“Then had the churches rest throughout all Judea, and Galilee, and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.”—Acts 9:31.
This Book of the Acts constitutes not merely the most important Church History in existence, but forms, at the same time, a most interesting and instructive link between the Gospels and Epistles. It records the fulfilment of those promises which the Saviour had bequeathed to His disciples respecting the presence and working of the blessed Comforter. It answers numerous enquiries relative to the preaching of the Apostles,— the success of their ministry,—the constitution of the early churches, and the marvellous change which the diffusion of Christianity effected, both on individuals and communities. It exhibits principles and examples admirably adapted to animate and instruct the people of God in all succeeding generations; and it furnishes materials for arousing the energies of those churches which may have greatly departed from the freshness of their first love.
The previous portion of this chapter details the history of the most memorable instance of conversion recorded in the annals of the Church; and the form of expression in the original seems to imply that the description given in verse 31 was connected with that remarkable event: “Then had the churches rest throughout all Judea, and Galilee, and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.” We may notice,
I. The fact here stated.
II. The result of such a state of things on the internal prosperity of the Church.
3:Its result upon the world around.
I. It was not a mere ordinary circumstance. It was hardly to be expected that the churches should enjoy outward tranquility in a world like this. The Lord Jesus had nowhere promised repose to His followers. The enmity of Satan, who is represented as the god of this world, seemed likely to hinder such a state of things being enjoyed by the disciples of the crucified Saviour. Yet, for purposes of blessing—not in anger but, evidently, in mercy—the Lord bestowed the precious boon. When external rest is the portion of the Church, we are thankfully to accept it as from the hands of Him to whom all power, in heaven and earth, belongeth. We may not slight it on the one hand, nor recklessly count upon its continuance on the other. We ought thankfully to avail ourselves of the increased opportunities thereby offered for unhindered service to the Lord.
In reading such a statement, we cannot fail to be reminded that a similar condition of external quiet has long been enjoyed by all Christians in this country. For about 170 years—or for considerably more than a century and a half, there has been little or nothing of legal persecution in England—at any rate, no English Sovereign, since 1688, has been a persecutor of the people. During the previous 26 years, embracing the reign of Charles II., and his infatuated brother, our forefathers endured the consequences of rejecting the lessons of experience and restoring one who was utterly unfit to reign. On the 24th August, 1662, now rather more than 196 years ago, two thousand of the best men in England were cast out of their spheres of service, and condemned to refrain from preaching the Gospel, on pain of severe penal inflictions. The same power that thus denied to our Puritan ancestors the rights of Englishmen, soon made the valleys and mountains of Scotland wet with the blood of martyrs. The worthies of the covenant, misled by reference to the Old Testament principles, sought deliverance by having recourse to the sword; but this, as might have been expected, only tended to increase their sufferings. It was not by successful warfare, but by the unanimity of an oppressed and harassed people, that the cause of freedom, under the good providence of God, obtained in the accession of William of Orange, a bloody victory. Since that period, England has been chief among the nations, for the extent and continuance of her external privileges; and never was this more truly the case than now. The measure of external prosperity has lately begun to tell upon the comforts and well-being of the humblest classes of society. The cheapness of food—the revival of trade, and comparative abundance of employment, call for our liveliest acknowledgements to Him who giveth us all things richly to enjoy. The vast population of Great Britain and her dependencies were probably never more loyal, or. on the whole, more contented. No dark treason, nor lurking conspiracies, nor exciting demagogues are heard of now. Never, perhaps, since the days of Alfred the Great, was England blessed with such a Sovereign as Queen Victoria, and never did any one of foreign origin fill such a place in the estimation of Englishmen as her Royal Consort. Christianity is more than patriotism—it is something far higher than loyalty; but, as the greater includes the less, so Christianity implies and sanctifies them both. A patriot may be no Christian; an intelligent and consistent Christian is, necessarily, a patriot. The same may be said of loyalty. He who fears God will, at the same time, honour the king. He will honour the dignity of the office, even when he may, unhappily, be unable to respect the person of him who fills it; but it will be the delight of a true Christian to see the throne occupied by one whose whole character comports with the elevated position of a Sovereign ruler, and elicits the spontaneous homage legitimately due to moral excellence. Under the mild government of such a Sovereign; in the enjoyment of equitable laws, and the fullest religious liberty, we have good reason to exclaim, “happy are the people that are in such a case.”
