Is Your Face Like The Face Of An Angel?
Of all the great artistic masters, Rembrandt Van Rijn painted more pictures of himself than did any of the others. We have more than 1200 canvases by Rembrandt. They are found in most major museum collections in the western world, and in almost every collection you will find at least one of the master’s works in which he, Rembrandt, is looking out from the canvas at you. The last of these self-portraits was painted in 1669. It hangs today in The Hague. It is the picture of a soft, gentle-faced old man who is still committed to the search for beauty, truth, and goodness in life.
Now it is my belief that all of us paint at least one great painting in our lives—and that painting is a self-portrait. Our thoughts, our deeds, our character, our convictions, the things we do secretly, the things we do in the open—these are the strokes of the brush, these are the colors of the palette from which we fashion our self-portrait. Then one day, frequently when we least expect it, the picture is finished. It is framed by death and cannot be changed.
Today I wish to focus upon a man who painted such a masterpiece in his self-portrait that even his enemies when they looked at him said that it was like looking at an angel. I refer to Stephen whose story is told in the Book of Acts. The Bible has this to say: “Gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”
What’s behind that marvelous word of affirmation? Well, we know from Acts that Stephen was a very good man. He was one of the first seven elected to be deacons in the early Christian church. He gave himself to loving and healing deeds of ministry and power. So effective was he in the service of Christ that the enemies of the Christian faith conspired against him. They bribed witnesses to bring false testimony against him and yet even after the case against him was built upon lies, Stephen proceeded to preach one of the greatest sermons recorded in all of the New Testament. You can find it in Acts 7. In the sermon he pointed out that those who were opposing him were opposing Christ—they were murdering the love of God. When the members of the council heard this, “They were enraged,” says the Bible, and they ordered Stephen stoned to death. He was taken out to be executed. Yet even as the stones were slamming into his body, each blow knocking yet a bit more of the life out of him, he prayed: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then with his last breath, he looked at those hurling the stones at him and prayed: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And the witnesses “gazing at him saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”
Many have pointed out across the centuries that the face is in a sense, a mirror of the soul. The face reveals what is in the heart. It reflects what constitutes the spirit. Therefore borrowing this wonderful word about Stephen—“His face was like the face of an angel”—I would like for us to consider how we might paint our self-portrait so that when others look at us they see an angel. Stephen may be all the example we need.
First of all, Stephen was a man of great faith.
In Acts 6:5 we read, “Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” The world declares that seeing is believing, but the Christian faith affirms that believing often precedes seeing. Just as Edison believed he could create a light bulb before such a light bulb existed, so faith is believing without seeing.
As we come to this Thanksgiving time in our national life, we are of course remembering the Pilgrims. It was on September 16, 1620, that they boarded their little ship, “The Mayflower,” at Plymouth in England and set sail for this land. Sometime later, William Bradford, who was the first Governor of Massachusetts, wrote of those Pilgrims: “They committed themselves to the will of God and resolved to proceed. They were moving out onto a sea where none of them had sailed before, no member of the crew had ever crossed the ocean which lay before them, and they were moving to a land which none of them had seen before. But in the face of all these things they had a deep, profound faith that they were moving in the love of God, and though they had not yet seen, still they went ahead.”
Mark this down. In life, we become what we believe. There’s a great line in James Michener’s novel The Source I want you to remember. A woman is standing by the door of her house weeping. She’s weeping because her husband is taking their newborn son to the temple to be sacrificed because back in those days they believed you needed to do that in order to gain the favor and blessings of the pagan gods. But deep down in this woman’s heart she felt that it was not right—it was wrong. Later in the book we see this same woman standing by this same door and once again she is weeping. Why this time? Because her husband is on his way to the temple again, this time to consort with the temple prostitutes there, another commonly accepted practice in that day. And deep in her heart she knows once again that it’s not right—it’s wrong. Then James Michener has this woman say a terribly profound thing. Speaking of her husband she says: “If he had had a different God, he would have been a different man.”
It makes a difference what we believe, doesn’t it? It makes a huge difference. Stephen believed the Gospel that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son and Stephen believed that the gift was for him. Stephen believed even though he could not see that the Holy Spirit was with him. Stephen believed though he could not prove it. That whether he lived or died he could not be pulled from the loving arms of God. He was a man of great faith. What we believe in life is what we become in life.
Next, Stephen built his life upon The Scriptures.
You have only to read his sermon in Acts 7 to discover that he had a remarkable mastery of the Old Testament, the only Scriptures that existed at the time. His sermon is, in essence, the story of the Old Testament in miniature. He took the great message of God’s love in Scripture and applied it to those people on the council who were attacking God’s love. What we see in Stephen is not only one who knew the Bible but also one who knew how to apply it.
