Handfuls on Purpose
by James Smith, 1943
THE INFANT CHURCH. Acts 1
The infant Church was mighty in its infancy. The present-day snare of precedency was unknown in those early days of simple, childlike trust, when everything seemed to be sprinkled with a dewy resurrection freshness. May this newness of life be ours. To this end let us look at some of those features which characterized the members of the infant Church, and let us ask ourselves whether we as His sheep have the same marks upon us?
1. They were in fellowship with their Risen Lord. "To whom He showed Himself . . . and assembled together with them" (verses 3 and 4). The resurrection of Christ was an unquestionable fact to them. He had now become their very life. "Christ our life." They had each personally experienced the power of His presence—a presence which not one of the unbelieving ever knew. Do we know what that means?
2. They received the promise of the Holy Spirit. "You shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days hence" (verse 5). This great "promise of the Father" (verse 4) is made to every heaven-born child of God, and should be as definitely accepted as the promise of eternal life. This promise was not given that they might be more fully justified before God, but that God might be more fully justified in them before the world (Ezekiel 38:16). See Acts 19:2.
3. They were obedient to His Word. "Then returned they unto Jerusalem, . . . and went up into an upper room" (vv. 12-13). The Lord had told them to wait for the fulfillment of the promise, so they had come to wait. They did not gather together to discuss the manner, the time, or extent of the promised outpouring, but to wait. They had made up their minds simply to do their Master's bidding, and leave the rest with Him. "Go you and do likewise."
4. They were united in Spirit. "These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication" (verse 14). Why should they pray when they had His sure word of promise? Was not the very certainty of the promise a powerful incentive to wait and to pray? A Pentecostal day will come at any time when there is the same unity of spirit and persistent, believing prayer (Matthew 18:19-20).
5. They honored the Scriptures. "Peter stood up and said, Men and brethren, this scripture must needs be fulfilled," etc. (vv. 15-20). Peter and the one hundred and nineteen that were with him had no difficulty at all as to David being the author of Psalm 69, and that he spoke prophetically under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16). He who handles the Word of God so as to foster discredit has grieved the Holy Spirit, and done the work of the devil.
6. They brought their difficulties to the Lord in prayer. "You, Lord, know the hearts of all: show whether of these two You have chosen" (21-24). Two had been named to fill the one office. They were quite willing to sink their own individual preferences, and accept him whom the Lord should commend. As it was then, so is it now. Only the called of God will succeed. If any man lack wisdom let him ask of God. The infant Church was mightier than the aged Church of the present day. Why? Well, Why? The clamant need of the church is:—
1. A new revelation of the Risen Christ.
2. A fuller experience of the power of His Resurrection.
3. An unwavering faith in His Word.
4. A fresh baptism of the Holy Spirit.
5. The spirit of unity among believers.
6. Believing prayer.
THE EMPOWERED CHURCH. Acts 2:1-13
A praying Church will always be a powerful Church. The true and real influence of a Church does not consist in the number or social position of its members, not in the stateliness of the building, nor in the largeness of its contributions, but in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Where the ministry of the Spirit is absent, the Church is but a breathless body. "It is the Spirit that quickens." Observe—
1. Where they were. "They were all with one accord in one place" (v. 1). They were in "one place" just because they were all of "one accord." This is a condition of heart that is absolutely necessary to the receiving of the power of the Holy Spirit. To be filled with the Spirit we must be emptied of all self-seeking and uncharitableness. When brethren dwell together in unity, then the Lord will command His blessing.
2. When the Blessing came. "When the day of Pentecost was fully come." According to the type, that was fifty days after (Christ as) the sheaf of first fruits was presented as a wave offering (Leviticus 23:15-16). God's workings are always in harmony with the "fullness of time" (Galatians 4:4). He does nothing prematurely; there is an eternal fitness in the divine seasons. There is an earthly as well as a heavenly counterpart in all the arrangements of Him whose work is perfect. The Holy Spirit is still ready to come upon all those who are ready to receive Him. They that wait upon the Lord shall exchange strength.
3. How the Blessing came. "Suddenly, as a mighty, rushing wind, and as cloven tongues of fire" (vv. 2-3). It did not come through a process of growth or development; it was not evolved out of their own inner consciousness; it was the direct gift of the Father in answer to their believing prayer, and in fulfillment of His own gracious promise. It came as "mighty wind" and as "tongues of fire," symbolic of a personality that cannot be limited or controlled by the mere will of man (John 3:8).
4. To whom the Blessing came. "It sat upon each of them, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit" (vv. 3-4). God is no respecter of persons; every waiting, believing heart was filled with the Spirit. They each received the like gift, although the manifestation of the power in their individual lives was different; yet it was the same Spirit. The lesson undoubtedly for us is that every believing disciple of Christ may and should be "filled with the Holy Spirit." More than that, each one in that upper room baptized of the Holy Spirit was perfectly conscious of the fact. In this respect between the first century and the twentieth there is no difference (Luke 11:13). The same God is rich unto all that call upon Him.
5. The Effects Produced. These were twofold: (1) Upon themselves. "They were filled, and spoke with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." They were possessed and controlled by the mighty power of God. As earthen vessels they were charged with heavenly treasure a precious gift that is for ever hidden from the worldly-wise and revealed only unto babes (Matthew 11:25). (2) Upon others. "Many were amazed and marveled;. . . others mocked" (vv. 7-13). The coming of the Holy Spirit is always certain to be a telling innovation. There is no hiding of His power. It is such an unearthly movement that ungodly philosophers are all amazed and in doubt, saying one to another, What means this? (2 Corinthians 10:4). This was in truth a "wealthy" church, it was rich in spiritual power and fruitfulness.
THE WITNESSING CHURCH. Acts 2:14-36
"This Jesus has God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses" (v. 32).
A quickened Church, or a quickened soul, will be certain to give Jesus the pre-eminence. Had not Christ said that "When He, the Spirit of Truth, is come, He shall glorify Me?" (John 16:13-14). The Church or the individual that is not glorifying Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Son of God cannot be filled with the Spirit. We are assured of this, that the Holy Spirit will not give His glory to another than Jesus Christ, in whose name He has come, and whose work He seeks to continue on earth. So when "Peter, filled with the Spirit, stood up with the eleven and lifted up his voice" it was to preach "Jesus and the Resurrection." Spirit-filled men have no other theme. We shall note, briefly, the outstanding features of Peter's Pentecostal testimony, and here he speaks as the mouthpiece of the whole Church. He testified—
1. To the Transformation of his Brethren. "These men are not drunken, as you suppose" (v. 15). There was undoubtedly a very marked change in their behavior. They were intoxicated sure enough, but not with the world's wine, as they supposed, for they were filled with the new wine of the Kingdom of God. But the natural man cannot understand the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him (1 Corinthians 2:14).
2. To the Fulfillment of Prophecy (vv. 16-21). At the marriage at Cana, the best wine—the gift of Christ—was kept to the last. So in "these last days" the best wine has been given in the coming of the Holy Spirit. Between this promise made to Joel and the fulfillment there lay twenty-four generations; but His faithfulness fails not. The Spirit has been given, but "all flesh" have not yet been touched with the flame of this life-quickening fire. But surely this also will come to pass. Let us join the Lord's remembrancers, and pray for it. The testimony of a living Church must be to God's faithfulness to His Word.
3. To the Divine Approval of Jesus of Nazareth.— "A man approved of God" (v. 22). The works that Jesus did were the works that no other man could do (John 15:24). His "miracles, wonders, and signs" were incontestable evidence of His holiness and superhuman power, of His actual oneness with the invisible and almighty Father (John 14:10-11). This Man approved of God still waits His approval of men.
4. To the Guilt of Rejecting Christ. "Him. . . you have taken, and by wicked (lawless) hands have crucified and slain" (v. 23). Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, knows no fear, and sees no contradiction between "the determinate counsel of God" and the terrible lawlessness of those who crucified His Son (Luke 22:22). After Pentecost, the first act of the Holy Spirit upon the ungodly was to convince of murder. What is sin? Sin is lawlessness, rebellion, usurpation.
5. To the Power of His Resurrection. "It was not possible that He should be held of death" (v. 24). He who claimed to be "the Resurrection and the Life" proved His claim by rising from the dead (John 10,17). As it was not possible for the powers of death and Hell to hold Him, neither is it possible for them to hold those who by faith are in Him (John 5:24-25; 2 Corinthians 4:14). A witness to the power of His resurrection must have a resurrection experience (1 Peter 1:3).
6. To the Inspiration of David. David spoke concerning Christ, for he "foresaw the Lord always before his face" (v. 25, and Psalm 16:8.) As the One who, according to the promise of God, "He would raise up to sit on His throne" (v. 30). To deny the prophetic character of the Psalms of David is to reject the testimony of the Holy Spirit by whom Peter now was speaking (Luke 24:44). Those moved by the Holy Spirit are "holy men" and are never moved to declare things which are inconsistent.
7. To the Certainty of Christ's Exaltation. The coming of the Holy Spirit was not only the fulfillment of a promise, but also the guarantee that He who had been crucified was now "by the right hand of God exalted" (vv. 33-36), and made "both Lord and Christ." Although all authority has been given Him, He still waits with outstretched arms to give "gifts unto men" (John 1:12). When Christ's death, resurrection, and exaltation are firmly believed and emphatically preached signs and wonders will be done in His name.
THE POWER OF THE GOSPEL. Acts 2:37-47
Peter's sermon was in the power of the Holy Spirit, so there were "signs following." There was—
1. Deep Conviction. "When they heard they were pricked in their heart" (verse 37). "They felt the nails with which they had crucified Christ sticking fast in their own hearts as so many sharp daggers." When the Spirit of Grace is poured out, sinners are sure to see Him whom they have pierced (Zechariah 12:10). He came to convince of sin (John 16:8). How shall they hear without a preacher, and how shall they preach with convicting power unless they are sent?
2. Open Confession. "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" This burning question (Acts 9:6; 16:30), wrung from Spirit-pierced hearts, declares this fact, that salvation must come from God. "What shall I do?" A convicted sinner never knows of himself what to do. It is not in man. But when frank and full confession is made the guiding light will speedily dawn (1 John 1:9).
3. Plain Directions. "Repent and be baptized every one of you,. . . and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, for the promise is unto you" (vv. 38-40). Peter's word was not, "Reform, and be more civilized," but "Repent, and be baptized." To repent was to change their minds completely regarding Jesus Christ, whom they rejected; and to be baptized implied the renouncing of the old life, and an open confession of Christ as their Lord. In doing this they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, that they might be endued with power to overcome the world and be witnesses unto Him who died and rose again. Have you received the Holy Spirit since you believed, "for the promise is unto you?" (v. 39).
4. Joyful Reception. "They gladly received His Word" (v. 41). The offer of "the remission of sins" through repentance was like cold water to a thirsty soul; they gladly received it. No condemned criminal ever received a free pardon more willingly than they accepted the offer of mercy. This is the Gospel that God is commanding all men everywhere to repent and believe. Three thousand brought in, "but yet there is room."
5. Steady Progression. "They continued steadfastly in doctrine, fellowship, breaking of bread, and in prayers" (v. 42). They were God-made converts, and so the true signs of an inward transformation are clearly evident. These were—love for the Word, love for one another, love for their absent Lord, and love for private and public prayer. Being grafted into the living Christ, they became possessed with His Spirit, and grew in grace and in the knowledge of their Lord and Savior.
6. Hearty Cooperation. "They were together and had all things common" (vv. 44-45). This, perhaps, not of necessity, but because of their warm affection for one another, and practical mutual interest. This spirit is very beautiful, and reveals the wonderful influence the love of God has when shed abroad in our hearts. Jesus Christ had given His all for them; now they were prepared to give their all for Him and for one another (Ephesians 5:2). What hinders the continuance of this spirit of brotherhood? Lack of faith in God, worldliness, and selfishness.
7. Great Jubilation. "Gladness of heart; praising God" (vv. 46-47). Repentance is the narrow gate that leads into the happy home of a heavenly Father's heart. The hearts that were pierced with conviction now praise God for salvation. Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning (Acts 10:43).
This Gospel in the power of the Spirit is still the power of God—
To pierce with conviction the heart of sin.
To compel men to confess their need.
To bring the joy of forgiveness to a believing heart.
To keep in fellowship those who obey.
To turn self-denial into a great delight.
To fill the heart with praise to God.
To make the life a testimony for God.
A WORK OF POWER. Acts 3:1-26
"Is Christianity a failure?" We might as well ask is the sunshine a failure? The Christianized paganism that is being substituted for Pentecostal life and power is a failure because it offers hungry souls stones for bread—it never touches the unutterable need of the human heart. It was very different with Peter and John, filled, as they were, with the Spirit of prayer and of power. In this chapter we have:—
1. A Picture of Need. "A certain man lame. . laid daily at the gate" (vv. 2-3). He was both poor and helpless. But he was willing to be laid in the way of getting help—" at the gate called Beautiful." He was not too proud to beg or to lay his deformity in the path of prayer. If he had been ashamed to confess his need he probably never would have experienced the healing power of the name of Jesus.
2. A Work of Faith (vv. 4-6). Peter and John said, "Look on us!" and the lame man, having such a door of hope opened, gave heed unto them "expecting something." Men filled with the Holy Spirit are sure to awaken expectancy in the minds of others. They had neither "silver nor gold," but they had something infinitely better; they had faith in the saving name of the risen Christ. Calvary and Pentecost are God's remedy for lame and helpless humanity.
3. A Miracle of Grace. "Immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength" (vv. 7-9). Having been healed through the power of the name of Jesus (v. 16). He gives an unmistakable testimony to it by "leaping, walking, and praising God." Then did the lame man leap as a deer (Isaiah 35:6). When a poor, lame, hopeless soul comes into contact with Him who is the Resurrection and the Life, there will be a joyful transformation; the place of the beggar is forsaken for the place of the worshiper (v. 8).
4. An Awakening of Wonder. "All the people ran,. . . greatly wondering." Peter said, "Why look you so earnestly on us?" (vv. 11-12). The amazed and bewildered people could only see the instruments that were in the hands of the invisible wonder-working Savior. Peter and John were the channels of a "power and holiness" not their own, but Christ's. All power is given unto Him, and Pentecost means the imparting of that power to His disciples, for the glory of His name.
5. A Charge of Guilt (vv. 3-16). Peter, quick to take advantage of this sudden awakening of interest, charged them with the "denial of the Holy One," and "killing the Prince of Life," then declared that "faith in the name of Him whom they had killed had made "this man strong." Thereby proving that God had raised Him from the dead. Every redeemed and healed soul is a witness to the fact of Christ's resurrection (2. Timothy 1:10).
6. An Offer of Mercy (vv. 17-21). We think we see the tear in Peter's eye when he said: "Now, brethren, I know that through ignorance you did it... Repent and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out." Their sins were very great, but the blood of Jesus Christ, whom they had crucified, was able to cleanse them all away. By thus repenting the times of refreshing from His presence would come unto them.
7. A Word of Warning. "Every soul that shall not hear that prophet shall be destroyed" (vv. 22-23). To despise the messenger of the Lord is to despise Hun that sent Him (Luke 10:16). He who hears these sayings of Mine and does them shall be likened to a wise man. Hear, and your soul shall live.
THE CHALLENGE AND THE DEFENSE. Acts 4:5-23
In preaching "Jesus and the Resurrection," Peter and John were thrusting the sword of truth right into the hearts of the king's enemies. If Jesus who was crucified has risen again then they are the vilest sinners on the face of the earth, for by consent they had killed the Holy Son of God. If Christ is not risen, then all preaching and faith are alike vain (1 Corinthians 15:14).
1. The Challenge. "By what power, or in what name, have you done this?" (vv. 5-7, R.V.). The power was self-evident in the healed man; the name was a mystery. Was it Satanic or Divine? The challengers were numerous and influential. "Rulers, elders, scribes, the high priest, and as many as were of his kindred." How could they rejoice in the healing of this lame-born beggar, when their own personal dignity was in danger of being lowered in the eyes of the people?
2. The Defense. Peter being "filled with the Holy Spirit" was ready to give a faithful and courageous reply (vv. 8-12). His searching words were to ring out to "all the people of Israel" that it was through the power of "the name of Jesus of Nazareth, whom they had crucified," that this man was made whole, and that he was a standing witness to the resurrection of Jesus, and to their own guilt. The stone which they had cast aside as unfit for use had been lifted up by God and made both the foundation and the chief corner of a new and better structure. On this foundation only spiritual living stones could be built, and by this "Head of the corner" both Jews and Gentiles were to be made one. "All one in Christ Jesus." Other foundation can no man lay; "for there is none other name under Heaven given among men whereby we must be saved."
3. The Results. (a) They marveled at the boldness of Peter and John (v. 13). But they had to confess that, although they were "unlearned and ignorant men," they had stamped on their characters the features of Jesus. God had chosen the foolish things to confound the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27). The treasures of God's grace are still hid from the wise and prudent, and revealed to humble, trustful babes (Matt.11, 25). (b) They were silenced when they beheld the man that was healed standing with them (v. 14). Transformed lives by the power of the Risen Christ are the best apologetics for Christianity. In the cause of Jesus Christ, words are mere empty prattle, without the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 4:19). (c) They were moved by a guilty fear (vv. 15-18). They could not deny that "a notable miracle had been done," but they were anxious that it should "spread no further!" What amazing perversity! By their speaking in the name of Jesus great good had been done, but they would "command them not to speak any more in the name of Jesus." They could speak as long as they liked in their own name—as long as no souls were saved —but they were not to preach Christ and Him crucified in the power of the Spirit, for that would work such revolutions as would upset their peaceful theories, and spoil the regular quiet and decorum of their manner of worship. The descendants of these unbelieving formalists are still among us; who would rather have the order and quiet of a graveyard that the stir of a revival by the Spirit of God. (d) They let them go (vv. 19-23). Peter and John would not lower the banner one single inch, for they "could not but speak the things which they had seen and heard." Being "let go" they found their own company—those who were possessed by the same Spirit—members of the same heavenly family. To which company do you belong?
