The Acts of the Apostles are a continuation of the Gospel of Luke, and are written by the same Evangelist. The discourses, whether of Peter or of Paul, have their source in the heavenly commission which is found at the end of that Gospel. It is not necessary, I hope, to say that the whole is given by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, because each of the evangelists has been employed by God to present us with a different aspect of the history of the Lord; and each has accomplished, with the help of the Spirit, the work assigned to him by God. For example, in Matthew we find much more the dispensations of God, and the Lord as Emmanuel in the midst of Israel on the earth. In Luke, after the first two chapters, we have the Son of man, and the ways of God in grace and the blessings of the present time. Then again, in Matthew, the ascension of the Lord is not recounted, and the commission given to the apostles comes from a risen Jesus, and is addressed to the Gentiles as though the residue of the Jews were already received in grace. The Lord, in Luke, is about to ascend into heaven, and goes there while speaking to them, blessing them with a heavenly blessing; and the commission is addressed-to all—first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles. The disciples were to begin in Jerusalem; and this work—the accomplishment of their mission—is what is found recounted in Acts.
Let us follow the course of this story, which is essentially the history of the activity of the apostles Peter and Paul: the first among the Jews, and in the foundation of the church at Jerusalem; and the other among the Gentiles, although he always addressed himself first to the Jews. The first was one of His eleven disciples who had followed the Lord on the earth, till the cloud received Him and took Him from their sight. The last, Paul, an open enemy to the name of Christ, and converted in sovereign grace while he was occupied in the destruction, if possible, of that name, only saw Him in the glory, and went out to call the Gentiles to the faith: marvellous witness of the sovereign grace of God, and of a glory which renders a magnificent testimony to the perfect and accepted work of Christ, to which believers are led by faith in Him and in His work. Both these two great apostles laid the same foundation of the salvation preached, that there is but one Saviour and one work by which we may be saved.
Now the grand and important fact, on which all the history depends, is the descent of the Holy Spirit. Doubtless, in all Biblical history, the responsibility of man is found, as well as the ways of God, through the deeds and weakness of man; but nevertheless the presence of the Holy Spirit on the earth, sent by the Father and by the Son of man, and dwelling in the faithful and in the house of God, is of immense importance. It is only when God has accomplished redemption that He comes to dwell in the midst of men. He did not dwell with Adam in his innocence, nor with Abraham, nor with any, till He had brought Israel out of Egypt, and had rescued them from the hands of the king of Egypt, in whose hands they were prisoners; then He came to dwell in their midst in the cloud, and the tabernacle was filled with His glory.
Thus, as soon as the Son of man is gone into heaven to sit down at the right hand of God, having accomplished the work of redemption, the Holy Spirit descends according to His promise of the Comforter, and the baptism of the Spirit is realised. Sent from the Father, He cries, “Abba, Father,” in the hearts of those who have received Him. Sent by the Son from the Father, He reveals the glory of Him, the man in heaven; and, more than that, forms the body of Christ joining the members to the head, so that he “that is joined to the Lord is one spirit,” dwelling in the believer, and also in the universal congregation of believers, so that they are together the habitation of God. It is evident that this truth is of immense importance; the spiritual liberty given to the child of God, the unity of the assembly of God, and the union of the children of God, all depend on the presence of the Spirit, as all are founded on the work of the Saviour on the cross. Then this truth reveals the state of the external church where He dwells, because she has grieved the Spirit, and has been— and has acted—in a manner altogether contrary to what He would have her be and do, so much so that the judgment of God is ready to fall upon her.
Since I have spoken of the descent of the Holy Spirit, it must be understood that the “new birth” is not the point here (though that may be accomplished by the same Spirit), but rather the personal coming of the Spirit, when the Son of man ascended into heaven. The Holy Spirit has worked divinely since the foundation of the world. He it was who moved upon the face of the waters, who inspired the prophets, who has been the immediate instrument of all that God has done on the earth and in the heavens. But He only came here below when the Son of man went to sit down at the right hand of God (John 7:37-39), and is only received when we believe (Eph. 1:13; Gal. 4:6). This is seen also clearly elsewhere: we are sealed when we have believed, and especially when we have believed in the value of the blood of Christ. Washed in this precious blood, we are fit to be the habitation of the Spirit of God. “Know ye not,” says the apostle Paul, “that your bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit which ye have from God?” As when the leper was cleansed and purified under the law, he was first washed with water, then sprinkled with blood, then anointed with oil (Lev. 14:8, 9, and 14-18)—clear figure of our purification by means of the word of God when we are converted and born again, then of the sprinkling of the blood of Christ, and finally of the anointing of the Holy Spirit by which we are sealed for the day of final redemption.
Also all gifts, the exercise of which is found in the church, are the manifestation of the Holy Spirit who works there. But here, in the Acts, the exposition of the operations of the Spirit is not found, but the fact itself of His coming in order to work.
Let us now come to the examination of the narrative itself. This begins with the great truth of which we have already spoken. The disciples were to wait at Jerusalem for the baptism of the Holy Ghost. We shall find again the proof of another precious truth. The Lord, after His resurrection, gave commissions to His disciples by the Holy Ghost. We shall not lose the Holy Ghost when we are raised again: truth perhaps simple, but which makes us feel how great will be our capacity for happiness in that state. Now a great portion of our spiritual strength is employed to enable us to walk in integrity, in spite of the flesh and the temptations of the enemy; but then neither the one nor the other will exist. All the power of the Spirit in us will be employed in rendering us fit for the infinite felicity we shall find there. We shall enjoy it according to the strength of the Spirit, as Christ gave gifts by the Spirit to His disciples after His resurrection.
Remark now the intimacy of the Lord with His disciples. He spoke of the things belonging to the kingdom of God. Christ is now glorified, but» His heart, full of divine love, is not removed, is not any the farther away from His own. When He appeared to Saul, He said, “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom thou persecutest.” He speaks to Ananias with authority it is true, but as with a friend, opening His heart respecting Saul, and sending Ananias to speak to him.
He was not ashamed to call His disciples friends on the earth; He is not ashamed to treat them as friends now. Immense blessing! To feel that the Lord of glory is near to us, that He holds us as friends and loved ones, and that He can feel compassion also for our infirmities.
The disciples expected still the visible kingdom of the Lord in Israel; their hearts were still Jewish. They quite believed that He had risen again, but expected that their hopes of the restoration of Israel as a nation would be realised by the Lord, now that He had come out of the sepulchre. The Lord did not tell them that the kingdom would not be restored to Israel; but that it did not concern them to know the times and seasons which the Father had put in His own power. The kingdom shall be restored to Israel—when is not revealed. The Son of man will come in an hour when He is not expected. He sits at the right hand of God the Father till His enemies shall be made His footstool. In the meantime He gathers His co-heirs, those who are content to suffer with Him; and caught up into glory we shall reign with Him. It is not revealed then, it was not revealed to the disciples—the hour of the Saviour’s return; but they should receive, said the Lord, not many days hence, the power of the Holy Ghost, which should come on them, and they should be witnesses to Him in Jerusalem, in Judaea, in Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth. And, having said these things, He was taken up, while they beheld, and a cloud received Him and took Him away out of their sight. They were to be eyewitnesses as far as this point of His heavenly glory. The Holy Ghost was sent after Him (see John 15:26, 27). We shall find later that Saul saw Him in His heavenly glory for the first time, of which thing he was to be the special witness. How the Holy Ghost has rendered clear testimony to this glory, we shall see in the discourses in the Acts; and again it may be seen in the epistles of Peter and elsewhere.
But here is found, before the coming of the Holy Ghost, a very remarkable testimony rendered by means of angels. The disciples had their eyes fixed on the heavens while Jesus was going there. This was very natural. The beloved Saviour, given back to them from the grave, was, apparently at least, abandoning them again—for heaven, it is true, which ought to have strengthened their faith. He had left a promise of the power of the Spirit, which, however, had not yet come; and therefore the consciousness and direction of this power, which was to reveal all the truth, was wanting to them. He had gone away, and what should they do? They must wait.
And as their eyes were then fixed on the heavens, behold, two by appearance men, but in reality angels, stood beside them, asking why they looked up into heaven, and making them the revelation of His return. A fact very remarkable, since the Lord had, after the Lord’s supper, made known to the disciples that He was going to the Father; and the first consolation He gave His disciples was that He would come again and take them to Himself in the Father’s house, where He was going to prepare them a place; then He speaks of the presence of the Comforter which was to be accomplished. There He speaks of His coming to introduce His own into the Father’s house; here, of His glorious appearing, when He will make Himself seen from the place where He has gone. There He Himself speaks of the special privilege of His own according to His personal affection which He had for them. He wished to console them, His heart had need of them; He desired to have them near to Himself, in the same glory, so that they might see His glory, but especially that, where He was, there they might be also. Here it is His return in glory, which would be like His going away.
This was the disciples’ first consolation, once they were deprived of His presence. Then another Comforter would be given to dwell with them meanwhile here below. But whether in the declaration on the part of the Lord in His love, or in the revelation made by the angels, the first thing in the Saviour’s heart and in the revelations of God is that He will come again. Immense is the gift of the Spirit during His absence, and for ever immense is the nature of the state in which redemption has placed the assembly of God here below: but its hope is, and the height of its joy will be, to see the Saviour as He is, to be always with Him, like Him, to see and to be for ever with Him who does love us and has washed us from our sins in His own blood, and to see Him face to face! Greatest blessing, too great for us, if not the fruit of something still greater—the cross and the sufferings of the Son of God.
Once this blessed Saviour has suffered, and the Son of God has been made sin for us, and has died as a man on the cross, nothing is too great; it will only be the fruit of the travail of His soul. He shall be satisfied; His love shall be satisfied in our happiness and in our presence with Him. Look only at Zephaniah 3:17, where the love and the glory are inferior to this: “Jehovah thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love; he will joy over thee with singing.” The Father will rest in His love, and in the accomplishment of all His counsels for the glory of His Son; shewing, at the same time, in the ages to come, the excellency of the riches of His grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. Such is our expectation.
The disciples return to Jerusalem, and live there together in an upper chamber. They persevered with one consent in supplication and prayer, with the women and with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and His brethren. But the effect of the promise of the Father is only found in chapter 2. All that we have at the end of chapter 1 is connected with a Jewish situation; that is, with the condition of the disciples before the coming of the Spirit, yet possessing an understanding which had been opened by the Lord to understand the word. They had not the power of the Spirit, but intelligence of the word; because their standing was in relation with Christ raised up from the dead, they were enlightened by the divine light communicated to them after His resurrection. These verses accord perfectly with verses 14-48 of Luke 24. Then comes the promise of the Spirit, the accomplishment of which is found in chapter 2.
The well-known active energy of Peter employs the knowledge given by the Lord, applying Psalm 109 to Judas, whose office, says the psalm, another should take. They drew lots, according to Jewish custom, leaving the decision in the hands of God. Matthias is chosen and added to the eleven apostles. Verses 18, 19 are a parenthesis. The sabbath-day’s journey, the lots, and all the circumstances, shew clearly the actual state of the disciples and the thought of the Holy Ghost on this step. They work with intelligence of the word of the Old Testament; but the Spirit had not yet come. It is important for us to understand the difference. The Spirit gives now intelligence (1 Cor. 2:14); but this is not of itself power.
The Lord is faithful to lead His own in the path of truth. His grace is sufficient, His strength is made perfect in weakness, and also He always gives us the strength necessary to accomplish His will; but the power of the Spirit is another thing. Now, we are specially called to follow His word, although we may be feeble (see what is said to the church of Philadelphia, Rev. 3).
It is impossible for Christ to fail us in our obedience, and His strength is sufficient for us. Faithful to His word, while we wait for Him in weakness, we shall be pillars in the temple of His God, when He sees the hour of glory. Yet the Holy Ghost dwells in the faithful, sealed with Him by the Father according to His promise.
The Coming of the Holy Ghost
But the great event of which we have spoken now claims our attention—the immense fact of the coming of the Holy Ghost to dwell with the disciples of Jesus, in each, and in the midst of all together. Thus, in 1 Corinthians 3:16, the church as a universal assembly is the temple of God; and then, in 1 Corinthians 6:19, the body of the faithful is the temple of God. All those who, steadfast in Jesus, habitually gathered together were thus assembled on the day of Pentecost. We have seen (chap. 1:14), that they continued with one accord in prayer while waiting for the Comforter, promised according to the word of Jesus.
Suddenly an impetuous wind is felt, filling all the house where they sat, as the cloud filled the tabernacle, so that the priests could not enter there (1 Kings 8:11). But now men themselves composed the tabernacle where God disdained not to dwell. The blood of Jesus had purified them, and rendered them fit to be the habitation of God through the Spirit (or in Spirit) Eph. 2:22. Marvellous truth, fruit of accomplished redemption, and blessed knowledge, that a Man, much more than a man, sits at the right hand of God (John 7:39). But how beautiful is the truth, this divine fact, that—such is the effect of the death and of the blood of Christ, and of our reconciliation and purification—instead of driving away the priests by His presence, God, in grace, makes us His habitation! What a contrast between the law and the gospel!
But, besides this, a marvellous testimony is found in this fact to the grace of God. The presence of the Holy Ghost depended on the sitting of the Man Jesus at the right hand of God; demonstration and fruit of the accomplishment of the work of redemption. Now this could not be limited to the Jewish people. This presence was in itself a testimony to that accomplishment, and the earnest of our inheritance, Christ being dead for all, and ascending into glory. For the moment, the patience of God fulfilled the work of grace among the Jews, people of the promises; but the gospel which should be preached was for the whole world.
When the judgment of God fell on man at the tower of Babel, it dispersed them, confounding their speech; but God took Abraham, separating him from his country and from his father’s house, to have a seed and then a people for Himself. During many years God endured the iniquity and unfaithfulness of this people, sending prophets, till no further remedy could be found; at last He sent His own Son, and they, as we. know, rejected and crucified Him. Then the nation is put aside till the sovereign grace of God—His church, the fulness of the Gentiles, being gathered out—commences anew on the footing of the new covenant, and of the presence of the Messiah on the earth.
In the meantime He gathers together the heirs of Christ, the heavenly assembly. Thus—although for a moment the Spirit had separated in the midst of the Jews, spared as a nation by the intercession of Christ on the cross, till they should have rejected a glorified Christ in the same way that they had a crucified Christ come in humiliation: and also to gather together all those among this people that had ears to hear—it is shewn by the Spirit how the God of grace was ready to overstep the limits of the chosen people and surmount the judgment of Babel, speaking to all the people in their own tongue—highest testimony of grace towards the world!
The barriers remained, but God surmounted them—passed over them—in order to announce the Saviour’s grace and salvation unto the whole world. We also see this special gift every time that God intervenes anew, as in Samaria and in the house of Cornelius. In fact, it was impossible that a glorified Saviour should be only the Jewish Saviour. The history of this people, when they had rejected the Saviour, was finished, save by grace: and the eternal redemption of God could not be for the Jews alone.
The visible character that the Holy Ghost takes corresponds to this work. When it descended on Christ, the Spirit was like unto a dove, symbol of the meekness and sweet tranquillity of Him of whom it was written, “He shall not strive nor cry; neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory” (Matt. 12:19, 20). But to the disciples He said, “That which I say in the darkness, tell it in the light; and that which ye have heard in the ear, proclaim it on the house-tops.”
The Spirit came then as an impetuous wind, filling all the house, and as cloven tongues of fire. The partition was symbolical of the diverse languages, the fire of the penetrating power of the word of God, discerner of the thoughts and intentions of the heart. It seems to us, that not only the apostles, but all the one hundred and twenty, were invested with this power. They were all together; and the explanation given by Peter of the prophecy of Joel confirms the matter (chaps. 1:14, 15; 2:1, 17).
They were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak in strange tongues, according as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now, at Jerusalem, men of all countries were present, and the rumour of what had happened brought them together. This great crowd was astonished to hear each his own dialect, speaking together and saying, “Are not all these Galileans? How then do we hear each his own tongue?” They were in doubt, saying, “What meaneth this?” Others, cavilling, said, “They are full of new wine.” These were, especially the Jews, always prone to incredulity.
To them Peter replies, speaking firmly in their mother-tongue, and makes them understand that this was what Joel had said, prophesying that these things should happen in the last days. It is clear, on reading Joel, I doubt not, that the Holy Ghost will be poured out anew when Israel is re-established in its own land. It will then be the rain of the latter season. Remark that verse 30 of Joel 2 should come before those preceding. These things will happen before the terrible day of the Lord comes: but the blessings are after that day. Peter says, in a general way, “in the last days,” and speaks of judgment as yet to come, as in fact was the case.
But what is important in his discourse is the presentation to the conscience of the Jews of their actual position: because, whatever the case may be, God is always clear and positive in the declaration and in the setting out of the sins of those souls where grace works. In short, this was their position; they had outraged and crucified Him whom God had set at His right hand, His own Son. Him they had put to death, and God had raised Him up, besides what had been demonstrated by the power manifested in His works. Horrible position! and we say it not only for the Jews, but for all men. Their Messiah, foundation of all their hopes, rejected; the Son of God put to death—a rupture which seemed irreparable between God and man; and on man’s side, it was in fact irreparable.
All was lost. God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, and mankind had refused it. Sin was there, transgression against the law was already there: God had come in grace, and man had not received Him. Now He had gone back into heaven; but, blessed be His name, the counsels of God were not frustrated: far from that, they were accomplished. Grace had won the victory; and where man had manifested his enmity against God, God had manifested His love towards man, and accomplished the work for the salvation of believers in Christ. “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by hand of lawless men have crucified and slain.”
God has made use of the iniquity and enmity of man to accomplish the work of redemption. The enmity of man and the love of God were contrasted in the same fact on the cross, in the glorious manifestation that His love surpassed and surmounted the enmity of man. Woe to him who neglects and refuses this immense grace, this work alone efficacious for salvation!
The third chapter of the Acts is remarkable in the ways of God. The declaration is not found, as in the second, of a present introduction of those who repent and confess the name of Jesus, into the blessings of the remission of sins, nor of the gift of the Holy Ghost. Peter shews, as in all his other discourses, that the death of Christ was the effect of the thoughts of God, though He was put to death by wicked hands: but rather as the accomplishment of prophecy than as the fruit of the counsels of God. The Spirit descends in virtue of the proclamation by the gospel of God’s ways with Israel. The Lord, interceding on the cross for the people, had said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” His prayer was heard, and the judgment of God suspended in the design of presenting repentance to the people once more.
God knew well that the Jews, hard of heart, would not receive the merciful voice of the long-suffering of God; and had warned those who had ears to hear (chap. 2:40) to save themselves from this untoward generation. But He would not come to judge till everything possible had been done, and they had rejected a glorified Christ, as they had rejected a Christ come in humiliation here below. The Spirit, therefore, by the mouth of Peter, starting from the intercession of Christ, proposes repentance to the people, saying, that then Christ would return. The apostle enters more particularly into the sin of the Jews, and presents the facts with great power to their consciences.
It may seem strange that the apostle should speak of the repentance of all the people, and of sparing them, when the Christian assembly had already commenced, and he had warned them to avoid the judgment which was ready to fall on a people which had crucified the Lord of glory. But God knew well that the rulers of the people would render His grace vain; and reject the testimony of a glorified Christ, as they had put to death a Christ present in grace. He prosecuted His counsels according to His own knowledge, but He did not carry out the judgment of His government till everything possible had been done to spare man, inviting them to repentance.
Thus Abraham was told that his seed must descend into Egypt because the iniquity of the Amorites was not yet accomplished (Gen. 15:16). And Jeremiah (chaps. 7-14, and in other places) does precisely what Peter does; he says clearly by his prophetical knowledge that the people and the vessels of the temple would go into Babylon: at the same time he exhorts the people to repent, and that thus doing they would be spared. And it is laid down as a principle, that when Jehovah had pronounced the condemnation of a people or of a city, if that people or that city should repent of its wickedness, He would turn away from the judgment that He had pronounced (Jer. 18:7-11). Thus, then, the apostle exhorts the people to repent, and Christ would return.
Going up to the temple, the apostles Peter and John had healed a man, lame from his birth, who asked alms at the gate called “Beautiful.” The man goes up together with the apostles, leaping and praising God; a crowd naturally gathers, as the man was well known. Peter takes advantage of the occasion to put before the eyes of the people what had been done. It was not by his own power. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of their fathers, had raised up His servant Jesus, whom they had put to death. Horrible position! what open opposition! fatal—if grace had not been there among the people of God.
It is thus that Peter always presents the truth. They had rejected Him, and God had recognised and glorified Him. And here he enters much more particularly into their sin, more than in chapter 2. He presents the facts with great power to their consciences. They had betrayed the Lord, and denied Him in the presence of Pilate when he had decided to let Him go. They had denied the Holy One and the Just, had desired a murderer, and killed the Prince of Life. But God had raised Him up—once more opposition between the people and God. The name of the risen Saviour at the right hand of God had given to the cripple the perfect health in which they saw him. And here the Spirit responds in grace to the Lord’s intercession; and the apostle attributes to ignorance the terrible fact of having rejected the Lord, whether on the part of the rulers or of the people.
That which had been foreordained by God was now accomplished—the sufferings of Christ announced before by their prophets; and, if they repented, Jesus would come back: God would send Him from heaven. Those times of blessing that would be fulfilled on the earth by His presence they would have; times that might come on the Lord’s side, but for which the repentance of Israel was absolutely necessary, and for which it is still necessary. That always remains true. Their house, said the Lord, should be left unto them desolate, until they should say, “Blessed be he that cometh in the name of Jehovah” (Matt. 23:38, quoting Psalm 118).
When Israel repents, the Lord will come, and they will own that He whom they had rejected was the Lord Himself; and they will be full of sorrow and shame, but be pardoned and liberated; and all the blessings, of which the prophets have spoken, shall be fulfilled. Meanwhile heaven held Jesus hid from the eyes of men. But Peter presents this repentance to the Jews, and the present return besides.
But before he could finish his discourse, the rulers of the Jews arrive, take possession of the apostles, and throw them into prison. Jesus glorified is refused, as completely as Jesus in humiliation. All is finished for Israel, with respect to its responsibility—the marvellous patience of God, and the grace that had made intercession for the beloved people on the cross. Nothing more could be done: it only remained to carry out the judgment of a people who would not have grace. Such is the history alas! of the natural man.
Let us mark this, that here the Holy Ghost is not offered, as in the discourse of the preceding chapter, which began the new order of the ways of God; but he speaks of the return of Christ Himself to accomplish all that the prophets had said. The presence of the Holy Ghost distinguishes the time between the first and the second coming of Jesus—the present interval. I do not say that the Spirit will not be poured out after the second coming; but the coming and presence of Jesus distinguished that period, and His absence the present, as moreover the presence of another Comforter instead of Him. And this reveals to us a Christ glorified in the heavens, makes Him the object of a living faith, unites us to Him, makes us understand that we are children of God, joint-heirs with Christ, that we are in Him and He in us, and mikes us members of His body, while we wait for Him to take us to Himself. The love of God, too, is shed abroad in our hearts.
Although Peter never speaks of the rapture of the saints to be with Jesus, yet we may turn to 1 Peter 1:11-13, where we find the testimony of the prophets, that of the Holy Ghost come down from heaven, and the accomplishment of the promises to happen on the appearing of Jesus—the three things which appear here. It is not a question of gathering believers to Christ, nor of the coming of the Holy Ghost. We find ourselves entirely on Jewish ground. And God, having first raised up His servant Jesus, had sent Him to bless them, that is, down here in the world; and as they would not receive Him, repentance was offered them. But the rulers interposed, resisting the Holy Ghost, just as they had refused Christ on the earth, thus sealing their own judgment. The final sentence will be found in the history of Stephen.
Another truth is introduced here, which is not wanting in importance in the ways of God; though it may not be equal in importance to the moral state of men which led them to reject the Lord come in grace. After this moment the throne and the government of God cannot be found on the earth. The providence of God watches over all; not even a little bird falls to the ground without His hand. But this throne does not exist on the earth, and will no more exist till the Lord Jesus, the Son of David, establishes it, till He comes to whom it belongs. The throne of God, between the cherubim, was taken away from Jerusalem when the Jews were led captive into Babylon; but a little remnant of the Jews was brought back to Jerusalem, in order to present to them again their true King, the Son of David, Jesus of Nazareth. But they would not receive Him. Thenceforward the kingdom of God is changed to the kingdom of heaven; the King is in heaven, and the kingdom is like the grain of wheat, which, once sown, springs and grows, without man’s hand being applied to it (Mark 4:26). Christ works; without His grace nothing would be done; but He does not appear. He sits on the throne of God, and has not taken His own throne; He will take it when He returns.
Thrones are perfectly established by God; the Christian recognises fully the authority of princes and governors as ordinances of God, and submits to them. But it is not the immediate kingdom of God. From the captivity of Babylon till the coming of Christ are the “times of the Gentiles”; and God gathers the joint-heirs of Christ, who are not of this world, as He was not. They are blessed with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ; they will reign with Him in glory, joint-heirs by grace of the inheritance of God.
There are two great subjects in the Bible, after personal salvation; the divine government of the world with the Jews as centre, under Christ; and the sovereign grace that has given those who are content to suffer with Him the same glory that Christ enjoys as Man, predestinated to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He may be the first-born among many brethren. Already we enjoy the same relationship with His God and Father. “Go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Already children and heirs here below, when Christ comes we shall rejoice with heavenly joy with Him, and we shall reign with Him.
The Jews, and with them the Gentiles on the earth, will enjoy the peace and blessings resulting from the reign of Christ. Chapter 2, though it does not go any farther than to the presence of the Spirit here below, speaks of the first and heavenly position; chapter 3 of the second. The word of God in chapter 2 brings forth its fruit in gathering souls for God’s assembly, and for heavenly glory. In chapter 3 the call to repentance is refused on the authority of the people; and the Lord sits at the right hand of God in heaven till His enemies are made His footstool.
And the work of God goes on here below. The reign of Christ on the earth is deferred because of the unbelief of the Jews; and the presence of the Spirit, Christ being in heaven, to gather together the heavenly citizens, and to put them into a new, eternal, and heavenly relationship with God—this is the foundation of the history recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. The following chapters unfold the progress of the work, its difficulties and their causes. “Unto you first God, having raised up his Son [servant] Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities.”
What we read in this chapter is very sad, but full of instruction. The state of Israel is frightful, and the contrast to the apostles, and to all the believers marvellous. There is ecclesiastical authority and hatred of the truth and of the Lord on one side, and the presence and power of God on the other. Authority, depending on public opinion, is timorous at this juncture, and for a moment by this means held in check by the hand of God; and the courage of faith, given by God, is sustained by the powerful presence of the Holy Ghost.
The priests deliberately resist the action of the Holy Ghost though admitting that the power of God had been manifested. Is it not frightful? Oh what audacity, of what malice, is the heart of man capable when abandoned by God and left to its own hatred against Him! “The transgression of the wicked saith within my heart, that there is no fear of God before his eyes. For he flattereth himself in his own eyes, until his iniquities be found to be hateful,” Psalm 36:1, 2. And for what follows see also Luke 12:1-12. Horrible and vain opposition, for the word of God will be fulfilled in spite of men. If we suffer, it is our glory. Our portion is to be found in Psalm 27; and then in Psalm 37: “Fret not thyself—trust in Jehovah—delight thyself also in Jehovah—commit thy way unto Jehovah—rest in Jehovah, and wait patiently for Him— cease from anger and forsake wrath; fret not thyself in any wise to do evil.”
We shall see the path of the apostles; what courage, what tranquillity, what clearness of judgment, doing exactly what became servants of God—those who, in the testimony of God, represented Him on the earth! Doubtless an extraordinary power was displayed in them, but the principle is just the same for us all. Moreover the word did not remain without effect, the number of men who had believed became about five thousand.
We have seen that the chief priests had put the apostles in prison. The morning came, they meet at Jerusalem, and make the apostles appear before them. They demand by what power and in what name they had done the miracle. The old story is again repeated—official authority opposed to the power of God. Thus the high priests and the rulers of the people demanded of the Lord by what authority He worked. But what madness, what hardness of heart, what lack of conscience! A miracle had evidently been performed by the apostles: it was known by the people, and they could not deny it. It is God Himself who works, but they will not allow the knowledge of it to spread among the people. It was not convenient that the power of God should be manifested outside their office; for if divine power operated outside their office, they could no longer secure authority to themselves. But it was not for them to command God; and not only this, but they were directly opposed to that power which was of God.
In such cases absence of all conscience is always found, as when the Lord did not reply to their questions, but, in His divine wisdom, asked them what the baptism of John was. And they, fearing the people, dared not say that it was not of God, because public opinion was against them. They were forced to acknowledge their incapacity; evidently, then, the Lord was not bound to account to them for what He had just before done.
Here something more is found. What the apostles had done was an act of power and not of authority, and the priests place themselves in open opposition to God. They would have suppressed His power if they had been able; otherwise they were humiliated. This was necessary, for the miracle had been performed in the name of Him whom they had crucified. They were adversaries of God, and adversaries consciously and willingly, for they had acknowledged that it was impossible to deny the miracle. This was indeed the power of Satan, but also of an office destitute of the power of God. Whenever man finds himself in such a position, he is unwilling that God should work. But what a state of soul, what a frightful condition!
Let us contemplate the spectacle of an unlettered and ignorant man, but believing in Jesus and full of the Holy Ghost. He announces openly, and with frank candour, not only that it was by the name of Jesus that the man had been cured, but that He was the stone set at nought by the builders, now become the head of the corner, and that there was no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved. The position of the rulers is clearly established, such as we have seen it. The man there present had been cured by the name of Him whom they had crucified, and whom God had raised from among the dead.