Several years back when I studied in Jerusalem, one of my fellow students was Bishop Robert Morgan of the Methodist Church. In his book Lift High The Cross, Bishop Morgan tells of a woman who has a gift shop on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. Her name is Frieda Hannah. She is a Palestinian Christian. She does beautiful embroidery and cross-stitch work. Her specialties are altar paraments, clergy stoles, and Bible markers. She has been in business at the same spot, the six stations of the cross, for over 30 years. The years of intricate handwork have left her eyes failing. She wears thick glasses. Yet because of her radiant spirit, no one who visits her shop ever forgets her. On one particular day, a large Christian tour group from America was in her shop. Bishop Morgan happened to be in the shop as well. He noticed that many in the group, while they were carrying their Bibles in their hands and looking at Christian objects in the store, were pushy, demanding, even rude. About that time a small clutch of Palestinian children came into the shop begging for money. According to Bishop Morgan the Christian Tour Group became quite indignant. One was heard to say: “They need to get those dirty little beggars out of here.” Another said: “Why don’t they stay in Jordan where they belong?” Robert Morgan was standing close enough to Frieda Hannah so that he knew she heard. He was embarrassed and he apologized for his fellow Americans, even though he did not know them. Frieda’s response was: “Oh, that’s all right. I learned a long time ago that many of those who take the Bible literally do not seem to take it seriously.” Frieda certainly takes the Bible seriously. During the last 30 years she has used the earning from her little shop to give more than 1000 Palestinian young people a college education in Europe or North America. She has built and supported the operation of three medical clinics on the west bank. She has built and operates two orphanages. No way to determine the good this Christian woman has done over the years, all because she knows the Bible and knows how to apply it.
That’s precisely what we see in Stephen. His knowledge of the Scriptures, so broad and so strong, not only governed what he believed but also governed how he lived. No wonder he looked like an angel. He spent so much time conversing with them through the pages of Scripture. My friends, we must learn to lean upon the Word of God. This Book charts our journey to successful living. I am reminded of what Paul said to the Ephesians: “I commend you to God and to the Word of His Grace which is able to build you up.” Love this Book and its truth will shine in your life.
Then, Stephen was a man of superb courage.
We would never have heard of Stephen if he had knuckled under that council, if he had let the testimony of the false witnesses stand. His self-portrait would have been smeared with weakness. But instead of that, Stephen stood courageously for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He would not sell his character for clemency. He might be conquered but he would not capitulate. He had the courage of the angels.
I know perhaps better than anyone else in this room that there are some of you, some of us, undergoing great struggles—wounding situations at home, lingering illnesses, joblessness, betrayal by those we have trusted, praying and praying and having the Heavens seem as impenetrable as brass, struggling under the burden of acute depression, tempted to do those things which are contrary to Christ, so caught in the world of doom and gloom that we feel all is hopeless. Some of you into whose eyes I look this day are in terminal situations and you know that that is so. To all of us then I say: “Hold on, for the color of courage is important in any self-portrait.” I remember in Homer’s Iliad, Ulysses asked himself the question, “How should a brave man die?” And he answers with the words, “The brave should so die that no one who hears of the manner of their dying will be weakened by it.” Courage. The courage of Stephen. It takes the courage of the angels to be like the angels.
Now, we must see Stephen as a man of magnificent love.
Please remember how Stephen, even as he was being stoned, prayed for those who were killing him: “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them.” Some people say that when you love you find that in your loving, life becomes easier and that you do not know the hurt you’ve known before. Not true. Everytime you extend the circle of those you love then whatever hurts them is going to hurt you. The more you love the more you are going to hurt. That’s the reason we must constantly examine ourselves—to be sure that we are permitting the paint of love to be spread upon the canvas of our lives. Sometimes love hurts, yes, but even then there is a strange beauty in the pain.
I’m not likely to forget the day I heard Air Force Chaplain James Witt speak. He told of the time a number of years back when he was flying into Cincinnati. It was not a military flight though the majority of passengers on board were military personnel. He was seated next to a young man with whom he had become good friends. The Cincinnati airport is actually across the Ohio River from Cincinnati in Northern Kentucky. At the time of this incident it was regarded as one of America’s most dangerous airports. As the plane approached the runway under the darkness of the night with gusty winds and driving rains, something went awry. The records later showed that the pilot tried to abort his landing, but that it was too late and the plane plowed into the ground. The plane broke in half and the fuel tanks ruptured releasing gasoline into the fuselage where the passengers were. Chaplain Witt, in the inky blackness, felt for his seat belt and released it. He then called to the young airman sitting next to him. No response. He reached out. The young man was there but not moving. The Chaplain unfastened the airman’s seat belt, managed to pull the young man up onto his back, and headed toward the nearest exit. He soon encountered such a wall of people trying to reach that exit that he knew he would never get out. The level of fuel in the fuselage was rising. An explosion was imminent. So getting down on his hands and knees with his young friend still on his back, he began to climb up the center aisle. I say climb because when the plane broke apart the half he was in was left pointed upwards. Suddenly, as he was climbing he felt himself falling. In the darkness he had crawled through a break in the fuselage and he fell, holding the body of his friend, twenty feet to the ground below, shattering his right leg. He struggled up, still holding his friend—imagine that, his leg broken—he hobbled as far away from the fuel-soaked plane as he could get. Then he fell on the grass, holding the young airman close to him. He took his friend’s pulse—it was weak but the young man was still alive. Then the emergency vehicles began to arrive and in the glare of their headlights, he looked at his young friend and realized that the young man’s chest and most of his face had been torn away. The Chaplain knew his young friend would not live. But in that moment, the airman clasped the Chaplain’s hand with one hand and, with his other hand, as a Roman Catholic Christian he crossed himself where his face and chest should have been—then he died. The Chaplain sat there in the cold, driving rain holding onto him until help arrived. The Chaplain, telling the story years later said, “At the moment he held onto me so tightly showing his love for me and then with his other hand crossed himself showing his love for God—in that moment, in spite of everything else, he looked to me like an angel.” As he said that, he began to weep. I thought to myself: “Two angels. Two people loving God and loving each other.”
Faith, Scripture, Courage, and above all, Love. Paint with these in your life and you cannot produce anything other than a masterpiece …