In the season of secret retirement; in the family circle; in the social meeting; in the public assembly, we may enjoy, without any legal hindrance or interruption, the rich privilege of an open Bible. So long as we respect the rights of others, we may preach and teach what we believe to be the truth, no man daring to forbid us. If you lay before you the map of Europe, you will search in vain for any other country so highly favoured. “Now have the churches rest throughout all the dominions of the British Queen.” This rest God hath graciously given; He has not promised to continue it unto us. Let us seek so to acknowledge His hand that there may be a lengthening of our tranquility.
II. (1) This verse not only informs us that the churches enjoyed rest, but it records the manner in which that blessing was sought to be improved, so as to promote internal prosperity. “They were edified.” The word “edify” in its primary meaning, signifies “to build.” Thus it is employed in Matt. 7:24—respecting the man of whom it is said that “he built his house upon a rock.” It is also employed by the Lord Jesus in that memorable promise—“On this rock will I build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The word is of frequent occurrence in the Gospel in its literal meaning, but this is the first example, so far as I have noticed, of its figurative application in the New Testament. In the epistles this latter usage is the more frequent one. Thus Paul tells us that knowledge puffeth up, but love edifieth or buildeth up; he exhorts the Thessalonian converts to edify, (i.e.,) to build up one another. These examples may assist our apprehensions of the exact meaning of the term here employed. It evidently implies progress, compactness, solidity. It may either refer to the individual or to the collective body. The Christians here spoken of made a right use of the rest they were permitted to enjoy. They turned these privileges to good account. They so availed themselves of them as that they grew in knowledge, in faith, and in all the graces of the Spirit. The means of edification which they possessed are substantially ours, at the present day. We have, in the pages of the Old and New Testaments, the instructions, warnings, and exhortations of prophets and apostles. “We have the promise of the Spirit’s teaching. We have the throne of grace. We have the blood of Jesus to trust in, and the name of Jesus to plead before God. We may hold converse one with another, in reference to the truths which are contained in Scripture. We may listen to the public exposition of those truths. We may meditate upon them in the stillness of seclusion, and seek that the Lord would open our eyes “to behold wondrous things out of the Book of His law.” Are we thus seeking to improve the peace we have so long enjoyed? Let the consciences of each of us dictate the reply; and, if hitherto we have failed to improve our opportunities, let us, from this very hour, seek grace to turn them to profitable account.
(2.) But we are not only informed of the fact that the disciples were edified, we are further told in what way this blessed result was outwardly evidenced: “They walked in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost.” How beautifully in these words do we find holiness and comfort blended together. They trusted in God, they reverenced His authority, they sought to serve Him. They abstained from evil, they cleaved to that which was good. They watched over their spirit, their temper, their frame of mind, their words and their actions. “They lived as seeing Him who is invisible, for they had respect unto the recompense of reward;” and while, through grace, they were thus” careful in their walk, the Lord Jesus fulfilled to them His own gracious promise, touching the presence and consolations of the Blessed Comforter. Their understandings were enlightened by the Spirit of truth, their hearts were cheered by His teachings, and their memories refreshed by His suggestions. He inwardly witnessed unto them the glory of their once crucified but now risen and exalted Saviour. He secretly unfolded unto them the depths of divine love—the surpassing worth of the Great Sacrifice, the efficacy of the ever-prevalent intercession. The page of prophecy gathered brightness from His divine illumination; and the attractions of the heavenly inheritance cast into the shade the passing vanities of earth. They had meat to eat that the world knew not of; they had a living spring of consolation whence they could drink, yea drink abundantly, draughts of living joy. How truly happy were the disciples whose character is thus described. How poor, in comparison with their calm and abiding consolations, their substantial bliss, are all the objects that the natural heart seeks for or the most successful worldling attains. Sensual pleasure, riches, fame, earthly dignity, the proudest attainments in learning and science, are all transient and shadowy, compared with the true satisfaction enjoyed by those who walk “in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost.”
But it will avail us little to regard this description as we should gaze upon an attractive picture, or look forth on some scene of natural loveliness. How many amongst us are experimentally acquainted with the elements of that character which is here presented before us? “The fear of the Lord “is the beginning of wisdom. Do we regard the God of revelation as the object of our confidence, our reverence, and our love? Is it the aim of our souls to live under the practical conviction of His presence? Do we strive to keep up the thought of His eye being continually on us? Is our relationship to Him a living and practical reality? Do we tremble at His word? Do His threatenings cause our hearts to shudder at the prospects of the ungodly; and His exceeding great and precious promises draw out our desires and affections after Him? Is our reverence for God partial and transient, or penetrating and pervading? Are we so affected by the consideration of His purity and holiness that we shrink from the thought of appearing before Him on the ground of our own righteousness; and so convinced of the evil of sin that we strive to keep our garments unspotted from the world, and seek to cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and of the spirit, and to perfect holiness in the fear of God? Are we habitually honouring the blessed Spirit? As we open the inspired page, do we look up for the Spirit’s efficacious teaching? As we kneel before the throne of the heavenly grace, do we depend on the aid of Him who has been promised to help our infirmities and to teach us how to pray? Amidst the activities of busy life, do we seek to maintain calmness of temper and quietness of spirit, through the soothing consolations of the divine Comforter?