But alas! the will of men was not moved, though they had nothing to say against the facts. The power of God was there; the testimony could not be refuted; but they would not have divine testimony. And, having conferred together, they dismissed them, “straitly threatening them that they should speak henceforth to no man in this name.”
Their part was taken against God and against His Anointed. They commanded the apostles, therefore, when they had brought them in again, never to speak again in this name. Peter does not boast, does not insist on his rights or on his liberty, does not threaten the priests and council, does not shew on his part any of his own will; he remains tranquil in obedience, but in obedience to God rather than to man. God was with them; the others were only men. They must obey God. He appeals to the priests and themselves, if it was not right to do so. Again they threaten them and let them go; witnesses were before them who glorified God for what had been done.
It is well to remark that the apostles do not assail the Jews— they do their duty; and when these oppose themselves, conscious of doing the will of God sent by Him, they declare that necessarily they were doing His will—that, when God willed and sent, they had to obey. It is the calm, the tranquillity, of him who does not think of himself, either through fear or through human ardour. It is full of the Holy Ghost; what is said, what is done, comes from Him. Such a man works perfectly on God’s side, because the man is put aside, and God by His Spirit works in him. Though it may be the man who presents himself perfectly in the position in which he finds himself, yet it is that Spirit who produces the perfection in him. “It is not ye,” said the Lord, “that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you,” Matt. 10:20. If man works, then there is imperfection. God works in man, and then man is what he ought to be. Is it always thus?
But the miserable position of the Jews unfolds itself only too clearly. God was no longer to be found among the chosen people who had rejected their Messiah, the Son of God, in whom are all the promises of God; and now they were abandoned. God dwelt by His Spirit among the Christians. God will fulfil His promises to the nation in the last times, but then it will be in pure grace. He is faithful, whatever may be the iniquity of His people. What Peter proposed to Israel in chapter 3, repentance, will be accomplished in their hearts by grace, when the assembly of God shall have been taken up into heaven. Then they shall see Him whom they have pierced, and shall be blessed; but meanwhile they are put aside, kept apart however, till the fulness of the Gentiles be brought in. Then Israel as a whole shall be saved. But now they are displayed as resisting the Holy Ghost, as having rejected the Messiah. Now we see the power of the Spirit and His presence manifesting itself in the midst of the assembly.
The apostles returned to “their own”; for now there existed a company, a society, the house of God; composed, it is true, of Jews, but apart, outside the national pale. There they recount what has happened. Then, moved by the Holy Ghost, with one heart they raise the voice to God, acknowledging the accomplishing of Psalm 2, where the rejection of the Messiah, the Son of God is announced, and the absolute power of God, whatever might be the wickedness of men who did nothing but fulfil the counsels of God. Nevertheless they do not ask that the kingdom should be established, according to what is said in that Psalm, of which kingdom the Father has put the times into His own power (chap 1:7); but the manifestation of the power of the Holy Ghost is pronounced in the same place, whether in the full courage to announce the word, or in the works of power done in the name of the holy servant of God, Jesus, His Son.
After they have prayed, the presence of God is manifested in their midst, and the place where they are assembled shakes. Here too, is seen, in an exterior way, the difference between the new birth and the presence of God by the Spirit. Many more important proofs of it are to be found; but I speak of it, because here it is an outward sign, impossible to confound with the work of grace in the soul. Their prayer is heard. They are all filled with the Holy Ghost, and speak the word of God with great boldness. But it is not only in the gifts of speech; it is the faith which does it all, that shews the effect and the power of being filled with the Holy Ghost. We find a work of the same character in the description given in chapter 2: there was but one heart.
No one retained his own property, but distributed to those who were in need. With great power the apostles bore testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on them all. None among the disciples lacked anything. Those who possessed lands or houses sold them, and laid the prices of the things that were sold at the apostles’ feet, who distributed to every one according to his need. Beautiful testimony of the power of love, the love of God shed abroad by the Holy Ghost in the hearts of those who were filled with it! Among the others we find Barnabas, especially noticed here, because we shall find him soon occupied in the work of God, the companion of Paul; so that he is called an apostle. But God has not forgotten the others.
Such is the scene which passes before our eyes when the church was established in the beginning—when the Spirit, ungrieved, displayed all the effect of His presence. Most blessed scene, giving us to understand what it is to be filled with the Holy Ghost! He dwells in every true Christian; but it is another thing to be so filled with Him that He may be the source of all that is thought, of all that is done, and that all that the heart, which is His vessel, produces may be the fruit of His presence; that there may be no doubting, no shutting up in the career of love, that Jesus may be faithfully confessed before men. The heart is set free from its own love, and loves according to the love of Christ. Liberty, true liberty, is found, and the practical life, and its fruits are the fruits of the Spirit.
What a blessed state! And whatever may be the ruin of the church, in principle this state belongs to-day to every Christian; circumstances may hinder the form that existed in the days of the apostles; but the Spirit of God, at the bottom, is more powerful than circumstances.
Although a man may be truly a Christian, yet the flesh always remains in him, which is just as ready to shew itself in the assembly as in the world. The desire to have a good reputation among men may arise in the heart, although such a reputation may merely be sought for among Christians. Thus too it happened when the assembly of God first began. Love produced the inclination to think of others rather than of themselves. But the flesh also would have the reputation of doing so, without denying itself, deceitfully thinking to keep back its money, and at the same time to gain the benefit of a reputation for giving it away. But here also the great truth of the presence of the Holy Ghost is the subject of God’s revelation given in this book.
Ananias and Sapphira have lied to the Holy Ghost: this is the gravity of the sin of Ananias and his wife. God dwelt in the midst of His own in the assembly. Deceived in heart and conscience by cupidity, whether of money or of human glory, Ananias did not recognise His presence. But still another was acting in this sad event. Satan suggested to them the means of keeping back the money, and still of winning fame. But the Holy Ghost was there, and the folly of men and malice of Satan did nothing but make manifest the truth and the power of His presence, in a sad way it is true, but in a way that could leave no doubt of it.
Ananias, whose sin was thus unexpectedly to himself revealed, falls dead by the judgment of God who was there. But what a solemn judgment! And it is not surprising if, not only the Christians, but also the outside world, were terrified at such a testimony to the presence of God that was entirely unmistakable. Moreover the sin was not a simple failure. Ananias and Sapphira had agreed together in their eagerness of endeavour to deceive God, forgetting that He knew everything and that He was there.
But, however sad and solemn the fact might be, it was a testimony from which it was impossible to detract, that God Himself was present; a testimony to the great truth that God, in the person of the Holy Ghost, had come down to dwell in the midst of His people, and for ever (John 14:17), so that they might be taken up to dwell in the Father’s house. The apostles were filled with it; everything at that time was in the power of it. But the assembly of God has been unfaithful; the Spirit has been grieved, and therefore we see no longer those actions which bore testimony to His presence.
This, nevertheless, does not in any way render it invalid— that would be impossible. The word of Christ is—He shall dwell with you; and the Spirit is as able to accomplish the will of God in His children now as in the time of the apostles, though it may not be shewn in the same manner. But it is more blessed, says the Lord, to have our names written in heaven than to cast out demons: and by the true work of God in souls, and in all His ways, He manifests His presence in the assembly, and in Christians who depend on Him, and are filled with Him, just as much as He did in the days of the apostles. It is not proper that it should be shewn outwardly in the fallen church as in the faithful assembly long ago established by God Himself, as though He sealed its fall with His approbation. But God changes not, and His grace and power are the same, and are as available as ever for all that is necessary and all that is suitable to the state of the church; and He still does all that is requisite for His glory and our full blessing. He works in His own with the same power according to the circumstances in which they are placed.
Now many signs and wonders were wrought by the hands of the apostles, who were to be found habitually (it seems to us) in Solomon’s porch in the temple. The great and the rulers did not dare to identify themselves with them; but the people, convinced in their simplicity, increased the number and importance of the Christians in the holy city. We see always fear on the part of the great and of the ecclesiastical rulers. They could persecute, but they could not join the Christians, because then their power would be compromised. As Paul says, “not many mighty, not many noble, are called.” The reproach of Christ is always linked to His name, wherever there is fidelity.
But still the power of God manifested itself in such a way that in Jerusalem and in the cities round about they brought sick folks, so that at the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them; and the sick of the city and those vexed with unclean spirits were all healed. But all this excited the envy and indignation of the chief priests; the divine power and authority had evidently passed away from their hands, and they were unwilling that they should be found elsewhere. They could not prevent God from manifesting His power, but they could take possession of the persons who exercised it, at least when God allowed it. They do so, and throw the apostles into the common prison.
But this did nothing more than prepare the way for another display of the hand and power of God. When God is working, vain are the efforts of men. We have seen, and shall see, the internal power of the Holy Ghost. Here we find angels, the servants of God, in favour of the men who preach the good news of salvation through Christ. I do not doubt that they ever minister, according to the will of God, to all His children who walk in the way of His will; and they may be employed otherwise, if it please God, as it is written in Hebrews I. But here they operate in a visible way. The angel opens the doors of the prison, leads the apostles out, and tells them to go their way, and to speak in the temple all the words of this life, which they do at once at break of day.
Meanwhile the high priest and they that were with him meet together in the great council of the Jews, and send the sergeants, commanding them to bring the apostles before them. They go therefore to the prison, which they find shut with all safety, and the keepers standing without before the doors, but no prisoners within. The priests, confounded, know not what to think. Who can make war against God, and not find himself discomfited? Satan can do much, he can persecute and exercise great influence over unbelieving souls; but, where the working of the power of God is present, he cannot surmount it. Confidence is found on the part of God’s servants; and, at the bottom of their heart, the adversaries are afraid and perplexed. See Josh. 2:9; Phil, 1:23; 1 Pet. 3:6. Satan had the Sadducees ready to resist the work of the apostles who presented the resurrection, as the Pharisees to oppose Christ who preached true righteousness.
But the work of God goes on in the midst of suffering. He allows His own to suffer; it is given to them to suffer for the name of Christ; but He accomplishes His counsels in spite of man. The officers then brought them without violence, fearing the people lest they should have been stoned. The apostles appear before the council, and the high priest reproves them, because they had preached Jesus, in spite of the prohibition, and that thus they thought to bring the blood of Jesus on them. It is apparent that their conscience was ill at ease. The simple truth was that they were responsible for the blood of Jesus; but when a man is spurred on by Satan to commit a crime, he does not fear to do it, but, once committed, the deceit of Satan leaves him; the crime weighs on his conscience, and Satan cannot alleviate it, but often goads him to desperation, as he did with Judas.
The reply of Peter to the rulers is very brief and decisive; already they knew it well. “We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree. Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them who obey him.” When they heard that, they were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay them.
But here again the hand of God appears; and as He had miraculously used an angel to let Peter out of prison, so now He employs the hand of man to arrest the power and the malice of the elders and high priest. The human prudence of the Pharisee Gamaliel, a man much esteemed, gives them to realise, by several examples, the peril of putting themselves in conflict with God. The Pharisees were always opposed to the Sadducess, and the high priest belonged to the sect of the Sadducees, so that the Pharisee could always employ his human sagacity to gain a hearing. And God could use it to preserve His servants from the wicked hand of their enemies.
They consent to the counsel of Gamaliel, but without any fear of God. The will is not changed, the enmity against the testimony of God remains in all its force; but they are afraid of compromising themselves, and know not what to do. The aposdes are beaten, and forbidden to speak in the name of Jesus. It is enmity without strength, without conscience, and without knowledge, blind from unbelief, and resisting in vain the power of God! The apostles continue their work, teaching and preaching both in the temple and in every house.
Chapters 6, 7.
But the flesh manifests itself in Christians, and the more so if their number be large. Now we find a new event happening; in the multitude the power of faith and the fruits of the Spirit begin to grow feebler. Love and confidence —love’s constant companion—diminish; but at the same time the strength of the Spirit found in the apostles takes its stand against difficulty. And not only this, but an opportunity is given for securing greater regularity in the daily ministration of the assembly. The preaching of the word is separated from the care of the poor. In this case the apostles desired that the people should choose those who might care for the widows. We shall see farther on that the apostle Paul himself, with Barnabas, appointed elders, but, when it was a question of money, neither the twelve nor Paul would take any part in it, nor confound the divine service of the word with the administration of the money furnished by the faithful; 1 Corinthians 16.
The twelve desired to be occupied only with the word, and Paul would not charge himself with the money for the poor at Jerusalem, unless brethren appointed for this purpose were with him. But, although the flesh shewed itself, the Spirit was enough to overrule circumstances. In the case of Ananias and Sapphira this power and the presence of the Spirit was manifested in judgment against hypocrisy; here we find it seeking to make its way in the assembly, producing order and right where danger of disunion was manifested in the midst of the disciples.
But another principle respecting the Holy Ghost, easy to believe but often forgotten, is now made evident—His full liberty: as we read in 1 Corinthians 12, “dividing to every man severally as he will.” We have seen up to this moment the activity of the apostles, established in their office by the Lord Himself, if we except Matthias. We find now seven men, full of the Holy Ghost and of wisdom, chosen by the people to serve at the tables where the distributions were made to the poor widows; and among these were two specially used by the Holy Ghost in the preaching of the gospel; and, at this moment, Stephen. In 1 Timothy 3:13, we find, “For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good decree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.”
Stephen was already a man full of the Holy Ghost and of faith, but now his gift is unfolded. He does signs and wonders; even his adversaries could not resist the power and wisdom with which he spoke. The Holy Ghost here works freely as in Philip. He also was obliged to give up his office for the work of evangelisation, for he went to Samaria. By the liberty given by the Spirit he is a minister of the word, and not of the tables. It is a new phase of the work of grace and of the Spirit. We shall find still other proofs. It is a very important principle, the truth and force of which extend to the present day. They are not sent by the apostles but directly by God. It is the strength of the Holy Ghost that urges them to the work, consecration to Christ, and love of souls.
It seems also that Stephen had said more, and spoken more openly, than Peter. The latter ever bore testimony to Israel’s open opposition to God, for they had crucified Him whom God had exalted to His own right hand. We know not how Stephen spoke; but at all events he gave rise to the accusation of having said that Jesus would destroy Jerusalem, and change the customs which Moses had established. Evidently he always preached Christ and His glory, as did Peter; but he said more—he warned the people of the consequences of their sin. Peter laid down the fundamental truth that shewed the state of the Jews before God. Stephen, taking lower ground and speaking more familiarly, announces the consequences of non-repentance. Both testimonies were fully of God, and inspired, but differed in character.
The accusations being brought before the council, Stephen is seized and forced to appear before the high priest and his accusers. To these there only remained enmity against God, and the power of death, for God allowed them to fulfil their purposes. But the occasion produces the magnificent defence of Stephen, indicating the position of the Jews with the utmost precision, and closing the history of humanity, of man before God here below. Before the flood God bore testimony, but He established no institution. We have perhaps Adam, Abel, Enoch and Noah, godly men, but not one of them was the head of a race according to God; but after the flood God began in the new world to found institutions for the government of the world, for the blessing of man, and to unfold truth and His ways.
At first no promise was made to man. In the judgment pronounced on Satan we find a prophecy of the final work of Christ, the object, by grace, of Adam’s faith, and also of ours, the everlasting gospel; but God made no promises to the first man. After the flood God began to unfold His ways. In Noah He established government in order to restrain violence. Then, when man fell into idolatry (Josh. 24), not only was he wicked, but he chose demons as the power of the world in place of God; and God called Abraham to be for Himself, and the father of a race that He might on earth recognise as His, whether after the flesh or after the Spirit. The great principles of election, of calling, or of the promises are established. Then the law is given on Mount Sinai, by which man is put to the proof in a still more definite manner. Then, after long patience, in which prophets were sent to recall the people chosen according to the flesh to the obedience of the law, and sustain the trust of the few faithful by the promise of the Messiah, God sent His only-begotten Son, His well-beloved, saying, in the words of the parable, “They will reverence my Son”; but we know what happened. The history of man was finished on the cross. Not only had he sinned, but he had rejected grace when the Saviour had come.
Now they reject the testimony that spoke of a glorified Saviour, sent in virtue of His intercession on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” As we have seen, God replied to this intercession in the testimony of Peter and of the apostles; and in the announcement of the Holy Ghost of a glorified Saviour,Him whom they had rejected; but, as we have again seen, they refused the testimony of the Holy Ghost by the mouth of the apostles.
And here we have a kind of resume, an explanation of their state, their history from the time of Abraham till that day. It is the history of man from the moment that God began His dealings with him—in the beginning, in giving the promise, whether to Israel or to Christ, the true offspring; then in the law, in the prophets, and, finally, in Christ Himself. All this time the Spirit was working, and now especially, after Christ had been glorified in heaven, as we have seen. Stephen recounted this history; grace in the call of Abraham; what happened to Joseph and to Moses, wherein the Spirit worked and had been rejected by Israel; then the law violated at the outset in the calf of gold; then the prophets; then Christ Himself; and, finally, the testimony of the Holy Ghost. They had broken the law, persecuted and put to death the prophets who had spoken of the coming of the Just One, of whom now they had become the betrayers and murderers. And more than this, they still resisted the Holy Ghost, as their fathers had always done.
All the dealings of God pass before our eyes; the law, the prophets, Christ, the Spirit. In all, the people are found in enmity against God. Meanwhile they confided in the temple, of which God had declared by the prophet that the Most High dwelt not in temples made with hands. Such is the history of Israel—of man. Conscience is hardened, will is unchanged in the Sanhedrim, and nothing but hate and opposition to the testimony of the Holy Ghost is revealed; their hearts are goaded to resistance, and put the witness himself to death. They were unable to answer him; it was indeed their history of which they so loudly boasted—and what a history! Man always resists the testimony of the Spirit; and, if the conscience be stung, hatred breaks out violently against the witness.
On the other hand we see a man, a Christian, full of the Holy Ghost, doubtless here manifested in a very special way; but that which was visible to Stephen is the object of faith for us. Mark first the perfect tranquillity of the servant of Christ. With beautiful simplicity he tells a story familiar to all—a story, however, which carried with it the condemnation of the Jews. To reason with him was needless, for they could not deny the facts. Then, kneeling down quietly amid the stones which fell on him, he prays for his enemies. What moral power! How entirely it overcomes all circumstances, and displays the man of God in the presence of the fury of his adversaries!
But let us examine not only the character of Stephen’s testimony against his enemies, but his own state. He is the embodiment of a man full of the Holy Ghost, and his enemies are the embodiment of men who resist the Spirit. First, heaven is opened to him; he is enabled to keep his eyes fixed on the heavens—touch-stone of the state of the soul—and sees the Son of man standing at the right hand of God. He saw indeed the glory of God, but does not speak of it; the new and blessed thing was, that Man, in the person of the Son of God, stood there.
I believe that here He does not sit, because, until the Jews had refused the testimony of His glory, the Saviour was expecting to come back according to the address of Peter. As soon as Stephen is slain this testimony is at end; and, a single soul in heaven, the gathering of the spirits of the redeemed begins, which will continue till the Lord comes to re-unite the bodies and spirits of His own, and bring them into heavenly glory. Thus, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, it is said that Jesus is set down at the right hand of God, expecting till His enemies be made His footstool. He sits down on the throne of the Father, and not yet on His own. This is what rouses the hatred and fury of the Jews. They cry out “blasphemy!” and stone the witness of God, of the glory of Jesus.
For Stephen heaven is opened, and Jesus is seen in divine glory; and this is what forms his soul in such a beautiful way into the likeness of Jesus. As He prayed for enemies, so also Stephen prays for his; and as the Lord Jesus commended His spirit to His Father, so Stephen exclaims, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Not only does he pardon his enemies, but quietly kneels down to do so. The view of Jesus transforms the heart into His likeness. That which was seen by Stephen is the object of faith for us, made clearer by what happened to him.
An important fact, which renders the signification of our narrative still clearer, is here presented to us. Here we find Saul taking part in the death of Stephen. We have seen that the death of Stephen was the end of the history of the enmity of the human heart against God, when God had done everything to try it, and also to restore it; its incurable enmity was manifested, and the end of man before God. There was no longer hope of finding any good since God Himself has made use of everything—judgment in the deluge, the law, the prophets, His own Son, and the testimony of the Holy Ghost. All was in vain. The more God worked, the more man’s enmity manifested itself.
Here for the first time we find Saul. Not content with taking part in the death of Stephen, he goes into distant cities in search of Christians to bring them bound to Jerusalem. He is the apostle of man’s enmity against Christ. If the history of man was finished, that of the sovereign grace of God was beginning. The spirit of the first martyr takes its place in the presence of Jesus. But the entire number must be completed before Jesus can come and re-unite them with their bodies.
Here we find the first general persecution, which, however, in the hands of God, served to scatter the seed of the gospel. This also is a proof of the free activity of the Holy Ghost to make use of whomsoever He sees fit to select. Still another important fact: while all the Christians are scattered by the persecution, the apostles remain at Jerusalem. The special mission of Matthew 10:23 was not accomplished. It will be by the power of God hereafter, I doubt not; but not at the moment of which we read here. It is the multitude of Christians scattered by the persecution who preach the gospel in Palestine, and afterwards among the Gentiles. Saul persecutes the assembly with cruel zeal; and the Christians leave the city. It was neither the settled design of man, nor the spiritual zeal of the apostles, but the fury of the enemy, which according to the wisdom of God first disseminated the gospel outside the gates of Jerusalem. The spirit of Stephen gone up to heaven, the gospel of grace is carried into the surrounding districts by means of the enmity of man, and the providence of God who makes use of it leads the scattered ones to communicate in love the gifts they possess. What is man? and what the wisdom and grace of God?
Another example of the free activity of the Spirit is found in the person of Philip, chosen to take care of the widows. His service is finished with regard to the widows; but he has acquired a good degree, and great liberty in the faith in Christ Jesus. Setting out from Jerusalem, he goes down to Samaria; and there by the power of his word, and by the miracles given him to do, the people are liberated from the influence of a notorious instrument of Satan—Simon, who exercised the arts of sorcery and had been held to be the great power of God. “Then Simon himself believed also; and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done.”
It was the miracles which had exercised this influence over his spirit, not the seed of God, the divine word which had entered into his heart. To believe by means of miracles alone is not the faith which operates by the Holy Ghost, although God may work miracles and signs in order to confirm His word. The end of John 2 shews that Jesus did not trust those who had believed in this way. When the Spirit of God works, requirements are produced in the soul which Jesus alone can satisfy. Thus Nicodemus was under the influence of the miracles when he went to Jesus. To the others reasonable conviction sufficed, and they remained where they were.
The sole desire of Simon is to possess the power of conferring on others by the imposition of his hands the ability to work miracles and signs. He wished to buy it with money, thereby shewing that there was no work of God in his soul. He had “neither part nor lot in this matter.” He was in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity; his heart was not right before God. His sin excited the indignation, not the compassion, of Peter. “Thy money perish with thee,” said he. But still his heart is not touched with compunction. He asks only that what had been said might not come upon him; not that his thought might be forgiven, or that the state of his heart might be changed.
Here we find still other things which we shall do well to consider. The difference between the operation and the sealing of the Spirit is very clear. The Samaritans had believed and had been baptized, but had not received the Holy Ghost; for He had not yet descended upon them. He had worked by the word in their hearts; men and women were converted, born again, had confessed the name of Jesus; but they were not yet sealed. Then it belonged in a special manner to the apostles to impose hands, and confer the gift of the Spirit. In Acts 19 we see that Paul conferred it; he was a true apostle. Ananias was sent that Saul might receive it; this was a special mission of the Lord Himself. The Spirit might also come without the laying on of hands, as on the hundred and twenty, and on Cornelius; but not one had the power of conferring it save the apostles. It is said, “of the apostles’ hand” (v. 18).
It is possible, too, that the Spirit might come on a man in this way without an internal work giving life. The Lord does not habitually work thus; but cases of it are not wanting in the Old Testament, such as Balaam, king Saul, and others, where the question of conversion is not raised, shewing that that is another thing altogether. In the New Testament we do not find a case of it, but the thing is supposed (1 Cor. 12; Heb. 6), and the power to do miracles with the aid of the Holy Ghost and without conversion and life, is clearly presented by the Lord Himself (Matt. 12:26, 27); the Lord does not deny the fact, but declares that He knows not those who have done them; Matt. 7. See Deut. 13. Judas at least was sent to do such.
We see then a new character of the apostolic authority; then the free activity of the Spirit clearly displayed in Philip. By his means the gospel is communicated to a distant country through a proselyte come to Jerusalem to worship the true God; a man in whose heart the word of God possessed full power. It is beautiful to remark in Philip the readiness of his obedience—how he allowed himself to be led by the will of God. He is the object of all attention in the city of Samaria: a notable work had been done by means of him. “Arise,” said the angel of the Lord, “and go unto Gaza, which is desert”; but he was not told what he was to do there. And he goes there immediately. There he finds the treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia. The Spirit says to him, “Go near and join thyself to this chariot”; and he runs immediately to it. The treasurer was reading the word of God, but the key of faith in Jesus was wanting. Philip mounts the chariot, and preaches faith in Jesus to him. All was ordered by God. He was reading what was immediately connected with the sufferings of the Lord; and by the power of the Spirit the explanation of the passage is sent him by the mouth of Philip. The eunuch, with the heart prepared by grace, and already having faith in the word, becomes a Christian. He is baptized by Philip, and goes on his way rejoicing. It is remarkable that the name of Christianity remains to this day in that country, much corrupted (it is true), but in the form which this man implanted. They believe as to the profession of Christ, but practise circumcision—(verse 37 is not authentic). The Spirit of the Lord catches away Philip, and by the miraculous power of God he is found at Azotus. Time and space are nothing to God. From Azotus he evangelises in all the cities till he comes to Caesarea. Further on we find him stationed with his family at this city. He had by this time obtained the fair name of Evangelist.
We have glanced at the history of the free activity of the Spirit in those who were dispersed by the persecution, in Stephen, and in Philip. Then follows the deeply interesting narrative of Saul and of his conversion. In that of Stephen we saw that man had reached the extreme end of his iniquity, not only in crucifying the Lord, but in refusing the offer of grace, and of His return in virtue of the Saviour’s intercession on the cross. There, for the first time, we find Saul; but he is not content with this quiet hatred. “And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, and desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that, if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.”
He is the apostle, of his own will, of hatred against Christ, and of the persecution of God’s children. Now the Lord allowed this, in order to make him the witness and apostle of the sovereign grace which opened his eyes, converted and pardoned him. Here it is evidently sovereign grace meeting the fury of the ardent enemy of truth and grace, who sought, as he himself says, to destroy Christianity, and banish the name of Christ from the face of the earth. While occupied in this very purpose, the Lord stops him on his way, and reveals Himself to his soul, and also to his eyes, so that he might be an eye-witness of His glory. A light from heaven shone round about him— “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”
But two very important truths are contained in this remarkable scene. The Lord’s glory is revealed. Saul had not seen the Lord—had not followed Him when present in the flesh. The twelve apostles had known Him in the days of His flesh, and had seen Him disappear in the cloud; they knew by faith that He was seated at the right hand of God, but they could not be eye-witnesses of His glory. It is then that Paul begins. He saw the Lord’s glory, but knew not who He was. One thing he was certain of—the glory and the voice of the Lord Himself had appeared to him. He asks therefore, “Who art thou, Lord? “Then the Lord replies, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.” He was not a man of the earth, nor the Messiah gone up to heaven, but the Lord of glory recognising Himself still as Jesus, and also Jesus of Nazareth.
The starting-point of the doctrine is different: the same redemption, the same Saviour; but the revelation given to the twelve is that the man Jesus is gone up to heaven; God has exalted Him. The revelation given to Saul is that the Lord of glory is Jesus of Nazareth. It begins with heavenly glory; then, in the second place, that all Christians are united with Himself, members of His body. This doctrine is not unfolded but it is not said, “Why persecutest thou My disciples?” as a doctor or a rabbi, but “Why persecutest thou me?” And this is the Lord of glory. “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.”
Such are the fundamental points in the history of Paul, the enemy of the Lord of glory, converted, pardoned, justified, necessary witness of sovereign grace. The gospel of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, of the glory of the Lord, is confided to him; then the truth of the union, of the unity of Christians with Christ, glorious Head in heaven. Peter preached that God had glorified Him whom the Jews had crucified, and invited the rebels to come to God by the sacrifice which he had perfected; and to those who repented Jesus would return. Saul preached that this salvation was for all men; and that God, as Saviour, could not limit Himself to the narrow bounds of Israel, but that He announced Himself to the whole creation under heaven; then, that the assembly of God was united to Jesus, His body.
We shall see that God did not permit disunion, but desired that there should be a single assembly. But it is not the less true that Paul was a witness that there was no difference, that all men were lost, all children of wrath, one just as another; and that Jesus, by the gift of the Holy Ghost, had united all in one body—a truth which the Jews (and also the Christian Jews) always resisted, tormenting the apostle in his work. Peter himself dissimulated, so that all the Christian Jews, led by his authority, which was only the fear of man, sided with him. Not one of the apostles speaks in his epistles of the assembly, the body of Christ on earth, save only Paul. The glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; sovereign grace, by which he was the example to all those who should afterwards believe in Christ Jesus; and the whole in virtue of the cross— such was the gospel confided to Paul.
