The Biblical Illustrator
Now there were in the Church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers.
The nature and sources of the narrative
We now lose sight for a time of the Church of Jerusalem and the apostles, and in the place of Jerusalem, Antioch becomes the centre of Church history. Indeed chaps, 13 and 14 form an independent and self-contained memoir from an Antiochean point of view. And it has, not without plausibility, been supposed that Luke has here made use of an original document and inserted it in his book, which document may have proceeded from the Church at Antioch, or may have belonged to a biography of Barnabas, or may have been a missionary narrative which Barnabas and Saul had made. (G. V. Lechler, D. D.)
The first designatory and valedictory service to missionary work
In this text notice--
I. Those members of the Church at Antioch as conspicuous men. They were stars. Among the thousands connected with the Bible, only a few are named, so they must have been special noteworthy men:--“Barnabas,” “Simeon, that was called Niger”--black. It has the same root as negro. “Lucius” of Cyrene, an African settlement. Simeon was black. He might have been an African; and Lucius was for certain. “Manaen,” brought up with Herod the tetrarch. It was the old custom to have a sort of adopted child as companion for young princes, thus forming what would seem a companionship for life. A man who had lived in court would be a fine man, but his living with Herod throws another light upon things. He was “brought up” in court--then he had heard John the Baptist thunder and lighten in his preaching. “Brought up” in court--then he knew John in prison. Was he one of John’s disciples? “Brought up with Herod.” Then he knew that woman, the wife of the steward, who ministered so to Jesus. “Brought up with Herod.” Then he was at the crucifixion when Jesus was “set at nought,” when on bended knees the cruel shout was raised, “Hail, King of the Jews.” Probably that was the crisis that brought him out. Now, here we find him among the disciples, not with Herod, but his name written in the Lamb’s book of life. He leaves the court and goes into the tents at Antioch, struck his sword, and is here a soldier of Jesus Christ. The Church of Christ is composed of wonderful variety.
II. We have a new speaker--“The Holy Ghost.” Who and what is the Holy Ghost? No one can answer. The Holy Ghost never intended that we should. The doctrine of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is a tremendous doctrine. We cannot draw a circle round infinity; we cannot even understand ourselves. How, then, can we understand God? We must leave the question, for it cannot be questioned. There are two very plain things--
1. That the Spirit is a person, not simply an influence.
2. Not only a person, but a Divine person.
III. We have an important command--“Separate Me Barnabas and Saul for the work,” etc.
1. Here is a beginning--the first mission to the heathen. The Acts of the Apostles is a book of beginnings. We read of the first fear, first hope, first joy, first sermon, first prayer meeting, the first sinner converted, the first Christians, the first baptism, the first Lord’s supper, and now the first instance, by order, of men set apart for the work of missions. There were no Christians in England, in Spain, in Italy then. Everything then had to begin. And the Holy Ghost said, “Now” is the time to begin.
2. Here is a wise choice. “Now, there were at Antioch in the Church prophets and teachers.” So Barnabas and Saul were not called away till they could be spared. The two captains were not removed till the ship was officered. Note, they were the best men. Not inexperienced or young, but the kind the Holy Ghost requires to send out--the very Barnabas and the very Saul. The Church may spare Barnabas and Saul now.
3. Here are propitious circumstances. “As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted.” As they were going on in their ministry. It was a special meeting, because they were fasting. They wanted to know something, and as they were inquiring the Holy Ghost spake.
Prophets and teachers
The two were not necessarily identical (Ephesians 4:11), though the higher gift of prophecy commonly included the lower gift of teaching. The former implies a more direct message from God, coming through the Holy Ghost; the latter a more systematic instruction, in which reason and reflection also bore their part. (Dean Plumptre.)
Simeon that was called Niger.
The name seems to indicate the swarthy complexion of Africa; but nothing more is known of him. The epithet was given to him, probably, to distinguish him from the many others of the same name, possibly, in particular, from Simon of Cyrene. (Dean Plumptre.)
Lucius of Cyrene.--Probably one of the company of “men of Cyprus and Cyrene” (Acts 11:20) who had been among the first evangelists of Antioch. On the ground that Cyrene was famous for its School of Medicine, some writers have identified him with the author of the Acts, but the two names Lucius and Lucas are radically distinct, the latter being contracted from Lucanus. (Dean Plumptre.)
Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch.--
This statement has been interpreted to mean that he was Herod’s foster-brother, and the Vulgate translates the term by one which signifies “fed from the same breast.” But all that is implied is that Manaen and Herod were companions in studies and amusements. In the same household Joanna the wife of Chuza the steward was a believer in Christ. Thus early had the Word of God been known and acknowledged in a royal court. God indeed has had from the first those in all ranks who served Him--Moses, Obadiah, Daniel, and the “saints in Caesar’s household.” As now, so it has ever been, those with the same advantages make a different use of them. Manaen, numbered amongst the first ministers of the Church; Herod, remembered for his part in the murder of John and Christ. (W. Denton, M. A.)
This is the only record that we have of this man. Yet it is impossible not to find a melancholy interest in the juxtaposition of characters and lives so strangely contrasted. At the very time that the one foster-brother was prominent among the ministers of Christ, the other was living in a dishonoured exile with a dark past and a hopeless future--a fact of daily experience, viz., that the lives of men may begin, in the closest companionship, and under nearly the same conditions, and yet the end of the one shall be honour and the other shame.
1. The name Manaen was connected earlier with the Herods. When Herod the Great was a boy, an Essene of this name, believed to possess prophetic gifts, met him as he went to school, and reading, perhaps, in his features the signs of an insatiable ambition and an indomitable will, hailed him as “king of the Jews.” He stood in somewhat the same relation to him that Ahijah did to Jeroboam. As with the son of Nebat, so with the son of Antipater, the early prophecy was not forgotten. When he attained the summit of his power he would fain have attached the prophet to his court as friend and counsellor. What the identity of name renders probable is that on the refusal of the old man the king transferred his offer of patronage to his son, or grandson, and had brought him up as the companion of one of his favourite sons. If so, the first great event in the life of Manaen must have been the change from the stern purity of the life of the Essenes to the pomp and luxury of the court of Herod. Soon this would be followed by a yet greater change. Antipas and Archelaus were sent to receive their education at Rome, and Manaen would naturally share this training. He may have heard of the arrival of the “wise men,” and could not have been altogether ignorant of the Messianic hopes which animated the people. The very name which he bore (Menahem, the comforter), bore witness of this hope.
2. One so brought up would continue to be attached to the royal household, and Manaen may have adopted the life and the principles of those with whom he lived. He may have acquiesced in the king’s incestuous marriage, but we can estimate the effect which the teaching of the Baptist must have had upon him. Here he saw a life, like in form to that devotion which he had known in his youth, the reappearance of the prophetic character, the open and fearless speech, as of a new Elijah, and as we find traces of the influence of the Baptist’s teaching within the circle of Herod’s attendants, it is reasonable to think that he too must have come under it.
3. The first trace is in Luke 3:14, where “the soldiers” were literally “men on a march” to the war with Aretas, the father of the wife whom the tetrarch had divorced in order that he might indulge his guilty passion for Herodias. The line of their march would take them down the valley of the Jordan, and so they would pass by the chief scene of the Baptist’s ministry. From that hour there must have been many among the attendants of Herod who were disciples of John.
4. The next trace meets us in John 4:46, where the word “nobleman” means an attendant of the king, i.e., of the tetrarch Antipas. I do not assume the identity of this “nobleman” with Manaen, but I point to it as one of the tokens of the Baptist’s work as “preparing the way of the Lord,” even among Herod’s followers. The nobleman thus believed, and Herod’s court now included some who were disciples, not of the Baptist only, but of the Prophet of Nazareth.
5. The imprisonment of John brought him into yet closer contact with the tetrarch’s immediate followers. Even Herod himself “heard him gladly.” It is clear from Matthew 11:2-3, that some of the Baptist’s disciples were allowed free access to him, and who so likely as attendants of the prince? If we believe that every word which our Lord spoke at such a time was full of meaning, “they that wear soft clothing and are gorgeously apparelled, and live delicately, are in kings’ houses,” may have been those who were halting between two opinions, “like reeds shaken by the wind,” whom it was necessary to remind that the true servants of God were to be found, not “in kings’ houses,” but in prison.
6. The narrative of the circumstances of the Baptist’s death includes notice of the feast of “lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee,” amongst whom must have been the “nobleman” of Capernaum, and the “steward” of Herod’s household, and the king’s “foster-brother and friend,” who must have shuddered with an unimaginable loathing. It was time for them to make their choice.
7. At or about this time, some at least did make it, and among them was she who “ministered to Christ of her sustenance,” e.g., “Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward.” This she could hardly have done, according to the Jewish law of property and marriage, without her husband’s consent.
8. It may be that up to this point the foster-brother had continued faithful to the relationship which that name involved. But soon the course of events brought about a disruption of it. The ambitious intrigues of Herod Agrippas (Acts 12:1-25) enabled him to assume the disused title of king. This gave him a higher dignity than that of his uncle the tetrarch, and the pride of Herodias was stung to the quick, and she gave her husband no peace until he had taken the fatal step of leaving his tetrarchy, in the hope of obtaining the privilege of regal rank. But the attempt failed, and he had the mortification of seeing his tetrarchy merged in the kingdom of Agrippa, and was exiled first to Gaul and then to Spain. The tradition that Pilate also was banished to the former province, suggests the probability that the two may have met once again there, to test the value of the friendship which had been purchased at so terrible a price.
9. About this time we have the first actual mention of Manaen. Unknown as he is to us, he stood then on the same level as Barnabas, in a higher position than St. Paul. Whatever his past life had been, it had led him to this. But what calls for special notice, as showing the tendency of the Baptist’s teaching, is the fact that he is found at Antioch, not at Jerusalem. The words of the Baptist, “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham,” contained by implication the whole gospel of the calling of the heathen, and Manaen must have seen that they did so. At Antioch, too, he must have taken upon himself the new name, and to one who had seen Antipas and Jesus face to face it must have been a joy unspeakable to cast off all connection with the Herodiani, and to take his place among the Christiani. In him, the prophetic form of utterance which had reappeared in John after long centuries of desuetude was powerful. As the disciples of John fasted oft, so he and those who were with him “fasted” as they ministered to the Lord. From his lips and theirs came the words which marked out the fittest labourers for the new and mighty work. One who had begun with the training of an Essene, and the teaching of the Baptist, now gave the right hand of fellowship to the two new apostles, not of “the twelve,” as they went forth to their work among the heathen.
10. To such a man the Gentile Church, in its infancy, must have owed much. He alone of all the earlier teachers of the Church may have sojourned in the imperial city. From him the Apostle of the Gentiles must have had encouragement and support, and there is a probability that the debt is even greater. St. Luke’s life as a Christian must have begun at Antioch, and if so, then he must have known Manaen, and from him he may have learnt many of the facts of the history of the Baptist, and the details of Herodian history, of which the third Gospel is so full. Conclusion: Whatever interest may attach to the juxtaposition of the two names of Manaen and Antipas, is deepened and strengthened by this fuller study. The danger of the weak will--untrue to its own convictions, and therefore losing them altogether, or keeping them only to its own condemnation--the power of earnestness and faith to triumph over the temptations of outward circumstances and perilous companionship are seen more clearly. Our inquiries, too, will have added something to the conviction as we read the Gospels that we are dealing, not with “cunningly devised fables,” but with true histories, dropping hints, after the manner of all true histories, naturally and incidentally, suggesting more than they tell, and rewarding those who seek diligently with new insight into the facts which they record. (Dean Plumptre.)
Manaen and Herod, the different effects of a secular education
It would be natural to expect that children who grew up together under the same examples and instruction should appear in the same religious character in after life. But in this case the result was otherwise. One became a minister, the other a libertine. Manaen was a man eminent for faith and virtue, learning and ability, or he would not so soon have become a prophet in this celebrated Church. Herod was vicious and debauched in private life; haughty, cruel, and tyrannical in his government, and was the murderer of the Baptist. Herod made no virtuous improvement of his early advantages; Manaen early became religious and escaped the corruptions of the world. Men’s lives are not always answerable to the advantages they enjoy. The same gospel which is a savour of life and a rock of salvation to some, is a savour of death and a rock of offence unto others. The difference between these two men is observed in other families. How is this?
I. There is a great diversity in natural temper.
1. There is in all an inclination to evil, but in a different degree.
2. It is the wisdom of parents to watch the various tempers and propensities of their children.
II. Different worldly prospects often make a great difference in character and conduct.
1. Herod was of royal descent, and had early prospects of a throne. Manaen had no such object, and was more at liberty to admit the sober concerns of religion.
2. Different passions and capacities put young men on different pursuits. Some through natural indolence and diffidence fall so low in their designs that they never rise. Others are animated by an ambition that proves a snare. Others, again, set out with a governing aim to please God.
III. The sovereign grace of God must be taken into account. Men are dependent on the Holy Spirit. He strives with them. Some resist, others yield.
1. The particular care which was taken in apostolic times to secure men of learning and ability as public teachers. The unlettered men whom Christ called were trained by the Master Himself. Paul was brought up at the feet of Gamaliel. Timothy from a child had known the Scriptures; Apollos was mighty in them. Luke, Stephen, and others appear to have had superior literary abilities. The apostles cautioned ministers to lay hands suddenly on no man who had not had time to furnish his mind.
2. The duty of parents to pay particular attention to the different dispositions of their children. Some must be ruled with great rigour, others with more lenity.
3. The young may here see that no worldly connections, temptations, etc., will excuse them in the neglect of religion.
4. The young are here cautioned not to abuse the grace of God.
5. Let the young be rational and discreet in forming their worldly prospects. (J. Lathrop, D. D.)
As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate unto Me Barnabas and Saul.
The completion of the apostolate
This act was no conferring of the apostleship by the prophets and teachers; the apostles themselves had received no power from Christ to do that. Both the vocation and its bestowal could only come direct from God. Barnabas and Saul were appointed to fill up the vacant places caused by the execution of James the son of Zebedee, and by the withdrawal of James the son of Alphaeus from apostolic to episcopal work, and thus the number of those bearing the apostolic mission was restored to its normal condition of twelve. The apostolic college always consisted of twelve men at a time, and therefore the Apocalypse knows only of twelve apostles as foundation stones of the holy city. (Prof. Von Dollinger.)
Deep, earnest thoughts have often stirred in me on bodily abstinence, as the condition of helping the spirit through the strait gate of opposing animalism, into the sweet and holy Paradise element. There is an element of which Jesus is the Prince, and there is an element of which Satan is prince. While we appropriate the elements of the nethermost prince, we may be strong in the powers of nature, but perhaps not so strong in the life that is hid with Christ in God; for in the exercise and indulgence of our fleshly appetites we do not breathe deeply enough to inspire the holy element of our risen Prince. Finding that deep and holy spirit breathing was suspended during bodily enjoyments, godly souls have often interdicted the gratifications of the flesh, in order to help their spirits in the God-ward direction. (J. Pulsford.)
Mission and commission
(with Timothy 1:6):--In words such as these we have a picture out of that earliest life of the Church, of which the books from which I take it tell the story. How fresh and vivid it is! What high enthusiasm, unhesitating self-sacrifice! We look at the mighty forces against which the first Christian disciples hurled themselves, at the spiritual torpor, the black hopelessness, the unutterable moral degradation to which they made their appeal, and we wonder at their audacity--or their faith! No hostility daunted them; no tremendous bulk of evil deterred them. They were on fire with a consuming purpose, and they did not stop, whether to measure their task or to discuss its difficulties. This, we say, is the fruit of a great enthusiasm. It always works this way, and it would be without results if it did not. Yes, but the moment we look a little closer at the story of this enthusiasm we shall see that along with it there was something more. It has been common to disparage the gifts of the first founders of Christianity, and to seek to make the more of its distinctive characteristics by making as little as possible of the men who illustrated them. They have been described as insignificant among the great of their own day; and measured in one way they were. But when we come close to some at least among them we cannot so easily disesteem them. One among them was chosen to be the leader among his fellows. Can anybody who reads the story of his life find it easy to believe that he had not in him that natural genius of leadership? The voices that have stirred the world, the messages that have thrilled and enkindled cold and discouraged hearts, have not been the voices and messages of fools. And does anybody suppose when the Church at Antioch fasted and celebrated its solemn Eucharist, and prepared to choose who were to go forth on its high errands, that Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, and the rest of them were there at haphazard? Out from these half-dozen men, more or less, were to be chosen two to be consecrated on that memorable day to a great and memorable work. Do you suppose that they did not seek for eloquence (if they could find it), for sympathy, for the quick power of understanding another’s perplexities, for that infinite hopefulness of human nature which, I sometimes think, is quite its finest quality? We may be sure they did. And no less sure may we be that when Barnabas and Saul were singled out from among their associates for the rare dignity of suffering and loneliness and privation in their high office, they were chosen because, among any set of men, and in whatever service, they would sooner or later inevitably have come to the front. Yes, but how were they singled out? “There came a voice,” etc. Whose voice was it? Were those men called thus to their high office by the high acclaim of a public assembly? For myself I have little doubt that before the Voice that spoke those few words was heard there had been heard another and more multitudinous one. That city of Antioch contained the first Church organised among the Gentiles, and it became in time the centre of those missionary activities by which the Roman world was evangelised. The prophets and teachers who began the work were supplemented later by Barnabas and Saul; end step by step in the simple story we may trace the unfolding of the organic life of the Church. There was an assembly first, and then there came to be the ecclesia--and it was this community of the brethren, it may easily have been, that, with more or less formality, first indicated its preferences, and pointed its finger of designation towards the men who were fittest and worthiest for the higher service of the Church. But this was not mission. That came into view when we read that the Voice which said “Separate Barnabas and Saul” was the voice of the Holy Ghost. It is not only “separate”; it is “separate Me.” It is not only for the work ye are to separate them, but “for the work whereunto I have called them.” And thus we come into the presence of that unique distinction which forever differentiates the enthusiasm of the disciples from all other enthusiasms. It was the enthusiasm of a new creation by the power of a Divine breath. It is the sevenfold power of God the Holy Ghost. Call it an influence, water it down to be a cult, disparage it as so much mysticism, verily you will have to tear yonder story to pieces before you can get that element out of it! Bereft of the mission and work of the Holy Ghost, calling, arresting, convicting, convincing, enlightening, transforming, empowering--the whole fabric of primitive history becomes somehow invertebrate, and crumbles into a shapeless mass of incident and talk. But a still further question remains. What was not alone the evidence or token of that mission, but its authentication? Was this the whole story of that mission--that certain men being assembled together, a voice said, “Separate Me Barnabas and Saul,” and that then those who were named separated themselves and went away, and henceforth did their work as men fully and sufficiently authorised and empowered thus for its discharge? On the contrary, there is something more in the history, which we may not arbitrarily leave out, and which is just as essential to its integrity as anything that has gone before. “When they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them,” etc. Certainly there is no obscurity here. Juggle with the words as one may, he cannot separate the inward call and the outward ordinance, the spiritual mission and the factual commission, the Divine empowerment and the human authentication of it. There is a way which is of God’s appointment; there is a ministry which He first commissioned, and which they whom He first commissioned passed on and down to others. Its authority does not come up from the people; it descends from the Holy Ghost. And, as in the beginning, its outward and visible sign was the laying on of apostolic hands upon men called, whether to this or that or the other service--pastoral, priestly, or prophetic, yet still to an apostolic ministry--so it has been ever since. We turn from this scene at Antioch to those memorable ministries that came after it. One of them stands forth conspicuous above all the apostolates of its age--unique in its energy, unapproachable in its heroism, incomparable alike in the power of its preaching and in the inexhaustible richness of its writings. What fine scorn there is in those writings for that retrospective piety which lingered regretfully among the beggarly elements of the elder order and ritual--what impatience of the latter, what bold assertion of Christian liberty, what intense ardour of spiritual enthusiasm! Yes; but what scrupulous respect for authority, what careful observance of apostolic tradition, what reverent use of appointed means. There came a day when St. Paul is to set apart a youthful son in the faith to be an overseer of the Church in Ephesus. How does he do it? Does he tell him of the work that he is to do, and then simply dismiss him to do it? Does he say, “Go, my son, and tell men in Asia Minor the story of your Lord’s love, and write me occasionally how you are getting on”? Not such is the meaning of that clear and unequivocal language which he uses: “Stir up the gift of God which is in thee”--and which is in thee, not by inherited cleverness, or acquired learning, or popular endowment--but “by the laying on of my hands”; or, as the same fact is elsewhere stated, “Neglect not the gift that was given thee … with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.” And thus once and again does this apostle of a spiritual religion guard against that disesteem of the outward institutions of the Church, without which history demonstrates that religion runs thin and runs out. (Bp. H. C. Potter.)
Church enterprises, how they must begin in order to be blessed
1. Not with worldly computation, but from the impulse of the Spirit.
2. Not with a premature shout of triumph, but with humble prayer.
3. Not trusting to human names, even those of Barnabas and Saul, but in the name of the living God on whose blessing all things depend. (K. Gerok.)
The messengers of the gospel, how they should be sent to the heathen
I. On the call and intimation of the Lord.
1. Those who send must be moved not by their own spirit, but by the Holy Ghost.
2. Those who are to be sent must be chosen, not according to the dictates of human prudence, but according to the evident marks of Divine grace.
II. With holy behaviour.
1. Those who send should fast, i.e., abstain from all superfluities in order to have enough for the wants of the heathen.
2. They should pray; the prayer of the sender cooperates mightily with the word of the preachers.
3. The messengers should depart with the imposition of hands; regularly ordained if they are to have an orderly ministry for the salvation of the heathen and the advancement of the Church. (Lisco.)
Church offices; their value dependent on the Divine choice of the Officers
The meanest office imposed on one according to the Divine call is worthy to be received: the greatest dignity is not worth running after. (Rieger.)
The first missionary ordination at Antioch
I. Why did the first missionaries proceed from Antioch?
1. On account of the flourishing condition of that Church.
2. According to the peculiar will of Divine wisdom.
II. The appointment of the first missionaries.
1. What men were appointed?
2. Their ordination.
The first foreign mission
I. Separated by the Holy Ghost. Missions are of Divine origin. Saul had been chosen for the work, but the Holy Spirit had finally to give the word of command and direction. With regard to these pioneers in mission work, note--
1. The Church from which they were called. It was a strong Church. It had a large membership, and men inspired to declare the will and instruct in the Word of God. Important as Saul and Barnabas were, there were those who could carry on their work after they were gone. The Holy Spirit does not ask any Church to cripple itself even for the sake of missions.
2. The circumstances of their calling. The Church was just in the condition to hear the Divine call. They were offering their services to the Lord, and God designated what their service should be. The Church or the man that offers all to God will be made use of somehow and somewhere.
3. How they were called. “The Holy Ghost said, Separate Me Barnabas and Saul.” Observe here--
4. Who were called. “Barnabas and Saul,” the two chief factors in the edifying of the Church at Antioch. The Holy Spirit chose the two best men, the men that least could be spared. It is a grave mistake to send out to foreign fields third or tenth-rate men. Few Churches ever have made the sacrifice for the mission cause that was made by the Church at Antioch.
5. For what they were called. “For the work whereunto I have called them.” The “uttermost part of the earth” was in the thought of Christ and of the Holy Spirit alike. Their oneness is suggested in the wording of the call.
6. How their call was responded to. Cheerfully and promptly.
II. Sent forth by the Holy Ghost.
1. The missionaries departing. “So they … went down,” etc. They were not only called by the Holy Spirit, but directed by Him as to their journey. That guidance continued, the Holy Spirit not suffering Paul to go into Bithynia, or to preach the gospel in Asia. Those who are called of the Spirit may trust to the Spirit for direction.
2. The missionaries at work. “They proclaimed the Word of God in the synagogues of the Jews.” They entered upon their work with wisdom--making use of the regular channels for religious effect. Where pulpits were all ready for them they did not try to find new ones. They tried to reach God’s chosen people first as a means of reaching others.
III. Rebuking by the Holy Ghost.
1. The two missionaries were to score one more triumph for Christianity as against paganism, like that which was achieved by Philip in Samaria.
2. The sorcerer overcome.
(a) Was inspired by the Holy Spirit. More inspired denunciation is needed, but there is already too much of that which is uninspired.
(b) Justly characterised the man. Elymas was “full of all guile and all villainy.” He made his living by fraud and trickery. He was “a child of the devil”--doing the devil’s work by seeking to turn men to destruction. He was an “enemy of all righteousness”--hating the true as much as he loved the false. He was perverting the right ways of the Lord, and trying to make them seem like wrong ways. For such men today there ought to be the same righteous wrath and severe rebuke.
(a) Terror. He was to feel the hand of the Lord upon him in judgment--to experience the power of God whom he had defied.
(b) Hope. It was to be for “a season” only. He was to have opportunity for repentance--to be blinded for a while that he might come out, if he would, into the marvellous light of the children of God.
3. The proconsul convinced. The prompt, punitive miracle “taught” the proconsul--
The first foreign mission
“Westward the star of empire takes its way”: and the same may be said about the star of truth. A new departure is now to be noticed in the policy of the Church, Propagation had thus far grown out of persecution; here is the first deliberate organisation--and that on behalf of foreign missions. Notice--
I. This beautiful picture of the Church in Antioch.
1. Strong people make a congregation strong. This body of disciples numbered among them a group of fine intelligent Christians. Besides the unnamed “prophets and teachers,” we recognise Barnabas and Saul, both brilliant, eloquent, scholarly men. It is not prince merchants, nor members of congress, nor fashionable women, that usually build up the piety of our families, unless they are devoted workers, and are constant in prayer.
2. Even inconspicuous Christians can be exceedingly useful. Nobody knows who Simeon was; Lucius received a message from Paul (Romans 16:21), but that is all that is heard of him. Manaen is not mentioned elsewhere. These are only a few among the plain Church members in Antioch--persons who often accomplish most for Christ today.
3. The missionary spirit is the first fruit of Divine indwelling in the hearts of believers (Psalms 66:16). It is not always the most vigorous Christians who are content to sit down and wipe their weeping eyes the moment they think they can read their title clear to mansions in the skies.
4. Those in high service may expect to be invited higher. These people were ministering to the Lord faithfully where they were, when the Holy Spirit gave them the chance of starting the first foreign mission in history. It is a pity that good men forget the chief glory of being Christians, which is to spread the truth swiftly and widely and vigorously.
II. This sudden appointment of missionaries. We shall find much instruction concerning evangelistic methods.
1. The Church should choose its best men for foreign missionaries. The great systems of infidelity are to be besieged by the finest generals the Church can select.
2. The Holy Spirit will tell such praying people whom to commission, Three times does this mention of the Holy Ghost occur. The high authority of the ministry comes straight from Christ; all the Church can do is to follow where He leads.
3. The missionaries should be well supported in each enterprise. Our Lord told His disciples to go forth two by two (Mark 6:7). There is great comfort in companionship (Proverbs 27:17). The most pathetic spectacle in this world is that of one foreign missionary in some distant heathen city. Paul never grew plaintive until he was alone. Elijah never lost his courage until he was alone.
4. Those sent out in prayer will be likeliest to return in triumph (Acts 14:26-27).
III. The account of the voyage and the general results of the mission. Let us notice--
1. Some of the successes.
2. Some set backs. It was to be expected that Satan would show himself somewhere. Things were getting serious for him: so he stirred up opposition from two sources.
The first missionary journey
1. “In the Church,”--how much is implied in these three words! Why this separateness of indication? Why not refer to the human family as a whole; the greater which includes the less? There must be some meaning in this society within society. Who ever speaks of society as a grand sum total of human life? The integer is broken up into innumerable fractions, but there is one fraction which says that it will and must become itself the whole number--that fraction is the Church. How many men does it take to make a Church? Two! Where do they meet? Where they please! What pomp and circumstance are requisite to constitute them into a Church? How much money? How much learning? None! Then they must be very weak? No: the side on which Omnipotence fights cannot be weak. Then they may be very poor? No! The side that banks in heaven can never be short of treasure. But they must have some place to meet in? Not necessarily. Under a tree will do, or in the middle of a meadow, or in the dens and caves of the earth. And the moment two men come together to constitute a Church, nothing further is requisite but the presence of Christ. The Church is composed of redeemed and regenerated men. They are one in Christ: diverse in everything that enters into the composition of humanity, yet one in Him who breaks down all middle walls of partition. Why do they not, then, “cleave unto the Lord”? When we pray we are one; when we speak to each other we are divided. Then why do we not pray, and let opinion alone? We have torn the seamless robe of Christ into innumerable rags! Christianity has now become a tissue of opinions; once it was a world-shaking faith. Pray on! Worship is the union of the Church!
2. “Certain prophets and teachers,”--different gifts, but the same subject. The prophet had a higher gift than the teacher; the teacher read a book that was written with pen and ink; but the prophet read a book that was going to be written. We have excluded the prophet from the Church; we call him “heterodox,” unsafe, not always to be relied upon; men speak of him with many parenthetic qualifications; they write about him with so many footnotes that the substantial text is reduced to a minimum. Yet it is the prophet that must lead us.
3. “The Holy Ghost said.” The Holy Spirit dwells in the Church; there He can whisper and touch gently the minds which He seeks to affect. Had we listened more, had we invited fuller confidences from heaven, we should have known that “the secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him.” The Holy Spirit must be our genius, our ability, our inspiration, our wealth. It is the function of the Holy Spirit to elect His own ministers: do not let us meddle with God in this matter. A. minister is not a manufacture--he is an inspiration! “Pray ye the Lord of the harvest,” etc. There our interest may well cease. Young men are not to be driven into the ministry; they are called to particular work and to particular places. The Lord hath a candlestick for every candle; He allots the place as well as calls the man.
4. A singular combination of the human and the Divine you will find in verses 3,
4. When the Church “had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on Barnabas and Saul they sent them away.” That is the human side. “So they, being sent forth by the Holy Ghost,” presents the Divine aspect. This was a joint work of the Spirit and of the Church. This is the solution of the whole controversy about the Divineness of our salvation and our share in it. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God that worketh in you.” So then we are fellow workers with God.
5. The two men sent forth by the Holy Ghost and the Church had their way made clear for them. God will take care of His own ministers. No minister of Christ in all this world but has friends. You may meet an Elymas, but you will also meet a Sergius Paulus. But the true ministry develops the evil spirit of the times. We sometimes hear timid people saying that this or that movement may be good, but certainly there has been a great deal of rioting on account of it. Wherever Barnabas and Saul are, Elymas will put in his claim, and there will be controversy in any town whose possession by the sorcerer is disputed by those who claim it in the name of Christ. We are disabled by timidity. Did Barnabas and Saul write home that opposition having arisen, they would return by the next boat? They were not given to returning except with victory, or to equip themselves for further Christian assault!
6. It is beautiful to mark how Saul takes his right position by a most natural process. Nothing can keep down a man whom God has appointed to the throne. There will be no controversy, for Barnabas was a good man, and he instantly knew where the power was, and he stood aside with the graceful courtesy which is taught and acquired only in the school of heaven.
7. “Then Saul” wrought his first miracle. He fixed his eyes on the Sorcerer, and said: “O full of all subtilty,” etc. Truly his speech was then not “contemptible!” Stung by fire, he turned into a mighty and thrilling speaker. That fire we have lost. We talk to Elymas in syllables of ice; we look at him with vacant eyes, he returns our unmeaning stare. We shall presently hear Paul’s first speech. Truly he begins in this chapter! He has been at home waiting, wondering, reading, thinking, and praying; and now his turn has come, and in this chapter we see his first miracle, and hear his first thunder, and know that the king of men has arisen in the Church! (J. Parker, D. D.)
The first missionary journey
1. At Antioch there was a very large Christian society. But, however large, it is always spoken of as “the Church,” and not “the Churches,” as was the case in Judea and Galatia. We do not wonder, therefore, at finding that there were several instructors, as was probably always the case. Variety of gifts, division of labour, adaptability for special service, a governing body, with other advantages, were naturally secured by this arrangement. In the present case it is very likely that each of the persons named was a man of some consideration and culture. God is a God of order; and however, in introducing into the world something new, men who are rude and unlettered may be employed, yet when things get into a condition that is to be permanent, then laws come into operation which belong to the ordinary requirements of common life. When you have not inspiration, you must have men who have original power and acquired knowledge, and cultivated faculty, which become “spiritual gifts,” fitted for “the work of the ministry and the edification of the body of Christ,” when they are sanctified by God.
2. There was something special about the exercises in which we find these men engaged. They were fasting and praying perhaps under the influence of the state of things in the persecuted Church in Judaea, and because there was a growing feeling amongst them that they should be making aggressions upon the world. As they fasted and prayed the Holy Ghost said, “Separate Me now, Barnabas and Saul,” etc. They had been called long before, and had been endowed with gifts and authority, but now they were to be solemnly set apart to go to their special “work.” They went forth, seeing perhaps the first step or two before them, but not knowing whither they were to be led.
3. In being called specially to set forth on a work of this kind, I do not know whether they were directed, or whether they were left to decide for themselves. If the latter, several circumstances and motives might have influenced them. Saul had been to his native place; what was more natural than that they should now go to Barnabas’s? And then the Church at Antioch owed its very existence to men of Cyprus. A sense of obligation to Cyprus, as well as the natural feeling of Barnabas, might determine them to go there first.
4. The first place they came to was Salamis, where they preached in the synagogues; it is not said with what success, unless there be an underlying implication of success, when it is said that “they had also John to their minister”; in which capacity, as Peter did not baptize Cornelius, and Paul tells us that “Christ sent him not to baptize, but to preach the gospel,” he probably assisted Barnabas and Saul by taking that work.
5. From Salamis they passed on through the island, to Paphos, but most likely preaching as they went. We have here, in vivid type, an image of that grand contest between truth and error which was then beginning--the age, with its inquiry and philosophy, looking on. First of all we have “a certain sorcerer,” the representative of corrupted Judaism and perverted intelligence. He has got a wonderful amount of knowledge from the study of the Divine Word and the science of the day, but he seeks to turn it to selfish purposes, and by false pretensions impudently pretends to be possessed of supernatural powers. This sort of thing was very common in that age, just as it is now, when some of the most gifted are to be found putting faith in communications from the dead--communications which never are anything that seems worth coming from “Hades” to tell! But, on the other hand, you have in Paul Judaism refined, elevated, purified--its prophecies fulfilled, its dark sayings illuminated, and the old faith developed into that high and perfect form of truth which is in future to rule the world. Then, in Sergius Paulus you have the age looking on. Sergius Paulus was “prudent,” most probably an earnest philosophical inquirer, who had seen the absurdity of idolatry, and the insufficiency of scepticism, and in search of truth was ready to welcome it however it came. He thinks he may learn something from Bar-Jesus, and therefore he listens. He hears of the other strangers, and he “calls for” them. When the two are brought together they are found to be opponents. Truth in the one instantly detects the lie in the other. Then there comes forth, at last, a manifestation of Divine power. Immediately there fell upon Elymas “a mist and a darkness,” etc. An outward and visible type of his spiritual state, and of the vanity of his pretensions! Instead of being able to be a guide it was his place to ask for those who might lead the blind. The intelligence of the age, in the person of the deputy, was subdued by “the power of God and the wisdom of God”--and thus he became an unconscious prophecy of what was afterwards seen in the Roman empire, and what will one day be seen in every part of the “round world.”
6. But now there comes a change in the language of the narrative. “Barnabas and Saul,” which we have always had before, now gives place to “Paul and Barnabas.” It is very singular that this change should take place just where this illustrious convert is introduced. It can hardly be thought, however, that Saul took the name of Paul out of compliment to the deputy. It is most probable that he had always had the name, and it came to be used in consequence of his becoming recognised as the Apostle of the Gentiles.
7. Passing from Cyprus, they went over to the continent, and got to Perga, and there Mark left them. We must not be too hard upon this young man. His conduct, no doubt, was very disappointing and mortifying to his uncle, and it greatly displeased Paul. He was inexperienced, and perhaps naturally timid. When he got to Asia, and saw the savage aspect of the country, heard of rivers and robbers, his young heart probably failed. Perhaps he thought that he was not called like Paul and Barnabas, and it is also very likely that his natural feelings towards Peter, his spiritual father, who was more to him than either Paul or Barnabas, had something to do with it. So the two men had, henceforth, to journey alone.
8. They travelled on; and probably the journey was such as to lead to the reference which we have in one of the apostle’s letters to “perils of waters, and perils of robbers, perils in the city, and perils by the heathen,” etc. At last they got to Antioch in Pisidia. There were a good many Jews in this city. On the Sabbath day they “went into the synagogue,” where they were recognised in the synagogue as brethren, though strangers. Their personal appearance indicated, possibly, that they were not ordinary men; or they had been long enough in the town to give rise to some curiosity. After that part of the service was concluded, in which the “minister” brought out the scroll, and read portions of the law and the prophets, the rulers sent to Paul and Barnabas, saying, “If ye have any word of exhortation for the people, say on”--expressing both national and religious unity, which made the Jewish people one throughout all the world. Paul began by addressing himself both to the Jews and proselytes, and then “reasoned out of the Scriptures.” Referring to the history of the people, he sketched it from God’s first choice of them, through their fortunes in Egypt and the wilderness, down to the time of David. He then came out with the statement, “Of this man’s seed hath God raised unto Israel a Saviour, Jesus.” He then referred to the ministry of John; the fulfilment of prophecy in the rejection and death of Jesus; and the fact that God had raised Him from the dead. After further “reasoning out of the Scriptures,” he came to the grand Christian proclamation:--“Be it known unto you” (verse 38). This was not the end of his speech, but it was the end of his argument; and the Jews who had listened up to this time rose up, were offended, and made for the door. Seeing them pressing out, Paul added the warning “Beware” (ye who are moving away) “lest that come upon you” (verses 40, 41). They went their way, but the Gentiles were left, and after Paul had spoken to them, the congregation dispersed. Some of the Gentiles, glad to learn what they had heard, with some of the Jews, accompanied Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them as they went along, and persuaded them to “continue in the grace of God.” What a week it would be that followed! And the next Sabbath “almost the whole city came together.” There were many of them who never would have gone under ordinary circumstances, and the Jews were offended. “Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold” (verse 46). When they turned to the Gentiles, every man and woman amongst them who had anything like religious earnestness in them in seeking after eternal life, “glorified the word of the Lord, and believed.” (T. Binney.)