THE APPEAL TO GOD. Acts 4:23-31
"Being let go they went to their own company." It is an old saying that "bird of like feather flock together." Just as when the needle is set free from every hindrance, it will gravitate to the pole, so those hearts kindled with the same spiritual flame will be powerfully attracted one to another. This love for those who love the Lord is an evidence of heavenly kinship, and a mark of our separation from the world. As soon as Peter and John had "reported," they all fled together in prayer to their city of Refuge, which was the God of their Risen Lord. Prayer is the secret of all strength and consolation, while as servants we suffer for His name. Let us notice some things about this appeal:—
1. It was Believing. "Lord, You are God." They did not pray into unresponsive space, they talked into the very ear of God. "He who comes to God must believe that He is." Their God was the God "which made Heaven, earth, sea, and all that in them is." The God of creation, not of evolution.
2. It was United. "They lifted up their voice to God with one accord" (v. 24). They had already proved the value of united prayer. They would trust to see the power of it again. They seemed never to forget the words of their now Glorified Master. "If two of you shall agree," etc. (Matthew 18:19). United believing prayer is one of the mightiest weapons God has put within the reach of His people. Every Church, no matter how small, has this sword of overcoming power hanging at its belt. O that it were unsheathed. Alas, that it has slept so long in the scabbard of unbelief.
3. It was Scriptural (vv. 25-28). These holy men of God, possessed by the same Spirit which taught the prophets of old, are neither afraid nor ashamed to make mention of David as the author of Psalm 2, and to interpret his words as the infallible testimony of the Holy Spirit. It will give power to our petitions if the Word of God dwells in us richly. The Polychrome Bible is the gallows on which Higher Criticism will yet be hanged.
4. It was Definite. "Now, Lord grant that with all boldness they may speak Your Word" (v. 29). How could they speak the Word of God with boldness, if they did not know assuredly what was the Word of God? They prayed for, and expected, an immediate answer. "Now," they spread out their needs as Hezekiah did the letter, and with the same sudden, overwhelming manifestations (Acts 14:3). There is a great difference between saying prayers and making a direct personal appeal to God for a present declaration of His saving power.
5. It was Christ-Honoring. "That signs and wonders may be done by the name of Your Holy Child Jesus" (v. 30). They were far more concerned about the honor of Christ than the honor of the Church. This is always characteristic of Spirit-filled lives. If the Name of Jesus does not get the prominence, signs and wonders will not be done by the "stretching forth of His hand." Our self-sufficiency will always paralyze the wonder-working hand of the Holy Spirit.
6. It was Answered. "And when they prayed the place was shaken; they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and spoke the Word of God with boldness" (v. 31). To be filled with the Spirit is God's answer to all our needs as His servants and witnesses. There is a great difference between speaking the Word of God and giving the opinions of men about it. The one is the wheat, the other is the chaff (Jeremiah 23:28). The order here is Suggestions, Praying, Shaking, Filling, Testifying.
TESTING TIMES. Acts 4:32-37; 5:1-16.
The power of a Church will be according to the measure by which that Church is filled with the Holy Spirit. When a Church is of "one heart and of one soul," it is an evidence that there is no controversy among them; then they look every man "not on his own things" (4:32-37). The proof that we love God is that we "love our brother also." The story of Ananias and Sapphira is an unquenchable beacon of warning to all who would live godly; it is like some terrible hand with five dreadful fingers. Here they are—
1. Human Deceitfulness. Ananias and Sapphira had beautiful names, but they had crooked and deformed natures. Like the other disciples, they sold their possession, but, unlike the others, they "kept back part of the price." They put on the sheep's skin, but they were still goats at the heart. They went a long way in the Christian life in laying a part at the apostles' feet, but they went the wrong way in pretending that they were giving all. Like Achan, they hoped to enrich themselves by deceiving the Lord. The heart must be "deceitful above all things," for it would deceive the very God of Heaven.
2. Satanic Influence. "Why has Satan filled your heart to lie against the Holy Spirit?" (v. 23). This "Liar from the beginning" still seeks to deceive by filling the heart with thoughts that are opposed to the Spirit of God. Beware of his "fiery darts"—those burning desires to honor self more than God. With regard to the service of Christ, first thoughts are usually best. Their first thought was to give all, their second was to keep back part of the price. Whatever would hinder us from seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness is of the world, the flesh, or the devil.
3. Unexpected Detection. It must have been an awful awakening to Ananias when he had laid the money at the apostles' feet, expecting their blessing to hear instead those soul-piercing words, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie against the Holy Spirit?" The sins of the heart cannot be hidden from God any more than the blood of a murdered Abel. Men filled with the Holy Spirit, like Peter, are quick to detect the lying spirit of the devil in a false professor. Try the spirits, whether they are of God (1 John 4:1). Remember Lot's wife, and also the man without the wedding garment (Matthew 22:12).
4. Divine Judgment. "Ananias, hearing these words, fell down, and gave up the Spirit" (v. 25). There was but little time, between the flash of conviction and the stroke of vengeance. He may not even had time to say, "God be merciful to me, a sinner." He who hardens his neck shall suddenly be cut off. He who covers his sin shall not prosper. He may go a long way round about, but some time, and that suddenly, the great searchlight from the Throne of God will break in upon him, bringing irretrievable self-condemnation and death. Let false professors beware, for no human disguise will ever hide a heart-lie from Him who is the Truth.
5. Fatal Disappointment. It is extremely sorrowful to think of his wife coming in about "three hours after, not knowing what was done," expecting, perhaps, to find her husband exalted to a place of honor, and with the same lie on her lips and in her heart, to be met with the same sudden and overwhelming retribution. God is no respecter of persons; the same sin meets with the same condemnation. Sapphira may have been a beautiful woman, as her name indicates, but outward loveliness is no shelter for inward deceit. This startling vindication of the holiness of God had a very beneficial effect in putting a wholesome fear into the hearts of many (v. 13), and magnifying the power of God in the life and testimony of the apostles (John 14:12).
APOSTOLIC BOLDNESS. Acts 5:17-42
One of the most pronounced effects of Pentecost was the bringing of the disciples into a closer and more vital relationship with Jesus as their risen Lord. By this fiery baptism were they all made "one body," and, planted together in the likeness of His death, were also made in the likeness of His resurrection (Romans 6:5-6). So that they now knew Him in the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings. No one can enter into the heaven-born fellowship of His sufferings who has not entered into the soul-sanctifying power of Pentecost. The disciples were not able, nor were they asked, to take their God-given stand for Him, who was the Truth and the Crucified, until they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Neither can we without the same equipment.
1. They suffered for Him. They were put "in the common prison" (v. 18). They well knew that it was their love and their likeness to Jesus Christ that brought this persecution upon them; it was "for His name." If any man would live godly he must suffer. The words of their Master were now being fulfilled in them (Luke 21:12). The rulers were filled with indignation and fear for the doctrine of the apostles had filled Jerusalem, and, if true; it proved them to be the murderers of the Son of God (v. 28). Those who preach a doctrine like this, that drives guilt and condemnation home to the hearts of self-righteous men, will also know what it is to suffer.
2. They were encouraged by Him. "The angel of the Lord brought them forth and said, "Go, stand and speak all the words of this life" (vv. 19-20). Those who are faithful to God, their Savior, have miracles of mercy wrought for them that others can never understand. This new deliverance and fresh commission must have been a mighty buttress to their faith. They were to go and speak to the people all the words of this life. This life, which was divine and eternal, and was offered to all who repent of sins and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ (1 John 5:11). Those who would speak all the words of "this life" will always have plenty to speak about, and these are the words that the people need.
3. They were devoted to Him. "Behold the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people" (vv. 21-25). They were not disobedient to the heavenly vision. These Spirit-taught men knew nothing worth living for apart from doing the will of God. The desire to please Jesus Christ was the overmastering passion of their souls. One is your Master, even Christ, and if we are true to Him, we shall speak out, and live out, all His revealed will. To substitute our own thoughts for the "Words of this Life" is to deny the Lord, and to become false witnesses.
4. They were fearless for Him. "We ought to obey God rather than man," etc. (vv. 29-32). Although they had just escaped from prison they were not afraid to look the enemies of Christ in the face and say, "God Has raised up Jesus, whom you slew and hanged on a tree. The Spirit of God had come to "convince the world of sin" through the lips and lives of those in whose heart He dwells. The sin-convicting power of the Holy Spirit is hindered and thwarted by the downright poltroonery of many of Christ's ambassadors. The fear of man brings a snare, not only to the soul of the preacher, but also to the Gospel which he preaches.
5. They were joyful in Him. "They rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name" (vv. 41-42). They did not lift up their hands in pious horror at the thought of doing anything to bring shame upon their own name if Jesus was to be honored thereby. Only those filled with the Spirit can take pleasure in reproaches for Christ's sake (2 Corinthians 12:10). We are not ashamed of our Scottish martyrs who suffered as Christians, but we may well be ashamed of those who are ashamed to suffer for His name's sake (1 Peter 4:13-16).
SERVING AND SHINING. Acts 6:1-15
The portion before us here may be divided into two sections:—
I. A NEW TRIAL. The number of the saved had grown rapidly, and so the work of administering help to the needy ones was becoming increasingly difficult.
1. The Complaint (v. 1). The Greek-speaking Jews "murmured because their widows were neglected." This neglect could not be willful. It is pleasing to note how careful these early brethren were about the interests of their sorrowing, suffering sisters.
2. The Remedy. "Look you out men full of the Holy Spirit," etc. (vv. 2-4). There are two important lessons for us here, the first is, that to minister "the Word of God" is a more urgent business than doling charities to the poor; and the second, that even for the simple work of distributing gifts among the needy the filling of the Holy Spirit was needed. The Lord would not have the poor of His people relieved in the manner in which a man may relieve the hunger of his dog; but in the tenderness and compassion of the Spirit of Grace, that the receiver may be doubly blessed thereby. It is not of God that the poor among His flock should be constantly reminded of their pauperism. All those who have seen that God-inspired work among the orphans at Bridge-of-Weir must feel thankful to God for the absence of the very smell of the "charity-workhouse" system.
3. The Results. "They chose Stephen, a man full of the Holy Spirit. . . and the Word of God increased" (vv. 5-7). These seven men, whom they had "looked out," were not chosen because of their social position or scholarship, but because they were "filled with the Spirit;" this is the indispensable equipment for acceptable service in the eyes of the glorified Christ. The Word of God is sure to increase in power and fruitfulness through the ministry of such men. If the "Word of God" is not increasing in its hold upon the hearts and lives of its hearers it is because it is preached in the spirit of doubt and fear, instead of in the power of the Holy Spirit.
II. A NEW TESTIMONY.—Stephen's face became a witness to Stephen's faith.
1. See Him Serving. Being "full of faith and power, he did great wonders" (v. 8). The secret of Stephen's wonder-working influence is an open one, and within the reach of every servant of Christ. He had two mighty hands—"faith and power"—and with these it became easy for him to do great things. This strength is not something we may put off or on, like a garment, it belongs to the constitution of our spiritual manhood (Acts 1:8).
2. See Him Suffering. Stephen was never more like his Master than when they sought false witness against him (Matthew 26:59). Truly they hated him without a cause. In this fiery trial he was filled with a wisdom and spirit that "they were not able to resist," thus experiencing the fulfillment of the Lord's promise (Luke 21:15). Men filled with the Holy Spirit are sure to stir up the enmity of the carnal mind. But greater is He who is in you, than he who is in the world (1 John 4).
3. See Him Shining. All those who sat in judgment on him "looking steadfastly, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel." The glory of his transfigured soul—by the indwelling Spirit of God—shone through his eyes as the windows of that body of his which was the temple of the Holy Spirit. This was a new witness to the Sanhedrin, of the resurrection and glorification of Jesus of Nazareth, whom they crucified, and in whom Stephen trusted. It is the Spiritual Life within us that is the light that shines through us. "The life is the light of men." Let your light so shine. But our light will be darkness, unless, like Stephen, we are filled with the Spirit of Life (2 Corinthians 3:18). Covet earnestly the best gift.
APOSTOLIC CHARACTER. Acts 7:51-60
Stephen's defense is a masterpiece of spiritual policy and power. He did not begin his address by saying, "You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart." No; but with these very courteous words—" Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken." He who wins souls is wise. We might observe here:—
1. His Knowledge of Scripture.—This Spirit-filled man had a clear and comprehensive grasp of the doing and purposes of God in Old Testament history. The knowledge of the will of God will always be a mighty weapon in the hand of anyone full of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God will have but little to work on, unless our hearts are filled with the words of God. This is the secret of successful prayer (John 15:7). It is the honest heart which hears the Word and keeps it, that brings forth fruit (Luke 8:15).
2. His Faithfulness. "You stiff-necked... you do always resist the Holy Spirit" (vv. 51-53). A man filled with the Spirit cannot but be courageous, for the Kingdom of God; the truth burns like a fire in his bones, while sin, and the things of eternity, stand out before his anointed eyes in the clear light of Him who sits at the right hand of the Father in Heaven. They are in an awful condition who resist the Holy Spirit by the stiffness of their wills and the hardness of their hearts. They may be "cut to the heart" (v. 54) by a faithful testimony, but unless they are "pricked in the heart" (vv. 11-37) they will "gnash with their teeth," and die in their sins.
3. His Vision. While "they gnashed on him with their teeth," he saw the "glory of God." Our heavenly Father has always rich compensation for His suffering children. Seeing "Jesus standing on the right hand of God" is a wonderful balm for the wounds made by the teeth of the enemy. This revelation to Stephen is the vision that is ever before the mind of those who, like him, are enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit, through faith, to look up "steadfastly into Heaven." It is the work of the Spirit to reveal the things of Christ to the believing heart (John 16:14). To have the vision of the soul filled with the glory of the exalted Redeemer is to have the life consciously "hid with Christ in God."
4. His Martyrdom. "They stoned Stephen, calling upon God and saying. . . Lord, lay not this sin to their charge" (vv. 57-60). This first martyr for Christ was a witness to that overcoming grace of God in the heart which constrains to pray for them "which despitefully use you." If the death of Stephen was but the means in the hand of God of sending the goads of conviction into the soul of that "young man whose name was Saul" (9:5), then it was a death that has helped to open up a channel of life and blessing to the world. The Kingdom of Jesus Christ never suffers defeat through the killing of His followers. The bloodstained prayers of those saints who suffer martyrdom for His name's sake, God in grace will mightily avenge, "The blood of the martyr is the seed of the Church."
5. His Mercifulness. "He kneeled down and cried, Lord lay not this sin to their charge." The love of a merely natural heart never constrained any one so earnestly to seek the highest good of those who were committing the greatest personal wrong. This last cry of the dying martyr is a convincing proof of the transforming power of the love of Christ in the heart. This merciful spirit manifested in Stephen's last breath toward those sin-blinded murders is the spirit Jesus Christ has sent into the world to seek and save it. "This sin" which they were committing was an awful one. They were destroying the temple of the Holy Spirit. If Stephen had not been filled with the Holy Spirit he would not have been stoned. "Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto Me."
THE CITY'S AND THE CHURCH'S NEED. Acts 8:1-25
We may learn from this portion:—
1. That Persecution is not an Unmixed Evil (vv. 1-5). If the Church at Jerusalem had been allowed to remain in the very comfortable position into which they had settled down (chapter 4:32) it would have been a long time before "the regions beyond" would have had the Gospel of Christ preached unto them. The wind of persecution "scattered abroad" the good seed of the Kingdom, which sprang up into fresh harvests of souls for the glory of God. What is true in the history of the Church is true also in the individual experience, so that we may glory in tribulations (Romans 5:3; Matthew 5:11-12).
2. That the Great Need of a City is Christ. "Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ unto them.... and there was great joy in that city" (vv. 5-11). No field of labor could possibly look more unpromising than Samaria did at that moment. Simon the sorcerer, an agent of the devil, had got the people by the ears, for "they all gave heed unto him, from the least unto the greatest," and were completely bewitched by him. They were so carried away with "lying wonders" that they had no wits left for sober judgment. What better are the multitudes in our cities and towns today, who are bewitched by the deceitfulness of riches, the excitement of gambling, the love of pleasure, the allurements of Satan, and the deceitfulness of a heart at enmity with God. Slum souls, groveling in the mire of iniquity, loving the darkness rather than the light. Philip, being full of the Holy Spirit, preached Christ unto them. Holy Spirit men have no other remedy but God's to offer sin-blinded souls being driven into perdition. He did not preach science and philosophy, history, morality, or the "learned results of criticism." He preached Christ, as the sin-bearing Redeemer, and unclean spirits were cast out and useless, crippled lives were healed and restored, "and there was great joy in the city." The joy of souls emancipated from the deluding powers of darkness.
3. That all Believers Should Receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit (vv. 14-17). Samaria had "received the Word of God"—the message of life declared to them by Philip, through Christ—but as yet the Holy Spirit "had fallen upon none of them." They had been converted, but they had not yet been anointed. To Peter and John the receiving of the Holy Spirit was as definite a blessing as the receiving of the forgiveness of sins. In apostolic days the gift of the Holy Spirit accompanied the remission of sins. Paul's first question to the Ephesian converts was, "Have you received the Holy Spirit since you believed?" (Acts 19:1). He was anxious that they not only should be disciples, but that they should be powerful witnesses for Christ. The receiving of the Holy Spirit is as absolutely necessary for service as the receiving of Christ is for salvation.
4. That the Power of God cannot be Purchased with Gifts. Simon said, "Give me this power," and offered to purchase the gift of God with money (vv. 18-25). The power of the Holy Spirit cannot be given as a reward for anything that man can do or give; it is the "Gift of God." Is it not possible for us to be offering this prayer of Simon's in another form? We would not, perhaps, say, "Give me this power," for I am rich, but in our hearts we may have been saying, "Give me this power," for I am clever, or for I am earnest. God does not barter with man about the Holy Spirit. Let your prayer be, "Give me this power," for I am weak; and believe that you receive, and you shall have (Isaiah 40:29-31; Luke 11:13).