His travelling companions were witnesses to the truth of the vision, but did not know of the revelation confided to Paul. The bright light shone around them, but they did not see the Lord. They heard a voice, but not the words of Him who spoke. Paul was a witness of that which he had seen and heard. Paul’s companions were able to testify to the vision, which was a real thing, and not an invention of Paul for his own glory. The whole was confirmed by the mission of Ananias, to whom the Lord revealed what had happened, sending him to Saul to open his eyes, and receive him into the Christian assembly by baptism, and by the gift of the Holy Ghost; for the sudden light had blinded Saul.
God had drawn him away from all communication with the outside world, in order that he might be entirely occupied with his soul, and with the state in which he found himself. In fact his situation was without a parallel. Externally he was a man without spot, of irreproachable reputation according to the law; he had a good conscience. He believed it his duty to do much against the name of Jesus, and he did it. The authorities of the religion of the fathers encouraged and sent him, in every way supporting him in what he did with such zeal; conscience, legal justice, religion, all that formed his moral life, had made him the fierce enemy of the Lord of glory. But at one blow all the foundations of his moral life were ruined. It was by these very foundations that he became the enemy of the Lord, and resisted the Spirit who called men to repentance by the testimony rendered to His glory. Saul had assisted in an active way in this opposition, when the Jews stoned Stephen. But this did not satisfy him. His zeal required that he should persecute also those who believed in distant parts. Thus occupied he meets with the Lord, whose name he was seeking to extirpate. He was therefore the head, the chief, of sinners; in ignorance it is true, but nevertheless willingly. Where was his good conscience according to man? Where his legal justice? Where his religion, of which the priests and religious authorities had for him been supreme before? All had led him to discover himself an enemy of fiery zeal to the Lord, face to face with whom he found himself now, but still the object of His grace, at the very moment when he was occupied so thoroughly in destroying His glory. What a revulsion! What an overturning in his heart! Who can tell what passed in him during those three days?
And yet the Lord does not send Ananias to him till this internal moral work was completed. Old things have passed away, and now all things have become new in his soul, in the bottom of his thoughts; all is of God who has revealed Himself in the glory of the face of Jesus Christ. He is no longer a Jew, although he may be one externally: but he has not become a Gentile; joined to the Lord of glory, Jesus Christ, he knows henceforth no man any more after the flesh. He knows the Lord, he knows His people as united with Him, Gentiles and Jews alike lost sinners, children of wrath; but he knows the sovereign grace towards himself which has called him, has revealed the Son of God to him, and has given him eternal life, even while engaged in destroying His name. All was grace, pure and sovereign grace, grace which went so far as to make of Christians one body with Christ in heaven, and to give them to know it. How marvellous the revelations we find unfolded in the epistles of the apostle! The gospel of the glory of Christ is easily understood when we realise how and when the apostle was converted.
But it is worth while considering some of the circumstances which accompanied the conversion of the apostle. The Lord made use of a converted Jew, hated by his countrymen, to convey to Paul the formal testimony of His grace, and receive him into the bosom of the assembly, in order that, as we before said, he might never more fear, the vision having passed away that might be mistaken. Here is a quiet man who had received a communication from the Lord, fully confirming what had happened to Saul. Moreover, Saul is made by another revelation to expect Ananias so that he may receive his sight by the laying on of his hands.
But I should like to call attention to still other circumstances —the full liberty, and, one may say, the familiarity with which Ananias speaks to the Lord (with reverence and submission, of course); and, in the same way, the Lord with him. When the Lord calls him, he replies immediately, “Here am I.” Nevertheless the Lord, the Man who interests Himself in His own as friends whom He loves, speaks with an open heart to Ananias; shewing him not only the way, the house where Saul was to be found, but that which was necessary to identify him, namely, that Saul prayed and that he had seen Ananias coming to him to lay hands on him and restore his sight—just as one tells a servant what to say, or to a friend what is in the heart.
Thus the Lord took knowledge of what Paul was doing, and speaks of it to Ananias. And we see in the answer of Ananias a perfect trust in this goodness of the Lord. He begins to reason with the Lord. He had heard that this man was come to bind those who called upon the name of the Lord. And the Lord does not reprove him. Of course he had to go and do what the Lord desired; but He explains the matter to him, and communicates to him His thoughts concerning Saul, that he was a chosen vessel to bear His name, and that He would shew him what things he should suffer for His name’s sake. In a word the Lord opens His heart to Ananias, as a to friend whom He treats with full confidence, speaks naturally, but confidingly tells all He feels to Ananias.
It is very important to remember that Jesus is always man. If He were not God, His humanity would have no value; but, being God, the fact that He interests Himself in us as a man, as men whom He is not ashamed to call His brethren, is infinitely precious. He can feel with us, take part in all our circumstances, trials, difficulties, and troubles. He loves us as the Father loved Him, a man and Son on the earth. His love has divine perfection, but He feels as a man, as a man on the earth, tempted in like manner as we are apart from sin. He is ever a man; He thinks of us as One who has passed through all these things with divine love and human sympathy. Not only does He know everything as God, but He has had the experience of a man. Precious truth, unfathomable grace!
We have no need of saints—if they could hear us—to move His heart to favour us, to render His love warmer, His interest more profound, or His knowledge of our condition more intimate. But He has had the experience on purpose to be able to understand and sympathise with His own in every circumstance of the life of God in man on the earth. How great is the intensity of the Saviour’s love! How near to us! How intelligent and intimate is His heart in the conflict of faith! He knows all, feels all, and is with us in everything to help us. Blessed be His love!
It is possible that He may not reveal Himself to us in visions, but His heart is not colder to us than to Ananias; His wisdom is not diminished; His willingness is not weakened to help us, neither is His arm shortened. The intimacy and the confidence of our hearts ought to be the same to tell Him everything; certain it is that His ear is open to listen to us.
Thus sent and encouraged, Ananias obeys, goes in perfect confidence towards him who not long before breathed out threatenings and slaughter against the Christians; and lays his hands on him, saying, “Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou earnest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.” Saul immediately receives his sight, and rises, is baptized, eats, and walks with the disciples at Damascus. Without delay he preaches Christ in the synagogues, declaring Him to be the Son of God. Although the lion had become a lamb, yet he had not lost his energy; but his object is different; now he preaches what he had formerly sought to destroy. The subject of his preaching differs a little from that of Peter, and responds to the revelation of Christ, which was made to him. Peter preached that God had exalted the Jesus whom they had rejected; Saul, that Christ was the Son of God.
But the pungency of Saul’s preaching stirs up the animosity of the Jews. It is always the religious who oppose the truth, because their own importance and traditions are compromised. The rancour of the flesh, particularly in religious things, knows of no giving way. They seek to stone Saul, making conscience and religion their plea. But God watches over His servant; their plot is made known to Paul; and, while they wait day and night for him at the gates, the disciples take him by night, and let him down over the wall in a basket. Thus he escapes out of men’s hands.
The following verse (26), does not, I think, apply to an immediately succeeding period. When, however, he arrives at Jerusalem, they are still afraid of him, not yet knowing all that has happened to him; but the good Barnabas introduces him to the apostles, and makes known to them the whole truth of his conversion. Here again the apostle bears faithful witness, and again religious men seek to put him to death. But the time had not yet arrived for his own special mission. The brethren bring him down to Caesarea, and he sets out for Tarsus, his native city.
The narrative now returns to the work of Peter. Although Saul was called to preach the gospel to the nations, and was set apart to this mission by a special dispensation of God founded on a more perfect revelation, which left the Jews behind as sinners by nature as well as the Gentiles, and taught that there was no difference, since all had sinned, bringing in the new creation, and knowing Christ no more after the flesh; yet there were not to be two assemblies; the oneness of the church was to be maintained.
Peter is employed, after the conversion of Saul, to bring the first Gentile to the knowledge of Christ. But he never taught what the church was as the body of Christ: this is not revealed in the case of Cornelius. That the Gentiles should take their place among the Christians. without becoming Jews, or being circumcised, was something that Peter and the other Jews had great difficulty in believing.
As to the progress of the gospel, let us see what is taught us in the sequel. We shall find that those who had been scattered, being Hellenists, or Jews who had lived in foreign countries, and were accustomed to maintain daily intercourse with the Gentiles, spoke with these: so that the free action of the Spirit also communicated by this means the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul had a new formal mission to every creature under heaven, and then he taught what the assembly was—a truth set forth by no other. See Colossians 1. And he himself was to be a member of the assembly, already founded and established on Christ, which was His body, the habitation of God through the Spirit, though he alone taught this doctrine.
It is not without importance to remark that the Romish system is founded on the authority of Peter, and draws all its pretensions from him; but the doctrine of the church was never confided to Peter. Peter was not the apostle of the uncircumcision, but of the circumcision (Gal. 2); full of power for the work among the Jews, he left that among the Gentiles entirely in the hands of Paul. Peter does not speak of the body of Christ, we who are Gentiles; and the instrument whom God adopted to establish the church among the Gentiles was Paul; 1 Cor. 3.
The foundation is one, that is, Christ; the gospel of salvation, one (1 Cor. 15:2). Moreover, God Himself founded the assembly on the day of Pentecost by the gift of the Holy Ghost; but, as a human builder, Paul it was whom God employed to establish the church among the Gentiles, and unfold what it was. The other apostles never speak of the body of Christ, nor of the presence of the Holy Ghost on the earth. Peter then goes about continually, and the power of God manifests itself in him. Apneas is healed; Tabitha is restored to life. The effect, however, of the first miracle is greater than that of the second. All that dwell at Lydda and Saron, rich countries on the sea-shore, turn to the Lord. At Joppa many believe on Him; and there Peter tarries many days.
While Peter remains in Simon’s house, God is occupied with the Gentiles, of whom Peter was not thinking and, even when he did think of them, not at all disposed to admit them among the believing Jews. The angel of God appears to Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band, a devout man, faithful according to the knowledge he possessed, fearing God, and praying continually. He was then converted, but did not know that salvation which had been announced by grace in Jesus, obtained for us on the cross. There are many people who, though they may have learned more than Cornelius, and who bear the name of Christians, have not got beyond this state. These are like the prodigal son (Luke 15), when he repents and arises to go to his father. He was on the right way, but he did not know how he would be received by his father. Such people possess perhaps more light, but as to their relation with God, they are in the same state.
But the conversion of Cornelius, and his introduction to the Christian assembly, was evidently of great importance. The Gentiles were to participate in the grace and blessing of the gospel. The promises had been given to the Jews—none of them to the Gentiles; but the revelation of the grace of God could not be limited to one people. In His government of the world God could choose a people for Himself, when mankind had abandoned Him and had altogether fallen into idolatry, in order to maintain on the earth the knowledge of the one true God, and to put the heart of man to the test, shew what it was, and unfold His ways in the midst of mankind. But God, revealed in grace according to His nature, could not in any way be the God of a single nation.
Hidden behind the veil, He could give a perfect law, promises, and prophecies; but at the death of Christ the veil is rent in twain, God is fully revealed in grace and justice, and could no longer be the God of the Jews only. Moreover, at the death of Christ, the Jews as a nation were set aside till they should repent. Yes, it was God’s will that the Gentiles should take part in the new blessings of grace. All were sinners; but God purified by faith one as freely as another.
Independently of the Jews, He sends His angel to Cornelius. His prayers and alms are recognised as being acceptable to God. He is told to send men to Joppa to call for Simon, who, the angel tells him, lodged with one Simon, a tanner. He would tell him what he ought to do. Here is a new and important fact. God was thinking about the Gentiles, and desired to admit them to the assembly without their becoming Jews or submitting to the law. Cornelius, a truly devout man, humble, and fearing God, acts immediately according to the word of the angel, and calls two of his servants and a devout soldier, and, having declared to them all that had happened, sends them to call for Peter.
As they travel, God prepares Peter’s heart for a mission, to accomplish which he, till then, had been by no means ready. But God desired to have the Gentiles. Peter was praying on the roof of the house where he lodged, and becoming very hungry, he would have eaten; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance and saw as it were a great sheet let down from heaven to earth, full of all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air, which it was not lawful for the Jews to eat. And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Rise, Peter, kill, and eat. Peter, faithful to Judaism, refuses to do so; he had never eaten anything common or unclean. Then the voice said to him, What God hath cleansed, that call thou not unclean.
As Peter seeks for the interpretation of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius come to the door and ask for him; and the Spirit tells Peter to go with them, doubting nothing; for, said the Spirit, I have sent them. Peter, therefore, brings them in and lodges them, and on the morrow goes away with them, only taking the precaution of getting certain brethren to accompany him. Arrived at Cassarea, Cornelius throws himself at his feet as the messenger of God. Peter lifts him up, and asks for what reason he had sent for him.
Many relations and intimate friends of Cornelius were gathered together. All doubt as to the meaning of the vision was now removed. By the authority of God Himself, Peter found himself in the society of the Gentiles, which was unlawful for the Jews. He acknowledges God’s willingness to receive those that feared Him and worked righteousness among all nations, not only among the Jews. While Cornelius and his friends listen with godly faith, he recounts the mission of Jesus, how the Jews had crucified Him, and God had raised Him up, of which thing the apostles were the witnesses, having eaten and drunk with Him after His resurrection; the proof that He was still a true man, though He possessed then a spiritual body, and that He was the same Jesus whom they had known alive on the earth. At the end of the Gospel of Luke, the basis of every record of the Acts, it is remarkable, how Jesus in perfect grace, takes pains to make the disciples certain that He was the same Jesus whom they had known. There we are told, that He ate and drank in order to demonstrate it (Luke 24:36, etc.). “And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet. And while they yet believed not for joy and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat? And they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and of an honeycomb; and he took it, and did eat before them,” Luke 24:40-43.
Still the principal thing remained. Cornelius was already converted, devout, faithful, and full of the fear of God, according to the light he possessed. But he did not know salvation, the work of the Saviour, and its efficacy. Led only by the grace of God, he received with faith what Peter told him. Now it was declared to him that, according to the testimony of all the prophets, he who believed in Jesus received the remission of his sins. The Holy Ghost seals by His coming this truth received with simple faith into the hearts of Cornelius and his friends. The Holy Ghost is given then to the Gentiles, without their becoming Jews or being circumcised. Henceforth it was impossible not to receive them into the Christian assembly. God had received them, and had put His seal on them. Peter commands them to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
We have here four distinct points: the conversion of the soul by grace (Cornelius was already converted, and his prayers and alms accepted by God); then the testimony of the remission of his sins by faith in Jesus, the victim by whom propitiation was made for us on the cross; then the seal of God in the gift of the Holy Ghost; and, finally, the formal reception among the Christians. This order is not that which is found elsewhere; because God was here shewing that it was His will that the Gentiles should be received. But it is important to distinguish the four things, and to observe the true force of each of them.
The difficulty to the Jews of receiving the Gentiles was a great one. To do so was to give up all their privileges, all that remained of the ancient glory of Israel. Peter therefore, on his return to Jerusalem, is reproved; he had eaten with the Gentiles. Peter narrates all that had happened, and how God had given them the gift just as to believing Jews; how then could he hinder God? The Spirit had sent him to the Gentiles; the Spirit had been given to them. It was the accomplishment of the words of John the Baptist; and other brethren were witnesses to the gift of the Holy Ghost. The Jews could no longer resist the clear evidence of the will of God. Grace overcoming in their hearts, they exclaim, “Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.”
It is important to ponder deeply the difference between conversion and salvation. I have already spoken on this subject, but it is one that is so much neglected, and Christians are so accustomed to be content with a low state of soul, and are so uncertain with regard to salvation, that I shall take the opportunity of adding a few more words. Cornelius was already converted; his prayers and alms were acceptable to God. He was to call for Peter, who would tell him words whereby he might be saved. God had been working in his soul, but he did not yet know the value of the work accomplished by the Saviour. It is the same in the case of the woman in Luke 7; she loved the Lord deeply, had felt the height of His grace and the depth of her sins; but knew not that all was pardoned. The Lord tells her so. The prodigal son was converted, confessed his sins, and turned towards his father, but he was not yet clothed with the best garment. His father had not yet fallen on his neck, he knew not his love; he hardly hoped to be admitted as a servant, and was not in a fit state to enter into the house. Every privilege awaited him, but he did not possess them.
I doubt not that He who has begun the good work will continue it till the day of Christ Jesus. As long as a soul reasons about its state, seeks to know whether it is saved or converted, and judges by its own heart of what is in the heart of God, it is under law; salvation for such an one depends on his own state, not on the love of God and the efficacy of the work of Christ. He may perhaps say he is truly converted; he feels the need of salvation, and believes that others have found it; but he does not himself possess it; just as Israel was not out of the land of Egypt till the sea was crossed. Two things, which cannot be separated, are necessary; faith in the work of Christ, and the knowledge that it is finished. I say they cannot be separated, because, when we believe in the work of Christ, and by faith trust in it, we are sealed by the Holy Ghost; we enjoy peace (the love of God being shed abroad in our hearts), we are reconciled to God, and in Christ are made meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in fight; and we know it by the Holy Ghost given to us. In spirit we are in the Father’s house, partaking of the food with which He nourishes His beloved children. Not only has the heart turned towards God, but Christ is our righteousness, who also appears for us continually before the face of God.
Before the narrative of the mission of the apostle Paul, we find once more the free activity of the Holy Ghost in all the members of the body of Christ. Those who had been dispersed by the persecution raised against the Christians on the death of Stephen were preaching everywhere, but for the most part to the Jew only. It never occurred to them that the grace and the thoughts of God could overstep the limits of His people after the flesh. A few of them, however, who, living in Gentile districts (especially at Antioch), daily came in contact with the Gentiles and desired their salvation also, preached the Lord Jesus to them. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number, having believed, were converted to the Lord.
Thus we find that no sooner is the unity of the assembly secured by the admission of Cornelius to it by means of Peter—he first making use of the keys of the kingdom to admit, according to the Lord’s promise, the Gentiles also— than the free action of the Spirit is reproduced. The gospel is spread among the nations, not by means of Peter, nor of Paul, who afterwards became the great minister of God towards the Gentiles, but by means of the faithful, stirred up by the love of Christ reigning in their hearts, and giving them the desire that His name should be glorified. It was not a question of ordination, nor of human consecration. All, except the apostles, had been scattered, and all were preaching. That there are especial gifts is evident in the word, but it was love to Christ and souls that opened their mouths.
And observe, the fact is not merely recorded in the word, but their activity is approved by the Lord. “The hand of the Lord was with them.” The gospel was first preached to the Gentiles by private Christians, moved by the grace of God to communicate to others the blessing which they themselves enjoyed; and they sought to establish the authority of Christ over mankind, and glorify His name—an important principle clearly demonstrated in this narrative.
Let us bear in mind that the first dissemination of the gospel among the nations was effected, not by means of official preachers, but by ordinary Christians, not sent out by men; but moved by love to Christ. Subsequently Paul was sent expressly by the Holy Ghost, and received apostolic gifts; but he was not sent by the other apostles but directly by God and by Jesus Christ, by means of the Holy Ghost. Moreover, in the providence of God, the free activity of Christians became the occasion of his mission. “Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem; and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch: who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord. For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith; and much people was added unto the Lord.” Then Barnabas goes to seek for Paul, whom the brethren had brought to Caesarea, from whence he had gone to his native city, Tarsus. We have seen that Barnabas was a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, but he was not a man capable of taking the initiative, of starting and maintaining such a work as that of the conversion of the Gentiles. Thus, though blessed by God, he is not His instrument for this work. He was himself conscious of this, and so, with kindness and simplicity of heart, and doubtless led of God, seeks the instrument chosen and called by God. He had already introduced him to the Jews at Jerusalem, who were afraid of their late persecutor.
The power of Saul’s call had separated him from everything to be for Christ alone. He awaited only the formal message from the Lord, a new source of courage and the effect of the spirit of humility and obedience. In our times, it is a difficulty that there is no clear and open call like that of Saul, but we have seen that all were free to evangelise; and moreover that they were bound to accomplish the work according to the strength of the love of Christ working in their hearts. And if there is a special gift, this gift is unfolded in the exercise of it. Besides, we have the promise and the precept, “If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth liberally, and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him.” Such were the first disseminators of the gospel among the Gentiles. Apostolical gifts are indeed wanting, and that is a great loss; but it is an honour to be thus dependent on God, and that activity should be the fruit of the spiritual state. We shall experience our own weakness, but also the unwavering faithfulness of God. We have also the warning of the same James, “Be not many masters.” The word of God is enough for all times; if it is not enough for us, it will be for our condemnation. The grace of God must work in us. Let us bear it in mind.
We see, however, the greatest liberty in the exercise of the ministry. Barnabas seeks Saul; Paul takes Silas, Timothy, and others; he wished Apollos to go to Corinth, but Apollos did not wish to go there. Saul then, and Barnabas, exercise their ministry together; they assemble themselves with the church, and teach much people. It was thus that a Christian assembly was founded at Antioch, the capital of the Gentile world in that quarter, and the point from which the Grecian world was evangelised.
But it was important that this assembly should not be separated from that of Jerusalem, and so we are suddenly taken back to that city. It is still lovingly recognised; and we shall see that God makes use of the very strength that sought to bring the Gentiles under subjection to the law, to set them free, maintain unity, and preserve liberty. Now the union is strengthened by the fruits of love. A prophet (and there were such in the new assembly) announces that there should be a great dearth throughout all the world; and the disciples determine to send aid to the brethren in Judaea; which is done by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.
The Spirit now takes us back to Jerusalem. He was willing to forget neither it nor the testimony of God found there. The Spirit here records an event which sets forth the care that God, in His providence, had of His own (and especially, by means of the angels, for Peter), working in them by His Spirit. He permits that James, the brother of John, should succumb to the malice of Herod, the enemy of the gospel. That this was pleasing to the Jews gave the king a further pretext for continuing in the path of his opposition. Little mattered the death of a few Christians, if their death gave him popularity with the Jews. He therefore seized Peter and put him in prison, purposing after the feast of the passover to give him up to the people.
But the thoughts of God were otherwise. The night before he was to be led out to the people, Peter slept in perfect peace under the protection of God, although, so that the hand of God might be shewn in his liberation, he was strongly guarded by men. He slept between two soldiers, bound with two chains. Sentinels before the door guarded the prison likewise. But we are more secure in the hands of God than when exposed to the violence of men, even though they may seem to have us firmly enough in their grasp.
The angel awakens Peter, and at the sound of his voice the chains fall from his hands. Every detail is minutely recorded. At the word of the angel Peter binds on his sandals and girds himself. The care of the angel is most minute. And when, after having passed the two guards, they reached the outer gate, it opens to them of itself. The angel accompanies Peter through one street, and then disappears. Peter, who till this moment imagined he saw a vision, now becomes conscious that God has delivered him from the hands of Herod and from the expectation of the Jews. Observe here how visions resembled the reality, since Peter believed the reality to be a vision. Thus, considering the things, he comes to die house of Mary, the mother of Mark, a place probably often the scene of the meetings of the Christians. It was the home of the sister of Barnabas. Mark had gone with Barnabas on his separation from Paul: but Mark is again found in Colossians; and in 2 Timothy 4:11 his service is recognised as profitable for the ministry. Sweet it is to see how grace, shut out for a while by failure, hastens to recognise the brother brought back to the path of devotedness, and to renewed usefulness in the work of the Lord.
Peter does not remain there, but, telling them to make known to James what has occurred, departs and goes to another place. But here we shall do well to remark a few particulars. The refuge of the faithful is in prayer. They had come together to ask God for the preservation of Peter, and God had heard their prayer. They did not know how, but they had put trust in God. It seemed to be the natural resource of the hearts of these believers; and the feeling was a common one. In the difficulty which had occurred, the danger of the beloved apostle, they meet together to look to God. Prayer was given to their hearts by the Holy Ghost as a refuge in adversity; and though they might not know how God would respond, yet they were always answered according to His own counsels. Peter is set free according to their desire; but we see how little the heart, though by grace it may have confidence in God and turns to Him in its need, believes that its supplications will be granted. Here their need had been expressed to God, but when the answer came, they could not believe it was possible.
Peter is set free by the intervention of the angel, and Herod is struck by the judgment of God when he sets himself up against Him. Can we expect similar intervention now? I do not believe that miracles are performed to-day; angels no longer appear; it was not a gift that could continue. In Ephesians 4 no miraculous gifts are to be found. But I fully believe, according to the Lord’s promise, that prayer is heard, and that the angels work in favour of the children of God as much now as in those early times. As to prayer, the word of God is clear. The condition is made, however, that what we ask be according to the will of God, and that prayer be made in faith; and we are told that, if the words of Christ abide in us, we shall ask what we will.
The Lord and the apostles exhort us to prayer without ceasing, in confidence, never letting our faith fail. We do well if we make known our requests to God in every case; but it does not follow that we shall always receive what we ask—as, for example, it happened to Paul with regard to the thorn in his flesh. For him it would not have been good for God to have answered him. But the result of our prayers is that the peace of God which passes knowledge shall keep our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus (Phil. 4). His throne is not disturbed, neither is His heart burdened by our solicitations; and the peace in which He dwells continually shall, when we have placed these requests on His throne, work effectually in our hearts. The outward manifestation of the power of God, the testimony rendered at the beginning to the word of God, does not repeat itself; but God’s care, His answers to prayer, and the blessed service of angels, still remain to the children of God. (For the angels, see Heb. 1:14.)
Here we find then God’s care for the assembly at Jerusalem; but we shall not again see any activity on the part of Peter. That such was to be the case is demonstrated by the fact of this intervention. We know that he went to Antioch, probably for the work of the Lord, but this is not stated. There he was unfaithful to the Lord, and is reproved by Paul. He wrote to the Jews in the provinces of Asia Minor, but it is not known whether he went there. It is possible that he lived in Babylon, but it is uncertain; many Jews lived there. In his epistle he salutes on the part of the saints there; but we possess no account of any of his doings. He was the first to introduce the Gentiles to the public Christian assembly, in order to preserve unity.
At this period ordinary Christians, in their dispersion, disseminated the truth among the Gentiles. Unity was still preserved; and the wisdom of God declared, by means of the assembly at Jerusalem, that the Gentiles were not under the subjection of the law. But as for Peter no more is heard regarding his activity; for the divine work was now to leave Jerusalem. He is fully recognised here by the care of the angels, but the power of the Holy Ghost is only found in Paul and in his companions. Antioch is the starting-point, and not Jerusalem; as for Rome, it is the last place where the church is established, and it was not founded there by the apostles. Before the arrival of Paul Christians, who, like many others, had gone to the capital of the world, met together there; and Paul wrote to them before going. What became of Peter is not recorded, and, save in chapter 15, where what he had previously done is mentioned, he now entirely disappears from the narrative. Paul, sent from Antioch by the Holy Ghost, is the instrument of God for the preaching of the gospel among the Gentiles, and to teach what the church was, the mystery which had been hid from ages and generations. See Colossians 1:23-27. It is his history which follows in chapter 13.
Barnabas and Saul, having accomplished their mission, return to Antioch, from whence they had gone to Jerusalem with the contribution for the poor. Now in the assembly at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers. These ministered to the Lord and fasted. While thus engaged, with hearts consecrated to the Lord; the Holy Ghost said— “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.” Doubtless the command was given by the mouth of one of these prophets, for this reason called such; but the important fact to remark is that these two apostles were called by the Spirit Himself.
Then, under the impression of the seriousness of the call, having again fasted and prayed, they laid their hands on them and sent them away. And it was on a mission of the greatest importance. The gospel, and the revelation of the assembly, is now formally given to the Gentiles, they and the Jews, as believers, being united in one body on the earth and for the heavens. Let us consider a few particulars.
Already Paul had been called by the revelation and the authority of Christ, and more precisely by the revelation of a glorified Christ. Saul had not known Christ on the earth. Of this we have spoken. He had been separated both from the Jews and from the Gentiles. As regards religion, he did not belong to the one class any more than to the other, but was united to a risen and glorified Christ. Henceforth he knew no man after the flesh, not even Christ—that is, as a Jew who awaited a Christ on the earth, according to the promises given to the nation. As a witness called by God his starting-point was the glory—Christ in heavenly glory, the same who had suffered by the hands of those who were still persecuting His members on the earth. For him the cross was the end of his Adamic and Judaic life. He was dead to the world, to the flesh, to the law. He laboured as an apostle of, and one who belonged to, a new creation.
Moreover, he drew neither his authority nor his mission from the apostles who preceded him; his mission did not even originate at Jerusalem, and was not dependent on the sanction of the apostles there, nor of the church at that place. His mission was given directly from God and from Christ. Personally called by Christ three years before, he is now sent by the Holy Ghost, and departs from Antioch, a Gentile city, from the bosom of an assembly where the Gentiles had first gathered together. He did not go to or from another assembly. The superstition and legality of the Jews very nearly did so, but God did not permit it, as we shall see. His mission was nevertheless entirely independent; it was dependent on the authority of Christ alone, and on the power of the Holy Ghost. The apostle insists much on this point in the first two chapters of the epistle to the Galatians.
He desired to be absolutely independent of Peter and the others; and not only did he assert his having been sent from God Himself, but he was obliged to rebuke Peter, who, for fear of those who came from Jerusalem, had been unfaithful to the truth and to his own convictions. Paul was free from all men, subject to Christ, and in love the servant of all; a model and example for all Christians, as indeed he himself tells us. He fully recognised the mission of Peter to the Jews, as well as that of the other apostles; but though he preached the same gospel as they, his mission was directly from God Himself.