Barnabas and Paul sent forth
The original destination of Saul of Tarsus, when he was called to the apostleship, was to the heathen--or, as we should now say, to a missionary life (Acts 9:15; Acts 22:17-21; Galatians 2:8; Romans 11:13; Galatians 1:16; Ephesians 3:8). The appointment of Saul and Barnabas to this work was an important event in each of their lives, determining their own future course. It was important as the manifestation of a more just view of Christianity itself; it was the first development of the idea which has since gone so essentially and so far into the civilisation of the world: viz., that Christian nations should send to the heathen a knowledge of that to which they owe their own elevation. The following points here occur as proper to be illustrated.
I. The barriers which hinder the spread of a new religion.
1. Differences of nationality. Where nations belong to different races--where their independence has been established as the result of wars, where they speak diverse languages, where they have different religions, where they have peculiar manners and customs, where they are rivals in trade, where one is warlike and another peaceful--all these, and kindred things, constitute barriers not easy to overcome. Thus to the ancient Jews the whole world was divided, “Jews and Gentiles,” producing in their minds the feeling that they were the peculiar favourites of heaven, and that all others were outcasts. Thus the Greeks divided the world into “Greeks and Barbarians.” In modern times, a similar instance occurs among the Chinese, who regard themselves as the children of heaven, the “Celestials,”--and all others as “outside Barbarians.” In a world thus divided, any new religion that claims to be universal must find serious obstructions.
2. Distinctions in social life--of rank and caste. These exist within a nation, dividing the rich and the poor--the learned and the ignorant--the bond and the free; or they are based on a derivation from royal blood, an aristocracy or a priesthood.
3. Diversities of colour and complexion. The class favoured with what they deem a fairer complexion, have not only sought to enslave those of a different colour, but they have been slow to believe that, even in the eye of God, a dark skin is not an emblem of a darker debasement than is found under a white one, and seem to imagine that even the blood of the atonement fails to efface the distinction, and to place them in any manner on a level. This is the most formidable barrier of all.
4. Separate religious beliefs. The idea still prevails that the religion of each nation is, by the purpose of the Creator, their own--designed like their laws, customs, climate, mountains, etc., to separate them from other people--a religion good for them; adapted to them; intended for them; and not to be changed for another.
II. The difficulty of overcoming these barriers. This difficulty exists--
1. In those who regard themselves as of the more favoured class. How difficult for them to offer to others the same privileges as themselves, or to admit that others are on the same level! To counteract this narrow feeling in the apostles required all the skill of the Saviour Himself; and after three years’ teaching it required a special revelation to convince Peter that he should go and carry the gospel to a Gentile.
2. In men’s unwillingness to receive a communication in favour of a new religion from one of inferior rank or condition. Who knows not what a mighty obstacle this was when the gospel was preached at Athens, at Ephesus, at Antioch, at Rome? How hard it is for a master to receive the lessons of religion from those whom he regards as slaves--a prince from one of his own subjects--a rich man from a beggar--a philosopher from one occupied in the humbler arts. With what contempt would a Brahmin turn away from one of humbler “caste” who should undertake to teach him the nature of true religion. The relative condition of nations has changed in our times, and the missionary goes out under better auspices. He goes now from a land of civilisation, and science, and art, to those lands where such things are unknown; yet still this difficulty exists. Take, for illustration, the Chinese. An obstacle exists in their case as stern as in the case of Athens or Rome.
III. The teachings by which Christianity triumphs over these obstacles. It declares--
1. That mankind are one race; the children of a common parent; on a level before God. No truth more vital, more far-reaching, more powerful in its bearing on human rights and human liberty, more potent in elevating man, has ever been proclaimed to the world. Revelation describes the creation of man as the creation of a single pair, and declares that “God hath made of one blood all nations of men.” The doctrine of depravity which it urges pertains to men everywhere, as derived from the fall of that one pair; and it makes no exception when it says that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” The Redeemer gloried in the title “Son of Man,” for He came not to take on Him the nature of the Caucasian, the Ethiopian, or the American, as such--but the nature of man.
2. That the work of Christ had respect to all men; and whatever there was in the atonement, as such, was designed for one as much as for another. There is no higher argument that can be addressed to men to prove their equality, than to say to them that they all have been redeemed by the same blood.
3. That the hopes inspired by the gospel are the same for every human being. When it makes known a heaven for one, it unfolds it for all. And it is a great thing to go forth to a world where men are separated from each other, and to say to them that, in the hope of immortality, they are all placed on the same level before their Maker.
4. That the way of salvation is the same for all. No one has any priority of claim by his rank, or enjoys any peculiar facilities for salvation by his titles or his wealth; and no one is excluded, or placed in less favourable circumstances, by his poverty, his ignorance, his servile condition. The prince and the sage are not more welcome to heaven than the poor and ignorant.
5. That all men are invested with the same natural rights to the light of the sun, to the tides, and the winds, and the stars; the same right to limb, and liberty, and life;--the same right to the air, and to the productions of the teeming earth, and to a spot wherein to sleep the long sleep when they are dead.
1. The gospel cannot be preached without sooner or later breaking down every false distinction.
2. Christians, admire and adore the goodness of that Universal Father who has sent the messages of grace to you, so that you are “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.” Our ancestors were heathens. The gospel raised them from their low condition. Be it ours to spread the religion to which we owe so much. Other nations have a right to it; and it would elevate them as it has done our fathers and ourselves. (A. Barnes, D. D.)
A place found at last for Saul
No place had been found big enough for Saul; Damascus, Jerusalem, Antioch--none of these could hold him. He had to go. There was that irresistible and expansive force about him. To shut him up in those rotten old cities, full of prejudice and artificiality, was like shutting up dynamite in an eggshell. Saul burst his fetters: he was beginning to feel his freedom. The world hunger took possession of him--the wide sea was before him--the future beckoned to him--the time was come and he had to go, and he went eagerly, elated, triumphant. The Church at Antioch probably heaved a great sigh of relief as he departed--they probably saw rocks ahead. (H. R. Haweis, M. A.)
The strength of missionary work
It consists in--
I. The call of God, which it follows.
II. The fidelity of the labourers, whom it sends.
III. The prayer of the Church, on which it relies. (K. Gerok.)
The best travelling attendance for a departing missionary
1. The Divine call concerning him.
2. The impulse of the Spirit within him.
3. The prayers of the Church behind him.
4. The sighing of the heathen world before him. (K. Gerok.)
Missions, home and foreign
A gentleman once said to Dr. Skinner, who was asking aid for foreign missions, “I don’t believe in foreign missions. I won’t give anything except to home missions. I want what I give to benefit my neighbours.” “Well,” the Doctor made reply, “whom do you regard as your neighbours?” “Why, those around me.” “Do you mean those whose land joins yours?” “Yes.” “Well,” said Dr. Skinner, “how much land do you own?” “About five hundred acres,” was the reply. “How far down do you own it?” inquired Dr. Skinner. “Why, I never thought of it before, but I suppose I am half-way through.” “Exactly,” said the Doctor; “I suppose you do, and I want this money for the Chinese--the men whose land joins yours at the bottom.”
Obligation of Christians to send out missionaries
A Karen convert in Burmah who was taken to America, and was asked to address a meeting upon their obligation to send out missionaries. After a moment of thought he asked with a good deal of meaning, “Has not Christ told you do it?” “Oh, yes,” was the reply, “but we wish you to remind them of their duty.” “Oh, no,” said the Karen; “if they will not mind Jesus Christ, they will not mind me!”
The duty of sending the gospel to the heathen
The possession of the gospel involves the duty of giving it to those who have it not. If the Jewish Christians of the apostolic days had not performed their duty in that respect, we should not have it now. Yet probably they regarded the Gentiles as quite as hopeless as we are apt to regard the savages of Patagonia. When in 1788 William Carey ventured to advocate an effort being made to send the gospel to the heathen, Rev. John Ryland, a venerable minister, reproved him. “When God pleases to convert the heathen,” said the clergyman, “He will do it without your help or mine.” But the son of that minister was one of the first to join in the great rejoicing when forty years later William Carey could tell of thousands of heathen who had received the Holy Spirit. The duty might involve difficulty, but he who loved his fellow man, and knew how much good the gospel would do to any who accepted it, would be anxious to preach it at any cost to himself.
Blessing sent to others
Loch Katrine, embowered among the highlands of Scotland, a poem in water, immortalised in story and song, till it seems almost transfigured with a glory beyond its natural beauty and charm, is yet the source of the water supply of the city of Glasgow, flowing down among the homes of the poor, cleansing the filth from the streets, bringing refreshment, cheer, comfort, cleanliness, and health everywhere. So to everyone who has the living water--and all the more if it is possessed amid wealth, culture, education, talent--is given the privilege of sending the living water in copious streams to the heathen, to the poor, to the sinful, to all who are in need.
Work of missions
I remember, when in Wales, seeing the men working in the quarries there. A man is suspended by a rope half-way down the stone quarry, and I have seen him there for a length of time boring a hole in the rock; and after spending much care and toil and time in boring the hole to a sufficient depth, I have seen him fill it with some black dust, and if I did not know what power lodged in that black dust I should say, “What a fool that man was to spend so much time in boring a hole in the rock, and then fill it up again!” But I know that that black dust is powder. There is a wonderful explosive power in it. And then when he has filled the hole with powder he has applied his fuse and lighted his match, and while the fuse was burning in the direction of the powder he has taken the opportunity of fleeing to a distance by climbing up the rope to the mountain top. Well, that is just what many of our missionaries are doing abroad. At present they are preparing the way. They are cutting a hole into the very rock of heathendom, and they are filling it up with the powder of Divine truth. What we want is fire from heaven to touch it. And God is doing it. He is preparing the people. By and by we shall have a mighty upheaving in this rock of heathenism and ignorance and superstition, and from it polished stones to adorn the temple of our Lord. (R. Roberts.)
And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.
History has contemptuously obliterated from her annals the names of countless kings, who have set forth from their capitals for the scourge or conquest of nations at the head of armies, and with all the pomp and circumstance of glorious war; but centuries after these conquerors are in their turn forgotten, whom she still deigns to commemorate, she will preserve in the grateful memory of mankind the names of these two poor Jews, who started on foot, staff in hand, with little, perhaps, or nothing in their scrip but the few dates that suffice to satisfy the hunger of the Eastern traveller. (Archdeacon Farrar.)
So they, being sent forth by the Holy Ghost, departed unto Seleucia.--
The port of Antioch, distant by land fifteen miles; by water, through the windings of the Orontes, forty-one miles. Built by the first Seleucus, it had by this time attained the privileges of a free city. Polybius described a very extensive excavation, which was the only communication between the city and the sea; and vestiges of its slopes and tunnels are still conspicuous. Two piers, the remains of its once magnificent harbour, retain the names of Paul and Barnabas. (Bp. Jacobsen.)
And from thence they sailed to Cyprus.--
The first missionary ship
I. Its bold crew.
1. The great Paul.
2. The noble Barnabas.
3. The youthful Mark.
II. Its fresh wind.
1. The east wind filled the sails.
2. The Holy Ghost inspired the teachers.
III. Its favourable anchorage. The renowned Cyprus, with its natural beauties and sinful abominations.
IV. Its great prizes.
1. The sorcerer vanquished.
2. The governor converted. (K. Gerok.)
The population of the island was largely Greek, and the name of the chief town at the east end recalled the history or the legend of a colony under Teucer, the son of Telamon, from the Salamis of the Saronic gulf. It owned Aphrodite, or Venus, as its tutelary goddess, Paphos being the chief centre of her worship, which there, as elsewhere, was conspicuous for the licentiousness of the harlot priestesses of her temple. The copper mines (the metal Cuprum took its name from the island), farmed by Augustus to Herod the Great, had attracted a considerable Jewish population, among whom the gospel had been preached by the evangelists of Acts 11:19. An interesting inscription--the date of which is, however, uncertain, and may be of the second or third century after Christ--given in M. de Cesnola’s “Cyprus” (p. 422), as found at Golgoi in that island, shows a yearning after something higher than the polytheism of Greece: “Thou, the one God, the greatest, the most glorious name, help us all, we beseech Thee.” At the foot of the inscription there is the name “Helios,” the sun, and we may probably see in it a trace of that adoption of the worship of Mithras, or the sun, as the visible symbol of Deity, which, first becoming known to the Romans in the time of Pompeius, led to the general reception of the Dies Solis (= Sunday) as the first day of the Roman week, and which, even in the case of Constantine, mingled with the earlier stages of his progress towards the faith of Christ. The narrative that follows implies that the prudence or discernment which distinguished the proconsul may well have shown itself in such a recognition of the unity of the Godhead; and it is worthy of note that M. de Cesnola (“Cyprus,” p. 425) discovered at Self, in the same island, another inscription, bearing the name of Paulus the Proconsul, who may, perhaps, be identified with the Sergius Paulus of this narrative. (Dean Plumptre.)
Cyprus and its people
Cyprus was by no means a reputable island: it was devoted to the goddess Venus, and you can imagine what her worship was, and what would be the fruitful licentiousness which sprang of it. It was the native country of Barnabas, and, as he was at first the leader of the missionary party sent out by the Church of Antioch, it was fit that Barnabas and Saul should begin preaching there. Landing at one end of the island the two apostolic men traversed it till they came to Paphos, where the Roman governor resided. Now, this Paphos was the central city of the worship of Venus, and was the scene of frequent profligate processions and abominable rites. We might call it “the place where Satan’s seat is.” Athanasius styled its religion “the deification of lust.” Neither men nor women could resort to the shrine of Venus without being defiled in mind and depraved in character. Yet it was no business of the apostles to stop away either from Cyprus or Paphos because they were the resorts of the gay and vicious; but the rather there was a special need for them to go thither with” the purifying waters of the gospel. The more wicked the locality the more need for Christian effort in that very spot. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Saul in Cyprus
1. Evangelistic work hitherto had been sporadic, the mere result of circumstances, or the prompting of spiritual instinct. The Church had made no direct effort to carry the truth abroad. But now Antioch has the honour of sending out the first heralds of the Cross. The vessel which carried them bore in the highest sense the fortune of the world. The two strangers were inaugurating a new era, and commencing a work which should be repeated, until every people shall have its sanctuary and its Scriptures, and the world bow to the happy reign of the Lord Jesus.
2. The evangelists landed at the nearest port, that of Salamis, which had a number of synagogues, while other towns usually had but one. It is to be borne in mind that numerous proselytes must have been in those synagogues, for paganism had greatly lost its hold, and the unsatisfied spirit of many sought refuge in Judaism. Such minds were the more easily impressed by the gospel, for they would find in it a doctrine that spoke to their inmost longings. A preference was given to the Jews. How could it have been otherwise? It was impossible even in the apostle of the Gentiles to throw off the attachments of blood and kindred.
3. Barnabas and Saul went through the whole isle as far as Paphos, a place infamous for its temple and dissolute worship. Here the gospel came again into contact with the magic of the East. Already it had confronted Simon at Samaria. Bar-Jesus--son of Jesus or Joshua, “was with the governor”--had attached himself to his court, and probably exercised no little sway over him as a confidential adviser. The proconsul had apparently thrown off the religion of his country, but had adopted none other. His soul was groping in darkness, scarce knowing what it yearned after. To a mind in such a state any doctrine claiming Divine authority is welcome, and the theology of this Jewish magician must have to some extent commended itself. It brought with it the unity and spirituality of the Divine Being--a refreshing doctrine to a mind wearied out with the very names of numberless divinities. But he was not satisfied, and the same desire that brought him under the power of Elymas led him to send for the preachers of a new religion. He could not be supposed to know much of the gospel, yet he seems to style it “the Word of God,” for it was in its character of a Divine revelation that he wished to hear it. It was not speculation or philosophy that his soul thirsted after.
4. The addresses of the evangelists produced a deep impression on the mind of the proconsul. The sorcerer could not suffer those impressions to be deepened. His selfish schemes would all vanish if his patron should yield to the teaching of this two strangers. So he sought “to turn away the deputy from the faith.” How, is not known; probably by sophistry and malignant insinuation. But so pertinacious was he and dexterous, that an example must be made of him; and Saul’s first miracle must be one of judgment on a spiteful and irreclaimable adversary. The contest was, whether Elymas the sorcerer or the truth of Christ was to have the ascendency.
5. Saul, henceforth to be named Paul, has been during this mission rising to a full conception of his apostolical dignity and prerogative. “The Spirit of God came upon him” to do a mightier act than Samson ever did by the same influence. Intensely conscious of his position and what it involved at that awful moment, and looking on the wizard with an eye that read his soul, the anathema burst from his lips. “Filled with the Holy Ghost”--armed with a supernatural power to chastise the incorrigible--Paul said: “O full of all subtilty”--a master of low cunning and ingenious retort. “And all mischief”--facility of evil-working. “Thou child of the devil”--not a child of Jesus, as thy name is--proving thy lineage by showing thy father’s spirit and doing thy father’s work. “Thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord?” Not only the gospel, but also the old dispensation, which he contrived either to give a crooked turn, that it might lead in an opposite direction, or made it such a labyrinth that none could find their way in it save such as paid him for the clue.
6. The apostle adds the terrible words (verse 11). This challenge was Paul’s first conscious putting forth of supernatural power. Strange that his earliest miracle should be one of doom--the infliction of such a blindness as in the moment of his conversion had come upon himself. That blindness was a symbol of Elymas’ spirit and work. His moral sense was blunted, and in attempting to sway Sergius Paulus, it was the blind leading the blind, while he needed to be led himself. His sin might be read in his judgment. His boast was of insight, but he was taught that he saw nothing. Infliction coming direct from God’s hand, often takes its shape from the crime. Ham mocked his father, and his doom was one of servitude, under which a father’s claims are ignored, Abimelech wished to add Sarah to his harem, and sterility was the penalty of his household. Israel, God’s first born, are kept in bondage, and Pharaoh’s first born fall before the destroying angel. Jeroboam put forth his hand against “the man of God which had cried against the altar in Bethel,” “and his hand dried up, so that he could not pull it in again to him.” When Herod accepted homage as a god, his godship “was eaten up of worms, and gave up the ghost.”
7. Paul had risen to the dignity and authority of his apostolate. He had a “power to edification,” though it now assumed a terrific aspect; and the deputy, awed and overcome, believed, “being astonished at the doctrine of the Lord.” He was awe-struck, and unable to refuse his assent. He could not allow the sorcerer to trifle with him any longer, nor durst he longer “halt between two opinions.” Thus judgment and mercy have been often associated. “Behold, therefore, the goodness and severity of God!” (J. Eadie, D. D.)
The first missionary intelligence
An emblem of all succeeding, representing missionary work--
I. In its manifold courses.
1. Externally, Seleucia and Cyprus, by sea and land.
2. Internally, to Jews and Gentiles.
II. In its severe contests.
1. With heathen vices--the worship of Venus at Paphos.
2. With heathen superstition--the Sorcerer Elymas.
III. In its blessed victories.
1. The powers of darkness are overthrown.
2. Souls are gained. (K. Gerok.)
Paul’s fitness for his mission
He was a Jew, well up in the literature and prejudices of his countrymen. That surely would be a great help to him as he passed from Jewry to Jewry. He was fairly well read in Greek, and tolerably fluent; speaking it, however, as a ready Englishman is apt to speak French, with a bad accent and a faulty construction, but rapidly, impetuously, and to good purpose. Greek was the passport language in those days as French is now. Then Saul was a Roman citizen--by that he saved his life more than once. And lastly Saul had a large heart, a great fund of humanity. This made him fit to treat on equal terms with princes like Agrippa, without being above slaves like Onesimus. Saul had, too, the restless enterprise of all Nature’s great missionaries, explorers, and conquerors. In the early clays he was extraordinarily rash and reckless, and always utterly fearless, regardless of personal comfort and suffering--a perplexing and somewhat difficult person to work with, no doubt. In controversy unyielding, but subtle and full of tact in trying situations, and with an abnegation of self at all times perfect. In person, according to tradition, Saul was short in stature, with perhaps a stoop, rather bald, with black hair early streaked with grey, and a full beard; a defective eyesight, and perhaps a slight impediment in his speech. “His bodily presence,” men said, “was mean, and his speech contemptible.” But his soul made itself felt. People soon forgot what he looked like when he began to speak. There was a charm about him that few could resist. Such was Saul of Tarsus. Not man’s conception of a popular preacher, but, taking him all in all, almost an ideal apostle to the Gentiles. (H. R. Haweis, M. A.)
And when they were at Salamis.--
The Greek capital of the island on its eastern side, the nearest port to Seleucia, at the mouth of the Perdicas, the largest river in Cyprus, a little to the north of the Venetian capital, Famagusta. Under its subsequent name, Constantia, given when it had been rebuilt by Constantine after an earthquake, Salamis had Epiphanius for one of its bishops. Lactantius reports, that human sacrifices were offered there periodically till the time of Hadrian. (Bp. Jacobsen.)
They preached … in the synagogues.--
To the Jew first
There is always a gain in touching others at the point of sympathy, rather than at the point of divergence. A lawyer who would win over a jury, addresses himself first to the one man who is clearly on his side of the case, rather than to the eleven men who are against him, to begin with. The wife who proposes to carry her own way quietly, starts out by agreeing with her husband at some point; and with that beginning she will have him agreeing with her at the main point, before she is through with him. There is sound philosophy in this way of working, and God’s plan is always the perfection of philosophy. The Holy Ghost led the first foreign missionaries to begin their work abroad in the synagogues of their Jewish brethren. The Holy Ghost would now lead every Christian worker anywhere to look first for points of sympathy or agreement with those whom he would win over or influence, rather than to start out by recognising, and battling, differences and prejudices, which will thus be made to stand as permanent barriers to an agreement, when they might have been quietly passed, and left behind permanently. (H. C. Trumbull, D. D.)
“They preached the Word of God”
Those Christians have done most service who have in every instance trusted the Word for the power of the truth in it. Dr. James W. Alexander put in one of his letters, near the end of his career, the statement that, if he were to live his public life over again, he would dwell more upon the familiar parts and passages of the Bible, like the story of the ark, the draught of fishes, or the parable of the prodigal son. That is, he would preach more of the Word of God in its pure, clear utterances of truth for souls. When the saintly Dr. Cutler of Brooklyn died, the Sunday school remembered that he used to come in every now and then during the years of his history, and repeat just a single verse from the superintendent’s desk; and the next Lord’s day after the funeral, they marched up in front of it in a long line, and each scholar quoted any of the texts that he could recollect. The grown people positively sat there and wept, as they saw how much there was of the Bible in the hearts of their children, which this one pastor had planted. Yet he was a very timid and old-fashioned man; he said he had no gift at talking to children; he could only repeat God’s Word. Is there anybody now who is ready to say that was not enough for some good? (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
They had also John to their minister.--
Saul and Barnabas were highly educated men. Mark was a friend of the fisherman Peter--young, active, a useful courier, no doubt, but not in his habits or tastes the social equal of his companions. From the first Mark does not seem to have been one of them. His heart was still at Jerusalem, his sympathies were Judaic, his natural friend and master was Peter, not Saul. He had his own work, but he soon found he was not called to the Gentiles. No, Mark! When you get to Perga and see those wild hills of Pisidia in the distance, when you think of those heathen cities beyond, those treacherous lone countries, you wont care to face them. Your mother is at Jerusalem, your teacher also is there; you cannot assimilate brother Saul’s strong anti-Judaic doctrines, just yet at least; you don’t share his contempt for ceremonies. You are a little nettled at one so new to the work (not one of the twelve) posing as an authority not quite in accord either with Peter or James, and yet habitually, and without question, stepping in front of Barnabas. Saul thinks you lukewarm. You are not exactly that. Nevertheless, you will “not go with him to work”--you will return to Jerusalem. Perhaps you are right. You have your own work; do it in your own way. Had you gone with those two you might never again have sat at Peter’s feet, collected his memoirs, written that priceless, brief, matter-of-fact statement--the earliest, the most authentic of the Synoptic documents--which was once called Peter’s Gospel, and which we know as the Gospel according to Mark. (H. R. Haweis, M. A.)
And when they had gone through the isle unto Paphos.--
Now Baffo, at the western extremity of the island, about a hundred miles from Salamis, on a rocky eminence about a mile and a half from the sea, with a small harbour, which at certain seasons affords no shelter from the prevalent winds. The city was restored by Augustus, after suffering most severely from an earthquake; but in Jerome’s time its site was covered with ruins. (Bp. Jacobson.)
Paul in Paphos
Or the preaching of the Cross in its power to conquer the world. It conquers--
I. The sinful lusts of the world. In the lascivious myrtle and rose groves of Venus, the apostle plants the Cross of Christ as the symbol of repentance, and of the crucifixion of the flesh.
II. The false wisdom or the world. The deceits of Elymas dissolve before the light of evangelical grace and truth.
III. The power and weapons of the world. The Roman proconsul surrenders as a prisoner to the Word of God. (K. Gerok.)
They found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Bar-Jesus.--
Prevalence of sorcery
The incident presents a true picture of the times. At that period impostors from the East, pretending to magical powers, had great influence over the Roman mind. The East, but recently thrown open, was a land of mystery to the western nations. Reports of the strange arts practised there, of the wonderful events of which it was the scene, excited almost fanatically the imagination both of the populace and the aristocracy of Rome. Syrian fortune tellers crowded the capital, and appeared in all the haunts of business and amusement. The strongest minds were not superior to their influence. Marius relied on a Jewish prophetess for regulating the progress of his campaigns. Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar sought information from Oriental astrology; Juvenal paints to us the Emperor Tiberius “sitting on the rock of Capri, with his flock of Chaldaeans round him.” “The astrologers and sorcerers,” says Tacitus, “are a class of men who will always be discarded, and always cherished.” (H. B. Hackett, D. D.)
Elymas the sorcerer
The word is Magos, the same as that used for the” wise men,” Matthew 2:1, but it is obviously used here in the bad sense which had begun to attach to it even in the days of Sophocles, who makes Edipus revile Tiresias under this name, as practising magic arts (“OEd. Rex.,” 387), and which we have found in the case of Simon Magos, the sorcerer. The man bore two names, one Bar-Jesus, in its form a patronymic, the other Elymas (an Aramaic word, probably connected with the Arabic Ulema, or sage), a title describing his claims to wisdom and supernatural powers. We have already met with a character of this type in the sorcerer of Samaria. The lower class of Jews here, as in Acts 19:14, seem to have been specially addicted to such practices. They traded on the religious prestige of their race, and boasted, in addition to their sacred books, of spells and charms that had come down to them from Solomon. (Dean Plumptre.)
Paul and Elymas
1. Among the chief enemies to the gospel in early times was the sorcerer. He was the degenerate descendant of the astrologers and wise men of the courts of Pharaoh, and Babylon. They interpreted dreams, explained the language of the stars, and had knowledge of the laws of nature. We can account for their ascendency. It would be easy, e.g., for the wise man to account for the cure of disease, by ascribing it to his power over occult qualities or evil spirits. A mysterious look would do much!
2. They were the Jesuits of antiquity. Their one object was to make all things work together for the glory of their order. The stars, the past, the future, the dream, the disease, the earthquake, the eclipse, were all taxed for their interest. All depended on making men think that they had influence over nature. Thus their power rested on a lie.
3. The light of the East was waning, the craft of the sorcerer, therefore, moved westward, and the Rome of Tiberius was inundated with them.
I. The sorcerer lives on from age to age. He belongs to no particular profession, he is in all. There is the sorcery of the political economy school; the magician of literature; the false prophet of science; last, but not least, worse than all, is the Church Magus, who calls attention to himself instead of directing it to God. To make use of the Bible, of sacraments, of heaven and hell, to terrify men into conviction of our authority and influence, is the essence of modern sorcery. The ancient used a star, the modern a cross; the old Magus availed himself of diseases of the body, the new of diseases of the mind. For one man to stand up and proclaim himself to be possessed of power or privilege not possessed by all, is to write Elymas in large letters on his forehead.
II. Yes! And the curse of elymas is on you! The gospel darkens and blinds this sorcerer, by showing what are “the right ways of the Lord.” The apostle disclaimed all power. He came to turn men away from man; to say that all were sinners, he the chief; that all must turn to God, from all false and hollow supports; and being converted from man to God, they became, through faith in Christ, priests--offering up their bodies a living sacrifice through Christ. And anyone who calls away the attention of the priestly people offering themselves to God, to himself, is a thief and robber. The glory of the gospel is that it gives glory to God only. “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom,” etc. The glory of the gospel is, that it points sinners to God, away from all human, secret ways of giving aid. These are the “cunning craftiness,” the “sleight of men,” which the apostle denounces; the “enticing words of man’s wisdom,” “the hidden things of dishonesty,” which he disclaimed. The doctrine of the universal Christian priesthood, of the one sole High Priest, is, therefore, Paul meeting Elymas. This it is most needful to ponder; for human indolence, guilty fear, and love of power are all equally interested in the support of the sorcerer ecclesiastic.
III. They are blind, both sorcerer and victims. How blind to think it a greater thing to make himself mysterious, than to be simply a channel of God’s truth to a soul! How blind to think it better to seem than to be! How much more glorious to break in on superstition with, “We are men of like passions with you,” and come to turn you away from idols to the “living God”! How much greater to wake men up to a sense of their priesthood, than to claim an exclusive priesthood which degrades them! There is absolutely, then, but one way of dealing with Elymas and his victims, that is to preach the whole truth of Christ respecting the lofty privileges of the sons of God. We cannot, if we would, strike the sorcerer blind. He is blind, blinder he cannot be; but we can proclaim the truth he hides. We can tell them that the only way to be sure of “the doctrine of the Lord,” is to receive and experience its gracious influence; that we preach “the unsearchable riches of Christ, to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery.” (B. Kent, M. A.)
Which was with the deputy of the country, Sergius Paulus, a prudent man.--
The first great trophy of the great Apostle of the Gentiles.
I. Taken from the midst of a hostile camp. A Roman, a man of power, a man of education.
II. Wrested from a crafty possessor. Elymas the sorcerer, as the representative of the falsely praised art of human sophistry.
III. As a permanent ornament to the apostle. Supplanting his Jewish name. (K. Gerok.)
A prudent man
In a worldly point of view, nothing could be considered more imprudent, than for a prominent man, in a Pagan empire, to recognise the claims of the prophet of Galilee, who had so lately been crucified at Jerusalem. Sergius Paulus ran the risk of losing, not only his office, but his life, and yet the Divine record describes him as “A prudent man.” The cunning, artful man is not prudent, neither is he always prudent who is most successful in the pursuit of worldly gain. Prudence is discovered in the preference which it gives to every object according to its relative value. And what better evidence can we have of it, than the choice of an everlasting portion in heaven, instead of being content with the short-lived pleasures of sin? How fearfully, in the great day of account, will the Holy Spirit of God vindicate this use of the term, when all other wisdom shall be proved to have been folly, and all other prudence insanity, except that which leads men too seek diligently for the pearl of great price, and when they have found it, to sell all that they have to purchase it! Are you acting the part of “a prudent man,” in God’s sight? Alas! in how many hundred ways has this point been brought home to the conscience of some thoughtless worldling, who is hardening his heart against it now! One can almost hear his imprudent resolution to delay, although he does not put it into words. A railway passenger observed three persons in the same car with himself, in three very different conditions. The first was a maniac, guarded by his keepers, who was on his way to an asylum, perhaps to spend weary years. Another was a culprit, in chains, on whom the iron hand of justice had seized. The third was a bride, gay and joyous, speeding onward to her new home, where a warm welcome awaited her. Thus are we all flying towards eternity; some, the veriest madmen, because they neglect to care for their souls; some, condemned culprits, for grievous violations of Divine law; and some, prepared for a Father’s welcome to the heavenly city. We all belong to one of these classes. Which one? (J. N. Norton, D. D.)
I. Its nature.
1. The cunning man is not prudent.
2. The worldly-minded, persevering for their own advantage in this life, are not prudent.
3. Conceit of our own wisdom does not prove us among the prudent.
II. Its sphere. It is seen--
1. In an insatiable thirst for useful knowledge.
2. In the preference it gives to every object according to its relative value.
3. In the subordination of the passions.
4. In foresight of, and provision for, circumstances.
5. In a willing subjection to reproof.
6. In a capacity to be silent on fit occasions.
7. In observing the fittest seasons for the improvement of opportunities.
III. Its means and motives.
1. Be it your concern to imbibe a fixed sense of its vast importance.
2. Consider the numerous evils sure to result from its absence.
3. Remember that prudence sweetens all the endearing charities of domestic life.
4. Prudence increases and facilitates the means of doing good.
5. Prayer and an intimate acquaintance with the Scriptures are the grand means of its successful cultivation. (G. Clayton.)
James I once said of armour, that “it was an excellent invention, for it not only saved the life of the wearer, but it hindered him from doing harm to anybody else.” Equally destructive to all usefulness is that excessive prudence upon which some professors pride themselves; not only do they escape all persecution, but they are never able to strike a blow, much less fight a battle, for the Lord Jesus. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Prudence, in its ordinary and most inadequate sense, has done little for the world, except to tease and hinder many of its masters. It would have kept every mariner from the deep, and deterred every traveller from the desert; it would have put out the fires of science, and clipped the wings of poetry; it would have kept Abram at home, and found Moses a comfortable settlement in Egypt. Beware of imprudent prudence; it will lull you to sleep, and bring you to a nameless and worthless end.
Prudence is that virtue by which we discern what is proper to be done under the circumstances of time and place. (Milton.)
Prudence is the art of choosing
He is prudent who among many objects can distinguish that which deserves the preference. (L. M. Stretch.)
Prudence is practical wisdom,
and comes of the cultivated judgment. It has reference in all things to fitness, to propriety, judgment wisely of the right thing to be done, and of the right way of doing it. It calculates the means, order, time, and method of doing. Prudence learns of experience, quickened by knowledge. (S. Smiles, LL. D.)
Prudence: its necessity for self-protection
The child who has only sailed his paper boat on the edge of a placid lake, might wonder what was wanted with enormous beams and bars of iron, innumerable bolts and screws, and clasps, and bars of metal, in making a ship. Ask the sailor and he will answer. He says we must be prepared for something more than calm days, we must look ahead, the breakers will try us, the winds will put us to the test, we may come upon an unknown rock; we must be prepared for the worst as well as for the best. We call this prudence. We condemn its omission. We applaud its observance. What of men who attempt the stormy and treacherous waters of life without having any regard for the probable dangers of the voyage? (J. Parker, D. D.)
Seeking for the truth
The position of Sergius Paulus was just this. On the one side were the spirit-stirring reports of a Divine message; and on the other, this false prophet plying all his subtle arts to discredit it. The situation is not an uncommon one. A young man often finds himself standing between his evil genius and his faithful friend, without very clearly discerning which is which, or wavering between the tidings of salvation and the spells of infidelity, and the question with him is, in which direction shall he turn? like a traveller standing where two roads meet, at the foot of a guide post, unable in the grey twilight of morning, to read it, and knows not which will lead him to his home. In the case before us, the deputy was a “prudent man,” i.e., thoughtful, having a spice of common sense; and therefore he “sent for the apostle,” etc.
I. The deputy, being in doubt, seeks farther light.
1. It is natural to suppose that some features in the reports which had reached him impressed him favourably, and that others were perplexing. Elymas, playing upon his old prejudices, would take care to exaggerate some and to explain others away, and to feed his Roman pride; but after all his arts were exhausted, the deputy still desired additional light, and determined to act for himself. All this suggests to us an honest mind. He does not rush to a conclusion; does not all at once swear by Bar-Jesus or by Barnabas, or even take a middle course, and dismiss the whole matter from his thoughts; but he determines to get more knowledge.
2. Now, there are many professed truth seekers in the world who vaunt their love of truth and proclaim certain principles with unflinching boldness. But they never go a step out of their way to catch the sound of any voice but their own, or of their own school. Their reading is all on one side; and their beliefs float along with the same tide as their worldly interests. But he who unfeignedly sets himself to the pursuit of truth, welcomes her in every situation and guise. It is not this system or that which he seeks. Truth is the pearl of great price, for which he is prepared to sell all that he has, even if it be found beneath his feet and entrusted with miry clay.
II. The deputy desired to hear the Word of God.
1. Barnabas and Saul did not come with a philosophy or a new theory. They claimed to speak in the name of God, and to be entrusted with His own Word, and it was this which the deputy was anxious, or, at least, curious, to hear.
2. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, for us to conceive the thrill of interest which the very phrase the Word of God would awaken in a devout, truth seeking, heathen soul, and yet most natural. The soul was made for God. In its fallen state it is unconscious of this. But when God is pleased to breathe upon it, it begins to yearn after Him, and soon finds the signs of His presence, but it wants to hear His voice.