SOUL-WINNING. Acts 8:26-40
There are several examples set before us here, to which we shall do well to take heed. There is an example of—
1. Anxiety of Soul (vv. 27-28). It was no trifling curiosity that brought this Ethiopian nobleman, this chancellor of the treasury, up to Jerusalem to worship. He was, doubtless, an earnest seeker after the soul-satisfying truth of God, and as an honest, anxious inquirer, he had, meanwhile, laid everything else aside that he might seek this one thing needful. He came to Jerusalem that he might hear; he searched the Scriptures that he might see. Those who seek with all their heart will speedily find (Jeremiah 29:13).
2. Obedience to God. When Philip received the call to "Arise and go.... he arose and went" (vv. 26-27). His desire was to do the will of God, whether that was in the quiet of "the desert," or in the excitement of a mighty spiritual revival. He went out, like Abraham, by faith, not knowing where he went. This was God's way of meeting those Spirit-begotten longings that were in the heart of that anxious Ethiopian pilgrim. In some way or other the earnest prayers of the needy will be answered, while they use the means within their reach. God could have blessed the eunuch without Philip's aid, but it has pleased the Lord to make those who are filled with the Spirit co-workers together with Him.
3. Enthusiasm for Souls. At the bidding of the Spirit "Philip ran thither to him" (v. 29-30). Only those whose hearts have been enlarged by the Spirit of God will run in the way of His commandments. Men filled with the Holy Spirit will always be at home in dealing with an anxious soul. Real enthusiasm in the work of God is a rare accomplishment in these cold, intellectual, critical days. Those who would be wise to win souls must be willing to "run and join themselves to their chariots;" to get alongside of them, not as unfallen angels, but as fellow-pilgrims to eternity, seeking, by the help of the Holy Spirit, to lead them to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
4. Faithfulness to the Bible. The anxious Ethiopian was reading the prophet Isaiah at chapter fifty-three; Philip, filled and guided by the Holy Spirit, began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus" (vv. 32-35). We have teachers among us now who are evidently filled and guided by another spirit, for they would gravely rebuke the modern Philips for such a misuse of the Bible. But "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine." And "they are they which testify of Me," said the Son of God. Philip preached unto him Jesus. Who else can meet the need of a sin-smitten soul? What other preaching could be of any avail?
5. Readiness to Confess. "Faith comes by hearing." The eunuch heard the Gospel from the lips of Philip, and believed and was saved. Now, he was ready and willing to be cut off from his own religious beliefs and habits, and to confess Christ in baptism. To him it was an outward sign of his inward fitness to join the family of the redeemed in the House of God on earth, and be numbered with the joint-heirs of Christ. Faith should always be accompanied with confession (Romans 10:9-10).
6. Happiness in Christ. "He went on his way rejoicing" (v. 39). Being justified by faith, he had peace with God, now he goes on his way rejoicing in hope (Romans 5:1-2). The darkness is passed, the true light now shines in his heart. What a change Jesus brings into the life when He is received and trusted. The great majority of business men go on their way plotting and scheming, instead of rejoicing, because they are strangers to the blessedness of the man whose sins are forgiven (Psalm 32:1-11).
SAUL'S CONVERSION. Acts 9:1-19
The claims of all other religions can be met by mere outward conformity, but Christianity demands the regeneration of the inner man. Even unconverted men like Saul, as touching the law, may live blameless lives in the sight of men, but the converted man is one whose whole heart has been turned to God. The process is here exemplified in the experience of Saul. We see him—
1. As a Rebel. "Saul yet breathing out threatenings," etc. (v. 1). Yet, after all the evidences he had had of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the life and testimony of Stephen, witnessing the triumphant death of a Christian is seldom enough to slay the enmity of the human heart against the revealed will of God.
2. As a Prisoner (vv. 2-4). He was apprehended by a "light from Heaven." The searchlight of God was turned upon this religious burglar on the way to Damascus to rob the Church of its living treasure. There is nothing the evil-worker dreads more than the light (John 3:20). From this moment Saul could speak of himself as the "prisoner of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1). Like many another sinner, he was apprehended "suddenly." The light of truth flashed into the heart by the power of the Holy Spirit is still God's way of subduing rebels to Himself. The pressure of the light was so overwhelming that he fell to the earth. This light, like the Word of God, was quick and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12). The weapons of our warfare are not carnal.
3. As an Inquirer. "Who are You, Lord?" Along with the arresting light there came a "voice, saying, Why persecute you Me." When the truth comes in the power of the Holy Spirit there is always a voice with it, making the sinner feel that it is with Him, not it, that he has to do. This question reveals the terrible blindness of Saul's heart and mind—he knew Him not. How could he possibly know Him and live at enmity with Him. It was very different with Stephen (vv. 6:15). But light from the Lord is sure to lead to an honest inquiry after Him.
4. As a Convert. "Lord, what will You have me to do?" (v. 6). "Trembling" at the discovery of his past sin and guilt, "and astonished" at the greatness of the Lord's mercy and grace, he asks this question, as a true penitent, ready and willing to yield himself to do His will. This is conversion. Not the talking about religious duty, but the entire surrender of the whole being to the person and service of the Lord Jesus Christ. Saul repented at once, as soon as he discovered the error of his ways (Matt 18:3). As a disciple he was easily led (v. 8).
5. As a Worshiper. "Behold he prays" (v. 11). Saul had frequently said his prayers, but now he prayed. Now his renewed heart yearned for fellowship with the risen Lord, who had revealed Himself to him. A young convert once said—"Before I was converted I prayed to myself, but now I pray to God." Those who don't know Jesus Christ as their own personal Savior can only draw near unto Him with the lips; they worship they know not what.
6. As a Witness (vv. 15-19). Before this he was a vessel fitted for destruction, but now "he is a chosen vessel"—having been cleansed and transformed by the grace of God—"to bear My Name," as precious treasure "before the Gentiles." As a vessel, tie was made strong, for he was to "suffer great things" for His Name's sake. He was often cast down, but not destroyed. As a vessel, he was made meet for the Master's use, being "filled with the Holy Spirit" (v. 17). We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God and not of us. Saul's conversion and equipment for Christ's service has been given for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 1:16). Be you filled with the Spirit.
SAUL'S TESTIMONY. Acts 9:20-31
Paul, in writing to the Galatians, refers to his conversion in very striking language. He says—"It pleased God, who called me by His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him." The words here put in italics give us the whole Gospel in brief. Saul was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.
1. A Courageous Stand. "Immediately he preached Christ as the Son of God" (v. 20). It was impossible for Saul to be a Unitarian, or for any one who, like him, has been transformed in heart by the power of the resurrected Christ. He who was an enemy to Jesus, now becomes one of His most successful recruiting sergeants. He was not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ (Romans 1:16).
2. A Suggestive Question. "Is not this he who destroyed them?" etc. (vv. 21-22). Yes; this is he, yet it is not he, for Saul the persecutor has died, and Saul the preacher has been quickened from the dead. The lion has been converted into a lamb, and a religious icicle has suddenly become a flame of holy fire. Henry Martyn said—"If I could see a Hindu convert, I would see the dead raised." Who can explain the process of resurrection? So is every one that is born of the Spirit (John 3:8).
3. A Vigilant Enemy. "They watched the gates day and night to kill him" (vv. 23-25). The more "Saul increased in strength" the more bitter did the enemies of Christ become. All those who would grow in grace may be prepared for a growing opposition in some quarters. The subjects of the "Kingdom of God" will surely be despised by the subjects of the "Kingdom of Satan." But the servant of Christ need fear no evil, there will always be a "basket" or a hole in the wall for them in time of need. It is said that "man is immortal until his work is done."
4. A Confession of Discipleship. "He assayed to join himself to the disciples" (v. 26). When Saul offered himself as a member to that Church of Jerusalem which he had so lately persecuted, "they were afraid of him"—perhaps thinking this was another of his dodges to catch them—"and believed not that he was a disciple." But as he had been brought into the fellowship of Jesus Christ, he longed for the fellowship of the saints. It is a certain sign of discipleship when we love the people of God, and seek the company of the redeemed.
5. A Brotherly Act. "Barnabas took him and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord" (vv. 27-28). This "son of consolation" did a most gracious work in smoothing the way for this new convert. There are disciples still who seem slow to believe the testimony of those who have been suddenly transformed by the grace of God. It will ever be a blessed and Christ-like ministry to help those who are misunderstood.
6. A Confirming Testimony. "He spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus" (v. 29-30). The fact of Saul being changed was very soon apparent. He was now doing the same work for which Stephen was stoned, and in the same fearless and powerful manner, because he was animated by the same heaven-born motives. (Galatians 1 ,15-16).
7. A Grand Result. This result was five-fold. (a) They had peace (v. 31, R.V.). How sweet this calm was after the fiery tempest of persecution. How sweet peace is after the inward battle of sin and unbelief. (b) They were edified. Built up in the holy faith, strengthened by the study of the Scriptures. (c) They walked in the fear of the Lord. Their daily life was lived in the presence of Him who said—"Lo, I am with you always." (d) They had the comfort of the Holy Spirit. The promised Comforter had come (John 14:16), they had received Him, and were now experiencing the blessedness of His indwelling. (e) They were multiplied. Success is absolutely certain to any Church bearing these characteristics. Peace, wisdom, comfort are still being eagerly sought after by the restless "men of the world." O, that they could see these blood-bought gifts exhibited in the lives of Church members today.
THE VICTORY OF FAITH. Acts 9:32-43
For a time the name of Saul drops out of the record, and the halo of divine glory is seen on Peter. To him was given the keys of the kingdom, and he used them well in opening doors for others. He came down to see the saints. "How sweet to mingle with such kindred spirits here"—and the poor paralyzed Aeneas was able to bless God for his visit. "He had kept his bed for eight years" (v. 33). Like a man sick and paralyzed by sin, he was utterly helpless and hopeless, apart from the saving power of God. "Peter said unto him, Jesus Christ makes you whole." This bold declaration recalls Peter's unstaggering faith in his risen Lord, and, according to his faith, so was it done unto him. Peter knew that it was glorifying to the name of Jesus that he should venture much in Him.
HIS VICTORY AT JOPPA.—
1. Why he Went. The disciples sent unto him two men desiring that "he would not delay but come" (vv. 36-38). They had been suddenly plunged into sorrow through the death of their beloved Dorcas What a mercy that Peter, the man of Pentecost, was only a few miles off. The more we are filled with the Holy Spirit, the more shall we be able to minister the consolation of Christ to the needy.
2. What he Saw. With tearful eyes the widows showed him "the coats and garments which Dorcas made." While the great battles of Roman Emperors have been forgotten, the gracious deeds of Dorcas are being held in everlasting remembrance. Every "Dorcas Society" is a monument to her immortal memory. Whatever we do for the glory of God shall be as gold and silver and precious stones; all the testing fires of time and coming judgment shall never be able to efface their beauty, or dim the memory of them in the mind of God (1 Corinthians 3:11-14).
3. What he Did. The several acts of Peter here in raising Dorcas from the dead may be suggestive to us as to how we may be successful in restoring souls to the new life which is in Christ, (a) "He put them all forth" (v. 40). This was a work that God only could do, so he gets alone with God. Everything that would in any way distract our faith in Him must be put out. (6) "He kneeled down and prayed." Special definite prayer is needed. Peter's whole soul was centered on this one thing. When Elijah prayed for rain we may be sure that at that time he prayed for nothing else. When a beggar cries for everything he usually gets nothing, (c) He called on her by name. "Tabitha, arise!" It is not enough that we speak to God, we must speak to the people, and speak to them personally, and as if we expected them to hear and believe at once, Peter did not say, "Tabitha, I hope you may see your way to get up soon," but, "Arise!" In the name of the Risen Christ, arise from the dead. (4) He gave her his hand and lifted her up. This is a beautiful touch of real sympathy and tenderness. If we would lift up new-born souls, we must not only speak the truth, but speak it in love. As soon as she "saw Peter," she felt the uplifting power of his compassionate hand. (e) "He called the saints and presented her alive." He would have them all rejoice in this victory through the grace of God. The result was that "many believed in the Lord." Such results are sure to follow where there is definite, prayerful dealing with God for the deliverance of souls from the power of death.
DIVINE PREPARATION. Acts 10:1-23
Caesarea was the headquarters of the Roman Governor. Cornelius was captain of the one hundred Italians who formed the bodyguard. The Jewish and the Gentile streams meet and mingle in Peter and Cornelius. The time had come for the overflowing of the river of grace that had so long been limited to the narrow channel of Israel. "It was the bursting of the chrysalis, in which the life has been preserved indeed, but confined." Let us look at—
I. CORNELIUS THE PETITIONER.—
1. His Character. "Devout, feared God, gave alms, and prayed always" (v. 2). This is a very brief biography of a great man, who dared to be holy in the most unlikely circumstances. Do we wonder that his influence was such that all his house feared God? A man may be a brave soldier, and yet be a religious coward.
2. His Vision (vv. 3-6). He who prays much will see much. God is ever ready to unlock the treasures of His grace to the humble seeking heart. The vision came about the ninth hour—the hour of prayer (chapter 3:1). It brought him a message of personal assurance (v. 4), and also a plain word of direction (v. 5). When God answers our prayers there is no doubt about it, everything is so perfectly clear and God-like.
3. His Obedience. As soon as the heavenly messenger was departed, he sent to Joppa, about thirty miles off, for Peter (vv. 7-8). The willing and trustful heart will never seek a more convenient season than now. It is such joy to the man of prayer to know the will of God that it becomes his delight to do it.
II. PETER THE PREACHER.—
1. His Call to Caesarea. "Send to Joppa and call for Peter" (v. 5). God could easily have made the angel His messenger to bring to Cornelius all the light and comfort he needed, but He chooses redeemed ones to be co-workers together with Him in the preaching of the Gospel.
2. His Love of Prayer (vv. 9-10). Time never hangs heavily upon those who delight in secret fellowship with the Lord. While the dinner was being cooked, Peter was pleading, perhaps, that his way might be made plain as to where he should next go to preach Christ.
3. His Strange Preparation (vv. 11-23). The vision of the "great sheet" or "vessel" let down from Heaven was certainly intended as a revelation to Peter of the gracious purpose of God to gather all sorts into His kingdom, through faith in Christ Jesus. When the hungry apostle saw this strange lot, and was asked to receive them, he refused to have anything to do with them. He would have no fellowship with the "common and unclean." But these, "all manner of four-footed beasts, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air," represented all manner of sinners, wild sinners, creeping, groveling, earth-worm sinners, and intellectual, high-flying sinners, but no longer "common or unclean," for God has cleansed them by the blood of Christ, through faith in His name. They were all one in the "vessel," even as we are "all one in Christ Jesus," both Jew and Gentile. The little "creeping thing" was equally safe with the strong beast or the bird of the air, all tied up together in the bundle of life. They were taken from the earth, but their abode was in the heavenlies; they were sent back to the earth as a testimony to the cleansing power of God. Wild beasts and creeping things, such were some of you, but you are washed.
The effect of this vision on Peter was that he was now ready and willing to preach the Gospel to every creature (vv. 42-43).
THE APOSTOLIC GOSPEL. Acts 10:38-44
It was a very warm reception Peter got from Cornelius. No medical professor ever had a more hearty welcome from any pain-stricken patient. He received him as one shut up in a besieged city would receive the General of the relief force. Blessed are the feet of them that bring good tidings. "He fell down at his feet" (vv. 23-26). Then Peter went in and "talked with him." As they each rehearsed their individual experience, it became abundantly clear to both that God had been guiding them, and that they were both brought together to witness a very definite manifestation of His grace and power (vv. 27-33). Peter's vision prepared him to go wherever God should send him. The vision of Cornelius prepared him to receive all that God should give him (v. 33). In this we have a very decided example of how God may prepare a people and a preacher when times of reviving are about to come from His presence. The spring of blessing began on both sides in secret prayer, where every heaven-born revival has its human origin. Peter never preached to a more interested audience than this, and although the meeting was small, the results were mighty and far-reaching, because he preached unto them, Jesus.
1. Jesus, the Anointed One. "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit" (v. 38). This anointing took place at Jordan when the Spirit of God, like a dove, lighted on Him (Matthew 3:16). "Him has God the Father sealed," who was His eternal Son, and into whose hands the salvation of sinners and the glory of the Father have been committed.
2. Jesus, the Compassionate One. "Who went about doing good." Having been "anointed to preach the Gospel to the poor" (Luke 4:18), His pitiful eyes were ever on the look-out for humble, needy souls, that He might bless them with His good. O, the depth of that good that was in Him.
3. Jesus, the Mighty One. "Healing all that were oppressed of the devil." He preached deliverance to the captives, for He had come that He might destroy the works of the devil (1 John, 3, 8). The devil oppresses with the burden of darkness, of doubts, and of hopeless despair, affecting the mind, the heart, and future prospects. He not only delivers from the thraldom of the devil, but heals the wounds sin and Satan had made. He was mighty, for the Almighty One was with Him (v. 38; John 14:10).
4. Jesus, the Suffering One. "Whom they slew and hanged on a tree" (v. 39). What condescension and gracious self-emptying is this? He who delivered others from the oppressive death-grip of the devil submits to be oppressed to death at the hands of men. They slew that loving, tender heart of His with their pride and unbelief before they hanged that weak, exhausted body on the tree. He suffered for us, the Just for the unjust.
5. Jesus, the Risen One. "Him God raised up the third day." "God loosed Him from the pangs of death, because it was not possible that He should be held of it" (Acts 2:24). The love of God for His Son and for those for whom He died, made it impossible that death should keep Him. Being raised from the dead. He is "declared to be the Son of God with power"—with power to save and keep all who believe on His name.
6. Jesus, the Exalted One. "Ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead" (v. 42). All judgment has been committed unto the Son, because He is the Son of Man (John 5:22-27). In 2 Corinthians 5:10 we have the judgment of the quick—those alive unto God. In Rev. 20:11-15 we see Him judging the dead—those who have died in their sins.