Barnabas and Saul are not only called, but sent by the Holy Ghost. They depart therefore to Seleucia, and from thence sail to Cyprus. But here the state of the work is manifested—a new aspect of affairs. The Gentiles are disposed to listen. Judgment falls on the Jews for a time, on account of their opposition to the gospel, especially on its proclamation to the Gentiles. See 1 Thessalonians 2:16. Till now all the light that was in the world the Jews possessed; but, having rejected the true and perfect Light of the world, they had fallen into darkness, and hated the light, and all the more because jealousy filled their hearts. The apostle never denied their privileges. In Salamis he began by preaching in their synagogues. He did not give up the Jews till the Jews rejected the gospel.
Now John Mark, the son of her in whose house the disciples had met together to pray for Peter, was with them. The relationships of the apostle were still Judaic, for, though himself free, Paul profoundly loved his nation as the people of God. Having gone through the island, they find with the governor a certain Jew, a false prophet. The governor, a prudent man, desires to hear the word of God. The sorcerer Elymas, however, withstands the apostles, seeking to turn the deputy away from the faith. But if the hurtful power of the enemy was with the sorcerer, the power of God was with the apostles. They strike the false prophet with blindness. Such is a remarkable picture of the state of the Jews, and of the power of God shewn in the propagation of the gospel. The deputy, astonished at the doctrine of the Lord, believes.
Saul now assumes the name of Paul, having (we are not told how) changed his Jewish name for a Roman one. The moment was a convenient one. The word literally signifies “to work”; but I do not think this is either the source or the intention of it.
After crossing the sea, John Mark leaves them. His relationship with Jerusalem was too strong for him, and the difficulties and dangers of the work of the apostles too great for his faith. Barnabas was his uncle; Cyprus, the country of Barnabas. Alas! how many there are whose faith depends on circumstances! They go on steadily while surrounded by these circumstances; but when the path leads to simple dependence on the faithfulness of God, their steps at once begin to flag.
The power of the Spirit of God creates His instruments, and adapts each for His work; and, set forth by the energy of the Spirit, they are sustained by His power in the midst of all circumstances, whatever they may be. We shall see that even Barnabas could not continue always with Paul, nor consent to know no longer any man after the flesh. But it is sweet to see how, as I have already said, Paul in the end recognises Mark as profitable for the ministry (2 Tim. 4:11). So Mark goes away, and Barnabas and Paul continue their journeying in strange lands, where the gospel is unknown.
Leaving Perga, they come to another Antioch, in Pisidia, where they enter into the synagogue of the Jews. Called on by the rulers of the synagogue to exhort the congregation (for the ministry was freer among the Jews than in modern Christian churches), they announce Jesus and the resurrection. Let us notice certain points in this address. As was generally the case, it was composed of facts. The apostle briefly relates the history of Israel till the time of David; and then lays down the two fundamental parts of the gospel—namely, the fulfilment of the promises, and the powerful intervention of God in the resurrection of Christ, by which He was shewn to be the Son of God. In this way also he begins the Epistle to the Romans. All the narratives of the Acts depend on the mission given at the end of Luke. The subjects are repentance and remission of sins. For Israel the way had been prepared by John the Baptist. Then God, according to His promise, raised up (not raised from among the dead) a Saviour.
But they of Jerusalem had accomplished all that the prophets had spoken, knowing neither the Saviour nor the voice of the prophets, which, in crucifying Jesus, they had fulfilled. But God had raised Him from the dead, and He had been seen for many days by those who had accompanied Him from Galilee. Thus was the promise in Psalm 2 of the coming of the Son of God, the King of Israel, accomplished. But, we would add, as to the responsibility of Israel, it is lost on account of the rejection of Christ; yet on the part of God all the promises were firmly established in His resurrection according to Isaiah 55:3, and as to His person, the prophecy of Psalm 16 is accomplished. All that the Jews were now to receive was to be given in pure grace. On this foundation the doctrine of the gospel is established. The remission of sins is announced, and justification from all things, from which the law of Moses could not justify. The basis of the new covenant has been laid, and the blood of that covenant shed, though the covenant itself be not yet established. It will be with Judah and with Israel in the last days, but founded on what has been already accomplished.
The apostles then exhort their hearers not to neglect the salvation which had been announced to them. The fundamental truths of the gospel ever remain the same; the remission of all sins to believers; the person of Christ proved to be the Son of God by His resurrection; and the fulfilment of the promises made to Israel, though that people be for a time set aside. But this justification being for believers, it was for the Gentiles also.
The Gentiles then ask that these words may be preached to them on the next sabbath. The fame of this new doctrine quickly spreads, and nearly the whole city comes together to hear it. But the poor Jews, moved with jealousy, cannot bear to be surpassed in religious influence, and that another religion than theirs should work on the Gentiles. Oh, poor human heart, always stronger in religious people! The truth it has already believed in (and believed in because received by many, themselves unconverted; and because, besides being the truth, it does them honour to profess it) does not put the heart to the test. But truth is always truth, even though it be not received by the many; it does put the heart to the test, and must be received only because God gives it.
The Jews now begin to contradict and to blaspheme. Paul at once takes his stand, and acknowledging that the gospel ought first to be preached to the Jews, as heirs of the promises, openly declares that he turns to the Gentiles, taking the remarkable prophecy in Isaiah 49 as the commandment of the Lord. There the Spirit presents Israel as the nation in which God should be glorified. But then the Messiah had laboured in vain, for Israel was not gathered in. Still it was but a small thing to bring back the tribes of Israel; the Messiah should be a light to the Gentiles, and the salvation of God to the ends of the earth. On the ground of this declaration of the will of God, the apostles turn to the Gentiles.
Such was free grace, poured out on all, leaving the strict confines of Judaism, and directing itself to the whole world. But still the grace of God, mingled with faith, was necessary to make the truth enter the heart, so that it might be born of God. This is what happens here. The power of God accompanied the word and “as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” The result is this:—opposition on the part of the Jews, testimony throughout all the earth (except at Jerusalem, chap. 15), and the operation of grace in the heart, whereby it is led to the acceptance of the gospel.
Already, on the first sabbath day, many Gentiles and proselytes had followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God. The Jews, however, on account of their failure, are put aside. The spiritual energy of Paul now places him at the head of the work. Till this moment it has been Barnabas and Paul; henceforth we shall find Paul and Barnabas.
The gospel is shed abroad in all these regions; but the opposition of the Jews increases. They “stirred up the devout and honourable women, and the chief men of the city, and raised persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them out of their coasts.” Similar scenes are enacted everywhere. By the permission of God (He, however, still holding the reins in His own hand) the devotees of the old religion, and the devout women, with the chief men under their influence, seek to cast out the gospel. The apostles shake off the dust from their feet, in testimony of the justice awaiting those who rejected the grace and salvation of God. “And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Ghost.”
Such is the varied picture of the work of the gospel in the world, and the first public exhibition of its result, when announced in the face of the opposition of the old religion, which still exercised its power over unconverted hearts, in presence of the need and unbelief of mankind. And such, in spite of conflicts and difficulties, is the power of the gospel under the influence of the Holy Ghost. It is first preached to the Jews, because they had the promises; then it is given to the Gentiles, because all believers are justified by faith in Christ. A dead and risen Christ is for all. Opposition springs up from the hatred of the Jews, of the devout women according to the old religion, and of the principal men of the city. Judgment, though not executed, is pronounced; and then grace, working in the hearts of the believers, leads them to faith and joy in the presence of the Spirit, those who do not believe being left under judgment. Expelled from Antioch, the apostles prosecute their labours elsewhere.
At Iconium many believed, but the Jews renewed their efforts against the gospel. As God worked by the word, however, the apostles abode there a long time. But, the city being divided, and their adversaries desirous of doing them injury, they set out for Lystra and Derbe, where they preach the gospel, as also in the regions round about. At Lystra the power of God was manifested by the hand of Paul in healing a cripple who had never walked. Here we find that the faith of the cripple had to go with his restoration; in other cases this does not appear, the cure being effected by the power of God alone, by him who was His instrument.
The people, astonished by the miracle, call Barnabas Jupiter, and Paul Mercury, because he was the chief speaker. Barnabas (as Mercury was servant to Jupiter) is mentioned first in the narrative. The priest of Jupiter desires to do sacrifice with the people. The apostles, Barnabas and Paul, vexed in heart at seeing the purpose of the people, and far from desiring any honour for themselves, rend their clothes, and running in among the crowd to stop them, announce the one true God (not here salvation), who, till then, “had suffered all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.”
Such was the beautiful description of what God was, even among the Gentiles, and of what He gave to be known by them; I do not say that they did know Him, for they preferred the imaginations of their own hearts, and the gods who favoured their evil lusts. Nothing could be more horrible than what man shewed himself to be, when God left him, on account of his perversity, to himself. What they did every day in their idolatry is unfit to be written. The account of it may be found in Romans 1. The apostles seek to persuade the Gentiles of Lystra to give up their idols, and to believe in the one, true, and bountiful God, whom they had come expressly to declare to them, to lead them to His knowledge and to faith in Him. Scarcely, however, do they succeed in preventing the people from sacrificing to them.
But the Jews (not satisfied with having driven the apostles from Antioch and Iconium, and moved by an animosity, grievous to the heart, against the gospel) come to Lystra also, and persuade the people, who, ignorant and fickle, now seek to stone those whom, shortly before, they had been ready to adore. Paul, the more culpable in their eyes because the more active in the work, is stoned, and, apparently dead, is dragged out df the city. Such is man—such the religious, when they have not the truth; Paul himself had been such— but such also is the power of the gospel, when active in an unbelieving world.
But it was not in the thoughts of God that His servant should then perish. “As the disciples stood round about him, he rose up, and came into the city; and the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe.” Much blessed in this city, he goes on his way and returns to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, from whence he had been expelled. Outrage and violence neither impede the work nor enfeeble the courage of the servants. When the Lord so wills it, they return in peace to the very places from whence they have been driven. It is beautiful to see the calm superiority of faith over the violence of man, and how God conducts the heart of His servants. They submit to, or, if possible, avoid violence; but if the work requires it, God opens the door, and the labourers are there with it again.
Now another part of their work is here presented. They continue to preach the gospel; but it was now necessary to establish assemblies, and put them in regular order (v. 23). They give the disciples to understand that Christ was not come to bring peace on the earth which would meet with the opposition and enmity of the world, but that through much tribulation they must enter the kingdom of God. It was a warning for all times to make men understand that persecution was not a strange thing. “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” —not, however, all Christians. If a Christian conforms to the world, he will avoid persecution; but he will lose the joy of the Holy Ghost and communion with God; he will be saved as by fire, and an entrance into the eternal kingdom shall not be abundantly ministered to him. If we walk with God, we shall not be barren in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus.
I speak thus, because for many the time of open persecution has passed away; but, if we are faithful, we shall most surely experience persecution both from the world and from our own families. The world cannot tolerate faithfulness. If the Christian walk with the world, instead of winning the world to Christ, he himself gets at a distance from Him, and will lose, I do not say life, but his spiritual privileges, his joy, and the approval of Christ; and his testimony is against Christianity. By his ways he declares that the friendship of the world is not enmity against God. The Christian when with the world is in no respects at ease; and when in the company of spiritual Christians his conscience reproves him because he is walking badly, and that which is a joy to them, he cannot enter into. May all who are disposed to or in danger of being let to mingle with the ways of the world give heed to this exhortation!
The apostles chose elders for the assemblies in every city. It is neither chose by common vote, nor ordained; this is not the true rendering of the word, but “chose.” The same word is employed in 2 Corinthians 8:19, where the assemblies chose brethren to accompany Paul with the money collected for the poor of Jerusalem. The same word occurs again in Acts 10:41, where it is used in respect of God, and “chosen” is necessarily the sense. The apostles then chose elders for the assemblies. The epistle to Titus is another proof that the authority of the apostles was the source of that of the elders. I do. not dwell here, however, on this question, though it is an important one, since the ordinary translation leads to putting the truth in a false light.
We have not in these days apostolical authority; and election made by the assembly is a thing unknown to the word. The authority descended from Christ to the apostle, and from the apostle to the elder. The word Bishop, in its present acceptation, is also unknown in the word. All the elders are really called bishops, as in Acts 20:17, 28; no other bishops are found in scripture; and at the beginning Paul and Barnabas chose them for every assembly among the Gentiles, as afterwards Paul sent Titus to establish them in every town in the island of Crete.
It is important here to observe that the apostle not only preached the gospel for the salvation of souls, which was his principal work, but that he united the converts in assemblies, to which he was afterwards able to write; and that the church or assembly which he founded in every city was properly ordered and represented the universal assembly, of which those who in each place composed it were members (1 Cor. 12), with the promise that Jesus would be in the midst of them. But the wickedness of Christians, or of Christians so-called, and forgetfulness of Christ’s return (Matt. 24:48-50), have corrupted Christianity according to the prophecies of the New Testament. See 2 Tim. 3:1-5; Jude 4; 1 John 2:18, 19; Matt. 13:28-30. All is disorder, confusion, and corruption.
But we are here learning the primitive order, before the assembly became corrupted. John tells us that the last time has already come; and Paul that “the mystery of iniquity doth already work” (2 Thess. 2:7); Peter, that the hour has arrived to judge the house of God; Jude, that those who should be judged at the end had already crept in unawares.
The testimony is as clear as day, if we have ears to hear what is written in the word; that in the time of the apostles the corruption of the assembly of God had already commenced, and that, when the apostolic energy of Paul should be absent, evil from within and from without would inundate the church like a deluge. Matthew 13:29, 30, teaches us that the evil effected by the enemy in the kingdom of God should not be taken away till the judgment. It all exists still, while the patience of God gathers in His own.
Then, when they had prayed with fasting and had commended them that believed to the Lord, the apostles go down by Pisidia to the sea-shore, preach in Perga, and pass on to Antioch. Here we see the true force of what had been done in chapter 13:3. They had been recommended to the grace of God, for the work they had now fulfilled. This is repeated in chapter 15:40; so that Paul would have been twice ordained, if this had been ordination; and he would moreover have been an apostle ordained by the laity. This, however, he stoutly denies (Gal. 1:1); “an apostle,” he says, “not of men, neither by man.” The Judaizers sought to have it so, but he refuted it with all his power. These insisted that his mission was from the church at Jerusalem, and opposed him precisely because it was not. He was not willing to be an apostle at all, if not from God, and from Jesus Christ.
It is to Antioch they go, not to Jerusalem; they return to their starting-point, from whence they had been recommended to the grace of God. The work of the Holy Ghost connects itself with Antioch, in its earthly relationship; the power is all from above. There the apostles recount the great things which God had done for them, and how He had opened the door among the Gentiles. “And there they abode a long time with the disciples.”
In the preceding narrative we find this history of the preaching of the gospel among the Gentiles, by formal apostolic mission, the difficulties, the position of the Gentiles and of the Jews, the circumstances under which it was propagated in the world, and that independently of Judaism and of Jerusalem, a work in which Peter took no part. God worked mightily by him among the Jews; but, except that he was employed to introduce the first Gentile, he had nothing to do with them. He was the apostle of the circumcision, and with the other apostles formally gave up the work among the Gentiles to Paul and to Barnabas; Galatians 2.
But the Jews—those at least who made a profession of Christianity with Satan as their instrument—sought to place the Gentiles under the yoke of Judaism, and destroy the work of God within, if they could not hinder it without the church. They went down from Judaea to Antioch, teaching the brethren that they must be circumcised, and observe the law of Moses, in order to be saved. The moment was a critical one. It was necessary, according to them, that the Gentiles should submit to the law of Moses, and become Jews, or that two separate assemblies should be formed. Paul and Barnabas, however, oppose themselves to these exactions. But God did not permit the question to be settled at Antioch.
It will readily be understood, that, had the cause of the Gentiles been vindicated by a decision given at Antioch, and, in spite of the Jews, they had preserved their liberty, the danger would have been imminent of two assemblies being formed, and of unity being lost. All the spiritual and apostolical power of Paul therefore was insufficient to overcome the opposing spirit at Antioch, and decide the question. It was God’s will that it should be decided at Jerusalem, and that the Christian Jews themselves, the apostles, the elders, and the whole assembly, should pronounce the freedom of the Gentiles; and that thus holy liberty and unity should be secured. It is decided, therefore, that Barnabas and Paul shall go to Jerusalem concerning this matter. We learn from Galatians 2:2, that Paul went thither in obedience to direct revelation.
God permitted that these Jews, without mission, zealous without God for the law, the authority of which over the conscience had been terminated by the cross, should raise this question, so that it might be definitively settled. The apostles and elders, therefore, meet together. It seems that all the believers may have been present, since verse 12 speaks of the multitude; however it is the apostles and elders who meet together. Paul and Barnabas relate what has happened in their journey—the conversion of the Gentiles—and the brethren rejoice with great joy. Here the most simple hearts enjoy with simplicity the grace of God. But at Jerusalem they met with greater difficulty. Nothing could be more opposed to grace than the doctrine of the Pharisees, which asserted that righteousness must be obtained by works, and by the administration of ordinances.
Arrived at Jerusalem, they declare there also all things that God has done with them. But here God in His grace manifests the question as having been produced by the hardness of the heart; that is, that some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed demanded that the Gentiles should be circumcised. I do not believe, however, that it is Paul or Barnabas who relates this fact, which had happened at Jerusalem. The apostles and elders then meet together. After much disputing (for the principals, led doubtless by the Holy Ghost, were wise enough to allow all who thought themselves capable to give their opinion; and in order that after the thoughts of men the voice of God might be heard) Peter reminds the assembly how God had chosen him first to bear the gospel to the Gentiles, and that the Spirit had been given to Cornelius without his being circumcised; that God Himself had borne witness to them by the Holy Ghost just in the same way as to the believing Jews; that He had made no difference between them, purifying their hearts by faith. He acknowledges the yoke of the ordinances, and warns them not to tempt God by putting it on the neck of the Gentiles. For did not they themselves believe that they had been saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, and not by ordinances?
Then all the multitude kept silence, and Paul and Barnabas declared what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. (Here, at Jerusalem, Barnabas is always mentioned first; it is probable that he spoke more than Paul, relating what had been done. Paul had laboured more than any other; but at Jerusalem it was natural that Barnabas should be more forward than Paul.)
Then James, who held the first place at Jerusalem (see Acts 12:17; 21:18; Gal. 2:12), gives a summary of the judgment of the assembly, which no one opposes, and, by the aid of the Holy Ghost, a definite form to the thought of God, expressing His will respecting the Gentiles. The work of the Holy Ghost is here in the first place remarkable; and also His full liberty, so that all the thoughts of men are brought to light, and given utterance to. In the next place, what God proposed to reveal by Peter in the case of Cornelius; and then the wonders that had been wrought by the hands of Barnabas and Paul among the Gentiles. Such is what seemed good to the Holy Ghost, who was given to Cornelius, and who wrought also among the Gentiles with signs and wonders by the hands of those who were sent out from Him.
Then James (who, as we have seen, represented the Judaic spirit, and in whose mind the feelings of the assembly at Jerusalem concurred, but who was fully under the influence of the Holy Ghost) expresses the thought of that assembly, and of the eleven apostles of Jerusalem, whom we may call Judaic, the judgment of God on the vital question under consideration; namely, that the Gentiles should not be subject to the law of Moses. The word of the prophets supported this sentence, for they had declared that there should be Gentiles on whom the name of the Lord should be called. It is with this intention that he cites the past.
Thus the Gentiles were free. The things they had to observe were duties before the publication of the law. The worship of one God, and the purity of man, were always obligatory. Noah had been prohibited from eating blood, in testimony that the life belonged to God. These great principles are established by this decision—the abstaining from idols—that life belongs to God alone, purity of life in man. They were principles necessary for the Gentiles, and corrected their evil habits; principles recognised by the law, but which had not been distinctly laid down by it.
The assembly did not vote. All consented, under the influence of the Holy Ghost to what had been expressed. All agreed, apostles, elders, and the whole assembly, to send men chosen from among them to confirm by word of mouth the account of Barnabas and Paul, and the written decision which they took with them from Jerusalem. The apostles and elders assembled together to examine the question, but all the brethren joined with them in the letter sent to the Gentiles. Thus it was not the Gentiles who maintained their rights in spite of the assembly at Jerusalem, but by the wisdom and grace of God, the assembly at Jerusalem which acknowledges the liberty of the Gentiles as to the law; and unity is thus preserved.
We may add that it was not a general, or other assembly, for it was the assembly at Jerusalem, and the apostles and elders of that city, who met together, with a few from Antioch on the part of the Gentiles, to consider the question. The Councils, for many centuries called “general,” were convoked by the emperors to settle the disputes of the bishops: first in the east, on which occasions there were never more than six bishops present from the west; and afterwards when the Greek church separated from the Latin church, when there was no emperor from the west, councils being assembled by the popes without a single bishop from the east being present. These popes, without one bishop from the east, and profiting by the need of the emperor of the east who was menaced by the Turks, sought to unite the east to the west in the fifteenth century at Florence, but the attempt failed.
What we have here is that the apostle and the Judaic assembly, by which God had begun the work, set the Gentiles free from the law; and unity is preserved. We learn too how the Holy Ghost gives unity of thought concerning the questions which had arisen, since the gathering was waiting on the Lord. Thus is the liberty of the Holy Ghost preserved to the Gentiles, and, by the goodness of God the unity of the whole assembly maintained. It is declared that no commission had been given to those who had disturbed the Gentiles, subverting their souls. Subsequently, after much long-suffering on the part of God the Jews are called, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, to give up Judaism. The law and Christianity cannot be united.
Paul and Barnabas, then, taking leave of Jerusalem, come to Antioch, assemble the multitude, and give them the letter. The brethren, having read it, rejoice for the consolation. Thus was the state of the whole assembly settled, and also the relationship between the Jews and Gentiles. The necessary rule for them is established. They are to walk well, avoiding certain things. Judas and Silas remain for a time with the disciples at Antioch, exhorting them, and rejoicing in this new fellowship of the love of the assembly at Jerusalem for the brethren among the Gentiles. Then Judas leaves them, but Silas, drawn towards these new brethren, remains at Antioch. Paul and Barnabas also remain there, teaching the brethren; and many others likewise interest themselves on their behalf; for the power of the Holy Ghost was working in their midst. Life was fresh in those days.
After some time Paul, active and full of love, his work accomplished for the moment at Antioch, turns towards the gatherings he had founded, desiring to know how it fared with them. But now Barnabas, like Peter before him, disappears from the scene. Not that he no longer worked for the Lord, but he did not maintain himself at the same level of service of Paul. Eclipsed in the work when with him, now he disappears altogether. A good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith, he was yet not detached from everything as was Paul, for whom, according to his call on the way to Damascus, Christ glorified and His own was all in all.
This remarkable servant of God knew no longer anything after the flesh—a consecration necessary to the founder of the church of God. He had given up Judaism that he might become a minister of the economy of the church. See 1 Cor. 3:10; Eph. 3:1, 2; Col. 1:23-25. This economy had always existed in the counsels of God, but after the delay granted by His patience till the preceding mission of Paul from Antioch, which mission was then only put into execution, it is put on its true footing, on account of the attachment of Barnabas to things which were only objects of natural affection. John Mark was the son of the sister of Barnabas, and the island of Cyprus his native country; Col. 4:10; Acts 4:36.
Barnabas was quite disposed to accompany Paul in his journey, but he wished to take Mark with him; this, however, was displeasing to Paul, for Mark had left them in the preceding journey at Perga. He had not courage sufficient to confront the difficulties of the work outside of Cyprus. Paul only thought of God, Mark of the circumstances; but it is not thus that difficulties are to be overcome. It is possible that the flesh may have manifested itself in Paul; but at all events he could not boast of being in the right. Paul did not think of the economy entrusted to him, but of what according to faith suited the work—the principle of life and heart necessary to accomplish it. He did not know the results, but what was necessary to produce them. Separation was necessary, and that God had wrought out in him. Still acerbity was unnecessary. At the bottom Paul was right, and the hand of God was with him. Even where the purpose of the heart is just, the flesh may very soon manifest itself.
Barnabas separates himself, and sets out for Cyprus, his country, taking Mark, his nephew, for the work of the Lord, but no longer the companion of Paul in the work to which God had called him. We do not forget the real worth of Barnabas, a true servant of Jesus, to whom the Holy Ghost Himself has borne witness; only he was not suited to that work. We learn ourselves that a heart consecrated to the Lord, without other attachment, separated from everything, is alone suited to represent Christ in a ministry such as that of Paul, and indeed in every true ministry.
Affection is good, but it is not consecration. Woe to us if we have not natural affection—it is a sign of the last times (2 Tim. 3:8); but these are not suited to such a work, a work which demands that one should not know anything after the flesh. Natural affection is not the “new creation,” though fully recognised by God in Christ Himself, when He was not in the work; neither is natural affection the power of the Holy Ghost, which alone produces the effects of grace in the work of God.
Barnabas then goes his way; such was his will. Paul chooses Silas, and is recommended by the brethren to the grace of God—a second ordination if it were a question of that, but it is quite another thing. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches. Remark here that many had been formed where the apostle had not before been, as he found the first time he passed through the island of Cyprus.
Now from the beginning of chapter 16 down to the end of chapter 20 we have the public ministry of Paul among the Gentiles during many years when he has commenced his apostolic ministry (as under the grace and direction of the Lord, head of the work), having undertaken it, it being laid upon his heart by the power of the Holy Ghost, and taking with him first of all Silas, and afterwards other co-labourers— but always to help him—in a work, in which by the authority of the Lord and led of the Spirit, he held the first place; the activity, the direction, and the movement proceeded from him, the others who accompanied him being only co-labourers and being under his direction: but he stands alone now as apostle of the Gentiles. Rom. 11:13; Eph. 3; Rom. 1:13, 15; Gal. 2:7, 8.
We have seen that now Barnabas has separated himself. Paul (1 Cor. 3), as a wise master builder has laid the foundation; others worked independently, as Barnabas, Apollos, etc. But Paul had the revelation of the mystery of the church, and the administration of the economy among the Gentiles to found and set in order everything. See 1 Cor. 16:1; 7:17: and many other passages. Timothy, and Tims, and Silas, and many others named in his epistles, laboured under his direction; and he sent them wherever the exigencies of the work required. He had already taken with him Silas; and now, having returned to Lystra and Derbe, he chooses Timothy to whom the brethren bore a good testimony.
It appears that Paul laid his hands upon him (2 Tim. 1:6), the young man having been marked out by prophecy, as he had been himself; then the testimony of the elders was added, and they also laid on their hands; 1 Tim. 4:14. It is possible that Paul may have laid his hands upon him when he visited Derbe on his first journey.11 That, however, is not said: at the same time, it was known by the brethren of Lystra and of Iconium, as also at Derbe; prophecy had marked him out; and the testimony of all, manifested by the laying on of the hands of the elders, confirmed it. Paul conferred on him the gift of the Spirit (2 Tim. 1:6, 7) by the laying on of his hands, although it may not be said openly when. It is quite possible that he might have been active already in that locality, but he was specially gifted for the present work by that imposition of hands of the apostle.
There yet remains a special fact to remark upon. Confusion had entered into the practical life of the Jews, as among the Christians. The mother of Timothy was a Jewess, his father a Greek; a thing unlawful among the Jews. His mother was pious (it is not said if it was before his conversion or after); also his grandmother was so; 2 Tim. 1. Now such a marriage was totally contrary to the custom of the Jews. See Neh. 13:23-31; Ezra 9, 10. According to these books the sons and daughters were heathen, and ought to be rejected and sent away, as well as the wife. It was a disorder. Paul availing himself, not of the law but of the privileges of grace, and thinking of the Jews, of whom there were many in those regions, circumcises Timothy. This was not according to Judaism; on the contrary, it was against its order, but he took away what would have been a stumbling-block for the Israelites. It was pleasing to the Jews: he did it to gain them; in a word, it was not a legal act, quite the contrary. It was an act of superiority to the law. The Jews all knew that his father was a Greek; and the position of Timothy, his mother being a Jewess, was scandalous for them, and the apostle takes away the scandal. The hearts of the Jews would find themselves contented; and they would have had something to say if the son of a Greek, by whom his mother had been rendered impure, had presented to them the gospel. It was an arbitrary act, but the scandal was taken away, and he went against the prejudices of his people. But when the Jews wished to force him to circumcise Titus, he yielded to them not even for a moment; Gal. 2:3-5.
At the same time, as they passed “through the cities they delivered the decrees of the apostles and the elders for to keep”; a perpetual testimony, if the Christian Jews should wish to put their brethren from among the Gentiles under the law of Moses, that they acted against the thoughts and authority of the apostles and of the elders, of those whom the Lord had established for Christ by the Holy Ghost, who in the Jewish church itself were as an authority. That the Judaisers were not in any way authorised by the chief men gives a source of joy to the Gentile brethren thus established in the faith.
And remark how the Christian faith is now spread throughout all the regions where Paul prosecuted his labours; and the number of those gathered together increased daily. Now we follow his labours in other countries and regions.
Here we find another precious truth: the perpetual direction of God by the way, be it directly by the Spirit, or be it by other intimations. Paul was sent to preach the gospel to the entire creation under heaven; but that field is large, and so he labours under the authority of the Lord, the Son, who is over the house of God; as also He was announced as Lord and Saviour to poor sinners. They execute then this mission in Phrygia, and in the regions of Galatia. He had already commenced in Phrygia on his first journey, but now he enters Galatia, a large province, for the first time. These had suddenly gone astray from the right way, through the means of Judaising Christians: people who wished, as we have seen, to join the law to Christianity. We possess the epistle written by the faithful care of the apostle to deliver them from their error: an epistle more severe than all, since they had taken away the divine foundation of righteousness and true holiness —more severe than that to the Corinthians, who had committed nevertheless sins more horrible than the heathen, and had got into deplorable disorder. He says all the good he can to the Corinthians, although he does not spare them as regards their deeds, but reproaches them; and also he did not wish to visit them until they repented. But as to the Galatians he says nothing loving to commence with, but sets himself at once to reproach them, and at the end salutes no one. Troubled in his heart he does not know how to take them (chap. 4:20), he would wish to be among them in order to speak according to their wants. His love had not grown weak, but he travailed again in birth of them until Christ was formed in them. We see the power of the love of the blessed apostle. Moses, weary, fatigued by the unbelief of the people, asks if he had brought forth all this people that he should carry them as a father. Paul, full of the love of Christ, is contented to do it a second time rather than lose them. He was their father in the faith; so powerful is the love of Christ in the heart!