3. Imagine, then, the impetuous rush of feeling when the deep silence is broken by the voice of God; or when only the report comes--God has spoken! But someone may say, but, after all, it may really not be the Word of God, but some specious fabrication. Possibly, for many false prophets had gone out into the world, as, e.g., this Elymas the Sorcerer. There was the possibility that Paul and Barnabas might be pretenders of the same kind. But suppose your father had gone to a distant part of the world, and after a long absence you were hoping for his return, would not every new voice, every reported arrival naturally excite the question, Is this he? And if the news reached you that a gentleman from a far country had arrived at a distant port, answering somewhat to the description of your father, how eagerly would you set out to ascertain the fact and to rush into his arms! But if the tidings arrived that your father had returned, though, after all, it might be a false report, yet how enthusiastically would you fly to meet him! So, in like manner, if you hunger after your heavenly Father, and anything comes in the shape of a message from Him, you will certainly determine to hear it. It may possibly, after all, not be His word, but you will hear it. There can be no harm in hearing it. It may be your Father’s arrival.
III. The deputy desired to hear the word of God at first hand.
1. It is always best to go to headquarters for our information. Judge not of any man, or system, or Church through the eyes of another, but look and see with your own. There must have been all kinds of rumours in reference to Paul and Barnabas, rumours exaggerating, disparaging, caricaturing, or falsifying. Now, there are many people in our day, and, no doubt, there were some then, who would have contented themselves with these flying reports, and would, perhaps, have helped to distort and to spread them. Or they might have made a selection, each taking up just those elements which were most congenial with his own tendencies. But the sensible man who wanted to know the truth would have done just what the deputy did--“sent for the apostles.” Pay all proper respect to the judgments of others, and open your ears to every voice which may possibly direct your way; but, in dependence on the guidance of God’s Spirit, examine and judge for yourself; for you are responsible for yourself, and you have your account to render at last to God.
2. But I would especially urge this course in reference to your own study of the Word of God. You desire to hear it. Then do as the deputy did. The Scriptures are in your hands, and you can read them for yourselves. This is the best school in which to learn spiritual truth. Do not be content with the mere assertions of others as to what is contained in the Scriptures; but like the noble Bereans, search the Scriptures themselves daily, to see if these things are so. But take care how you deal with them; not hastily or lightly caught by the sound of words, or the first blush of a text; not taking out of it what you have first put in, but making it your earnest endeavour to draw from it what God has intended to teach and nothing else. Before all things, therefore, invoke the Divine Spirit of light and truth. Then take the best help you can get, in order to reach the real meaning; compare one part of Scripture with another. This may be a toilsome labour, but it is gainful. Men do not shrink from the labour and dangers of mining. The Scripture is a mine, which must be worked with equal earnestness and hard labour, but with infinitely more profit (Proverbs 2:3). In this manner the Bible becomes its own witness, and proves itself to be the Word of God.
IV. The deputy having desired to hear the Word of God, was favoured with a wonderful display of its Divine power. But the Spirit of truth, here as everywhere, was too mighty for the spirit of lies. Here was the man who was going to enlighten others, himself immersed in darkness; he, who was going to lead all wanderers, is seeking someone to lead himself by the hand. There, as you see him staggering and groping about in bewilderment, how striking is the emblem of the dismal confusion of his soul! He had opened his eyes to stare impiously at the glorious Sun of truth, and its beams have blinded him. The Roman is astonished at the doctrine of the Lord, and, convinced by such overwhelming evidence, becomes a believer in the gospel of Christ. Observe--
1. That the form in which this Divine manifestation was made was one of power. This was the one thing which the Romans reverenced. They had little taste for the speculations of philosophers, or for the tenderness of poets. They were not fascinated by the arts, unless, indeed, in the creations of stately and massive buildings; but they were profoundly impressed with power. They had aspired, not without success, to be the masters of the world, and to give laws to subject nations. Sergius Paulus was a Roman, and had come with these proud conceptions to rule over Cyprus. A gospel preached by a few poor Jews, having for its object a crucified Jew, would naturally appear to him a weak and contemptible thing, which no eloquence could render worthy of his notice. But when Paul, speaking in the name of the living God, hurled the thunderbolt of His vengeance against an impostor, the pride of the Roman was subdued into a humility of wondering reverence.
2. That the power of God is here put forward to expose imposture and to unmask pretence. It was a false prophet who was thus smitten with blindness. It was the lurid light of cunning and lies which was quenched by the sunbeams of truth. The Roman ruler must have in this event recognised the awful presence of a God of purity, whose eye pierced into the inner chambers of the soul, and to whom lying lips are an abomination. And therefore he believed. If you will earnestly bring yourselves into contact with the Word of God, you, too, in like manner, will become the witnesses of its Divine power. But there is a mist and a darkness still ready to fall on those who, like Elymas, deal in hypocrisies. Beware how you stifle your hidden convictions, or disguise your real character, or deal in hollow pretence. (J. M. Charlton, M. d.)
Then Saul (who also is called Paul).
The crisis in Saul’s history and his change of name
From this point Paul appears as the great figure in every picture, and Barnabas falls into the background. The great apostle now enters on his work as preacher to the Gentiles; and simultaneously his name is changed. As “Abram” was changed into “Abraham” when God promised that he should be the “father of many nations”; as “Simon” was changed into “Peter” when it was said, “On this rock I will build My Church”; so Saul is changed into “Paul” at the moment of his victory among the heathen. What the plains of Mamre were to the patriarch, what Caesarea Philippi was to the fisherman of Galilee, that was Paphos to the tent maker of Tarsus. Are we to suppose that the name was now given for the first time--that he adopted it as significant of his own feelings--or that Sergius Paulus conferred it on him in grateful commemoration of the benefits he had received, or that “Paul,” having been a Gentile form of the apostle’s name in early life conjointly with the Hebrew “Saul,” was now used to the exclusion of the other to indicate that he had receded from his position as a Jewish Christian, to become the friend and teacher of the Gentiles? We are inclined to the opinion that the Cilician apostle had this Roman name before he was a Christian. This adoption of a Gentile name is so far from being alien to the spirit of a Jewish family, that a similar practice may be traced through all the periods of Hebrew history. Beginning with the Persian epoch (B.C. 550-350), we find such names as Nehemiah, Sehammai, Betteshazzar, which betray an oriental origin, and show that Jewish appellatives followed the growth of the living language. In the Greek period we encounter the names of Philip, and his son Alexander, and of Alexander’s successors--Antiochus, Lysimachus, Ptolemy, Antipater; the names of Greek philosophers, such as Zeus and Epicurus; even Greek mythological names, as Jason and Menelaus. When we mention the Roman names adopted by the Jews the coincidence is still more striking--Crispus, Justus, Niger, Drusilla and Priscilla might have been Roman matrons. The Aquila of St. Paul is the counterpart of the Apella of Horace. Again, in the earlier part of the Middle Ages we find Jews calling themselves Basil, Leo, Theodosius, Sophia, and in the latter part Albert, Benedict, Crispin, Denys. It is indeed remarkable that the separated nation should bear in the very names recorded in its annals the trace of every nation with whom it has come in contact and never united. It is important to our present purpose to remark that double names often occur in combination, the one national, the other foreign. The earliest instances are Belteshazzar-Daniel and Esther-Hadasa. Frequently there was no resemblance or natural connection between the two words, as in Herod-Agrippa, Salome-Alexandra, Inda-Aristobulus, Simon Peter. Sometimes the meaning was reproduced, as in Malich-Kleodemus. At other times an alliterating resemblance of sound seems to have dictated the choice, as in Jose-Jason, Hillel-Julus, Saul-Paulus. Thus satisfactory reasons can be adduced for the apostle’s double name without having recourse to the hypothesis of Jerome, who suggests that as Scipio was called Africanus from the conquest of Africa, and Metellus Creticus from the conquest of Crete, so Saul carried away his new name as a trophy of his victory over the heathenism of the proconsul Paulus, or to the notion of Augustine when he alludes to the literal meaning of the word Paulus, and contrasts Saul the unbridled king, the proud, self-confident persecutor of David, with Paul, the lowly, the penitent, who deliberately wished to indicate by his very name that he was “the least of the apostles” and “less than the least of all saints.” Yet we must not neglect the coincident occurrence of these two names just here. We need not hesitate to dwell on the associations which are connected with the name of Paulus, or on the thoughts which are naturally called up when we notice the critical passage where it is first given to Saul. It is surely not unworthy of notice that as Peter’s first Gentile convert was a member of the Cornelian house, so the surname of the noblest family of the Cornelian house was the link between the Apostle of the Gentiles and his convert at Paphos. Nor can we find a nobler Christian version of any line of a heathen poet than by comparing what Horace says of him who fell at Canute, “Animae magnae prodigum Paulum,” with the words of him who said at Miletus, “I count not my life dear unto myself,” etc. And though Saul most probably had the name of Paul at an earlier period, and that it came from some connection of his ancestors (perhaps as manumitted slaves) with some member of the AEmilian Pauli; yet we cannot believe it accidental that it occurs at this point of the inspired narrative. The heathen name rises to the surface at the moment Paul enters on his office as apostle to the heathen. The Roman name is stereotyped at the moment when he converts the Roman governor; and the place where this occurs is the very spot which was notorious for what the gospel forbids and destroys. Here, having achieved his victory, the apostle erected his trophy, as Moses, when Amalek was discomfited, “built an altar, and called the name of it Jehovah-nissi--the Lord my banner.” (J. S. Howson, D. D.)
Filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him, and said, O full of all subtlety and mischief.--
Sin and its punishment
Paul’s rebuke, of course, applies to the specific iniquity of Elymas, but with a master hand the apostle at the same time delineates the characteristics of sin in general. The punishment of Elymas is also typical.
1. Its subtle methods. There is nothing straightforward about sin; nor can there be: for were its nature and consequences clear, it would be universally shunned and abhorred. Its methods, therefore, must needs be crooked and insinuating. Evil is dressed up in the guise of good. The fruit of the tree was made pleasant to the eyes of Eve. So is it all through time.
2. Its mischievous effects. It debases the body, degrades the mind, debilitates the will, and damns the soul.
3. Its Satanic paternity. “The serpent was more subtle than all the beasts of the field.” The devil injects the sinful thought, guides the sinful resolution, helps the sinful action, and enjoys the sinful effect.
4. Its enmity to righteousness. Right and wrong are not coordinate powers which, like adjacent states, can flourish side by side and enter into peaceful alliances with each other. They are ever in irreconcilable antagonism, and the prosperity of the one is absolutely dependent on the destruction of the other.
5. Its perversion of the right ways of the Lord. This is the essence of sin. It is not simply negation, but perversion; and its highest achievement is to secure the acceptance of evil under the guise of good. Elymas, as a Jewish prophet, armed with the authority of a Divine dispensation, threw a spell over the mind of the proconsul, and endeavoured to use his usurped authority for selfish and villainous purposes. Wherein does he differ from the modern hypocrite?
II. Its punishment.
1. Its subtlety is detected.
2. Its mischievous effects are turned upon the sinner. He who sought to blind the intellect of Sergius Paulus is himself made blind. “Be sure your sin will find you out.”
3. The son inherits the father’s punishment. Satan is the prince of darkness, and his children are doomed to walk in darkness. The dark ways in which the devil leads his victims leads to “outer darkness.”
4. Its enmity to righteousness is met by the righteous God. “Though hand join in hand the wicked shall not go unpunished.”
5. Its perversion is met by perversion. “He went about,” etc. (verse 11). (J. W. Burn.)
Reproof: how a true servant of God uses his office of
1. Not in carnal passion, but in the Holy Ghost (verse 9).
2. Not with worldly weapons, but with the sword of the Word, by which he discloses the evil state of the heart (verse 10), and announces the judgment of God (verse 11).
3. Not for death or condemnation, but for warning and for the salvation of souls. (K. Gerok.)
The punishment of Elymas was
I. In correspondence with the transgression. He who blinded others is himself blinded.
II. Striking and convincing for the spectators.
III. With all its severity conducive to amendment by an intimation of the Divine mercy. Paul himself, at his conversion, had been blind for a season, and knew from his experience how profitable this darkness was for internal collection and composure of mind. (Apostolic Pastor.)
The exceptional character of the miracle
The miracles of the New Testament are generally distinguished from the Old by being worthy works of mercy. Two only of our Lord’s were inflictions of severity, and those were attended with no harm to the bodies of men. The same law pervades the miracles of the apostles. One miracle of wrath was worked by Peter and Paul; and we can see sufficient reasons why liars and hypocrites like Ananias and Sapphira, and impostors like Elymas, should be publicly punished, and made examples of. A passage in the life of Peter presents a parallel which is closer in some respects with this interview of Paul with Bar-Jesus. As Simon Magus, “who had long time bewitched the Samaritans with his sorceries,” was denounced by Peter “as still in the gall of bitterness,” etc., and solemnly told that his heart was not right in the sight of God; so Paul, conscious of his apostolic power, and under the power of immediate inspiration, rebuked Elymas as a child of that devil who is “the father of lies,” as a worker of deceit and mischief, etc. He proceeded to denounce an instantaneous judgment, and according to his prophetic word, the “hand of the Lord” struck the sorcerer, as it had once struck the apostle himself--the sight of the magician began to waver, and presently a darkness settled on it so thick that he ceased to behold the sun’s light. This blindness of the false prophet opened the eyes of the deputy. That which had been intended as an opposition to the gospel proved the means of its extension. We are ignorant of the degree of this extension in Cyprus. But we cannot doubt that when the proconsul was converted, his influence would make Christianity reputable; and that from this moment the Gentiles of the island as well as the Jews had the news of salvation brought home to them. (J. S. Howson, D. D.)
Seeking to turn men from the faith
Unprincipled white men have often been great stumbling blocks in the way of Indian evangelisation. An Englishman made his boast that he could induce the Indians again to drink; and providing himself with ardent spirits, he moved in his canoe over to the island where the Indians were encamped. Leaving all at the shore, he went up to the camp, and, inviting the Indians down, brought forth his bottle. “Come,” he said, “we always good friends; we once more take a good drink in friendship.” “No,” said Captain Paudaush, “we drink no more of the fire waters.” “Oh, but you will drink with me; we always good friends”; but while this son of Belial was urging them to drink, the Indians struck up, in the tune of Walsall, the hymn they had lately learned to sing--
“O for a thousand tongues to sing
The great Redeemer’s praise!”
And while the Indians were singing, this bacchanalian, defeated in his wicked device, and looking completely crestfallen, paddled away from the island, leaving the Indians to their temperance and their religious devotions!
An enemy off righteousness
Mr. Beecher once met Colonel Ingersoll, a great American atheist, and Colonel Ingersoll began to discourse on his atheistic views. Mr. Beecher for some time was silent, but, after a time, asked to be allowed to tell a story. On being requested to do so, he said, “As I was walking down town today, I saw a poor man slowly and carefully picking his way through mud, in the endeavour to cross a street. He had just reached the middle of the filth when a big, burly ruffian, himself all bespattered, rushed up to him, jerked the crutches from under the unfortunate man, and left him sprawling and helpless in the pool of liquid dirt, which almost engulfed him.” “What a brute he was!” said the colonel. “What a brute he was!” they all echoed. “Yes,” said the old man, rising from his chair, and brushing back his long white hair, “yes, Colonel Ingersoll, and you are the man. The human soul is lame, but Christianity gives it crutches to enable it to pass the highway of life. It is your teaching that knocks these crutches from under it, and leaves it a helpless and rudderless wreck in the Slough of Despond. If robbing the human soul of its only support on this earth--religion--be your profession, why, ply it to your heart’s content. It requires an architect to erect a building; an incendiary may reduce it to ashes.”
Seeking to turn men from the truth
A boy was impressed in one of Mr. Moody’s meetings. But his mother said he was “good enough without religion,” and threw her influence against Mr. Moody’s efforts to win him to Christ. She succeeded, and some time after Mr. Moody found him in the county jail. “How came you here? Does your mother know of it?” “No, sir, and pray don’t tell her. I came in under an assumed name, and am going to Joliet State prison for four years. She thinks I am in the army.” And Mr. Moody often heard her afterwards, mourning that her boy was killed.
Then the deputy, when he saw what was done, believed.
Two Pauls and a blinded sorcerer
I. Opposition to the faith.
1. Elymas “withstood them, seeking to turn away the deputy from the faith.” This is true the world over. The greater the opportunity the greater the opposition. The devil is ever on the lookout to defeat the servants of God and hinder the effect of truth.
2. But opposition is overruled for good. The intense opposition of Elymas only served to draw the attention of the deputy more intently to the doctrine of God’s Word. But more than this: when Saul pronounced upon him the solemn judgment of God, the proconsul saw that it was in very deed the Word of God. The blinded sorcerer, seeking someone to lead him by the hand, was a visible witness for the truth against which he had fought. So that the overthrow of the opposition made the victory of truth the more conspicuous. And this is always so.
II. Aids to faith. I have not called miracles causes of faith, for they do not cause it, although they may lead up to it. What Sergius Paulus saw did not make him believe, but it helped him to believe. What did he see, then?
1. The great courage of Paul. In another case boldness struck a blow at unbelief, for when the rulers saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marvelled. In this case the effect would be the same. Saul fixed his eyes on Elymas as though he were perfectly master of the situation--as indeed he was, and without hesitation or apology addressed him, “O full of all subtlety,” etc. Intense conviction in the mind of Paul led him to speak thus plainly and sternly, but it was not the heat of his own spirit, for he was filled with the Holy Ghost. Let every teacher of Christ be thus filled, and then let him speak boldly, as he ought to speak. Come not forward with your “ifs” and “buts” and “peradventures” to prove God’s Word. Tell out the message God hath told thee, as from Him, and not as thine own opinion!
2. God’s judgments. If Sergius Paul was deeply impressed with Paul’s boldness, he was still more deeply moved when he saw Elymas stricken with blindness.
3. God’s wonders of mercy. Conversions are the standing miracles of the gospel, the best attesting seals the truth can have. I knew a man who was of a fierce temper, a troubler to his own household; I have seen that man since his conversion, and the lion has become a lamb. We have seen persons revelling in licentiousness, but they have heard the gospel and become chaste. What has wrought this? What teaching must that be which accomplishes such marvels?
III. The source of faith. It is “doctrine,” or faithful teaching, which brings men to Christ. Let those who despise doctrine beware, for the doctrine of the Cross is only foolishness to them who perish. Under the influence of the Holy Ghost the plain teaching of the Word of the Lord leads men to believe in Jesus. I do not think it is any great good for a preacher to cry, “Believe,” if he never tells you what is to be believed. There is plenty of this kind of preaching about, and the result is sadly transient and superficial. If we do not preach the great doctrine of the atoning sacrifice, we have not put before men the basis on which their faith is to be built. Justification by faith and regeneration by the Spirit must be taught continually. The proconsul was, no doubt, astonished to see Elymas blinded, but he was a great deal more astonished at the doctrine which Paul preached when he began to tell him that salvation was not by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ; that the way to be accepted of God was not by presenting to the Lord anything performed by us or felt within us, but by laying hold upon the righteousness which Jesus Christ has wrought out and brought in. When he heard this good news he might well be astonished, and yield his heart to Jesus. The most astonishing thing in the world is the gospel. Come, then, and candidly study what is to be believed. If you desire to know God you shall know Him. The great Father is not far from any one of you. There is the light! It is not dim, nor far away. The fault is in your eyes if you do not see. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The conversion of Sergius Paulus
I. He saw. Probably no special stress is laid upon the seeing, yet the fact that opportunity was given him to see is worthy of emphasis. Had the Church of Antioch loved their own better than the things of Christ, the missionaries had been kept at home. If we turn over the opportunity of Sergius and examine its obverse side, we shall find written thereon a duty and a privilege. Paul, who felt it and obeyed it thus early in his career, later states it (Romans 10:13-15). The great salvation is provided for all; let it be carried to all. No violence is done human thought or the spirit of the gospel by discerning, in the proconsul’s opportunity to see, the Church’s opportunity to send. Paul came and preached, therefore Paulus saw and heard.
II. He was astonished. The transition from sight to faith is explained in the astonishment produced by the matter and manner of the doctrine of the Lord. Two teachers, each professing to possess the oracles of the Highest, had confronted each other with contradictory doctrine. The mind of the heathen deputy, unrestful and discontented with the fables of Roman mythology, must have been perplexed with these rival claimants for his faith and devotion. But the purer doctrine had the prevailing power, and Paulus wondered at the doctrine of the Lord, and admired it. Then came the proof that the story of Divine love was no bright fiction nor sweet poem, but a genuine fact and power in the world among men by the method of the teaching--persuasively to him who was ready to hear--judicially to him who was determined to resist. It could sue or subdue.
III. He believed. The simplicity and freshness of youth adorned and invigorated the gospel of that early day. The deputy’s mind was not perplexed by half a dozen kinds of faith, each with a technical name requiring special instruction to understand. The story of the living, personal Christ, what He had said and done, and what He wanted and waited to do, was the simple and unformulated theology of that earliest day. Sergius Paulus, in believing, was conscious of no such abstract process as that of accepting a theory or adopting a system. This might come afterwards; but when he believed he simply trusted himself into the care of God, he took Him at His word. The Roman proconsul became the Christian disciple; faith gave him a higher rank and a sublimer title. He had before represented the emperor of the world. He then represented the One “seated on the right hand of God.” The name “Roman proconsul” pales before the title Heir of God. (J. R. Danforth.)
Paul’s first convert from heathenism
When Napoleon landed on his return from Elba, and one man came and presented himself as willing to serve the Emperor, “Here,” said Napoleon, “is one recruit at least.” So may we say when we have converts, “Here is one recruit, and thank God for one; for the same attractive influence which draws one will draw multitudes more.” We have got the right medicine, we have got the right power, and therefore let us hope that there is a harvest to be reaped now. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The conversion of one soul
The conversion of one soul by the gospel should be to you a hopeful sign that God intends to convert others. For see, the cholera is raging in certain towns, say, on the continent, and a physician has been studying the disease. He has administered a variety of drugs, but in every case without success. He has prescribed different methods of treatment, but in no case has he succeeded in effecting a cure. At last he has hit upon the right drug, and, administering it, he sees his patient rallying, strength evidently given by the medicine; the struggle ends favourably, and the patient rises to life and health. “Now,” says the physician, “I know that I shall have a harvest of men who will be preserved from this disease, because the same medicine which heals one will heal two, will heal twenty, will heal a thousand, or even twenty thousand; it only has to be administered; that one person has been healed by this compound, and it is clear that as many more may be healed as are willing to receive it.” Brethren, we do not lack this sign with regard to the gospel. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Opposition helpful to the gospel
In all probability the opposition of Bar-Jesus may have called the attention of Sergius Paul more intently to the doctrine of the Word of God. When a certain doctrine is neglected and half forgotten by the Church of God there rises up a bold heretic who rails at the truth most bitterly, and then Christian people remember it, defend it, and propagate it. A Colenso attacks the story of the Exodus, and all eyes are fixed upon Moses and the tribes of Israel. Some critic or other attacks the Book of Deuteronomy, and straightway we get a host of books about Deuteronomy; all the scholars of the Christian Church begin to study it, and as a part of the Word it is valued exceedingly. This Elymas finds fault with the gospel, and Saul and Barnabas are thus called upon to clear up the points at issue, and by refuting the magician’s malicious errors they make the truth the more apparent to the mind of the proconsul. So far so good. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Now when Paul and his company loosed from Paphos, they came to Perga in Pamphylia.
Perga in Pamphylia
Because Perga was little known Pamphylia is subjoined. It was an ancient city on the river Cestrus, about seven miles from its mouth. The stay in it was very short, and there seems to have been no preaching till the return journey (Acts 14:25). Some of the perils from robbers and rivers (2 Corinthians 11:16) may have been encountered at this time. (Bp. Jacobson.)
And John departing from them returned to Jerusalem.--
The defection of Mark
We are not to suppose that this implied a rejection of Christianity. A soldier who has wavered in one battle may live to win a glorious victory. Mark was afterwards not unwilling to accompany the apostles, and actually did accompany Barnabas again to Cyprus (Acts 15:37-39). Nor did Paul always retain his unfavourable judgment of him (Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11). Yet if we consider all the circumstances of his life, we shall not find it difficult to blame his conduct, and to see good reasons why Paul should distrust his steadiness of character. The child of a religious mother, who had sheltered in her house the Christian disciples, he had been a close spectator of the wonderful power of the religion of Christ, and had been a minister of the apostles in their successful enterprise; and now he forsook them when they were about to proceed through greater difficulties to more glorious success. We are not left in doubt as to the real character of his departure. He was drawn from the work of God by the attraction of an earthly home. “Either he did not like the work, or he wanted to go and see his mother” (M. Henry). (J. S. Howson, D. D.)
The departure of Mark and the continuance of the apostles
1. Any one who turns back from God’s work does himself an injury.
2. The work will go on, no matter who turns back.
3. Those in the work should seek every fit opportunity to proclaim the Word.
4. Those in the work should seek the regular and appointed channels for proclaiming the Word.
5. Those who seek for opportunities for work will have opportunities given them.
6. Those in the work should make use of all their tact to make the Word acceptable.
7. Those who are earnest and persistent in the work, guided by the Spirit, will be successful. (S. S. Times.)
I. Consider, first, his--what shall I call it? Well, if I may use the word which Paul himself designates it by, in its correct signification, we may call it his apostasy. It was not a departure from Christ, but it was a departure from very plain duty. He was quite ready for missionary work as long as it was easy work; quite ready to do it as long as he was moving upon known ground and there was no great call upon his heroism, or his indolence; does not wait to test the difficulties, but is frightened by the imagination of them; does not throw himself into the work and see how he gets on with it; but before he has gone a mile into the land, or made any real experience of the perils and hardships, has had quite enough of it, and goes away back to his mother in Jerusalem, Yes! and we find exactly the same thing in all courses of honourable life. Many begin to run, but one after another, as “lap” after “lap” of the race course is got over, has had enough of it, and drops on one side; a hundred started, and at the end the field is reduced to three or four. And so, in regard of every career which has in it anything of honour and of effort, let this man teach us the lesson not swiftly to begin and inconsiderately to venture upon a course, but once begun let nothing discourage. “Nor bate one jot of heart or hope, but still bear up and steer right onward.” Some of you need the word of exhortation and earnest beseeching, to contrast the sluggishness, the indolence of your present, with the brightness and the fervour of your past. And I beseech you, do not let your Christian life be like snow--when it first lights upon the earth, radiant and white, but day by day more covered with a veil of sooty blackness until it becomes dark and foul.
II. Look, next, in the development of this little bit of biography, to mark’s eclipse. Paul and Barnabas differed about how to treat the renegade. Which of them was right? Would it have been better to have put him back in his old post, and given him another chance, and said nothing about the failure; or was it better to do what the sterner wisdom of Paul did, and declare that a man who had once so forgotten himself and abandoned his work was not the man to put in the same place again? Barnabas made a mistake. It would have been the cruellest thing that could have been done to his relative to have put him back again without acknowledgment, without repentance, without riding quarantine for a bit, and holding his tongue for a while. He would not then have known his fault as he ought to have known it, and so there would never have been the chance of his conquering it. God treats His renegades as Paul treated Mark, and not as Barnabas would have treated him. Ready, and infinitely ready, to forgive and to restore, but needing to see the consciousness of the sin first, and needing, before large tasks are committed to hands that once have dropped them, to have some kind of evidence that the hands are stronger and the heart purified from its cowardice and its selfishness. Let us learn the difference between a weak charity which loves too foolishly, and therefore too selfishly, to let a man inherit the fruit of his doings, and the large mercy which knows how to take the bitterness out of the chastisement, and yet knows how to chastise. Mark’s eclipse may teach us another lesson, viz., that the punishment for shirking work is to be denied work. You have been asked to work--I speak now to professing Christians--duties have been pressed upon you, fields of service have opened plainly before you, and you have not had the heart to go into them. And so you stand idle all the day now, and the work goes to other people that can do it. And God honours them, and passes you by. Mark goes away to Cyprus, he does not go back to Jerusalem; he and Barnabas try to get up some little schismatic sort of mission of their own. Nothing comes of it; nothing ought to have come of it. He drops out of the story; he has no share in the joyful conflicts and sacrifices and successes of the apostle. The punishment of indolence is absolute idleness. Beware! all of you professing Christians, lest to you should come the fate of the slothful servant with his one buried talent, to whom the punishment of burying it unused was to lose it altogether; according to that solemn word fulfilled in the temporal sphere of this story, on which I am commenting. “To him that hath shall be given,” etc.
III. Again, consider the process of recovery. Concerning it we read nothing indeed in Scripture; but concerning it we know enough to be able at least to determine what its outline must have been. There is only one road, with well-marked stages, by which a backsliding or apostate Christian can return to his Master. And that road has three halting places upon it, through which our heart must pass if it have wandered from its early faith, and falsified its first professions. The first of them is the consciousness of the fall; the second is the resort to the Master for forgiveness; and the last is the deepened consecration to Him. No man that wanders into the wilderness but comes back to the King’s highway, if he comes back at all.
IV. And so, lastly, notice the reinstatement of the penitent renegade. Notwithstanding the failure, notwithstanding the wise refusal of Paul to have nothing to do with him years before, he is reinstated in his old office, and the aged apostle before he dies would like to have the comfort of his presence once more at his side. Is not the lesson out of that, this eternal gospel, that even early failures, recognised and repented of, may make a man better fitted for the tasks which once he fled from? Just as they tell us--I do not know whether it is true or not, it will do for an illustration--just as they tell us that a broken bone renewed is stronger at the point of fracture than it ever was before, so the very sin that we commit, when once we know it for a sin, and have brought it to Christ for forgiveness, may minister to our future efficiency and strength. The sin which we have learned to know for a sin and to hate, teaches us humility, dependence, shows us where the weak places are; sin which is forgiven knits us to Christ with deeper and more fervid love, and results in a larger consecration. Think of the two ends of this man’s life--flying like a frightened hare from the very first suspicion of danger or of difficulty, sulking in his solitude, apart from all the joyful stir of consecration and of service; and at the end of it made an evangelist to proclaim to the whole world the story of the gospel of the servant. God works with broken reeds, and through them breathes His sweetest music. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Abandonment of missionary work
Felix Carey, a nephew of the great Dr. Carey, the Indian missionary, was, like his uncle, devoted to missionary life. He abandoned his sacred calling, however, to become an ambassador to the court of Burmah. Speaking of the change, Dr. Carey said, “Felix was a missionary, but he is now shrivelled up to an ambassador.” (W. Walters.)
They came to Antioch in Pisidia.--
Antioch in Pisidia
Seleucus Nicanor is said to have built nine cities to which he gave his own name, Seleucia, and sixteen which he called after his father Antiochus. Amongst these are the Syrian and the Pisidian Antioch. Six others were called Laodicea, after his mother, and at least one after Apamea, his wife. This recurrence of the same name is a cause of some confusion when considering either the geography or history of this part of Asia. Antioch in Pisidia is situated on a table land of a ridge of hills on the confines of Pisidia and Phrygia, to which latter province it is sometimes, but inaccurately, reckoned to belong. It lies north of Perga, and east of Apollonia, and the roads which radiated from it in every direction made it a port of considerable importance, commercial as well as military. The city was originally founded by Magnetes, and subsequently refounded by Seleucus. It was, however, of little importance until Augustus made it a Colonia, and a free city with the Jus Italicum, from which circumstance it is sometimes called Antiochea Caesarea. Until that time it was distinguished for the worship of the moon, as a male deity, and large numbers of priests were supported by the rich endowments belonging to the temple at this place. The population was a very mixed one, with a larger amount of the Latin element than was usual in the cities of Asia Minor. The Jews were probably not numerous, as we only read of the synagogue, not, as at Salamis and other places, in the plural. It is referred to in the New Testament, in Acts 13:14; Acts 14:19-21; 2 Timothy 3:11. Many of the inscriptions and coins belonging to the Pisidian Antioch are for this reason in Latin. This city is now entirely deserted, and its site, having been long unknown, has only been rediscovered in modern times. (W. Denton, M. A.)
The continental mission
I. The Word accepted.
1. Giving up the work. The return of Mark very much displeased Paul. In his eyes a deserter was worse than an enemy; no man having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, was fit ever again to be taken into such service. Hence, when Barnabas would have given him another trial, Paul would not consent. But Barnabas was right. His kindly nature was better than the stern, uncompromising disposition of Paul. Barnabas was “a good man,” his goodness leading him to lean toward the erring. Under his training and influence Mark recovered the character he had lost, so that at last Paul himself said, “He is useful to me for the ministering.” In his dealing with Mark, Barnabas again proved his right to the title, “Son of Consolation.”
2. Going on with the work. It was a small force, numerically, that moved upon the intrenched idolatrous hosts of Asia Minor. By the desertion of Mark, the army of three had been reduced one-third. But the soldiers of Christ are not to be estimated by their numbers, but by the personality in and back of them--the Holy Spirit.
3. The opportunity for work. They followed the course pursued by their Master before them. They reverenced the Sabbath, and had regard for its institutions. They so commended themselves by this, and by their devout behaviour, as to receive from the rulers the invitation, “Brethren, if ye have any word of exhortation, say on.” The result was a surprise to those who gave it. A word of exhortation was given, the like of which they never had heard before. What they heard was to them a revelation.
(a) That Jesus’ advent was prophetically preannounced by John, His forerunner (verses 24, 25).
(b) That Jesus rose from the dead (verses 26-37). After reciting how the Messiah was slain, Paul proved His resurrection, first, by the fact that He was seen of chosen witnesses; second, by quotations from the Psalms, which showed that this resurrection was nothing more than a fulfilment of the promise made unto the fathers.
4. The fruit of the work. The address of Paul--
II. The Word rejected.
1. The bold word (verse 46). They were not cowed by the opposition. They had within them a moral courage, born of the Spirit and of a conviction of right, that made them more than a match for their opponents. Bold words, uttered under such circumstances, make revolutions in opinions.
2. The spoken word. The Divine order was Jews first, then Gentiles. The Jews were the natural sons of the household, and therefore had the first right to the Father’s proclamation of a new inheritance for all of His children.
3. The word thrust away. Note--
4. The word of command (verse 47). The redemption of the Gentiles was no new addition to the plan of salvation. From the beginning God intended that those who sat in darkness should see a great light. His eye was fixed upon “the uttermost part of the earth,” as well as upon the land of the covenant.
5. The word glorified (verse 48). They proved themselves to be worthy of eternal life, for many believed, “and the Word of the Lord was spread abroad throughout all the region.”
III. The Word persecuted. Note--
1. The unbelieving Jews. They demonstrated that they were unworthy of eternal life by conducting themselves as though inspired by the evil one.
2. The believing disciples. “The disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Ghost.” The persecutors, on the contrary, were filled with jealousy and with hate. They succeeded in driving away Paul and Barnabas, but the apostles left behind them a peace and joy that could not be banished. The missionaries were expelled, but the gospel had come to stay. (M. C. Hazard.)
And went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and sat down.--
Paul at Antioch
In these verses there are many inferential lessons: e.g., verse 26. We are not to cast our pearls before swine; it was to those who feared God that Paul spoke of the great salvation. To him that hath shall be given; those who fear God shall be led to the knowledge of His truth. Verse 27. Ignorance is a frequent cause of crime; hence the importance of educational effort. It is possible for us to misunderstand the things with which we are most familiar. How little we know of the tendencies of our actions; they may actually accomplish the very opposite of what we intended. Verse 28. A blameless life will not necessarily exempt from hatred and persecution. Hatred is irrational; let us be on our guard against its perverting influences. Verse 29. There is a limit to all that men can do to us, and it is soon reached. Verse 34. The men of the greatest influence and activity soon reach the end of their course and pass away; only Christ remains the same efficient power in all generations. Note here--
I. Paul’s method of preaching the gospel to the Jews. He urged them to accept it because--
1. In Christ were fulfilled the promises made to their fathers. This Paul used to establish by copious quotations from the Old Testament, his object being always to prove that Jesus was not the founder of a new religion, but the Messiah of whom the prophets had spoken.
2. The ignorance and wickedness of the Jewish rulers had led to the accomplishment of predictions that could not otherwise have been fulfilled.
3. By the resurrection of Christ God had completely reversed this condemnation by men.
4. Christ confers on them who believe on Him greater blessings than could be obtained from the Mosaic law.
II. Lessons to be learned from this method.
1. Let us endeavour to conciliate those whom we seek to convert.
2. Let us make Christ the central theme of our teaching.
3. In our presentation of Christ and all truth, let us adapt ourselves to our hearers. What a contrast between this address and that on Mars Hill!
4. Yet no fear of offending the prejudices of our hearers must lead us to keep back any portion of the truth.
5. While always maintaining the spirit of love, let us not hesitate, if need be, to persuade our hearers by the terrors of the Lord. (R. A. Bertram.)
Paul at Antioch
I. He brought a great message. It was not an ingenious development of a trivial theme. No doubt the account of the sermon is only the merest outline, but it calls to a living interest in the few great themes of the gospel. A true religious knowledge is not an infinite number of anatomical bits of information about the Bible. He whose heart and mind are filled with the thoughts of God’s sovereignty, and Christ’s redemption and the resurrection life, has a true knowledge of the revelation. Other things are important only as they throw light on these.
II. He reinforced his message by the power of his own intense conviction. He was not half persuaded merely of the truth he preached. It was a message to the utterance of which he had given his life, upon the truth of which he had staked his own destiny.
III. The gospel message thus brought to Antioch revealed the hearts of her citizens.
1. The Jews Were narrow, unteachable, holding what truth they had in unrighteousness: they judged themselves “unworthy of eternal life.”