3:We have thus seen how the enjoyment of external quiet was improved by the early Christians, for their own edification and growth in grace. We come now, in the last place, to consider how the position of the churches was made to bear upon the world around them. During that period of tranquility and internal progress, they also increased in numbers. Such intimations of successful effort are frequently given us in this Book of the Acts. We find a similar statement in chap. 2:41, another, 5:14, another, 6:1, and especially 5:7. The progress of the Gospel in these early days was, unquestionably, much more manifest than it is now. An interesting subject of enquiry is thus suggested to our minds. What were the causes that helped on this rapidity of progress? Whence is it that the triumphs of the Gospel are no longer such as they once were? The difference cannot be referred to any change in the efficacy of the truth—the Gospel is still, as formerly, “the power of God unto salvation to everyone that “believeth.” It cannot rise from any diminution of power on the part of the great Agent in the conversion of sinners. “He fainteth not, neither is weary.” His arm is not shortened—His hand is not weakened so that He should be less able to save. But God is a God of means as well as a God of grace. He works by suited instrumentality. He acts according to certain righteous principles of government. His sovereignty never degenerates into caprice. His grace does not destroy the responsibility of those who are its subjects. The churches spoken of in the New Testament, had certain spiritual advantages of which modern churches have, through unfaithfulness, been deprived.
(1) “With the teachers and the taught, there was a far more manifest presence, and a far more energetic working of the Spirit of God. Their strength of personal conviction—-their joyful confidence in Christ—their living apprehension of divine truth—their deadness to the world—their earnestness in prayer—their separation from the ungodly, far exceeded the attainments of any large number of Christians in modern times.
There was then no cumbrous, secular establishment arrogating to itself the sole right to the position of the Christian Church, and at the same time holding out inducements to the ungodly to seek places of preferment within her pale. There was no variety of sects distracting the mind of the enquirer, and giving Satan an advantage over him. There was the heartless world round about, and the Church in the centre, like some verdant and well-watered plain, offering refreshment and repose amid the wastes of the barren wilderness. When the guilty one discovered his iniquity,—and the weary one sought for a place of rest,—and the anxious one longed for quietude of heart,—the Church was an asylum open not only to receive, but to welcome, him to its refreshment and repose. The doors of the Church stood wide open to welcome every harrassed spirit to its shelter and security; the Saviour was with His church, and as many as first had come to Him were instinctively attracted to those who were His. The cordial glow of affection that knit together those who were one in Jesus, made their countenances radiant with a delight which the world had never experienced, and which earth had never witnessed before.
This union of heart amongst Christians themselves must have worked very powerfully upon the convictions of those around them. Men, in general, are not led simply by the apprehensions of the understanding, or the decisions of the judgment, but very much by the sympathies and affections of the heart. How powerful are these sentiments even in the low sphere of our earthly existence! What is it that keeps society together? What is it that gives energy and hope to the toiling millions of our race? What is it that sweetens daily labour and incessant cares? What is it that brightens the gloom of winter and adds a richer radiance to the glow of summer? The power of the natural affections. The mysterious gem of wedded love, whence spring
Relations dear, and all the charities
Of father, son and brother—
forms at once the origin and the link of all other bonds. Let but a universal blight come over the affections— although everything else remained unaltered, the framework of society would burst asunder. These affections are not spiritual, and yet they are pre-eminently of God. What is it that restrains that youth who has just entered upon the engagements of active life, from the grosser evils to which his sensual appetites would lead him? His heart is yet unchanged. He has no taste for spiritual enjoyments. The fear of God has not yet taken possession of his conscience. He is removed, it may be, from the home of his childhood. The parental eye is no longer guarding him. But his home-affections are not yet withered away. He hears, it may be, the voice of the tempter—he feels the promptings of unholy desires —he fain would drink of the intoxicating draught—he would enjoy his share of youthful pleasure, but the recollection of his home and his childhood, forbid the sinful indulgences to which he is tempted to yield. The image of an affectionate father rises before him, and the voice of a tender and yearning mother seems to fall, in accents of warning and entreaty, upon his ear. The cultivation of these home-affections thus becomes a point of deepest moment. They are of the earth, earthy; but, God so over-rules what His wisdom has appointed, that they often serve as restraining checks, until an infinitely higher and holier relation is apprehended. By that higher relation, all other bonds of charity are sanctified, but not superseded.
