The Biblical Illustrator
And it came to pass in Iconium.
A considerable city of Asia Minor, generally considered as belonging to Lycaonia. It lay in a fertile plain at the foot of Taurus, on the great line of communication between Ephesus and the more eastern cities of Tarsus and Antioch, and the Euphrates. From Pliny’s description it would appear to have been a populous and important city at the time of Paul’s visit. Under the Byzantine emperors it was the metropolis of Lycaonia, was subsequently captured by the Turks, and made the capital of an empire whose sovereigns took the title of Sultans of Iconium. During this period of its history it acquired its greatest celebrity. It is now called Koniyeh, and has a population estimated at from twenty to thirty thousand. The houses are mostly of stone or sun-dried brick, and are poorly built, except the mosques and palaces. The place contains some remains and inscriptions, mostly of the Byzantine period. (Lyman Abbott, D. D.)
The ministry of the apostles at Iconium
Here are four things noteworthy.
I. An extensive conversion (Acts 14:1). The preaching that ends in enlightened practical faith is that which Christ ordained, and what the world wants. There is a preaching that produces--
1. Mere passing emotion.
II. A violent opposition (Acts 14:2). The spiritual victories they won in the synagogue roused the antagonism of the unbelieving Jew, who used his great social influence to their injury. They “stirred up the Gentiles,” i.e., excited and embittered their minds with hostile passions. It is ever true that those who reject the gospel seek to deter others from accepting it. “Ye go not in yourselves, and prevent those who would,” is a Divine allegation, ever true of the rejectors of Christianity.
III. A Divine demonstration. Opposition neither drove them at once from the sphere of their labour, nor lessened the displays of Divine power. Divinity appears--
1. In their subject. The “Word of His grace,” His gracious Word, the gospel. Whatever doctrines men draw from the gospel that are not gracious, are not true.
2. In their spirit. “Speaking boldly.” They show a heroism more than human in continuing and speaking in the very scene of persecution.
3. In their miracles. The stronger the evil one appeared in Iconium opposing the mission of the apostles, the higher rose the manifestations of God in their behalf. “As thy days, so shall thy strength be.”
IV. A social separation (Acts 14:4). “Divided”--the Greek word from which schism is derived. There was a rent created through the ministry of the apostles. Such unity of sympathy as existed before in the population was divided, and part flowed towards the Jews and part towards the apostles. The searching ministry of the apostles made bare the hearts of the people. Those who took part with the Jews made “an assault” upon the apostles. The storm raised, however, was under the direction of God. It was a Divine breeze, to bear the precious seeds of truth to regions farther on. The apostles fled unto Lystra and Derbe, not from fear, but from the instinct of duty. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
I. What the missionaries did. They went immediately to work. They did not stop to complain of the treatment they had received at Antioch. Persecution made them change their place, but not their purpose. Neither did they abandon their method of working. Though they had turned to the Gentiles, they had not turned away from the Jews.
II. How the missionaries spoke. So convincingly, that Jews as well as Greeks believed. Care should be taken so to speak as to give effect to the Word.
III. How the missionaries were opposed. As was natural, the Jew who did not accept the gospel, was its bitterest enemy. The man who is acting against God and his own conscience must permit himself no rest. He cannot endure To see others accept what he has rejected. Hence he tries to make the souls around him “evil affected.”
IV. How the missionaries were prospered.
1. They continued their work. Not because of the opposition, but in spite of it, and for the reason that so many were believing. So long as a harvest was to be reaped, they would not abandon the field.
2. They spoke boldly. The threatening cloud of danger did not abate their courage. “Boldly in the Lord.” Their courage came from Him, and not from themselves.
3. They were borne witness to by the Lord. He spoke through their hands as well as their lips. He made it impossible for any but the incorrigible to doubt that they were His ambassadors.
4. They divided the city (Acts 14:4). The division appears to have been pretty even. Whether evenly or not, the gospel always divides a community. Every one must be on the one side or on the other.
V. How the missionaries were driven out (Acts 14:5). They were not rash as well as bold. There was no call here to lay down their lives. So, being persecuted in this city, they followed the Saviour’s injunction, and fled into the next. “And there they preached the gospel.” Persecution was God’s plan for propagating His gospel. Having furnished certain seeds with wings, God sends rough winds for their transportation. (M. C. Hazard.)
Mode of preaching the gospel adapted to success
I. There is a mode of preaching the gospel which is adapted to secure the faith of hearers. The gospel itself is adapted to beget cordial faith and repentance in men. For evidence of this, I would call your attention to the fact that the Holy Spirit employs the gospel for this very purpose.
II. To point out some of the things which are essential to such a mode of preaching the gospel. I would remark that to secure a manner of preaching the gospel adapted to success, it seems essential--
1. That it should be preached with a heart deeply intent on the very design of securing the cordial faith and obedience of hearers. Cicero has justly remarked, that if the feelings with which you represent a fact and the fact itself do not accord, you have not in reality presented the truth, but have misrepresented it to the minds of your hearers.
2. That it should be preached as a system of consistent truths, bearing with one harmonious design on the great object of repentance and salvation.
3. That it should be preached in a way of application to the hearers, so as to call for the decision of their hearts at the time.
From this subject I remark--
1. The dependence of preachers of the gospel on the cooperating power of the Holy Spirit to give success to their labours, is of all reasons the weightiest why they should speak in a manner adapted to beget repentance and faith in their hearers.
2. We may learn what are some of the important qualifications for a skilful and successful handling of the Word of life. (E. T. Fitch, D. D.)
Iconium and Lystra
The work done in these two places, together with the varied experiences of the missionaries, may suggest that--
I. The manner of presenting gospel truth has much to do in producing results on the hearers. They “so spake that a great multitude believed.” Paul afterward told the Corinthians, “that he came not with excellency of speech,” etc. He evidently did not disregard the character of his audience, the kind of evidence he should produce, and the manner of expressing his thoughts, any more than he showed carelessness as to his subject, which was always “Christ, and Him crucified.” Increase depends more upon the good seed and soil, and warm rains and sunshine, than upon the sower, yet the skilful sower is the successful husbandman. So in the economy of grace the teacher and his methods have a prominent place in the production of results. To the teacher the responsibility of speaking rightly is as great as the responsibility of trusting supremely.
II. Present the truth as wisely as we may, different results will be produced among the hearers. “Part held with the Jews and part with the apostles.” There were divisions in Iconium before, but so soon as the Word was spoken the people were newly classified.
III. The wisdom of preserving an untarnished reputation on the part of those who would win souls to the truth. We read, “long time therefore they abode.” Wherefore? Because the “Gentiles had been stirred up and their minds evil affected against the brethren.” Whatever the allegations were, the two resolved to stay and confront those who circulated them, and live down their calumnies. It took a “long time,” but the end to be gained was worth the time it took to reach it. Very often the enemy tries to weaken the power of the teacher by damaging his reputation. It may take a “long time” to lift the name fairly above the cloud, but for the sake of the truth we love and the souls we would help it may be duty to abide where we are till this is done.