2. The Gentiles awakened to a transient interest in a new religion, in their sudden excitement betokened their lack of thought and earnestness in receiving the grace of God. They were the “stony-ground” hearers.
3. The “devout women of honourable estate” were able to influence the municipal authorities, and to stir up persecution against the apostles. In so doing, they passed judgment upon themselves, separating themselves from the greater number of “honourable women,” who elsewhere greatly aided the apostles in their labours.
4. The Roman authorities, tolerant of the Jewish religion because careless about all religion; deprecating excitements, solicitous for peace; easily persuaded, for the sake of quiet, to banish the disturbers--their irreligious nature is disclosed to us. Thus the gospel revealed the hearts of all. It compelled all to take sides. And so now men cannot come into the full light of the gospel without showing what manner of men they are.
IV. The message not only revealed character--it formed character. God’s Word does not leave men as it finds them. The gospel has power to quicken the conscience; but when the clearer voice of conscience is disobeyed, estrangement from God is deepened. More evident and remarkable was its transforming power upon those that believed. They were “filled with joy and with the Holy Ghost.”
V. The opposition of the Jews to the message suggests that there is a limit to responsibility for the proclamation of the gospel at given times and places. Having clearly set before the Jews the claims of the gospel, Paul had discharged his obligation (verse 46). Every man who has learned from the gospel what the state of the natural heart is, and what the power is by which God renews the heart, and what the channel is through which Divine grace comes to men, has learned enough to be fully accountable for his own salvation. To him the Church has performed her mission and discharged her obligation. When she has set before you the gift of God, which ix eternal life, you must judge yourself worthy or unworthy of it.
VI. The gospel brings abiding and increasing blessings to those who receive it (verse 52). The persecution of Paul and Barnabas did not shake their faith. By the presence of the Holy Ghost they were freed from shame and fear, and filled with joyous hope. (W. G. Sperry.)
Paul’s first, recorded speech
1. Paul and Barnabas did not violently separate themselves from old traditions and religious companionships. The Christian is not the enemy of the Jew; he owes everything precious in his civilisation and in his hope to the Jew. There was a custom in the synagogue which we have not in the church. The rulers of the synagogue, noticing distinguished persons in the audience, would invite them to address the assembly. In the olden time they believed that the Word was its own defence, that the fire of the Lord would disinfect whatever it touched, and that to be in the synagogue was to be deeply religious, and loyal to the spirit of the house. These things have all changed. Men can be in the Christian church in an unchristian spirit. The mere verbalist, yes, and even the mocker, may find his way into the church, and be only too glad to have an opportunity to contradict what he did not understand. The usual challenge having been given, Paul stood up. That was an event in history. In that brief sentence you have the beginning of a battle which was concluded with these words--“I have fought a good fight,” etc. Paul did not stand up by himself. Men are lifted up. Every action of the loyal life is an action of inspiration. The good man lays no plans, and makes no arrangements which can exclude the sudden and incalculable inspiration of God.
2. This is Paul’s first recorded speech. I like to be present at beginnings. There is a subtle, tender mysterious joy about planting roots and sowing seed, covering it up and leaving it in the darkness; then what a surprise it is to come back in due time and find the green lancet puncturing the soil and coming up to look at the light it has been groping for all the while! Sometimes our first speeches were very poor because they were our own. We made them, wrote them out, graved them upon the unwilling memory, and they were like something put on, not growing out; and so we begged our friends, who were unhappy enough to be able to quote some portions of them, to forget them if they could! But the first speeches of the Christian defender were incapable of improvement. They were as complete as the fiat of God which said--“Let there be light: and there was light.”
3. Paul based his apology on the model of Stephen. We cannot tell of what elements our life is made up. It is no one shower of rain that makes the summer green. We are gathering from every point all day long. Paul was no student of rhetoric when he listened to Stephen; but Stephen’s speech, like all vital speech, got into the man, and became part of his intellectual and spiritual life. Paul began as Stephen did, with a narrative of Jewish history. To their credit be it spoken, the Jews were never tired of hearing their own history. Are we patient under the citation of the facts which make up our history? We cannot live in sentiment. You cannot build a castle in the air that you can live in; it must be founded upon rock, however high up into the air you may carry it. This was the great law of Jewish eloquence and Jewish appeal, basing the whole argument upon the rock of undisputed history. Do not some of us occasionally say, “Tell me the old, old story of Jesus and His love”?--therein we are partly Jewish--that is our story! As the Jews began from the formation of themselves as a people, we begin at Bethlehem, and in proportion as we are in the right spirit and temper, we are never tired of hearing the old, old story.
4. Notice in this speech what we may call Paul’s grip of God. I know not any speech of the same length in which the sacred word occurs so frequently. The factor we have omitted from our sermons is only--God! We are afraid or ashamed of His name; we pronounce it hesitatingly, mincingly, timidly. Paul did not use it so; he hurled it like a thunderbolt; he measured everything by that grand standard. All through history he saw a Figure after the similitude of God. You can dislodge a man from any position but that.
5. As we find Stephen’s character in Stephen’s apology, so we may find Paul’s character in Paul’s exposition. Mark his courtesy. He was no rough intruder, but a gentleman born, and indestructible all through and through, polite, refined, courteous, gentlemanly. His tact is most wonderful; he notices how the assembly is made up--he is a poor speaker who takes no note of his hearers. Paul saw not only the Jews, but the Greeks and proselytes, who, wearied with the absurdities of polytheism, had come to believe there was one God, a spiritual, invisible, eternal God! So Paul accosted both classes, “Men of Israel”--always distinguishable, never to be confounded with others--“and ye that fear God”--converted from mythology to true spirituality of thought--“give audience.” How delicately he puts the case in verse 27!
6. How wondrously Paul introduced the right way of quoting Scripture! There is hardly a quotation which he makes here which is not a double or a treble quotation turned into one: e.g., verse 22 cannot be found in the Old Testament; it is at least three passages made into one. It is all in the Bible, but is in no one place in the Scripture. He does not quote the Bible who quotes mere texts. The Bible is larger than any one text that is in it. There is a spirit of collocation and a spirit of quotation, a Bible spirit that can bring from east, west, north, and south lines that shall focalise in one intense and dazzling glory.
7. Paul’s voice surely had a quiver in it which no reporter could catch--for in reports we do not get the tonic colour and force of speech--when he said, “God gave unto them Saul,” etc. (J. Parker, D. D.)
Paul’s first reported sermon
Note three great facts which he was anxious to impress on their attention.
I. That their Scriptures, which exhibited God’s special kindness to them as a people, contained the promise of a Messiah. After reminding them of certain striking facts in their history, showing how wondrously kind God had been to them as a people, extending from verses 17 to 21, he directs them at once to the great prophetic truth that there was, according to their Scriptures to, come a Messiah. He states--
1. That David was to be the progenitor of that Messiah (verses 22, 23).
2. That John the Baptist, one of the greatest prophets of their age, was to be His forerunner (verses 24, 25). This fact, namely, that their Scriptures pointed to a Messiah, they would be prepared, of course, readily to admit. Hence he proceeds to another fact arising out of this which would not be so easily admitted.
II. That the Messiah predicted by their Scriptures had actually appeared on the earth (verse 26). He states facts that occurred in the history of the Messiah while here.
1. That He was crucified and buried according to their Scriptures (verses 27-29). In their Scriptures they would find an account of just the treatment He actually met with on the earth.
2. That God actually raised Him from the dead, also, according to their Scriptures (verse 31). He states that His resurrection formed the glad tidings which they had to declare unto them (verse 32). He states that His resurrection was a fulfilment of their Scriptures (verses 33-35). In quoting these passages he seemed to anticipate that some of his audience would say that they referred to David; but this he declares is impossible, as that David “was laid unto his fathers, and saw corruption.” The other great fact we discover in this sermon is--
III. That this Messiah is the Mediator through whom the world is to be saved. He states--
1. That faith in Him will secure the forgiveness of all sins (verse 38). That the rejection of Him is of all crimes the most to be deprecated (verses 40, 41).
(a) That the judgment, when it comes, will fill the victim with amazement--“Behold, ye despisers, and wonder.” What wild amazement seized the antediluvians, the men of Sodom, etc., when the judgment came.
(b) That the judgment, when it comes, will effect utter destruction--“perish.”
(c) That the judgment that is to come is incredibly tremendous. It is “a work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you.” (D. Thomas, D. D.)
Paul in his introductory discourse already a complete Paul
1. The profound interpreter of Scripture (verses 17, 33).
2. The large-hearted Apostle of the Gentiles (verses 16, 26).
3. The truly evangelical preacher of the faith (verses 38, 39).
4. The undaunted witness of the truth (verses 40, 41). (K. Gerok.)
“I will make you fishers of men”
The apostles, in obedience to this saying, have--
1. Cast their net in many places (verse 13).
2. Suffered not themselves to be hindered in their work, though some went back (verse 13).
3. Regarded every time of work as opportune (verse 14).
4. Taken advantage of every place (verse 14).
5. Disregarded no request in order to testify of the grace of God in Christ Jesus (verse 16). (Lisco.)
The God of this people of Israel chose our fathers.
The hours on the world’s clock
1. Moving slowly forward as the hours of the Eternal God, with whom a thousand years are as one day, and of the long suffering God, whose patience has borne with this perverse world, as it did with Israel for forty years in the wilderness.
2. But unceasingly progressing to the end appointed of God--of the world’s redemption, and the world’s judgment. (K. Gerok.)
The history of the kingdom of God
The history of the world in the light of the gospel transfigured into the history of the kingdom of God.
I. Its place is sketched out before in the eternal counsels of Divine wisdom, power, and love.
II. Its sections of time are stations on the progress of humanity to its destination.
III. Its heroes are the vassals of Christ, and willingly or unwillingly the servants of His kingdom.
IV. Its end is the glorification of God in humanity. (K. Gerok.)
The providence of God in the history of Israel
An encouraging type of the Divine government of mankind.
I. Wherein this providence is recognised.
1. In the history of Israel.
2. In the history of the world.
II. What influence the certainty of this Divine government should have upon us.
1. We should be comforted with the sure confidence that the issue of things will be the best.
2. We should do our part, in order that the Divine plan of salvation may be more and more realised. (Lisco.)
Christ, the world’s Saviour
I. Foretold in the old testament (Acts 13:16-25.)
II. Rejected by his people (Acts 13:26-29.)
III. Preached as the salvation of believers (Acts 13:30-41.)
And about the time of forty years suffered He their manners in the wilderness.
Divine forbearance toward human perverseness retraced
The goodness of God to man and the ingratitude of man to God form a very striking and affecting contrast. No one can seriously review his own history or that of the Church of God for any given period without being impressed with these two thoughts. How man tries God! how God bears with maul Consider--
I. The period of time. How long? “About the time of forty years.” This was the period during which Israel was wandering in the wilderness. This time was appointed by God Himself. Modern travellers go the whole distance in some two or three weeks.
1. Thus we see how more or less of time may be spent in the same journey. The journey of life occupies sometimes a shorter, sometimes a longer period of time. The little infant sometimes accomplishes, in a few hours, all the space which lies for man between the cradle and the grave, while others are forty years, or sometimes forty years twice told, in completing the same journey. There is a strange diversity as to the length of life. Certainty and uncertainty are here wonderfully intermingled. The certainty, as to any number of persons of the same age, that they will on an average live so long--the utter uncertainty, as to individuals, how long this or that person may live--are very instructive. Our conclusion ought to be, “My times are in Thy hand.” It is for God to determine the limits of our wanderings; it is for us to use the space allotted us with fidelity.
2. For the time allotted is also throughout a season of responsibility. We surely see this in our text. Throughout that period the Jews were observed by God, as persons responsible to Him for their use or abuse of their privileges. And it is so with us. Our birth in a Christian country, in one age of the world rather than another, with certain advantages and opportunities more or less favourable--all form part of the circumstances of our responsibility. And this responsibility goes with us throughout our life, although some may carelessly forget, and others presumptuously deny it. There is “a book of remembrance” with our God, in which is recorded a faithful history of our lives. We cannot blot out a letter in that book. There is One, who can. “I have blotted out as a cloud thy transgression,” etc.
3. The time is also a time of mercies.
(a) If Christians indeed, have there not been mercies of conviction, conversion, justification, regeneration? Mercies in our education by the law leading to Christ, and by Christ writing the law by His Spirit upon our hearts--mercies also in our guidance by the Word and Spirit, and Providence, mercies too in our recoveries from sickness, etc., etc.
(b) But if some of you are not Christians, yet your past years have also been years of mercies. God has dealt very mercifully with you, in sparing you so long. Seek then that God’s mercies of forbearance may lead you to know His mercies of loving kindness in saving you also through His dear Son.
II. The fact. “Suffered He their manners.”
1. They provoked God in the wilderness. “Harden not your heart,” says the psalmist, “as in the provocation,” etc. Scarcely had they entered the wilderness, when they began to murmur at Marah. They go but a little further, when again they murmur for bread. Soon after at Massah and at Meribah for water. They come to Sinai, and there they fall into idolatry. Then at Taberah again they complained. Then how badly the spies behaved. After this was the rebellion of Korah, and murmurings again and again. Is not the term used in our text exceedingly appropriate and expressive? Could any people have behaved much worse than this called the people of God?
2. Thus then He had to “suffer their manners,” and He did suffer them with a patience that is truly wonderful. Yet, observe, it was not with the weak patience of one who gives up the rod of government, and leaves a people to “do what is right in their own eyes.” His patience was that of one who yet showed Himself just and holy. He sent repeated punishments; He gave many warnings; He plied them with remonstrance and expostulation.
III. The instruction for us. They were very like us, and we have been very like them. Let any one of you review any definite portion of his life and he will be alike humbled and surprised to see how like he has been to those, whose “manners God suffered in the wilderness.” More indeed has been expected from us, because more has been given.
1. They murmured repeatedly, and so displeased God. “Neither murmur ye,” says the apostle, “as some of them also murmured.” And yet what fault more common? Many murmur if “their bread and their water” be scarce, when they had much better be praying, “Give us our daily bread,” and be trusting to Him who has said, “bread shall be given them and their water shall be sure.” There are who murmur for “the flesh pots of Egypt,” and complain because they are debarred from some of the pleasures of the world.
2. The Israelites were guilty of idolatry, and Christians are exhorted, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” Nor is the exhortation needless. To love riches as the world do, is to be an idolater of Mammon. To love pleasure is to be an idolater of pleasure. To love sin is to give to sin what belongs to God. Who of us can review life for any term of years, and not now own that in some or in many or in all of these ways we have been idolaters? (J. Hambleton, M. A.)
He raised up David.
David is one of the grandest men in the Bible, and his character is more fully portrayed than that of any other with one exception. The sweet singer of Israel was royally dowered with charms of the person, with gifts of the mind, and with susceptibilities of the heart; and, from a youth up, he was as one who is well beloved, and therefore rightly named. He was great in all the faculties of his soul, and has not been placed higher in the esteem of the Church than his virtues have warranted. It has been questioned how he could be called a man after God’s own heart, and his crimes have been sketched with nauseating fulness. But the Church no more defends them than he did or the Bible.
I. Why then are his sins so fully presented?
1. That we may see how full of infirmity are the best of men.
2. That we may see how efficacious grace is to overcome them.
3. That we may see how bitter is the sorrow of the truly penitent, and how wide is the door of mercy.
II. Why is he called a man after God’s own heart?
1. David was chosen by God.
2. As thus chosen he would more strictly observe the revealed will of God.
3. David was a man of fervent piety, of swift repentance, and of the deepest spiritual aspirations.
4. He was large-hearted, true as a friend, affectionate as a father, and ever ready to be reconciled with his foes--to forgive and forget. In these attributes of a fatherly heart he resembled God.
III. Three inferences from his history.
1. This life is not an encouragement to commit sin or to continue in sin, but an encouragement to those struggling to be delivered from their sins.
2. Any one may be called a man after God’s own heart, if his life is marked by the same religious fervour, by the same sincere penitence, and by the same deep longings after God by day and by night.
3. We must seek after likeness to God in our moral nature--in our likes and dislikes. (Homiletic Monthly.)
The ability to see the beautiful
How much easier it is to see defects than to see beauties, in anything at which we look. No art education is requisite to the perceiving of a broken arm or a nose, on an ancient Grecian statue, or of the weather stains on its marble surface; but it does require a trained eye and a cultivated taste to recognise the lines of beauty, and the tokens of power, in a discoloured and a battered fragment of a master work of art. And so it is in the reading of a book, or in the observing of a character: the ability to perceive that which is worthy, and that which is admirable, is higher and rarer than the ability to perceive errors and flaws. No teacher or scholar has been too stupid to see David’s faults. Only here and there has one been noble enough, and clear-eyed enough, to recognise the exceptional high qualities, and the transcendent attractions of character, which lift David above his fellows. And so, again, this truth is continually being illustrated. Let him who would have the credit of superior ability be careful not to criticise or to condemn too freely; for that is a sure mark of inferiority. The power to point out beauty and worth, where others would pass it by, is, in itself, a proof of excellence. Why can not all aim at that higher standard? (The Sunday School Times.)
A man after Mine own heart.--
The sins of the saints
1. We all know of the frequency with which testimony is given to God’s affection for David. Speaking of him to his successors, He always holds him up to their admiration (1 Kings 9:4). And the writer of the Chronicles sums up the life of any monarch who had turned into devious ways in such words as those of 2 Chronicles 28:1.
2. Now, God did not choose the Psalmist-warrior as we choose our friends, by a sort of self-blinding; discerning in them gifts and graces which to all other eyes they obviously lack. God will never prefer a man to hold such a position in His thoughts as David held, without some just cause of esteem. The assertion that God takes an unworthy man into His preeminent affection because He wills to do so tarries in it its own contradiction, God, like man, has to obey the law of His nature, and that law is that He can only choose what is right and good. Even the passage, “Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated,” must not be interpreted to mean that He loved the less worthy and condemned the better. Otherwise we strip God of His noblest attributes, and make Him inferior to man in the moral equities of reason and conscience; and, in the words of Bacon, “It were better to have no opinion of God at all, than such an opinion as is unworthy of Him, for the one is unbelief and the other is contumely. Plutarch saith well to this purpose: ‘Surely,’ saith he, ‘I had rather a great deal men should say there was no such man as Plutarch, than that they should say there was one Plutarch who would eat his children as soon as they were born, as the poets speak of the god Saturn.’“
3. Now, this representation of God’s preference for David seems not to be justified when you turn to his life. Of course in estimating the man we must take into account the morality of his age, his moral superiority to the contemporary sovereigns, and the temptations kings were subject to, and we ought not to judge him by the light of these later times, but by the light that was given to him. But our purpose is not to extenuate or minimize David’s sins, but to vindicate God’s joy in him. Doubtless there were in David’s life hours of nearness to God, times of serenest reliance, and trust, and joy in God, and faithful service, and prompt obedience. But there were also in this same man’s life depths of infamy. What, then, was this something that dwarfed the glaring defects of the life? We shall understand this if we consider--
I. The proper way to estimate the sins of the saints. It is our custom to fix our eyes on any virtuous or vicious action we have found out in a man’s life, not caring to inquire whether it is the expression of virtuous or vicious principle. Now, we ought to a great degree to overlook the outward details, be they blemishes or merits, and estimate the man by the principles on which he is deliberately endeavouring to mould his character--by the moral spinal column that in the main holds his life together. Neither Noah’s act of drunkenness nor Moses’ murder of the Egyptian on the one hand, nor Balaam’s truthfulness nor Judas’ penitence or remorse on the other, should depreciate or exalt them in our eyes, as neither of these actions or mental states are traceable to vital principle. Now, David’s sins, gross and coarse though they were, were accidental; they belied the principle on which he was painfully endeavouring to mould his character; and so God, who looks upon such frailties “with larger, other eyes than ours, making allowance for us all,” forgave and overlooked the casual blemishes, the life in the main being faithful and true. His sins brought awful retribution upon him, for God’s forgiveness only cancels the alienation between the human and Divine mind. What he sowed, that he reaped; but, when the anguish of penitence filled his spirit, the enmity which the sin had established between his mind and God’s became a thing of the past, and David was restored to the grace and favour from which he had temporarily lapsed. For there was in this man a soul that, often plunged in the mire, refused to abide there, and ever strove to rise up and take its flight to a serener and purer atmosphere. If I do the sin I would not, the sin which is not in keeping with the moral habits I am faithfully endeavouring to acquire, then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. And if I delight in the law of God after the inner man, and see another law in my members warring against this law in which I delight, and by which I aspire to live, and leading me into great and grievous sins, then, though with my flesh I serve sin, with my mind I serve God, and I claim to be judged to be what I am in my aspirations and hopes.
II. We shall understand God’s love and praise of David if we reflect that love and praise are due, not necessarily to the man who lives most virtuously, but to the man in whose life the moral struggle has been most faithfully maintained. There are many men virtuous because it is constitutionally easier for them to be virtuous than not. Purity that springs from a heart that keeps pure because it never warms, can lay no claim either to human or Divine admiration. There is nothing meritorious in automatic goodness. But there is something great and heroic in the life of the man who has had all his days to fight with moral infirmities and passions, and who, though often conquered and crushed, has risen again with resistance in his heart and defiance on his lips to renew the contest. This is what I find in God’s love for David, and in the way Scripture always refers to him. No more difficult life problem has been given to mere man than was given to him to solve. Look under what trying conditions he contrived to keep his heart subject to the fear of God. One day we find him a shepherd lad, the next the hero of Israel, and in rapid succession court musician, king’s son-in-law, the freebooter of the wilderness, the leader of outlaws, the mercenary soldier, the monarch, the exile, and finally the monarch again. And this leads me to conclude with a question which has often perplexed us--the unequal distribution of moral natures, one man receiving from God a nature prone to goodness, another a nature prone to evil. We have men with constitutional infirmities saying, “God has given me a nature that prevents me ever being a saint; why should God punish me for not being that which the rigorous necessities of the nature He has given me makes it impossible for me to be? I am not responsible for my nature. It is my fate.” Yes; and David’s life was lived and is written to be your answer, and throw light upon your case. There is your nature: easy to be brought within the power of goodness or difficult, it is your work. Others with a milder task set before them may march from moral victory to moral victory. But if you have not left the evil within you to govern you, but have resolutely essayed to drive it out, and subject your lower nature to the sovereignty of your higher, God will pronounce His “Well done” upon you. Failure is no sin, faithlessness is; and, judged by this standard, there may be more of the grace of God, more of the divinest moral energy, more conscience, reason, and love admitted into the heart, and shaping the life of a man fighting, like David, against the infirmities of his flesh and the savage bias of his nature, though the fighting be unsuccessful, than in the heart and life of many a saint to whom goodness comes easy. (J. Forfar.)
Of this man’s seed hath God … raised … Jesus.--
Christ, the Son of David, more than David
I. According to his spiritual disposition.
1. David a man according to God’s own heart to do all His will (verse 22).
2. Christ, God’s own Son, fulfilling in perfect obedience His Father’s work.
II. According to his career.
1. David ascended the throne through lowliness and hardships.
2. Christ humbled to death on the Cross, exalted to the Father’s right hand (verses 27-31).
III. according to the sphere of his work.
1. David as king over Israel, a shepherd of his people, and a terror to his enemies.
2. Christ as the Saviour of the world, an Eternal Prince of Peace to His people, and a terrible Judge to the despisers (verses 38-41). (K. Gerok.)
John fulfilled his course.
On the duty, happiness, and honour of maintaining the course prescribed to us by Providence
The life of every individual may be compared to a river: rising in obscurity, increasing by the accession of tributary streams, and, after flowing through a longer or shorter distance, losing itself in some common receptacle. Whilst a stream is confined within its banks, it fertilises, enriches, and improves the country through which it passes; but if it deserts its channel, by stagnating in lakes and marshes, its exhalations diffuse pestilence and disease around. Some glide away in insignificance: whilst others become celebrated. Some are tranquil and gentle in their course; whilst others, rushing in torrents, dashing over precipices, become objects of terror and dismay. But, however diversified their character, or their direction, all agree in having their course short, limited, and determined. Thus human characters, however various, have one common destiny; their course of action may be greatly diversified, but they all lose themselves in the ocean of eternity. Few have appeared on the stage of action whose life was more important than of John. His course was a very extraordinary one. John was called to a very singular work; his ministry formed an epoch in the history of the Church. It was the connecting link between the two dispensations. His career was brilliant, successful, short, and his end violent and tragical.
I. That there is a prescribed course or sphere of action appointed to every individual by the Author of our nature.
1. We are not a race of independent creatures sent into the world to follow the dictates of our own will. We are not our own; we belong to another. To do God’s will, to serve the end of His government, and to promote His glory; these are the great ends of our existence. Thus our Saviour Himself when in this world was devoted to His Father’s will. “My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me,” etc. And we live to no purpose, or to a bad one, but as we conform to this.
2. But, although this is the universal principle by which all are to be actuated, yet it admits of great and numerous variations in its practical application. The manner in which an apostle, for instance, was called upon to do this, is not that in which an ordinary teacher is to do it; nor the manner of an ordinary teacher that of a private Christian. The duties of a sovereign are different from those of his ministers; and those again, from the duties of inferior magistrates; and of magistrates, from those of private subjects. Of the rich it is required “to do good and to communicate”; of the poor, to be prudent, diligent, careful; and so on. Although the end is the same in all, yet the manner in which this end is viewed will be various: the rays of light, when blended in day, are simple and of a uniform colour; but when they are refracted through a prism, they exhibit all the colours of the rainbow.
II. That there is a set and limited time allotted to that sphere and course of action: “There is an appointed time to man upon the earth.”
1. The course of man is not indeterminate, but has its limits. If “a sparrow falleth not to the ground without His knowledge,” much less can the death of a human creature take place without His interposition. Whether we fall premature victims to disease, or perish by what men call accident, or sink under the burdens of age, still it is according to the will of God, “whose counsels shall stand, and who will do all His pleasure.”
2. It is short. “Thou hast made my days as an handbreadth.” Whether we drop in infancy, from the cradle to the grave, or are cut off in youth; whether we attain to manhood, or even to old age; still, we soon reach the end of our course, and often without passing through its intermediate stages.
3. It is rapid and impetuous; its waves follow each other in quick succession, and many are engulfed almost as soon as they appear. Early in infancy the stream glides away like a summer brook, and leaves the fond parent mournfully to recall the pleasure he received in contemplating its unsullied purity and its playful meanders. Of those who set out with us in this journey of life, how many have disappeared from our side!
III. Our happiness and our honour consist entirely in completing the course which God has assigned to us. Here we are liable to fall into two great mistakes.
1. That there is some other happiness and honour than that which is to be found in fulfilling our course, in occupying that sphere of duty which God hath been pleased to assign us. Some are looking, for their satisfaction, to the pleasures of sin; others to the gratification which the world affords; some attach their notion of happiness to some external situation not yet found, and imagine it is to be met with there. Settle it in your minds that the only happiness worth seeking--that which will live in all circumstances, and abide the vicissitudes of life, consists in fulfilling our course, conforming to the Divine will, and this fountain of water flows for the refreshment of the meanest peasant, as well as of the greatest monarch.
2. That we should be able to conform ourselves to the will of God, and to our own sphere of action, better in some other state; and being therefore dissatisfied with that precise state in which His providence has placed us. The wisdom of each consists in fulfilling His own course. The course of John the Baptist was difficult, obstructed with afflictions, and beset with dangers: but he fulfilled it. How many objections might he have formed against the precise course assigned him! The poor may easily imagine how amiably and liberally they should have acted if their lot had been cast among the rich; and the rich, on the other hand, how safely they should have been preserved from a variety of snares, if they had been screened by the privacy of the poor. The young will ascribe their errors to the impetuosity so natural to their age; and the aged wish for the energy which belongs to youth: their time, they plead, is passed; it is too late for them to change. But all these are great mistakes. It is not a change of state that we want, but a change of heart. The grace of God will keep us humble in prosperity, cheer us in adversity, sustain and direct us in life, support us in death, and go with us into eternity. Finally, let each of us attach himself with more seriousness, alacrity, and fervour than ever, to the proper duties of his station; let each consider in what instances he fails to fulfil his course. The memory of John the Baptist is perpetuated with honour, because he “fulfilled his course”; while that of Herod and Pontius Pilate are covered with infamy. Which of these characters will you imitate? Whenever the gospel is preached, this alternative is presented of “shining like the sun forever; or of awaking to shame and everlasting contempt.” (R. Hall.)
Men and brethren, children of the stock of Abraham, and whosoever among you feareth God, to you is the word of this salvation sent.
I. What is the word of this salvation?
1. It is the testimony that Jesus is the promised Saviour (Acts 13:23).
2. The word which promises forgiveness to all who exhibit repentance of sin, and faith in the Lord Jesus (Acts 13:38-39).
3. In a word, it is the proclamation of perfect salvation, through the risen Saviour (Acts 13:32-33).
II. In what manner is the gospel sent to you?
1. In the general commission, which ordains that it be preached to every creature.
2. In the fact that the gospel is preached in our land, the Bible is in every house, and the word is proclaimed in our streets.
3. In the providence which has brought you this day to hear the word. Very specially may you be sent to the preacher, the preacher sent to you, and the special message be sent through the preacher to you.
4. In the peculiar adaptation of it to your case, character, and necessity, h medicine which suits your disease is evidently meant for you.
5. In the power which has attended it, while you have been hearing it, though you may have resisted that power. It would be a sad thing if we had to single out even one, and say, “This word is not only sent to you”; but we are under no such painful necessity.
III. In what position does it place you? In a position--
1. Of singular favour. Prophets and kings died without hearing what you hear (Matthew 13:16).
2. Of notable indebtedness to martyrs and men of God, in past ages, and in these days; for these have lived and died to bring you the gospel.
3. Of great hopefulness; for we trust you will accept it and live.
4. Of serious responsibility; for if you neglect it, how will you escape? (Hebrews 2:3). It puts it out of your power to remain unaffected by the gospel. It must either save you, or increase your condemnation.
IV. In what manner will you treat this word?
1. Will you decidedly and honestly refuse it? This would be a terrible determination; but the very idea of so doing might startle you into a better mind?
2. Will you basely and foolishly delay your reply? This is a very dangerous course, and many perish in it.
3. Will you play the hypocrite, and pretend to receive it, while in your heart you reject it?
4. Will you act the part of the temporary convert?
5. Will you not rather accept the word of salvation with delight? Suppose the gospel should be taken from you by your removal to a place where it is not preached, or by the death of the minister whom you so greatly esteem. It would be just. It may happen. It has happened to others. Refuse the heavenly message no longer, lest your day of grace should end in an eternity of woe. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
To you is the word of salvation
I remember when Mr. Richard Weaver preached at Park Street Chapel, in his younger days, he came down from the pulpit, and ran over the pews to get at the people, that he might speak to them individually, and say, “you,” and “you,” and “you.” I am not nimble enough on my legs to do that, and I do not think I should try it if I were younger: but I wish I could, somehow or another, come to each one of you, and press home these glad tidings of great joy. You, my dear old friend, it means you! You, young woman, over there to the right, it means you! You, dear child, sitting with your grandmother, it means you! “Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The word of salvation
I. The general character of the gospel. The gospel is “the word of this salvation”--
1. As being the sole authority on which we ascertain the possibility of that salvation. Without it we should be inextricably bewildered on the question whether or not our salvation could be made consistent with the character of God.
2. As it reveals to us the plan and means of our “salvation.” It opens to us the very principle and motive in which the plan originated, by assuring us that “God so loved the world,” and that it is “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He hath saved us.” Do we inquire in what manner the purpose of this grace and mercy was carried into practical effect? We are informed it was by the gift of His well-beloved and only-begotten Son. Are we desirous of knowing in what respect this Son was given? We learn that though, “being in the form of God,” yet He “humbled Himself” and “took upon Himself the form of a servant,” and finally was put to death. Do we inquire, what was the immediate issue of the amazing series of sufferings through which He passed? We are assured that on the third day He “rose again from the dead,” and that therefore “God hath highly exalted Him to be a Prince and a Saviour, to give repentance and remission of sins.” Are we concerned to know by what means we are to receive the benefit of all this love and condescension? Directions clear and numerous are set before us, so that we need not miss our providential way.
3. As being the instrument by which it is effected. It is not merely the wisdom of God, or the grace of God, it is also “the power of God unto salvation.” The gospel is indebted for its former and its present triumphs, not to the zeal or eloquence of its ministers, but to that Divine power which was breathed into it on its original promulgation, and which still continues to make it effectual. “Not by power, nor by might, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts.”
4. The character of the gospel as a “word of salvation,” becomes still more strikingly apparent, when it is compared with preceding revelations.
(a) A word of terror. How different were the circumstances under which “grace and truth came by Jesus Christ to those under which the law came.” Instead of being terrified and driven back with “thunderings and lightnings,” we are encouraged to “come with boldness to a throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy,” etc.
(b) A word of condemnation. How different are the accents in which the gospel speaks to us. For, whilst it fully secures the glory of the Divine holiness, it assures us at the same time “that through this Man is preached unto us the forgiveness of sins.”
II. The practical duties which result from its communication. It has not indeed been sent to you as it was sent originally to the Jews, by special revelation from heaven, or by the personal ministry of Christ. Still it has been sent. And the practical duties are--
1. To receive implicitly the “form of doctrine” which that word inculcates. In matters which depend on human authority we have a right to doubt, and if we please, to contradict and to deny. But the “word of the gospel” is not” the word of men”; it is “in truth the word of God.” As such, it is clothed with an authority which precludes at once all right on our part to question any doctrine it proposes. “Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker.”
2. To gratefully accept the benefits it offers.
3. To expect that salvation which constitutes the subject of it. The very reason why, notwithstanding your repeated rejection of this word, it has continued to be sent to you, has been that God willeth not the death of a sinner, but would rather that all men should repent and live.
4. To send it to others. For every benefit bestowed upon us involves an obligation to be “merciful even as our leather who is in heaven is merciful.” (Jonathan Crowther.)
The word of salvation
I. Needed. “What must I do to be saved?” the question of questions.
1. Men are lost, and need saving from the consequences of their wandering.
2. Men are under condemnation, and need saving from the threatenings of the broken law.
3. Men are sundered from God, the Fountain of life and blessedness, and need saving from the death that never dies.
4. Men are in bondage to sin and evil habits, and need saving from that dire captivity. And where is the saving word? Nature is dumb on the subject of salvation; conscience emphasises the existence of the evil, but is silent as to the remedy; philosophy has grappled with the problem, but has left it where it was; educational and reformatory measures have removed a few symptoms, but left the root of the disease untouched. History is the arena on which many saving experiments have been tried; let the student say which has succeeded.
1. From whom?
2. To whom. “You,” whoever you may be.
1. Heard. Hence the need of Scripture study, and attendance on the ministry of reconciliation. Ignorance is inexcusable in a land of Bibles and churches.
2. Believed in. A sick man who has no faith in his doctor or his prescriptions will hardly be persuaded to take his prescriptions. So there must be an assent to the verity and divinity of the gospel message.
3. Embraced. Not simply with the intellect, but with the heart. “With the heart man believeth unto righteousness.” When may the word of salvation be accepted? Now. For it is needed now; it is sent now. The need for it will not grow less by lapse of time; nor will time make it more acceptable. (J. W. Burn.)
The word of salvation
I. To whom sent. To all sinners, for all sinners need it, and it is suited to the case of all.
II. For what purpose sent. As a word of--
1. Pardon to the condemned sinner.
2. Peace to the rebellious sinner.
3. Life to the dead sinner.
4. Liberty to the captive sinner.
5. Healing to the diseased sinner.
6. Cleansing to the polluted sinner.
7. Direction to the bewildered sinner.
8. Refreshment to the weary sinner.
9. Comfort to the disconsolate sinner. (R. Erskine.)
The word of salvation delivered
I. The true character of the gospel which we preach. It--
1. Reveals salvation clearly.
2. Offers it freely.
3. Confers it actually on all who will receive it.
II. The commission which we hear in relation to the gospel. We must address--
1. Those who on account of their attachment to the law suppose themselves not to need it.
2. Those who through their alienation from God and His law suppose themselves beyond its reach. (C. Simeon, M. A.)
Words of salvation
Even in the ordinary experience of life men are saved by words--the words of their fellows. When a blind man avoids a precipice, and turns into a path of safety at the warning voice of a benevolent passenger, he has been saved by words. When the various portions of an army make a combined movement by orders of its chief, they are saved from ruin, and placed in safety, by words. Words, false and meaningless, however reverently they may be received, will not save, and on the other hand, words true and Divine will not save those who despise and neglect them. (W. Arnot.)
A message of salvation
It has been stated that Addison, the great essayist, found peace by believing in Christ ere he died. But it has remained for a recent biographer of Addison to inform us how it came about, for he was never known to have had any clerical friends who would be likely to influence him. It is now stated that a pastry cook sent home a pie on Christmas Day and under it he placed a page of Richard Baxter’s “Call to the Unconverted.” Addison, upon perusing it, purchased the whole book, which was the means of leading him to Jesus.