Now, if in the lower sphere of this sin-wasted world, the affections are entrusted with so important a place of service, and are designed to fulfil so high a mission, is it strange that, in the far higher sphere of heavenly fellowship, the knitting together of believing hearts should be the appointed instrumentality for maintaining and extending the triumphs of the truth? A living faith is the foundation of everything, but this faith operates through love. Whosoever believeth in Jesus finds that he is taught of God—outwardly by the word, inwardly by the spirit, to love his brethren.
But while the graces of faith, and love, and zeal were pre-eminently manifested by the members of the early churches, there were other spiritual qualifications by which they were fitted for being instruments in extending the knowledge of the Saviour among their fellow men. In order that the carriages may be borne along on the railway, there must be the suited mechanism and the motive power—in other words, the engine and the propelling steam. But these would not suffice. There must also be the requisite knowledge and practical skill to guide the machinery and to control the energy of the motive power. So among the early Christians, there were not merely the foundation graces, but, likewise, the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, and utterance. Those latter gifts subserved the objects to which faith, and love, and zeal, directed the efforts of the saints. Not everyone who knows the truth is able clearly to commend that truth to others—not everyone who desires to benefit his fellow-men is rightly instructed as to the best way of seeking to promote their well-being. We need the graces of the early Christians. We need also more abundant gifts. Knowledge of scripture—fluency of utterance—clearness of expression—orderly arrangement— may all be made subservient to the great end of alarming the careless—of enlightening those who are in darkness —of undeceiving those who are deluded, and of imparting joy and consolation to those who are burdened with the load of unpardoned guilt. Our privileges as English Christians are singularly great; and our opportunities as Nonconformists enhance the value of our privileges. We are not clogged by church canons: we do not need to wait for episcopal ordination; we are not bound to fraternise with those who are evidently belonging to the world, or to cut off ourselves from our brethren in Christ, simply because of some ecclesiastical informality. Let there be the grace of God in the heart, and the testimony of a consistent walk, and the needed qualifications and the inward disposition for service—and our credentials are clear. We need not submit our necks to the yoke of ecclesiastical impositions, nor suffer any human authority to step in between us and the commands of our only Master. Our liberties are far more extensive than are enjoyed by those who, for reasons best known to themselves, have consented to the limitation of their freedom in compliance with requirements which Christ never enjoined, and which His word, as we read it, refuses to sanction.
I have thus endeavoured to bring before you the prominent facts in the verse under consideration. I have spoken of the character of the rest here recorded, and of the circumstances through which such a state of things was brought about. I have compared this description with the position of the churches in our own country. I have shown you, in the second place, the way in which the early churches succeeded in turning to the profit of their own souls the repose they were permitted, for a brief period, to enjoy; and suggested, from the example, some hints for our direction, encouragement and guidance. In the last place, I have noticed the effects of this season of quiet upon the external increase of the churches, and briefly suggested some of the probable causes for the rapidity with which Christianity advanced in the times of the Apostles.
The points on which we have been dwelling are not to be regarded merely as matters of interesting information. The practical questions to which they are fitted to give rise are of the deepest moment. If any one would, successfully and honorably, carry on a large secular business, it is needful that he periodically examine with accuracy the exact position of his affairs. In a similar way, it is well that Christians should, every now and then, be questioning themselves as to their position, and their capabilities of service—their qualifications on the one hand, and their opportunities on the other.