7. Jesus, the Universal Saving One. "Whoever believes in Him shall receive remission of sins" (v. 43). "Through His name" the door of Mercy and Access has been thrown wide open, and through this open door the voice of divine entreaty is now being heard in the Gospel. When this door is shut no man will be able to enter in (Luke 13:24-25).
The effects of Peter's sermon were most manifest. He preached Jesus, and "signs and wonders" followed (vv. 44-48).
PETER'S TESTIMONY. Acts 11:1-18
Every new move of the Spirit of God is likely to stir up doubtful questionings in the hearts of some conservative Christians. The Church has not yet learned to hail with joy any Spirit-directed innovation that brings glory to God in the salvation of sinners. They contended with Peter for having fellowship with Gentiles, although they knew that they had "received the Word of God" (vv. 1-3). We ought always to be liberal-minded as the Holy Spirit is, otherwise we are narrow-minded. Where did we learn that the Gospel was only to be preached on a certain day in the week in a stated place at a fixed hour? Is not the Church of God an army on a campaign against the enemies of Christ and of righteousness? Would any nation permit its army to fight only one day in the week, and allow its foes to do their deadly soul-destroying work all the other six days? Peter had carried the holy war into the enemies' country, and had gained a glorious victory, but was now gravely charged with imprudence by those who had preferred to stay at home. Peter's defense is beautiful for its humility and simplicity. If it was analyzed we might find in it—
1. A Spirit of Prayer. "I was in the city of Joppa praying" (v. 5). Those who are possessed by the spirit of prayer will always find a time and place for the purpose of prayer Yes, "in the city," as well as out of it. If the fire of divine love has been kindled in the heart, flaming tongues of holy desires will leap God-ward.
2. A Heavenly Vision. This "vessel, let down from Heaven by four corners" (v. 5), was to Peter, as we have seen, a revelation of the purposes of God in relation to the Gentiles. The secrets of Heaven are still revealed to those who wait upon God in secret prayer. Such exchange their own weakness for the uplifting strength of His manifested will (Isaiah 40:31).
3. A Definite Commission. "The Spirit bade me go." Men of faith and prayer hear voices and see visions that other mortals are quite incapable of understanding (2 Corinthians 12:4). Under the guiding Spirit of God things will also be done that will look foolish and absurd in the eyes of the worldly wise. We cannot be filled with the Spirit to excess.
4. A Special Preparation. "He showed us how he had seen an angel in his house" (vv. 13-14). Cornelius was also prepared like Peter for fuller blessings through prayer. The soil of the centurion's heart was made ready for the seed of the Word. "He shall tell you words, wonder-working words, words whereby you shall be saved." Words, in the power of the Holy Spirit, are spirit and life.
5. A Divine Manifestation. "As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them" (vv. 15-16). The Spirit who bade him go sealed Peter's testimony for Jesus by His coming down in mighty power upon the hearers, baptizing them into the mystical body of Christ, and so making of twain; one new man.
6. A Silencing Question. "What was I, that I could withstand God?" (vv. 17-18). Well done, Peter! That was a dexterous stroke with the sword of defense. What could he do, being caught in the rush of that heavenly wind that "blows where it wills." He could no more withstand the pressure of the Spirit of God than Saul of Tarsus could withstand the "light from Heaven." "When they heard these things they held their peace and glorified God." They saw the hand of God in it, and they had grace enough to praise Him for it, although they themselves had no hand in it. Is this the grace wherein we stand?
THE REVIVAL IN ANTIOCH. Acts 11:19-26
Antioch was the eastern capital of the empire. There was a great exhibition on in this metropolis, not of human are and industry, but of the mighty saving grace of God. Such an unprecedented show, that it was well worth the while of Barnabas going all the way from Jerusalem to see it. Those who would travel back in the line of history to the purity and power of primitive Christianity must take care that they don't lose their way in that "valley of the shadow of death," called "The Dark Ages." The pure light of the Gospel shines most brightly at the dawning of this new day:—
I. THE REVIVAL AT ANTIOCH.—
1. The Origin of it. "The persecution that arose about Stephen" drove those nameless disciples "as far as Antioch." In this case the wrath of man was made to praise the Lord (Psalm 76:10). They thought evil against the Church, but the Lord meant it for good (Genesis 1:20). The things which happened unto them fell out rather unto the furtherance of the Gospel (Philippians 1:12).
2. The Means of it. There was first the "preaching of the Word" (v. 19), "preaching the Lord Jesus" (v. 20). There was, second, "the hand of the Lord with them." The Word of the Gospel of Christ is the weapon in the hand of the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 1:5). We preach Jesus, and the hand of the Lord works wonders. Thus we are laborers with God (1 Corinthians 3:9).
3. The Results of it. "A great number believed and turned unto the Lord." The turning of the heart to the Lord is the evidence of having believed. The great end of all preaching should be to turn men unto the Lord. John Owen said long ago, that "Ministers are seldom honored with success unless they are continually aiming at the conversion of sinners." This is a true witness.
II. THE VISIT OF BARNABAS.—Observe—
1. What He Was. "He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith" (v. 24). He was an all-round good man (Acts 9:27), baptized with the Holy Spirit and full of faith in the Gospel, which he preached, expecting direct results. These are the elements which constitute the gift of the evangelist.
2. What He Saw. "He saw the Grace of God" (v. 23). A Roman philosopher could only see in this movement "a vile superstition," where the Spirit-anointed eyes of Barnabas saw "the grace of God." A man's inward character determines what he shall see. The Athenians saw, with great pride, their many gods; but Paul saw "the city wholly given to idolatry." There are things which can only be "spiritually discerned," and the "Grace of God" is one of them. When you go into a city, what see you?
3. What he Felt. "He was glad." His heart was filled with joy at seeing the work of God prosper, although he had no hand in it. A man's character is unmistakably revealed by what saddens or gladdens him. As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.
4. What he Did. "He exhorted them all... to cleave unto the Lord." To cleave unto Him as the branch does to the vine (John 15:4). As a helpless child would do to its mother; and as a faithful follower and friend, "with full purpose of heart." Be you steadfast and immovable (1 Corinthians 15:58). He also sought for Saul to help him in the work (vv. 25-26). It is a great matter to be able to set others to work for God. It was here and at this time, that disciples were first called Christians. What a sweet, suggestive title. They were called after the name of Christ because they had believed on Him, and turned to Him, and were now, with full purpose of heart, living for Him. Would that all who are called Christians in our days had these marks of the sheep of Christ. How sad to have a name to live, and yet be dead.
PERSECUTION AND DELIVERANCE. Acts 12:1-17
The infant Church was not rocked in the cradle of ease, or nursed in the lap of luxury. It had early to face the fiery baptism of persecution. Herod thought that he had done a fine stroke of business when he discovered that the killing of James with the sword had "pleased the Jews" as well as himself. So he proceeded to gain further honor by apprehending Peter also. But He who rules in the heavens said, "So far, but no farther." Herod had already got to the end of his tether. Look at Peter—
1. His Perilous Condition. Peter was kept in prison, guarded by sixteen soldiers (vv. 4-5). The sentence of death seemed hanging over him; in himself he was utterly helpless and hopeless. Such is the condition of all those who are under the power of the God of this world (John 3:18).
2. His Faithful Remembrancers. "Prayer was made without ceasing unto God for him" (v. 5). Thank God, all the forces of earth and Hell cannot close the door of prayer—this highway to heaven—this secret bloodstained path into the very audience chamber of the King of kings. We may not be able to speak to our friends personally, who are suffering affliction for the cause of Christ, or who may be led captive by the devil at his will, but we can speak to God on their behalf. The prayer of faith will save. Many have been pulled out of the fires of sin, as Peter was pulled out of prison, by "effectual, fervent prayer."
3. His Peaceful Submission. "That same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers" (v. 6). That same night that Herod was to bring him forth to condemnation and death Peter's mind was so calmly resting in the good will of God, that he went to sleep as sweetly as a babe in its crib, rocked by a loving mother's hand. It is well known that Argyle, the martyr, had to be awakened out of his sleep that morning he was executed. Easy lies the head that wears a crown of holy innocency. Even on the cold, damp pavement of a dungeon the Grace of God can make us to lie down as in green pastures.
4. His Supernatural Deliverance. "The angel of the Lord came," etc. (v. 7). Soldiers are poor clumsy things in the presence of an angel, yet not more clumsy than the ways of men are, compared with the ways of God. His salvation is perfect. There was the Divine Presence. "The angel of the Lord" in personal touch with the needy one. There was the Light shining in the prison. Into the place of darkness the light of Heaven came (2 Corinthians 4:6). There was the smiting of the prisoner, the awakening touch of the Messenger of God. "When He, the Spirit of Truth, is come, He will convince." There was the call, "Arise up quickly!" God has commanded all men everywhere to repent, and believe the Gospel. There was the offer of liberty. "His chains fell from his hands." The Gospel of Christ offers liberty to the captives" (Luke 4:18).
5. His Instant Obedience. "And so he did." Peter was wise enough neither to argue nor object. He was profoundly conscious that Salvation is of the Lord, and that his privilege was to trust and obey. Salvation had come to his prison-house; he gladly accepted it as God's message to his soul. Be you not disobedient to the heavenly vision.
6. His Perfect Assurance. "Now I know of a surety that the Lord has delivered me" (vv. 10-11). No conqueror ever had a more triumphant march than Peter had from the State prison to the street. Those soldiers in charge of his life remained blind and dumb as he passed them by, and the ponderous gate swung open at his approach. How could he be anything else than sure that he was saved, after such an experience of the mighty power of God (Daniel 6:22). Do you know of a surety that the Lord has delivered you?
7. His Joyful Testimony. "He declared unto them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison" (vv. 12-17). It was a wonderful story that Peter had to tell; the story of God's salvation is always so. While Peter continued knocking at their door, it was God's answer to their prayers seeking admission, but they would hardly believe it. Those who have been delivered by the Lord should not be ashamed to confess Him by telling how great things He has done for their souls.
THE CALL OF BARNABAS AND SAUL. Acts 13:1-12
After a missionary in China had been showing them the folly of idols, and had preached Jesus to them, one old man said—"Stop and tell us, for we cannot find the door." How sad to think of the multitudes who are groping in the dark for the door of eternal life and cannot find it. How shall they hear without a preacher, and how shall they preach except they be sent. The Holy Spirit is very desirous to thrust out laborers; pray you Him. The young Church at Antioch had grown in number and power. Among the notable converts was Manaen, who had been a companion of that Herod who ordered the death of John the Baptist, and who mocked the Lord Jesus Christ, "setting Him at naught." But by the grace of God he was plucked as a brand out of the fire. As the members of this Church "served and fasted," the Holy Spirit met their real need by pressing home to their hearts this message of definite direction, "Separate Me Barnabas and Saul." Perhaps they had been waiting on the Lord for special guidance, as to how they might further the cause of Christ when this unmistakable call came—
1. It was a Divine Call. "The Holy Spirit said," etc. (v. 2). They were as surely "called of God" as was Aaron. As all fitness for this service must come from Him, so also must the call. The Holy Spirit will never choose a man possessed by the spirit of the world as an ambassador of the Kingdom of Christ.
2. It was a Personal Call. "Barnabas and Saul." There was no room for questioning as to whom the Lord meant, neither was there any occasion for envy or jealousy. The Holy Spirit divides to every man severally as He will (1 Corinthians 12:11). Not everyone that says Lord, Lord, is fit for the service of God. "No man takes this honor unto Himself but he who is called of God" (Hebrews 5:4).
3. It was a Call to Separation. "Separate Me," etc. Barnabas and Saul were to be separated unto the Holy Spirit, that He might breathe the will of God through them, as He had done with the holy men of God in old time (2 Peter 1:21). To be used of the Holy Spirit we must be separated from the world, and entirely yielded unto Him, as vessels meet for His use. But we are not to suppose that those who remained in Antioch were not separated unto God. We can live the separated life anywhere by living for His glory.
4. It was a Call to Work. "For the work whereunto I have called them." Only those who are new creatures in Christ Jesus can have a hand in the work of this "new creation." We are not called to ease and idleness, but to be "workers together with Him," who has called us into this holy calling. Have we entered into this work whereunto God, the Spirit, has called us? Or are we idlers in His vineyard?
5. It was a Call which met the Approval of the Brethren. "They sent them away" (v. 3), but not without "fasting and prayer." It would be a great blessing to the Church and the world today if the Church was anything like so willing to recognize, and send forth, those who have been called of the Holy Spirit to do the work of an evangelist. By their fruit you shall know them. These holy men were "solemnly ordained," not with dinners and toasts! but with "fastings and prayer." There were no "hip, hip, hurrahs!" but there was a solemn doing of the will of God. Many modern ordinations are a scandal to the cause of Jesus Christ.
6. It was a Call, Followed by Mighty Deeds. How can we believe that we are called and empowered by God if "signs and wonders" worthy of God are not being done through us in His name? (vv. 5-12). Two wonders were wrought here by Barnabas and Saul (a) The overcoming of the sorcerer. This "child of the devil" and "enemy of all righteousness" was smitten with temporary blindness. The works of the devil were destroyed. (b) The conversion of the deputy (v. 12). The salvation of the governor of the island, and the silencing of Elymas, the enemy of God, were surely works worthy of the Holy Spirit, unto whom Barnabas and Saul had been separated.
THE GOODNESS OF GOD. Acts 13:13-43
Paul and Barnabas had penetrated to the far away Antioch in Pisidia, and on the Sabbath day they quietly took a seat among the worshipers in the synagogue. Being asked, as strangers, if they had a word for the people, "Paul stood up" and delivered such a "word" as they had never heard before. This first recorded address of the great Apostle to the Gentiles may be entitled, "The Goodness of God." Paul may have taken the pattern of it from that great address of Stephen's, which must have been to him most memorable. He deals with—
I. THE GOODNESS OF GOD REVEALED IN HIS DEALINGS WITH ISRAEL.—(1) They were Chosen (v. 17). God had been pleased, through grace, to make them His people, chosen, not for good in them, but as the monuments of His mercy (Deuteronomy 7:6). (2) They were Delivered (v. 17). When they were strangers in the land of Egypt, "with an high arm He brought them out." He saved them from the house of bondage. (3) They were Preserved (v. 18). For forty years His longsuffering patience bore with their murmurings and unbelief. Yet, as a people, they were kept from perishing (Psalm 95:9-10; 2 Peter 3:9). (4) They had a place Prepared for Them (v. 19). Seven sinful Canaanite nations were cast down and destroyed, that they might have a possession. The forces of iniquity have all to be overcome before the children of God can enter into their inheritance. (5) He Supplied Their Need. He gave them judges, a prophet, and a King. Then He raised up David, a man after His own heart (vv. 20-22). David was a type of Jesus Christ, as a man raised up by God, to do His will among the people. Paul, true to his mission, at once links on the Christ to the seed of David, and shows next—
II. THE GOODNESS OF GOD REVEALED IN HIS SON JESUS CHRIST.—(1) He was Given According to Promise (v. 23). He was the rod out of the stem of Jesse, and the branch out of his roots (Isaiah 11:1). Prepared in eternity, and raised up in the fullness of time as a Savior. (2) He was Heralded by John (vv. 24-25) as the Baptizer with the Holy Spirit and fire, whose shoes he was not worthy to loose. (3) He was Condemned by the Rulers (vv. 26-29). Paul makes it clear that Christ was slain by those who found "no cause of death in Him," thus bringing out the awful enmity of the natural heart against the Holiness of God. (4) He was raised from the Dead (v. 30). This was a startling dogma for the apostle's hearers. Dogmatic was he? Yes; as dogmatic as the Son of God. He spoke as one having authority (1 John 1:1). If a man cannot speak dogmatically on these great verities of the Gospel, then let him hold his peace, for he has no message from God to the people; and there is plenty of sickly namby-pambyism in the world already. (5) He was Preached by Eye-witnesses of His Resurrection (vv. 31-37). We have not followed cunningly-devised fables. The resurrection of Christ is quite in harmony with His unique life and testimony. Christ's death and resurrection are the two pillars of the bridge of Grace. (6) He is now able to Save all who Believe (vv. 38-39). "All that believe are justified. This is another blessed dogma (Romans 3:28). No. The law of Moses could never do this. It is through His blood the forgiveness of sins come (Ephesians 1:7).
III. THE WARNING AGAINST DESPISING THIS GOODNESS.—"Beware, therefore," etc. (vv. 40-41.) Despisers are sure to perish. God is still working this work of salvation in our days, in the hearts and lives of all who believe. Yet there are many who still "despise, and wonder, and perish" in their unbelief, although a man—saved and transformed by the power of this Gospel—declare it unto them. Behold, therefore, the "goodness of God" as exhibited in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the Savior of Men, and let your heart be bowed and broken by repentance. These words of Paul were to many as good news from a far country, so they wanted to hear them again the next Sabbath. No other story can bear to be repeated so often as this.
RESULTS OF PAUL'S PREACHING. Acts 13:42-52
Somehow or other, wherever these first preachers of the Gospel went, they succeeded in creating a stir. If they "turned the world upside down" it was because the world was wrong side up. Men who have been made, as it were, into new bottles, and filled with the new wine of the kingdom of God—the Holy Spirit— cannot possibly act as ordinary mundane mortals. They are intoxicated by a new possession that excites to a holy enthusiasm for the eternal honor of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is impossible for a man full of the Holy Spirit to be cold and formal; the Word of God burns in his bones as an unquenchable fire; he cannot but speak the things which he has seen and heard. The effects of Peter's sermon were emphatic and varied—
1. There was a Desire to Hear. "The Gentiles besought that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath" (v. 4a). The Gospel had been so preached that morning that a real thirst had been created in the hearts of many to hear it again. There were many anxious inquiries at the close of Peter's address (v. 43). "After meetings" are no new thing.