IV. Popularity need not, and must not, turn from steadfastness to the truth. At Iconium they were bad men, to be shunned. They stood that test, and by their lives gave the lie to the base charge. At Lystra they are not men, but the chief among the gods, the great Jove and his attendant. But they refuse the homage and make the offering a text from which to preach a telling sermon against all forms of false worship.
V. Miracles, even when admitted, have but little influence in leading bitter opposers of the truth to accept it. They deified the worker, and then stoned him. Miracles strengthened the faith of those who believed on other testimony; but neither where philosophy ruled, nor where untutored Nature guided, did the supernatural lead the mind set bitterly against God to accept him.
VI. God’s claims may be fearlessly maintained anywhere. It is the first time the gospel has met idolatry pure and simple, and it promptly and confidently offers a better God than the greatest in their list. Notice the marked difference between Paul’s method of attacking idolatry and that adopted by the modern opposers of the God Paul worshipped. He would take every idol out of Lystra, but he would leave a God far better in their stead. But these would take away our God, and then leave us alone and hopeless with the ruin they have wrought.
VII. How fickle is the favour of men! The distance is short between the garlands and the stones, between “Hosanna!” and “Crucify him!” but the favour of God endureth, and it satisfies the soul.
VIII. Let us beware of writing all adverse things as disadvantageous. I doubt if there was a place in all Paul’s wanderings to which he looked back with such delight as Lystra, because it was the home of Timothy, the best beloved, the choicest fruit ever given to his ministry. “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong come forth sweetness.” (T. H. Hanna, D. D.)
Perils of missionary life
The peril of--
I. Misconstruction. It is always easy to pervert what a preacher says, and so arouse prejudice (Acts 14:2). We are not told just how these jealous Israelites sought to inflame the Gentiles. In one instance (Acts 19:26), opposers raised the workingman’s question. In another (Acts 16:20-21), it was wickedly suggested that an attack on social and political institutions was concealed under the pretence of inculcating religion. There is a tale considered authentic in the papal church, of one called “St. Thekla,” who was converted by Paul. She had been previously betrothed to a heathen, but now refused from conscientious scruples to marry him. So the ingenious opposers might have told the populace that this was the way in which Christianity was going to break up their closest relations. Anything can be started among ignorant people.
II. Positive violence (Acts 14:5). No one can recall one of a hundred histories of cruelty and death inflicted by popular outbreak under malicious instigation, without knowing that there is always the one danger, in every land and generation, of losing life (Mark 8:35).
III. Spiritual distrust of God. The day of miracle working has passed away, but great risks have to be run, and now and then the hearts of God’s people fail them through fear. We detect here nothing of this sort; Paul stands up and works a stupendous miracle, without apparently a misgiving or a tremor.
Characteristics of apostolic preaching
I. Paul made his preaching first. He performed miracles. But the miracle was a secondary thing--but a bell ringing. The disciples were commissioned to preach, and the triumphs of the gospel are owing to that. But the term covered teaching and “religious conversation.” The Saviour preached to the woman of Samaria. But that mode of discourse is peculiarly preaching in which the truth is presented to masses of hearers. At Iconium, at Lystra, and in fact everywhere, with Paul preaching was the first and the leading agency. God has honoured this above all others.
II. Paul preached boldly, i.e., fearlessly, unequivocally, but especially with power. The preacher should be persuasive, but above all, powerful. This trait Paul very highly valued. He urged his disciples to pray for him, that he might speak the Word boldly. The Spirit endues us with this holy boldness. By this we commonly intend plain speaking upon politics, temperance, morals, etc. But in nothing do we so need boldness as in the preaching of the simple truths of redemption.
III. Paul’s preaching was watchful. He had spiritual discernment to see the effects of his preaching (Acts 14:9). Preachers of his discernment are ready for digression. Earnest preachers are bent upon saving, not sermons, but men. Paul stopped his discourse when he saw that the cripple had faith to be saved. He saw an opportunity to extend the interest in his message. How much fruit we lose from lack of spiritual watchfulness! Deacon Safford was deeply interested for a young man in his Sunday school class. One day Dr. Kirk preached a sermon which seemed to the deacon precisely adapted to reach his young friend. He watched him. He thought he saw the evidences of conviction in the intent face. In passing out of church he said in a low, earnest tone, “What are you going to do about it?” The impression was fixed. By that timely word the young man was saved. The gift of the Spirit is as needful to make us watchful as to make us bold.
IV. In his preaching Paul followed up impressions made. Long time he tarried in Iconium. The ability to follow up a work is quite distinct from that to begin it. Many persons can make an impression, but want the knowledge, the patience, or perhaps the interest, to develop it. Revivalism outside the Churches involves the danger of producing a class of immature, weak, enthusiastic disciples, who may be left at critical stages of experience; ready, with proper care, to become established Christians, but ready also, without long and wise nurture, to become enemies or schismatics. Faithful Christian work in the pulpit, the Sunday school, the home, will aim at two ends--conversion, and the training of converts.
V. The theme of Paul’s preaching was the gospel. When the first Moravian missionaries were about leaving for Greenland, a solid and pious minister advised them to give the natives “a sound body of divinity, beginning with the being and attributes of God, following with the doctrine of sin, and thus leading on at last to Christ and the Cross.” This learned counsel was followed, and for several years their labour was in vain. One day, at a funeral service, quite by accident, a missionary told the story of the Cross, and explained its meaning. To his astonishment the truth made a profound impression. Conversions followed. Thereafter the missionaries began with the Cross. (G. R. Leavett.)
Strike, but hear us
Themistocles, the Athenian general, by warmly urging a point in a council of war, is said to have so provoked the displeasure of Eurybiades, the Spartan, the commander-in-chief, that the latter lifted up his cane over his head in a menacing posture. “Strike,” said the noble Athenian, “but hear me!” He did hear him, and the country was saved. And why may not a Christian act, or rather forbear to act, on the same principle, and for an infinitely greater end, even the eternal salvation of his enemies? What else has been the language of the noble army of the martyrs from the beginning? Have they not practically said to an enraged world, “Strike, but hear us”? (A. Fuller.)
The courage of devoted Christians
The Shanghai correspondent of the Bombay Guardian narrates the following suggestive item of information: “The captain of a steamer, plying on the Yangtse river, told me that when he stopped on a dark night at one of the stations on the bank, several of the inland missionaries came on board among a crowd of Chinese seeking a passage in the steerage, as they invariably do. They had encountered a mob of anti-foreign natives, which it is still very easy to do in this country, and had been well pelted and bespattered with mud. One of the ship’s officers, seeing especially the ladies in their humiliating condition, exclaimed with the customary profanity, that he wondered they did not leave the Chinese to go to hell if they preferred to do so. That is the world’s view of the case; and, as I said to the captain, there would have been no other view in the world today if Jesus Christ, the Son of God, had not taught it and set an example of it, and bestowed the grace for the imitation of it.”