Words of salvation providentially sent
A young man in America was once at work upon his farm. He was careless about religion--indeed nobody had ever said a word to him about it; and as he had no Bible and only worldly friends, there seemed little chance of his ever hearing of Christ and salvation, and of heaven and hell. On this particular day, it was a bright morning in early summer, he had to take his cart, drawn by oxen, along the high road. He was thinking of nothing except his daily work and his daffy bread. A gentle breeze was blowing, and as he went along it stirred a little piece of paper which had been lying by the roadside, so that it fluttered in front of him. But on went the young man, the oxen and the cart, all the same. When he had gone a short way farther, however, a thought came over him, “I wonder what that bit of paper was--I’ve a great mind to go back and see.” And, stopping his team, he did go back. He picked it up and read it as he walked along. It was a leaf out of the Bible. The summer passed away with its flowers and sunshine, and the corn grew ripe, and was gathered into the garner; there was another harvest, too, standing ready for the sickle. The young man who had found the leaf lay upon a sick and dying bed. A sore disease had smitten him, and his parents knew there was no hope of his life. They were stricken with grief, but he--oh, he was rejoicing! And now his lips were open to tell them what he had never told before. The leaf out of the Bible had brought to him first the sense of sin and then the knowledge of a Saviour. He sought for a whole Bible, and ever since it had been his constant companion, and now, though called almost suddenly away from life with all its happiness, he knew whom he had believed, and he was ready. He had an anchor, sure and steadfast, for the Lamb that was slain to take away sin had taken away his sin. And without a doubt or a fear he entered into rest.
Salvation, for all
If I were to come as an accredited agent to you from the upper sanctuary, with a letter of invitation to you, with your name and address on it, you would not doubt your warrant to accept it. Well, here is the Bible--your invitation to come to Christ. It does not bear your name and address; but it says, “Whosoever”: that takes you in. It says, “All”: that takes you in. It says, “If any”: that takes you in. What can be surer and freer than that? (T. Chalmers, D. D.)
The gospel river of life does not branch out into divers streams. There is not a broad sweep of water for the rich, the intellectual, and the cultivated, and a little scant runnel where the poor may now and then come and get healed by the side of its precarious wave. There is no costly sanatorium beneath whose shade patrician leprosy may get by itself to be fashionably sprinkled and healed. Naaman, with all his retinue watching, must come and dip and plunge like common men in Jordan. There is no sort of salvation except the one ransom and deliverance that is purchased for rich and poor together by the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ; and the poor beggar, his garment ragged from the havoc of a hundred storms, and his flesh bleeding from the ulcers of a hundred wounds, may dip eagerly into the same Bethesda, and emerge unscarred and comely as a child. (W. M. Punshon, LL. D.)
Most of the calamities of life are caused by simple neglect. By neglect of education, children grow up in ignorance; by neglect, a farm grows up to weeds and briers; by neglect, a house goes to decay; by neglect of sowing, a man will have no harvest; by neglect of reaping, the harvest would rot in the fields. No worldly interest can prosper where there is neglect; and why may it not be so in religion? There is nothing in earthly affairs that is valuable that will not be ruined if it is not attended to; and why may it not be so with the concerns of the soul? Let no one infer, therefore, that because he is not a drunkard, or an adulterer, or a murderer, that therefore he will be saved. Such an inference would be as irrational as it would be for a man to infer, that, because he is not a murderer, his farm will produce a harvest; or that, because he is not an adulterer, therefore his merchandise will take care of itself. Salvation would be worth nothing if it cost no effort; and there will be no salvation where no effort is put forth. (A. Barnes, D. D.)
Salvation, simplicity of
A physician who was anxious about his soul asked a believing patient of his how he should find peace. His patient replied, “Doctor, I have felt that I could do nothing, and I have put my case in your hand: I am trusting in you. This is exactly what every poor sinner must do in the Lord Jesus.” He saw the simplicity of the way, and soon found peace in Christ.
For they that dwell at Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they knew Him not.
The rejection of Christ
I. Its ground.
1. Ignorance of Christ Himself.
2. Deafness to the voices of the prophets who predicted Him. Here we have the two-fold ground of all rejection of Christ. If men only knew Him, and recognised the force of those many prophecies which find their fulfilment only in Him, the acceptance of His Person and saving benefits would be inevitable.
II. Its inexcusableness.
1. Christ was with them, and demonstrated His Divine personality and mission by many infallible proofs--His sinless humanity, His miraculous works, His wonderful teaching. Christ is not with us in the same sense; but we have the record of His life, which renders His modern rejection none the less inexcusable.
2. They heard the prophecies frequently read; and had they listened without prejudice, they must have seen how they all converged in Him. So now.
3. There was no cause for His rejection (Acts 13:28). He did them no harm, but ever strove to do them good. Why do you reject Him? Is it not because you will not come to Him that you may have life?
III. Its frustration.
1. Their rejection, in its most aggravated form, only fulfilled the prophecies which went before on Him (Acts 13:27; Acts 13:29).
2. God reversed the humiliation of death which they inflicted on Him by raising Him from the dead. What to them was the end of His mission, proved only its beginning.
3. Their rejection proved the origin of that gospel which Paul was now preaching to the wide world. Nor is this rejection any more successful now. “Whosoever falleth on this stone shall be broken,” etc. (J. W. Burn.)
Nor the voices of the prophets.
The voices of the prophets
Some men ask, If the prophets spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, why did they not all speak in the same manner? Why these varieties of style? I will answer that by asking another question: Why do not all the pipes of the organ give one and the same sound? What awakens all the sounds but one and the same blast from the wind chest? If there be a monoblast, why is there not a monotone? Because the pipes are of different shapes and sizes; the awakening breath is one; the intonation varies with the shape and size of the pipe. The inspiration was one, but the style and manner varied with the disposition and character of the individual employed. (H. McNeile, D. D.)
Messianic prophecy: its characteristics
Christ is the only Person whose life was written beforehand; as, e.g., in the time, place, and manner of His birth; in the kind of life He was to lead, the kind of teaching He was to give, the kind of death He was to die. The strength of prophecy lies in its chain of references to Christ, from the first mention of the “seed of the woman” to the virgin-born Immanuel; from the sufferer whose heel is bruised in terms of the earliest promise, to the “Man of Sorrows” in Isaiah 53:1-12; from the peace-giving lawgiver of a yet uncrowned tribe to the heir of David, who enters the long established seat of rule as a king. Even the predictions that bear on the Church of God and its universal progress are but the sequel to those which foretell the personal Christ, and they then reflect the light of His exaltation; nor can the judgments of the Jewish nation be dissociated, as the depth of their fall is but the measure of the grace and truth that were in Christ, and for rejecting which they were to be cast away. (Principal Cairns.)
Messianic prophecy: its fulfilment
When we see the predicted mission of the Messiah so faithfully fulfilled; when we see the great world’s history bending itself to the birth of Jesus in the “anno domini” of its dates and superscriptions; when we see that the world has moved as in deepest sympathy with the humble Nazarene, working ever in His behalf; when we behold all events marching onwards through the centuries to the beat of time, preserving, as Napoleon thought, “a celestial order,” to accomplish one given result, the universal and final ascendency of the Son of David; when we see that all opposing systems can no longer hold comparison with the religion given to the world by Him than can the pale, thin, extended crescent ring of the setting moon hold comparison to the full blaze of the unclouded noonday sun; when we discover that this mighty One issued from the House of David before its fall, and from Bethlehem in the days of Herod, must we not acknowledge that He is the Being whom the prophets declared to be one with the Father Almighty? As we see Him standing alone among the millions of the race, the only pattern of absolute perfection, whose entire life, without inclining a hair’s breadth to either side, pointed straight upwards to heaven--as all the separate and wandering rays of prophecy that had sparkled through the Divine Word are combined and concentrated, and rest, as with a sacred halo, on His head--how can we do otherwise than proclaim our convictions in that prophetic, startling, and sublime word, “Immanuel!”--“God with us”? (Credo.)
Ignorance of prophecy
I was visited by a very distinguished young Israelite, who had seen me distributing the sacred volume, and I proposed that we should read a portion of Scripture together. He agreed on the condition that it should be from the Old Testament; and I read the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah. “But,” said he, “that is in the New Testament.” “No, no,” I replied. “There, take the book. Read it with that true heart which I perceive in you, and you will find what you seek.” He has found his Saviour, has accepted Him, and confesses Him with joy. (Pasteur Hirsch.)
Necessity of an unprejudiced study of prophecy
It is evident from this, and from Luke 23:34 and Acts 3:17, that the predictions of Holy Scripture may be accomplished before the eyes of men, while they are unconscious of that fulfilment; and that the prophecies may be even accomplished by persons who have the prophecies in their hands and do not know that they are fulfilling them. Hence also it is clear that men may be guilty of enormous sins when they are acting according to their own consciences and with a view to God’s glory, and while they hold the Bible in their hands and hear its voice sounding in their ears; and that therefore it is of unspeakable importance, not only to hear the words of Scripture, but to mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, with humility and prayer, in order to understand their true meaning. Therefore the Christian student has great reason to thank God that He has given in the New Testament a Divinely-inspired interpretation of the Old, and has also sent the Holy Spirit, the Divine Interpreter, to abide with the Church. If the Jews and their rulers had not been swayed by prejudice, but, in a careful, candid, and humble spirit, had considered the evidence before them, they would have known that their promised Messiah was to be the Son of God, and that He was thus revealed as such in their own Scriptures, and thus His miracles would have had their due effect upon their minds. (Bp. Chr. Wordsworth.)
And we declare unto you glad tidings, how that the promise … God hath fulfilled.
The glad tidings
I. What they are. The origin of the gospel conception is connected with Jewish history. The people were often assailed by enemies, and in Jerusalem they waited with anxiety to learn the issue. By agreement, a messenger was to be sent, and especially when God crowned them with victory. And as the watchman lifted up his eyes, and the people saw the sight, they cried, “How beautiful upon the mountains,” etc. Hence, when the angel spoke on the plains of Bethlehem, he used words with which the shepherds were familiar. So when our Lord rose, He gave the disciples commandment to proclaim these glad tidings, to which Paul was obedient here. What, then, is the gospel?
1. It is news. Man did not know it--could not find it, or invent it. Not the least proof that the gospel comes from heaven is that it is beyond the intellect and contrary to the temper of man.
2. It is good news. All the attributes of goodness are in it. “Mercy and truth have met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”
3. It is good news about a Person, and that Person the Son of God--the adequate revelation of the Father--and Son of Man--the typical manifestation of humanity. The Person also the atonement for the world’s guilt, and its Deliverer from condemnation and death.
II. To whom they are sent. “To you”--i.e., everyone.
1. To the sad heart. They come to the wakened mind, to the alarmed conscience, to the despairing spirit. What glad tidings to know that the burden of guilt has been borne and the punishment of sin endured by Christ!
2. To a sad world, whose disappointment, sorrow, and tears makes it a very Marah, which nothing can sweeten but the Cross.
III. With what end. To produce joy--pure, deep, everlasting. (J. Aldis.)
God’s promises fulfilled
God is always true to what He promises to do. He will fulfil every word of what He has promised; yet how few take Him at His word! When I was a young man I was clerk in the establishment of a man in Chicago, whom I observed frequently occupied sorting and marking bills. He explained to me what he had been doing; on some notes he had marked B, on some D, and on others G those marked B he told me were bad, those marked D meant they were doubtful, and those with G on them meant they were good. “And,” said he “you must treat all of them accordingly.” And thus people endorse God’s promises, by marking some as bad, and others as doubtful; whereas we ought to take all of them as good, for He has never once broken His word, and all that He says He will do will be done in the fulness of time. (D. L. Moody.)
The resurrection of Christ glad tidings
He speaks of Christ’s resurrection--
I. As an accomplishment of prophecy (cf. Psalms 118:22, with Luke 20:17)
. We must not, however, suppose this to be an uninteresting fact; for the apostle further speaks of it--
II. As glad tidings to the soul. To the disconsolate disciples the tidings of Christ’s resurrection were doubtless exceeding joyful. But they ought to be no less so to us, since that event ascertains--
1. The virtue of His sacrifice. Had He not risen, His death had been in vain (1 Corinthians 15:14; 1 Corinthians 15:17-18). But His resurrection clearly proved that He had satisfied the demands of law and justice.
2. His sufficiency for our help. If He were still dead, it would be in vain to look to Him for help.
3. The certainty of our own resurrection. Because He liveth, we may be sure that we shall live also (John 14:19).
As a further improvement of this passage, permit me to observe--
1. How deeply are we interested in the writings of the Old Testament! In them are promises of which we receive the accomplishment.
2. What enemies are they to themselves who despise the ministry of the gospel!
3. What a near relation subsists between believers in all ages! (Theological Sketch book.)
The resurrection of Christ the great promise
I. God promised to the patriarchs and prophets that He would raise Christ from the dead.
1. To Adam, as we read in Genesis 3:1-24. The whole four themes of revelation are contained in these words: the first coming of Christ in the flesh; “her seed.” His death; “thou shalt bruise his heel.” His resurrection, and the present state of the Church; “I will put enmity between thee and the woman.” His coming in glory, when He shall bruise the serpent’s head.
2. To Abraham (Genesis 22:1-24; cf. Hebrews 11:17-19). Isaac was dead, in design; and on the third morning he was raised up. In this transaction Abraham saw the day of Christ, and rejoiced. This would also be a promise to Isaac.
3. To Moses also. Let us examine some types.
4. To David. The second Psalm is immediately connected with our text. On the morning of the resurrection, God owned His beloved Son: then He said, “Thou art My Son; this day have I begotten Thee.” Again, in Psalms 16:1-11, “I have set the Lord always before me,” etc. Then, again, in Psalms 118:1-29, “The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner,” etc. Which passage is also quoted by Peter, in Acts 4:1-37, when questioned as to the miracle performed on the impotent man.
5. To the prophets. In the context there is one remarkable quotation, from Isaiah 55:3. In that Christ is raised, never to die again; therefore He says, “I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David.”
6. We are taught this promise also by the history of Jonah. “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
II. He performed this promise. He did what He said. The day after the crucifixion of Christ the priests and Pharisees, who were His enemies, came to Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again,” etc. On the day after the Sabbath “there was a great earthquake; for the angel of the Lord came and rolled back the stone.” What avails the vigilance of Roman soldiers against the angels of God! The Lord afterwards showed Himself alive, by many infallible proofs, to Mary, to two of His disciples on their way to Emmaus, to ten of His disciples when they were assembled with the door shut for fear of the Jews. To some of them at the sea of Tiberias, etc. But some will say, “Were the disciples proper witnesses?” In a court of justice, what are the requisites of a competent witness? He must have known the person of whom he speaks, so that he may know him again when he sees him. And also he must be trustworthy. Now the disciples were fully competent. They knew Christ. And that they knew themselves to be competent witnesses, and that they knew it was necessary that they should be so, is evident from the words of Peter (Acts 1:21). And they were trustworthy also. We know the nature of man too well not to know that he will say anything to gain favour. But what did they gain? Scourging, bonds, imprisonments, death.
III. Therefore we declare unto you glad tidings. And how is the resurrection of Christ glad tidings? Because--
1. It has caused the gospel to be preached. It would not have been preached had it not been for this event.
2. It shows that the justice of God is fully satisfied, and sin fully expiated.
3. It directs our minds to our great Intercessor. “It is Christ that died; yea, rather, that is risen again; who has also appeared in the presence of God for us.”
4. It excites and maintains a lively hope. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” etc.
5. Through this hope it draws up the affections of the soul, and mortifies the deeds of the body. The man who believes that Christ has died and rose again, and whose life is “hid with Christ in God,” turns away with disgust from that which satisfies others.
6. It is the ground of our expectation of His second coming. If He be not risen, He cannot come again; but He is risen, and He will come again. (H. McNeile, D. D.)
The sure mercies of David.
The words do not seem in themselves to have the nature of a Messianic prediction. To those, however, whose minds were full to overflowing with the writings of the prophets, they would be pregnant with meaning. What were the “sure mercies of David” (Isaiah 55:3) but the “everlasting covenant” of mercy which was to find its fulfilment in One who should be “a leader and commander to the people”? We may well believe that the few words quoted recalled to St. Paul and to his hearers the whole of that wonderful chapter which opens with “He, everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters.” The Greek word for “mercies” is the same adjective as that translated “holy” in the next verse, “holiness” being identified with “mercy,” and so forms a connecting link with the prophecy cited in the next verse. (Dean Plumptre.)
I. What these mercies are.
1. The knowledge of God in Christ. “God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts,” etc. Great is this mercy. By this alone we are delivered from idolatry. No man can worship the true God, except in Jesus Christ. The poor ignorant heathen is not the only idolater. The Deist, Rationalist, the man that flatters himself that above all men he is the farthest removed from idolatry, is nevertheless worshipping an idol, which he himself creates--the imagination of his own heart.
2. Forgiveness of sin by Christ. The present completeness of this blessing is the distinguishing feature of true religion from all false religion whatever. And therefore the very outset, the very A B C of the gospel, is, “By this Man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins.”
3. Renewal of heart in Christ. Unto the perfection of man’s happiness, association is indispensable. Man cannot live alone; fellowship with God there cannot be without holiness of heart, leading to sincere obedience. Here, then, is a great mercy--that the man to whom God has given the knowledge of Himself, and to whom He has proclaimed forgiveness of sins, shall also experience in himself such a renewal of his affections, that, instead of shrinking from God, he shall now find a congeniality, a sympathy, an association, and begin to find a happiness of companionship, without which no man can really be happy. These are some of the mercies spoken of in this text. And they are at the same time, as you may observe in the margin of your Bibles, “holy or just things.” They are “holy”--
II. How these mercies are obtained. In answer to this inquiry, consult the prophecy in Isaiah 55:1-13, the passage referred to by the apostle. Here is a threefold exhortation to hear: the first in connection with the satisfying of the soul--“Hearken diligently, and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself”; the second in connection with coming to the Lord--“Incline your ear and come unto Me”; the third in connection with everlasting life thus given--“Hear, and your soul shall live.” Now, mark these: “hearken”--“incline your ear”--“hear.” They are all explained by that great truth which the apostle proclaims when he says, “Faith cometh by hearing.” We have all these mercies by faith, because we have Christ by faith, and in no other way. God has appointed this medium in order that the attainment might be manifestly of grace--not of study, not of time, not of hereditary descent, not of instruction by man. Now, see what is attained by the appointment of this medium. It is confidence. Faith is confidence; faith places God and man in their proper places--God in authority, man in dependence. Man fell through an attempt to be independent. Man is recovered through a willingness to be dependent. This is attained through the appointment of faith as the medium through which the blessings are conveyed; and “faith comes by hearing”--hearing “the Word of God.” Hence the importance of the ministry of the Word. You cannot have the Word proclaimed without a voice to proclaim it; you cannot have a voice without a man to raise it; you cannot have a man without sustenance and support.
III. The description here given of these mercies. “Sure.”
1. They are infallibly “sure” to rest on all for whom they were designed.
2. They are immutably “sure” to all on whom they rest. (H. McNeile, D. D.)
For David, after he had served his own generation.
The life, character, and death of David
I. The general character of the man. We shall not attempt to extenuate his sins. But let his penitential Psalms bear witness for him, that no judgment can be passed upon him more severe than that which he pronounced upon himself. Which of the saints has not been more or less guilty? But Scripture teaches us to form our judgment, not from one or two prominent particulars, but from a comprehensive survey of them all. Let us consider some of them.
1. In very early life David appears to have been a sincere believer. The incidents of the lion and the bear discover both his faith and his habit of ascribing all his success to the Divine help. Again, when Samuel was directed to anoint a successor to Saul, the preference of David is expressly grounded upon the state of his heart. From these considerations we conclude that David, even among the sheepfolds, was a child of grace, and that the fields of Bethlehem echoed with the earliest effusions of that Divine harp which still contributes to the edification of the saints.
2. Remark the high principle under which David acted in relation to Saul. We find no schemes of daring ambition, no crooked policies. Twice, when his enemy was delivered into his hand, he only cut off a portion of Saul’s robe, to use it as a testimony of his integrity. When, at length, the guilty monarch lay under the vengeance of Heaven, grief is the predominating sentiment which he expresses in a noble elegy.
3. Note the holy dispositions for which he was conspicuous throughout his life. His Psalms exhibit a heart supremely delighting in God. Who can deny his love to the Divine Word, his attachment to the services of the sanctuary? Happy is the man whose heart is filled with the same affections!
4. Remember that his conduct, though sometimes criminal, presents no permanent deviation from the path of rectitude. If he offends, it is not long before we hear him say, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Thy servant; for I do not forget Thy commandments.” The general tenor of his life Is not broken; but, for the most part, it is indisputably holy.
5. Survey him in his decline, when his head was white with age; what a fine picture does he exhibit of gratitude, humility, and devotion! Nothing is more impressive than the picture of this aged saint, in solemn convocation, delivering the treasures provided for the work of God into the hands of his successor. Like another Moses, he spends his last breath in faithful admonitions to his people and to his son. Thus, his course was emphatically as the shining light, admirable in his youth, troubled, yet not less illustrious in manhood, fruitful in old age: a glorious morning, a day overcast with long continued tempests; but, at evening, like the setting sun, which seems to grow more ample and refulgent, in proportion as it draws nearer to the horizon: and, finally descending among the fleecy clouds which reflect its brightness, and curtain it with glory, leaves a long track of light behind--emblem of that grateful remembrance which a good man commands from his survivors, and of the rising again to immortality, with the prospect of which religion illuminates the sepulchre.
II. The description given of his life.
1. Which suggests--
2. Now let us survey David in his relations. In these we shall see that the eulogy of the text is fully justified.
3. Let us follow him into his family. We find him following his own determination, “I will walk within my house with a perfect heart.” We can obtain but a glimpse or two, yet these are highly satisfactory. After a day of arduous public service, “then David returned to bless his household.” The affecting terms in which he deplores that his house “was not so with God,” shows us that it was not lost sight of in the multiplicity of his official engagements.
4. But, after all, David’s eminence as a saint appears most in the regulation of his own heart. We will not dwell upon the frequency of his devotions, nor upon his diligence in studying the Divine Oracles. But remember how careful he was to examine his own soul, and how earnestly he implores the scrutiny even of the Omniscient Eye! Remember his jealousy, lest “secret faults” should cling to him unobserved, and the sins of his youth pass unrepented and unforgiven. Oh! remember how, when sunk in depressions, he challenges his very griefs, lest they should prove unsanctified, and rouses his own spirit to a renewed exercise of trust! “Why art thou cast down, O my soul? hope thou in God.” He was a sinner, I know; but it is through spiritual tribulations and tempests like these that every sinner must find his way to heaven. Great offenders that offer the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart, may mount to thrones of glory, when Pharisaic boasters shall be cast into “outer darkness.”
III. The record of his death.
1. Notice the terms employed. Death is a sleep, and the grave a house, where departed saints repose in honourable company. It is true that, under the Jewish dispensation, the future was wrapt in deep obscurity; but the darkness was not altogether impenetrable, or else how should David comfort himself? “As for me, I will behold Thy face in righteousness,” etc. The expressions of the text are full of consoling thoughts. We resign ourselves to sleep without fear. If we believe that death is but a sleep, why do we contemplate it with dismay? In both, the functions of life are but suspended, not extinguished. Whatever were the infirmities of ancient saints, they all left the world with holy dignity. Though they had but dim shadows of heavenly truth to guide them, they have taught us how to live; and, though their views of eternal glory were far less distinct than ours, by their example we may learn how to die.
2. David must go the way of all flesh. Neither the love of God, nor the admiration of His people, nor his eminent fidelity, can exempt him from the universal decree. The fairest, wisest, noblest, holiest heads must lie down alike in the dust. A day of mourning over fallen greatness or departed usefulness leads us to imagine that our loss cannot be repaired; but a Solomon rises in the place of David. Thus the work of God goes on. Never let the Church despair, though kings and prophets die.
3. The Son of David lives; “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (D. Katterns.)
The service of the age
1. Few things are more painful than unfulfilled lives. A broken column is their expressive symbol. Beauty smitten in the springtime; little children taken; the promise of life cut off and blasted--all suggest painful mystery.
2. Some lives are morally unfulfilled; powers have been wasted. They did not “stir up” the gift that was in them, and their power was never fully ripened into fruitful service.
3. Others, while not accomplishing all their purposes, are not to be numbered with those who have failed. In the studio of the dead sculptor there is a statue wanting the last touches, a block just marked, works in various stages of their growth. But, we remember, the finished works whose beauty shall be the delight of the generations to come. That is not an unfulfilled life.
4. David served his own generation according to the will of God--rounded off completely the work given him to do. Illustrious as ruler, he was much more so as “the sweet singer of Israel.” The figure is that of the sailor in the ancient galley, who served in the lowest tier of seats, where the work was most important and arduous. The generation is compared with the stately vessel thus impelled--David “rowed onwards” his own age, added his efforts to those of others to secure its progress and to render it illustrious.
I. The true man’s vocation. He is set apart as “the servant of the age.” Our own generation has immediate claims upon us. The dead are not touched by our influence or moved by our activities. The future we cannot reach save through present faithfulness. Now is our acceptable time. There is no work, or wisdom, or device in the grave.
1. In this service the force of individual character is of the utmost importance. Men affect and mould men more by what they are than by what they profess or do. But there is also a conscious service to which men are appointed. Each successive age presents the common human characteristics in some special development or relationship. The age has its special questions and needs, its special section of the purpose of the Almighty to fulfil. True men are born for the time, not of it. The age is philosophical, and the teacher is the prominent figure. It is warlike, and the soldier plays his part. It is instinct with the craving for something better, and the reformer comes to the front. It is longing for knowledge of the unseen or preparation for it, and the fervid evangelist answers the question, What must we do? Sometimes it is eclectic, and various actors crowd the stage. But one thing is amazing, whatever the general characteristic, the vastness of the work which may be, and often is, accomplished by single individuals. Masses, generations, never move onwards by themselves. They follow a leader. Hence earnest natures force on reformations. Such men have removed mountains; created new philosophies; won a people’s freedom, and raised their own generation to heights of renown. But where the results may not be as palpable, the service of the age may be as real and as effective. There are prayers to be offered, ignorant ones to be instructed, fallen ones to be rescued, errors to be corrected, lonely hearts to be ministered to, and wounded ones to be healed. Such services may not be meet subjects for the historian, but they are written in the books of Divine remembrance.
2. The service of the age implies living sympathy with its sorrows and sins; identity of interest and aim. True men are of generous heart. Acquiescence in things as they are destroys capacity for service. What a craving the true man has for something better! Greatness of heart, mighty energy, and patience are needed when the service of the age involves a climbing of Calvaries. The kingdom of Christ was founded when He hung upon the Cross. But the sorrow which wrung the Redeemer’s heart was intense because of His identity with a doomed nation and a perishing world. He bore our sins, and carried our sorrows. Nothing essential to human well-being can be indifferent to us if we would serve faithfully.
II. The true man’s service of his own age is divinely conducted and fashioned. “By the will of God.” This implies--
1. The inspiration of this service. God suggests the form of service, and guides the faithful to it. His own love in the heart prompts it.
2. The means of this service. There are Divine provisions and remedies for the age’s necessities and ills. The special forms of service will harmonise with the great spiritual redemption God is working out in human history. All real human rights were consecrated in the Cross. All true reformations spring out of the Cross. Baptized into its spirit, the true servant becomes qualified for the highest achievements.
3. The Divine designation of the worker and his work. God distributes gifts, and suits men to His purpose. “There was a man sent from God.” So Peter, Paul, Luther, the martyrs were sent. This is true of times. They are in His hands. The faithful live for the work’s sake, and die for the work’s sake. Life is prolonged, for service is to be continued. Life ceases, and the service becomes a memory because it is finished.
III. The rest of the true servant of his age. The long day of rowing is over; and tired with long continued exertion, David laid himself down and fell asleep, and was gathered to his fathers.
1. Sleep is the image of death in contrast with the activity of the working life; then, as a natural, orderly sequence to it; but also as a condition precedent to new activities for which its recuperative influence is essential.
2. But also there was a gathering to the fathers. This does not mean being laid in the family burying place, for David was not laid in it. He was gathered to the general assembly and church of the first born in the realms unseen. At last the golden gates are thrown open for the servants of the King, who on distant fields upheld His cause, carried His banner, kept the faith, and they are all together in one assembly at home with the Lord. What a blest assembly to which our dead have been joined! What an august prospect opens before those who are faithful unto death! (W. H. Davison.)
A servant of the age
I. Our age--the people of the nineteenth century now resident upon earth. For this lasting earth was destined to be the successive habitation of thousands of generations. “One generation passeth away,” etc. The edifice has lasted for ages, and is much as it was in the morning of time; but its tenantry are ever changing. Notwithstanding the alterations in the material world, there is nothing new but souls. For each the Father of spirits builds an earthly house, and everyone who has answered the Divine purpose of its short residence ascends to the “house eternal in the heavens.” It is a solemn thought that earth as well as heaven is a world of spirits. These are the generation we are to serve.
II. The spiritual service we owe it. Other services are demanded, but these are inferior in worth and consequences. Many serve their age not according to the will of God. There are, e.g., those who investigate matter, study the human frame, shed fresh light on the origin, nature, and destiny of mind, dedicate themselves to education or reform; in a word, those who labour to promote man’s temporal interests. Amongst these, indeed, are some of the holiest men in the world; but there are others who are wholly dead to God. Yet these latter often subserve the religious interests of the age, but without professing it or knowing it.
III. How are we to serve the spiritual interests of the age? We must--
1. Be the servants of God. In Philippians 2:15-16, Paul described the moral character of his age. In its mind, morals, laws, institutions, etc., it was “crooked and perverse”; and he reminded Christians placed in their age that it was their office, by living holiness and new truth from heaven, to direct their perilous course in the deep towards that land of life and glory. And finally he taught them that to be fit for this they must be and act as sons of God. Divine worship was then, and is now, the first qualification for serving souls. With God’s power, love, and will within us what wonders may we do!
2. Study the age. An age does not know itself; just as an individual, it dislikes self-examination. The ages of Rome, Greece, Persia, Assyria, Noah, nay, even Paradise, did not know themselves. Yet every age has had its prophet. Enoch read his age, and served it. So did Noah, Abraham, Moses, John, etc. And if past ages were only efficiently served by those who studied them, how important that we should study our own! To do this certain qualifications are necessary. E.g., there must be correct views of the Divine government, a clear, observant eye to discern the signs of the times, and, as a key to the interpretation of those signs, an acquaintance with the religious history of past ages. No two ages are alike, or can be. We must therefore study its peculiarities--its distinguishing privileges; its predominant virtues and sins; its moral tendencies and wants; and, above all, its first duties to the age which is immediately to follow.
3. Spread our affections over the length and breadth of it. Love for souls is one of the Divinest virtues which God breathes into our nature. The reigning philosophy of every age has denied or overlooked the spirituality of man. It is only the man whose spiritual nature has been divinely awakened that feels the love of heaven: it is only he who can send it forth on the world. Greatly as we value natural love, we must not mistake nor substitute it for spiritual love. Love for souls as souls is not a passion of earthly growth; love for their justification, renewal, and union with God is a holy fire from heaven. Let us take care lest the best things we have--our schools, benevolent societies, churches, religion, should have more to do with “the life that now is” than with “the life that is to come.” This love we should spread over our age. And how numerous and constraining are our obligations! God has given us hearts capacious enough to embrace the human family, and can we reflect on the love of God who spared not His own Son without feeling our hearts burn for the restoration of all souls to their Father’s bosom?
4. Ascertain the particular department of service assigned us by God, and be thoroughly devoted to it. By self acquaintance, by consulting the wise and faithful, by the teachings of Providence, by prayer, let us learn what our mission is, and then in the name and power of God let us live only to fulfil it.
IV. Why should we serve our age?
1. It is the will of God. This is our law, but can we love and obey it without knowing what it is? God has not left us to infer His will from His works and ways. His paternal love has given us a book which reveals as much of His infinite will as it is necessary for us to know on earth. And if God wills us to serve our age it must be right to do so, and we may rely upon His help. He expects the right use of what He gives--nothing less, nothing more. To serve our age is a difficult work, but let us not be discouraged, for there is an infinite fulness of power for us in God.
2. It has faithfully served us. What have we that we have not received through the instrumentality of our age, either temporally or spiritually? Let, then, a holy sense of our numberless obligations to the age bind us to its spiritual service.
3. This is the only age we can directly serve, and both the age and ourselves must soon appear before the Lord of all ages. Let us work, then, while it is day. (Caleb Morris.)
Life: its mission and opportunity
I. Its mission--to serve your generation. That is what the most worthless do, being slaves to the opinion, fashion, and spirit of the time. But the word is not bond service. David served his age not as a slave his master, but as a rower his captain. Others again, possessed by the spirit of the evil one, ask, “How can I make my generation serve me?” The Christian asks, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do that I, like Thee, may do good to this race?” This good must be done under the inspiration of faith in God and faith in man. What is this latter? Suppose yourself in a heathen city crowded with temples, priests, idols, and idolaters. Instead of looking on with disgust or despair, you must look upon them as God’s degenerate offspring, but capable of becoming His true children once more. The good that God calls us to do is every work of His, no matter what. Some think that Christian good is only for the soul, but God regards man as one composite being. The great principle of the Mosaic legislation as much as of the gospel is that God sets Himself by the side of every man, and takes his part as long as he is in the right; and He invites to that man’s side every other man to be his friend; and whatever a man does to another in the way of benefit the Lord accepts it as a tribute to Himself: e.g., the farmer is to leave the gleanings for the widow. Why? “Because I am the Lord of the harvest, of the rich farmer, and the poor widow.” So with the prohibitions not to mock the deaf or put stumbling blocks in the way of the blind. A wrong done to the poor is an offence to God. But always remember that man does not live by bread alone, and seek in all temporal benefit to wake up in a man some consciousness of Him from whom all blessings come. So, then, select your path according to the indications of Providence, but determine by the grace of God to leave the world better than you found it.
II. Its opportunity--your own generation. David may have wished himself back in the days of Abraham. “I might have clone something in that old time, but what can I do now?” So we say sometimes. And yet if we are to do anything it must not be for any other generation but our own. And how much ampler our opportunity! How long would it take for David to get his psalms known in his own dominions? How long did it take to get them known in Europe? Whereas a good man’s thought in Leaden today may be fermenting the whole world in less than twelve months. You cannot serve the past, you must accept it. But which past? In the case of David there was the past of Saul and the past of Samuel. And so to us there are two pasts, and the one you accept will determine your service of the present, and by serving the present you can serve the future. David is serving you today. Carry you on the grand succession.
III. Its source and standard. “The will of God.”
1. There would be no working for the benefit of the world were it not that God’s will is goodwill to men. He wills the salvation of the lost, the comforting of the mourner, etc. See that will expressed in the bounties of Providence, in the Bible, in the Cross. “He that spared not His own Son”--let that fill your heart and move you forward to seek the welfare and salvation of the world.
2. The will of God is the standard of the mission. That will appoints you your time to be born and to die, the bounds of your habitation, the sphere of your duty. God did not give to David the sphere of Samuel. Each man in his own place. Your point is not to do everything that is to be done, but what God would have you do; not what your romance or ambition would find to do, but “what your hand findeth to do.” If you can lay your hand upon it, that is the proof that God means you to go to work. If you cannot reach it, pray that He may bring it nearer; but don’t spend time in praying for the distant while you neglect the near.
IV. Its close. “He fell on sleep.” What a blessed end to a life of labour! (W. Arthur, M. A.)
As God is pleased to employ human agents in carrying on His designs in this world, so He never fails to find those persons who are best qualified to answer His purpose (verse 22). The Lord saw something in David which neither he nor Samuel saw when he was sent to anoint him and set him apart for the service of God. Nor was the Divine choice misplaced; for as soon as David appeared in public he seized every opportunity of promoting the cause of God and the good of his fellow men. Let us consider--
I. What it is to live a useful life. There is a sense in which all men are useful. Pharaoh, Haman, and the King of Assyria were instrumental in bringing about the designs of Providence. They intended to accomplish their own ambitious designs, but God overruled all. But in order to be useful in the sense of the text--
1. Men must live in the exercise of supreme love to God. They must give Him the throne in their hearts before they can take their proper place at His footstool.
2. Men must have a spirit of universal benevolence. Every man ought to love his neighbour as himself, and live in the exercise of that charity which seeketh not her own.
3. Men must faithfully perform the various duties of their stations. As God has endowed different men with different talents, so He has assigned them different parts to act upon the stage of life. And it is only by moving properly in their proper spheres of action that they can become the most extensively serviceable to the world.
II. Such a life will terminate in a happy death. For--
1. It contains a source of pleasing reflections upon what is past.
2. It contains a source of agreeable anticipations. Those who have taken delight in serving God on earth may look forward to the happiness of serving Him in a higher and nobler manner in glory.
3. It will meet a glorious and ample reward beyond the grave. Conclusion: It appears from what has been said.
1. That real religion is necessary to qualify every person for the station he fills.
2. That usefulness forms the most beautiful character in the eyes of the world as well as in the sight of God. David, while he served his own generation by the will of God, was greatly admired and applauded.
3. The goodness of God in prolonging the lives of His faithful servants. (N. Emmons, D. D.)
Three great principles
I. The principle of greatness--To benefit others.
II. The principle of success--working in accordance with the will of God. Philanthropists may effect a temporary reformation. Philosophy may awaken thought. But only he who works out earthly information in the light of Divine revelation can benefit his generation.
III. The principle of destiny. By benefiting his generation--
1. David benefited the world in all ages.
2. Promoted his own eternal salvation; and--
3. Glorified God. (Homilist.)
The work and the end of life
I. The duty.
1. It may seem a humble thing to do, but what else is there for the greatest of us? To serve your generation. The next will have its own ways of thinking and acting. If anything of yours should survive, it will be but to be criticised, disparaged, incorporated and lost in the new. Be satisfied if you can serve your own generation, and when we have made generation mean only town or parish or family, we must be satisfied still. It is not for the creatures of a day to affect either universality or permanence.