2. There was a general Awakening. "The next Sabbath day there came almost the whole city together to hear the Word of God" (v. 44). It must have been an intensely interested audience that Paul and Barnabas addressed that day. We should see the multitudes oftener crowding together "to hear the Word of God" if they were sure that the Word of God was going to be preached. Much of the present-day preaching does not seem to stir up any interest whatever in the Word of God. Multitudes of sermon hearers are in total darkness as to what the Bible teaches.
3. There was Bitter Opposition. "The Jews were filled with envy, and spoke against Paul," etc (v. 45). There was no fear of Paul ever bringing himself under that woe that comes upon those of whom "all men speak well of." The proud, envious Jews, like the Prodigal's "elder brother," could not rejoice in that Grace of God which saves sinners and transforms them into sons. Those who would preach "the Word of God" must be prepared for the "contradiction and blasphemy" of self-righteous, religious sinners, who are entirely out of sympathy with God in the salvation of the lost. But their opposition only stirred up the apostles to greater boldness, and to bring a more direct charge against them (v. 46). How sad to think of those who, in the pride of their heart, judge themselves unfit to receive everlasting life as the gift of God's grace through Jesus Christ, His Son.
4. There was Joy among the Gentiles. "They were glad and glorified the Word of the Lord" (v. 48). See Romans 15:9-12. These "other sheep" which were not of this Jewish fold were heartily glad to get into those life-giving pastures of His Word. The hungry Gentiles are fed, while the self-satisfied Jews are sent empty away. To the poor the Gospel is preached with God-honoring results. "You will not come to Me that you might have life."
5. There was Apparent Defeat. "They expelled them out of their coasts" (v. 50). It is melancholy to think of "devout and honorable women" lending their influence to such an unholy and dishonorable cause. They may cast out the servants of God, but they cannot cast out the seed of the Word that has been sown in the hearts of the people. No; the purpose of God in the lives of His chosen and consecrated servants can never suffer defeat. All things work together for good to them that love God (Romans 8:28).
6. There was Grace Triumphant. "The disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit" (v. 52). When the preachers were expelled from them God gave them a greater blessing in filling them with the Holy Spirit, and so sealed them unto the day of the final redemption (Ephesians 1:13). These young disciples were rejoicing over a new found treasure, which they knew would enrich them during all the ages that were yet to come, while these persecutors had yet to reckon with that dust which the apostles shook off their feet against them.
MISSIONARY EXPERIENCE. Acts 14:1-20
In Iconium, Paul and Barnabas "so spoke that a great multitude believed...boldly in the Lord," so that He "granted signs and wonders to be done by their hands" (vv. 1-3). Signs and wonders are not likely to be granted where the Word of God is so preached that a great multitude are sent to sleep. Preaching "boldly in the Lord"—not in the strength of our carnal wisdom and fleshly energy—will certainly be accompanied with the witness-bearing power of the wonder-working presence of God (Hebrews 2:4; Mark 16:20). Wherever God grants signs and wonders to be done, you may look for persecutions (vv. 4-6). The rulers of darkness will always oppose a violent disturbance of their kingdom.
I. AN EXAMPLE OF FAITH.—This man, who had been "a cripple from his mother's womb," was a picture of helplessness (vv. 8-9). He had never walked, and in all likelihood never hoped to walk. Such liberty and joy were not seemingly for him. Have we ever thanked God for the use of our feet. But this same man "heard Paul speak," and that faith which "comes by hearing" sprung up as a new-born faculty in the sorrowful soul of the cripple. He hears, and he believes, that the Risen Savior is able to heal him. See, there is a new light in his eye, it is the light of that new hope that is born of the Spirit of God, through the preached Word. He has "faith to be healed," and the Spirit-taught apostle is quick to perceive it, and calls him to "Stand upright on your feet!" (v. 10). And he "leaped and walked." He leaped before he walked, not only for joy, but perhaps also because he had never yet learned to walk. This great change was none the less real because it came suddenly.
II. AN EXAMPLE OF FOLLY.—When these idolatrous Lycaonians saw the well-known cripple leaping and walking, they foolishly supposed that their gods had come down in the likeness of Paul and Barnabas The gods of idolaters are deaf and dumb and dead. How could they heal a poor cripple, and where could they "come down" from? (vv. 11-13). But from their blind enthusiasm, let us solemnly learn how possible it is for us to be very earnest over religious notions that are only imaginary and delusive. How thankful we should be for the written Word of God, which is as a light shining in darkness, whereunto we do well to take heed. Any amount of "oxen and garlands" will never make a wrong thing right. They called Barnabas, Jupiter; and Paul, Mercurius; but these heathen Galatians are not the last of those who have attempted to adapt the things of God to their own idolatrous practices (Jude 4).
III. AN EXAMPLE OF FAITHFULNESS.—It is possible that Paul and Barnabas may not have understood the people when they spoke "in the speech of Lycaonia," but as soon as their purpose of sacrifice was known they were quick to make a vehement protest against all forms of man-worship. They "rent their clothes" as an outward sign of inward horror—of hearts rent with agony at the thought. So jealous were they of the honor of God, that nothing pained them so deeply as that they, as the servants of Christ, should have the place in their thoughts and minds that their Lord and Master alone should have. The longing of their hearts and the object of their lives was to "turn them from these vanities unto the Living God" (vv. 14-18). They were "men of like passions with themselves," but what a difference the grace of God had made. Elijah was a man of like passions as we are, but how few of us can pray as he did (James 5:17). How differently Herod acted when the people worshiped him. "He gave not God the glory," and immediately the angel of the Lord smote him (Acts 12:22-23). Seek the honor that comes from God only (Daniel 4:37).
IV. AN EXAMPLE OF FICKLENESS.—In a few days after they "stoned Paul, drew him out of the city, supposing he had been dead" (v. 19). There is not much between the world's honors and its frowns, between its "garlands" and its stones. Today they cry, "Hosanna!" tomorrow, "Crucify!" What a Friend we have in Jesus, the same yesterday, today, and forever.
HELPING THE SAINTS. Acts 14:19-28
"Once was I stoned" is the name of one of the medals Paul received for his faithfulness to Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 11:25). There is not much between the praises and the anathemas of an ungodly crowd (vv. 18-19). Woe be to them who seek their happiness in the favor of men, instead of the favor of God. It was perhaps while Paul lay outside the city of Lystra, as one dead, that he had that "unspeakable" experience of being "caught up into paradise," so that whether "in the body or out of the body he could not tell" (2 Corinthians 12:3-4). If so, see how the Lord can compensate His suffering servants that they might be able to "glory in tribulations also." After preaching the Gospel in Derbe and making many disciples (v. 21, R.V.), they began their great return journey, which was crowded with holy deeds and crowned with abundant results.
1. They Confirmed the Souls of the Disciples (v. 22). This is a very needful work, if young believers are to be saved from backsliding. To confirm a soul in the faith is to strengthen that soul against the temptation and assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Deal tenderly with young converts, show them the whole armor of God, and tell them how to put it on. Give them line upon line, and perhaps a little of your own experience, if you have any.
2. They Exhorted to Continue in the Faith. The Christian fight is a fight of faith. Faith, fighting against feelings, failings, and appearances. As you have therefore received the Lord Jesus-by faith—so walk you in Him. Continue trusting in the promise of God against everything that seems opposed, and so make God true, if it should make every man a liar. This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith. There is a great need for faith, for it is "through much tribulation that we enter into the kingdom of God" (v. 22). In the world you shall have tribulation, but faith clings to Him who has said, "Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world."
3. They Ordained Elders in every Church (v. 23). It was needful, in the absence of the apostles, that suitable and trustworthy men should be elected as rulers and teachers. They would likely be appointed by the vote of the people. All men are not fit to rule and to "labor in word and doctrine." Since the beginning there have been those who, through divine grace, and a more entire consecration of themselves to God, have become better qualified for spiritual service than others. Covet earnestly the best gifts.
4. They Commended them to the Lord. After being called they were handed over to the Lord as His own private property that He might use them as it may seem good in His sight. Do you think this would be a hardship? It is glorious liberty. You are not your own, for you are bought with a price.
5. They Preached the Word (v. 25). Oh, what a Word was this that filled and fired their souls with an unquenchable desire to labor and suffer for the salvation of men and the glory of the name of Jesus Christ. From the day of Paul's conversion to the day of his translation you never find him "off duty." He was as much a witness for Jesus out of the pulpit as in it. "To me to live is Christ."
6. They Rehearsed all that God had done WITH THEM (v. 27). It was a wonderful story of grace they had to tell. The Lord had done not only great things for them, but great things with them. There be many who are ever ready to tell us what God has done for them, but we long most of all to hear what God has been able to do with them. If you are saved, God has wrought a great work for you. If you are consecrated, God will do a great work with you.
THE DISPUTE ABOUT WORKS. Acts 15:1-35
I. THE CAUSE OF THE DISPUTE (vv. 1-2). — It arose about as to whether the Gentile converts should be circumcised "after the manner of Moses" or not. Those brethren that came down from Jerusalem were so strong in their arguments for it as to make it "necessary to salvation." These nameless men, which disturbed the peace of the Church with this controversy, are the forerunners of a class still extant, who are not famous for spirituality of mind or success in the Lord's work, but who are forever ready to put those right who are being greatly owned and blessed of God. The most unspiritual are usually the greatest sticklers about forms. Paul and Barnabas, who had seen so much of the grace of God, hotly opposed this attempt to bring them back into bondage. So keenly did Paul feel it that in writing to the Galatians shortly after, he says: "If you be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing" (v. 2).
II. THE CONFERENCE AT JERUSALEM.—It was agreed to submit the case to the General Assembly at Jerusalem (vv. 2-21). So the evangelists hastened thither. After they had given their report, "declaring all things that God had done with them," the burning question was at once introduced by certain converted Pharisees, who had enough of their old nature still in them as to make it hard for them to believe that Gentiles could be saved "without the works of the law." After "much disputing," Peter rose up and addressed the Assembly as one clothed in the authority of God. He spoke of what his eyes had seen of the power of the Gospel among the Gentiles, how God had "given them the Holy Spirit, even as He did unto us," putting no difference between them, "purifying their hearts by faith." There was great stillness in the court when Barnabas and Paul again addressed the audience (v. 12) on the special subject before them, taking care to show that the wonderful works wrought among the Gentiles were the works of God. The river of His grace is always too broad for the narrow channel of man's pride or prejudice. The next to speak is James—a man deeply taught in the Scriptures. He shows from the Word that it was the purpose of God to take out of the Gentiles "a people for His name," and takes the further liberty of submitting to the Church the divine program of the present dispensation. A people "for His name" are now being taken out, through the preaching of the Gospel of Christ. This is James's first point. The second is the return of the Lord: "After this I will return." Third, the restoration of Israel: "Build the tabernacle of David." Fourth, the Millennium: "That the residue of men might seek after the Lord" (vv. 14-17). In closing his magnificent address, he makes this wise proposal: That the Gentile converts should not be troubled about forms that were not vital to their life and usefulness, but that they should be asked to abstain from those heathenish practices that were so common around them (v. 20)
III. THE RESULTS.—James' motion was carried unanimously. Letters of congratulation and sympathy were sent by special messengers to all those affected by this controversy. It was a cause of great joy to them when they heard that "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit to lay no unnecessary burden upon them" (v. 28). The goodness of the Holy Spirit in this respect is not always acknowledged by those who rule in some ecclesiastical courts. The true object of Church government is not to advocate or elaborate men's opinions, but to find out the mind of the Holy Spirit of God, and to do it. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.
THE CRY OF THE HELPLESS. Acts 16:9-15
Paul and Silas had been "forbidden of the Holy Spirit to preach the Word in Asia," and when they assayed to go into Bithynia, the "Spirit suffered them not." These are facts full of deep significance to every servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. They reveal how completely the Holy Spirit has control over their lives. It is the mission of this Great Teacher come from God to guide us into all truth, and to carry on the work of God through the lives of those who are wholly yielded up to Him. Our subject may be divided into three parts—
1. The New Call. "Come over into Macedonia, and help us" (v. 9). It now became plain to Paul why the Holy Spirit had been closing other doors in his face. Macedonia needed the help that Paul and Silas, apostles of the Cross of Christ, were able to give. What help could they have given if they had not been possessors of the grace of God and the knowledge of His saving power, through the death and resurrection of His beloved Son. The best help anyone can get is to be lifted out of a life of sin and hopelessness into a life of holiness and victory. How the vision came to Paul we need not stop to inquire, it was simply the Lord's way of revealing His will to His servant (Romans 10:14-15). May we not hear this cry for help, in a muffled fashion, rising in one tone or another from every grade of social life today?
2. The Immediate Response. They at once obeyed, "assuredly gathering that the Lord had called them to preach the Gospel unto them" (v. 10). Paul and the Gospel were so vitally joined together that an open door to him meant an open door for the Gospel of Christ. When Paul said, "To me to live is Christ," he was stating not an article in his creed, but the all-absorbing principle of his heaven-born existence. Let us beware of being disobedient to any heavenly vision that may be beckoning us into new spheres of service, or into higher and fuller experiences of the deep things of the Spirit of God. It is only those who, like Paul and Silas, have had their lives enriched with the grace and power of Jesus Christ that can render the help that is needed to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death and despair.
3. The Blessed Results (v. 13-15). They were not long in finding out the place of prayer. It may have been a spot by the river-side, set apart as a public oratory, because of its natural adaptations. In this roofless "house of prayer" Paul and Silas sat and spoke the wonderful words of life to the women which resorted thither. The interest centers in a "certain woman named Lydia, whose heart the Lord opened." She had been a worshiper of God, but now the door of her heart was opened to receive the message of the Gospel, sent to her by the Lord, through His servants. Take note that the "Word of Salvation" sent from God to man is not so much for the head as for the heart. With the heart man believes unto righteousness. The open heart will always be "attentive unto the things" spoken by the servant of God, and God is sure to open hearts for the reception of the message that He has sent. Another evidence of the open heart is a willingness to confess Christ and a love for the fellowship of the people of God (v. 15). We can never work out our own salvation until God has worked it in us. Some hearts are opened as with the gentle kiss of light (2 Corinthians 4:6), others have been broken open as with a rod of iron. To open the heart to the Lord is to give Him the control of all the springs of the life. Son, give Me your heart.
THE JAILOR'S CONVERSION. Acts 16:16-40
These incidents remind us of a picture gallery, where you have different scenes grouped together, and that, perhaps, strike you most by way of contrast Shall we look at each separately?
1. A Picture of Demoniac Possession. "A damsel possessed with a spirit of divination" (v. 16). How sad to think of this nice-looking young woman, wholly given over to the control of a deceitful, wicked spirit. She was the property of several sin-hardened wretches, who probably sold her half-mad ravings as the oracles of God. What she cried after the apostles on their way to the prayer meeting was quite true (v. 17), but then the words had such a hollow, fiendish ring about them that "grieved" Paul; so, by faith in the name of Jesus Christ, he "commanded the evil spirit to come out of her."
2. A Picture of Selfishness and Cruelty (v. 19-24). "When her masters saw that the hope of their gains was gone," because the poor girl was now delivered from the soul-maddening power of the devil, instead of being thankful to God for such an emancipation, and because her salvation touched their pockets, they sought the ruin of the servants of God. "The love of money is the root of all evil." The spirit that possessed her masters was no better than the spirit which possessed the deluded damsel; for greed of gain they would traffic in the souls of their fellow-creatures.
3. A Picture of Heaven-Born Happiness. "Paul and Silas prayed and sang praises unto God" (v. 24). Although lying in the deepest, darkest hole of that miserable prison, with bleeding backs and aching limbs, the joy of the Lord so filled their hearts that they were able also to "glory in tribulation." What but the grace of God could make anyone sing in such circumstances. "The prisoners heard them." Might not this have been one of the reasons why God permitted His servants to be cast into prison. These fellow-prisoners also share in the victory which God wrought, for "everyone's bonds were loosed."
4. A Picture of Divine Intervention. "Suddenly there was a great earthquake," etc. Paul and Silas resisted the devil in the damsel, but no doubt they prayed for those who had despitefully used them and persecuted them (Matthew 5:44). Having calmly and joyfully trusted in God, the mighty, wonder-working hand of God is now stretched out for their deliverance. Truly, when they prayed "the place was shaken." This was a fulfillment of Psalm 10:15.
5. A Picture of Sudden Conversion (vv. 27-31). It was a very dark moment in the experience of the jailor when he drew out his sword intending to commit suicide; but it was immediately followed by the brightest experience he ever had. "He called for a light" that might guide his feet into the inner prison of the suffering saints, but when he cried, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" he was calling for another light that might guide his feet into the paths of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Then they told him words whereby he and all his house should be saved (v. 31). Just as he had been saved from self-destruction through the word of the apostle— "Do yourself no harm, for we are all here"—so can he be saved from the power of sin and the wrath of God by "believing on the Lord Jesus Christ" (John 3:16).
6. A Picture of Joyful Fellowship (vv. 32-34). What a change. A few hours before this the jailor was fastening their feet in the terrible stocks. Now he is bathing their wounds, taking them into his house, and spreading the best he has before them, eating with them, "and rejoicing, believing in God with all his house." He had been suddenly awakened out of his sleep, but now he was at one with the servants of God, and with them enjoying an early hallelujah breakfast— such a scene as would do credit to a modern Salvation Army "glory feast."
SPECIAL MISSIONS. Acts 17:1-14
It was a long journey from Philippi to Thessalonica (about 100 miles) for two men who had just lately been beaten with "many stripes." But as the sufferings of Christ abounded in them, so also did the consolation of Christ (2 Corinthians 1:3-6). About one year after this Paul reminds the Thessalonians that their entrance unto them was after they "had suffered and were shamefully entreated at Philippi" (1 Thessalonians 2). It was often at great personal sacrifice that these early apostles preached the Word.
I. EXPERIENCES AT THESSALONICA.—
1. Where they went. There was a synagogue of the Jews there, "and Paul, as his manner was, went in." There seems to have been no synagogue at Philippi, the only recognized place of worship being the place by "a river side, where prayer was accustomed to be made" (chapter 16:13). The manner of this evangelist, wherever he went, was to seek out the "house of prayer," because there was there liberty given for prayer and exhortation.