Courage requisite in reformers
There is nothing which the world resents so much as an attempt to carry out a better measure than existed before. A man who would benefit the world must take leave of his own reputation first; for the world never let a man bless it but it first fought him; it never let him give it a boon without first giving him a buffet. If with one effort you should raise a tree twenty feet high, so as to make it forty feet high, you would not do more violence to its roots than you do to society, when you attempt suddenly to elevate it above its former level. If there were a hundred violins together, all playing below concert pitch, and I should take a real Cremona, and with the hand of a Paganini should bring it strongly up to the true key, and then should sweep my bow across it like a storm, and make it sound forth clear and resonant, what a demoniac jargon would the rest of the playing seem! Yet the other musicians would be enraged at me. They would think all the discord was mine, and I should be to them a demoniac. So it is with reformers. The world thinks the discord is with them, and not in its own false playing. All those rosy philosophers who go dancing along the ways of life, and expect to reform men through ease and pleasure, and are surprised when at first snowflakes are thrown at them, and then icicles, and then avalanches, had better fold their gauzy wings at once. They are not wanted. They are not of that heroic race who advance the world. (W. H. Beecher.)
Effects of gospel preaching
Wherever the gospel is proclaimed with power--
1. It secures believers. The Word of God does not return to Him void.
2. It secures some bitter enemies. It divides every community into two parties.
3. People are not content with merely rejecting the gospel for themselves. They stir up the minds of others to make them evil-affected against its preachers.
4. The Lord is sure to bear witness unto the Word of His grace.
5. Its preachers must expect personal attacks of some kind or other. (S. S. Times.)
Proper witness bearing
I. Wherein it consists.
1. Not in the degree of the external sufferings endured on account of faith, but in the measure of the fidelity displayed for Christ.
2. The apostles waited on their ministry with perseverance and joyful courage, and therein lay their fidelity.
3. They forsook the places which had become dear to them as soon as they were made away, that the Lord had no further use for them there.
II. Why is it so difficult? Because--
1. There is nothing in it to flatter our refined selfishness. There is wanting the “halo before the world,” for fidelity is clothed in homely garments.
2. It destroys self-will. Perhaps death was easier than flight.
III. In what lies its blessing.
1. It secures God’s will, not man’s.
2. Therefore it is rich in fruits of all kinds--
Persecution turned into inspiration
The apostles had finished their work at Antioch in a storm. Can that be true; the gospel dividing quiet cities into hostile camps? Surely the heavenly Word will bring heavenly peace along with it. No! The Son of man came not to send peace on the earth, but a sword. But now that the apostles have come to Iconium they will act in a different manner and correct their mistake. No; there again we have angry division, and stoning! How is this? These histories throw some light upon--
I. What is called unanimity. Unanimity is no virtue, nor sincerity, nor earnestness; we must ascertain what the unanimity is about, and what men are sincere and earnest in, because good fire may be used for forging of bad instruments. Surely it was a pity for two wandering tentmakers to go from town to town disturbing the unanimity of families and of townships! Why not let families and corporations alone? Why this propagation of a fighting faith? This is the way of Christianity. It will not let people alone. Hence we find some light thrown upon--
II. Christian doctrine. It was not a little puzzle to please the fancy, nor a pyrotechnic display to gratify children. It saves or slays. What wonder if it came upon sleepy towns like a thunderstorm? Christianity is not a compromise; it does not propose to give a little and take a little, and make a pacific arrangement with anybody. Christianity insists upon having everything; it makes room for nothing else. What wonder, then, that everywhere it broke up families. Seeing your hand locked in evil friendship, it does not hesitate to rend your hearts asunder. Christianity says, “Behold, I make all things new.” It will not say to a man, “Hand me your work, and I will complete it; it comes with a mighty hammer, and shatters our idols and all our best performances.
III. Christian service. Christian service--
1. Is the supreme passion; it puts out everything else, it has no partnerships, no relations except those which it can press into its own sacrifice.
2. Exposes to daily danger. If we have escaped the danger, it is because we have escaped the service. When did we ever rebuke a wrong-doer? We have talked about him when he was not there--that I admit; and that has proved our unchristianity. When did we ever say to a man face to face--“You lie”? That would now be called discourtesy; but when were we ever licensed to be courteous to falsehood? Christianity is not a book of etiquette--it is a book of commandments, a gospel of righteousness as well as a gospel of compassion. When did we ever stand before a house and say, “This house must come down if the price be fivefold what it will fetch in the market; it is a trapdoor into hell, and it must fall”? Let a man say that, and he will soon see that England is like Antioch and Iconium. But if we come into the church, pass through the services, and lose ourselves in controversy that has no heavenly savour, I wonder not that, lulled by some theological narcotic, we think we are going to heaven. It is no heaven we are going to! It may have written heaven above its portals, but that inscription is a lie! “If any man will live godly in Christ Jesus, he shall suffer persecution.
3. Divides public opinion (Acts 14:2). That is how it ought to be always. There are those who say they do not believe in sensationalism. What do they believe in? Are they in sympathy with the ministry of their own professed Lord and Master? If Christianity were amongst the Churches today, men, instead of criticising sermons, would go out and borrow any chair, or stand on any stone at the street corner, and if they could not preach the gospel, they could at least read it. Fifty thousand men at the street corners today reading, with one voice, the third chapter of John!--why, apostolic times would have come back again! Nothing divides society like Christianity: its voice is, “Come out from among them, and be ye separate; the good to the right, the bad to the left.”
4. Survives all ill-treatment. The time had come when the Jews determined to use the apostles despitefully. And as soon as the apostles became aware of it they “fled unto Lystra and Derbe”; and then in verse 7, as if nothing had happened before, “there they preached the gospel.” They preached better for their persecution. We should have wonderful preaching if we had more stoning. We should, too, have wonderful hearing as well as wonderful preaching! If we had to steal into the church by some back way, and had to listen in fear and trembling lest the oppressor should lay his iron grip upon us--oh, how we should listen! Do not say that Antioch was at peace until the apostles visited it; there is a so-called peace that is only a false name for death.
IV. So-called heresy. The heretics may be Paul and Barnabas with modern names. If men come amongst us denying the Bible, then have no part or lot with them; but if men of spotless character and sacred devotedness arise and say, “We have found the interpretation of this Scripture or of that,” hear them, though many an old notion may be displaced. We use heretics of that kind most basely! What was the fault of Paul? This: that he said a prophecy has been fulfilled--nothing more; and so he was stoned. And Christianity has its prophecies; Christian doctrine has yet its issues brighter than our fancy has measured; and if any man shall say, “Let us together read the Holy Word, and hear what I believe to be its true meaning,” let us not take up stones against him, but listen, knowing “that God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from His Holy Word.” (J. Parker, D. D.)
Which gave testimony unto the Word of His grace.--
God’s testimony to the Word of His grace
I. The propriety of this appellation: “the Word of His grace.” The gospel is so called, because--
1. It originated in unmerited mercy, and was sent to us as a matter of free favour.
2. It is a proclamation of grace and mercy. The law is a ministration of wrath, accusing, convincing, and condemning the sinner. The gospel reveals the grace of God, as abounding in our salvation.