2. To serve your own generation. Not to lord it over, not to stamp your mind or will upon your generation, but to serve it. How humbling, yet how salutary a description! The greater a man is the more has he to serve. A sovereign is but a servant. How much more a tradesman, a lawyer, a physician, a clergyman! If it is a humble it is also an honourable and even a sacred service. To do good to, to help forward the men, women, and children with whom it has pleased God that we should spend our few days or years on earth. What a summons is this to every possible work of charity! What a motive does this give to diligence in visiting the poor, in supporting schools, in trying to set forward every effort and enterprise of good!
II. The end. Sleep is the Christian name for death.
1. Because it is a gentle thing. It has already lost its sting by reason of the forgiveness of sins. The sting of death is sin; and he whose sins have been dismissed is set free also from the fear of death.
2. Because it is a refreshing and a restoring thing. The weary man wants rest. And the forgiven man who, in the strength of that forgiveness, has for many years been serving his generation, needs rest; he must renew his strength before he enters upon the occupations of the world of resurrection and of eternal life.
3. Because a Christian after a pause will awake, and be satisfied, when he awakes, with God’s likeness. (Dean Vaughan.)
The true life ever worth living
I. The sweet reasonableness of the true life. “David served.” There was a man of like passions with ourselves; and he lived out his life, a truly human life, a life of rare powers, of rich and varied endowments, of widest-ranging experiences and most exquisite sensibilities; and of that life the simple but sublime summation lies in this spirit-given word, “served,” and service, according to highest, holiest wisdom, is supremely reasonable and worthy of man; for still that voice is sounding, “I came to minister.” Such a life of all “reasonable service” opens to every man. How, you ask me, has it then become possible for men to ask, “Is life worth living?” The possibility lies largely in the lives. There are lives, alas! which almost demand the grim reply of blunt-spoken Samuel Johnson, “I do not see, sir, the necessity for your living.” Lives of service fit into this universe of reason, for our universe is most reasonable. All God-made things serve. Thus they show their reason. There is a need-be for them; they move to ends. Whatever truth may be in evolution, this for me is at present the chief truth--all the past has served unto this present, all this present is seen aiming at some coming fulness; and here I bow before the holy reason of an all-ordaining will.
II. The range of the true life. “Served his generation.” This true life, lived with rational purpose and with heroic patience under law and by love, this reasonable life of Christ-like service, is no mean, contracted, slavish thing of low and narrow aims and dismal drudgery. It is wide. It is strong. It is joyous. It has the sweep and the freshness of the sea in it; round and round it courses, generously leaving the broad shores and stealing with a resolute gentleness into every little quiet nook. It has the beauty and the strength of the mountain in it; it gladdens every healthy eye, and uplifts the weary into fresh power. It has the outstreaming gladness and the beneficent onroll of the great continental river in it; it brings its rich tributes from afar and deals them out freely adown its long-drawn banks. It claims its “generation” for its field. With the boldness of purest charity it owns no bounds save the stretch of its own years and the outreach of its own love-constrained forces. David served his own generation. How variously he served! As the shepherd lad in the Judaean farmer’s home; as the young minstrel before the maddening king; as the brave, cool, self-mastering soldier in days of trial and of triumph; as the faithful friend and the eager patriot; as the singer of the deepest songs of the pious heart and unwearying worker for the coming temple; as the Prince of Judah and King of Israel; as the saint--ay, as the sinner. And how patiently he served! from elastic youth to decrepit age. Let us go and do likewise. Let us serve our generation, our whole generation; all the circles of life that, in wider and yet wider spheres, sweep around us. We are central. Souls are ever insular. My own selfhood is the centre of my possible activity. All around me sweep the concentric circles of impressionable life. Here we see the inspiration, the grandeur, the far-reaching projection, yes, the endless perpetuity, of the true life. Our lives go down the centuries and out into eternity in the following lives of those who have been blessed and uplifted by our own. Ideals of youth; yes, have them! cherish them! It is sometimes stingingly said, oftener sneeringly thought, that the man of ideals is not the man for the rough, real, practical work of his times. Young men, be not deceived! Never were there men of loftier ideals than the Hebrew seers. They were preeminently the men of and for their times.
III. The rule for the true life, “According to the will of God.” Yes! according to this will; here we meet the regulative principle for these resolute, aggressive lives. Under the law of God: O surest bulwark of freedom! With the counsel of God: O sublime advice! After the pattern of God: O glorious ideal! It is the child recognising the paternal voice falling from the throne of love. The “I ought” of my soul is its answer to the “I will” of my King. Regulated movement is everywhere. Shall I not know it? “Thy will be done” is nature’s universal cry. Shall I stand in the profane without? No “unchartered freedom” mine, for I am child and He is Father; therefore am I not without law, but under law. There is for me, as for all things, the chief end. My chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. His plan then, His will, must be my law. Now, God’s law is ever the same, for He is one and changeless. But that one will has its personal, special, individual applications to each man, and to each man in each age. The infinity of its author is reflected in that law’s inexhaustible fulness and its endless variety of possible adaptations. Like Paul it can make itself all things to all men, and that, too, in order to win each to the high and blessed life which God would have him live. Like God’s ever old yet ever fresh face of nature, the Word of God has new features for each new student, for each moral artist, each soul sculptor working out his own realisation of the one grand ideal--the true life for godlike man. The work varies with the man and with the varieties of the man’s age. Innovations are the law and the life of human society, specially within its field of highest, intensest activity, which is, or ought to be, the Church. Paul’s work is not the Baptist’s; the Baptist’s is not Malachi’s; Malachi’s is not Isaiah’s; nor Isaiah’s Elijah’s; and yet to each the law of the Lord was a light and a lamp. “In that purest light of Thine we see all things clearly”--no shade of the many-coloured, ever-moving web of life left out of view!
IV. The reward of true life. David’s was two fold. It was both human and Divine. Men honoured him. God crowned him. Men honoured him; “he was laid unto his fathers.” He passed into the ranks of the never-forgotten, the honoured, the beloved dead, whose memories make the past a power and the future a joy. Live in the Spirit; and so become the fathers, the progenitors of the progressive centuries; make them fresher, sweeter, saintlier; then, indeed, men will rise up and call you blessed, acknowledging that the potent wine of your loving, laborious lives is stimulating them. And God, your own God, will not be unfaithful to forget your works of faith and your labours of love. God did indeed remember David and all his travail. David won the Divine recognition; and, in signal manner, God has kept guard over his life work; his royal line lives on in David’s greater Son, and his sweet songs go singing down the centuries, the guide of our childhood to God and the comfort of the parting soul. God accepted David’s work, and enshrined it in His holy places. That Davidic work was manifold, but its three highest manifestations were David’s literary, political, and religious activities. A new literature, art, and song! How we need them! New states of society, and happier forms of national existence! How the world is crying for them, and the cry sharpens into agony in the lands most civilised! The new temple, the living temple of the Spirit-born, the Christlike! Oh, blest solution of a thousand, thousand problems! (J. S. McIntosh.)
St. Paul’s epitaph on David
The text is capable of three different constructions. The Authorised Version gives it in the form just read to you. “David, after he had served his own generation by the will (counsel) of God, fell on sleep.” The Revised Version gives it in another way: “David, after he had in his own generation served the counsel of God, fell on sleep.” The margin of the Revised Version suggests a third arrangement: “David, after he had served his own generation by the counsel of God, fell on sleep.” In all forms of the sentence we have the threefold thought of a generation, a service, and a counsel of God concerning it. There may be longer, more detailed, more laudatory epitaphs--the fashion of the last century covered the walls of our churches with elaborate and fulsome panegyrics, amongst which this short sentence of St Paul’s might have seemed scanty and grudging in its meed of praise--but the truer taste and more reverent feeling of our own age will appreciate the more expressive, and in reality the more majestic, brevity, “He served his generation, and fell on sleep.” The text presents us with two pairs of synonyms: Life is Service, and Death is Sleep.
I. Life is service. One rendering says, the service of God. Another rendering says, the service of a generation. But the most ignorant of thinkers or scholars will see no conflict, scarcely a divergence, in this variation. The moment the idea of service has attached itself to the idea of life enough has been done to preclude any practical uncertainty as to its nature or object. To be told that this life is not self-contained, not self-centred, not dominant, and not independent, but, on the contrary, that it is a ministry and a service as much as if I were receiving the wages and wearing the livery of an employer, is a surprise and a shock at the first hearing, or would be so if it were heard in the heart, heard as a revelation and heard as a call. Who shall pretend to say that the service of the generation may not have in it the service of a second or a third or a tenth generation, by reason of the impression made by its elevation, by its purity, by its benevolence, by its wisdom, upon the very ideas and principles of human living? It is given to a few men to leave a memory behind them in the shape of immortal writings, powerfully affecting the thought of all nations and languages, sometimes starting afresh into a novelty of influence at some great crisis of history, and moulding the taste or the judgment of posterity by a power only strengthened by lapse of time. Such men are necessarily few and far between. But speaking of average men, and of men above the average, men who have not one of these exceptional embassies, whether of transcendent genius or of Divine inspiration, to a worldwide and age-long audience, it is true--painfully true, or instructively true, as they hear and as they read it--that they can, at the best, serve but one generation, and then must “see corruption.” Great ability, great knowledge, great sagacity, great personal influence, great oratory, great generalship, great statesmanship, all are of the generation. There is nothing in any one of these of a nature to live on after the death of the possessor. We have seen all these by turns wield enormous power and yet pass away. In this place it is not inappropriate to speak of knowledge as ephemeral. The man who has only read, never written, the man who has spent his strength in accumulating from libraries and observatories--the man who has written, and written largely, and for a world of readers, while he was here to hold them--is as much lost to the succeeding generation (for there is a fashion, as well as a progress, even in knowing) as the brilliant talker who was the fascination of society, or the persuasive ecclesiastic of the pulpit or the confessional. Commonly, if life reaches anything like its natural limit of the threescore and ten or fourscore years, all these powers of which we have spoken wane and fade before the reaching. Not to mention probabilities of physical enfeeblement, the latter days of the life are, from perfectly distinct causes, less brilliant than the earlier--less active, less conspicuous, less impressive, less attractive, less influential. It is the rarest thing in the world if a man remains to the end so much as in sympathy with his generation. When at last the fulness of the time is come, and he is laid to his fathers to “see corruption,” it is but in a very few hearts that he leaves either a void or an impression. “He served his own generation, and then fell on sleep.” This is all that can be said of him. Shall we count this a small thing? Is it not enough if it can be said with truth of any man? If there is here the reproof of human vanity, is there not also here the repose of human restlessness? To serve one generation, is not this large enough and grand enough to satisfy any reasonable ambition? We fear rather lest some here should be saying, It is too large and too grand for such as I am! “He served his own generation”; yes, it is much to say of any man. A generation is a vast thing, an inconceivable thing, while we so speak of it. We must break it up into its elements before we can apprehend it. A generation in the mass and in the gross is the whole number of living and thinking beings alive at one time upon this great earth. How can a man imagine himself to be serving all that multitude? It is to fill the post assigned with diligence, with seriousness, with unselfishness, with God in sight. It may be done equally by prince and peasant, by master and servant, by man and woman. No one touches his generation at more than a few points--most people touch it but at one. That point of contact is the place of service; he serves his generation who serves faithfully that particular town or village or hamlet, that particular neighbourhood or family or home which is, for him, the little fragment or morsel of the generation as a whole. There is this also to reconcile us to the humbler and less conspicuous places of service--that the smaller the surface covered the deeper commonly and the more intense is the influence exercised. These are the compensations of the humble service, and of the generous Lord who takes it for His own. There is another sense, also, in which the thought of life as service has a tranquilising and even equalising influence. We have seen that the extent or space covered by it is nothing--so is it also with the duration of time. Some of the most telling “services of the generation” have been accomplished within the span of a few years. The thought of the “generation” is pregnant with applications. It reminds us of the succession and series of the inhabitants of each spot of this earth. It reminds us that there is no standing still and no looking backward, but a perpetual movement and reaching forth, in the collective life of God’s human family. To serve one’s generation is to help it on. We ought to be ashamed of contributing nothing to the old sum, such as we found it, of human notions and of human practices. Each true servant of his generation does in some real, though to himself unconscious way, help to make the next generation after it better and happier. Certainly in this place of brief generations we have seen, we have felt it so! Something survives of each life of service. Something is immortal of each beautiful life! Some one is assisted in being good by each servant of the past. What has not David done for them that came after? The thought never came to him, but the thing was done. Who does not turn in trouble to that man’s compositions? Who stays to say to himself, David lived so many hundreds of years before Christ, how then can he sound the depths of Christian sorrow and Christian ecstasy? He was as much the commissioned minstrel of the universal Church of God as Moses was its lawgiver or Isaiah its prophet. And yet David was no saint, if saintliness were perfection. Oh, if this thought of serving the one generation were once rooted and grounded in us--if the last suggestion of the manifoldness and unexpectedness of the ways and forms of serving were but worked out by each one in reference to his own experiences, the joyous and the grievous, as it ought to be, there would be an end in us forever of all restlessness and all mortification, there would be a definiteness and a concentration of purpose in us all; we should know exactly where we stood and how, we should feel it honour enough and to spare for the like of us if it could be written by the finger of God at last on the tomb of our resting, “He served his generation … and fell on sleep.” “He served his generation,” and in doing so he served “God’s counsel” concerning himself. How reassuring amidst all adverse appearances, how comforting amidst all misgivings and all gainsayings, to know that God has a will, has a “counsel” concerning each life! We are not the casual, accidental, haphazard things that infidelity would make of us. God had a “counsel” concerning each one, in fixing the place and the time, the conditions and circumstances of His being. Let us fulfil their high destiny! Enough if of one of us this may be the record, “He served the counsel of God,…and he fell on sleep.” Who shall tell us, concerning one of whom this is God’s record, that that sleep shall have no waking? The very words which tell of it, that it is a “laying” or “adding” or “gathering” to our fathers, seem to make the funeral itself a reunion. In the light of such revelations, death a falling on sleep, burial a gathering to the fathers, even the thought of “seeing corruption” shall lose for us its terror. (Dean Vaughan.)
Serving our generation
I. First, then, what is it to serve our own generation? This is a question which ought to interest us all very deeply. Though our citizenship is in heaven, yet, as we live on earth, we should seek to serve our generation while we pass as pilgrims to the better country. What, then, is it for a man to serve his own generation?
1. I note, first, that it is not to be a slave to it. It is not to drop into the habits, customs, and ideas of the generation in which we live. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not only for one generation, it is for all generations. It is the faith which needed to be only “once for all delivered to the saints”; it was given stereotyped as it always is to be. That man serves his generation best who is not caught by every new current of opinion, but stands firmly by the truth of God, which is a solid, immovable rock. But to serve our own generation in the sense of being a slave to it, its vassal, and its varlet--let those who care to do so go into such bondage and slavery if they will. Do you know what such a course involves? If any young man here shall begin to preach the doctrine and the thought of the age, within the next ten years, perhaps within the next ten months, he will have to eat his own words, and begin his work all over again.
2. In the next place, in seeking to answer the question, What is it to serve our own generation? I would say, it is not to fly from it. If he shall shut himself up, like a hermit, in his cave, and leave the world to go to ruin as it may, he will not be like David, for he served his own generation before he fell asleep. If you do not take your stand in this way, it can never truly be said of you that you served your generation. Instead of that, the truth will be that you allowed your generation to make a coward of you, or to muzzle you like a dog.
3. If we ask again, What is it to serve our generation? I answer, it is to perform the common duties of life, as David did. David was the son of a farmer, a sheep-owner, and he took first of all to the keeping of the sheep. Many young men do not like to do the common work of their own father’s business. The girl who dreams about the foreign missionary field, but cannot darn her brother’s stockings, will not be of service either at home or abroad. But serving our generation means more than this.
4. It is to be ready for the occasion when it comes. In the midst of the routine of daily life, we should, by diligence in duty, prepare for whatever may be our future opportunity, waiting patiently until it comes. Look at David’s occasion of becoming famous He never sought it. If you are to serve God, wait till He calls you to His work: He knows where to find you when He wants you; you need not advertise yourself to His omniscience. If you want to serve the Church and serve the age, be wide awake when the occasion comes. Jump into the saddle when the horse is at your door; and God will bless you if you are on the lookout for opportunities of serving him. What is it, again, to serve our generation?
5. It is to maintain true religion. This David did. He had grave faults in his later life, which we will not extenuate; but he never swerved from his allegiance to Jehovah the true God. No word or action of his ever sanctioned anything like idolatry, or turning aside from the worship of Jehovah, the God of Israel.
6. To serve our own generation is not a single action, done at once, and over forever; it is to continue to serve all our life. Notice well that David served “his own generation”; not only a part of it, but the whole of it. He began to serve God, and he kept on serving God. How many young men have I seen who were going to do wonders! Ah, me! they were as proud of the intention as though they had already done the deed. Some, too, begin well, and they serve their God earnestly for a time, but on a sudden their service stops. One cannot quite tell how it happens, but we never hear of them afterwards. Men, as far as I know them, are wonderfully like horses. You get a horse, and you think, “This is a first-rate animal,” and so it is. It goes well for a while, but on a sudden it drops lame, and you have to get another. So it is with church members. I notice that every now and then they get a singular lameness. Yet more is included in this faithful serving of our generation.
7. It is to prepare for those who are to come after us. David served his generation to the very end by providing for the next generation. He was not permitted to build the temple; but he stored up a great mass of gold and silver to enable his son Solomon to carry out his noble design, and build a house for God. This is real service; to begin to serve God in early youth; to keep on till old age shall come; and even then to say, “I cannot expect to serve the Lord much longer, but I will prepare the way as far as I can for those who will come after me.”
II. In the second place, let us ask a question even more practical than the first: what parts of our generation can we serve? It is truly written, “None of us liveth to himself”: we either help or hinder those amongst whom we dwell. Let us see to it that we serve our age, and become stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks to those by whom we are surrounded. We shall serve our generation best by being definite in our aim. In trying to reach everybody we may help nobody. I divide the generation in which we live into three parts.
1. First, there is the part that is setting. Some are like the sun going down in the west; they will be gone soon. Serve them. You that are in health and vigour, comfort them, strengthen them, and help them all you can. Be a joy to that dear old man, who has been spared to you even beyond the allotted threescore years and ten, and praise God for the grace that has upheld him through his long pilgrimage.
2. The second portion of our generation which we can serve is the part that is shining. I mean those in middle life, who are like the sun at its zenith. Help them all you can.
3. Specially, however, I want to speak to you about serving your own generation in the part that is rising; the young people who are like the sun in the east, as yet scarcely above the horizon. In them lies our hope for the future of God’s cause on earth. In the first place, they are the most reachable. Happily, we can get at the children. Moreover, the children are the most impressible. What can we do with the man who is hardened in sin? The salvation of the children ought to be sought with double diligence, for they will last the longest. Remember, too, that those who are converted when children usually make the best saints. We ought to look after the children, again, for they are specially named by Christ. He said, “Feed My sheep”; but He also said “Feed My lambs.” Look after the children of this generation, again, for the dangers around them at the present time are almost innumerable.
III. What will happen to us when our service is done? “David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep.” The day’s work is done; the worker is weary; he falls on sleep: what can he do better? It was all “by the will of God.” To what part of the sentence do you think that clause belongs? Did David serve his generation by the will of God; or did he fall asleep by the will of God? Both. Guided by the will of God, he did his work on earth; and calmly resigned to the will of God he prepared to die. Even when passing away, he served his generation by giving Solomon some last charges concerning the kingdom, saying, “I go the way of all the earth; be thou strong and show thyself a man.” Over both his life and his death may be written the words, “By the will of God.” David is an example of what will befall those who know Christ, at the end of their service.
1. He did not go to sleep till his work was done. “David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep.” Do not want to die till you have done your work.
2. But, next, we are told that when his work was done, he fell on sleep. Did his soul sleep? By no means. It is not his soul that is spoken of here, for we read that he “saw corruption.” Souls do not see corruption. Paul is speaking of David’s body. “He fell on sleep, and was laid unto his fathers, and saw corruption.” His body fell into its last, long sleep, and saw corruption. If you like to take the words in the wider sense, he was asleep as far as the world was concerned; he had done with it. No sorrow came to him, no earthly joy, no mingling with the strife of tongues, no girding on his harness for the war.
3. Does not this word further mean that his dying was like going to sleep? It usually is so with God’s people. Some die with a considerable measure of pain; but, as a rule, when believers pass away, they just shut their eyes on earth, and open them in heaven. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The Scriptural ideal of a good man’s life and death
We have in the text an inspired representation.
I. Of a good man’s life.
1. It is distinguished as a service on behalf of others. David “served” his own generation. The word is expressive of laborious usefulness. It intimates that the “man after God’s own heart,” was not content with idle wishes, fruitless theories, abortive projects. And still, wherever there is true goodness, there will be the effort to “serve.” “No man liveth to himself.” The grand model of holy living was among His followers “as one that serveth.” He “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.”
2. It is specially devoted to the benefit of his contemporaries, “his own generation.” He acquired a familiarity with the wants and woes of the men and women around him, and laboured to supply and alleviate them. Though good men may, and must, do many things that will only yield fruit in after days, they will seek to have “understanding of the times,” and to know what they ought to do to promote and conserve the welfare of those around them. Where there is want, they will strive to supply it; where there is ignorance, they will strive to dispel it; where there is weakness, they will strive to uphold it; and where there is guilt, they will be pitiful and tender, if by any means the wrong-doer may be reclaimed. Think how soon the opportunity of helping will have slipped away from us. Our own “generation,” how it is diminishing every day! In a very little while, we ourselves, as members of it will have disappeared.
3. It is regulated by a paramount regard to the will of God. Of David, God said, “I have found a man after Mine own heart, which shall fulfill all My will.” The early promise was not belied. Now, if there be one thing that is more distinctive of good men than any other, it is just this high regard for the will of God. To know that, is their most earnest desire; to do it, is their most strenuous endeavour.
II. Of a good man’s death. Note--
1. That little word “after.” “After” he had lived his true life. “After” he had fulfilled his mission. “After” he had accomplished his day, then he died; not before. We are thus taught that the time of a godly man’s departure out of the world is definitely appointed. It is not an affair of chance. It is ordered of God. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints”--so precious that He prearranges all the circumstances of their death, directs its causes, and ordains its period. Each of us is “immortal till his work is done.” “God’s witnesses,” says Henry, “never die till they have finished their testimony.”
2. The peculiar character of a good man’s death. David, when his work was done “fell on sleep”--as the tired labourer, when his daily toils are ended, wends his way to his much-loved home, and calmly lays him down to rest, without a thought of anxiety or dread; glad that the hour is come, thankful for its provision. (C. M. Merry.)
Be it known unto you … that through this Man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him all that believe are justified.
The gospel message
I. The blessings which the text exhibits--forgiveness and justification.
1. Forgiveness implies offence, and have not we transgressed the law of God, which is “holy, just, and good”? Divine forgiveness is a blessing of the highest worth. Whom the Lord pardons He pardons freely and completely. Hence He is represented as passing by transgression, not imputing iniquity, blotting out sin, casting it behind His back, sinking it in the depths of the sea, and remembering it no more.
2. But this leads to the other blessing--justification, “an act of God’s free grace, whereby He pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” It is not a work wrought in, but an act passed upon us. It is also an act of God--“It is God that justifieth”: and His act, not merely as a gracious Sovereign conferring a favour, but as a righteous Governor and Judge doing that which is every way equitable. The blessing includes not only the pardon of sins, but the acceptance of our persons. It is not only exemption from punishment, but restoration to favour; not only release from danger, but admittance into a state of high honour and real safety.
II. The extent to which they reach. “The forgiveness of sins” means all sins; “justified from all things,” i.e., from every charge which from any quarter can possibly be brought against us. Their atrocity shall not hinder any more than their number. Hence this clause, “from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.” Moses justified from some sins. Sin offerings were appointed to expiate smaller offences; but these did not avail in cases of more flagrant crimes; the sentence of the law against such offences was death, and no exemption was allowed. Nor could the legal sacrifices ever take away guilt from the conscience, except as the penitent offender, through them, had a believing reliance on the promised Redeemer. But the justification which the gospel sets forth extends to all classes of transgressions.
III. The medium through which these blessings are conferred. “Through this Man,” and “by Him.”
1. By Him these blessings were proclaimed. He preached the gospel with His own lips: He forgave the sins of many. He commissioned His apostles to announce the same things. And He has instituted the gospel ministry, whose grand object is the publication of what He Himself and His apostles published.
2. Through Him they are also procured. As it regards forgiveness, “we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.” As it regards justification, “As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of One shall many be made righteous.” He is, “made of God unto us, wisdom and righteousness.” But all this implies the substitution of Christ. He suffered not only for our good, but in our place. “He who knew no sin was made sin,” a sin offering,” for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.”
IV. The persons by whom these blessings are enjoyed. “All that believe.” On the doctrine of forgiveness this is the language, of Scripture; “Through His name, whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins.” On that of justification it is equally clear, “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ.” And what is believing? It is not an inward feeling which cannot be accounted for. It is not a presumptuous persuasion, which a man acquires he knows not how, that his state is certainly safe. It is giving credit to the truth of God’s Word; a resting of the soul on that which He hath graciously revealed, so as to fall in heartily with the method of salvation made known in the Scriptures. As to the influence of faith in the justification of a sinner, it is evident faith does not effect it--“It is God that justifieth.” Faith does not procure it--“It is Christ that died.” But faith receives it. But mark the expression--“By Him all that believe are justified”; whether young or old, rich or poor, learned or illiterate, etc. Conclusion: From this subject learn--
1. The encouragement which springs from the love of Christ!
2. How just is the condemnation of impenitent transgressors!
3. How free is the salvation of the righteous! It is “not of works, lest any man should boast.”
4. What a motive to gratitude and obedience! (T. Kidd.)
Through this Man
I. The way of a sinner’s forgiveness--“Through this Man.” And notice--
1. There is no other way.
2. There is no need of any other way. This “Man” satisfied all the requirements of God and man.
3. God will accept no other way. “There is none other name given under heaven whereby men must be saved.”
II. The nature of the way of man’s forgiveness.
1. It is rational--consistent with justice, with mercy, with weak men, and a great God.
2. It is gracious; free from cost, easily attained, a blessed gift only to be accepted, an offer of love.
3. It is complete. It makes a man holy as well as safe. It fits for heaven as well as separates from earth.
4. It is full. There is no distinction or separation of classes or sorts: all are admitted to partake of its provisions. There is no sin it will not cover, no hardness it will not overcome.
5. It is absolute. There is no revocation or withdrawal. It was a transaction made once for all between Father and Son. (Homilist.)
The true aim of preaching
Paul’s mode of preaching, as illustrated by this chapter, was first of all to appeal to the understanding with a clear exposition of truth, and then to impress that truth upon the emotions with earnest exhortations. This is an excellent model for revivalists. They must not give exhortation without doctrine, for if so, they will be like men who burn powder but have omitted the shot. At the same time let such of our brethren as are passionately fond of mere doctrine, but having little of the marrow of Divine mercy or the milk of human kindness stand rebuked by the example of the apostle. He knew well that even truth itself must be powerless unless applied. We cannot expect that men will make an application of the truth to themselves. Let us now notice--
I. Paul’s subject, the subject of subjects--the great master doctrine of the Christian ministry. The “forgiveness of sins” is a topic interesting to everyone in proportion as he feels the guilt of sin. To those good people who fold their arms and say, “I have done no wrong either to God or man,” I have nothing to say. You need no physician, for you are not sick.
1. The Christian minister tells men the exclusive method by which God will pardon sin. “Through this Man.” The Lord Jesus has a monopoly of mercy. Into the one silver pipe of the atoning sacrifice God has made to flow the full current of pardoning grace. If you will not go to that, you may be tempted by the mirage, you may think that you can drink to the full, but you shall die disappointed. God will forgive sin, because the sin which He forgives has been already atoned for by the sufferings of His dear Son. You know the story of the young Roman who was condemned to die. But his elder brother who had often been to the front in the battles of the Republic, came and showed his many scars, and said, “I cannot ask life for my brother on account of anything that he has done for the Republic; he deserves to die, I know, but I set my scars before you as the price of his life, and I ask you whether you will not spare him for his brother’s sake.” Sinner, this is what Christ does for you.
2. It is our business also to preach to you the instrument through which you may obtain this pardon. All that thou hast to do is to come to Him as thou art, and trust in Him where thou art. Cling to the Cross, thou shipwrecked sinner, and thou shalt never go down while clinging to that. You will be saved, not by repentings and tears, not by wailings or workings, or prayings. When thy soul saith by faith what Christ said in fact--“It is finished,” thou art saved, and thou mayest go thy way rejoicing.
3. We are also enjoined to preach about the character of this forgiveness of sin.
II. The congregation which Paul addressed. Never mind the Jews and Gentiles. The verse is quite as applicable here as it was there. “Unto you.” My friend, it is no small privilege to be where this message can yet be heard. Tens of thousands have gone the way of all flesh, unpardoned. What would they give to have another opportunity? I said that this was a privilege; but it is a privilege which some of you have despised. Those who heard Paul had never heard it before. Many of you have heard it from your youth up. All the exhortations in the world are to you as if they were spoken to an iron column or a brazen wall! Why will ye die? When you die we shall have to think, “Ah, that man is lost, and yet unto him was preached the forgiveness of sins!” Well, notwithstanding that you have neglected the privilege, it is still preached unto you. Fain would I point with my finger to some of you, and say, “Well, now, we really do mean you personally.”
III. What became of them.
1. Some of them raved at a very great rate, until Paul shook off the dust of his feet against them, and went his way. But there was another class (Acts 13:48). Here was his comfort--there were some upon whom there had been a blessed work, and those “some” believed. Now, you need not ask the question whether you are God’s elect. If you are God’s chosen ones, you will know it by your trusting in Jesus. But if thou believest not, thou art in the gall of bitterness and the bonds of iniquity. May eternal mercy bring thee out of that state at once. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Preaching the forgiveness of sins
I. An alarming fact in man’s moral condition implied. Sin is--
II. A Divine method of pardon declared.
III. This blessing offered on easy and honourable terms. Not by purchase, doing, meriting, but by believing--
1. In God’s love.
2. In Christ’s readiness and power to save.
3. In God’s truth that He will save all who believe.
IV. This method and offer of salvation constituted by God a standing proclamation in His Church for the world. (J. Ross.)
The forgiveness of sins
1. Not the forgiveness of crimes. There may be sin where there is no crime. Crimes are social, between man and man, between man and human law. Crime can be measured, weighed, and punished. But who knows sin? Only God. I can forgive a crime, but I have no jurisdiction in the province of sin. If I have done you wrong and am sorry for it you can on the spot say, “There is an end of it”; but after that I must have some plain talk with God. After I have apologised I have still a grievous discontent with myself. How to get clear of that? and whilst I am debating this serious question a sweet voice says to me, “Be it known unto you,” etc. That is the word which a self-convicted, sin-burdened soul most eagerly delights to hear. But he must have felt the bitterness and guiltiness of sin before he can feel the need of such a gospel. When his heart is in a right state then the Cross becomes heaven to him, and the gospel the cry of God seeking His lost child.
2. In making this statement I lay all who are not yet forgiven under a tremendous responsibility. A man cannot hear a gospel sermon and be the same after as before. You are on one side of a great swollen river and want to cross it to get home. I come and say, “Be it known unto you that I have found a bridge.” The fact of my telling you so alters the complexion of the whole case. You must prove me a liar before you can get back to your former state of negative responsibility. You are bound to say, “Where?” I am bound to tell you where; and if, after having pointed out the bridge, you will not go home those on the other side have a right to condemn you. Brethren, you are on one side and truth on the other. An infinite distance lies between; but Paul says it is bridged by Christ. You are bound to accept or disprove the statement. If not to die. You are suffering from a great plague. I come and say, “Be it known unto you, I have found a balm which has never failed.” Your state of responsibility is changed from that moment. Prove me false, or accept the remedy, or die. We are dying, and Jesus is set forth as the forgiveness of sins. No man, therefore, can hear that statement, and be the same after it as before.
3. How little is this word “forgiveness” understood, however we may assume we understand it. We sometimes ignorantly say, “Why does not God forgive all men, and make an end of sin?” He cannot. You cannot. We must be willing to be forgiven. I may say, if you have wronged me, “Sir, I forgive you,” and you may contemptuously refuse to be forgiven. “But if we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive,” etc. Did He forgive the Pharisee? How could He? The Pharisee confessed nothing. Whom did He forgive? The poor self-accusing creature who cried, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” So it is with us.
4. When God forgives, what happens? He forgets. “I will remember no more.” Where there is no forgetting there is no forgiving. What does God do with our sins when He has forgiven them? He casts them behind Him. Where is that? He puts them away as far as the East is from the West. How far is that?
5. Here, then, is forgiveness. God is waiting I am authorised to say. Are you ready? “But I do not understand.” Sir, your understanding will damn you, if you use it so. Do you feel your need? Then believe. The apostle distinctly says there is only one way--through faith in Christ. If there were but one door to this hall, and the guide said, “This is the door,” what folly to seek elsewhere or try to climb up to the windows. To take his word simply is to save time and promote comfort. But Paul is only one man--then I call the innumerable multitude who have believed his word and been forgiven to corroborate him. (J. Parker, D. D.)
Full and free pardon
I. Through this man. Such a man as there never was nor will be--“God manifest in the flesh,” “the brightness of His Father’s glory, and the express image of His person.” In consequence of this union He becomes the proper object of our faith, and therefore the proper object of our preaching. If Jesus Christ were but a mere man, we could not have preached pardon through Him. What merit could there be in the actions or sufferings of a mere man? For, when he had done all, he would only have done what was commanded him. Gold in bullion is valuable, but it is not the circulating medium of the country, and, before it can become so, it must be melted down and stamped with the king’s arms and image. Now, if Christ had been the best of mere men, His actions and sufferings would have been mere gold in the bullion, not the circulating medium. But when I consider the Divine nature in union with the human, then I see that they are stamped with the king’s arms and image, and thus they become the circulating medium of salvation, and they will pay every man’s debts on this side hell.
II. We point you to this Man on the Cross, and you there see Him bearing our sins in His own body on the tree. There is infinite merit in the sacrifice of this Godman. Prophets looked at Him on the Cross, and they saw and proclaimed pardon through Him, and the sole song of heaven’s joy is, “He has redeemed us to God by His blood.” We cannot tell why Jesus Christ did suffer and die, except on the ground of atonement. He could not suffer and die on His own account. “The soul that sinneth it shall die”; but, as Jesus Christ never had sinned, therefore He had no right to die. On the contrary, by the letter of the law, he had a right to live. “Do this and thou shalt live.” Rationally, we can give no account except this: “He died, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.” When you look at the Cross, and see the infinite value of the sacrifice, you need not wonder “that we preach through this Man the forgiveness of sins.”
III. This is just the very blessing we want. “Look at the poor man condemned to be hanged. A messenger might be sent to say, “His majesty has graciously taken your ease into consideration, and I have brought you a purse with a thousand sovereigns.” The poor man would say, “What good can they do me? I must be hanged tomorrow.” “Well, but I have another message; he has considered your case, and sent you the title deeds to an estate of £50,000 a year.” “What will that do for me? I may be hanged to morrow.” “Stop; I have another proposition to make; I have brought you his coronation robe, the richest robe that ever covered a monarch.” The man bursts into tears; he says, “Do you intend to mock me? What a creature I shall appear when I ascend the scaffold with the coronation robe! But what, no news--none at all?” “I have another word; his majesty has taken your case into consideration, and sent you a pardon, signed and sealed by the great seal of the king. Here, I have brought you a pardon--what do you say to that?” The poor man looks at him and says that he doubts it is too good news to be true. Then he leaps and praises. But the messenger says, “I have not done; I have got you the pardon, and here is the purse of gold, the title deeds, and the robe into the bargain!” So we preach pardon through the blood of the Lamb, and more than simple pardon. Not merely is the displeasure of God removed, but His favour enjoyed. Not merely is the pardoned sinner made a subject, but a child, brought to the king’s palace, and made an heir of God and a joint heir with Christ.
IV. And how must we obtain it? “Whosoever believeth.” Where a sinner believes the testimony of God, that he is a guilty sinner, sees the evil of his sin, the danger of his state, and feels a deep abhorrence of himself, a deep hatred to sin, and breathes out his soul in prayer--I do not say that he shall obtain remission of sins, but that is a preparatory operation that must take place, more or less, in all our souls. Remission of sins is not attached to believing God’s record concerning Himself, but the eye turns itself out of itself, out of its own sins, out of its own weakness, and fixes itself upon the Lord Jesus Christ, in the dignity of His person, the virtue of His sacrificed the prevalence of His mediatorial office, this riches of His love. And then, when it looks to Jesus, there is in Christ everything that the guilty sinner wants. Here is the pardon presented, but he can bring no price. What, then, can he do? Why, he can open his hands and receive the blood-bought, freely-offered pardon for all his transgressions.