How may we, each in our own proper sphere, subserve the interests of truth and holiness, in a world so full of error, wickedness, and delusion? If we abound in the good things of this life, are we rich for ourselves only, or do we have a lesson from the clouds of heaven, which, when they are full of water, empty themselves upon the earth? Are we seeking to grow in divine knowledge only for our own satisfaction, or that we may thereby become fit “to teach others also?” A merely selfish, isolated Christianity must be devoid of life, warmth, and enjoyment. It is impossible for a believer to be happy, apart from aiming after the benefit of the Church and the well-being of his fellow-men. Let us, therefore, brethren, gird up the loins of our minds. Let us give ourselves to prayer. Let us seek to get our souls refreshed and strengthened through feeding on the heavenly manna. Let us set the Lord before us, in secret, in our families, in our business, in our social fellowship, in the whole course of our lives. Let us implore His blessing on all we engage in. Let us cultivate a deep sense of utter helplessness in ourselves, that we may more entirely depend upon Him who is mighty to help, to deliver, and to save. Let us dread to be found among those who are laying up treasures on earth. Let our ears be open to the cry of suffering humanity, and let our hearts prompt our hands to aid the cause of the sorrowful and the oppressed. The opportunities for getting good to our own souls, and of ministering to the temporal and spiritual benefit of others, are as large and abundant as the most earnest and liberal-hearted could desire them to be. No one single individual can accomplish everything. We must all, from the necessary limitation of human ability, leave many things undone. But we can each of us do something; and we are not to be judging one another as to what we see any fail in effecting, but rather to be judging our own selves and asking the question—“what do our circumstances and our capacities qualify us to accomplish in and of the great cause of righteousness, mercy, holiness and truth.”
But I cannot conclude without addressing a few words of warning and instruction to such as may be present in this assembly, who may never yet have yielded themselves unto Christ. I will not suppose that any one of you would deny the divine authority of Scripture; but sure I am that, if there be any now hearing me, who up to this moment have continued in a state of apathy and indifference to spiritual objects, a secret unbelief, a half unconscious infidelity, lies at the root of such indifference. Now what such persons need is to have it pressed home upon their minds that the words of scripture are the counterparts of glorious and terrible realities. You read the Bible—you hear sermons—you sometimes listen to religious conversation, but the substantial reality of those objects about which the gospel is conversant has never, it may be, for a single hour, exerted any real influence over you. And yet how real, even to the testimony of your external senses, are the outward features of that wretchedness for which the gospel promises to furnish a divine remedy? And how real is that internal misery which no human skill can alleviate, and that mental distress to which earth can bring no consolation. Yes, sin, and sorrow, and sickness, and death, and the grave, are all manifest realities. How strange is the infatuation which deludes such multitudes of the human family, who live continually exposed to every variety of evil, and are utterly disinclined to welcome the shelter of a place of refuge. Bereavement, or disease, or calamity, or death, may, any moment, be the portion of any one of us; and what preparation, my friends, have you made for the day or the hour of coming evil? If the stroke descend suddenly are you ready to meet it? If slow decay should waste away the vigour of your strength—when the cold damp-sweat upon the forehead, and the pallid countenance, and the laboring respiration, and the fluttering pulse give assured evidence of coming dissolution—what cordial have you provided for the fainting heart? what do you look to for support and consolation, when all earthly sustainments shall be withdrawn for ever? The gospel provides for us all we need as sinners, and nothing else but the gospel answers to our deep necessities. Were we to preach to you of one who could save from external poverty, and render all his followers rich in earthly good; or who could elevate his people to the highest rank of temporal distinction, or impart to them every thing that the natural heart desires, —such a one would be only a Saviour in name, and would offer only a superficial salvation. You might be rich, or great, or learned, or renowned, and yet wretched; for not one of these earthly bestowments reaches the malady of the soul. What a sinner needs in order to be happy, is pardon and holiness. He needs that the burden of an unsettled controversy between himself and God be graciously removed. He needs to be delivered from guilt, and rescued from the slavery of a corrupt nature. He needs to be redeemed from no mere earthly bondage, and to become the freedman of no mere earthly master. When he is brought to trust in Jesus, his ransomed spirit finds repose in the bosom of the deliverer —his heart goes out to God, with the cry of “Abba, Father.” As the glories of Emmanuel shine into his heart, he exclaims, surely there can be no other Saviour but Jesus—no salvation but that which He has wrought. We may not live in selfish isolation from our fellow-men, but it is well sometimes to conceive of ourselves as standing in this peopled universe alone with God. Let each of us, my friends, endeavour thus “to talk with our own hearts.” “It is appointed unto men once to die, and, after death, the judgment.” If the course of time continues to run on a few years longer—that flood which millions upon millions of our race have crossed and which thousands are hourly passing, must be crossed by each one of ourselves. How solemnly mysterious is the passage of a human spirit into the vastness of a futurity, only irradiated by the light of the Christian revelation. How overwhelming the thought of entering upon that new state of being with all the sins of a long course of ungodliness recorded against us in the Book of God’s remembrance! My dying fellow-men, now is the accepted time—now is the day of salvation. Not by prayers—or penances, not by efforts at making yourselves righteous, but by faith in the Saviour’s finished sacrifice and trust in his perfect righteousness, you pass from death unto life, and become heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ Jesus. Amen.