3. It is grace alone that renders it effectual. Sinners own their conversion, saints their edification, mourners their comfort, and the oppressed their relief to it. But it derives all its influence and energy from the grace of the Holy Spirit. The gospel reaches only the ear; grace renews and sanctifies the heart. The gospel is a means, but God performs the work, and to Him we must ascribe the glory.
II. The way in which God bears testimony to the word of his grace.
1. By miracles wrought in confirmation of it.
2. By raising up a constant succession of ministers to propagate and defend it. He who sends the message, can be at no loss for want of messengers. As soon as one earthen vessel is broken, the heavenly treasure is put into another; and though the grass withereth, and the flower thereof fadeth away, yet the Word of the Lord endureth forever.
3. By the awe impressed upon the consciences even of wicked men. God will magnify His Word, whether it be a savour of life unto life, or of death unto death. Felix’s trembling, Agrippa’s being almost persuaded, and Simon Magus’s hypocritical profession, were so many testimonies, though involuntary ones, to the truth of the inspired Word.
4. By rendering it effectual to the salvation of all them that believe. Having tasted its sweetness, and felt its power, the believer has the witness in himself. When the dark understanding is enlightened, the conscience awakened, the heart softened, and the sinner truly converted, what greater proof can we have of the power and efficacy of the gospel, or of its being worthy of its Divine Author?
5. By the life and conversation of such as walk worthy of the gospel. The grace of God revealed in the gospel, teaches “men, that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, they should live soberly” etc. What can be a stronger confirmation of the reality of religion, than the change it produces in the lives and manners of its professors?
6. By the triumphant deaths of His saints. To see a Christian exulting in death is an amazing instance of the power of faith, and of the reality of true religion. Many an unbeliever has turned pale at this, and been confounded with the evidence which he had not power to resist. (B. Beddome, M. A.)
God’s testimony to the Word of His grace
I. This gospel is the Word of God’s grace because--
1. It is the revelation of His grace. Its very errand is to make known that “by grace are ye saved, through faith” etc.
2. It is the history and delineation of the grace of God. Study the Bible with this key, then, from the first promise to the last you find that the keynote of grace sounds through the whole glorious concert.
3. It is the great instrument of grace; for God works by His gospel; and it is “the power of God.”
II. The Lord gave testimony to the word of His grace, and He does so still.
1. God has given testimony to the Word of His grace--
2. But it is said with some plausibility, these supernatural signs were wrought in times past; show us some now. Now, this challenge may be fairly met. Surely every reflecting and reasonable man will admit that, as far as mind surpasses matter, so much further must the mighty power put forth in the mind surpass that put forth in the body. Therefore, whether is it the greater miracle, to make the deaf spirit to hear, the dumb spirit to sing, the dead spirit to have life return to it, or to raise the bodily infirm or dead? But were these miracles confined to the past? Could we not show these scornful philosophers who tell us there is nothing wonderful or preternatural now, the infidel, who has become devout and humble? not the drunkard, who has become sober, the publican and the harlot, who have become just and pure?
3. God bears testimony to the Word of His grace, and to that only. It is natural that He should be jealous of His own blessed specific, lest it should be either marred or corrupted by human traditions, or macerated by man’s vain and subtle explaining it away, or destroying its miraculous nature. Wherever the simple grace of God has been set aside by self-righteousness on the one hand--as it is largely by the Church of Rome--or, on the other hand, its mysterious and miraculous character denied by those who deny the divinity of Christ and the efficacy of the atonement, there may have been some moral influence; but where are the results that show the new creature? The apostles, reformers, martyrs, with one voice proclaimed that God bears testimony to the Word of His grace. Application: It is in the power of the humblest and plainest to give one of the very best evidences of the power of the gospel that ever can be given, by leading a holy life. (H. Stowell, M. A.)
God’s testimony to His Word
I. The miracles which the apostles wrought in attestation of the truth of their doctrine. And when the infidel sneeringly asks, “What connection is there between truth and power, or can the truth of a doctrine be established by a miracle?” we reply, by asking him, “What connection is there between a man’s signature and the validity of the bill or bond which he has subscribed? What connection is there between the credentials of an ambassador and his right to transact the business of his sovereign?” Miracles are God’s subscription to the truth of Christianity; and as no man could have wrought them unless God was with him, so in proportion to their number was testimony given to the gospel of grace.
II. The sufferings to which the apostles and first Christians were exposed.
III. The early and rapid propagation of the gospel. Considering the circumstances in which Christianity was introduced, we should not have been surprised had it made but slow progress in the world. Not only are its principles distasteful to the natural feelings of mankind; it opposed itself to the firmest prejudices, to the most established opinions of those to whom it was first addressed.
IV. God still testifies to the truth of the gospel by accompanying its proclamation with a spiritual influence. (James Jeffrey.)
But the multitude of the city was divided.
The effects of the gospel
I. Division. “Behold I come not to cause peace, but division.” So said the Master; so felt the disciples.
1. The gospel causes division in--
II. Opposition. Part held with the Jews.
1. Sympathetically. There is an opposition nowadays which does not proceed to active antagonism. Indifference to the gospel is sympathy with its foes. “He that is not for Me is against Me.” This form of opposition is the most difficult to deal with. An army would sooner meet its enemy than pass through a country secretly at league with the enemy. What the gospel has to dread is not infidel propaganda, or blatant vice; but mere intangible negativism. This we find not only outside the Churches but within.
2. Actively. This opposition exists in various forms.
III. Acceptance. “Part with the apostles.” This acceptance is--
1. Secret. There are thousands like Nicodemus, in heathen and Christian lands, whose whole sympathy is with the gospel, but who, for domestic or social reasons, withhold profession. This is not to be commended, but condemned; nevertheless, in estimating the forces for and against the gospel it should be considered. If it shows a heart yet unrenewed, it is evidence of feelings touched, intellect convinced, and perhaps will trembling in the balance. Such should be encouraged to not only hold with the apostles, but to stand boldly by their side.
2. Public. To take part thoroughly with the apostles is--
And when there was an assault made … they … fled unto Lystra and Derbe.--
The permitted flight of the servant of God
How it takes place.
I. After the conflict, as with the apostles here; not before, as with Jonah.
II. In obedience to the Lord, and not from fear of man or carnal tenderness.
III. With weapons in their hands, as the apostles continue to preach with unbroken courage, not after having cast their weapons away.
IV. To a new field of conflict (Derbe and Lystra), not to rest. (K. Gerok.)
And there they preached the gospel.--
A new and characteristic incident in the life of that sweet singer of Israel, Miss Havergal, comes to light in the recently published autobiography of her sister. The former was conversing with a minister who was not disposed to press home the gospel message. “Oh, why don’t you preach the gospel of Christ?” she exclaimed. “My congregation are well educated and well acquainted with the truths of salvation; if they were Zulus, I should preach differently,” was the reply. “Then let me be a Zulu next Sunday,” was the rejoinder, “and just preach at me.” A real gospel sermon was the result. It might pay a minister now and then to imagine some Zulus among his auditors, and prepare his sermon accordingly.