After having crossed Phrygia and Galatia, the Holy Ghost forbids them to preach in Asia. Later he dwelt about three years in Ephesus, the capital of the province; and all Asia12 heard the word of God. Arrived in Mysia they essay to go into Bithynia; but the Spirit of Jesus suffers them not. Having passed by Mysia, they come to Troas. There Paul has a vision in a dream. It was not the open direction of the Spirit; it was left to spiritual intelligence to understand the meaning. A man of Macedonia appeared to him, beseeching him to come and succour them.
As Paul lived in the things of God, he interpreted the vision as his mission, by the knowledge he had both of the thoughts of God and of the wants of men, and passed over therefore at once into Macedonia. Perhaps it is hot very important, but we may remark here, that for the first time we find the writer speak in the first person: “We endeavoured”; that is to say, Luke, who has written the facts, becomes now the companion of Paul in his work.
Here the question presents itself: In what manner and to what extent can we expect the direction of God in our work? The answer is analogous to that which .we have already given with respect to the intervention of God in order to liberate us from dangers. We cannot expect visible and sensible interventions; but we can expect with certainty the care and direction of God by His Spirit in the heart, if we walk with Him— “To be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” —to be led by the Spirit if we walk in humility. See Rom. 8:14; Col. 1; also Psalm 32:8, 9. I do not doubt that, if we walk with God and look to Him, the Spirit will put in our hearts the special things that He wishes us to do. Only it is important that we keep in memory the word of God, in order that it may be a guard against all our own imaginations; otherwise, the Christian who lacks humility will do his own will, often taking it for the Holy Ghost. That is but the deceitful folly of his heart; first, that it knows them; secondly, taking it for the Holy Ghost: but, I repeat, he who looks with humility to the Lord will be conducted by the Lord in the way; and the Holy Ghost who dwells in him will suggest to him the things which He wishes him to do. “He that is spiritual judgeth all things, and he himself is judged of no one… We have the mind of Christ,” 1 Cor. 2:15, 16.
Here then the apostle gathers that the Lord had sent him to Macedonia, and goes there. He stops at Philippi, the principal city of the country and a Roman colony. He commences, as he always does, with the Jews. It appears that there was not a synagogue there. It was the custom of the Jews to have their worship in such a case, as it is still, on the banks of the river—I believe, for the sake of purification. There were but a few women there: Paul contented himself with them, and spoke to them of Christ, and of salvation through Him. There was Lydia, a proselyte who worshipped the true God; she was among these women, had not the knowledge of Christ, but the piety which does not neglect the worship of the Sabbath day in a far distant country, where it was not the natural occasion to observe it. The blessing is accorded at least to that one in whose heart this faithfulness is found. The Lord opened the heart of Lydia to attend to the things spoken by Paul. She was a Gentile, but brought to the knowledge of the only true God; and she is another example of the difference between conversion and the knowledge of salvation in Christ.
There were many such worshippers—their souls were wearied with the folly and iniquity of paganism, which was insufficient to satisfy the needs of the soul, and through grace they were turned to the only true God known among the Jews, and they frequented the Jewish worship, without being circumcised. They were called religious persons, persons who served God. They listened to the apostle more than the Jews, and were often the occasion of their jealousy; of this class was Lydia. See chap. 17:17; and 13:16; where it is said, “and ye which fear God.” They are found without being named, in chapter 13:1, and distinctly verse 43, and also elsewhere. Lydia is baptised with all her house: and Paul and his companions enter her house and dwell there. It may be said that now the assembly was founded at Philippi.
But the enemy is not satisfied to allow the work to make progress, without doing anything to oppose it. On the contrary he works with deceit; he does not assail the work openly. He has the appearance of helping it, certainly not recognising Christ as Lord, because then he would no longer be Satan (the adversary), but flattering the apostle, in order to be able to mix himself up with the work of the Lord, to accredit himself with this union, and to spoil it at the same time. He acts thus with more finesse in order that Christians may be less wise to refute him. To be supported by the world (and Satan is the prince of it) will appear to be a great help to the progress of the gospel. The enemy disguises himself, makes himself the friend of the servants of God and of the work, transforms himself into an angel of light. The Gibeonites with deceit made themselves the friends of Israel, and in consequence they were never conquered, as our friends are not conquered. Thus, when the Christian or the assembly, mixes itself with the world, the loss is always on the side of the Christian, because the world in its nature is always with its motives, but the flesh is always in the Christian. He may draw near to the world, but not the world to the Spirit. The testimony, however, is lost. Wine mixed with water is no longer pure wine, it has lost its taste. The friendship of the world is enmity against God.
The world seems amiable when it draws near to Christians and their testimony, but it draws near to Christians to spoil their testimony, and to put itself in esteem; but to Christ it cannot draw near. The spirit of Python can flatter the servants of God in order to gain them; it can speak of God, of the most high God, even of the way of salvation, but not of Christ Lord and Saviour, of the state of sin and guilt in which man is, in which he is lost. That would be to confess that he who says such things is lost. That is quite another story. When the world unites itself to Christians, their testimony is lost, and the fault is always that of the Christians. They accept the world, because they have already lost true spirituality, the love of Christ rejected by the world, the love of the holy glory of His cross in which His heavenly glory was exhibited in this world.
But the apostle does not seek to excite the enmity of Satan, he does not accept that testimony, he keeps himself ever separate, neither does he act so as to change it into open opposition. He continues quietly on his way. At last he can no longer bear the voice of the unclean spirit, it being so grievous to his heart that he associated himself with him; he casts him out by the power of the Holy Ghost. Suddenly the enmity of the natural heart under the influence of the world is revealed. And that influence is more fatal for man than the possession of the body and faculties.
The Lord drove out the legion with a word; but the world, frightened by the manifestation of divine power, cast out Jesus from its confines. Similarly here, the demon being cast out, the masters of the damsel through human motives to which the demon lent himself, seeing that their gain was lost, stirred up a persecution against Paul and Silas.
What the servants of the most high God do is now of no consequence. Man’s god is money, power and human glory. Satan never wishes that the power of God should be cast out. To be recognised, accredited, to join himself to the excellency of the truth pleases him, because he knows well that true power is with God, and thus that which remains of the truth in effect increases his influence, for that is now only increased, not destroyed. He will speak sufficiently of the truth to deceive Christians if it were possible, in order that, such as he is as prince of the world, he may not the less be in light.
The pure light manifests him, and thus is it that Christianity, and Christians, less wise than the apostle, have mixed themselves with the world, and the result is that Christianity lies under the power of Satan. The apostle did not act thus; but now it is quite possible persecution will arise, and that is what came to pass here. If the enemy cannot accredit himself with the gospel, he will oppose it.
The motives were purely human, the influence that of Satan. The motives presented to the magistrates were nothing but false pretexts. They worked on the pride and the fear of the authorities, who desired peace, and that was disturbed by the enemies, not by the Christians. Besides the gospel did not oppose Roman dignity which possessed the city, it being a colony. The magistrates ask no more; they had stirred up a multitude which strove for its privileges. Rending their clothes, they command them to be beaten, and then send them to prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely. He, having received such a charge, thrusts them into the inner prison, making their feet fast in the stocks.
All then was tranquillised; but the magistrates thought nothing of justice, nor of paying costs13 for poor evangelists. But God has not forgotten them, and bears marked testimony to His servants. He permits them to be punished unjustly, and it is their glory to make no resistance. It is a means by which still brighter testimony may be given to His word, and to His servants.
They are thrust then into the inner prison, and there sing praises to God, and the prisoners hear them. Suddenly there is a great earthquake, the doors of the prison are opened, and every one’s bands are loosed. God intervenes for His own, and to bear testimony to His word. When persecution is allowed, the wickedness of man can do much, but he cannot hold against the power of God those who fall into his hands. The jailor wishes to kill himself; but Paul crying out that they were all there, prevents him from doing so. Leading out Paul and Silas, he asks them what he must do to be saved. The answer is simple, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” The word is then announced to him and his, and he is baptised with his house. He then cares for his prisoners, and washes their stripes, being filled with joy and peace with all his house.
Tranquillity restored, the magistrates, believing that all trouble is thus ended, send word to the jailor to let Paul and Silas go. But it was a struggle between the testimony of God and the power of Satan; it was necessary that the unjust magistrates should own their fault, and the rights of the gospel of God. Paul did not wish to excite this struggle (an important warning to us), but to continue his work peacefully. The devil was seeking to mix himself up with the work, to associate himself, to the eyes of the world, with what was done by the servants of God. This provoked the apostle. It was necessary either to receive the testimony of the devil, and join his name to that of Christ, or to enter into a struggle. He casts out, therefore, the unclean spirit; and open war is thus at once declared.
Satan is the prince of this world; and the world, stirred up by the present power of God in the work of the Spirit, is, unless kept down by God, stronger than His servants. Here God permits the world to manifest itself in violence and injustice, in the multitude as much as in the magistrates. The servants of God submit to this injustice, are beaten and cast into prison, their enemies being the guilty ones, as is nearly always the case. I say nearly, because it is possible for Christians to fail in wisdom, and to provoke a struggle without cause. They do not resist; but here the power of the Holy Ghost and the state of their souls shew complete superiority to circumstances. Full of joy in prison and in the stocks, they can sing praises. Testimony is rendered even to the prisoners. As far as the body is concerned, the world is stronger than the Christian, if God allows it to act; but in soul, the Christian is always above circumstances, if he can realise the presence of God. His presence is the greatest of all circumstances, and overcomes the others. One can rejoice even in sufferings, as we see in Acts 5:41; Romans 5:5.
Moreover, God makes use of the circumstances, and enters, so to speak, into the struggle Himself; the doors are opened, and the bands are loosed. In body man is powerless, unless God see fit to intervene; and often He does so by His providence, if not in a miraculous way. All were witnesses or convinced that God was victorious in the struggle—though some, in spite of themselves. The magistrates had taken part in the wrong with great injustice, and it was necessary, therefore, that they should own their fault. Now that all was calm, they sought, in the wisdom of the world, to let the affair blow over in silence. But when God works and shews Himself, He makes it plain that He has rights in this world.
Paul and Silas were in prison against all the rights of God and of men; and the magistrates are obliged by the firmness of Paul to own their fault, and to ask the servants of the Lord as a favour to depart. This, as it suited them, they do without delay; only, being perfectly free, they enter into the house of Lydia, see the brethren, comfort them, and depart.
When Paul sought to make use of his rights as a Roman in order to arrest injustice, he lost his liberty, and was sent a prisoner to Rome, although the Lord had directed everything. But here he did not attempt to arrest injustice; he submitted, only taking advantage of this right afterwards, when it was a question of the innocence of the gospel and of its conduct, and when it happened that the magistrates, and not he, were in the wrong.
But God has this peculiar work in the world, the blessings of grace; and makes sure of all this for the conversion of the jailor. He works as a man of the world at his post; but by this manifest intervention of God, he is awakened, convinced of sin, and given to feel his need of salvation. Now that all call themselves Christians, one asks if a man is a good Christian, truly converted; but then all were heathens or Jews, and became Christians. Now Christianity is salvation. The grace of God has brought salvation into the world in the Son of God; and by His work on the cross, it is announced by the Holy Ghost. The need makes itself felt when the conscience is moved by the Holy Ghost. What it seeks for is salvation, as here does the jailor. The answer is simple and clear: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.”
The object of faith is the person of the Lord Jesus, and the redemption accomplished by Him; and all believers, reaping the benefits of this work, are saved. Now one investigates and scrutinises in order to know whether one has faith in the heart, and whether it be true faith. We all pass more or less through this state, but true peace is never to be found there. It is perhaps, however, useful in humbling us, and teaching us that in us dwells no good thing. But we are not called upon to believe in the faith which is in us, but to believe in Christ Jesus; and God declares that all believers are justified, and have eternal life. I do not examine my eyes to know whether I see, but look at the object before them, and know that I see. People quote the passage in 2 Corinthians 13:5; but those who do so deceive themselves, leaving out the correct beginning of the passage, “Since ye seek a proof of Christ speaking in me, … examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith.” The apostle shews them their folly in doubting his true apostleship. If Christ had not spoken by him, since they had received his word, how was it that he had been the means of their conversion? For the same reason he continues to inquire, “Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you?” Christ therefore had spoken by his mouth. There were many proofs of his apostleship. Here he shews them their stupidity, because if he were not an apostle, they would not be Christians. Of their conversion they had no doubt. If we examine ourselves to know whether we walk as Christians, we do well; but if we do so to know whether we are Christians, it is not according to the word.
Faith looks towards Jesus, not towards self. The experience of the examination of the heart, in order to discover what passes there to make one believe, leads us to see that it is impossible thus to find peace, or even victory, for we are looking at what is behind us; but when we are convinced of this, the answer of God is there—He has given salvation in Christ, and he who believes is justified. The Lord says, “Thy sins are forgiven; go in peace, thy faith hath saved thee,” Luke 7. The woman looked to Jesus, and believed His word, not thinking of the state of her own heart. The state of her heart, the conviction that she could not find peace and salvation in herself, led her to look to Jesus, and in Him she found peace. The gospel gives the answer of God to the heart clearly and fully. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.”
I learn by experience that in me dwells no good thing, and that I have not the strength to conquer. I cease to look towards myself, as though I could become better. The flesh is always there; the will may be good (in a converted man), but practice does not correspond to will. Not amendment, but salvation, is needful to us: and that we possess in Christ by faith, and, in salvation, peace. Being unable to accomplish justice in ourselves, we submit to the justice of God. By the faith that Christ Himself is our justice before God, we learn by experience what we are ourselves. This experience is itself the fruit of the work of the word by the Spirit in the heart; but by this we learn that we are lost, that, looking to Christ, we are saved. “Believe, and thou shalt be saved.” Good works are what suit the position we then occupy. It is the same in human relationships of children, wives, servants; it is necessary to be in the relationship, or the duties do not exist. When we are saved, we become the sons of God, and then we find the duty of sonship; but it cannot exist before we are sons. The duty of man as the creature of God existed, but on that ground we are lost. Christian duty does not begin till we are Christians. It is remarkable, here and elsewhere, how whole households are admitted to the Christian assembly.
To suffer with patience, to sing in the midst of tribulation— this is power; then with the same strength we can, when free, carry on the Lord’s work, with like courage. So says the apostle, referring to such circumstances, in 1 Thessalonians 2:2; having been stoned and shamefully entreated at Philippi, he boldly and energetically continues to preach the gospel at Thessalonica. It is there we find him at this point of our narrative. God leads through persecution just as by all other means. The Apostle selects localities where there were synagogues. Passing through Amphipolis and Apollonia, he stops at Thessalonica; where was a synagogue. It was a large city, where to this day many Jews are to be found. “To the Jew first and also to the Greek,” characterised his work.
In Philippi we find Satan’s opposition apart from the Jews, for, though Paul had there sought the Jews also, they had no part whatever in the conflict. The enemy had desired to identify himself with the work of the gospel, falsifying it in order to avoid the destruction of his own power: but he does not support open opposition. But when the religious element is present—that is a religion which boasts of possessing the rights conferred by God on His own on the earth, the professors of which do not submit to the truth—this is always a source of persecution. In Philippi it was simply an arrogant and self-interested people who spurned all religions which spoke of the true God, as well as everything else except its own superstitions, and only sought to preserve peace under the government of Satan. It was the world that cast out Paul, as the Gadarenes did Jesus. It could endure the manifestation neither of the truth, nor of the power of God.
In the narrative which follows we again find the religious element in enmity to the truth; the Jews jealous of the gospel of grace, and of the Gentiles, to whom it was announced, although the former had the first place in its administration. For three sabbaths Paul reasons with the Jews of Thessalonica in the synagogue, according to the custom, shewing them that it was expedient that Christ should suffer, and rise again, and that Jesus was this Christ. Some of the Gentiles, who worshipped the true and one God, whose need had led them to recognise Him who had revealed Himself, believed. They were many in number, and of the chief women not a few.
The blessing of God does not fail to excite the jealousy of the Jews, and to the enmity of the human heart all means are lawful. Stirring up the people of the baser sort, they assault the house of Jason, seeking to bring out the servants of God, but they do not find them there. Jason, however, and certain other brethren they drag before the rulers of the city, accusing them of teaching doctrines opposed to the authority of Caesar, and of saying that there was another king, Jesus. But the rulers, troubled, it is true, with the people, were wiser than those of Philippi; for, taking security of Jason, they let them go. The chief culprits, Paul and his companions, not being found, were not there; and the brethren, finding the door shut for the moment against the work, send Paul and Silas to Berea, a neighbouring city.
In the epistles to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 2:14), where also the apostle speaks of the state of the Jews (2 Thess. 1:4), it appears that immediately after the apostle’s departure, a violent persecution sprang up, and that the converts suffered greatly, but remained faithful, so that their faith became celebrated everywhere. It was to these that the apostle wrote his two first epistles, immediately after his departure from Athens and Corinth, in order to encourage them to persevere, having sent Timothy from Athens, to know if they stood fast in the faith (1 Thess. 3:1). In reading these epistles, and Acts 18:6, we find that the first was written from Athens when Silas and Timothy had rejoined him (Acts 17:15; 1 Thess. 1:1). Then he had sent Timothy to Thessalonica, who, on his return, brings good tidings of the state of the Thessalonians. The first epistle is then written. It seems that Silas and Timothy had come back and again rejoined the apostle, when he had already left Athens and was come to Corinth; Acts 18:5.
Of this journey we have no account, but it is the proof of the tender care with which the apostle watched over the new converts, and sought to establish them in the faith and path of Christ. The two epistles are remarkable for the freshness and affection of the communications, of which they are full, and especially the first, for the testimony which the apostle could render to the state of the disciples.
It will be useful to examine for a little what the apostle taught during his short stay at Thessalonica. We have very little, almost nothing, of the apostle’s discourses outside of the synagogue. At Athens he makes a speech in the Areopagus, but he does not preach. He preached, it is said, Jesus and the resurrection. Let us gather up what is said here. In the synagogue he maintained that Christ should suffer and rise again from among the dead; moreover, he announced the kingdom of God, because He was accused of having taught that there was another king, Jesus (chap. 20:25). Short though the time was in Thessalonica, yet during his sojourn there, he had taught the disciples the coming of the Lord; which, in reading the Epistle, is perfectly clear. The disciples had learnt that Jesus had delivered them from the wrath to come, the resurrection, and the expectation of the Son of God from heaven; that they were called to suffer with Christ, and to walk in holiness; the coming of the Lord with fire for judgment, and that with all His saints; that they should be caught up to meet the Lord; that the man of sin should be revealed, and that the mystery of iniquity was already working, but that they were called to share the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. He taught salvation by the truth and by faith through the power of the Holy Ghost who sanctified them for God; and all this by grace, to those who were chosen for salvation. Even the peculiarities of the last days were communicated to them; 2 Thess. 2:5.
But all this was for the disciples; only the coming of the Lord in judgment of the living—this world—was announced to all, and they were exhorted to flee from the wrath to come, from which Jesus was the deliverer. It was necessary now to announce facts known to all; but if he speaks of salvation, the person of the Lord, as also His coming, has a far greater place in his doctrine than in that of the preachers of to-day. A present salvation is clearly announced, through Christ dead for us, so that we might live with Him. That which was everywhere presented for salvation is described with much simplicity and clearness in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Christ put to death for our sins, buried, and raised up the third day. But here also the facts hold a greater place than now. We reason on the value of the facts, and this is necessary; but the more the facts are put in evidence, the more will the preaching be powerful.
While the people are occupied with Jason, Paul sets out for Berea, and with undiminished courage enters into the synagogue of that city. Here the grace of God is manifestly with him, to dispose the hearts of the Jews to listen, and to search the word, and many believe. But the unhappy Jews carry on their work, and come from Thessalonica, to stir up the people against Paul and the others. It is mournful to see their permanent hatred to the gospel. But it is ever thus with an old religion set aside by truth which its professors will not receive.
A few brethren conduct Paul to Athens, and he sends an order to Silas and Timothy to join him there at once. But with all this, the enemy does nothing but order the path of the gospel, according to the will of God.
Now at Athens the sight of the idolatry ardently practised in that city pressed heavily on the spirit of the apostle. He reasons in the synagogue with the Jews, and daily in the market with them that met with him. Athens had been a city famous for the glory of its arts and of its arms, and for its schools of philosophy. Having succumbed to the Roman yoke, it had lost its importance, and lived in idleness, seeking for some new thing, still philosophising, and boasting in the memory of its ancient glory in pagan philosophy, surpassed perhaps by that of Alexandria and Tarsus (where Paul himself had been educated), although where the leaders of Roman society studied. The fruit was not great in this vain and idle city, but the instruction for us is precious.
The apostle’s discourse at the Areopagus was not the preaching of the gospel. It was his apology before an ancient tribunal whose decisions had, in times gone by, possessed great weight, but which then, though still allowed to exist, no longer retained its ancient importance. But the fact that the apostle was obliged to present himself before the tribunal, gave him the opportunity of manifesting the wisdom and grace he possessed through the Spirit of God. As we have seen he preached in the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia. In the market-place, where the philosophers and townspeople met together, he announced Jesus and the resurrection, His person, His victory over death, the testimony that God had accepted the sacrifice of Christ, and moreover that in Him we are admitted into a new creation (a position which Adam, even in innocence, never occupied) the kingdom of the second, of the last Adam.
I do not say that all these points were unfolded, but the apostle announced the grand foundations on which all these truths are built up. He did so according to the need and capacity of his hearers; and nobody is so incapable as a philosopher, and those under his influence and who walk in the vain thought of being something, when in reality they are nothing, and such was the true character of the Athenians. Knowledge is blinding. Human intelligence does not know God. God enters the conscience when He speaks in order to make Himself known; and in proportion to the pretension of the human mind to intelligence, is the hardness and inaction of the conscience. It is as though dead, and man as though he had none, and therefore no capacity to receive the truth whereby he may know God. These wise men thought that Jesus and the resurrection were gods, so far were they from the truth. The mind of man, and the activity of his intelligence, when it is a question of morality and of God, can do nothing but always drive him farther and farther away. He finds no basis for morality, and consequently no true rule; and when God is submitted to the human understanding, He is no longer God in any sense. God does not present Himself to man in order to know what he ought to be. Conscience and faith put God in His own place, and man in his true relation to God; and the word is the means of doing so, the word in which God reveals Himself, and shews what man is.
Some mocked the apostle, saying, “What will this babbler say?” Ridicule is often a means in the hands of the enemy to turn away souls from the truth, because men are afraid to identify themselves with what others despise. Conscience and moral courage are the very last things to be found in the heart of man: grace awakens conscience, and gives strength to follow it. Still here was something new; and that was always enough for the Athenians, fatigued by the nonentity of their existence. Accordingly they lead Paul to the Areopagus, once honourable and honoured, in order to know what this new doctrine might be. Because however frivolous philosophical opinions may be, they cannot quietly endure either truth or Christ. One human opinion may be as good as another; but the testimony of God operates on the conscience, and demands the heart.
Paul, surely taught by the Holy Ghost, replies in the Areopagus with admirable wisdom, and a calm love which lays hold on the sole circumstance to which he could attach the truth he desired to communicate to them. His practised eye had observed in the city the only little remnant of truth by which he could lead them to recognise their true position. It was not simply a declaration of the salvation of the soul, which had already occupied him in the synagogue and public market-place; here he explains the true character of the religion of idols, but with perfect delicacy; and seeks to bind that remnant of truth which the enemy had not been able to destroy, with truth more positive, with the name of Jesus, and with that which appealed to the conscience.
The people of the city, idle and at heart sceptical, were given up to idolatry; and, the circle of the gods being exhausted, they had dedicated an altar to the unknown God. It is said that in former times a fatal malady had reigned in the city; and that the inhabitants, having prayed in vain to all the gods to remove the plague, had consulted an oracle, who directed them to dedicate an altar to the unknown God. It is unnecessary, however, to seek for any special source of this worship. At the bottom of all idolatry there is the idea of God, corrupted, and taken possession of by Satan, so that men may worship demons; but the idea cannot be eradicated from the heart of man. Infidels seek to do so, but it always remains at the bottom of the heart, in spite of all their efforts. It is born with the birth of man, and creation bears witness too clear and too strong to allow the heart to believe that everything was made by nothing. And then conscience speaks too loud to allow it to be unhearkened to. Man does not want God and tries to forget Him; he reasons, and seeks diversions; but the thought always returns, and possibility makes itself felt. He endeavours to get rid of the thought by every means, but still it is always there; and the thought of God always makes us feel guilty.
God is to be found in all idolatries, neglected and forgotten, it is true; but He exists in all mythologies, and is found in the conscience when awakened by fear. When men are in agony (so says a Christian of pagan times) they do not say, “Oh, immortal gods! “but “Oh God! a proof, I would add, of a soul naturally Christian.” They made great gods and little gods, placed a god or a goddess at fountains, in woods, and wherever they could see the operations of nature; but behind everything remained the deep feeling that there was one only and all-powerful God. Thus among the Brahmins in India, in Egypt, among the Sabeans, among the Scandinavians, there were gods without end, yet one God not worshipped but owned as the source of everything. This God, the Author of all, rested in darkness. In India not a single temple was ever dedicated to him, but still He exists and is the source of everything. Among the Sabeans, the ancient Persians, there was another kind of pagan religion which recognised Ahrim and Ahrmasda, a bad and a good god, and in which God was worshipped in fire, and which had no idol; there was another god as the source of these. I say source, because a creation was not owned among the pagans. See Hebrews 11:3.
The imagination, under the influence of Satan, created gods everywhere, but at the bottom the idea of God was there. And yet this God, the true, was unknown—deplorable state of mankind, deprived of God, of whom they stood in such deep need! thus enemies to His true knowledge, because the conscience, which makes responsibility felt, could not endure His presence, because the heart desired things which the conscience in the presence of God condemned. They made gods who would help men to gratify their passions. Man cannot suffice to himself; he has lost God, and fears Him; his heart stoops to that which is more degraded than himself. He seeks, but in vain, to satisfy the need of his heart by means of objects which degrade him, and make him forget God, of whom the thought is anguish” to his heart.
God, the unknown God, now reveals Himself; and the apostle, with great happiness of thought laying hold of the inscription on the altar, announces the true God whom they did not know. This is not the gospel; but he identifies the God he had already preached in the gospel of Jesus and of the resurrection with the truth they themselves admitted, and, defending it, speaks to the conscience. The unknown God would judge the world by this Jesus, in that He had raised Him from the dead. This truth he applies to their conscience and to idolatry, under the yoke of which they were subjected. By the power of the Spirit in Paul they stood accused, convicted of having falsified the idea of God and denied His glory, the glory of the only Creator, for they had only recognised Him by the confession that He was unknown.
Here was what was done by the apostle. He announced to them clearly this true God, who had manifested Himself in the gift of life, and in the things necessary to sustain that life. Through the conscience He was then not far from each of them. During the times of ignorance, God had borne with the wanderings of man; He had passed them over without judgment. Now He was calling to all men everywhere to repent, because a day was appointed in the which He should judge the world; He speaks of the judgment of this habitable earth, in righteousness by the Man whom He had ordained; whereof He had given assurance unto all men, in that He had raised Him from the dead. In this way He reveals by the power of the Spirit the one true Creator-God, the Sustainer of all things, the knowledge of whom had been lost in the folly of idolatry, into which man had been deluded by the enemy, who, by means of the passions of deceived beings, had made himself God. Then he declares the approaching judgment of this world by Jesus, the risen Man, but that grace, in the patience of God, invited all men to repent.
Such was the apostle’s defence; not of himself, truly; but he brings his hearers into the presence of God, and sets forth that which the conscience could not deny, and that this was what they ought to have known (Rom. 1:19, 20). Then he reveals what was new, namely, that judgment was approaching, that it was to be executed by the Man established by God, of whom He had given assurance, in raising Him from the dead, as the public proof of His ways and power, which ended the path of man on earth, and overthrew the power of Satan. The accusers receive their own sentence. To the existence of God they say nothing, but many mock at the idea of resurrection.
It is the present exercise of the power of God that man cannot receive; let there be a God, and it is well; but let Him do something, let Him intervene presently, and man cannot willingly receive it. But the mighty word of the apostle touches some hearts even among this frivolous people. The harvest is small, but God does not leave Himself without testimony. A few, believing the gospel, join themselves to the servants of God; but the testimony being rendered, the apostle remains there no longer. Philosophy and frivolity united, as is always the case, give a high opinion of self, are bad soil for grace, and do not deserve that God should wait long for the good will of vanity. Grace can be effective everywhere; but here testimony and judgment are given against philosophy and the pretensions of men.
There was but little fruit in this gifted but frivolous city: for God has chosen the foolish, the weak, and the despised things of the world, to bring to nought the things that are; and the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain. The apostle pursues his journey to the other important Grecian centre, Corinth, a commercial city in a superb situation, but deeply corrupt, being dedicated to Venus, whose priestesses were given up to vice. Even at this time wealth abounded, and the city had become proverbial for luxury and dissoluteness.