2. What they did. "Paul reasoned with them out of the Scriptures." He proved to them, from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms that Messiah must suffer death and be raised again from the dead, and that Jesus of Nazareth, whom he preached, was that same Anointed One. "This Jesus whom I preach." This preacher was never ill off for a text. He was so in love with Jesus, as his Redeemer and Lord, that he could glory in no one else. No one can preach the Gospel of Christ as it ought to be preached, unless it is the all-absorbing passion of their soul.
3. How they succeeded. "Some believed, and some were moved with envy" (vv. 5-9). The Gospel, in the power of the Holy Spirit, is either a savor of life or death, of justification or condemnation, according as it is received or rejected. In either case a change of attitude toward God will take place. If the enmity is not slain thereby, it is likely to be embittered. "The baser sort" are always ready to oppose the Kingship of Jesus.
II. THEIR EXPERIENCES AT BEREA.—In obedience to the Word of their Lord, "If they persecute you in one city, flee to another," they set off by night for Berea, a distance of sixty miles. They found the people here—
1. Open-hearted. "They received the Word with all readiness of mind" (v. 11). Their minds were not sealed with prejudice; they were quite prepared to give this new doctrine a careful and favorable consideration. The minds of many Gospel hearers are like a well-trodden footpath in a field; the seed may fall on it, but it never gets a chance of entering into it. There is no readiness to receive the Word.
2. Noble-hearted. "They searched the Scriptures daily whether these things were so." A willingness to bring all teaching to the test of the "Scriptures of truth" is an evidence of nobility of mind (v. 11). What could be more noble than a soul eager to know and obey the mind of God? There is something fatally wrong with our thoughts and opinions if they cannot stand the test of God's revealed will as found in His Word. If we are building on a sandy foundation, surely the sooner we find out our folly and danger the better.
3. Honest-hearted. "Therefore many of them believed" (v. 12). Having been convinced of the truth of Paul's teaching, after searching the Word for themselves, they were honest enough to believe it. When a good and honest heart hears the Word, it keeps it and brings forth fruit with patience (Luke 8:15). Be honest with God. If any man will do His will, he shall know whether the teaching is of God (John 7:17).
PAUL AT ATHENS. Acts 17:15-34
The reason why Paul came to Athens is stated in the previous verses. It may simplify the lessons here just to put them in this modern form—
1. The Preacher. Paul. A man learned in all the wisdom of the philosophers. A man who had been soundly converted by God to a special revelation of Jesus Christ. A man with a definite commission from the Risen One. A man who had already suffered much in the service of Christ. A man with a soul ablaze with love for his fellow men, who knows no fear, and who is prepared to face all the wisdom of the Greeks, in the name of his Lord and Master. A preacher who has always a message, and who is never ashamed to tell it out.
2. The Preparation. "While he waited, his spirit was stirred in him" (v. 16). The city was stocked with thirty thousand gods, many of them magnificent works of are. But Paul was no mere sight-seer. He looked upon things in the light of the revelation of God in Christ and of eternity. While others could only see Grecian handiwork in Athenian "devotions," this man of God saw "the city wholly given to idolatry." The man whose eyes God has opened will look upon "the things which are unseen." In many of our towns or cities there are signs of "religious devotions" that are not of God enough to stir the spirit of any preacher who has the heaven-lit eyes of the apostle.
3. The Pulpit. "Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' Hill" (v. 22). That was after he had been in the synagogue and the market place preaching unto them "Jesus and the Resurrection." As the lonely evangelist stood in the midst of that open-air court, while the Athenian dignitaries rested on these rock-hewn seats, he was occupying the leading pulpit of the city. It was a bold stand that he took, but he believed that the Lord who stood by him, was worthy of the highest place in this philosophical center. Paul counted this a great privilege for his Master's sake.
4. The Audience. "You men of Athens" (v. 22). No preacher ever addressed a more critical congregation; they made it their life's business to inquire into every new thing (v. 21). In the Epicureans, he had a company of high-minded Rationalists, whose God was their belly; the Stoics extolled virtue, but denied human responsibility and future judgment. In them Paul was face to face with the wisdom of Socrates and Plato, but in him they were face to face with the "wisdom of God." The world by wisdom knows not God.
5. The Sermon. It was not read, it was poured out of a burning heart. The subject was "Him." Whom therefore you ignorantly worship Him declare I unto you. This preacher always found a short cut to Christ because he gloried in Him (Galatians 6:14). The Heads of this wonderful sermon are very clear. He preached (a) The Existence and Creative Power of God. "God that made the world," etc. This was a blow at the Epicurean theory of evolution or "chance." (b) The Spiritual Character of God (v. 25). He is not worshiped "with men's hands." Out of the heart are the issues of life. (c) The Universal Brotherhood of Man. "Made of one blood all nations." (d) The overruling Providence of God. He has determined the times before appointed (v. 26). (e) Man's Need of God, "They should seek the Lord." (f) The Universality of the presence of God. "He be not far from every one of us" (v. 27; Isaiah 55:6). (g) That God Himself is the source of all Life. "In Him we live, and move, and have our being" (v. 28). How much more fully is this truth realized by those whose "life is hid with Christ in God?" Then came the Application—(a) Something we ought not to do. "We ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold," etc. (b) Something we ought to do. We should repent, for "God has commanded all men everywhere to repent" (v. 30); and "because He has appointed a day in which He will judge the world by Jesus Christ" (v. 31; Romans 2:16).
6. The Results. (a) Some mocked (v. 32). The doctrine of the resurrection and final judgment cut at the roots of their selfish lives and false philosophy. What made Felix tremble, made them mock. Any fool can do that. (b) Some hesitated. "We will hear you again," they said. They wavered, and lost their opportunity, for they never heard him again (v. 33). (c) Some believed. The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believes.
PAUL AT CORINTH. Acts 18:1-17
Athens was perhaps the hardest field in which the apostle had ever attempted to sow the good seed of the kingdom. The wisdom of this world is one of the strongest forts of the kingdom of Satan. Paul writes no epistle to the Athenians. When he visited Corinth, the capital of Achaia, he must have found it a busy and populous center of commerce. Let us look at him here—
I. AS A TENTMAKER.—"Because he was of the same craft he abode with them and wrought" (v. 3). It was a principle with Paul that if any man "would not work, neither should he eat." Rather than burden anyone with the responsibility of his board and lodgings, he would labor night and day (2 Thessalonians 3:8). Paul was courageous enough to preach the Gospel to the Athenian professors at the Mars' Hill University; he was also humble enough to act as a journeyman tentmaker in the workshop of Aquila. Whatever you do, do it heartily as unto the Lord.
II. AS A REASONER.—"He reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath" (v. 4). Paul did not reason with them merely to bring them over to his way of thinking, or to prove his own superior scholarship; he reasoned with them "out of the Scriptures" (chapter 17:2), that he might bring them over to the mind of God concerning His Son Jesus Christ. If the will of God, as revealed in the Scriptures of truth, has not become the governing and impelling factor in our lives, then is our preaching vain, and men will remain in their sins. Many preachers nowadays, instead of reasoning out of the Scriptures, go out of the Scriptures to reason. Instead of giving the people bread, they offer them luminous dust.
III. AS A WITNESS.—"He testified to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ." He not only could reason with them over an open Bible, but he could also give his own personal testimony to the Messiahship and saving power of Jesus, who was called Christ. Had he not seen Him, and heard Him, and been transformed by His wondrous grace? (Acts 9). Mere finger-post preachers may be correct, but they are always cold, and stiff, and lifeless. God never sent anyone to preach Christ who had not first Christ revealed in them (Galatians 1:16). "We speak that we do not know."
IV. AS A PROTESTANT.—" When they opposed.....he said, Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean" (v. 6). He protested against the unreasonable opposition and willful blindness of these Jews by turning his ministry specially to the Gentiles. That very dust that he shook off his clothing will remain as a witness against them. It is a very solemn thing to grieve the Spirit of God, so that the message of the Gospel, which is the message of Life, is turned into a sentence of death (Ezekiel 3:18-19).
V. AS A SOUL-WINNER.—"Many of the Corinthians hearing, believed" (vv. 7-8). His turning away from the Jews was the salvation of these Gentiles. If you don't come into the marriage feast of the Gospel, another will, for every seat will be occupied when the King comes. But the apostle's testimony among the opposing Jews was not in vain; it never was. Among the converts he had "Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue." My Word shall not return void.
VI. AS ONE BELOVED BY GOD.—"Then spoke the Lord to Paul," etc. (vv. 9-10). If there was any lingering doubt or fear in Paul's mind as to the wisdom of turning away with the Gospel from his own kinsmen, this message from the Lord would give him perfect rest. There was in it (1) a word of cheer, "Be not afraid;" (2) a word of counsel, "Speak and hold not your peace;" (3) a word of assurance, "I am with you;" (4) a word of promise, "No man shall hurt you;" (5) a word of hope, "I have much people in this city." They are always blessed who are Heaven's favorites.
VII. AS ONE DESPISED BY MEN.—"The Jews made insurrection with one accord against Paul" (vv. 12-17). Woe unto you when all men speak well of you. The more intently anyone seeks the glory of God in the salvation of souls, the more bitter will those self-righteous religious formalists become. They beat Sosthenes in the presence of a careless governor (Gallio), but as to Paul, it happened unto him just as the Lord had said. "No man shall set on you to hurt you." Be you faithful.
PAUL AT EPHESUS. Acts 19:1-20
Paul did a great service in bringing Priscilla and Aquila to Ephesus. Next to winning souls, there is no greater work than putting others in the way of doing better service for God. Jealousy is a cruel monster that would hinder us from rejoicing in the success of others. It was surely the guiding hand of God that brought Apollos into contact with these two deeply taught disciples (chapter 18:26). If they were not eloquent them selves, they were able, by the grace of God, to sharpen the sword of the mighty Apollos. He knew only John's baptism, and evidently was a stranger to the mighty baptism of the Holy Spirit. He was a fervent, eloquent, diligent believer in the Lord, but he lacked what many preachers still lack, a definite baptism of the Holy Spirit. Apollos was not too proud to sit at the feet and learn of those who were less scholarly, but more deeply spiritual than himself. Humility is a characteristic of all who are prepared to be used in the work of God.
Paul, having again visited Jerusalem, returned to Ephesus. His heart must have been cheered in finding there "certain disciples" (v. 1). His first question was a searching one—"Have you received the Holy Spirit since you believed?" He did not wish these young believers to be, like Apollos, strangers to this gift of the Ascended Christ. The apostle knew that without this they were in great danger of backsliding, or of living fruitless and powerless lives. It was well that he did, for they had not even heard of the Spirit of Pentecost, having only known the "baptism of John." But as soon as they heard of this second blessing they at once yielded themselves, that they might receive it.
"Then the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke with tongues." No one ever yet received the baptism of the Holy Spirit without signs following. It is impossible for anyone to be filled with the Spirit and yet no supernatural Works following. How will ever the world be convinced that God is in us if no God-like wonders are being wrought?
The Church of God will never be anything else, in the eyes of an ungodly world, but an impotent thing, beating the thin air until experimentally this great truth is grasped. God will not give His glory to another on earth save the Holy Spirit. This is a question of urgent and tremendous importance for every believer in Jesus Christ. "Have you received the Holy Spirit since you believed?" Pentecost must follow Calvary in the experience of every one that would honor God by a life of service. And we say it in all tenderness, the will of God is not being done in the lives of those who are not filled with the Spirit.
For two years Paul spoke of the "things concerning the kingdom of God" (v. 10). Some believed not, but all that dwelt in Asia heard the Word of the Lord Jesus. Whether men received the message of God or not, Paul sounded out the "Word of Life." He did not seem to trouble himself much about results. He knew the Word would not return void to Him who sent it. His great business as a preacher was to make men hear.
The miracle of the "handkerchief" seemed to excite the jealousy and emulation of the vagabond Jews; they, too, would work miracles for their own glory in the name of "Jesus, whom Paul preached" (v. 13), but the demon-possessed "overcame them and prevailed against them." The victory of the man with the evil spirit over those would-be exorcists was proof enough that they were not sent by God, and that they were not possessed by the Holy Spirit. No one can be a match for the devil in his own strength. The powers of darkness will always prevail against those who are not in themselves right with God. "Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?" said the demon. It is a startling fact that devils know no enemies but those filled with the Spirit and in living touch with God. It is by "He who is in you," who is "greater than he who is in the world," that we overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil.
WORLDLY WISDOM. Acts 19:21-41
"No small stir" was created in Ephesus through the faithful testimony of Paul. When the Word of God is preached in the power of the Holy Spirit sent down from Heaven, it is as a two-edged sword piercing and dividing asunder the things that affect both soul and spirit. It is the flash-light of the Eternal Throne of God cast upon the iniquitous thoughts and acts of men, and is always sure to produce a consternation when it suddenly falls upon those who love the darkness rather than the light.
Demetrius became almost demented when he saw that his idolatrous "craft was in danger." It mattered nothing to him how many souls were being blessed of God, in being redeemed out of heathen darkness, so long as his purse was not affected. This silversmith, like many others, could be very religious so long as it brought him a good income. He showed real "worldly wisdom" in gathering together "the workmen of like occupation" to protest against the teaching of Paul. It would be good for us if we were half so earnest in contending for the truth as those men were for their heathenish superstitions.
In connecting "this our craft" with the "great goddess Diana," Demetrius did a magnificent stroke of business. His craft and his God were to stand or fall together. Is there not a more urgent lesson here for every Christian worker? Is our work for Christ so vitally connected with Him that His honor waxes or wanes according as we succeed or fail in His service? As through the work of Demetrius and his associates' images of their God were made and circulated among the people for the glory of Diana, so, through the work of Paul and his companions in labor, images of his God were being created and circulated for His glory and honor in those souls that had been transformed by the Holy Spirit. Here the powers of the kingdom of Satan and the forces of the kingdom of Christ meet in terrible conflict. Do we wonder that "the whole city was filled with confusion?" These enemies of God were blinded by the smoke of their own guns. In their desperation they caught two of Paul's companions and made a rush for the public oratory (theater), that their triumph might be all the more conspicuous. Paul, the fearless, would at once have faced those lions in their own den, but his trustworthy friends advised him not to "adventure himself" (v. 31). The scene in the theater was like the troubled sea casting up mire and dirt. "Some cried one thing, and some another." Confusion reigned; for the greater part of the mob knew not for what reason they had come together. But like all other narrow-minded, sin-blinded bigots, they could say one thing, and for the space of two hours they kept saying it: "Great is Diana of the Ephesians!" What is the use of us crying up the greatness of our God if we ourselves act like a lot of silly imbeciles. It is easy to preach on the faithfulness of God while we show by our acts that we are living in unbelief. The town clerk seemed to be a man worthy of his honorable position; faithful, clear-headed, and reasonable. He knows how to manage the tumultuous crowd by first speaking a word of praise for the world-renowned city and its goddess (v. 35). Then, in substance, he declares, seeing that the God which you worship is the greatest that ever came from Heaven, and that the things which you believe are infallible, and "cannot be spoken against," you ought to show the reality of your faith by being calm, and not doing anything rashly. How very applicable all this is to those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Is He not great? Did He not come down from Heaven? Has He not spoken things which cannot be overthrown? Ought we not then to be "quiet, and do nothing rashly?" He who believes shall not make haste. When we know that greater is He who is for us than all that can be against us, surely we can well afford to be quiet and do nothing rashly. They that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength.
A MIDNIGHT MEETING. Acts 20:2-12
One prominent characteristic of the great apostle of the Gentiles was his intense carefulness over young believers, that they might be established in the faith (v. 3). He counted no personal sacrifice too great so that they might be made strong in the Lord, to live and witness for Him. It is not enough that we are saved; we are saved to serve. We fail in our ministry if we do not lead young converts into the secret joy and power of His service. It is a great matter to lead a soul into the saving knowledge of Christ, but it is an equally important matter to lead a soul into active work for God. A soul yielded to Christ is a soul saved, but a life given to Him is a life saved. We are not rewarded at last for being saved, but for works done in His name and for His glory. It might help us to grasp the teaching of this portion more easily if we look at—
1. The Speaker. "Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow" (v. 7). His stay at Troas was short, only "seven days," but it was a memorable time. Who could ever forget a sermon by Paul? When the soul of a preacher is aflame with heaven-born fire, the bread of life is sure to be served in season. It is possible even to preach the truth in such a way as to sicken even a hungry soul. The Gospel of the Love of God must be served hot if men are to receive it gladly. We feel perfectly sure that Paul would give no countenance to read sermons.
2. The Time. "The first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread." The "first day of the week," which is our Sabbath, is a day for which we should continually thank God. It is the memorial of Christ's resurrection, and the "breaking of bread" was the memorial of His death. Paul seems to have waited the whole week to get this opportunity of ministering the Word to them. Were there no Sabbaths, how few, even in our own Christian country, would ever think of going to hear the Word of God. Let us pray that the sanctity of it may be long preserved.
3. The Place. "The upper chamber, where there were many lights" (v. 8). Ever since Pentecost, the disciples seem to have a special liking for the "upper room" (chapter 1:13). Being an all-night meeting, they had need of lights, but perhaps the "many lights" suggests the willingness of all the disciples to provide abundance for the occasion. The natural consequence would be the heating of the atmosphere to an excessive degree, which may partly account for the window being open, and the sleepy young man falling over.
4. The Speech. "Paul continued his speech until midnight" (v. 7), and after taking some refreshment, he "talked a long while, even until break of day" (v. 11). The people who clamor for short sermons are not likely to be found at a midnight meeting. From the attitude of some modern church-goers, you would think that they look upon listening to the preaching of the Word of God as a kind of penance that should be made as short as possible. They are perfectly satisfied with the smallest crumb of the heavenly bread for their souls, then they go home and have a dinner with five courses. It is quite true that there are some sermons long at five minutes, while others are short at fifty. Everything depends on the man and the message
5. The Interruption. "Eutychus sunk down with sleep and fell from the third loft" (v. 9). This young man suffered severely for his "first sleep in the kirk;" he nearly lost his life. Are there not multitudes in our own days who are running the risk of losing their souls through the same drowsy habit, and with only about the tenth part of the provocation that befell Eutychus? Immediately Paul ran to the help of the unfortunate man, and by "embracing him" restored him again to consciousness, to the great comfort of the disciples. Are there not—in another sense—many fallen ones lying within our reach who might be restored to a new and better life if only they were embraced by the arms of Christian love and faith? We shall never be successful in "lifting the fallen" unless we can take them into the affections of our hearts.