The preaching of the gospel
I. The nature of the gospel. In etymology, the term signifies “glad tidings.” In theology, the thing signified is the glad tidings of salvation through Christ. The gospel is the new law as distinguished from the old; for there is much gospel in the old, and much law in the new. The gospel is the foundation of a sinner’s hope as distinguished from the rule of the creature’s conduct. It is called “the gospel of the grace of God,” because the whole system originated in the free and unmerited favour of God; “the everlasting gospel,” because it occupied the mind of God from eternity, and its blessings extend to the end of time; “the ministration of glory,” because it combines the attributes of Jehovah; “gospel of the kingdom,” because it is the basis on which the whole empire of the Redeemer rests. It includes in itself our Lord’s divinity and atoning sacrifice, the justification of the sinner by faith, the renovation of the heart by the Holy Spirit, the universal invitation to all sinners to avail themselves of its provisions, the promise that all that believe shall be saved.
II. To preach the gospel is to exhibit--
1. The crucifixion of Christ as a fact, in connection with the design of that fact, as connected with the moral government of God.
2. Christ in the divinity of His person. The divinity of Christ is essential to His atonement.
3. The atonement and righteousness of Christ, as the exclusive foundation of the sinner’s hope of acceptance before God.
4. The death of Christ as the great means, in the hand of the Spirit, for the sanctification of the sinner’s heart.
5. An invitation of mercy co-extensive with the aspect of the atonement, and both as co-extensive with the wretchedness of human guilt and misery.
6. The supreme and ultimate object of the Christian’s hope, namely, the second advent of the Lord Jesus Christ, when He shall come without sin unto salvation.
III. The importance of preaching the gospel. Consider--
1. The sublimity of its ultimate design--the salvation of the soul. The proudest monuments of genius are not worth a thought, compared with the salvation of one of those children that belong to your Sunday school.
2. Its collateral benefits on the individual and society. I am aware that education is the idol of the day, that knowledge is sounded forth; and let it be sounded forth, for it is not good for the soul of man to be without it; but we are mistaken if we suppose that anything short of a preached gospel will purify society or elevate the human race, and meet the moral necessities of men.
3. Its adaptation to effect these things. Where can we find such a message from God to engage us? Where such power calculated to subdue our hearts? Where such a token of good-will towards the sinner as in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ?
4. Its effects in the world.
1. The main purpose of a Christian place of worship--the preaching and hearing of the gospel.
2. The great business and duty of the minister of religion to preach Christ.
3. How important it is to private Christians, to feel their obligation to provide places of worship!
4. If it is our obligation to preach the gospel, it is yours to receive it. (J. Angell James.)
The gospel ministry
I. The subject which the text presents to our attention--“The gospel.” If you examine the gospel as it was preached by Christ and His apostles, you will discover that merely to inculcate Christian virtues or to describe a future state, is not preaching the gospel. Every system must have some leading principles which are essential to it, and when these are renounced or overlooked, the system itself is opposed or concealed. Look at the meaning of the word “gospel”--“Glad tidings of great joy,” etc. Therefore, to preach the gospel is to imitate the angelic host, to preach Christ. If there be not a full and plain declaration of “Christ and Him crucified,” then there is an awful void in the preacher’s message. We are as the heralds of mercy, to exhibit the atonement and righteousness of Christ, as the exclusive foundation of the Christian’s hope of acceptance before God. Without the doctrine of justification by faith there can be no gospel. Let it only be alleged, or even hinted, that there is something more than the work of Christ necessary for the reconciliation of a sinner to God, and the silver trumpet falls from the lips of the preacher, and, to be a little more particular, we may remark that the Christian minister must proclaim Christ to his hearers as--
1. A suitable Saviour. We are enslaved, and need a Redeemer; diseased, and need a physician; perishing, and require a benefactor; condemned, and want pardon. Christ is our King, Benefactor, Physician, Redeemer, Saviour.
2. An Almighty Saviour. He is the maker and upholder of all things. “It pleased the Father that in Him all fulness should dwell.” See whom He has saved! Many of the most guilty of the human race. And this assures us that He can “save to the uttermost all who come unto God by Him.”
3. A willing Saviour. His invitations are given to all sinners, without exception.
4. An everlasting Saviour. He “is the Author of eternal salvation”; He gives “a kingdom that cannot be shaken”--“a crown of glory that fadeth not away.”
II. The manner in which the gospel is to be proclaimed, namely, by preaching. When the Saviour ascended up on high, He “received gifts for men.” “And He gave some apostles,” etc. But for how long was this to continue? “Until we all come to the unity of the faith,” etc. The gospel trumpet is to be blown until its sound shall be succeeded by the voice of the archangel and the trump of God. The office of preaching is not only a wise institution, but one of paramount importance. This will be seen if we appeal to it.
1. The declarations of God. What was to crown, according to Jeremiah, the return of the Jews from the Babylonish captivity into their own land? “I will give them,” says God, “pastors after Mine own heart,” etc. What does Isaiah consider as a compensation for all the calamities of life? “Though the Lord give you the bread of adversity … yet shall not thy teachers be removed into a corner any more.”
2. The adaptation of preaching to extensive usefulness. There is no mode of communicating information that can awaken half the attention, or excite half the interest, that the ordinance of preaching does; it is not only the understanding speaking to the understanding, but the heart speaking to the heart, and the conscience to the conscience. So that by this engine, if rightly used, every power of the mind is effected, and every feeling of the soul is touched and excited.
3. Its design. The profession of a lawyer is important, because it affects our property; and that of a physician, because it concerns our health; but these are nothing, when compared with the soul and eternity; and with these, the ministerial office is peculiarly concerned; and by these, it is infinitely dignified.
III. The condition of those places in which the gospel has been proclaimed.
1. Every such place is peculiarly favoured. In other places there is no heavenly bread, no water of consolation for the support of the soul. Capernaum, a little fishing place, was “exalted to heaven,” because there Christ preached the gospel. You should think of this when you change your residence, and when you make excursions for health. On such occasions ask, not only, “Is there a good air? Is there delightful scenery?” but also, “Is the gospel proclaimed there?”
2. Its inhabitants are awfully responsible. If you perish, you will have no cloak for your sin, and no alleviation of your punishment. “It will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon, at the day of judgment than for you,” if you neglect the gospel. (T. Gibson, M. A.)
The gospel for all
“Go into all the world,” was our Lord’s command to His disciples, “and preach the gospel to every creature.” They might have said in objection, that some parts of the world were philosophical and refined; that other parts were uncivilised and rude. Their Master held those objections to be nothing worth. Hence we find them in Jerusalem, for one place; we find them by and by in Ephesus and Athens; and here in what may fairly be called a rural and outlandish place. There, exactly as in other places, they just did what that text declares. “There they preached the gospel.” Where? Anywhere.