V. There is no other system in the world that, at the same time that it brings pardon to the sinner, brings the highest glory to God. Here is pardon, the fullest and the freest. Even in the Mosaic economy there were some sins for which there was no propitiatory sacrifice, and consequently those who lived under that economy could not be justified from all things. But the soul that believeth on Jesus Christ is justified from all things. And then it brings the highest glory to God, for He is glorified in the very exhibition of pardon to a ruined world. Some may say that to look for mere pardon and acceptance is a narrow and selfish principle; that we should look to a higher object, viz., the glory of God. Well, when I am pardoned, God is glorified, the plan of salvation, the merits of Christ, the goodness and holiness of God are glorified. When our Lord was a babe in the manger, angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest.” I think we can sing it better now that He is a prince on the throne. We cannot glorify God without loving Him, and how can we love Him without being pardoned? Having much forgiven, we love much; and when we love much, we shall glorify God. We glorify God when we prize Him. When the sinner obtains pardon, he says, “I will praise thee, though Thou wast angry with me.” God is glorified by our devotedness. We glorify God with our bodies and our spirits, which are His. (W. Dawson.)
Justification by faith
I. That mankind are naturally, and without Christ, in a state of guilt and condemnation. This proposition is here implied; it is that upon which the whole statement of the apostle proceeds; for it would be idle to talk of “forgiveness of sins,” and to press it on the acceptance of those who are not sinners. God made man holy. To holy man he gave a holy law, which partook of the nature of a covenant. The language of it was, “Do it, and thou shalt live; but in the day that thou transgresseth, thou shalt die.” The first man, the federal head of the whole human race, did transgress, and by transgression forfeited, for himself and for our race, the blessing of obedience, the blessing of the covenant, and incurred the penalty of the law--that is, he forfeited the right to life, and he incurred the punishment of death. From him we all derive a nature which--like his after his apostasy--was alienated from God, and inclined to evil The effect of this is that, when temptations occur, we all act again the part which he acted before us. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” “The wrath of God abideth on them.”
II. That proof this natural, condition men cannot extricate themselves. “Ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.” This undoubtedly includes a reference to the sacrifices and other ritual observances of the law. But we are sinners of the Gentiles, and are in no danger of relying on Jewish ceremonies. It is necessary, however, that we be convinced that we cannot be justified by the works of the moral law. To show you this you have only to look at what kind of obedience it is that the law requires when it says, “Do this, and thou shalt live.” In order to your justification by law, the law requires an obedience perfect--
1. In its principles and motives. The law of God is spiritual, and will not be content with an external obedience. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,” etc. This law of God is so spiritual that it charges an idle thought as actual wickedness, a licentious desire as adultery, anger of heart as murder. Now, will any man stand the scrutiny of such a law as this?
2. In its practice and performance. On the one hand there are some who appeal to what they think the very tolerable, or even commendable regularity, of their outward conduct, and they ask whether they may not claim to be justified. Our last observation met their inquiry. But there are others who allow they have done that which they ought not to have done, but appeal to the supposed goodness of their hearts. “We meant well. We have failed in the performance, but will not God take the will for the deed?” Now, the second observation is meant to correct that. The law will not take the will for the deed, or the deed for the will. “Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.” There must be actual and perfect performance in order to sustain the plea on the ground of your own works to life eternal. It is not enough to say that you thoroughly approve of the law; you may approve of it, and yet transgress it. It is not enough to say that you really desire to fulfil the law; the law makes justification depend not on desiring to keep the law, but on actually keeping it. It is not enough to say you have really used your strenuous endeavours to keep the law of God. The question is not whether you have been endeavouring, but whether you have performed it to the letter. Now how is it possible that any of us should stand on that ground before God?
3. In its extent, “In all things.” It is not enough, therefore, to show that you have kept some of God’s precepts. It is very possible that you may have continued in those parts of the law regulating your intercourse with the world, and yet have been extremely faulty in reference to those parts which relate to your feelings and conduct towards God. Now can you meet God on such ground as that?
4. In its duration. Think again of the passage already cited. Cursed is he that continueth not from the first moment at which personal responsibility commences to the latest period of his life “in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them.” Oh! how inconceivably vain are all self-righteous hopes!
III. That what the law thus fails of accomplishing, through no defects of its own (for it is in every respect perfect and good), but through the perversity and weakness of human nature, the gospel offers freely to impart.
1. “Forgiveness of sins,” that is, the remission of the penalty due to the commission of guilt.
2. The same transaction, substantially, is called “justification.” To be justified is to be accounted righteous, and to be treated as righteous. And the pardoned man, being thus at the same time accounted righteous, becomes entitled to blessings of unspeakable value. He has peace, is adopted into the family of God, is entitled to the inheritance of children.
IV. That for this great and unspeakable blessing provided for us in the gospel we are altogether indebted meritoriously to the Lord Jesus Christ. “Through this Man … and by Him.” The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us for the purpose of saving us. You owe your pardon, justification, and all subsequent blessings--
1. To this Man’s holy and spotless life. The perfect purity of our Saviour was essential to His becoming an accepted sacrifice for the sins of men. According to the law none but a lamb without blemish could be accepted.
2. To this Man’s death on the Cross. Not all the condescension implied in His assuming our nature, not all the sublimity of His doctrines, could have availed to the salvation of men.
3. To this Man’s resurrection from the dead. He “was delivered for our offences, but raised again for our justification.” Hence to the apostles “Jesus and the resurrection” was the great point to which they bare testimony. Not that His resurrection was the meritorious consideration on which God extended pardon, but that the resurrection bore a satisfactory attestation to the death which did atone. For if there had been no real death, there could not be a real resurrection.
4. To this Man’s ascension and to His mediatorial administration of all the affairs of His spiritual kingdom. “He has ascended on high; He has led captivity captive; He has received gifts for men,” etc. The dispensation of those blessings which He procured for our race is entrusted to His own hands; out of His fulness it is that we receive the grace of penitence and faith, and that seals the pardon by the Spirit of adoption.
V. That, in order to the personal appropriation of the blessings thus procured by Christ, faith is required as the appointed instrument. “By Him all that believe are justified.” No unbeliever is justified. Let us learn from this that the forgiveness of sin is not a very rare and extraordinary thing. Some objectors say that the enjoyment rather belongs to persons of eminent attainments in religion, or that it is the recompense for some eminent sacrifice for Christ and conscience. But the text says that “all who believe are justified.” And this is in accordance with St. John’s testimony: “I write unto you little children, because your sins are forgiven you, for His name’s sake.” So that even the weakest believer has the forgiveness of sins. What, then, is that believing to which such important consequences are attached?
1. It is not merely education, the faith which results from our having the privilege of being born in a Christian land. It is not the historical faith merely which results from the exercise of our judgment upon Divine revelation, its evidence, and its contents. The heart must be brought to bear on the truth thus apprehended, the will must embrace it, and the affections must be called forth and exercised by it. It is a “believing with the heart” that is “unto righteousness.” There may be the “evil heart of unbelief” where there is not the smallest approach to theoretical and speculative infidelity.
2. And then, to come a little nearer still, it is not merely that going out after God in penitential desire, and with that measure of hope and anticipation which belongs to the true penitent. A man effectually convinced of sin cannot but go out after Christ in penitential desire, for he perceives that without Christ he is undone. This faith implies the actual laying hold upon Christ by the power of the Eternal Spirit with believing, trust, and reliance.
3. Do you wish to get a clearer and more distinct view of it? I tell you how it is to be done; you must make the experiment; you will never understand it till you practise it. In the exercise of penitent and self-renouncing and self-despairing feelings turn your eye to Christ; look on Him that you may be saved. Look off from everything else; look off from yourself, from every other pretended saviour; look to Jesus; and while you are thus looking, the aid of the Holy Spirit will be imparted to you, and you will perform that special and distinct act of faith which is trusting on Christ, which is believing with the heart unto righteousness; and while you are performing, when you thus perform it, you will understand it better. (Jabez Bunting, D. D.)
Forgiveness is free for all who believe
I recollect in Martin Luther’s life that he saw, in one of the Romish churches, a picture of the Pope, and the cardinals, and bishops, and priests, and monks, and friars, all on board a ship. They were all safe, every one of them. As for the laity, poor wretches, they were struggling in the sea, and many of them drowning. Only those were saved to whom the good men in the ship were so kind as to hand out a rope or a plank. That is not our Lord’s teaching; His blood is shed “for many,” and not for the few. He is not the Christ of a caste, or a class, but the Christ of all conditions of men. His blood is shed for many sinners, that their sins may be remitted. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Salvation is through Christ only
I recollect a story told of William Dawson, whom our Wesleyan friends used to call Billy Dawson, one of the best preachers that ever entered a pulpit. He once gave out as his text, “Through this Man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins.” When he had given out his text he dropped down to the bottom of the pulpit, so that nothing could be seen of him, only there was a voice heard saying, “Not the man in the pulpit--he is out of sight--but the Man in the book. The Man described in the book is the Man through whom is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins.” I put myself and you and everybody else out of sight, and I preach to you the remission of sins through Jesus only. I would sing with the children, “Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” Shut your eyes to all things but the Cross. Jesus died, and rose again, and went to heaven, and all your hope must go with Him! Come, my hearer, take Jesus by a distinct act of faith this morning! May God the Holy Ghost constrain thee to do so, and then thou mayest go on thy way rejoicing! So be it in the name of Jesus. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
A Christian worker says: “We were asked one day to call and see a poor woman who was very ill. We found her worn and faint, in a state of extreme discomfort and poverty. In the room were screaming children, whose mother was loudly bidding them ‘Be still, or she’d beat them,’ so that at first it seemed doubtful whether the invalid would be able to listen to anything. ‘It’s all there,’ said the poor woman, laying her hand on her chest, ‘and don’t leave me night nor day. I can’t get rid of the burden!’ Our efforts to arrange the pillow and straighten the rags meant for bed clothes did not afford any relief.’ No, my dear, it’s not that, it’s not that. Its all my sins as I’ve done ever since I was a child: they come up before me, and lie there so heavy. They tell me I must die; but I can’t.’ ‘Now, listen, and I will tell you of a man who felt just as you did, only perhaps worse. He was so bad that he could not keep from roaring day and night. He could not lie still as you can; and he said, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. When I kept silence my bones waxed old, through my roaring all the day long. For day and night Thy hand was heavy upon me.” ‘Oh,’ broke in the woman, ‘that’s like me; and what did he do?’ ‘I acknowledged my sin unto Thee. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord’; and on explaining what this was, the poor woman started up in bed, took hold of my arm, and, with an eagerness beyond description, asked, ‘What did the Lord say? What did God say to him?’ ‘And Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin; for this shall everyone pray unto Thee.’ No more need be told. The woman acknowledged her sins, and David’s God spake forgiveness to her heart through Jesus Christ. From that day the burden was gone, and the praise that rose from that sick bed continuous.”
Justification by faith
Luther sought rest for his troubled breast in self-denial and retirement as a monk, but did not find it. In 1500 he started as a delegate for Rome, hoping to find relief from his burden there. As he came in sight of the city he fell on his knees, exclaiming, “Holy Rome! I salute thee.” He was disappointed and shocked at the wickedness which he found there. The people said to him, “if there is a hell, Rome is built over it.” At last he turned to ascend Pilate’s staircase, thronged by the superstitious crowd, upon his knees. He toiled from step to step, repeating his prayers at everyone, till a voice of thunder seemed to cry within him, “The just shall live by faith.” Instantly he rose, saw the folly of his hopes of relief through works of merit. A new life followed his new light. Seven years after he nailed his theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, and inaugurated the Reformation. (Christian Age.)
From which ye could not be Justified by the law of Moses.--
The superiority of the gospel to the law
The law cannot save, “for by the deeds of the law no flesh is justified”; but the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. The law is all righteousness--the gospel all grace. The law can only justify the just; the gospel justifies the sinner. The law is a royal chariot that will convey the perfect man to heaven, but it is a Juggernaut car which crushes the rebel under its wheels. The law can only declare a man just; the gospel makes him just. The law demands obedience, but it never helps men to obey; the gospel effectually helps those who cannot help themselves. The law cries out, “Do this and live”; the gospel, in gentler tones, says, “Believe and live.” The law has a prison in which to punish; the gospel has a reformatory in which to save. The law is a taskmaster sternly commanding; the gospel is a philanthropist generously helping and inspiring. The law can only show the sins; the gospel, with an almighty fling, casts them into the depths of the sea. The law can say, “If Thou, Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, who shall stand?” The gospel gives the grand reply, “There is forgiveness with Thee.” The law can say, “Sin hath abounded”; the gospel, “Grace hath much more abounded.” The law has not saved one soul; the gospel has saved its myriads. Thank God that where the law fails the gospel triumphs. (J. Ossian Davies.)
A solemn warning to the ungodly
We are, in this world, represented as being remarkably under the influence of self-love; but, with regard to the eternal future, the self-love of man is strangely perverted and enfeebled. One of the main objects of the sacred writings is to grapple with this fatal tendency, and one mode is to announce men’s danger by reason of their sinful folly; and also the only method by which that danger can be averted. Notice--
I. The infliction to which this solemn caution relates. What is it that we have to beware of? You will find in the context that it is “the anger,” or “the wrath of God” (Acts 13:41; Isaiah 29:14; Habakkuk 1:5). Observe--
1. The cause from which the threatened anger arises. God created the universe for His praise, and filled it with all the elements of happiness. And when we find Him going forth amid the threatenings of vengeance, to what is the change to be ascribed? To the introduction of sin. The first transgressors were angels who kept not their first estate, and are reserved, under chains and darkness, unto the judgment of the great day! Afterwards man became a sinner, and “by one man’s disobedience, many have been made sinners.” Hence it is that there comes the threatening. Now, is there anything in this but an equitable arrangement of consequence as following cause?
2. The operations in which that wrath is manifested.
II. The considerations by which this solemn caution may be especially enforced. Beware of this wrath--
1. On account of the suddenness with which it is frequently inflicted. “Because there is wrath, beware lest He take thee away with a stroke.” “He that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, aid that without remedy.” There are examples which God has given, in order to illustrate and confirm these general declarations. For example, Nabad and Abihu, Korah and his company, Belshazzar, Ananias, Herod. And have we had no instance of the infliction of the wrath of God in our own times and amongst ourselves? Beware! for the wrath of God, on account of sin, may come upon you unawares.
2. Because when inflicted it causes irreparable ruin. We are not speaking now of temporal evils, but of the future state (Luke 13:24-30).
III. The conduct to which this solemn caution should lead.
1. Men are to embrace the refuge which God has provided from the wrath to come. The Governor of the universe has, while preserving the honour of His justice, magnified the riches of His grace, and He is willing that none should perish, but that all should come to repentance. And if men, feeling their guilt and their danger, will but come unto Him in the exercise of faith, they shall be forgiven.
2. The resort to the remedy which has been provided must be without delay. Why should we delay? You bare delayed long enough. You have often been invited, and often summoned to beware.
1. The brevity and uncertainty of life.
2. The hardening influence of sin. (J. Parsons.)
Behold ye despisers, and wonder and perish.
The destruction of despisers
I. The character of these despisers.
1. There are some who despise all religion, and reject even those fundamental principles which revelation presupposes; such as the existence and providence of God, the difference between moral good and evil, and the freedom and accountableness of man.
2. There are some who pretend to believe the truths of natural religion, but despise all revelation. From the supposed sufficiency of human reason for all the purposes of religion, they conclude that no supernatural discovery ever has been or ever will be made.
3. There are some who acknowledge in general the truth of the gospel, but despise its peculiar doctrines.
4. There are those that profess to believe the gospel in all its essential doctrines, and yet in their hearts and lives oppose it.
II. In what respects, it may be said, they will perish wonderfully. Here are two things asserted.
1. Destruction awaits contemptuous sinners. Whatever may be the condition of heathens, who never heard of Christ, awful must be the fate of those, who, having heard of Him, despise and refuse the only Lord who bought them. “They who believe not, shall die in their sins”; they are “condemned already, because they believe not in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” If obedience to God is necessary to salvation, faith in Christ must be necessary; for this is the command of God, “That we believe on Him whom He hath sent.”
2. This destruction when it comes will be wonderful.
(a) the great anguish of a self-condemning conscience.
(b) That positive punishment which awaits sinners.
(c) The distress of total despair.
III. Let me enforce the caution in the text. “Beware,” etc. In mercy to our guilty world, God has sent His Son to make the purchase, proclaim the offers, and state the terms of eternal salvation. To us the word of this salvation is sent. The question now proposed is, Will you accept it? If you will accept the benefit you must submit to the terms of it. You must repent and yield to the government of the gospel of Christ. If you will not do this, you despise His gospel, and all the blessings which it reveals. Consider what it is that you despise. It is a gospel preached by the Son of God from heaven; confirmed by miracles, preserved in the world by a merciful providence, and transmitted to you by peculiar favour. How worthy, then, of your thankful acceptation! To despise this is to despise that pearl of great price, to purchase which you should be willing to sell all that you have. To despise this is to despise God’s greatest gift, even the gift of His own Son, who came to seek and to save them who were lost. Judge, now, what must be the consequence of this contempt. Know ye, that your judgment lingers not. The Lord will soon arise, that He may do His strange work. (J. Lathrop, D. D.)
And when the Jews were gone out of the synagogue, the Gentiles besought that these words.
Growth of apostolic power
1. There are always unexpected hearers arising to give encouragement to the preacher. Strangers are there, who spring up, and say, “This is the gate of heaven.” The Gentiles hailed the Word as strangers might hail tidings of home. We know some things not by direct intellectual instruction, but by subtle and inexpressible sympathy. We feel that certain words are true. We may not know music technically, but surely the dullest man knows when the right tune is being sung. The Gentiles heard a strange speech that day, yet they knew it. The Lamb was slain before the universe was built. The gospel comes to a measure of preparation. Somehow in the most savage breast there rises up an answering voice, saying, “This is what I have been waiting for.”
2. But preachers have to find out their hearers. Paul and Barnabas were no doubt amazed at the desire of the Gentiles. The invitation would have come naturally from the Jews. It would be a pleasant thing if our neighbours would invite us to this or that renewal of service, but they go away and leave us. But we are not alone; for God, who is able to raise up out of the stones children unto Abraham, raises up strange hearers, unknown hearts, and from them comes the cry which we cannot refuse to answer.
3. We think we have expressed the very last formula of science when we say the same causes produce the same effects; in all moral questions the axiom is not only doubtful but untrue. The Jews were “filled with envy,” the Gentiles were “filled with joy.” How do you account for that? It was the same Sabbath, preacher, doctrine, congregation. There the same cause did not produce the same effect. You are not dealing with cause and effect only in a case of this kind; you are dealing with the middle quantity, human nature. Like goes to like. The same preacher cannot minister to all people. A man may dislike this ministry or that solely because he may not understand it or be in sympathy with it, but to another man it is the very breath of heaven. Thanks be unto God, every true Paul has at least some few Gentiles who understand and love Him.
4. “Now, when the congregation was broken up” (Acts 13:43). Was it then all over? Congregations should never break up in the sense of terminating spiritual ministry. There were after meetings. Beza says that herein is a justification for mid-week meetings and lectures. “Now when the congregation was broken up, the people dispersed, and referred no more to the matter.” Does the text read so? It would read so if it had been written today. I never hear anyone make reference to the solemn engagements of the sanctuary after they are over. It is a decency observed, a ceremony passed through, a fact accomplished. In the olden time Christian service used to be the be-all and the end-all of the life of those who engaged in it. Here is life in the olden time (Acts 13:44-45). That was life I a man could preach then! Sermons were thunderbolts! Religious services were not opportunities for sanctified slumber; they were calls, as with the blast of a thousand trumpets, to the standard and to the sword of the Lord.
5. In the forty-sixth verse the ministers become new men. “Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold.” There is history in these words; it was a critical moment; it was one of two things--the Jews by their blasphemy prevailing, or the apostles of Christ saying, “The day shall be ours.” Some men are so easily put down. Paul and Barnabas were not made of such material; history is not made of such stuff! Somewhere, in symbol or in speech, you must find the heroic element in every true man. I know nothing of that marvellous love of Christ that never mentions His name; that never touches His memorial bread or wine; that never gives Him a cup of cold water. Be ours the Christianity that is heroic and self-sacrificing. Let the world know that we are followers of the Cross. When I read that Paul “waxed bold,” I am not surprised; but when I read that Barnabas waxed bold, I wonder if he would have done so if Paul had not been there. Barnabas! take care that your strong brother is always nigh at hand when you go out to do Christian work, for in his strength you may be strong.
6. “As many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” How many poor souls have stumbled there, as if a door had been shut in their faces, whereas there is no door but an open one to the heart of God! Never found what you call good theology upon bad grammar. Happily these words, the most learned men tell us, might be read, “And so many as set themselves in order” were saved; as many as took up this matter; as many as accepted the Word; as many as disposed themselves in soldierly order and array went on to victory and honour. There can be no more terrible blasphemy than for any man to think that God has a spite against him, and will not let him be saved. God would have all men to come unto Him and be saved.
7. Notice an extraordinary expression. In Acts 13:46 “the Jews were filled with envy”; in Acts 13:52 “the disciples were filled with joy.” It is always so with the gospel; it is a savour of life unto life, or of death unto death; it makes a man a worse man, or a better man. But “My Spirit shall not always strive with man.” The apostles said, “It was necessary that the Word of God should first be spoken to you”; but after that comes the withdrawal of the opportunity, the taking away of the light, the shutting of the hospitable door. This may be our last chance!” He that being often reproved, hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy.” (J. Parker, D. D.)
The results of Paul’s first reported sermon
I. A general spirit of religious inquiry (Acts 13:42). A sermon has done much when it has broken the monotony of thought, and excited the spirit of religious inquiry.
II. The conversion of many of the hearers (Acts 13:43). The fact that Paul and Barnabas exhorted them to continue in “the grace of God” implies of course--
1. That they had received it. Had been converted.
2. That there was a danger of losing it.
III. A great excitement amongst all classes (Acts 13:44). The words of Paul had struck into the heart of the population, and set the minds of all alive. During the previous week his sermon was the one subject of talk in all circles. All felt anxious to hear more; so that now, at the dawn of the Sabbath day, they gather in crowds to hear the wondrous truths again. The gospel breaks the stagnant atmosphere of the mind, and unchains the strong winds of thought.
IV. The stirring up of a bitter persecution (Acts 13:45). When the Jews saw the crowds of Gentiles flocking to the apostles, and treated by them as on terms of equality with the chosen people, their envy was kindled, the fiendish flame raged in their bosoms, and they began to contradict and blaspheme. They dealt in calumny, reviled them as heretics and false teachers. True and powerful sermons will excite antagonism as well as win converts.
V. The increased power of the apostles in their work (Acts 13:46). Like all true men, they grew greater in the presence of difficulties, and braver as perils thickened around them. Opposition never intimidates great natures in a good cause. On the contrary, it brings out their manhood in defiant attitudes. In the text we have three things--
1. The gospel offered by a Divine plan. “It was necessary,” etc. Why? Because Christ had commanded that the Jews should have the first offer. There were reasons for this. Their offer to the Jew “first” was--
2. The gospel rejected by an unbelieving people. “Judge yourselves unworthy!” Is not this withering irony? The Jew thinks himself unworthy of eternal life! Proud spirits; they considered nothing too good in heaven or earth for them; they felt themselves worthy of heaven’s choicest gifts.
3. The gospel promoted by earnest men. “Lo, we turn to the Gentiles.” We have no time to lose. Souls by millions around us want the salvation we are commissioned to offer. We have offered it to you. You have rejected it. Adieu, we hasten to other spheres. Two things are suggested here--
4. The gospel designed for the world by the mercy of God. “For so hath the Lord commanded us, saying,” etc. They assured them fruit of God’s special kindness to them.
VI. A practical acceptation of the gospel by a large number of the Gentiles (Acts 13:48-49). The idea is, that as many as were disposed unto eternal life--the gospel--believed in it; and this is evermore the case.
VII. The expulsion of the apostles from their coasts and their departure to Iconium (Acts 13:50-52). “Devout” in the sense of being proselytes, “honourable” in the sense of social rank. The persecuting Jews used the influence of these women to banish the apostles. Women have often been used as tools in the hands of persecutors. The persecutors so far succeeded that the apostles withdrew. “But they shook off the dust of their feet against them.” The act does not mean indignation. No fires of revenge or resentment glowed in their bosoms. It was a dramatic act expressing abhorrence of their conduct in desecrating the most sacred of missions. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
Now when the congregation was broken up.--
The congregation and its dispersion
I. The congregation.
1. It is a wonderful thing when we reflect upon it. It differs from every other gathering. It is a mixed assemblage. Persons of all ages and of all ranks are here. Persons who meet nowhere else meet here. The house of mourning and the house of feasting alike contribute their quota to this one gathering. In this one place there is silence, except from certain authorised speakers, or at certain prescribed points. To the words of a man, one of themselves, all are bound to listen in respectful silence.
2. The inference which all must draw from such a scene is that there is a consciousness of a great want--the want of the knowledge of God, communion with God, directions from God. Men cannot do without a religion, and that religion must have its exercises. It could scarcely be accounted for, except on the supposition that there is a God, whom to reverence is man’s first duty, whom to know is life. And this supposition condemns us. We do not (it may be) know God, and we do not reverence Him. What the congregation does, the individual does not.
3. We may well form a high estimate of this great institution. What is done here tells upon the life; yea, upon the eternal life. Carelessness of thought, the entrance of the world and the devil into the heart here, does involve consequences of which none can set the limit. When we come together, as St. Paul says, in one place, it must be either for the better or for the worse.
II. The breaking up of the congregation.
1. He who sees the gradual emptying of this holy place, and pictures to himself the various scenes to which the worshippers are returning, may well look after them anxiously, and wonder where and how the seed sown is to have its development, if at all. Whither will the All-seeing eye track its dispersion? Shall there be any deed of darkness done by one who is now hearing the Word of God? Shall there be around any hearth thoughts of unkindness or words of dispute and bitterness? Or shall there be any lying down to sleep unblessed by prayer? Surely, if the sight of a congregation has its solemnity, the sight of its dispersion is more solemn and more anxious still. Ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table and of the table of devils.
2. In this case, an apostle had been the preacher, his topic was a new gospel, and the impression made had been such that the audience wanted to hear the same sermon again. And yet even when Paul preached, even when One greater than Paul preached, some believed the things that were spoken, and some believed not. It is even so now. Those who were satisfied with the hearing went away; those who desired to live by it stayed behind. Is there nothing now to correspond with this distinction? Where amongst us are the religious proselytes who follow the ministers when the congregation is broken up; use, in other words, the opportunities afforded them for a more private and personal instruction, link together the Sunday services by a chain of holy effort and assiduous devotion in the week between, and thus set themselves with all earnestness to grow in knowledge and in grace?
3. Paul and Barnabas felt that an attentive congregation, though a great blessing, is an ambiguous sign. They knew the precariousness, as well as the importance, of the spiritual life, and never rested satisfied with one symptom or evidence of a strong impression. They spoke to these new disciples, and persuaded them to continue in the grace of God. It is a great thing to set out well; it is more to run well: it is more still to end well. (Dean Vaughan.)
And the next Sabbath day came almost the whole city together;…but when the Jews saw the multitudes they were filled with envy.--
And are not religious bodies sometimes guilty of this sin? Has it no existence in the breasts of professing Christians of different denominations? Is there no envy in Dissenters towards the Church of England, or of the Church of England towards Dissenters? Of Baptists towards Paedo-baptists, Paedobaptists towards Baptists? Of Methodists towards Congregationalists, and Congregationalists towards Methodists? What meaneth that disposition to suspect and traduce each other, which is but too common amongst all the divisions of the Christian Church? If one denomination prospers, are not all the rest too apt to look on with envious eyes, because theirs is likely to be eclipsed or diminished? Are not all the little arts of detraction most busily employed, and a hundred tongues made voluble to arrest the progress and limit the prosperity of the rising sect? And how much of this spirit is often seen in the conducting of rising congregations of the same denomination! What ill-will is often cherished by the members of the declining cause towards those of the prosperous one, and only because they are prosperous! They can never hear of the success of their neighbour society, their sister Church, without feeling and appearing uneasy and displeased, as if an injury were done to them; they profess to be incredulous of the fact; they suggest that it is more in outward show than reality; they do not scruple to mention drawbacks in the talents or perhaps the inconsistencies of the minister; detraction, yea, even slander, is employed against some of the members of this “prosperous” society, as it is sneeringly called. Such even in Christian Churches, or rather in the minds of some of their members, are the operations of envy. (J. A. James.)
Envy at the success of the gospel
I. Against the envious.
1. Their secret pride.
2. Their evil conscience.
3. Their internal unhappiness.
II. For the envied. There must be something in it.
1. A truth which cannot be denied.
2. A good against which we cannot contend.
3. A blessedness which cannot be mocked away. (K. Gerok.)
The opponents of the gospel injure only themselves
1. They disclose their evil hearts (Acts 13:45).
2. They make themselves unworthy of eternal life (Acts 13:46).
3. They disgrace themselves by the bad weapons they employ (Acts 13:50).
4. They do not arrest the victorious course of truth (Acts 13:48-52). (K. Gerok.)
Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said,…seeing ye put it from you, and Judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life.--
Unworthy of eternal life
I. That clearly we all are, however exorbitant may be our estimate of our own excellencies. Finite merit can never entitle us to an infinite reward. If it were ordained that for each year lived in perfect virtue we were to have meted out to us one year more of heaven, he would be a rash man who would affirm that the reward was insufficient. But suppose that for each such year we were to have a thousand years in glory, who would dare to say that the reward was not far in advance of our deserts?
1. Try and form some idea of everlasting life, that you may be the better able to realise how little you can merit it.
2. But now look at the other side. Although eternal life is so glorious, yet there is not a man in this congregation who can bring his own heart to be satisfied with the prospect of anything less. Promise to yourself, if you will, a thousand ages, or multiply that thousand by any number of figures, yet let it be understood that there is to come a term at last, sooner or later, and at once there is a bitter drop in your cup of pleasure.
3. But now place these two definite conclusions side by side--that we none of us can deserve eternal life, and that we cannot be satisfied with anything short of it. Bring these two facts together, and then you will find yourselves landed in one of two further conclusions--either that man is to be disappointed, and that human life is to be the victim of death, or else eternal life must become ours without our meriting it, that is to say, by deed of gift on the part of Him who alone has the power to impart it. Nothing can be more plain than the utterances of the New Testament upon this point (John 10:27-28; Romans 6:23; 1 John 5:9-11).
4. But if God has given it, why is it that we do not possess it? The answer is, that a gift needs to be accepted as well as given. The gift has not been given to each sinner severally, but it has been treasured up in the Son for all. “He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.” Over and over again we are taught that our eternal life is dependent upon our faith in Christ as God’s provision for our need. Now it is obvious that this faith is not an exhibition of merit, but rather a confession of helplessness. Hence clearly it follows that this life is only to become ours by deed of gift. We may receive a gift by an act of simple faith, but something more than faith is required to earn it. If, for instance, the condition had been prayer, we might have felt entitled to some sort of favourable consideration because we had struggled so long and so patiently. Or if the condition had been fasting, etc., we should have felt that our penances had established some sort of claim upon God’s mercy. Or had the condition been almsgiving, should we not have felt as if we had paid a very considerable, if not a sufficient, price for this wondrous boon? But faith is at once the simplest and the least meritorious of conditions, and in ordaining this God has not only proved that eternal life is a gift, but that it is a gift that none need find it difficult to appropriate.
5. And this leads to the next point, that there is no excuse for us if we do not possess ourselves of eternal life. If we had to earn it we might well despair. But what have we to say for ourselves if we are so blind to our own interests as to refuse to accept everlasting life as a gift? Are you possessed of eternal life? You have no right to remain uncertain about this. It is not too much then to say that you may become possessed of this blessed gift today. Will you spurn such a splendid gift as this? And will you barter this for fleeting trifles, and thus judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life?
II. But you say, “How can we avoid judging ourselves unworthy of eternal life if, as you have yourself shown, this is our real condition? If We are unworthy of it, nothing is gained by our abstaining from judging ourselves to be so.” This objection brings us to ask, “In what sense were these Jews judging themselves unworthy?” Obviously not in the sense in which we have used the words; had that been so, they would have been the more disposed to listen to the messengers who brought it as a gift. It is one thing to be absolutely unworthy of any particular benefit, and another to prove relatively unworthy of it when it is brought within our reach. If a benevolent man chooses to take a homeless street Arab and offer him the benefits of a comfortable home, it is clear that this fortunate boy is receiving treatment that he can lay no claim to; he is absolutely undeserving of it. If, however, his benefactor chooses to bestow all this kindness upon him, it is a deed of gift, and the unworthiness of the boy is no bar to his enjoying it. But suppose the silly boy does not know when he is well off, turns his back upon his benefactor, and prefers the gutter to the mansion--what do we say of him now? It is with quite a different meaning now that we affirm that he is unworthy of his benefactor’s goodness; and so absolutely we are all unworthy of everlasting life. But when God brings this unspeakable gift within our reach, we judge ourselves relatively unworthy when we treat the priceless treasure as though it were not a thing worth having. Now this is the great sin of man. “Ye put it from you.” All I that is how we pronounce sentence upon ourselves. Men put it from them--
1. When they are too busy with other concerns to pay any attention to this. The making of money, the improvement of our social position, the politics of the day, the claims of science or of art, these things are allowed to absorb the attention, while the great question, besides which all other things are mere trifles, How shall I inherit eternal life? remains unanswered and unconsidered.
2. When they endeavour to feel satisfied with a religion that does not impart this gift.
3. When they allow themselves to be blinded by prejudice, or held in bondage by the opinions of others. This was the way in which these Jews of Antioch put it from them. The first thing to be settled before we touch doctrines or party creeds is the question of life.
4. When they treat it with contempt, sneering at it as cant and hypocrisy, instead of examining carefully the nature of the spiritual phenomena occurring before their eyes.
5. By clinging to the sins and follies of which the apostle says so truly, “The end of those things is death.” We cannot sow the seeds of death and reap the harvest of life. (W. Hay Aitken, M. A.)
Lo, we turn to the Gentiles.--
The apostles turning to the Gentiles
I. The results of the apostles’ labours are set before us in their variety.
1. We see their success. At Antioch “came almost the whole city together to hear the Word of God” (Acts 13:44). At Iconium “a great multitude, both of the Jews and also of the Greeks believed (Acts 13:1). The quality of this success was, most encouraging.
2. This success was the cause of opposition. The Jews at Antioch, jealous over the impression made by Paul, contradicted what he said, and even cursed the name of Jesus and all concerning Him (Acts 13:45). Confront evil with the gospel, and you must expect an answer, as the sign that your challenge is satisfactory. A gospel which raised no opposition would be questionable.
3. Out of this opposition came failure. The apostles had to leave Antioch under the ban of the law with their work unfinished. Such is the mixed result of Christian work always. We know no place where the gospel has entered to convert every heart, where no opposition of any sort has arisen to check the peaceful conquest, where every soul has remained wholly true to the Lord Jesus Christ. No. The gospel wins its way by struggling with evil.
II. The causes of this variety of results are hinted at.
1. Man is shown to be responsible himself for his attitude toward the gospel. The Jews, to whom Paul preached first, rejected the gospel, and Paul told them that they had judged themselves unworthy of everlasting life (Acts 13:46). The Gentiles of Antioch, on the contrary, by their deeds, by their gladness at receiving the gospel and their glorifying God for it (Acts 13:48), showed that they were worthy of it in Paul’s sense. So there is a curious paradox in the coming of the gospel to men: men think it comes before them to be tested as to its truth, whereas it comes to test them as to their character, whether they are worthy to receive it or not. The responsibility for the result therefore rests with them.
2. At the same time Paul points to the mysterious fact that God works in the choice of men. Man chooses; and God is choosing in man’s choice. For God works in us to will and to do of His good pleasure. Therefore Paul says (Acts 13:48) that “as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” He shows us first the earthly stage, with the will of men directing events. Then he draws back the curtain and shows us God at work directing things His way, through the direction of men. But how shall we reconcile the two, the sovereignty of God with the freedom of the human will? They are irreconcilable to a finite mind.
III. The conduct of the apostles in view of these diverse results should be noticed.
1. As opposition arose in the form of contradiction, the apostles “waxed bold” (Acts 13:46). They told the Jews of Antioch plainly that they were unworthy of everlasting life and showed it by their deeds. They were not afraid of men. The strength of Christian confidence needs opposition in order to be fully seen.
2. As they left Antioch they warned its inhabitants most solemnly: “they shook off the dust of their feet against them” (Acts 13:51). This was a common Jewish symbolical act.
3. But the apostles did not stay in hostile Antioch while other fields lay untouched; they went on to Iconium. And when this, too, showed itself hostile, they “fled unto Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and unto the region that lieth round about” (Acts 13:6). They were but human. They did what they could. When they could do no more they went to new places, and so on and on. In our Christian work we are to do the best we can, using our wisest judgment, going on from Antioch to Iconium, and from Iconium to Lystra, if need be. But in all we are to remember that God works in our presence and in our absence; and even by preventing our active work may do through us better things than we know.
4. For all their hardships the apostles had an abundant joy (Acts 13:52). And it was just when conscious of their failure that this joy was given. It takes the night time and the prison to bring out the best songs. Earthly disappointment is God’s opportunity. Luther wrote his hymns of Christian exultation when his enemies were nearest to overcoming him.
IV. The general lessons of the passage are easily seen.
1. Humanity is a vast democracy in the presence of the gospel of Christ. There is no distinction of persons here. All fall short of the glory of God. All men are equal. The proclamation is to every creature. Let no man say ever that the gospel is not meant for him.