The ambassador of God appears in the midst of this luxury, as a poor workman of the world; and we know from his letters that he refused to take anything from the wealthy Corinthians, while he received with joy the offering sent as the fruit of their love by the simple brethren of Philippi. There was afterwards another special reason why the apostle would not receive money from the Corinthians. This was that false teachers, seeking to profit by the work of Paul, pretended to labour without receiving anything; and Paul desired to take away every occasion of influence from these evil men, and that they should not pretend to that which was not equally verified in him.
Arrived then at Corinth, he finds two people of his own trade, and with them he lodges and works. There, in the simplicity of Christian life, the work of God begins. The Jews had, and always have, a trade. We are apt to believe that the apostles soared above all difficulties, because armed with divine authority, and that they were free from all fear. We, no doubt, who believe they have the Lord’s authority, receive them as sent by Him: but the Gentiles recognised neither the Lord, nor those sent by Him. They were in the presence of the enemy’s power. God had committed His word to them, that they might convey it to the world, which lay under the power of Satan; and this word they possessed in the weakness of the flesh. By faith they knew that the Lord would be with them; and certainly His faithfulness did not fail. But this is known by faith; and they felt all the difficulty of a work which introduced the light of God and the authority of His testimony in the midst of darkness, where the enemy reigned over the spirits of men.
It is a serious thing to make and carry on war for God against the prince of evil. We must know what we are doing, what the enemy is, and what He is whom we represent in this war, so that we may consider it according to the rules of a war of God, that He may sustain us, that the consciousness of His call may be with us, and that thus our faith and confidence in Him may not be interrupted. See how the apostle speaks of his entrance among the Corinthians; “And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and of power,” 1 Cor. 2:3, 4. One cannot do better than read the first four chapters of the first epistle: and for the question of money, chapter 9; what was the testimony, the life, and the feeling of the apostle in 2 Corinthians 4, 6 and 10. And how deep and real his testimony in chapter 12 and especially in verse 9, the source of his power in the midst of weakness! For in this epistle, as elsewhere, we find what the apostle’s own feeling were, and what his labours; his heart appears. In 2 Corinthians 11 the effect produced by sufferings is shewn.
With fear and much trembling then, he commences the work in this seat of Satan. First he reasons in the synagogue, as he did everywhere, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” From Athens, Paul had sent Timothy, who had joined him there according to Acts 18:15, 16; 1 Thess. 3:2. Now Silas and Timothy return, and are found with Paul; Acts 17:5. Pressed in spirit by their presence, he bears still stronger testimony that Jesus was the Christ. He had laboured faithfully during their absence; but the presence of other Christians gives courage and strength to his spirit according to God. The feeling of what Christianity is fortifies the heart, and the state of unbelievers is more present to the mind, and more urgent to the heart. But the rights of Christ hold the first place in the apostle’s heart; and when the Jews contradict and blaspheme, he leaves them, and, shaking his garments, says to them, “Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean; from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles.”
Leaving them he enters into the house of a Gentile, one who worshipped the one true God. There were many such among the Gentiles, who, weary of the folly and iniquity of idolatry, worshipped in the synagogue, although they had not become Jews. It seems that he had left the house of Aquila and Priscilla. The house of a Gentile who owned the one true God was suited to his work; and to him the work was everything. Still, he does not go far away from the synagogue; and Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, is converted with all his house, whether from the testimony rendered by Paul in the synagogue, or after he had left it. Moreover, the testimony now reaches the Corinthians, and many believe and are baptized. The work, rejected by the Jews, is now established in the city; for, notwithstanding its wickedness, the Lord had many people there.
Besides this, the Lord encourages Paul by a vision in the night, saying to him, “Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace.” The Lord was with hirh, and saw fit to hold the door open. All things were in His hands, and He would not permit the enemy to hinder the work because of wicked men. “He openeth, and no man shutteth.” It is interesting to see how the Lord watches over the work, and over the hearts of His labourers. It is possible that direct communications and visions may not be given now as they were then; but God has not ceased to guide those who labour faithfully in His name, to manifest Himself to their hearts, and He holds still, as then, the keys; He opens, and no man shuts. It is sweet to see that, when we work for Him, He is with us, to speak to our hearts, and to direct us and regulate all our circumstances for His glory, and that according to a divine wisdom.
At Corinth the apostle remains a year and a half, teaching the word of God. The Jews, roused by the folly of their enmity against Christ and the gospel, seek to accuse Paul of a crime because he preached the gospel. They bring him before the judgment seat of the governor, a man profoundly indifferent to everything religious. The apostle is accused of having persuaded men to worship contrary to the law. The proconsul, Gallio, drives them from the judgment seat. He was right. His office was not to maintain the Jewish law, but to preserve order and peace in the country. It was only another proof of the unreasonable and unbridled hatred of these poor people, who had refused the grace of God, and nourished themselves in enmity against all.
The crowd take Sosthenes, the chief ruler of the synagogue, and beat him before the judgment seat. And Gallio cared for none of those things. For him the Jewish religion was a miserable and contemptible superstition, because it separated its professors from all the world; for the human heart loves not the truth that condemns the falsity of the world and of its ways. If the chief of this religion were beaten, it was nothing to him; in his eyes he deserved it, and so they could do it. Unbelief despises superstition, and yet supports it; but it hates the truth, and, if it can, persecutes it. The poor Jews united these true characters—the truth of the oneness of God, and superstition in ordinances, which separated them from all the Gentiles. Contempt and persecution were the only fruits of their assault on the apostle.
The position of this people is shewn in a special way in the narrative before us. But Paul’s relation with them is also shewn; we see to what an extent he was still bound to Jewish customs. He takes a vow and shaves his head in Cenchrea. He feels obliged in his heart to observe the feast at Jerusalem; and gives this to the Jews at Ephesus as his motive for not then remaining in their city. He is a true Jew, and acts like one; and the Spirit records these facts that we may understand the bonds which still held the spirit of the apostle. The state of a soul with regard to religious habits is a different thing from the energy of the Spirit of God in the declaration of the truth. We shall see the effect of these bonds strongly pronounced at the end of his career, whether toward the Christians at Jerusalem, or in his submission to their wishes.
He leaves Corinth then with Priscilla and Aquila, after a work largely blessed. The history of this assembly we read in the two epistles addressed to it. We may remark that it is an example of the influence which the world, in the midst of which it is placed, exercises on the assembly of God. Breathing the same atmosphere, it is always in danger of following its habits of thought; the effect on the mind of surrounding things, which ever resound in the ears of Christians, and, alas! too often in their hearts. It is difficult to avoid being more or less associated with what surrounds us universally. What we need is faith, which lives in things unseen.
Paul does not stop at Ephesus, where the Jews were disposed to listen to him, but expresses the hope of seeing them again. Leaving Priscilia and Aquila, two quiet people, but faithful and consecrated to the Lord, he goes on towards Jerusalem. There he salutes the assembly, and sets out for Antioch, the starting-point of the gospel for the Gentiles, and from whence he had been sent by the Holy Ghost. At Jerusalem he merely salutes the assembly, for here we are on Christian, not Jewish, ground.
The apostles’ work is now situated in another provincial centre in the capital of the province of Asia, which was then only the south-west canton of Asia Minor, Caria, Lycia, etc. Paul had before been prohibited from preaching the word in Asia, having been sent into Macedonia. Now, while he remains at the capital, all the province listens to the word of God. It is good to wait on God and to follow His direction; His work is then much better done, and with a certainty that human plans can never give us. Having passed through the upper portion of Asia Minor (the northern and central), Paul arrives at Ephesus. In this important city he remains nearly three years. Here also the power of his ministry is displayed in a remarkable way. It is the special subject of this chapter. We are ignorant as to how Apollos was fully introduced into the Christian position. He was doubtless baptized, and had received the Holy Ghost; but nothing is said about it. All we know is that he was instructed in the way of the Lord by means of Aquila and Priscilia through the word. It was independently of Paul, and had to be so.
In this chapter the apostolic power and the difference of the estate of the disciples of John the Baptist are clearly shewn. The apostle perceives something in the state of these disciples which did not correspond with the presence of the Holy Ghost— the essential distinction of the Christians. They beheve that the Messiah had come, and that Jesus was that Messiah; but they had not followed Him on the earth; they had remained with John, and had not received the Spirit. John had told them that Christ would baptize with the Spirit, but they did not know whether that Spirit had just come, according to the promise of God and the word of John. It is not meant, “If there be a Holy Ghost,” because all the Jews well knew that there was; but they did not know if the Holy Ghost spoken of by John had come. The words are the same as those in John 7:39. Whoever became a Christian by baptism received the Holy Ghost. It was the seal of faith.
Paul explains to them that John had taught faith in Christ to come; but now He had come and moreover had been exalted to the right hand of God. They are then baptized in the name of the Lord. Paul lays his hands on them, and they receive the Holy Ghost, who bears witness of His presence by the gifts communicated to these disciples. It is a clear testimony to the apostolic power of Paul; Acts 8:14-17. The Holy Ghost was given without the laying on of hands, as on the day of Pentecost, then in the case of Cornelius, and generally with others. But among men the apostles alone possessed the power of communicating the Spirit. The miracles done by Paul’s garments, and also by the shadow of Peter, likewise testify to the power vouchsafed to them by God. God desired to bear witness to the word of His grace.
This became still more remarkable when others, who pretended to cast out demons, undertook to make use of the name of Jesus. This placed the reality of the Lord’s power over that of the devil in the clearest light. Certain Jews sought to profit by the power of the name of Jesus preached by Paul, but without having faith in His person. But the devil knew well with whom he had to do. He knew Jesus, and did not dare to resist Him; and he also well knew that Paul was His servant. But under what pretence did these unbelievers exercise authority over the power of the devil? The man possessed by the devil rises up against these Jews, and drives them out, so that they flee from the house naked and wounded.
What a testimony to the truth of Paul’s mission, to the power by which he worked, and to the war that goes on in man between grace and the devil! It was not, and is not yet, the time for the Lord to manifest His power and His rights, in binding the enemy. His desire is that war should be carried on by man in faith, and by the power of the Spirit who dwells in believers. But it comes out clearly here, what this war is; and the total difference between the possession of truth and of the Spirit, learned as a certain truth, and the employment of the name of Jesus, without faith in the heart. One cannot exorcise the devil by the name of Jesus, when true faith in Jesus has no place in the heart.
The people were terrified by what had happened; but this ought not to surprise us. They felt how near they were to the power of God and to that of Satan, openly manifested. The enemy is no less dangerous when he works secretly. A single word from Jesus had been sufficient to cast out a legion of demons, no more to enter into the liberated man. But the influence of Satan persuaded the Gadarenes to beseech Jesus to depart out of their coasts, and He goes. The presence of God makes the heart tremble more when it perceives it, than that of Satan. Such is the condition of poor sinners. But Satan at bay is more to be feared than when he goes about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. “Resist the devil,” it is said, “and he will flee from you.” But we need all the armour of God to deliver from his snares.
The power of God in Paul is seen in three ways: first, the Spirit is communicated by the laying on of his hands; second, very wonderful miracles; third, the devils themselves are forced to own the power of His word, and the authority of Paul, when he makes use of the name of Jesus; and they make a difference between him and those who under false pretences employ that name. This was soon known by all, Greeks and Jews, and they were filled with fear. It moreover works on the conscience of the believers, who come and confess their deeds, bringing the books of their curious arts, for which Ephesus was celebrated, and burning them before all to the value of fifty thousand pieces of silver. When God reveals Himself in power, the heart opens before Him, and confesses sincerely all that the conscience knows, doing so openly for His glory. This is a special effect of the manifestation of His power. Man thinks no longer of himself, or of his shame, but is overcome by the presence of God.
But we must retrace our steps a little in order to observe the progress of the apostle’s own work. For three months he reasons in the synagogue. It seems that the Jews were not so badly disposed as in other cities (for example, at Thessalonica and elsewhere). They had desired that the apostle should remain there some time, when he had gone to Jerusalem. However, the greater part did not long endure the preaching of the gospel. Many became hardened, and did not believe, speaking evil of the truth and of the Christian profession before the multitude. Paul then leaves them, separates the disciples, and continues to dispute daily in the school of one Tyrannus. Two years he spends in this way, so that all who dwelt in Asia, Greeks and Jews, heard the word of the Lord Jesus.
Thus was the Christian assembly formed outside the synagogue, the Jews (as ever) being contradictory and opposing. Their attempt to make use of the name of Jesus, without faith, was likewise turned to their dishonour. Though the goodness of God sought for them, yet their enmity against the name of Jesus, and against the grace which wounded their pride, they never lost. God then placed His blessing elsewhere. And when the Christians were separated from the Jews, and the assembly settled apart, this extraordinary power of the Spirit was manifested in Paul, as a testimony from God to his work, and to the growing assembly. Thus was this important gathering formed by divine power. For two years God held the reins, and kept the adversary in check, in order that the testimony of Christ might be firmly established in this capital of Asia, and resound in all the country round about. All had been under the direction of God. Formerly, Paul had not been permitted to go to Ephesus; but now, under the good hand of God, he labours there without hindrance—two or three weeks at Thessalonica, and two or three years at Ephesus. In the two cities the work is done according to His will. Now that the work is finished, as far as Paul is concerned at this time, he proposes to depart.
The enemy left free, and spurred on by the powerful effect of the word of God, raises a great tumult against Paul and the gospel (v. 23). But it is vain to fight against God. His fury expends itself in shouts and cries. But when God allows it, opposition manifests itself in its true character. The devil works on the passions, on selfish interests, on base motives, which rise up against the love, the grace, and the salvation which God sends to ruined men. God be praised, it was too late! It was the efficacy of His grace in liberating the slaves of a diabolical superstition, the worship of false gods, that is, of demons, which called forth all this tumult. We have seen that till the work was finished, the enemy was kept in check.
A certain man, Demetrius, gained large sums from the manufacture of little silver shrines to Diana, because this Diana was celebrated in the entire pagan world; and her temple was one of the seven wonders of the world (v. 27). Incited by the desire for gain, he assembles the craftsmen to oppose the truth which was destroying all their trade (v. 25, 26), the truth which shewed that gods made with hands were no gods. How deep the gloom into which man, without God, and by his very need of a God, throws himself!
Not only were their gains at stake, but the importance of their goddess and of their city was in danger of being destroyed. They do not say, “Great is Diana,” but “Great is Diana of the Ephesians.” The knowledge of the true God makes our own nothingness felt, and judges the state of the heart; but in a false religion there is an alliance with the passions of the heart. The worshippers are great according to the measure of their religion, and of that which they worship. If the Diana of the Ephesians was great, the Ephesians themselves were important according to her importance. To despise Diana was to detract from the greatness of her followers. Gain and importance were the two things which accompanied the worship of this goddess. Such was the source of the passions awakened by a few clever words from Demetrius. Such is the religion of the natural heart, which however feels the need of a God. It is a false religion which does not act on the conscience, unless perhaps to produce fear, if God be against it; but which nourishes human passions, and allies itself with the malice of the heart against truth.
The multitude rise in fury, and rush with one accord to the theatre. The brethren restrain Paul, and prevent him from going there, whither his zeal would have led him. God watches over His servant; there was nothing for him to do there. The crowd, however, take possession of two brethren, companions of Paul, and drag them to the theatre. Certain chiefs of the public festivals of Asia, friends of Paul, send to him, warning him not to present himself at the theatre, where there was only violence and tumult. But once more the poor Jews prove themselves without light. Walking in darkness in their own errors, they put forward one of their countrymen to defend the doctrine of the one God. But this only still further excites the fury of the people, who cry out for the space of two hours, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians.” Without God it is impossible either to oppose the devil, or to maintain the truth; neither the truth of the one God, nor the name of Jesus associated with that of Paul who announced Him, had any power without faith and truth in the heart. The poor Jews had rejected the Saviour, and without their perceiving it, strength entirely failed them, as it did Samson, shorn of the Nazarite’s hair. Although enemies to the new doctrine, yet they expected to be able to present amicably the doctrine of the one God. But, enemies to the grace of God and despised by men, all they could do was to excite the multitude to continue still longer their senseless and passionate cry, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians.”
The town clerk, having appeased the people, gives them to understand that the authorities would most likely interfere on account of the tumult, and that the men (Gaius and Aristarchus) had done nothing contrary to the law. He then dismisses the disorderly and irregular assembly, which had done nothing but shew what man is under the power of Satan and moved by his own selfishness.
In short, we have in this chapter, presented in a remarkable way, the conflict between the Spirit of God working in the servants of Jesus, and the power of the devil, kept in check, however, by God, as long as His work was being performed; and the sorrowful position of the Jews, all their moral power being taken from them, since they were opposed to the gospel. The assembly of God being formed beyond their limits, they were no longer His people; when they sought to make use of the name of the Lord, it turned to their confusion; when they defended the doctrine of the one God, which they believed, it only made the people cry out the more, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians.” Till the Lord comes, this conflict must continue; and though miracles have ceased, yet the care of His servants never grows weaker in the heart of Jesus. He works as really as ever, and the government of God orders everything for the good of His work. He may indeed permit Satan’s rage to break forth, but He never forgets His own.
He can allow the apostles to be driven from Thessalonica and Berea, and then keep the enemy in check at Ephesus. But He always watches over His servants. He can hold the door open where He will, and shut it where He sees fit to do so. We can rely on Him! Only let us be directed by Him who openeth and no man shutteth, and shutteth and no man openeth. When we have “a little strength,” He sets before us an opened door.
From 2 Corinthians 1 and 4, it would appear that the persecution was more violent, and that it continued longer than during the public events recorded in Acts 19. But what these particulars may have been, we are not told. But after the stormy assemblage in the theatre, Paul calls the disciples together, embraces them, and departs into Macedonia. Going over those parts, he exhorts the brethren, and arrives in Greece. There he remains three months. He had thought of returning from Greece to Syria; but the Jews—ever envious, and enemies to the gospel, as well as to the one who preached it outside their limits, since they had rejected Christ, and hope for them was gone—laid wait for him. The truth which they had had was always the truth; but now that the Son of God had come, and the Father and His love been manifested in Him, that no longer possessed any power; for this revelation was one of life eternal, and of the satisfaction of divine justice. They could not endure the thought of being placed on one side on account of the truth they would not receive, and therefore laid wait for Paul. When this becomes known to the apostle, he returns by way of Macedonia.
Let us remark in this brief narrative, which is not accidental, that when Paul had planted the gospel in a country, he did not abandon the converts, but returns with affectionate solicitude, instructs, exhorts, edifies, and watches over the seed planted by his instrumentality, in order that it may be preserved, and grow in the knowledge of Christ. He does not neglect the Lord’s garden, well knowing that tares may spring up where the good seed grows, and that the enemy can spoil the harvest, if it is not well guarded. It is more needful now than ever to do this, for we are in the perilous times of the last days. Though the enemy can never pluck the sheep out of the Good Shepherd’s hand, yet he may disperse them; they may be subjected to the effect of every kind of evil doctrine, by which their growth is hindered, the Lord’s glory trampled upon, testimony to Him destroyed, and the candlestick taken away. Let the Lord’s servants take warning!
Paul then returns by Macedonia. It is not important, but in verse 4 we should read, “Gaius and Timotheus of Derbe.” From verse 5 we see that many attached themselves to Paul in the work; and others, besides those in verse 4 went before. Luke, the author of this book, and perhaps others too, accompanied the apostle in his journey towards Troas. The others tarried for him at Troas. It is not without interest to see this emotion of hearts moved by the gospel which Paul preached. All were free; some, such as Apollos, labouring apart; the others, the companions of the great central figure—great for his faith in Christ, and as sent directly from Him by the voice of the Holy Ghost—occupied and sent by Paul to carry on and accomplish the work in places he would himself have visited, had he not been obliged to go elsewhere, when the opportunity presented itself for them to be thus sent.
Leaving Philippi in five days, they come to Troas, and there remain seven days. Everywhere assemblies had been formed. Here a door had been opened to Paul in coming from Ephesus, but he had not been able to remain long, being uneasy about the Corinthians, since he did not find Titus there, whom he had sent to them. It was at Troas that Luke, who wrote the Acts, had attached himself to Paul, to accompany him the first time he visited Macedonia. We do not know how the gathering at Troas was formed; but there was one, and we are given to see into it a little, not its discipline or gifts, as in Corinthians, but its ordinary walk.
The first day of the week the disciples met together to break bread. This was evidently their custom. It was the first day of the week, and the disciples gathered themselves together according to their habit, to break bread. It was the first object of their meeting, the centre of their worship. Other things were done; they spoke, taught, as Paul did, sang; but they met together to break bread. This is confirmed by 1 Corinthians 11:20, where the apostle says that the Corinthians did not really assemble for the Lord’s supper, since each ate his own supper, not thinking of the others, but eating and drinking for his own pleasure. Now this shews clearly that the object of the assembly was the Lord’s supper. At the beginning they broke bread every day; Acts 2:42, 46. When gatherings were formed everywhere, and zeal had been enfeebled, they met only on the first day of the week, the day of the Lord’s resurrection. This was not a rule, but Luke speaks of it as a usage well known everywhere among the Christians. It seems that Paul had awaited this day to speak to the disciples, simply because it was the day of their meeting together; however, that is not certain. However it may be, he profits by the occasion to preach to them before setting out, and he speaks till midnight. They met, it seems, in the evening.
The discourse was long, and they had not yet broken bread; the weather was hot, and there were many lights. Such is human weakness, that all this so affected a certain Eutychus, that he was overcome with sleep, as Paul was long preaching, and fell down from the third floor, where he was sitting by the window. He was taken up by the men dead. Paul naturally interrupts his discourse, goes down and throws himself on him, declaring that life is still in him. The separation had not yet taken place; he was stunned by the fall, and if the power of God had not interposed, he would have been caught in the clutches of death. Life, however, had not yet gone out of the body; and by the Spirit, Paul so works on it, that the functions of life are restored. The bonds between soul and body are re-established. In the case of the child restored to life by Elijah (1 Kings 17:21, 22) the soul had already left the body, and returned to it. From these cases, as always elsewhere, we see that the soul is entirely distinct from the body; and though in our present state it works by means of the body, yet it is in its habitation; that life in this world is the activity of the soul by means of the functions of the body, the activity of which is restored by sleep, because we are feeble; that when the soul leaves the body, the man is definitively dead, but that the activity of the soul by the functions of the body may be interrupted, as is partly the case in sleep; and this action is re-established if the soul have not left the body, if God does so or permits it.
In its highest part—the spirit, the soul in relation to God is alas! at enmity against Him: it will not and does not submit to Him. With its inferior part, it works in the body: marvellous creation! in relations with God above, and with nature before. It is a mixture of thoughts which seek to rise to God but cannot, and of creature thoughts. It is responsible to God according to the nature it has originally received from Him. When born of God, it receives a totally new life, in which it is in relation with God, according to grace and redemption, a life animated by the Spirit which it receives from above, and which makes of the body an instrument for the service of God. Possessing this life, we know that, “if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” I have said this in reference to Eutychus, because in these days the simplicity of the truth regarding the soul is lost sight of by many.
Paul then goes up again, and, having broken bread, talks still even till day-break, comforting much the souls he saw perhaps for the last time. He then departs leaving Eutychus alive to the joy of the brethren. Paul sends on his companions by ship, and goes himself on foot, desiring to be alone. For us this is often a wise thing; to be alone, apart from men, but alone too with God, where we can think of Him, of ourselves before Him, of the work, as He sees it, and where in His presence responsibility is felt, instead of activity before men. No doubt this activity ought to appear in His presence, because it is holy; but at all events the activity of man is another thing than to place oneself before God, such as He is for us. It is not less true that this communion with Him, as His servants, gives and sustains a blessed confidence in Him, an intimacy of soul with Him, full of goodness and of grace.
Paul had instructed his companions to take him in at Assos, which they do: from thence they proceed to Mitylene, to Chios, and finally to Miletus, half a day from Ephesus. Paul had determined not to stop there, desiring if possible to be at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. If he had stopped at Ephesus, he must have remained some time, as he had laboured there for a long period, and with great blessing. He passes on therefore, sending from Miletus for the elders of the assembly at Ephesus, the centre of the work in that region. It is evident that the apostle was pre-occupied with the circumstances in which he was placed—with the apparent end of his career. This thought, it is probable, exercised an influence over him, when he went alone on foot to Assos. And also it was the cause of his long speech at Troas.
It is not only imagination which suggests this idea; the apostle expresses (at the end of the Epistle to the Romans, written when he was about to leave Corinth, Rom. 15:31) his fear that he might be an object of hatred to the rebels in Judaea; and he desires the Romans to pray that he may be delivered out of their hands, hoping thus to be able to see their face with joy, and from Rome to continue his work in Spain. We know that in Palestine he was taken, and after two years confinement at Caesarea, went a prisoner to Rome; that he remained there as such two years more; and that there, as far as the word is concerned, his history terminated. It is possible that he may have been liberated; I believe so, from what we find in the Epistles to the Philippians and to Philemon; Phil. 1:25, 26; Philemon 22.
From 2 Timothy too it seems that he was set free, and that he returned to Asia. But as to the Biblical record of his labours, all is finished at the end of the Acts, which leaves him a prisoner at Rome. According to God’s thoughts, such as they are communicated to us in the scriptures, that was the end of the apostle’s work. And he felt that such was the case; and it is no more a question of going to Spain, or travelling anywhere beyond Rome. The Holy Ghost spoke of bonds and tribulations; and Paul’s thought now turned towards his departure from this world.
The elders being come from Ephesus and assembled before him, Paul speaks of his ministry as of a thing accomplished. A little before he had told the Romans that he had no longer any place in those parts, his career there being over; Rom. 15:23. Revisiting the scenes of his work in Asia, and the regions of Asia Minor, he shews us the character of this work, and the effect of his departure; and this renders his discourse very important. He had served the Lord with much humility, in trials and in tears, caused by the snares of the Jews, whose opposition was continual and without conscience. In spite of it, however, he never failed both in public and in private to preach and teach all that was necessary for them, repentance towards God, and faith in Jesus Christ, as the true state of a soul brought to God. Nothing is said, as to the order of these two things in the heart, although in such order there is something practical, but of the true character of repentance and faith. Repentance was to be preached in the name of the Lord Jesus (Luke 24:47); so that His name might be owned, and that sinners might repent. It was founded on the ground of the grace and truth that came by Him; but true repentance takes place in the presence of God, and goes beyond sorrow for having done wrong, or shame, or the mere work of the natural conscience.
The soul revealed to itself through grace comes with open eyes into God’s presence. All is judged according to Him whose presence is manifested to the soul; everything is judged as it appears in His eyes. The word of God is His eye in the conscience, and makes us feel that He has seen all, and then things appear to us as they do to Him. We no longer excuse ourselves, nor do we desire to do so. The result is confession to God by a conscience which feels itself in His presence (Heb. 4:12, 13); while the heart restored desires holiness, and the soul feels its responsibility for all that we have done. We justify God in our condemnation (Luke 7:29); though in such a case there is always some confidence in His grace, not peace but confidence; for He who has become light to the soul is also love, Himself being both these things. When He reveals Himself as light in order to shew us our sins, it is in love He does so in Jesus; and He is love. He cannot reveal Himself to the soul without being the two things, for in His nature He is both.
Take the case of the woman in Luke 7. The light and the love of God had penetrated into her soul; she did not yet know what it was to be pardoned, but her heart had confidence in Jesus; and at the same time her conscience was deeply convinced of sin.
Take again the case of Peter (Luke 5:8): the prodigal son (Luke 15:17-19); and of the thief on the cross (Luke 23:41). Repentance thus is the effect of the revelation of God to the soul, which then shews itself; and up to a certain point it knows God as light, which manifests everything. “Come, see a man which told me all things that ever I did.” But as love to the soul, the Lord inspires confidence, though the remission of sins be not known. This is discovered by the soul by faith in Christ Jesus—not only that Jesus is the Christ, but that by Him its sins are pardoned, for He was dead for our sins; and if we receive the word of God, we believing in Him know, that He has taken all our sins on Himself on His own body on the tree. When He had by Himself purged our sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high; because by one offering He has perfected for ever them that are sanctified by that sacrifice.
Although faith in the work of Christ is necessary in order to possess peace, yet His person ever remains as the object of the heart—the Christ who has loved us, and given Himself for us, who now is glorified at the right hand of God, after having borne our sins, and submitted to death and the curse for us, but ever living for us now; who Himself will return to seek us, and make us perfectly like Himself in glory. We believe in Him, not only in the efficacy of His death. He is our righteousness before God, made such by God Himself, and we are accepted in the Beloved. John 17 tells us that we are loved with the same love wherewith the Father loves the Son. If true repentance is made in the presence of God, and in respect of Him, confidence and peace come by means of the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ. He has made peace by His own blood.
Such was the testimony of Paul, the truth of the conscience, peace, and the knowledge of God by His Son Jesus come down here in love, ascended into heaven as man, having accomplished the work which His Father had given Him to do. So great were the truth and the revelation, and so like the apostle is the execution of his ministry! But this ministry was drawing to its close, without knowing that such was the case. The Spirit testified in every place that bonds and tribulations awaited him; and he foresees that they would see his face no more. This furnishes the opportunity to speak of the effect of His departure. The sheep of Jesus are safe in His hands; as to the life He has imparted to them, they can never perish—none can pluck them out of His hand. But a temple had been established, a house on the earth, of which the apostle was by grace the founder according to the will of God, the wise master-builder; 1 Cor. 3:10. According to another figure, He has placed a candlestick on the earth to shine round about Himself, and this He can take away. There will always be a house of God built with His hand, and by His power which will never grow less—Christ the foundation, the stones living, by grace placed on this chief corner stone, and growing to an holy temple for the Lord; Matt. 16:18; 1 Pet. 2:4, 5; Eph. 2:21.
