it, and that this might be known the heavens were opened, and Stephen, full of the Holy Ghost, saw by the power of the Spirit that to which he had to bear witness ere he died, and that which was to be the beginning and body of all Paul's ministry. The glory of God has found a Man; apart from this the purpose of the glory in regard to men could never have been fulfilled, and itself must have remained hidden from the universe for ever. That Man is Jesus, who loved us and died for our sins, and consequently we cannot be indifferent to this great fact. Our hearts are glad because of what this means for our Saviour; we have often considered Him as the despised and rejected of men, "the shame of the cross and Jesus" we often think of together, but now it is "the glory of God and Jesus"; we cannot but be glad and rejoice as we consider this.
This is only one side of the new order of things which here comes to light, and yet we must dwell further upon it, for everything takes character from it. We must not confine our thoughts of the glory of God to the place of exaltation into which Jesus has gone, that is described as "the right hand of God"; there is much more in the expression than the thought of locality. It is the shining out of what God is in His very nature. The expression has its own special significance. Moses desired to see the glory of God, but the time had not then come for it, though God gave to His servant a partial revelation of it, proclaiming His name as merciful and gracious.
These two qualities are an integral part of that glory, as the prominent place that they occupy in the Epistle to the Ephesians proves; but the glory of God-the full display of His nature and ways-could not be revealed until He had a Man in whom it could shine forth and who could maintain it in all its radiance, undimmed and untarnished by any failure for ever. That God has secured this now is proved beyond doubt by the fact that He has thrown open the heavens and shown to us "the glory of God and Jesus."
The other side of this new order is more surprising and, perhaps, more difficult to grasp, but just as real and true. It is that the Holy Spirit has come down from the exalted Man, our Lord, bringing with Him the full knowledge of the glory of God, for He is the Spirit of that glory, and that He now indwells believers on the earth and unites them in a vital union with Christ who is exalted at the right hand of God. Stephen is a pattern of this, for he was not only a witness to what his divinely-anointed eyes beheld, but he became descriptive of Christ in the midst of the most adverse circumstances. It was not in the fact that his face shone like an angel's that he was descriptive of Christ, for the glory of an angel is not the glory of God, and his face shone in this manner before he looked up steadfastly into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus; but it was in that most wonderful grace that made him pray with his last breath, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." Thus was the life of Jesus made manifest in his mortal flesh. But this could not have been had he not been a member of the body of Christ, and he could not have been that had not the Holy Spirit come from Christ to make him so. What else but Christ, morally, could the Holy Spirit bring from heaven? Nothing. What other business has He but the displacement of self and the forming of Christ in the lives of those whom He indwells? None. And Stephen is the pattern of it. In him we see a man upon earth brought into perfect accord with the glory of God, and this not only in the fact that the glory of God and Jesus filled his eyes objectively, but that the life of Jesus was formed in Him subjectively, and manifested itself practically in the very world out of which Jesus had been cast.
Stephen may have been an amiable man or the reverse, it matters not; what he may have been naturally had no place here; he was full of the Holy Spirit, and Stephen was displaced and Christ shone out. "I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me." Beholding the glory of the Lord he was transfigured into the same image.
But the Holy Spirit who filled Stephen did not dwell exclusively in him. He dwelt in Stephen because he was a member of the body of Christ on earth, and every believer in the exalted Lord Jesus is equally a member of the body of Christ; and, consequently, the Holy Ghost dwells in each and all. And the body is to be descriptive of Christ. This is the great theme of the Epistle to the Colossians, and to this end we who "were sometime alienated and enemies in our minds by wicked works, now hath He reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present us holy and unblameable and unreproveable in His sight" (Colossians 1:21-22), i.e., in the presence of that glory we are as Christ is, for we are part of Him, and He is in us as His members, and consequently we are to be as He is in the place where He is not. Nothing in which men can boast or contribute can help the body of Christ. The best that man can produce belongs to the world that is passing away, for the glory of man is as the flower of the field. But the assembly, which is His body, has its origin in and takes its character from the glory of God; the Man who is entirely agreeable to that glory is its Head and life; and the Holy Spirit who has come from that glory is its unwearied power.
And we are looking for the glorious day when the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church will be finished, and when it, as the holy city, shall descend out of heaven from God, having the glory of God (Revelation 21:10-11).
That which she will be then, when her light shines forth like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal, is being formed in her now by the Holy Ghost. She is being fashioned according to the glory of God and the Man who is at the right hand of God, and while failure proclaims itself wherever the eye turns in that which professes the name of Christ on earth, there is no failure in this work of the Spirit; and there shall yet be displayed to the universe the triumph of God in His counsels of blessing, and He shall have glory in the Church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.