2. Salvation is of grace. The plan of it was formed away back in the counsels of eternity.
3. Every man is responsible to God for his relation to Christ. Our deeds are our own judges.
4. The Holy Spirit goes up and down the world seeking whom He may comfort.
Turning to the Gentiles
In this brief declaration we gather--
I. The deliberate judgment of the Jews. Theirs was no hastily formed opinion. They had learned what were the central truths of the gospel, and they deliberately said, “If the Gentiles are to receive this message, we put it away from us.” Abraham saw Christ’s day, and was glad. The ritual of the old covenant was typical of what should come. The life and death of the Redeemer fulfilled the words of their prophets. It was such a people, with such privileges, who, in rejecting the fulfilment of their own faith, judged themselves unworthy of everlasting life, or decreed their own sentence of condemnation. The fact, historic in their case, is repeated every day. By our own deeds we decree our own judgment, by accepting or rejecting the truths of the gospel. No one will be condemned who has not by his own deliberate choice condemned himself.
II. The decision of Paul. It must be admitted that all his sympathies had been with the Jews. He too had once rejected Christ. He stood before the great crowd in Antioch, and heard their words of blasphemy. The Jews had formed their choice as between Christ and the Gentiles; the choice of Paul was made between Christ and the Jews. He chose Christ, and weaned himself from all his early associations. How keen a rebuke to many in all ages! Every one is called upon to choose between the gospel and its enemies. The question is not concerning family or business connections, how these would be affected by our choice. “He that loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me.” Paul’s foes were “they of his own household.” Thus is Christian heroism the highest of all, never asking man’s opinion in order to follow it, but doing what Christ enjoins, whether men will hear or forbear.
III. The blessing of the Gentiles. It was the early dawn of the promised day. From henceforth there should be no difference between the children of men. “The light to the Gentiles” had come. It is no wonder, therefore, that “when the Gentiles heard this they were glad.” No body of men can reject the Word and cover up its truths from others. Whom and what one class rejects, another class will receive. There is no faithful minister but can find work somewhere. Whom one Church refuses, another calls. But the Gentiles, among whom we belong, may exercise the same spirit in other ways. Christ came to seek and to save the lost. It is possible that many a disciple may forget those who live in the hedges, and for whom the gospel feast has been spread. It is possible for us to become so Jewish as to think God despises whom we, in our sinfulness, despise. (D. O. Mears.)
The use of opportunities of grace
Such was the speech of the apostles Barnabas and Paul to the Jews who dwelt at Antioch, in Pisidia. That an opportunity had passed by them; that, being solemnly offered to them, they had rejected it; and now that it had left them. This was being fulfilled at that time all over the world, wherever the Jews had been scattered--to them “first was the news of this salvation sent”--they were first to be called into Messiah’s kingdom. But the Jews would not hearken, and so these gracious purposes of God were defeated--the offer of salvation passed from them to the Gentiles; their birthright departed from them. The first blessing was lost; and this was a loss which they could not now repair. It is a leading principle of that rule under which we are living--I mean, that all through our lives God is setting before us, at certain times, certain opportunities, upon our employment of which our after life will depend; that we are continually beset by opportunities which may be used, and which may be lost--but which, if lost, are lost forever. And, first, see how this has always marked the dealings of God with man. Begin at the very first opening--when God created Adam and Eve, and blessed them, and placed them in paradise. They were placed there in a state of trial; they had the opportunity of obedience or of rebellion. If they obeyed, there were before them the choicest of God’s blessings. We know that they transgressed, and that they lost this opportunity. And now look at God’s dealings with the children of Israel, which we are told are expressly recorded to instruct us in His ways. God chose them to deliver them from their hard slavery in Egypt, and to plant them in the land of Canaan. Here was their trial, their opportunity; and if they had obeyed, doubtless they would have gone straight up into the land, and God would have prospered them so that they would at once have taken possession of it: but they rebelled, and they lost their opportunity. God threatened to destroy them; but upon their repentance, at the intercession of Moses, He spared and pardoned them. But to what were they admitted by this pardon on their repentance? Not to the same blessing which they would have had. This was lost, and lost forever. Now they were told that, though accepted, they should not enter into the land of promise, but that their children should enter in if they were obedient. And again, in the case of those children, when at last they got possession of Canaan; God promised to cast out at once all their enemies, if they made no alliance with them, nor spared them. Here was their opportunity, and if they had used it, they would have had ever after a peaceable possession of their land; but they neglected it, and what was the result? God forgave them, and told them their enemies should not overcome them; but they had lost the full blessing--He would not now cast out these remnants of the people of the land, but suffered them to remain to be a perpetual grief and trial to His people. And to take only one more instance from the Old Testament. We read in 2 Kings, chap. 13, that the prophet Elisha, just before his death, promised, by a sign to the king of Israel, certain victories over his enemies, the Syrians, and he bade him, in token of his trust in the promise, smite on the ground with his arrows. Here was his opportunity; but, being weak of faith and faint-hearted, he “smote thrice upon the ground and stayed.” And what was the prophet’s conduct? He told him that he had lost this opportunity--that it was gone. “Thou shouldst have smitten five or six times, then hadst thou smitten Syria until thou hadst consumed it: whereas now thou shalt smite Syria but thrice.” And now, from the history of God’s dealings with men in Holy Scripture, turn to what we see in life around us. Here we may mark on every side the constant action of the very same rule. We may see it in the growth and strengthening of our bodies--childhood and youth are the appointed opportunity for this growth; if there be then provided food, and exercise, and the like, and so the frame is kept healthful and vigorous, the body reaches its full strength and stature; and, on the other hand, a starved and sickly childhood and youth will lead surely to a stunted and weakly manhood, and this can never be wholly replaced; a certain measure of health and strength may be afterwards regained, but not the full measure--that is lost, because the opportunity of growth is gone. And so it is in all around us. Seed time comes but once in the year, and he who loses that, may weep in vain for a harvest, but he cannot reap. And so it is with a man’s business and his fortune. See, then, how this principle runs through all of God’s dealings with men; and now see how forcibly it applies to the higher and better life of our immortal souls.
1. First, then, it applies most awfully to the whole space of a man’s life here, as a preparation for eternity. Here is his trial--his opportunity--extending over more or fewer years, as God may appoint; but, be it shorter or longer, forming altogether his only opportunity of preparing for eternity, and if lost, lost therefore forever.
2. But this principle applies not only to the whole of our lives here, as our only opportunity of preparing for eternity, but also to all the particular circumstances of life, through some of which we are every day passing; and it is this which I would desire you more especially to notice. Take a few of them as examples of the rest, and begin with the very first. When by baptism we are brought into the fold of Christ, some measure of God’s most Holy Spirit is then doubtless given to us. Now here is a special opportunity; for, if these strivings of the Spirit of God be attended to--if the child, is a holy child, and does not, by resisting the Spirit, drive Him away, his heart is purified in an especial manner; the habits grow up pure, and there is a meekness, and gentleness, a purity and simplicity, a tenderness of heart, and a deep quiet delight in God’s service, which is most rarely known in its entire fulness by those who have wandered from God, and lost the first opportunity of a religious childhood. Here, then, is an opportunity of gaining a blessing, which, of God’s mercy, may last all our life through, and which if lost cannot be regained. And this early blessing is the type and earnest of others which, all our life through, are waiting upon unnumbered opportunities to pour upon us in all their fulness. From the greater occasions of our life--from our holy vows at confirmation--from the marriage blessing, and the funeral separation, down to every duty and temptation of our common days--from the monthly eucharist to the Sunday’s worship. And now, from this view of the character and condition of our life, there flow many and most important lessons.
Two or three of the chief of these shall be pointed out to you in conclusion.
1. And, first, this subject teaches all of us a lesson of habitual watchfulness. What a picture is this of life! how full is it of the seeds of things! how great a blessing or how great a loss lie hid continually under its most common opportunities!
2. Let us learn, secondly, another lesson--and that, one of humiliation. Let the most watchful look back upon his course, and how thickly will he see scattered all along his path the memorials of too frequent negligence--lost opportunities; each one, like broken urns, with its blessing spilled upon the ground and its grace wasted.
3. Lastly, with humiliation for the past, let us learn, for the time which yet remains, a lesson of earnestness and patience. (Bp. Samuel Wilberforce.)
Man’s need and God’s help
There is no great boldness in reading that now, and it does not precisely appear that it was a very bold speech in them; but it was. So we find constantly, in the apostle’s ministry, that while he began with the Jews, they very soon turned against him, and he had his chief success among the Gentiles. It is very hard for old men or the ruling class to have young men or a new class come in and take the reins out of their hands. Among the Jews the word “Gentile” was a hedgehog, all bristling. It was one of those words of indignation which exist in every language, and which change in every period, by which men express the pent-up prejudices and hatreds which are collected in them with regard to certain classes and certain tendencies. It was very bold, therefore, in Paul and Barnabas to say what they did--that the Gentiles were more worthy of Christ than the Jews were, according to the testimony of the Jews. Now, by reason of changes that are going on I observe a good deal of disenchantment. It is a very painful thing, I think, for a man of any sensibility to give up that which has come down to him from his childhood, and which carries with it the memories of his father and mother and of his own early life. What you believe when you are young you cling to with great tenacity. All the mystery and charm that the imagination and the twining affections inject into any thought or belief renders it exceedingly precious and beautiful. As when Nature etches--in the winter--on panes of glass, pictures which no artist dare touch, because to touch would be to mar, so there are these natural inspirations of childhood’s early days, which are exquisite, charming, and which, if they are marred, are beyond rectification. Alas! that the kindling of a fire in the stove for domestic uses should destroy all these pictures, and that the wonderful picturesqueness of Nature should melt with the growing convenience of the household! If you are losing all your early thoughts and imaginations, if you are losing all sense of sanctity, and nothing else comes to take their place, woe is you! Scepticism is to human life what the arid sands of the Great Sahara are in Africa--unpopulous, ungarden-like, useless, dreary, death-dealing to those who dwell in them. But if, while you lose the poetry of early impressions, you are somewhere else gaining a firmer foothold, and are subjecting yourself to impressions that are mightier--that is, that run more nearly with the educated tendencies of a just reason--then you lose no power over the moral sense: you even gain power over it. When I was a student in Amherst College I used, in autumnal days, to go up on the tower of the chapel in order that I might see the clearing off of those mists which would steal in with the darkness, and cover with a silver veil the whole of that magnificent panorama of the valley of the Connecticut--a beautiful valley full of sparking villages and undulations of land. When I came very early in the morning--though never before the sun had come up--this vast landscape had its own new mountains. I saw that the mist, following the secret touch and the warmth of the coming sun, had lifted itself up: and there were elevations here and openings there which, as compared with the shores of mist round about them, looked like deep seas. There were fantastic rifts and scarfs, and everything that was strange and weird, and shadows of hills as yet undispersed. As I stood and looked upon that picture, and made it more picturesque, I was filled, and I filled it, with my own work. The sun, steadily rising, and penetrating, and agitating, drank up the vision; and in half an hour the whole thing had taken wings and faded away into vacuity, and there was nothing of it to be seen; but when it lifted there were Mount Holyoake, Mount Tom, Sugarloaf Mountain, Hadley, Northampton, all the mountains and villages, and a great territory of peaceful and beautiful farms. The mist had gone, to be sure, but the landscape was as charming as the mist had been. So when men, looking back upon the beliefs of other days, see that they take wings and fly away, woe be to them if there is nothing under them; but blessed are they who, when the mist picture is gone, see the substantial earth lying sweet and beautiful underneath their sight. Upon this state of facts I propose to give an account of what is the substance matter of the New Testament teaching, and to ask you whether religion as it is taught there is not justified, by your experience and by your moral sense, to your reason. (H. W. Beecher.)
Turning to the Gentiles
The history reminds us of--
I. The narrowness of orthodoxy. To be right in our opinions is immensely important; but history shows that orthodox people are apt to dislike the progress of opinions. Moreover, we are all apt to think ourselves orthodox; and so Protestants are apt to be grieved when they hear of the success of Popish missionaries, and vice versa. More is thought of the progress of the one or the other than of the overthrow of idolatry. So here the Jews instead of rejoicing that the Gentiles were leaving heathenism were envious at their becoming Christians.
II. The possibility that excellent persons may become the tools of bad men (verse 50). Otherwise, in this case, the envious Jews would have been harmless. The Jews persuaded these ladies, and the ladies their husbands, that the apostles were dangerous men. Just as priests in Roman Catholic countries stir up excellent people to persecute Protestant teachers. Similar things happen in this country. Always suspect those who incite you to dislike your neighbours.
III. The fate of the benefactors of mankind. We must not take it for granted that beneficence will be rewarded with gratitude, but that more often than not we shall meet with the fate of Paul and Barnabas.
IV. The right method of dealing with prejudiced and obstinate sceptics. After having placed before them the considerations which ought to convince them, let us go to others who will listen more readily. To argue further with them will only inflame their self-conceit; and there are multitudes yearning for the truths these men reject. Life is too short to be wasted in duels with men who will not receive the truth.
V. The glorious fact that Christ is the saviour of the world. Not of Jews only. Let this thought check us when we are inclined to be intolerant. He is the Saviour of all who believe--whatever their doctrines may be. Let this comfort us when we are suffering from intolerance; those who hate us may excommunicate us, but they cannot cut us off from Christ.
VI. Christian joy is independent of outward circumstances (verses 51, 52). The loss of the apostle had its compensations. (R. A. Bertram.)
The severe farewell
1. Not the language of cowardly fear of men, but of resolute obedience to the intimations of the Lord.
2. Not an expression of proud contempt, but of commiserating pity towards the despisers of salvation.
3. Not a signal to a lazy retreat, but to a new field of labour. (K. Gerok.)
The gospel for the Gentiles
In Flanders there is a pretty legend told of a place called Temsehe. A clear fountain was in a farmer’s field. He was a churlish man, and would not let the villagers go into his field to draw water from it one hot summer, when the land was parched, and all the wells were dry. Then a holy maiden, living there, went and filled a sieve with water, and shook it over the neighbouring common, and wherever a drop fell, there sprang up a living fountain. Now the old Jewish nation was much like that farmer, that would keep Divine grace for itself alone. It would have the living fountain of spiritual life for its own use only, and deny it to the Gentile world. But then came the apostles, who took up the living water given them by Christ, and scattered it over all the wide earth. (Baring Gould.)
Gather the outcasts
If you have been mainly labouring with the children of godly parents, and these refuse, turn you to the slum children. If you have tried to bless respectable people, and they remain unsaved, try those who are not respectable. If those to whom it was natural and necessary that the word should first be spoken, have put it from them, turn to those who have hitherto been left out in the cold. Take the Lord’s hint in this apostolic history, and distinctly turn to those people who are not yet gospel hardened. Turn to those who have not been brought up under religious influences, but have been looked upon as without the pale. That, I believe, is the Lord’s mind towards the Church of today. Let her break up fresh soil, and she will have richer harvests. Let her open new mines, and she shall find rare riches. We too often preach within little circle where the message of life has already been rejected scores of times. Let us not spend all our time in knocking at doors from which we have been repulsed, let us try elsewhere. If you work for Christ among those who are in our religious circles, and fail to win them, the field is the world, and the larger part of that field has never been touched as yet. We have laboured for London; but if London counts itself unworthy of eternal life, let us think of Calcutta, Canton, and the Congo. If these near ones will not reward our endeavours, let us be of enterprising spirit, and do as traders do, who, when they find no market at home, strike out new lines. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Light for men who are to see
If I saw a wise man going into a blind asylum, laying on gas or making preparation for the electric light, I should feel sure that he had a view to people who can see; and if none but blind people could come into the building, I should conclude that he anticipated a time when the poor blind folks would find their eyes again, and would be able to use the light. So, as the Lord has set Jesus to be a light, you may be sure that He means to open blind eyes. Jesus will enlighten the people, souls will be saved. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Jesus a Saviour for all
God has not appointed His Son to save a few dozen people who go to a particular meeting-house. He has set Him to be a light to the nations, and He means He shall be so. This encourages us to labour among all classes. Jesus is a fit light for the upper ten thousand, and some of them shall rejoice in that light: He is equally set to be a light to the teeming millions, and they shall rejoice in Him, too. What God has appointed must be carried out. Jesus is yet to be a light to outcast people--to the persons of whom we have never thought favourably, the classes whom even philanthropy has felt ready to abandon. This is God’s set purpose concerning His Son Jesus, and His omnipotence will carry it out. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Seeing the sun
The Burman Missionary tells the story of an old man who, years ago, when a heathen, came in possession of a copy of the Psalms, in Burmese, which had been left behind by a traveller stopping at his house. He began to read, and before he had finished the book he had resolved to cast his idols away. For twenty years he worshipped the eternal God, revealed to him in the Psalms, using the fifty-first (which he had committed to memory) as a daily prayer. Then, having occasion to go to Rome, he fell in with a white missionary who gave him a New Testament. With joy unspeakable he read for the first time the story of salvation by the Lord Jesus Christ. “Twenty years I have walked by starlight,” he said. “Now I see the sun.”
A light of the Gentiles
Dr. Vanderhemp was a Dutch military officer, and then a distinguished physician. For some years he was a sceptic, but he was converted. When converted, he gave up all for Christ, and, at the age of fifty-one, sailed for South Africa, where he laboured amongst the natives for thirteen years with singular self-denial. Well did the venerable Moffatt say of him: “He came from a University to teach the alphabet to the poor naked Hottentot and Kaffir; from the society of nobles to associate with beings of the lowest grade of humanity; from stately mansions to the filthy hovel of the greasy African; from the army to instruct the fierce savages in the tactics of a heavenly warfare under the banner of the Prince of Peace; from the study of medicine to become a guide to the Balm of Gilead and the Physician there; and, finally, from a life of earthly honour and ease to be exposed to perils of waters, of robbers, of his own countrymen, of the heathen, in the city and in the wilderness.”
The great alternative
The Jews contradicted, the Gentiles were glad as effects of the same gospel. The gospel is a savour of life unto life, or of death unto death. As on the highest Alps, up there where the summits join the clouds, there are masses of ices which, when acted on by the sun, pass down as refreshing streams, beautifying and fertilising the country through which they pass, and side by side with those, other masses of ice which, when acted upon and loosened by the same sun, rush down as roaring avalanches, carrying death and destruction in their path, and at last dashing themselves to pieces on the crags beneath; so it is to men to whom the gospel comes. It may be with one man operating as “the power of God unto salvation,” blessing him and making him a blessing, whilst with his neighbour, if it is not producing this benign effect, it is hardening his heart, adding fearfully to his power for evil in the present world, and preparing for him the darker condemnation of the next. If the gospel is not the sun to soften the wax, it is the sun to harden the clay. (J. A. Macfadyen, D. D.)
And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad.
Right relation to the truth
On hearing the gospel the Gentiles--
I. Were glad.
1. This should be, but alas is not, the uniform effect of gospel hearing.
2. These Gentiles were glad.
3. If the gospel has not made those who profess to have accepted it glad, it is probably for one or two reasons.
II. They glorified the word of God. This was the inevitable result of their gladness.
1. They were thankful for it. Thanklessness dishonours the gospel. The least that a man can do who receives a gift is to express his gratitude for it.
2. They praised it. Specimens of such praise we have in the Psalms--notably in Psalms 119:1-176. It is refreshing to turn to this record in an age of Bible disparagement. When a man receives a gift he is not only thankful for it, but examines it, or puts it to some use, so that he may properly appraise its value. Every candid examination of God’s Word, and self application of its truth, will give it enhanced worth.
3. They made it known to others (verse 49). The gospel is not meant for its immediate recipients. It is a gift for men. Only as it has “free course” is it fully “glorified.” Conclusion: Gladness is the inspiration of true service. It is as steam to machinery. Has the gospel made you happy? Go then and make others glad. (J. W. Burn.)
The first last and the last first
I. The first last.
1. Who are the first? Those who have earliest experienced the Divine love, and are considered most richly endowed.
2. Why do they become last? Because they do not use to their salvation the love of God, and become proud of their gifts.
3. How do they become last? By receiving, according to the measure of their small fidelity, only an inferior position in the kingdom of God (Matthew 20:10), or, as the reward of their complete unfaithfulness, by being excluded entirely from the blessings of that kingdom (verse 46).
II. The last first.
1. Who are the last? Those who are called at a later period, and who possess inferior gifts.
2. Why do they become first? Because the knowledge of their defects makes them desirous of salvation.
3. How do they become first? By being themselves in the kingdom of God, and assisting in its wider extension (verses 49, 52). (Lisco.)
The Word of God the revealer of the thoughts of many hearts
I. Of the Gentiles--i.e., of those who were hitherto at a distance and strangers to the Word of God (verses 48, 49).
1. They rejoice in its contents.
2. They praise the grace of God.
3. They receive it by faith.
4. They taste the blessedness of believing.
II. Of the Jews--i.e., the self-righteous who will not be saved by grace (verse 50).
1. They are inflamed with hatred against the evangelical message.
2. They interest others against it.
3. They persecute the messengers of salvation.
III. Of believers, who experience in themselves the power of the Word.
1. Their faith is not perplexed by calamity (verse 51).
2. They experience holy joy (verse 52).
3. They grow in the grace of God through the Holy Ghost (verse 52). (Lisco.)
The gospel appreciated by the outcasts
The man who has grown accustomed to luxuries is the man who turns his meat over, and picks off a bit here, and a bit there; for this is too fat, and that is too gristly. Bring in the poor wretches who are half-starved. Fetch in a company of labourers who have been waiting all day at the docks, and have found no work, and in consequence have received no wage. Set them down to a joint of meat. It vanishes before them. See what masters they are of the art of knife and fork! They find no fault; they never dream of such a thing. If the meat had been a little coarse, it would not have mattered to them; their need is too great for them to be dainty. Oh, for a host of hungry souls! How pleasant to feed them! How different from the task of persuading the satiated Pharisees to partake of the gospel! Go for them, beloved! Lay yourselves out to reach poor, needy souls. They will come to Jesus, though the self-righteous will not. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
As many as were ordained to eternal life believed.--
1. The Jews put from them the Word of God, and thus judged themselves. This was not a Divine judgment; that came afterwards to ratify and give effect to what was done already. And the judgment that the Jews by the rejection of Christ passed upon themselves, unconsciously but really, was that they were unworthy of eternal life. Their case is typical. Men who despise the gospel do now for themselves what will be done for them at the Day of Judgment.
2. The Gentiles, on the contrary, accepted the gospel, and thus fulfilled the conditions on which eternal life was given. They thus judged themselves, and were judged worthy--i.e., qualified, ready--for eternal life. “Ordained” is misleading. The original is a military word suggestive of the putting an army in order, drawing it up for battle--the disposition of the troops. “As many as were disposed”--i.e., were in an attitude for--“eternal life, believed,” i.e., accepted it. The Jews were in no such attitude--hence their unbelief, and loss of eternal life.
I. Eternal life is--
1. A quantitative term--everlasting duration. But this is its lower meaning. This is true of all souls. The wicked as well as the good will live forever. But the life of the former will be “the death that never, never dies.”
2. A qualitative term. What sort of life? Not bare existence, but a life of eternal--
II. The disposition for eternal life. The Gentiles who were so disposed--
1. Heard the Word of God with gladness. Then how indisposed must those be who in our modern congregations are indifferent to it, or who hear it captiously, or only to reject it.
2. Accepted it, and more than that, they glorified it. It met their ease thoroughly, and they felt and acknowledged that it did so. Thus they were in an attitude for eternal life, and so--
3. Believed. “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life.”
4. Enjoyed eternal life. “They were filled with joy”--the evidence of it, “and with the Holy Ghost”--its source. (J. W. Burn.)
And the Word of the Lord was published throughout all the region.
We feel persuaded that all of you are of one mind in this matter, that it is the duty as well as the privilege of the Church to proclaim the gospel to the world. But we have not been successful to the extent we might have expected. What is the reason of this? Perhaps we may think we find that reason in the sovereignty of God. But still we must look at home for the cause. When Zion travails, she brings forth children; when Zion is in earnest, God is in earnest about His work. We must not, therefore, arbitrarily look for the cause of our failure in the will of God, but we must see what it is that renders our success so trifling in comparison with the tremendous results of apostolic preaching.
I. We have few apostolic men. Here and there we may have one or two. We had a Williams, we had a Knibb, but they have entered into rest. We have one or two still remaining. We say, “God bless such men as Moffatt!” But cast your eyes around, and where can we find many such men? They are all good men; they are better than we; but we must still say of them that they differ from the mighty apostles in many respects. I am not speaking of missionaries only, but of ministers too. We have not men with--
1. Apostolic zeal. Converted in a most singular way, by a direct interposition from heaven, Paul, from that time forward, became an earnest man. He had always been earnest, in his sin and in his persecutions; but after he had received the mighty office of an apostle you can scarcely conceive the awful earnestness which he manifested. His zeal was so burning, that he could not (as we unfortunately do) restrain himself within a little sphere; but he preached the Word everywhere. Where are the men like that man? We have no eyes now like the eyes of the Saviour, which could weep over Jerusalem. If ministers were more hearty in their work of preaching, then we might expect great success; but we cannot expect it while we go about our work in a half-hearted way.
2. Apostolic faith. What did Paul do? He went to Philippi; did he know a soul there? No. He had his Master’s truth, and he believed in the power of it. He was devoid of pomp, or show, or parade; he did not go to a pulpit with a nice cushion in it to address a respectable congregation, but he walked through the streets and began to preach to the people. He went to Corinth, to Athens, alone, single-handed, to tell the people the gospel of the blessed God. Why? Because he had faith in the gospel and believed it would save souls, and throw down idols from their thrones. But nowadays we have not faith in the gospel we preach. How many there are who preach a gospel which they are afraid wont save souls; they insert little bits of their own to it in order, as they think, to win men to Christ! When I have faith in my doctrines, those doctrines will prevail, for confidence is the winner of the palm. He who hath courage enough to grasp the standard, and hold it up, will be sure enough to find followers. We want a deeper faith in our gospel; we want to be quite sure of what we preach
3. Apostolic self-denial. We are mere carpet knights and Hyde-park warriors. But I hear some whispering, “You ought to make a little allowance.” I make all allowance. I am not finding fault with those brethren; they are a good sort of people; but I will only say, that in comparison with Paul, we are little insignificant Lilliputian creatures, who can hardly be seen in comparison with those gigantic men of old.
II. We do not go about our work in an apostolic style.
1. There is not enough preaching by ministers and missionaries. They sit down interpreting, establishing schools, and doing this, that, and the other. It is the tendency of the times to decry preaching, but it is “the foolishness of preaching” which is to change the world.
2. A great mistake has been made in not affirming the divinity of our mission, always holding out this, “he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; he that believeth not shall be damned.” The gospel is lowered by controversy. How did Mahommed come to have so strong a religion? He said, “I have received a revelation from heaven.” It was a lie, but he persuaded men to believe it. Did he prove what he said? Not he. “You must,” he said, “believe what I say, or there is no Paradise for you.” There is a power in that kind of thing.
3. We have not enough of the Divine method of itinerancy. Paul was a great itinerant; he preached in one place, and there were twelve converted there; he made a church at once; he did not stop till he had five hundred; but when be had twelve, he went off to another place. We, nowadays, go and settle in a place, make a station of it, and work around it by little and little, and think that is the way to succeed. No, no! ravage a continent; attempt great things, and great things shall be done. There should be fixed ministers and pastors, but those who are like apostles should itinerate far more than they do.
III. We have not apostolic churches.
1. Where is our prayerfulness compared with theirs?
2. We have not the apostolic mode of liberality. In the apostles’ days they gave all their substance. It was not demanded of them then, and it is not now; still we have run to the other extreme, and many give nothing at all.
IV. We have not the Holy Spirit in that measure which attended the apostles. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
But the Jews stirred up the devout and honourable women.
The fact brings before us another feature of the relations between Jews and Gentiles at this period. They “compassed sea and land to make one proselyte.” They found it easiest to make proselytes of women. Such conversions had their good and their bad sides. In many cases there was a real longing for a higher and purer life than was found in the infinite debasement of Greek and Roman society, which found its satisfaction in the life and faith of Israel. But with many, such as Juvenal speaks of when he describes (“Sat.” 6:542) the Jewish teacher who gains influence over women, “The trembling Jewess whispers in her ear, And tells her of the laws of Solymae” (i.e., Jerusalem)
. The change brought with it new elements of superstition and weakness, and absolute submission of conscience to its new directors, and thus the Rabbis were often to the wealthier women of Greek and Roman cities what Jesuit confessors were in France and Italy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Here we get the darker side of the picture. The Jews stir up the women of the upper class, and they stir up their husbands. The latter were content apparently to acquiesce in their wives accepting the Judaism with which they had become familiar, but resented the intrusion of a new and, in one sense, more exacting doctrine. (Dean Plumptre.)
But they shook off the dust of their feet against them.--
When should a servant of God shake off the dust of his feet?
1. When he has not only knocked in a friendly manner, but also boldly kept is ground.
2. When he has been called on to proceed, not only by men, but by God.
3. When not only the door here is closed, but when he also sees it opened elsewhere for successful work. (K. Gerok.)
Israel’s temporary rejection
1. Wickedly caused by themselves, through pride and ingratitude.
2. Righteously ordained by the Lord in virtue of holiness and truth.
3. An admonitory example to Christianity, and also an impressive call to go after the lost sheep of Israel. (K. Gerok.)
And the disciples were filled with Joy and with the Holy Ghost.--
I. The prosperity of the Word of God is a special source of rejoicing to Christians. It was not an ordinary gladness, but the special and overflowing joy which can only be stirred up by extraordinary manifestations of the grace of God. We are full of joy--
1. Because we are saved. Deliverance from danger and death is ever a source of gratitude. A soul rescued from the power of sin and the consequences thereof, is a theme of the highest inspiration, whether we think of the value of the soul, or the price of deliverance. The brave rescuer risks his life to save others. Jesus died to save mankind.
2. Because Jesus sees of the travail of His soul.
3. At the prospect of seeing the glory of the Lord filling the earth. Every step onward which the Word of God takes, revives the hope of universal restoration.
II. The presence of the Holy Ghost in the heart is a special source of support to Christians. The Comforter sustained them in their trial.
1. They were full of holy courage. The circumstances of the disciples at Antioch were depressing. Devout and honourable women, with the chief men of the city, had raised the storm of persecution. The apostles were driven out of the city. The number of believers was small, and probably they were poor; but the source of their strength was the power of the Spirit in their heart. They could not be cast down while they were under such influence. There could be no darkness while the glory of the Lord shone within them.
2. They were full of consecration to their work. They were resolved to labour on until the name of Jesus would become universal. The light which shone on their path revealed the triumph of faith.
3. They were full of assurance that Jesus’ name would become glorious in the earth. (Weekly Pulpit.)
Joy in the Holy Ghost
When I was a country minister in Scotland, some time ago, the most joyous person in my parish was a poor old woman whose every joint was knotted with rheumatism; her husband was a poor labouring old man, her home a crowded hut, yet her life was bright and cheerful. When I was dejected I used to visit her, and after ten minutes conversation my load would be tightened. She diffused gladness wherever she was, because the Holy Spirit dwelt in her as a temple. (Dr. Boyd.)
The description is brief but noteworthy.
I. It records an experience--spiritual, real, and exemplary. There was emotionalism, high and holy; and it was visible. The elements were simple, but grand.
2. “The Holy Ghost.” Each is suggestive, and both were prominent features of those early times. They are, too, co-related. Instead of spirituality and gladness being antagonistic, the soul is joyous just because it has the Holy Ghost; and the fruit of the Spirit’s influence is a more perfect, joy, so that the more largely we possess the Spirit, the greater becomes our joy.
II. The degree and measure of this experience deserves consideration. It was not the possession of a favoured few, but of the “disciples.” By them it was possessed, not scantily, or partially, they were “filled” with it. These emotions did not spring from external circumstances, but were independent of them and superior to them: they were, despite outward adversity (see Acts 13:50-51, and Acts 14:22).
III. The attainment of like experience can never be deemed impossible when we remember the exhortations of Scripture, and the testimony of “disciples”--learners in the school of Christ. “If ye being evil know how,” etc. If possible, how advantageous to us would such an experience prove! joyous in itself; an evidence; an energy; a foretaste. (J. P. Allen, M. A.)
Full of joy and of the Holy Ghost
(Acts 8:39):--There is a striking resemblance between the condition of the eunuch deprived of his teacher and of these raw disciples, in Pisidian Antioch, bereft of theirs. Both were very recent converts; both had the scantiest knowledge; both were left utterly alone. Now this phrase, “full of the Holy Ghost,” is not an uncommon one in the Acts of the Apostles; and the Writer is fond of connecting with it other graces, of which it is declared to be the cause. So they were to be “men full of the Holy Ghost and of wisdom”; and of Stephen we read that “he was full of the Holy Ghost and of faith.” The text traces the joy of these solitary Christians to the complete possession of that Divine Spirit. So filled, we shall have an all-sufficient Teacher for all our ignorance; a Companion for all our solitude; a fountain of joy in all our sorrow. And the stories before us may help to illustrate these three things.
I. First, then, note here, the all-sufficient Teacher for our ignorance. Think, for instance, of that Ethiopian statesman. An hour or two before he had said, “How can I understand except some man guide me?” And now he is going away into the darkness, without a single external help, knowing only the little that he had gathered from Philip. He had not a line of the New Testament. He had nothing but a scroll of the prophet Isaiah, but he went away with a glad heart, quite sure that he would be taught all he needed to know. And these other people at Antioch, just dragged out of the darkness of heathenism, with no teaching beyond the rudimentary instruction of the two apostles for a few days--they, too, were left by their teachers without a fear. We trust far too little to the educating and enlightening power of God’s grace in the hearts of men who have no other teacher. And if Christian people more really believed the promise of their Master, “He will guide you into all truth,” they would be more likely to realise the promise, and be all taught of God. Only remember the instrument of that Divine Teacher is the Word of God. And if we, as Christians, neglect our Bibles, we shall not get the teaching of the Spirit of God. And remember, too, that that teaching is granted to us on plainly defined conditions. There must be a desire for it. And there must be patient waiting and solitary meditation. Let us take the lesson, and whosesoever scholars we may be, let us enroll ourselves in the school of the Master, and learn from that Spirit who will guide us into all truth.
II. Now, note, secondly, the Companion in all our solitude. Think of the loneliness of this man on the Gaza road, or of that handful of sheep in the midst of wolves at Antioch. And yet they were not alone. “Full of the Holy Ghost,” they were conscious of a Divine presence. And so it may be with us all. We are all condemned to live alone, however many may be the troops of friends round us. Every human soul, after all love and companionship, lives isolated. There is only One who can pass the awful boundary of personality which hedges off every man from every other. Besides the natural, necessary solitude in which every human soul lives there are some of us, no doubt, on whom God, by His providence, has laid the burden of a very lonely life. God’s purpose in making us solitary is to join Himself to us. Left alone, nestle close to Him. Beside the natural and the providential solitudes there is yet another. We must make a solitude for ourselves if we would have God speaking to us and keeping us company. Solitude is the mother country of the strong. To be much alone is the condition of sanity and nobleness of life. No man’s religion will be deep and strong unless he has learned to go into the secret place of the Most High, and shut his doors about him, and there receive the fulness of that Spirit.
III. Lastly, notice the joy in all the sorrow. “Full of joy and of the Holy Ghost,” says the latter of the two texts. That collocation is familiar to the student of the New Testament. You will remember the apostle’s great enumeration of the fruits of the Spirit, “Love, joy, peace.” And in another place he speaks to the members of one of his Churches, and tells them that they had “received the Word in much affliction with joy of the Holy Ghost.” So then, whoever has this Divine Guest dwelling in his heart may possess a joy as complete as is its possession of him. I need not remind you how that Divine Spirit, that enters into our souls by faith, brings to us the consciousness of forgiveness and of sonship, nor how it fits the needs of every part of our nature, and brings all our being into harmony with itself, with circumstances, and with God. But I may remind you that not only does this Divine Spirit in us make provision for joy, but that, with such an indwelling Guest, there is the possibility of the co-existence of joy and sorrow. It is no paradox that the apostle gave forth when he said, “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” Even in the midst of the snow and cold and darkness of Arctic regions the explorers build houses for themselves of the very blocks of ice, and within are warmth and light end comfort and vitality, while around is a dreary waste. But remember that this joy from the Spirit is a commandment. I am sure that Christians do not sufficiently lay to heart that gladness is their duty, and that sorrow unrelieved by it is cowardice and sin. We have no business to be thus sorrowful. But remember the conditions. If you and I have that Divine Spirit within us we shall be enlightened, however ignorant; companioned, however solitary; joyful, however ringed about with sorrow. If we have not, the converse will be true. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Persecution not inconsistent with joy
As if a man should throw precious stones and jewels at another, with intent to kill him, and the other should gather them up and enrich himself with them; even so do persecutors enrich the children of God, that they may rejoice being worthy to suffer for Christ’s sake. (Cawdray.)
Joy a Christian evidence
The ordinary idea is that a Christian is sombre, but that is a perversion of the gospel. The fruit of the Spirit is love and joy in the Holy Ghost, and if God comes into the soul, we may expect that the result will be the imparting of the element of joy which is so eminent in him. Sometimes through secular instruments God makes us joyful, for He employs the whole world to work out His purposes; but sometimes, by seemingly breaking upon the spirit of His people, He makes them joyful. You cannot tell why you are so musical at times. On some days you are full of music. There are some hours that are radiant above all other hours. And when these transpire among God’s people, it is not an unfair thing to infer that they are signs of Christ’s presence with them. (H. W. Beecher.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Acts 13". The Biblical Illustrator. https://beta.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25