I. Because in every place the gospel is wanted. Man may be regarded as addicted to religion. Man has never been found without having as to his intellect the power, and as to his heart the solicitude to use that power, of trusting to some objects which are superior to himself. Hence it is, that we have all manner of religions very generally. The Hottentot has his religion, and the Esquimaux has his. But now, how comes man to be thus affected everywhere? I believe that it is by a necessity of his nature. Men want to have strength found them for their weakness, and light for their darkness, and wisdom for their ignorance, and pardon for their sin. You may find Atheism trying to get that instinct out of man’s nature; but you will find humanity revolting from it; and, if it has not got the true religion, it will somehow or other try to content itself with a false. Why is it that men will put up with heavy self-denial and sacrifice of the very best, and sometimes to an unknown God? Here lies the mystery of it all--“they have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” They want to have their relations with their Maker rectified into the position whence sin took them. And unto that position the gospel offers to bring them. Whether a man be a peasant or a prince, whether he be a Pagan or a nominal Christian, the man stands in need of that gospel; let that be preached to him, and he accept it, and the aspirations of his humanity are all met; his troubled heart is tranquillised, and his guilt forgiven. “There they preached the gospel”: in the antipodes; here, in some mission room, aye, and by the side of some sick and dying bed, in a London attic, “there they preach the gospel”: why? Because nothing but the “glad tidings of great joy” would avail for the misery and spiritual want that are discovered there.
II. Because in every place under heaven the gospel may be proclaimed. Different forms of religion to a large extent have arisen out of the circumstances of the particular place, or have got associated almost exclusively with the peculiarities of some time, or apostle. There is, e.g., Hindooism, that needs such a place as Hindostan with its great rivers. The religion of the Caffre is well adapted to all the region of Caffraria. Mahomedanism tells all its votaries that they are not to touch food from sunrise to sunset. Now, how could that be attended to in those lands where the sun never sets and rises for weeks together? A disciple of Vishnu or Brahma could not proclaim his religion here so as to carry into operation all its requirements. It was not made for man, it will not do for man. But this heaven-born gospel of ours, the land does not exist to which you could not take it; the man cannot be found by whom its sacred precepts and doctrines might not be received and followed out. Spiritual ill its nature, and simple in its ritual, it can go anywhere. “There they preached the gospel.” There among the luxurious groves of the Asiatic; there among the consolidated snows of Lapland.
III. For everywhere the gospel is adapted to all the circumstances of mankind, be they what they may.
1. There are peculiarities touching age and with all those peculiarities there come corresponding necessities. The young man looks forward to his life; everything appears to him bright and auspicious: he is brimful and overrunning with human life. Now the gospel puts before him another medium, and in God’s light tells him to see light; tells him to understand that there are difficulties and adversities and vicissitudes, but bids him trust, and not be dismayed, for all that. There is the man of business, and there the gospel stands, not telling him to exchange commercial life for conventional, but to buy, sell, and get gain as seeing God who is invisible. Then there is the mother in the midst of her family, the old man, etc. “There they preached the gospel.” To be sure they did; whatever may be the variety of our necessities, the gospel has a word, and has provision for them all.
2. There are the differences of constitutional temperament. Some men are lively, others taciturn; and there are gradations between these two extremes. “There they preached the gospel,” because it was not a thing for a great occasion, or for the salvation of the soul only, but in this present evil world to be as a portion in due season. Is impulse required, or restraint, or equanimity? The gospel provides it all. I have seen it take a selfish man and make him generous; take a timid man and make him brave; take a man proud and austere, and make him congenial and kindly.
3. There are peculiarities in intellectual power, and in corresponding intellectual attainment. Now, take the man that is not very intellectual, and the man that is profoundly intellectual; they both want the glad tidings; to both of them are the tidings preached. There was “The Dairyman’s Daughter,” and there was Sir Isaac Newton. When the one was weary with his intellectual work, and the other with her unintellectual work, where did they go? They sat down by the same Book, read about the same Saviour, and both of them set their seal to it that God is true.
4. There are peculiarities as to guilt and criminality. All men are not alike bad; there is the minimum and there is the maximum of human guilt. The gospel is adapted to the drunkard, to the profane, to the voluptuous, to the outcast of every kind; not that he may go on living in sin that grace may abound; but suited to him, to “bring him up out of the horrible pit and the miry clay.”
IV. Because anywhere the blessings of the gospel may be proffered universally, and to individual persons. We must not call uncommon what God has called common; we must not restrict what God has left unlimited. (W. Brock, D. D.)
The insufficient and the efficacious
What will convince and convert men? What will revive and enlarge the Church of God? Many means are useful; one only is efficacious.
1. The voice of God in nature is not sufficient.
2. Miracles do not avail.
3. Zeal, however ardent, comes short.
4. Machinery, perfect though it be--good preaching, a strong Church, all the ordinances of God’s house, Sunday schools, etc.
does not convert souls or give life to the people of God.
The only efficacious instrument is God’s truth, the gospel of the grace of God, the gospel faithfully preached and made efficacious by the agency of the Holy Ghost, as it was at Lystra and at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, and as it is now wherever the conditions are faithfully observed. (Homiletic Review.)
And there sat a certain man at Lystra.
Paul and Barnabas in Lystra
I. The incident.
1. The case of the cripple resembles that of the man at the gate Beautiful; and a particular statement of it is given, to show the reality and the greatness of the miracle. It was not an incidental, but a radical infirmity which was removed. He had been lame from his birth. His cure, therefore, would appear to all to be the effect, not of superior skill, but of supernatural power. Thus the design of the miracle would be gained, which was not only to relieve the patient, but to demonstrate that God was present with Paul and Barnabas, and consequently that their doctrine was true. Miracles are a sign “to them that believe not.” They are not merely prodigies intended to raise wonder. To the Jews the argument from prophecy was sufficient; and accordingly, we find the apostles insisting much upon it in their discourses to that people. But to the Gentiles it would not have been addressed with propriety, because they were not acquainted with the prophecies. Miracles, however, were an obvious and easy species of evidence.
2. Paul perceived that the lame man had “faith to be healed.” This faith seems to signify either a general belief of the power of Barnabas and Paul, or rather of Jesus Christ, whose ministers they were, to cure his infirmity; or a persuasion that a cure would be performed upon himself in particular. In the former case, his faith was founded on the account which he had heard of the character and miracles of Christ, and of the gifts of healing which He had bestowed on His apostles; in the latter it was the effect of a supernatural impression on his mind. This faith Paul perceived by the power of discerning spirits. “Paul therefore said, Stand upright on thy feet. And he leaped and walked,” and the cure instantly followed the command.
3. Paul said, “with a loud voice.” The circumstances in which the miracles of the gospel were performed leave no room for suspecting that they were dexterous impositions on the credulity of mankind. They were not done in a corner, but in the chief places of concourse. The juggling tricks of heathenism need only to be strictly examined to be rejected with contempt; whereas the miracles of Christianity are displays of omnipotent power, which will be the more admired the more closely they are considered.