Against this work of the Lord—a work carried on by grace in the heart—the gates of hell cannot prevail; for it is the fruit of the power of the Lord Jesus, working in grace. Moreover, this temple is not yet entirely built—it is growing. At least we may expect that by grace every soul can be introduced into it. God alone knows the moment when the work of grace which forms the assembly, the body of Christ, shall be accomplished. See 2 Peter 3:9. But God’s will has been to form an assembly on the earth. The work of Jesus, of which we have spoken, is done here below; but beyond this, as we have seen, God formed an assembly by the ministry of Paul, a temple on the earth, confiding the building of this temple into the hands of men, and under their responsibility. It is now the habitation of God through the Spirit, Jews and Gentiles being built up together, founded according to the will of God, but left to the responsibility of man. “But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereon.” “Now if any man build upon this foundation [Jesus Christ], gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is.”
There are three kinds of workmen: a good Christian and a good workman, such as Paul; a good Christian and a bad workman, himself saved, but his work to be consumed; then he who seeks to corrupt and destroy the temple of God, whose work, as well as himself, shall perish. Such were the heresiarchs, who, moved by the enemy, sought to corrupt the faith. Three sects of them existed during Paul’s own time; but as long as he remained in the world, his spiritual energy resisted and overcame evil; such as immorality among the Corinthians, and the loss of the doctrine of grace among the Galatians. But with his departure this energy disappeared. He had already said (Phil. 2:21) that all sought their own, not the things which were Jesus Christ’s. No soul was to be found like that of Timothy to care for the state of the Christians.
Paul tells the elders then that, after his departure, grievous wolves should enter in among them, and that even of their own selves perverse men should arise, and draw the disciples away. Till Satan be bound, and the Lord come to do it, there will ever be conflicts. Since the beginning of the world, whenever God has established anything good, man’s first act has been to destroy it. First, there was man himself; then, in the world after the flood, Noah got tipsy, and his authority was lost. Israel made the golden calf before ever Moses came down from the mountain. Nadab and Abihu offered strange fire the first day after their consecration, for which cause Aaron could no more enter into the inner sanctuary with his priestly garments of glory. Solomon having loved strange women, his kingdom was divided. So in the assembly established on the earth, soon after the apostle’s departure, evil presents itself; and it is of this that the elders are forewarned.
Where were the other apostles? At Jerusalem. Peter, the apostle of the circumcision, leaves the gathering scattered by the destruction of Jerusalem. The chief of the apostles abandon to Paul the preaching of the gospel among the Gentiles, to which work the Lord Himself had called him at the first, and then again expressly, by the Holy Ghost at Antioch. To the other apostles, therefore, he does not entrust his ministry. Still less does Paul imagine that there can be successors in his office. He knows nothing of successors; but he exhorts the existing elders to faithfulness and watchfulness, commending them to God, and to the word of His grace, “which,” he says, “is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.” Christ, ascended up on high, can still give evangelists, pastors, and teachers; and He does give them; but the office of personal apostolic care has disappeared. “After my departure,” says the apostle. This is a departure without succession. It is sad, surely, yet true; and we have seen it in all that God has established among men. His grace continues, the faithful care of Christ can never fail. The Spirit has given His instructions for this time, as at the beginning, and the Lord is enough for the present condition, as He was faithful in the past. But such a thing as a succession to his apostleship is unknown to Paul when he speaks of his absence. God, and the word of His grace, are for him the refuge of God’s people. They can meet together, and Christ will be in their midst; they can profit by the gifts He has granted according to His promise. The rules for our walk are contained in the word; but the apostleship, as a personal energy watching over the organisation of the assembly, has disappeared, leaving no succession behind it.
This is a solemn truth, which must be well borne in mind. But we must never forget that Christ is always enough for the assembly; that He is faithful in His care of it, and that He can never fail in strength, in love, or in faithfulness. What we have to do is to count on Him, and that with purpose of heart. Divine power is manifested more in Elijah and Elisha than in all the prophets of Jerusalem from the time of Moses himself. The Lord gives what is needful to His people. The word of God confirms sadly, but abundantly, what Paul says here. His testimony is that not only should evil appear in the exterior constitution of the church, but that it should continue till the Lord comes in judgment. Let us consider what the word of God says.
Jude declares that it was already needful to write to them, to exhort them to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints, because certain men had crept in unawares who turned the grace of our God into lasciviousness. They were corrupting the assembly from within; and what is very remarkable, he declares that these are they (that is, the class of persons) who will be among the objects of the Lord’s judgment, when He comes with ten thousands of His saints. The corruption, begun during the time of the apostles, will continue till the coming of the Lord. So much for internal corruption. But this is not all. Evil unfolds itself from the other side, as we find in the Epistle of John. Some had abandoned Christianity openly. “Little children, it is the last time; and as ye have heard that Antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists, whereby we know that it is the last time. They went out from us, but they were not of us,” 1 John 2:18.
Thus we see that though this apostle survived Paul for many years, and certainly watched over the assemblies, in Asia Minor at least, dwelling, as it is said, at Ephesus, it was only in order to record the fact that the last time was already come, which was shewn by the presence of these antichrists, and by the apostasy of many. If it be asked why God waits so long before executing judgment, the answer is to be found in 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” To Him a thousand years are as one day. In the time of the Jews, judgment was pronounced (Isa. 6), eight hundred years before it was executed, that is, when they had finally rejected the humbled, but also glorified Son of God.
The epoch of this ruin of the assembly on the earth is determined, namely, on the death of Paul— “After my departure.” Doubtless, corruption had been rapidly growing. The mystery of iniquity was already working during the apostle’s life; but his spiritual energy knew how to resist it. He being gone, however, it went on increasing without hindrance, except from the grace of God in individuals, and the chastisement by which God arrested the decline into ruin and corruption. The testimony of God, although hid under a bushel, has never yet been extinguished; and God has from time to time raised up witnesses in the midst of darkness, feeble perhaps, but true; and, at the time of the Reformation, delivered whole countries from open corruption. But we have seen that the evil, introduced in the time of Jude, was to continue till the judgment.
This solemn and humiliating truth is confirmed by other passages. The assembly has never been restored. Not only does John say that the last time has come, but that this is marked by the presence of antichrists. Now Antichrist shall be destroyed by the coming of the Lord. Paul reveals to us that the apostasy that began to shew itself in John’s time will be fully unfolded at the last time; when Antichrist himself shall be manifested, whose coming shall be after the working of Satan, and whom the Lord shall destroy when He comes in glory. The mystery of iniquity was already working, even during the apostle’s life, and the progress of evil was to continue from his days till the Lord should come. Thus too, the Lord says that the tares are to grow till the harvest.
It seems to us, then, that the death of Paul is the moment from which we must count the prevalence of evil. We say “prevalence,” because evil was already working, though Paul resisted it by the power of the Spirit; and because this evil was to go on increasing till Christ should come; because in the last days perilous time should come, and the form of godliness without the power of it. Then in 2 Timothy 3 we also get the word of God set forth as that which is necessary, and sufficient to render the man of God perfect, and furnished unto all good works. All this truth is powerfully confirmed by what is said in Revelation 2 and 3, where the Christian who has ears to hear is called upon to hearken, not to the church, but to what the Spirit saith unto the church; and in His words we find judgment pronounced by Jesus Christ on the state of the church.
We would add that it is one thing to submit to the discipline, or practical judgment of an assembly, regarding evil, and quite another thing to suppose, when we are called upon to judge of the state of the church by the words of Christ and of the Spirit, that the authority of the assembly is the perpetual safeguard of the faith. The universal assembly, Christianity, is corrupted and divided, and cannot, even as an instrument in the hands of God, secure the maintenance of the truth. It is submission to the word of God only that can do it.
In order to shew how far the primitive church wandered from the truth, we shall quote from a book read in the assembly, one hundred and fifty years after the death of John, cited by one of the best fathers of the primitive churches as part of the inspired scriptures, and esteemed as such by another, who was less orthodox, it is true.
The author, pretending to have received a revelation says, “A man possessed a vineyard, and commanded his servants to gather the fruits. The servant, being very faithful, did what was entrusted to him, and besides, out of devotedness to his. master, rooted all the weeds out of the vineyard. The master who was so much pleased with the servant, that he consulted his son and his friends as to what should be done for the faithful servant, and it was decided to make him heir with the son. Now the master is God, the son is the Holy Ghost, the friends are the angels, and the servant is Christ. God had sent him to establish the clergy for the support of the faithful; but He had done much more than this, and what God had not told him to do—He had taken away sins. Thus it is, according to the consultation of God with the Holy Ghost, and the angels, co-heirs with the Holy Ghost, who is Son and Heir of God.” Such is what was read in the churches, written by the brother of Pope Pius, and pretended to have been inspired by God. And this a hundred and fifty years after the birth of Christ. What is recounted in the same book of holiness is no better. What is there related as holy in the visions of Hermas, it is impossible to transcribe on these pages!
Such then is the testimony of the apostle; after his departure, evil would prevail, active both within and without. He tells them nothing of the nomination of successors to the elders, any more than he does of a successor to himself. He insists on the faithfulness of those who were there, whom the Holy Ghost had made bishops (for bishops and elders were one and only one office); and commends them to God and to the word of His grace, which was able to build them up, and give them an inheritance among them that were sanctified. In fact, no means is established in the word for the continuance of the organisation of the assembly. People are mistaken on this point. The disciples were waiting for the coming of the Lord, the Lord Himself. See the parables of the servant, Matthew 24, of the virgins and the talents. But the apostle shews that this coming might be delayed till long after the life of those then on the earth. The sleeping virgins are the very same that are revealed; the servants who received the talents those found afterwards at the coming of the Lord. Paul says, “We which are alive and remain till the coming of the Lord.” They did not know when He would come, but still they waited for Him; Luke 12:36, etc. What has produced the moral ruin of the assembly is, that she has ceased to look for the Lord; but has said, “The Lord delayeth his coming,” Matt. 24:49. She has taken and beaten her fellow-servants, has eaten and drunk with the drunken. The hierarchy has been established; worldliness has invaded the assembly; and thus alliance has been made with the world.
The apostle recalls his own faithfulness, how he had been an example to the elders, labouring with his own hands, since it was more blessed to give than to receive. Then, kneeling down, he prays with them all. And they, weeping, embrace him sorrowfully, chiefly for the word that he had spoken, that they should see his face no more. And they accompanied him to the ship. Solemn departure, the end of the apostle’s public work. He speaks of it as of a finished work, announcing that henceforward, in consequence of his absence, evil would prevail in the outward assembly of God on the earth, but assuring the faithful that God and the word of His grace would be enough to build them up, and give them an inheritance among those that were sanctified. This was certain. The power of Christ secures it; but the exterior system, Christianity, would be corrupted, having given up the expectation of the Lord’s return. Paul teaches the same truth in 2 Timothy 3. John tells us that the last time has already arrived.
The patience of God continues to accomplish the work of grace; and Christ to supply the gifts necessary to the perfecting of the saints, and the building up of the assembly, although our coldness greatly hinders the Spirit. And this will be the case till the end of the gathering of the saints. Christianity has ripened in the midst of evil, as foretold by the apostles. It is evil which began in apostolic times, and which was already sufficiently mature in John’s time, the last of the apostles; for he says that the last times had already come. We trust that the cry, “Behold the bridegroom cometh, go ye out to meet him,” has already begun to go forth, and that many hearts will respond, and kindle their lamps. May the Lord add daily to their number!
From Miletus, Paul sets out for Jerusalem. In this journey, nothing of importance occurs till the apostle’s arrival at Tyre. There he finds disciples who tell him not to go up to Jerusalem; and this they do by the Spirit. We have already spoken a little of this. To tell him by the Spirit not to go up was more than to forewarn him that bonds and tribulation awaited him. He felt bound in spirit, and doubtless the hand of God was leading him, though it was not that free action of the Holy Ghost in his heart that had guided him in the Lord’s work. He means by the state of his soul as a victim, and by this providence, not to preach to lost souls in order to save them, but to bear testimony to the Lord in the face of death. In such a testimony he answers for himself, and therefore for the Lord; but he was not seeking souls. He does nothing hurtful, but he does not work in the power of the Holy Ghost. To him the Lord Himself was everything. That was not changed; and the circumstances in which the apostle is found during these last years of his life resemble those in which the Lord was placed at Jerusalem. But in Him we see perfection in man; in Paul the grace of God with man, but man in his imperfection was not doing that work now. He was going to Jerusalem with money from the Greeks for the poor saints who lived there—a good Christian work, but not the apostolic work of the gospel. He could not bear witness as an apostle at Jerusalem. The Lord had told him so. Still as a prisoner he had a testimony, and the Lord was with him: and also towards those who had not otherwise heard the gospel, such as the governors and kings.
It is true that he followed afar off in the Lord’s footsteps, being betrayed by the Jews, and placed by them with Gentiles to be put to death; but his true work as an apostle to the Gentiles was at an end, at least as far as we know from the word. We have seen that there is a certain difference between “they said to him by the Spirit,” and “the Spirit said.” If the Spirit Himself had said it, it would have been disobedience to Paul to have gone to Jerusalem: but it seems to us that it was rather a warning given by the Spirit, that he should not go there. Certainly it was much more than to say that afflictions awaited him. It was a solemn warning from the Spirit by the mouths of the brethren; and moreover he was “bound in spirit.” But this warning the apostle neglects. He feels constrained to go to Jerusalem, but notwithstanding this, he is led by the providence and grace of God manifest towards him, faithful and blessed.
The Lord goes as a sheep, dumb before her shearers; and neither opens His mouth, nor replies to His accusers. Paul, however, claims Roman citizenship, and raises a tumult in the council by declaring himself a Pharisee. That he was a Roman, and also (as a Jew) a Pharisee, was true; but where was any testimony in these worldly facts? Christ was condemned solely for the witness He bore to the truth, to Himself before the Jews and before Pilate, although by the latter He was recognised as entirely innocent. Paul is betrayed by the Jews, and given over to the Gentiles as Christ was, and by them punished, though not put to death; but Christ is condemned by His own divine perfection, by jealousy and hatred against God, manifest in goodness. But Paul is condemned by the enmity of the Jews to the Gentiles.
The apostle follows the Lord, but it is afar off. With full heart we honour the apostle so faithful, so blessed, and own the power of the Spirit in his work among the Gentiles. But to Jerusalem he went neither to seek the Gentile, nor to bear witness to the Jews. The Lord had told him, “they will not receive thy testimony.” And it is precisely when he reminds the Jews of these words of the Lord, that their fury breaks forth. But Christ was the object of the testimony: and though Paul witnessed a good confession, yet he was only the witness, honoured however, and following the Lord in the distance.
Let us follow now the sad history of the apostle’s end. At Tyre he enjoys again Christian simplicity and affection. Then he and his companions, accompanied by the brethren of Tyre, go down to the sea, and there kneeling down on the shore, join in prayer. Then taking leave of them, Paul embarks in the ship, and the others return to their homes. Blessed by his faithful labours, Paul leaves the field for ever. It is possible, and also probable that he was liberated from his captivity at Rome, and that he recommenced his work, but we have not the history of this in the Bible. Arrives at Caesarea, he leaves the vessel, and enters into the house of Philip the evangelist, whose preceding history at Samaria, together with the treasurer of Candace, we have already perused. There a prophet comes from Jerusalem, who announces once more that bonds awaited Paul there. His companions and the brethren of Caesarea then beseech him not to go up to Jerusalem; but in vain, Paul declaring that he is ready to die there for the name of the Lord Jesus. “And when he would not be persuaded, they ceased, saying, The will of the Lord be done.”
Here we must draw the distinction between the apostle’s service, in which he was the minister of God Himself, and guarded by the Holy Ghost, when his words were those of the Spirit conveyed by his mouth, and his individual walk when he is found in a place where he had not been sent to accomplish the work assigned to him. This distinction made, let us compare the path of the Lord with that of the apostle, and faithful as the latter was, mark the difference. The Lord, when He hears that Lazarus is sick, remains quietly for two days in the same place, and then, God’s time being come, goes up to Jerusalem to do the will of His Father. The disciples, astonished, and fearing that death awaited Him there, warn Him, saying, “Goest thou thither again?” But the will of God was clear to the Lord, and therefore His path also, and He replies, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world.” All is calm, all is in the light of a divine day for His heart. The Saviour is the object of testimony, perfect in Himself. The apostles, however great and faithful, were only witnesses of His perfection and His glory. In themselves, no matter how marvellously blessed, they were only men as others. Paul had to reprove Peter publicly, and to separate himself from Barnabas. Here, conducted by the hand of God, and strengthened by His grace, he is led, bound in the spirit, to pass through circumstances that put to the test his state of soul, and brought his public career to a close.
He goes up then to Jerusalem forewarned (though neglecting or resisting these various warnings of the Spirit), accompanied by the brethren who were with him, and an old disciple, Mnason, with whom he was to lodge. Arrived at Jerusalem, the disciples receive him gladly; and here begins the history of that submission to human forms and Jewish customs which terminated in his captivity at Rome. But he does not follow these Jewish forms and ceremonies that he may thereby attract his countrymen to the gospel, but because persuaded into them by the elders and James, in order to shew that he was himself a good Jew, faithful to the law, and to Jewish customs. It was precisely this that threw him into the hands of the hostile Jews, and then into those of the Gentiles. Jesus, on the contrary, in the dignity of His perfection, sits in the temple to instruct the multitude. All classes of Jews come to prove him; but all are judged, and reduced to silence by the divine patience of the Saviour, and none dare ask Him any more questions. Then, as we have said, the Lord is condemned for the witness He bore to the truth.
When Paul arrives, the elders assemble with James, and, attached as they were to Judaism, and surrounded by Christian Jews, in order to uphold the reputation of their religion and unite Christianity to Judaism, counsel Paul to satisfy the prejudices of the believing Jews by purifying himself after their custom, and offering sacrifices in the temple, so that he might appear a good Jew to their eyes. Paul accedes to their proposal; and we encounter the strange spectacle of the apostle offering sacrifices, as though all such had not been abolished by the Lord’s death. He neither upholds nor wins the Jews who were not set free from their customs. Still God permitted him willingly to conform to these Jewish ceremonies. Being at Jerusalem, though warned by the Spirit not to go there, what could he do?
Let us remember, if we have been cast for the Lord’s name out from a place where we have been under the authority of the governing power, not to re-enter it, so that we may not again be placed in the position from which we have been freed. The relationship has been broken by the authority itself, and if we have left it by the will of God, by returning we place ourselves anew under the abandoned authority; and if this be contrary to that of the Lord Jesus, under which we came when liberated from human authority, we re-established over us the authority which had been destroyed, and thus strife begins between the authority of Christ over us, and that which we have abandoned. It is impossible to go on well thus. We were free under the authority of Christ, free to do His will; and we have returned to the authority which prohibits obedience to Christ. For example, suppose that a son or daughter has been driven from home for the Lord’s name; by this act the parents have renounced their authority. If this son returns to his father’s house, he places himself under paternal authority, and what c,an he do when his parents oppose the faith of Christ? He is powerless; and moreover, has so lost his liberty as to renew over himself the authority which opposes that of Christ, has given up the latter to return to that which is contrary to it.
Mark again the power of ancient habits. For us it is as clear as the light of day, that the sacrifices of the Jews are annulled, and that the precious sacrifice of Christ has abolished them entirely. But here is a multitude of Christians at Jerusalem, zealous for the law, offering sacrifices, and their elders counselling Paul to do likewise. Let us remember that his submission to these customs put an end to the public testimony of the apostle. Still, as we follow Paul’s history, let us ever bear his work in mind, all his labours, and the blessing which accompanied them. In this submission to Jewish ceremonies, he was not guided by the Spirit; he followed the advice of the elders; they were tenacious of the law; and his position was theirs. Paul does what they desire; and joining himself to four other men who had a vow goes with them to the temple to signify the days of purification, when a sacrifice should be offered for each of them.
But before the end of the days, certain Jews of Asia recognise Paul, and stir up the people against him, crying out that he taught everywhere against the law of Moses, and that he had profaned the temple. The doors are shut, and the crowd begin to abuse and beat Paul. While they are thus engaged, the Roman captain learns that all the city is in an uproar, and comes to liberate Paul from their hands. Such is the result of the attempt to conform to the superstitions of others, not made with a view to winning souls by guarding against offending them, but in order to convince these superstitious Jews that he walked as they did, thus only confirming them in their darkness!
If here we think of the Lord ever perfect, we shall perceive the difference of His path. Paul is taken by the hands of the Jewish rabble; Christ, when the band arrives, gives Himself up voluntarily, saying, “Whom seek ye? I have told you that I am he; if therefore ye seek me, let these go their way.” It is not in any way to disparage the Lord’s blessed workman, unequalled in his labours, caught up into the third heavens, that I point out this difference, but only that we may realise the unique perfection of the Saviour, the witness in His ministry of divine perfection in man, always, no doubt, but especially during His last sojourn at Jerusalem, when this perfection was proved to the end, then only shining more brightly, and found wanting in nothing.
The captain permitting Paul to speak to the people, the apostle relates the story of his conversion, then that which brings to light his submission to the superstitions of the Jewish Christians. This was the result of personal amiability, grace, and condescension to his brethren, but not of the direction and power of the Holy Ghost. His position was a false one; and in a false position it is impossible to do well. Though the grace of God may support, and sustain those so placed, yet the Holy Ghost cannot act in free power by their means. It is in sovereignty that He acts, and the instrument is like blind Samson, the power exercised being the end of his own career, as well as that of his enemies.
What is seen clearly in Paul is the absence of this power The Lord’s grace was always there. Thus, what he did ii the temple was the effect of the counsels of the elders, not o t the direction of the Spirit.
Captured now by the captain, he is allowed to speak to the people. As Paul addresses them in their own language, they listen in silence, while he relates the story of his conversion, of the revelation he had had of the glory of Christ, as well as that given to Ananias, a devout Jew. The moment he reaches the cardinal point of his discourse, however, the fury of the audience breaks out with a violence which the presence of the captain and soldiers cannot check. “I send thee far hence unto the Gentiles. And they lifted up their voices, and said, Away with such a fellow from the earth.” It was precisely what the Lord had said to him, “They will not receive thy testimony concerning Me.” What then was he doing at Jerusalem? The word that had sent him away from Jerusalem on his glorious mission is fulfilled when he re-enters it, to the ruin of his work, making him once more a Jew, bound by the law.
Like Jesus, Paul is condemned on account of the truth of his mission; but in the apostle’s case, in a position that contradicted the mission itself. But the Jews complete their sin by rejecting, and giving up to the Gentiles, the grace offered to them. The word that raised the tumult was also the occasion of his imprisonment among the Romans. This was the proof, that as an apostle he had nothing to do at Jerusalem. He loved his people, and that deeply; for he had returned to Jerusalem, in spite of all that had been said to him. Desiring to bear witness there, he had reasoned with the Lord; but the Lord had replied that he ought not to go there. He excuses himself to the Jews, without doubt; but if they would not receive his testimony, what was the necessity of saying that the Lord had sent him? This discourse is the main point of the apostle’s history, on which all the rest depends.
Paul justifies himself before the Jews, declaring how like themselves, he had persecuted the Christians even unto death, and that they and the high priest were witnesses of it. Then he relates how all had been changed by the appearing of the Lord in glory, who had declared Himself as Jesus, and shewn him how, in persecuting the Christians, he was persecuting the Lord Himself; and lastly the part that Ananias, the devout Jew, had taken in the affair. All this they tolerate, but when the apostle speaks of a mission to the Gentiles, their wrath breaks forth. They complete their sin. “Forbidding us,” had said the apostle, “to speak to the Gentiles—to fill up their sins already; for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost,” 1 Thess. 2:16.
There are three degrees in their sin. First, they crucified the Lord of glory, and were guilty of the ten thousand talents (Matt. 18); but Christ intercedes for them on the cross, and the Holy Ghost responds to this prayer by the mouth of Peter (chap. 3), declaring that if they repented of their sin, Jesus would return. But they stopped the mouth of Peter, and then stoned Stephen who bore testimony to the glory of the Son of man at the right hand of God. This was the second degree; they would not believe in a glorified Saviour, when the Spirit bore witness to Him.
All this happened among the Jews. But Paul had a mission among the Gentiles, since the Jews would not have the grace offered to them. They would have been willing enough to enjoy the promises made to Israel, although they had rejected Him in whom all the promises were fulfilled; but of having compassion on His servant, they did not even think. It was the end; all was finished; the debt of the ten thousand talents weighed down on them. Jerusalem would neither have grace itself, nor leave it to others. Judgment will come upon it. The patience of God, long-suffering patience, at length came to its end for hearts that refused to surrender to the perfect grace of God. But the judgment of God is only pronounced at Rome (Acts 28); a judgment already announced eight hundred years previously (Isaiah 6). But in the patience of God, this was not executed till they opposed themselves openly to His grace.
But judgment had to be executed. Christ in humiliation worked by the power of God; then Christ having been glorified, the Holy Ghost was sent into the world. Paul was afterwards raised up to carry the gospel to the Gentiles; and all having been rejected, nothing remained but judgment. The mystery of the union of Jews and Gentiles in one body was promulgated by Paul, and was the true point of progress of his testimony. It was grace itself that was rejected. God permitted the journey of Paul to Jerusalem, so that all might come to an end. Grace ever continues, even during the period of his captivity at Rome; and the mystery itself is fully unfolded by him in the Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians: and then he has given us the true Christian character, the practical fall of the system (Phil. 2:21), and the superiority of faith to all the circumstances in the Epistle to the Philippians. In 2 Timothy, the walk of the faithful Christian amid a scene of ruin, is clearly taught.
It will be worth our while to notice a few particularities in the apostle’s discourse. The Lord still calls Himself Jesus of Nazareth. We know that He was glorified, but this makes Him shine with a light more brilliant than that of the sun. He is ever the same benign and gentle Man who learned human sorrows in the midst of men. He thinks of others, and considers all Christians as part of Himself. “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest.” Infinitely precious truth! Then we find in Paul the same liberty as we have seen in Ananias. He reasons with the Lord (v. 18-21), saying that more than any other he was fit for testimony at Jerusalem. And this makes his sincerity evident. Yet in this he might perceive the Lord’s wisdom, for he is bearing witness against his own presence at Jerusalem. And here too we see what a perfect conscience is, by grace and by the blood of Christ. He recounts to Christ all his sins, and the hatred which at the beginning had been in his heart to the Lord’s name; how he had persecuted the members of Christ, and taken part in the death of Stephen; and all this he presents to the Lord as a motive for his mission to the Jews. But his conscience was pure now.
I believe we have spoken of a little difficulty which Paul’s words present here, but I shall not err in repeating it. The companions of Paul saw the light, but did not hear the voice of Him who spoke with him. In chapter 9 we read that they heard the voice, but saw no one. They did not see the Lord, nor did they hear His words, but they saw a great light, and heard a voice without being able to distinguish the words. This is just what was necessary. They were undeniable witnesses that the vision was true and real, but the communication was for Paul alone. Only he saw the Lord (Acts 22:14, 15). For he had to be taught by Him, and bear testimony as an ocular witness that he had seen Him.
Moved by the violence of the multitude, the captain desires that Paul should be led into the castle, and commands him to be examined by scourging, but, already covered with stripes, Paul takes advantage of his rights as a Roman citizen. It was not lawful to bind such. He is not scourged therefore. On the morrow, loosed from his bands, he is brought before the Jewish Council, that they might know of what he was accused. And now Paul, who a little before had represented himself as a Jew in order to escape the prejudices of the Judaizing Christians, declares himself a Roman citizen in order to avoid unjust punishment from the Gentiles. It was not a sin, for he was really a Roman; but where was the power of the Spirit? Where is the Christian who would not do likewise?
Brought before the Council, the apostle begins by declaring his innocence. “And the high priest, Ananias, commanded them that stood by to smite him on the mouth.” This undoubtedly was violence; yet produced not by testimony borne to Christ, but by self-justification. Paul replies with an insult, calling the high priest a “whited wall.” He had merited this, it is true; but such an answer did not display the meekness of Christ. Being reproved, Paul owns his fault; but his defence tells us of the absence of the power and of the knowledge of the Holy Ghost. “I knew not,” is not what the Holy Ghost would say. All is true; but we do not find the energy of the Spirit of God. Moreover, he is not now merely a Jew and a Roman, but also a Pharisee. Such a title he counts no longer dross and dung, it has become once more a gain.
However, God makes use of this to liberate Paul from the hands of the Jews. Full of zeal for their opinions, and of wrath against one another, the Council begin to dispute; and the discussion becoming warm, the captain fearing Paul might be pulled in pieces amid the tumult, commands the soldiers to go down and take him by force from among them. In the hands now of the Gentiles, he is taken by the soldiers to the castle; there we find the perfect grace of the Lord towards his faithful servant, in bringing him through trying circumstances without the consciousness that he was suffering for the testimony of God. For Jerusalem all was finished; and the Lord, knowing that Paul must go to Rome, appears to him the night following, saying, “Be of good cheer, Paul; for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome.” What grace! He encourages His servant. It is possible that his position was not the effect of the action of the Spirit; nevertheless, even had he not drawn down the hatred of the Jews on himself, he would have been in peril.