A PERSONAL TESTIMONY. Acts 20:13-27
Paul's company sailed into Assos, he arranged to meet them there, preferring himself to walk the distance, which was only a few miles; perhaps that he might have a quiet time of meditation by the way, or that he might have some further opportunity of preaching the Gospel. A true Christian can enjoy the presence of God in the highway, just as much as anywhere else. It is said of a certain man of God that he used to walk along the road with his hat off, so conscious was he of the nearness of the presence of the Lord. Paul faithfully kept his appointment, as every honorable man should, (v. 14). There are some who always study to be late. If they cannot be notable in one way they will in another. It is he who is faithful in the least that will be honored in the much.
To save time they passed by Ephesus and halted at Miletus, from whence Paul sent for the Ephesian elders, that he might leave with them his last parting message. His words to them were in the form of a personal testimony. It was no egotism that moved the apostle to give them this perfect photograph of his own spiritual character as a servant of Christ. We feel profoundly thankful to him for it, as it gives us a true picture of what every servant of the Lord Jesus Christ should be. Let us carefully look at it.
1. He was Humble. "Serving the Lord with all humility" (v. 19). There is no room for pride, or selfish boasting where the Spirit of the "meek and lowly in heart" rules. The Lord can never be served in any other way but in "all humility of mind." Brokenness of spirit is an essential condition even of fellowship with Him, and there can be no real service for Him out of the communion of the Holy Spirit. His humility is further seen in his working with his hands for the support of himself and those who were with him (v. 34). He was not ashamed to call himself "the least of the apostles" and to declare that it was "by the grace of God I am what I am."
2. He was Compassionate. He served the Lord "with many tears and temptations" (v. 19.) "He ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears" (v. 31). Paul's ministry was not a cold, formal, glass-eyed business. His words were moist with the heart-dew of divine love and tenderness. Many preachers use the words "I tell you," but how few can add, "even weeping. " (Philippians 3:18). We might as well throw stones at the people, as heartless words of wisdom. The truth must be spoken in love. The man who cannot weep over the enemies of the Cross of Christ fails to make full proof of his ministry. We can weep over our own sorrows and losses, and if the interests of Jesus Christ were as real to us we would also weep over His. Servant of God, is your heart right?
3. He was Faithful. "I kept back nothing that was profitable, " etc (vv. 20-21). He taught from house to house, both Jews and Greeks, preaching repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ, and shunned not to declare the whole counsel of God (v. 27). Paul had no theories of man to defend, he had a revelation of God to declare. It is a most lamentable fact that one of the most prominent doctrines of this great apostle—repentance toward God—has almost died out of the modern sermon. To seek popularity, and the praise of men, instead of to declare the whole counsel of God, is to become a traitor to Christ, and a stumbling-block to the souls of men. Only the faithful shall be rewarded (Luke 19:17).
4. He was Submissive. "I go bound in spirit unto Jerusalem... but none of these things move me" (vv. 22-24). Although Paul had the witness of the Holy Spirit that "in every city bonds and afflictions waited for him, " there was no offence in his heart at this painful providence. In nothing that the finger of God touched was he offended. He believed that all things work together for good to them that love God (Romans 8:28) "Bonds and afflictions" are not in themselves evidences that we have erred, and so need them as chastisements; they are often conditions necessary to the discipline of the soul, for further and deeper experience of the things of God. Our Lord's sufferings were in no sense corrective, but served, in one way, as a background for the manifestation of His glorious character.
5. He was Devoted. "Neither count I my life dear unto myself, that I might finish the ministry... of the Gospel of the grace of God" (v. 24). To publish the Gospel of the grace of God was a thing more dear to Paul than his own life. It was his meat and drink to do the will of his Redeemer and Lord. He could say, "To me to live is Christ." The Gospel is never preached as it ought to be, unless by those who are more desirous to glorify God than themselves. He who seeks "great things for himself" is morally unfit for the service of Christ. If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself.
6. He was Courageous. "I have not shunned to declare unto you the whole counsel of God" (v. 27). No "fear of Man" could fetter the tongue of this faithful witness. A full-orbed Gospel had been revealed to him, and at any personal cost he was determined that not one ray of it should be hindered from shining through him. The perfect love with which the heart of Paul was filled cast out all fear. He loved the Lord Jesus Christ and the souls of men too intensely to keep back anything that was profitable (v. 20). It is a base and false charity that shuns to declare the whole counsel of God.
FAITH AND FAILURE. Acts 21:1-36
"St. Paul was a great trader of Christ both by land and sea." So said John Trapp, and it is a most suggestive saying. No merchant could more urgently push his wares than Paul pushed the things of the Kingdom of God. Wherever he went, whatever he did, it was always as an ambassador for Christ. To him religion was no cloak, to be thrown off or on as occasion demanded. It was the bone and sinew and vital breath of his being. As Saul, he was crucified with Christ; as Paul, he had no existence but in Him and for Him. "To me to live is Christ." Note here some further things about him—
1. His Sorrowful Prospect. While on his way to Jerusalem, he was warned at least twice of dangers, and of certain imprisonment, if he should go there at that time (vv. 4-11). He knew before this—by the Holy Ghost—that bonds and afflictions awaited him in every city (vv. 20-23). In his unconverted days, he "profited much in the Jew's religion" (Galatians 1:14) in that he was honored and praised of men; but all was sacrificed for Him, who had called him by His grace, and who had promised to show him what great things he must suffer for His sake. He was called into the fellowship of Christ's sufferings.
2. His Fearless Faith. Paul's reply to their united entreaty was short and decisive. "I am ready" (v. 13). Ready, not only to be bound, but to die for the name of the Lord Jesus. The secret of peace and victory in the face of all trial and persecution is to connect the Name of the Lord Jesus with it. He who can say confidently, "Who shall separate me from the love of Christ?" will also be able to add "We are more than conquerors through Him." "I am ready." What a ring of unstaggering confidence there is in this. How much has been lost politically, commercially, morally, and spiritually for the want of being ready when the crisis came. It was "they that were ready" who went in when the Bridegroom came; they who were getting ready were shut out.
3. His Powerful Testimony. "He declared what things God had wrought among the Gentiles" (vv. 17-20). Having arrived at Jerusalem, and having been warmly welcomed by the brethren, Paul gave them another chapter out of his life's book, thrilling with the wonders of the grace of God. Those who by faith attempt much for God, will have experiences that will glorify God (v. 20). If we would see the wonder-working power of God, we must needs "launch out into the deep"—into the deep of God's fathomless grace, and the unsearchable riches of His Son. Believe and you shall see.
4. His Compromising Meekness (vv. 21-26). Seeing that there were so many in Jerusalem who believed that Paul's teaching led the converts to "forsake Moses," the elders persuaded him to show his devotion to the law of Moses by shaving his head, and joining himself with those four men who were about to present themselves as observers of the law of the Nazarite (Numbers 6:13-18). This was intended to shut the mouths of those who madly caviled against the apostle's preaching, and showed the great humility of Paul, when he submitted to it for their sakes. He was willing to be made all things.... that he might save some.
5. His Conspicuous Failure (vv. 27-31). The very means he used to disarm the enemy became the cause of offence. He had shaved his head through the fear of man; now he is caught in the snare. We cannot but think that, in his willingness to please the brethren, and perhaps to justify himself in the eyes of men, he for the time being failed to "stand fast in the liberty with which Christ had made him free." But in any case trouble was sure to come upon him in Jerusalem, for the Holy Spirit had already witnessed to this, and the beloved Paul seemed in no way disappointed with the terrible consequences.
6. His Rescue by the Soldiers (vv. 32-36). This was a sad scene. The worshipers of the temple of God going about to kill him, whose body was the temple of the Holy Spirit. Religious formalists are always at war with the Spirit of God, for where the Spirit is there is liberty. The chains of the Roman soldiers were more merciful than the tongues of these hypocrites. But a man of God is immortal until his work is done.
PAUL'S DEFENSE. Acts 22:1-21
Paul's life is an exhibition of what the grace of God can do. Even in the most trying and unexpected circumstances, he could possess his soul in patience. See his beautiful courtesy, "May I speak unto you?" (21:37) and note his wonderful wisdom and courage when he asked, as a "Jew of Tarsus and a citizen of no mean city," he might be allowed to speak to the people What a blending of giant strength with childlike simplicity. Having received permission to speak from the stairs of the castle, he addresses the religious rabble, not as bloodthirsty enemies, but as "Men, brethren, and fathers." His defense takes the form of a personal testimony. He is not so anxious to justify himself before the people as to show them what great things God had done for him. He refers to himself here—
1. As a Learned Jew (v. 3). He was no ignorant bigot, no prejudiced Gentile, but a Jew born in the famous free city of Tarsus, and educated at the feet of the great Gamaliel: a Hebrew of the Hebrews. Paul's natural gifts and high-class training made him one of those men that were not to be easily deceived.
2. As a Zealous Persecutor. "I persecuted this way unto the death" (v. 4). This way refers to the way of Christians, the way he now walked. In carrying out the unenlightened conviction of his heart, he thought he ought to oppose the things connected with the name of Jesus (Acts 8:3). The "I thought" of the unregenerate man is always contrary to the mind of God. There is a religious enthusiasm that has not been kindled by the holy fire from Heaven, but by the fire of Hell.
3. As a Conquered Foe. "I fell unto the ground" (vv. 6-7). A sudden burst of soul-convicting light from the presence of the glorified Savior, overwhelmed the haughty Saul; smiting him to the earth. What other power could have arrested such a sinner and subdued such a determinate will? When God speaks it is with convincing power. What can speak more effectively than light? By the light of His Word He still brings rebel souls to the dust. Is not My Word a hammer and a fire, says the Lord. With this hammer God, the Spirit, can break the rocky heart to pieces.
4. As a Humble Inquirer. "And I answered, Who are You, Lord? . . . What shall I do, Lord?" (v. 8-10). Those questions reveal a radical change in the mind and heart of Saul, but between the first and the second there comes the revelation of Jesus Himself to his soul. When anyone is ready to obey the light and the voice of God's Word they will not be left long in ignorance of the saving power of Jesus. But, Who are You? should be followed with, What shall I do? for we are saved to serve (Luke 1:74).
5. As a Comforted Believer. "Brother Saul, receive your sight" (vv. 11-13). At first he "could not see, for the glory of that light" had blinded his eyes to every earthly object. The light of the glory of God is always an eye-blinding light to the glory of this world. "Brother Saul." How soothing this salutation would be, coming from the lips of the saintly Ananias; and as an evidence that the Lord, whom he had met, desired to bless him, he received his sight, a new sight for the new world into which he had now entered. With him old things had passed away, and all things had now become new.
6. As an Instructed Disciple. "God has chosen you, that you should know His will. . . and be His witness unto all men" (vv. 14-16) He was called to be a witness to the resurrection of Christ, as one born out of due season. The Gospel which he preached was not received of man, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:12). Through Ananias he learned more fully the purpose of God in calling him. Have we learned all that God, by His grace, means us to be and to do?
7. As a Divinely Commissioned Apostle (vv. 17-21) It was while praying in the temple that the vision of God came, saying, "Make haste..... out of Jerusalem...... Depart, for I will send you far hence unto the Gentiles." Is it not usually while praying that the vision of God's will is made known? (Acts 9:11, 30) Ask and you shall receive. As a "chosen vessel," Paul was not sent on his own charges, but was filled with the wealth and power of the name of Jesus (Acts 9:15). He was divinely called, divinely commissioned, and divinely equipped. So is it with all the true servants of the Lord Jesus Christ.
A DAY OF TRIAL AND A NIGHT OF CHEER. Acts 23:1-24
After spending a night in the rocky fortress of Antonia, Paul was brought down to answer for himself before the chief priests and all their council. The leading points in this portion will perhaps be more easily grasped if we put them thus—
1. An Honest Confession. "I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day" (v. 1). To have a conscience "void of offence toward God" was the constant ambition of the apostle (chapter 24:16). There are some whose consciences are seared as with a red-hot iron, through their many refusals to obey the Word and will of God. A good "conscience" is one in perfect harmony with the mind of God, and is the guarantee of a blissful life.
2. A Holy Indignation "God shall smite you, you whited wall," etc. (vv. 2-4). This may seem harsh, but the pure righteous soul of the prisoner was so grieved that the man exalted to administer justice should, through personal hate, order him to be smitten "contrary to the law." The high priest's business was to condemn the wicked, and not to smite the righteous (Deuteronomy 21:5). We are told that in the beginning of the Jewish wars this same priest was actually smitten to death by a captain of the Jews.
3. A Skillful Attitude. "But when Paul perceived," etc. (v. 6). Paul was a man whose eyes the Lord had opened, and so was quick to take in a situation. He was wise as a serpent, but not so poisonous, because he had also the harmlessness of the dove. In declaring himself a Pharisee, and a believer in the resurrection, he was stating that which was absolutely true, for none could be more jealous for the truth of God that he.
4. A Divided Jury. "There arose a dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees" (vv. 7-10) Before this they both cried, "Away with this fellow from the earth," but now the Pharisees attempt to justify Paul by saying, "Perhaps an angel has revealed it to him." This was also a side-thrust at the Sadducees, who denied the existence of angels and spirits. We have here an old exhibition of a modern sin, that of putting partyism, personal passions, and interests before the truth of God and the general cause of righteousness.
5. A Divine Encouragement. "The night following the Lord stood by him and said, Be of good cheer, Paul" (v. 11). It was a blessed night, luminous with the glory of His presence, and his soul comforted with His word of promise. How easy it is for the faithful Savior to meet the need of His suffering saint. He can speedily turn our prison house into a "palace beautiful" While Madame Guyon was lying in a French prison, she said "the very stones of her prison shone like rubies in her eyes." He knows how and when to speak a word to the weary.
6. A Dastardly Plot (vv. 12-15). These forty fanatics, who bound themselves neither to eat nor drink until they had killed Paul, doubtless thought that they were doing God's service, but such take good care never to consult God about it. There is no night black enough to hide such murderous plans from the eye of the Lord. The counsel of the wicked shall come to naught, their words shall not stand (Isaiah 8:10).
7. An Unexpected Discovery (vv. 16-24). This son of Paul's sister was a brave young lad. He evidently had overheard the plot, perhaps those cruel men were so intent on their fiendish purpose that they paid no heed to the boy near by. The boy heard, believed, and acted at once. To go up to the castle on a prisoner's behalf was a bold venture, but love constrained him. His timely effort was crowned with success. He was the means of saving the life of his beloved uncle. Procrastination is not only the "thief of time," but it is also the thief of souls and of Heaven. What you do, do quickly.
PAUL BEFORE FELIX. Acts 24:1-27
The journey from Jerusalem to Caesarea was over sixty miles. To Paul it was a triumphal march out of the clutches of his would-be murderers. The Lord knows how to deliver the godly. Five days later the high priest with the elders, and the orator, Tertullus, arrived as the accusers of the prisoner. The priest and the elders had made the bullets, and hired this eloquent orator to fire them; but he missed the mark, for Felix had knowledge of "that way." Look at—
I. THE ACCUSATION.—After Tertullus had spoken some flattering words to the voluptuous Felix, he launched four terrible charges against the holy apostle. (1) A Pestilent Fellow. A man whose character is thoroughly diseased, and a danger to the morals of the people. (2) A Mover of Sedition. A disturber of the national peace, and an enemy to the Roman Government. (3) A Ringleader of the Nazarenes. A religious fanatic. A man who has gone crazy over the supposed resurrection of Jesus who was crucified. (4) A Profaner of the Temple. A rank heretic. A man who has no regard for the true worship of God. The charge was as foul as the prince of darkness could make it. The image of the "father of lies" was stamped upon it.
II. THE DEFENSE.—Paul makes no attempt to flatter the governor, but is glad to mention the fact that Felix had been for "many years a judge of the nation," and was well able to understand the nature of the case (vv. 10-11). (1) He Denies the Charge (vv 12-13). What else could he do but hurl their hate-kindled darts back to their own bosoms with the challenge that they "cannot prove the things whereof they accuse me." (2) He makes a confession of his faith in the Word of God (v. 14). Of his hope toward God, and the resurrection (v. 15). Of the purity of his aim in seeking "always to have a conscience void of offence" (v. 14). Because of the true, childlike simplicity of his character, Paul could not but speak out the deep and tender feelings of his soul. These things formed the very tissue of his spiritual life. (3) He gives an Explanation (vv. 17-21). He tells, in simple, truthful language, what in reality did happen. The truth always suits best, and the honest and the upright love it.
III. THE DEFERMENT.—When Felix heard these things he made up his mind to do nothing until Lysias, the chief captain of the Roman band at Jerusalem, should come and explain matters more fully to him (vv. 22-23) Meanwhile Paul was to have liberty and the privilege of seeing the friends who may call on him The honest man has scored a victory.
IV. THE PRIVATE HEARING.—Felix, willing to entertain his wife, who was a Jewess, and also evidently believing that Paul's name was one to conjure with, sent for him, and had a private interview, which reveals: (1) A Courageous Prisoner. Called to explain to them the cause of his "faith in Christ," he did not fail to reason with them of "righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come." He took this quiet opportunity to rebuke the noble sinners personally. Truly, he sought not great things for himself. (2) A Cowardly Judge. Although he trembled at the truthful words of his blameless prisoner, yet he "sent for him" and "bound him," just as he thought it might bring gain or honor to himself (vv. 26-27). But Paul lived before another Judge, whose mercy and grace had never failed him (Acts 23:1). Those who dare for Jesus Christ, can dare to stand alone. Felix was convicted—he trembled—but he was not converted. His conscience condemned him, but his stubborn will, through fear of man, or of woman, refused to yield. He proposed to consider this matter when he had a more convenient season. How readily we are to forget that there are two sides to a "convenient season." We cannot make a spring season at will. A fanner may have more time to sow his seed in the winter, but what would it profit him?