4. The evidence of miracles is not irresistible, but may be counteracted by the power of prejudice. The Jews attributed those of our Saviour to Satanical influence; the Gentiles believed that those of the apostles were operations of magic; and the inhabitants of Lystra were disposed to turn this miracle into an argument in favour of their own idolatrous religion (Acts 14:11, etc.). As soon as the idea was adopted, that Paul and Barnabas were gods, the people assigned to them their respective names. If the gods had condescended to visit the city of Lystra, religion required that they should be received with appropriate honours; but the sacrifice was prevented by the zeal of Barnabas and Paul, who “ran in among them, saying, Sirs, why do ye these things? We are fellow mortals.” Their being of “like passions” with themselves would not have appeared a good reason why Paul and Barnabas should not be worshipped: for Jupiter and Mercury, and all the rest, if history might be credited, had given many shocking displays of them. But if they were fellow mortals, beings subject, like others, to disease and death, it was evident that they were not gods. Mortals, indeed, there have been, who demanded religious honours; and base flatterers have not been wanting to comply with the extravagant request. Some of the Roman emperors were deified during their lives. But, surely, the worshippers and the worshipped must have secretly regarded one another with mutual contempt. Jealous of the glory of the true God, the apostles rejected, with abhorrence, any honour offered to themselves which intrenched on His prerogative.
5. In the Old Testament the heathen gods are frequently styled vanities. Of the deities, whom the blinded nations adored, some had no existence except in the imagination of their worshippers; and the rest were dead men and women, whom the gratitude and admiration of posterity had consecrated. Their images, in which a Divine virtue was supposed to reside, were alike unworthy of religious honours and incapable of doing good or evil, as inanimate matter in any other shape (Psalms 135:16-18). These pretended gods, and their unprofitable service, the apostles call upon the men of Lystra to forsake, and henceforward to worship “the living God”--Jehovah, the self-existent Being, the source of life to all who breathe.
6. But if the God, whom Paul and Barnabas preached, was the true God, why was He so late in asserting His claim to their homage? To obviate this objection against the Christian doctrine as a novel system, the apostles add, “Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways.” Although He did not leave Himself altogether without a witness, yet He employed no extraordinary means to stem the torrent of apostacy. No prophet arose among them to reprove their errors and restore the knowledge and service of the Creator. “The times of this ignorance He winked at,” seeming to take no notice of it, as a man closes his eyes that he may not observe what is passing around him. Every nation was suffered to adopt whatever form of religion was most agreeable to its taste. Idolatry seems to have begun early after the flood. It was practised in the family of Abraham prior to his call (Joshua 24:2).
7. But this idolatry was inexcusable, because “God did not leave Himself without a witness,” etc. No man, who consults his reason, can consider the productions of the earth as the result of chance, because chance signifies no cause of any kind, but merely expresses bur ignorance. It is not less irrational to imagine that vegetation is the effect of certain independent qualities or powers of matter. Wherever we observe design, reason and experience point to an intelligent agent. The process by which “our hearts are filled with food and gladness,” consists of so many steps all conducting to a specific termination, that no person can survey them without an immediate conviction of the existence and providence of God, The heathens, amidst all their ignorance, were not so atheistical as some modern philosophers. They erred only in overlooking the true Author of their enjoyments, and returning thanks for their fruitful seasons to Jupiter, and Ceres, and Pomona, instead of acknowledging the various productions of the earth to be the work of one God, “from whom cometh down every good and perfect gift.”
II. Its lessons.
1. We learn from this passage that the contemplation of nature should be rendered subservient to the purposes of piety. Man is delighted with the view of what is sublime and beautiful, and with instances of curious contrivances and exquisite workmanship; but the ultimate design of this delight is to conduct him to the knowledge and love of its Author. Philosophy will afford us much entertainment by unfolding the secret operations of nature; but the pleasure of the unlettered Christian is incomparably greater when he traces, in the grand outlines of creation, the footsteps of his Father, and the smiles of His goodness.
2. Let us give thanks to God for our deliverance from idolatry. It is not to reason that we are indebted for this deliverance. We indeed find no difficulty in proving that there is only one God, who ought to be worshipped; but to demonstrate a truth already known is a much easier task than to discover a truth buried under the rubbish of prejudice and superstition. The wisest and greatest men of antiquity were polytheists. Were Christianity banished, the absurd and exploded systems of Paganism would be restored. No sooner had the French nation renounced the religion of Christ than they began to worship the Goddess of Reason.
3. As we profess to be the servants of the living God, let us remember that it is a pure and spiritual worship which He requires. He must not be treated as one of the idols of the Gentiles, to whom their votaries presented the empty homage of ceremonies and oblations. Then only do we serve Him when we present to Him the offering of our hearts, commit ourselves to the direction of His wisdom, submit to His authority, and regulate our thoughts and actions by His law. (J. Dick, D. D.)
Apostolic service and temptation
1. This man would not be admitted into a drawing room; he would be a spot on any feast of high conviviality; but Christianity always begins with the cripples. It will begin anywhere. Its one cry is, “Give me a man,” and in reply to this the cripple has always been given. This is the defence of the Church, that it shuts out no man, but finds a seat even for the cripple who cannot stand.
2. Paul perceived “that he had faith to be healed.” That man is here; don’t tell me you are not a Christian; your being here means Believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest. What you want is the faith to use faith, confidence to use the power you have. The great, kind sea waits for you. It is a great easy nurse, and says, “Come, throw yourselves right upon me, and you shall not sink.” Who can tell but that some poor soul now may say, “Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief”? If so, this will be the day of miracle.
3. I wish we could be as sure that Paul is here as that the cripple is. You have here an illustration of Paul’s insight into character. Not long since we noticed that Barnabas “saw the grace of God.” What eyes those men had. They knew faith when it was only a light in the face, a gleam in the eye. There is more faith in the world than the preachers have yet conceived. We make great mistakes in confounding one character with another, and in mistaking the symptoms that are offered in order to deceive the very elect. Many a man laughs to keep you off the scent; whilst under his assumed gaiety his heart is suffering from the bite of an adder. Many a man is silent who wants to speak. You have thought him cold, distant, indifferent, whereas in his heart he has been saying, “Would God I knew how to begin.” Let us pray for the spirit of discerning, and so use that spirit as to bring men who have taken one step on the right road forward on their journey.
4. Why did Paul speak “with a loud voice”? Some people object to loud voices--they say they could hear quite well if the preacher did not exert himself so. It is not enough to hear--you must overhear. An utterance must not deliver its own syllables only, but take with it heart, fire, life. If you had spoken with a sublimer audacity you would have elicited a nobler reply. People knew that Christ spoke with authority, and Paul’s heart went with his voice, and his every syllable was glorified into a power.
5. Not only had Paul keen insight into the character of others, he had also keen insight into his own spirit. That kept him right. The high priest of Jupiter was prepared to offer sacrifice to him; but he cried, “We also are men of like passions with you.” Their self-knowledge was, humanly speaking, their salvation. If we knew ourselves we could not so inhale the incense of adulation as to lose our balance. Let all men know themselves to be but men, and then eulogium will bring with it honest encouragement, and instead of offering sacrifices, we shall offer the nobler homage of confidence and love.