The cross, and grace towards the Gentiles, had made him the object of the enmity of this people. He had confessed Christ glorified, as revealed on his way to Damascus, and declared his mission to carry the name of Christ the Saviour to the Gentiles. The Lord does not remind him of the faults he had committed, but of his faithfulness. He encourages him, and makes him understand (and this was the more necessary, since he was a prisoner, and might say, “I have failed, I have not hearkened to the warning of the Spirit”)— makes him understand, I say, that whatever might happen, he was under His hand and His care. Watched over in Jerusalem, he would arrive in safety at Rome, and there be permitted to bear witness to Him. What consolation for the heart of His poor servant! And what grace on the Lord’s part! The apostle might have said to himself, “Now my testimony is over, and I myself am the cause of it. Ah! why did I not follow the counsel of the Spirit? The end of my work is come, and I have done it!” But the Lord manifests Himself. Paul is in His hands, and Jesus owns him still as a witness to His name. And shall we not recognise him whom the Lord owned? Assuredly. It is possible that the spiritual power of the witness is not displayed; it is possible that such a warning ought to have stayed his steps, and made him ask the Lord what he should do; but still the hand and heart of the Lord were with him. The grace is the more remarkable, as such a position had deprived him of the power of the Spirit of God.
The hatred of the Jews only hastened the liberation of Paul from their hands. Many conspiring for his death, the captain sends him to Caesarea, the residence of the governor. God has everything at His disposal. Here, therefore, for the first time we learn that the apostle had a nephew and a sister. Though he knew no longer anyone after the flesh, yet God knew his danger, and made use of the natural affection of a relation. Paul concerns himself little either about the young man or the peril he was in, but sends him to the captain, and the conspiracy is frustrated.
But amid the circumstances in which he was placed—though the lowest in his history—how grand the figure of Paul appears! if we compare him with those by whom he was surrounded— priests dominated by base passions, without conscience and without heart, and seeking only their own importance. In the captain, bound to subdue the passions of a people whom he despised, we see, in his sending Paul to the governor, a worldliness full of duplicity and contempt for the rights of others. Such, alas! are everywhere the ordinary, though base feelings of poor mortals. In Paul, though oppressed, and occupying a false position, integrity and grandeur of soul shine out; from a soul sustained by the great things with which he had been in relation; from the thought of a glorified Lord, and of a mission from Him for the salvation of poor sinners. Such things his persecutors could not understand (which shews that his position was a false one), but which issued naturally from a heart filled with them. But all he does is to throw what was holy to dogs, and pearls before swine. Nevertheless these things enlarge and illuminate the apostle’s figure in the scene we delineate, where, though scorned and trampled upon, he stands out in relief from among all the great ones, for the beauty and grandeur of his moral figure.
We now find the apostle in the hands of the Gentiles; and though there may have been no free action of the Spirit in Paul himself, yet the providence of God cares for him, ordering everything for the testimony he was to bear; and His favour is with him. The implacable enmity of the Jews only produces the fulfilment of the counsels of God, and debases them in the eyes of all who possess a noble heart. Though their desire was to gain possession of his person, yet he was to remain no longer in their power, and he is therefore conducted to Lysias, to Felix, to Festus, to Agrippa, and at last to Caesar. Such was the intention of God. Such too the means employed by Him to present the gospel to the governors and to the great; not by raising up, as many frequently think, men of the world to do so; but God makes a prisoner His servant, in order that the gospel might be carried to the knowledge of governors and kings. “But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are, that no flesh should glory in his presence,” 1 Cor. I:27-29.
Paul then, under a guard, journeys by night (for the captain was distrustful of the Jews), with a letter representing matters in a light favourable to himself, introducing him as a Roman, and preparing a good reception for him by the governor.
Instead of abandoning their inimical endeavours, the Jews go down to Caesarea to accuse Paul. The accusation is what our narrative itself suggests—his acts among the Jews in countries beyond Palestine, and his profanation of the temple. For confirmation of their allegation, they refer to the captain. The dignity of Paul’s reply is self-evident. While speaking with the respect due to the governor, he does so with perfect independence, with simplicity, and with a good conscience, as one innocent. His faith as, a Christian—which the Jews called heresy—and particularly his belief in resurrection, it is not requisite to confess. Formally denying what they accuse him of, he demands that his adversaries prove what they say. The only thing of which they could accuse him, was of having spoken of the resurrection in such a way as to raise a tumult in the council, and this they were little disposed to bring to light. Their violence on that occasion had obliged the captain to rescue Paul out of their hands. Felix, accustomed to Jewish habits, and knowing that the dispute arose out of the doctrine of Christianity, which had by that time acquired publicity, defers his judgment till Lysias should descend from Jerusalem to Caesarea. Meanwhile, Paul is set at liberty, and his friends are permitted to minister to him.
Some days later, Felix, who seems to have been absent with his wife Drusilla, a Jewess, calls for Paul, to hear him concerning the faith in Christ: for now the new doctrine had spread everywhere, and was attracting the attention of all. Felix, as well as his wife, being well versed in the things of the Jews, desired to know from its original source what Christianity was; and therefore summon Paul for this purpose. But Paul, ever occupied with souls and Christ, speaks to the conscience of the governor, telling him of judgment to come. Felix then, trembling, remands the apostle till “a more convenient season.” Thus divine testimony is borne to the council, Lysias, and to the governor. Besides this, the governor hoped that Paul would give him money to be liberated. But to such dealing Paul does not consent, and therefore remains a prisoner. Felix, having to go away, and desiring to leave a favourable impression on the minds of the Jews, leaves Paul bound. Though aware of his innocence, and able to set him free, he cared nothing for justice. Money and public opinion were of more importance to him. God’s intention, however, was that Paul should appear before other governors and kings, and at last before the Emperor himself. And this therefore is what happened.
Festus, the new governor, after three days goes up to Jerusalem. There the chief of the Jews inform him against Paul, and propose to have him brought to Jerusalem, intending to kill him on the way. But Festus will not consent, saying that he would return soon to Csesarea, and that then they could go there and accuse him.
Here again, God, in His providence, watches over His servant. Arrived at Caesarea, Festus makes Paul appear before him, and in order to gratify the Jews who accuse him, proposes to him to go up to Jerusalem. This he had before refused to the Jews; but now, in order to gain popularity, he proposes it. These two years had neither lessened the hatred, nor awakened the consciences of the Jews; and in the Roman (Festus), only base motives existed—love of self and of his own importance.
Paul upholds his integrity, and is watched over by God. He denies once more the things his accusers could not prove. Festus thinks nothing of justice, but only of gratifying the people. Paul replies with great dignity, that Festus was well aware that he had done nothing amiss, that he had not the right to give him up to his enemies, and concludes by appealing to Caesar. Such was the fulfilment of God’s purpose, that, conducted to Rome by His providence, Paul should there bear witness before the Emperor himself. This was not the thought of Festus, nor of the Jews, nor yet the testimony of the Spirit in Paul. But the will of God is accomplished without that of men.
We have seen that Paul was both a Roman and a Pharisee. With him it is no longer the weak things, the base things, and the things which are despised, the things that are not, that bring to nought the things that are. All is no longer dross and dung. Paul now makes use of these things to avoid injustice and death; and God employs them to conduct the apostle to Rome there to be a witness of the truth before the great of the world. Such too the cause of his audience with Agrippa, and of his journey to Rome. Having appealed to Caesar, he must of necessity be sent to Caesar; and Festus therefore decides accordingly.
But while these things are happening, the king Agrippa and Bernice come to salute the new governor. The latter relates to them the history of Paul, giving himself (as we find everywhere in the world, as well as in this instance) a character for equity and fidelity to the principles of justice and honour. But the story of the resurrection was only a Jewish superstition. Agrippa, one of the Herods, and king of the southern part of Palestine, was by race an Edomite, but a Jew by profession. He was consequently well-informed as to the religious questions of the country; and curious to know clearly, and from a reliable source, what the Christianity might be that had produced such a movement of spirit in the people of his country, asks to hear Paul. Festus, well knowing that the accused was not guilty of anything, and anxious to obtain some pretext for sending him to Caesar, accedes to his request. Of Paul’s innocence we have the testimony of the governor, in his address to Agrippa, as well as of the others who listened to him. He did not know what to write to the Emperor, and so brings Paul before this audience in the hope of discovering something to say.
Paul now shews that it is on account of the promises made to the fathers that he stands charged, and this too was the ground of the Jews’ accusation. “Why should it be thought an incredible thing with you that God should raise the dead?” He had thought that he should do many things against the name of Jesus, and zealous like the other Jews against the Christians, had persecuted them unmercifully, even into strange cities. Then he relates the appearing of the Lord Jesus on the way to Damascus, whither he was going to imprison Christians—how he had been arrested by the glory of the Lord in heaven, and learned that it was He Himself he was persecuting, since all Christians were one with Him. It was then that the unity of believers with Jesus was for the first time declared, a truth more fully unfolded afterwards by means of the apostle.
But the conversion itself was effected by two things; first, the heavenly glory of the Man, Jesus Christ the Lord; Paul, seeing this first, and then learning that it was Jesus; and secondly, that all Christians were united in one body with Him. Paul was persecuting Jesus Himself. But thenceforward he was to be a witness both of the things he had seen, and of those in which He who had been revealed to him would yet appear unto him. He had been separated from his own people, the Jews, and from the Gentiles, to whom now he was to be sent. He was no longer a Jew, but yet had not become a Gentile. He was associated with the Lord of glory, and was sent out from Him as a witness of His glory, and of the grace that could take up an open enemy, and make him the expression and witness of the perfect grace that had converted and saved him. His mission, as God’s workman, was to open the eyes of the Gentiles, and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they might receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them that are sanctified —the whole by faith in Jesus. “By faith that is in me” (v. 18), applies more particularly to forgiveness and inheritance, though as a matter of fact, the words extend to the entire sentence. Obedient to the heavenly vision, he had preached repentance everywhere, beginning with the Jews, exhorting them to turn to God, and do works meet foi repentance. Though the Jews had sought to kill him, yet by the help of God he had continued till that day, saying none other things than those which the prophets had said should happen—that Christ should suffer, rise from the dead, and shew light to the people and to the Gentiles.
To Festus, all this was mere fanaticism. But Paul replied with perfect dignity and propriety, in a way which was the best proof that he was not beside himself, but that he spoke the words of truth and soberness. Such a testimony, however, to an unconverted Gentile, whose conscience had not been reached, was nothing but pure madness. At all events, Festus felt that these things were entirely beyond his knowledge. He saw that Paul could not be charged with any misdemeanour. He understood nothing about the matter. The formal politeness he had at first shewn now disappears, as well as the propriety of his position. The power of what Paul had said has sufficed to reduce him to his natural state of soul. But Paul maintaining both dignity and propriety, places Festus anew in the position of governor, and addresses himself to Agrippa, who knew the truth of these things, and before whom therefore he could speak freely. Turning towards the latter, then, he asks, “King Agrippa,” appealing to his conscience, “believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest.”
Being above all circumstances, Paul is completely master of the occasion. Agrippa is confused by the apostle’s question, since he was a Jew by profession, though nothing in heart! and ashamed of being placed in a corner before such company by his simple but powerful words, tries to parry the blow, and says jestingly, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” But Paul, whose large heart is occupied only with the reality and happiness of Christianity, replies, “I would to God that not only thou, but all that hear me this day, were both almost and altogether such as I am except these bonds.” Such was the beautiful expression of a heart full of grace, and therefore of love for others, and of the consciousness of a happiness that two years’ captivity had rather strengthened than weakened. But how highly by bis nearness to God, is he, the poor prisoner, the despised Jew, elevated above both governors and kings! He treats them with deference and respect, as was his duty, but because he was able to do so from his place of moral superiority to them, which he had by faith in a glorified Saviour. Humble, and at peace, when the opportunity presented itself, he could display the greatness of what was in his soul, and utter desires for the great who only possessed outward splendour.
For the pagan Festus, who only relished human grandeur, he was nothing but a madman; for Agrippa, nothing but a trouble and vexation of spirit. He had desired to know what this Christianity that was attracting the attention of all around him, and that pretended to come from God and demand the submission of all with His authority, might be; but he did not expect himself to be challenged so personally. For Paul the prisoner, it was eternal life and the presence of God who had saved him, and the earnest of the glory to which he was heir. His testimony had been given.
The effect on king Agrippa is evident. Not that he was converted—far from that—but his conscience was touched. He speaks to Festus as a little king to a governor, not as feeling lightly, nor despising the truth and Christianity, but is careful to declare that Paul might have been set at liberty if he had not appealed to Caesar. Two things are thus made manifest; the innocence of Paul, since Agrippa fully understood the truth of his case, and that his appeal to Caesar was the only hindrance to his liberation. It was the will of God that he should go to Rome, but if he had not made use of his worldly rights to regain his liberty, he might have gone there free. Yet the hand of God was in all this, for the one who had given his decision in the matter had listened to the testimony through this appeal to Caesar; and from his knowledge of the ways of the country, was able to declare with confidence, that it was only the appeal that prevented him from being set free. It is manifest in what light the apostle’s faith considered the effect of his captivity; Phil. 1:12, 13, 19. Moreover, the Epistles to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and to Philemon, are the precious fruit of his captivity at Rome. But his mission to the Gentiles, as far as the Spirit speaks of it, is now at an end. Yet, though his mission is over, the apostle remains a bright and blessed object. We shall find the condemnation of the Jews closing our history.
It having been decided that Paul should be sent to Italy, he is consigned with other prisoners to the charge of one Julius, a centurion of Augustus’ band. They set out with the intention of sailing along the coast of Asia.
Aristarchus accompanies the apostle. He had already been with Paul in former journeys. We have met him at Ephesus (Acts 19), with Gaius, who at Corinth was the apostle’s host. Julius treats Paul courteously at Sidon, giving him liberty to visit his friends. God cared for his servant, and granted him leniency on the part of this officer. Besides, the authorities were well aware that he was not guilty of anything. They were obliged to send him to Rome in consequence of his appeal to Caesar.
They continue their voyage then, though slowly, the wind being contrary, till they reach a place called “the fair havens,” in the island of Crete, and near the city of Lasea. It was already the month of November, and the navigation dangerous; and the port belied its name, being much exposed to the wind. The port and ruins of Lasea are still discoverable. Human wisdom advised departure, the master of the ship hoping, with a favourable wind, to reach Phenice, a better port, and there winter. This place has also been recognised in modern times. Of the two winds which prevail in that latitude, the one is soft but capricious, and the other very violent.
Here again we discover the apostle’s nearness to God, his intimacy with Him, and the Lord’s abundant grace towards His servant; and through this communion, Paul becomes master of the situation. On the authority of God, he is able to forewarn the sailors and captain of the vessel what is to happen. But this revelation was expressed in general terms, and the centurion placed more confidence in the owner and pilot than in what Paul said. To him, this was a mere human prediction. And when the south wind blew softly, they thought they had gained their desire of reaching Phenice. But God holds the winds in the hollow of His hand. The soft and favourable wind that tempted them to set sail, did not continue; and soon a tempestuous wind, called Euro-clydon, which blows from Greece, and even more from the east, sprang up, and drove them towards the south-west, threatening to cast them on the quicksands of Africa, which lay almost in the direction in which the wind was driving them. After much difficulty, they succeeded in getting the boat on board, but this after all, proved useless in saving them. God was not willing that the many souls in the vessel should be saved by human means, but that Paul’s word should be accomplished, and he himself be the occasion of the safety of all.
It is useless to enter into the details of the voyage. Everything possible was done to save the ship, but in vain. The description given us is perfectly exact, and even technical. Carried by the tempest, they are cast on the island of Malta. But what is important for us is the position which the apostle occupies. All hope of escape was gone. But now God interposes, and by means of a revelation made to Paul, revives the failing courage of the sufferers. The apostle reminds them of what he had said at the “fair havens,” telling them that they ought to have followed his advice, and that now they were reaping the fruit of refusing it, and trusting to the knowledge of the sailors. But they were to be of good cheer, for there would be no loss of life, but only of the ship. As before governors, Paul, the servant of God, held morally the superior position, so now he occupies the same place, amid perils sufficient to reduce the crew of the ship to despair. God was watching over Paul. It was necessary that he should appear before Caesar; and full of grace, the Lord had given him all those who were with him.
The ship being driven by the force of the wind near to the land, the sailors cast four anchors out of the stern. Then, as all are looking anxiously for day, the crew, thinking only of themselves, endeavour to escape in the boat, under pretext of getting out an anchor from the forward end of the vessel. But Paul is there, observes all, and directs everything on the part, one may say, of God. It was necessary that he should save them. Paul had now acquired full influence over those in authority. The presence of God, and the divine knowledge he had received of what was to happen, had gained for him the confidence of all. Cutting therefore the ropes of the boat, the soldiers let her drop off. Their salvation was to depend on God, and this had to be owned. If any could have been saved by human means, all might. But all would have perished if the sailors had not remained on board. All the work had to be performed by God.
If we follow the counsels of God through His word, we shall avoid many mistakes. He can save us still when we err, but it will be through suffering and loss. Israel refused to ascend the hill of the Amorites, and had therefore to remain thirty-eighty years in the desert. Here, Paul’s companions would not listen to his words, which were those of God, and they lost everything, except life. Their deliverance, it is evident, came from God alone, and was effected for the honour of His servant, whose words they had despised. It is always important for us to ascertain the will of God before entering any untried path. If we are assured of this, the difficulties will be only difficulties; and the help of God is enough to overcome them. But if we are not sure about His will, then doubt and weakness arise in the heart, because faith to count on God for help is not there, since we are not certain that the path is according to His will.
Paul then comforts them, and persuades them to eat, for the storm had prevented them from taking any regular meal for fourteen days. On the authority of God, he assures them that not a hair of their heads shall perish. He then gives thanks, and eats himself, in order to encourage them. Then all take heart, and eat also. Sufficiently refreshed (for they eat with the more courage, being cheered by that of the one who walked with God, and with whom was His secret), they begin to lighten the ship by throwing the grain overboard. It was not wrong to do so. God can take up the means and the intelligence of men and use them; but these means did not do much good; the hand of God did everything. The ship is then run aground at a place where two seas met, and while the fore part remains fast the stern is broken by the violence of the waves.
But God is faithful to His promise. The soldiers desire to kill the prisoners, so that none may escape; but the centurion, moved by all that had happened, and guided by God, wishes to save Paul, and therefore does not permit them to do so. According to his command, those who can swim cast themselves into the sea, while the others reach the shore on pieces of the ship. God paid this tribute of honour to His servant. He who governs the winds and seas, brings all through the tempest, though through their own fault, in order to manifest the apostle’s nearness to Himself, and saves all, as Paul had foretold, who therefore shines here as elsewhere, for the power of his faith, and the simplicity of his confidence in God. The wisdom of man went for nothing in the deliverance of the crew and the others. All had to resign themselves to God for salvation; and they were saved. All power to avail of this necessity was frustrated by the word of Paul.
God honours His servant on the island where he and his companions had been cast. He works miracles, and receives no hurt from the viper which fastens itself to his hand. Paul had brought captivity on himself by his appeal to Caesar, but still God was with him. It was necessary that he should bear witness before Caesar. God made use of his journey to Jerusalem (where, it is true, the power of the Spirit was not manifested in Paul) in order to bring him before Caesar himself; and this could not otherwise have been accomplished. Far from abandoning him, He displays His grace and power to him most fully.
I have already mentioned that his public testimony, as far as we learn from the Bible, was now at an end. The last testimony to the Jews had been given, and their judgment sealed; but the Lord’s grace does not fail now; He comforts and sustains His servant in every circumstance in which he is placed. The weakness of man is found, it is true, even in Paul; but also the grace and the wisdom of God. It is remarkable that the church of the city of Rome was not founded by any apostle. Before Paul’s arrival, there were already Christians in Rome; and the gospel in its apostolic power came in captivity.
The voyage is continued without incident of importance. Brethren, however, are found at Puteoli, and here the apostle remains for seven days. From thence, he goes on to Rome. The brethren there must have heard that Paul was coming, as they come out to meet him. He was probably left at PutecU, while the centurion made known his arrival in Italy to the authorities. The rumour of this would then reach the brethren. But here we meet once more with the apostle’s experiences. The love of the brethren contrains them to go to meet him. Paul, seeing them, thanks God, and takes courage. He was then cast down—I do not say discouraged—but he needed to take courage. Here we find a difference in the experimental state of Christians, which it is important to remark. On the one side, there is the state of the soul in itself, and on the other, its strength in the presence of difficulties and the power of the enemy, and in the labour required for the gospel in a world the prince of which is the devil; although these two things react on each other. Though we may have a deep sense of feebleness, and be filled with perplexity, yet, if we walk with God, if confidence in His faithfulness and His goodness do not fail us in the work, and before our enemies we lose sight of self, then the power of God will work in us, and act against that of the enemy, and amid the unbelievers among whom we labour.
Thus it happened to Moses. Leaving Pharaoh’s court, he went down among the people of God in slavery. Faithful and blessed, he was owned by God in what he did; but he carried human power with him; and when he had killed the Egyptian, he fled for fear of the king’s anger. Forty years in the desert dissipated this human confidence, though lack of faith in God was mingled with the sense of weakness. He was not eloquent, he said, not fit to appear before Pharaoh. But when sent from God, he presented himself before the king, it was neither in false fleshly energy, nor in the sense of weakness. The power of God was there; and as we read, he represented God to Pharaoh, overcame all obstacles, and dehvered the people from his oppression.
Paul himself, when called to labour amid a rich and corrupted populace, said, “And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling,” 1 Cor. 2:3. Feeling the difficulties and the power of the evil, he threw himself on the aid of God, and the work was accomplished in demonstration of the Spirit and in power. It is in human weakness that the Lord’s strength works, and is made perfect. How the Lord, perfect in everything, went through all the sufferings of His heart with His Father in Gethsemane, before drinking the cup! He did not then drink the cup, nor make propitiation for our sins: but as man, He contemplated all that lay before Him. The power of Satan was there to hinder Him from persevering till the end in the path of obedience. His soul was exceeding sorrowful, even unto death; but He told all to His Father; and when the enemies came, was as calm as in the days of His service. Here our wisdom is to present all to God, in the conflicts that may be before, as in our service. Then He will be with us when the work is over. Though our weakness may be sensible to us, yet the power of God will be with us. Paul, full of this when with others, and in the most difficult circumstances, feels the painfulness of his own situation, and is encouraged by the presence and love of the brethren.
Paul goes then to Rome, where the centurion places him, with the other prisoners, in the hands of the captain of the guard. But the apostle is under the care of, and guarded by the hand of God. He is allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him. The conduct of the Jews had not alienated the apostle’s noble heart (I say noble, because he was a chosen vessel; compare Matt. 25:15) from his people, the people of God. He sends and calls for them; but only that they may hear for the last time their condemnation foretold. Still, some believe. Here we find the end of the ways of God towards Israel, and that of the labours of Paul, the prisoner at Rome. The threatenings of God, prophesied by the mouth of Isaiah, eight hundred years before (Isaiah 6) are now accomplished. His long-suffering, the gift of His Son, the many warnings of the prophets, all had been in vain. And though judgment had been deferred for a time through the intercession of Christ on the cross, yet they were not more willing to recognise Christ glorified, than in humiliation. It was mercy that prolonged the testimony of grace, sending it even to countries at a distance from Jerusalem, among those of the dispersion, after Jerusalem had rejected the divine blessing. But no effect was produced on these; and judgment fell on the unbelieving nation, till the sovereign grace of God shall call them to enter into the privileges of the new covenant, and the Lord Jesus shall come, bringing the better blessing of pure grace. But the history of Israel in its responsibility is over, as well as that of the gospel in its free power. God has never ceased to preserve a testimony on the earth; and has given power and fruit according to the good pleasure of His will; His name be praised! But the work of liberty and apostolic energy is over.
The gospel is captive at Rome! But the providence of God watches over the truth, maintains testimony, and does not allow it to be entirely hidden. There have been evil times, in which iniquity and superstition have prevailed, and truth has been persecuted; and others in which God has held the door open, and given full liberty. Often, however, faith and steadfastness shine more brightly in evil days that in times of peace and tranquillity. Elijah, who was caught up to heaven without dying, is not found in the reign of Solomon; and when he himself could find none faithful in Israel, God maintained and guarded His seven thousand in the midst of the unbelieving and apostate people.
Though it pleased God to allow Paul to remain a prisoner, yet He held the door open for souls. For two whole years he dwelt in his own hired house, preaching the kingdom of God, and the things of Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.
Such is the touching end of the public career of the apostle of the Gentiles, faithful above all, large of heart, able by grace to understand the wonderful counsels of God as a grand whole, and to feel their perfection and their greatness; and equally capable of entering into the circumstances and relationships of a fugitive slave with his master, with an affection and a delicacy without example. Bound to the Lord with a heart that led him to suffer all for Him, and for souls dear to Him; bold even to fearlessness; tender and affectionate as a mother for her babes; energetic and patient, he suffered all things for the elect’s sake, that they might obtain salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. As truly risen with Christ, he knew no man after the flesh, being separated from both Jews and Gentiles, and united to a glorified Christ, his strength and hope, his all in all.
If he possessed a fault—he was a man, and displayed his manhood fully—it was in loving too much the ancient people of God, his brethren after the flesh. For this fault he was made prisoner, but the ways of God were carried out according to His wisdom. If we would know the effect of his confinement, at least of his being made prisoner, let us read the beginning of the Epistle to the Philippians 1:12 to 20. It is beautiful to see the faith and courage of the apostle after two years imprisonment. He might have reproached himself, and said, “Ah, if you had not gone to Jerusalem, if you had not appealed to Caesar, you might still have been preaching everywhere, have gone to Spain,” etc. But such was the will of God; and He was with him in his trouble. Submitting to this will, he rises above circumstances, renders thanks to God for all, finds that His wisdom is better than liberty, and works where God has placed him. Faith and confidence through grace raise him above his position to be with God, to act on His part, in whose presence he dwells.
We ought to be thankful to God, we and the church, for ever, for the fruit of this period, in which the apostle was free from constant labour. The epistles to the Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, were written at this time. Two are profound dissertations on the privileges of Christians and of the assembly. Another is the expression of the experience of a godly soul led entirely by the Holy Ghost. Then the fourth is the outflow of the apostle’s personal affection for a soul he has won to the Lord and to eternal life—a poor slave, it is true; but he says, a son whom he has begotten in his bonds. Generally speaking, they are letters in which the highest truths of Christianity are unfolded, and in which we learn what is not to be found elsewhere in the New Testament —at least, not fully taught, though the truths themselves are spoken of, but only in part, and introduced by the way. These scriptures complete the circle of the revelation of God.
The career of the apostle Paul was more remarkable than that of any other. His fellow apostles accomplished the work of the Lord within the narrow limits of Judaism. The starting-point for him was the Lord in glory, and that all Christians were recognised as being one with Him. “Why persecutest thou me?” the Lord had asked him. This glorified Lord, salvation, and the kingdom that was to come, he preached to every creature under heaven. Then, for the completion of the word of God, he unfolded and taught what the church was. He developed the truth as to her position, the union of believers with Christ, the presence of the Spirit in believers and in the church, establishing them as the temple of God on earth. The revelation of the church, or assembly, put an end to Judaism, since there were no longer either Jews or Gentiles, but Christians united in one body to Christ. Paul was thus the head, as servant of Christ, and founder of a new economy; and he also presented himself as a model whom converts were to imitate in their walk and ways.
No other apostle held such a position. The twelve followed Jesus Christ while He was in the world; but this Paul did not do. Then they saw Him taken up to heaven, and believed that He was glorified at the right hand of God. Paul, till then an enemy to Christ, but converted through sovereign grace, while acting in the violence of his enmity, began with the vision of the Lord in glory, who had made Himself known to him as Jesus of Nazareth. What he preached, he called his gospel, the gospel of the Lord’s glory. The knowledge and revelation of the counsels of God were confided to him; and he was caught up to the third heaven, and there heard unspeakable things which it was not lawful for a man to utter. His apostleship was to the Gentiles, to the whole world; and to this he was called by the Lord in glory, and sent expressly by the Holy Ghost. He began with the Jews, the people beloved of God, the possessors of the promises; but, according to the prophecy of Isaiah 49, he turned towards the Gentiles, when the former rejected the testimony of God. Of the church, as the body of Christ on earth, and habitation of God through the Spirit, no apostle except Paul speaks. See Col. 1:23-29.
In the apostle’s character, we find both good and bad features which stamp him a man as we are. None of these things were seen in Christ, entirely and alone perfect in every respect. But as a man of like passions to ours, Paul, the servant of Jesus Christ, had no equal. Although in captivity at Rome, the word of God was not bound. God watched over it, and Paul, dwelling in his own hired house, received all who sought after truth, and taught them with perfect liberty the gospel so dear to him. In all times, God has made it public, more or less, in order to give life through faith; but its history, begun by the marvellous power of the Holy Ghost at Jerusalem, terminated at Rome, where, in the person of Paul, to whom it had been entrusted, it lay a prisoner. Judaism crucified the Lord, and imprisoned the gospel of the glory, but God, in spite of the efforts of Satan, disseminates it, especially in these times—His name be praised! In respect to the church, it remained bound till the present day. But though preachers have little strength, yet the Lord holds the door open, and no man can shut it.
[End Of Expository—Vol. 4.]
11 In chapter 22:4, the reading should be: “and Gaius and Timotheus of Derbe.” Gaius was not of Derbe. The difference is only in the punctuation.
12 Then it was the name of a province of the Roman Empire.
13 Feeing counsel.