The most convenient of all seasons for getting right with God, is when His Word is pricking us to the heart, and when we are trembling under the power of it.
PAUL'S APPEAL UNTO CAESAR. Acts 25:1-12
Paul had now been two years in prison. A new governor had just arrived (Festus) to take the place of Felix This was a new opportunity for those "Chief of the Jews" whose hearts were still full of murderous hate at the apostle, and they were quick to take advantage of it—
1. A Cunning Plot. They sought the favor of Festus that they might persuade him to send for Paul to Jerusalem, so that they might have a chance of killing him by the way (vv. 2-3). They were not privileged to kill Paul, but they were surely guilty of murder in the sight of God. "He who hates his brother is a murderer." The Lord looks upon the heart.
2. A Reasonable Proposal. It must have been very disappointing to these enemies of the apostle when Festus refused to yield to their sinister request (vv. 4-5). Caesarea, being the Roman headquarters, was the proper place for trial. As many of them as were able—having sufficient time and means—and we may add, sufficiently hardened in heart, could go with him and "accuse this man." But it was not justice these Jewish rulers wanted, it was the death of him who preached "Jesus and the Resurrection."
3. A Renewed Charge. The next day, after Festus arrived, Paul was brought out for the third time to be examined. The complaints of the Jews were many and grievous. They were as numerous and as black as so many lying tongues could make them, but not one of them could they prove. It has been said that "truth seldom goes without a scratched face." He who Himself was the Truth had a face more marred than any man's. Those who live at enmity with God will always love the darkness rather than the light. Christ said they hated Me without a cause, and they will also hate you.
4. A Renewed Denial. All the vile charges they brought against Paul could not bring the faintest tremor to his heart, or blush of shame to his cheek; be had not "offended in anything at all." Those who live before God with a good conscience need fear no evil (chapter 23:1), for greater is He who is in them than he who is in the world. It is the Spirit of God in the believer that wars against the wicked spirit that works in the children of disobedience (Ephesians 2:2).
5. A Strange Request. Festus said to Paul, "Will you go up to Jerusalem to be judged?" Why does the judge ask the prisoner as to where he might be judged? He is now wavering, and, being desirous to favor the Jews, he becomes "double-minded and unstable in his ways" (Isaiah 1:6-8). Those who would have the light of truthfulness to shine in their lives must, in heart, walk in the light.
6. A New Weapon. When the wide-awake apostle saw that his judge was likely to be bribed over to the side of his bloodthirsty enemies, he unsheathed an unexpected, but mighty, weapon of defense. "I appeal unto Caesar." As a Roman citizen, not proved to be a criminal, he had this right. When Festus answered, "Unto Caesar shall you go," it was another victory for the man of God. The finger of God is clearly seen in this. Had not the Lord told him just a little while ago that he must witness of Him at Rome (chapter 23:11). Now he has the promise of being taken there free of all charge, to preach the Gospel in Rome also. Truly, God moves in a mysterious way, making all things work together for good to them that love Him.
PAUL AS A WITNESS FOR GOD. Acts 26:1-32
When King Agrippa came to Caesarea to salute Festus, the new governor, he was told the story of Paul, the prisoner; how the charges brought against him had not been proven, and how he had "appealed to Caesar." Festus was quite pleased that Agrippa should hear him on the morrow, in the hope that this might help him out of the "unreasonableness" of sending a prisoner to Augustus without being able to "signify the crimes laid against him." So Paul is brought out once more and permitted to speak for himself. The apostle's defense was the story of his conversion—this was always his apologetic for Christianity. Like the sword of Goliath, "there is none like it." It so affected Festus that he thought Paul had gone mad through "much learning;" it so touched the conscience of Agrippa that he said, "Almost you persuade me to be a Christian." Look at Paul's defense, then, as revealing the characteristics of a true Christian—
I. HE IS A CHANGED MAN (vv. 9-15).—Once he did many things contrary to the name of Jesus. Now he was His bond-slave. The change was radical and complete, wrought not by the will of the flesh, nor the will of man, but of God. He was born from above. No one can be a Christian without being "born again." A new nature is needed before we can see the things of the kingdom of God, or enjoy the fellowship of Christ, the only begotten of the Father.
II. HE IS AN EMPOWERED MAN.—Empowered by the Lord Jesus Christ to be a witness unto Him by opening the eyes of sin-blinded men, and turning them from the power of Satan unto God (vv. 16-18). God does not send us a warfare on our own charges (Acts 1:8). The evidence that a man is sent by God is that he does the work that none others can do by their own strength and wisdom. Signs must follow those who believe.
III. HE IS AN OBEDIENT MAN.—"I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision" (v. 19). To be disobedient to the heavenly call is to seal our own spiritual doom. Neither did he dishonor Him who had called him by immediately conferring with flesh and blood (Galatians 1:15-16). He settled the matter right off with the Lord Himself as to what he would do.
IV. HE IS A DIVINELY HELPED MAN.— "Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day" (vv 21-22). He had been often persecuted, but never forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed He had experienced the promise of his Lord—"I will never leave you." Every faithful servant of Christ will be able, at the close of life, to raise an Ebenezer to the honor of His name. Hitherto has the Lord helped us.
V. HE IS A DEVOTED MAN.—"Saying none other things than those. . . that Christ should suffer" (v. 23). Paul was wholly yielded up to the interests of Christ and His cross. He meant it when he said," To me to live is Christ. I am determined to know nothing among men save Jesus Christ and Him crucified." Unless our lives are entirely yielded up to Him our testimony for Him will be powerless and fruitless.
VI. HE IS A MISUNDERSTOOD MAN.—Festus said, "Paul, you are beside yourself; much learning does make you mad" (v. 24). The natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God, they are foolishness unto him. To those who are in a perishing condition "the preaching of the cross is foolishness" (1 Corinthians 1:18). The disciple is not greater than his Lord Did they not say of Christ, He has a devil and is mad? (John 10:20).
VII. HE IS A COURTEOUS MAN.—"I am not mad, most noble Festus." Honor to whom honor is due. The grace of God will always teach a man to be civil There is no man on earth who can better afford to honor the nobility than the Christian, for he himself has been exalted into the ranks of the blood-royal of Heaven. Children of God.
VIII. HE IS A FAITHFUL MAN.—"King Agrippa, Believe you the prophets?" This personal appeal to the king must surely have come to him with startling suddenness, while it reveals the simple, fearless courage of the man whose heart God had transformed, and perhaps a real longing for the spiritual and eternal well-being of Agrippa. Paul had always an eye on his Master's business; pulling men out of the fire of sin.
IX. HE IS A SATISFIED MAN.—When Agrippa confessed that he was "Almost persuaded to be a Christian," see how quickly Paul shows him that it is the better part. "I would to God that you and all... were altogether such as I am, except these bonds" (v. 29). There was not a richer or happier man in Caesarea than Paul. The peace of God was in his heart, and the unsearchable riches of Christ were his.
PAUL'S SHIPWRECK, OR THE POWER OF FAITH. Acts 27:1-44.
The taking of Paul the apostle to Italy was one of the most important and far-reaching undertakings ever attempted by the powerful Government of Rome. The coming of that lonely prisoner was the coming of the Ambassador of Heaven to establish a new and everlasting kingdom among the Gentile nations of the earth. It was the planting of that new tree, the leaves of which will ultimately heal the nations. Behold how great a matter a little fire kindles. We cannot go into detail here, but will seek some spiritual lessons from the outstanding features. We note—
I. A PERILOUS POSITION.—"Exceedingly tossed with tempest... neither sun nor stars. . . and all hope taken away" (vv. 17-20). We can scarcely imagine a more agonizing predicament. Such is a true picture of those who have been awakened by the Holy Spirit to a real sense of their guilt and danger as sinners in the sight of God. Tossed with fear and alarm, without seeing any guiding light, and all hope of salvation taken away. At that time you were without Christ, having no hope (Ephesians 2:12).
II. A MERCIFUL REVELATION.—"The angel of God stood by me, saying, Fear not, Paul. . God has given you all them that sail with you" (vv. 23-24) The effectual, fervent prayer of this righteous man has availed much (James 5:16). It was doubtless in answer to Paul's earnest pleadings that this answer was given. What a victory of faith it was. Are we not reminded here of God's answer to the cry of Christ's heart, "I will give You the heathen for Your inheritance?" All who sail in the same boat with Jesus Christ will be eternally given to Him.
III. A FAITHFUL PROCLAMATION.—"Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer, for I believe God" (vv. 22-25). It was a "glad and glorious Gospel" that Paul had to preach to those whose souls were sinking in despair It was, indeed, the Gospel of Salvation. "There shall be no loss of any man's life." It was a Gospel of certainty to Paul, for he adds, "I believe God that it shall be, even as it was told me." Such is the Gospel of Christ to all who, like Paul, have received it as a revelation from God. Only those who believe the Word of God have any Gospel of certain salvation to preach.
IV. A NECESSARY CONDITION.—"Except these abide in the ship, you cannot be saved" (v. 31). Paul warns the soldiers that if the sailors are allowed to desert the ship, they could not be saved (v. 30). There is no inconsistency between the sovereign grace of God and the responsibility of man in the use of prescribed means. The promise was that "all would be saved;" the condition was, "abiding" in the ship. The Gospel of Christ offers salvation to all, but the condition is, believe in Him and abide in Him.
V. A COMPASSIONATE EXHORTATION.— "Wherefore, I pray you to take some meat, for this is for your health" (v. 34). No shepherd could be more careful over his flock than Paul is over those 276 fellow-passengers. He seeks not only their salvation, but their health and comfort. But God's order is salvation first, then health, and better houses if you will. The Holy Spirit is the agent in every God-sent revival, and He never begins with the social conditions of men, always with their sinful, sorrowful spirits. But here note that eating, as well as abiding, is a condition of full salvation. "Your Word was found, and I did eat it."
VI. A WONDERFUL TRANSFORMATION.— "Then were they all of good cheer" (v. 36). What a contrast between the experiences mentioned in verse 29, "all hope taken away," and verse 36, "good cheer." What has made the difference? The promise of salvation. After they had got the assurance that none of them would perish, they were able to eat with gladness of heart. It is so with all those who, by faith, receive the promise of God in Christ Jesus (Acts 16:31). Those who have had their feet taken out of the fearful pit of despair and planted upon the rock of God's Word will have the "good cheer" song put in their mouth (Psalm 40:2-3).
VII. A PERFECTED SALVATION.—"And so it came to pass that they escaped all safe to land" (v. 44). Not all in the same way; not all at the same time; but all enjoyed the fulfillment of the same promise of deliverance. If they had not been obedient and abode in the ship, they would not have got the "boards" and "broken pieces" to float them ashore. It is always safe to trust God and obey His will. "None perish that Him trust." Christ shall lose none of those whom the Father has given Him (John 6:39); in some way or other all shall come safely to the heavenly land. But how shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation. From Paul's action at this crisis we may learn the value and power of individual faith in God.
PAUL AMONG THE BARBARIANS. Acts 28:1-10
"They all escaped to land." This seems to have been the third time that Paul had "suffered shipwreck" (2 Cor 11:25). There are few who have ever had such vivid glimpses of heavenly things as Paul, and few who have ever had to suffer so much for the cause of Christ. It would appear that every new spiritual experience needs its counterbalance of suffering. We observe here—
I. UNEXPECTED KINDNESS.—"The barbarous people showed us no little kindness" (v. 2). Although the inhabitants of this island were not Romans, they were not savages. They had the "milk of human kindness" in their hearts. The fire was a welcome sight to those who had just come out of the sea into the drenching rain and biting cold. The Lord has many a way of scattering crumbs of comfort to those who fear His name (John 21:9). Doubtless Paul looked upon this fire as if it had been kindled by the hand of Jesus Christ.
II. HUMBLE SERVICE.—"Paul gathered a bundle of sticks." The great apostle of the Gentiles did not think it beneath him to go a-searching for fuel to help to dry the clothes of those soldiers and sailors who were his companions in tribulation. He had learned from his Master that the way to be greatest of all is to be the servant of all. The deeper our experience is of the greatness of God's grace the more generous and attentive shall we be to those little things that minister to the good of others. Paul did not need to be told to "mend the fire" before he did it. "Consider one another to provoke unto love and good works."
III. ANOTHER TRIAL.—"There came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand, and he shook off the beast into the fire." Why should the self-humbling effort of the apostle to comfort others be rewarded with the sudden grip of a poisonous viper? Why? Paul does not know, but he believes that "all things work together for good to them that love God." Those who would sacrifice themselves for the warming up of their shivering fellow-creatures need not be surprised although the heat should bring to life some torpid snake that will seek to fasten itself to that hand of mercy. Is it a temptation to sin, either in thought or act, shake the slimy thing off into the fire from whence it came, and possess your soul in patience.
IV. FALSE JUDGMENT.—These islanders, judging by appearance, thought first that Paul must be a murderer, then they believed him to be a God (vv. 4-6). When the viper succeeded in catching him, they condemned him, but when he conquered the viper they adored him. There is not much between the frown and the favor of those who know not the truth as it is in Christ Jesus. The world is always ready to applaud those who succeed, and is quick to believe in the worthlessness of the man who happens to become the prey of that venomous snake called calumny. It was such a viper that came out of the heat and fastened on Joseph while in Potiphar's house, but he shook if off, and felt no harm (Genesis 39:13-14). The devil often spoils his pictures by using a brush that is too big.
V. GENEROSITY REWARDED.—Publius was entertaining an angel unawares when he received Paul and lodged him and others for three days (v. 7). He was amply recompensed for his kindness in the healing of his father by this mysterious prisoner. In some way or other God will compensate those who give even a cup of cold water to His disciple. Paul the prisoner was still Paul the apostle. No circumstance in which he was placed could ever mar his authority or stain the purity of his apostolic mantle.
VI. NEEDS SUPPLIED.—"They honored us, and laded us with such things as were necessary" (v. 10). They had lost their all by the shipwreck, but now, because of the merciful wonder-working power of Paul, all their needs for the journey to Rome were supplied. Truly the presence of this man of God among them was the salt that saved them from the corruption of death. The ungodly do not know how much they owe to the presence of those who believe in God. Judgment could not fall upon Sodom until Lot was taken out (Genesis 19:22). When the "preacher of righteousness" was shut up in the ark then the flood came.
PAUL'S MINISTRY IN ROME. Acts 28:11-31
The entrance of Paul into Rome, although unknown and unheeded by the multitude, was a greater event than the coming of an army of soldiers or the arrival of a fleet of battleships. He was as a corn of wheat cast into the ground to die, but destined to bring forth such fruit as would be a blessing to the nations of the earth. The possibilities of one single life, wholly yielded to God, and possessed by His Holy Spirit, are, for us, incalculable. Paul's life and testimony have been given as an example to them who should hereafter believe (Philippians 3:17).
I. THE CHEERING SALUTATION.—When Paul saw the brethren who had come to meet him, "he thanked God, and took courage" (v. 15). Appii Forum is about twenty-seven miles from Rome, but some of the weaker brethren could only go the length of "the Three Taverns," a distance of seventeen miles. The angel-like ministry of encouraging the hearts of God's tried and suffering servants is quite within the reach of all the brethren who care to make a little self-sacrifice for their sakes. Don't wait until they come to you for sympathy, go and meet them. There are wonderful comfort and consolation in mutual faith and love (Romans 1:12).
II. THE PRELIMINARY CONFERENCE.— After three days Paul, who was "suffered to dwell by himself, called the chief of the Jews together," etc. (vv. 16-22). Although he had suffered so much at the hands of his Jewish brethren, yet his heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel was that they might be saved (Romans 10:1). He tells them of his sufferings in Jerusalem, and the reason why he was "bound with this chain." They had heard about this sect that was "everywhere spoken against," and were desirous of hearing from his own lips what he had to say about it. No man on earth could better tell them the story of the Gospel of Salvation.
III. THE STORY TOLD.—On the day appointed for this special purpose "there came many to him into his lodging," etc. (v. 23). Has there ever been anywhere such a "lodging-house" gathering as this? A prison turned into a church, the prisoner the preacher; the subjects were "The Kingdom of God and the Things Concerning Jesus." The arguments are drawn from Moses and the prophets, and the sermon lasted "from morning until evening." Once more, note that Paul, ever since his conversion, knew nothing among men save Christ and Him crucified. Why should it be otherwise with preachers now?
IV. THE DIFFERENT RESULTS.—"Some believed, and some believed not" (v. 24). Yes, thank God, "some believed." Wherever Christ is faithfully preached some will believe and be saved, while others will prefer, through unbelief, to remain vessels of wrath, instead of being changed into vessels of mercy. The preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness. No matter how clearly the word of salvation is preached, it will not profit unless the hearing of it is mixed with faith (Hebrews 4:2). By grace are you saved through faith.
V. THE FINAL MESSAGE.—These are solemn and decisive words recorded in verses 25-29. They contain Paul's last words of warning and rebuke to his impenitent brethren according to the flesh. They had eyes and ears, but they failed to use them in a proper manner, because their heart had become gross and sensual through pride and self-righteousness (v. 27). There are none so blind as those who don't want to see. Those who have "pleasure in unrighteousness" will not believe the truth, but will readily believe a lie unto their own condemnation (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12).
VI. THE TWO YEARS' MINISTRY.—For two whole years in his own hired house, and with a soldier to guard him, Paul kept an open door for inquirers after the "things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ." With all confidence he preached, "no man forbidding him." Here several of Paul's richest epistles were written. How much the Church of God owes to Paul's imprisonment eternity alone can reveal. It was out of Bedford jail that Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" came. It is often out of the depths of our deepest trials that our richest fruits are found.