6. This narrative throws some light upon Christianity itself. Christianity makes people do what they never did before. The man had never walked. Christianity does not make us do things a little better than we did them before; it makes us do things we and the world thought it impossible for us ever to do. When the priest of Jupiter saw what was done, he was prepared to put the knife to Jupiter’s own throat. Christianity must vindicate itself by the men it makes. Convince the priests of Jupiter, not by eloquent reasoning, but by noble manhood.
7. The man “leaped and walked.” You cannot leap long--the law of gravitation is against that--but you can walk all your lifetime. A man leaping always is beside himself; a man walking has serious business, and he is going to do it. We cannot live in raptures, but we must leap at first. Those who have seen God, and have received of His strength, mount up as on the wings of eagles: then they run, then they walk. It would be pleasant to see some of us leaping a little. Without enthusiasm, what is the Church? It is Vesuvius without fire; it is Niagara without water; it is the firmament without the sun. (J. Parker, D. D.)
Worship: the false and the true
I. Man worship. Look at--
1. The great miracle.
(a) “The same heard Paul speaking.” The gospel came with healing to the soul before healing was given to his body.
(b) Perceiving how undoubting was the man’s faith in Christ as a Saviour, Paul saw that he would have just as much faith in Him as a healer.
(c) “Stand upright on thy feet.” To that clarion call all the energies of the lame man’s being responded. The sense of impotence gave place to a sense of power. There was a second miracle in the leaping and walking; for with man walking and leaping are the result of many trials and failures.
2. The great mistake. The miracle set the people reasoning. By no mere human power could such a wonder be performed; therefore these men must be gods. Even the priest of Jupiter himself came to do priestly homage.
II. True worship. Some would have let the people suppose for a time that their surmise was true. It would give them influence, and gradually, they could turn attention away from themselves to Christ, etc. But the false never can represent the true. How did Paul and Barnabas act?
1. Self-worship rejected.
2. True worship enjoined. The sermon of the apostles is short, but it presents God--
(a) Indulgent. “Who suffered all nations to walk in their own ways.” He would not compel their adoration, but left it to themselves to find out that evil was hurtful, idolatry nothing but vanity, and that the wages of sin is death,
(b) Faithful. “Yet He left Himself not without witness, in that He did good.” The apostacy of the nations did not cause God to turn away from them. With infinite patience, born of infinite love, He continued to treat them as though they were His children.
(c) Provident. “And gave you from heaven rain,” etc. With wonderful kindness our Father “maketh His sun to rise on the evil and the good,” etc. His love and goodness continually plead with men to repent. “And with these sayings scarce retained they,” etc. The heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil. It is as hard sometimes to turn them as it is to turn the course of a river. (M. C. Hazard.)
The same heard Paul speak: who … perceiving that he had faith to be healed, said … Stand upright.
Faith to be healed
I. What preceded his faith? Faith cometh by hearing; but the bearing of what? The gospel (Acts 14:7). Yes, he declared to these ignorant, superstitious fanatics the very same truths which he spoke to his enlightened Jewish brethren. He makes no difference between the education of his hearers in different places. To Ephesian sorcerers, to philosophic Athenians, to Corinthian merchants, to rustic Leptrians, his only message is the gospel. What, then, was this gospel which Paul preached everywhere?
1. It was a gospel of facts. Every time Paul preached he told the following unvarnished tale: God beheld men lost and ruined. Out of love to them He sent His only-begotten Son, who lived a life of innocence and perfect obedience. He was crucified, rose again, and ascended up to heaven, where He sitteth at the right hand of God, from whence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
2. There were certain doctrines flowing out of the facts. To wit, that Jesus Christ had offered a full atonement for the sin of His people, so that whosoever would believe on Him should be saved. Then would come the doctrine of pardon, how God could be just, and yet the Justifier of him who believeth.
3. And out of these there sprung certain commands: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shelf be saved.” “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” “Well,” says one, “do you think the world will be turned upside down by this?” It has been and will be again. In vain do men attempt to find a nobler instrument. This is the great battering ram which shall yet shake the bastions of error. This is the true Excalibur, which, if any man knoweth how to wield it, shall cut through joints and marrow, and make him more than a conqueror. Do ye ask, then, where this man’s faith came from? It came from Paul’s preaching of the gospel.
II. Wherein lay this man’s faith?
1. Paul perceived “that he had faith to be healed.” As he listened to Paul he thought, perhaps, “That seems to be the truth; it is the truth; I am sure it is true; and, if so, perhaps I may be healed; I--I--I think I may; I hope I may; I believe I may; from what Paul says of Christ’s character, I think He must be willing to do it.” Then Paul said to him, “Stand upright on thy feet,” and he did so in a moment, for “he had faith to be healed.”
2. You say, “It does not appear that Paul had any previous communication with the cripple.” Now I know from my own experience that it is no uncommon thing for someone to arrest the preacher’s attention. The group of countenances before him might to the first glance of a stranger look confused and inexplicable, as a Chinese grammar to those who know not the language. But a practised eye can learn to read the one as well as the other. The languor and indifference of some; the curious inquiring look of others; the cold, critical attention of more, form a picture which often reacts upon us, and kindles a desire to reach those who, for a brief hour, hang upon our lips. But there will sometimes be one who has faith dazzling in his very eyes, seeming to drink in every syllable, till the preacher becomes as absorbed in that man as the man had been in the preacher. And while he pursues the discourse, he perceives that at last this man has heard the very truth which meets his case. Preacher and hearer, unknown to all the rest of the audience, have secretly saluted each other, and met on the common ground of a vital faith.
3. Shall I describe this “faith to be saved”? You have “faith,” but you have not fully exercised it. Now, you believe that Jesus Christ is God’s Son? “Yes.” That He has made a full atonement? “Yes.” That He is worthy to be trusted? You depend on nothing else? “No.” Then you only need that gracious command--“Stand upright on thy feet.”
III. The spiritual teaching of the miracle and of the blessing conferred. Are there not many, who though they have “faith to be saved,” are still limping? The reasons may be different in different cases.
1. Some have been so stunned by grief on account of sin, that while they do believe that Christ is able and willing to save, they cannot get a hold of the fact that they are saved. “Stand upright on thy feet,” thou trembling sinner. If thou believest in Jesus, whatever thy fears may be, there is no cause for them.
2. Some are still lame, though they have faith, through ignorance. They are waiting for something, they hardly know what, to embellish their faith, or to fortify it with signs and wonders. All that you have to do with is this--“Do I believe in Jesus?” If you do you are saved, Stand upright on your feet.
3. How many, too, are kept lame because of a fear of self-deception. Away with that affectation of modesty, saying, “I hope”; “I trust”; but “I feel such doubts, such fears, and such gloomy misgivings,” that is a vain unseemly questioning of God.
4. Others, again, cannot stand upright because they are afraid that if they did begin they would go back again, and so bring dishonour to Christ. This would be a very proper fear if you had anything to do with keeping yourselves, but Christ gives you His promise to preserve you even to the end.
5. Then possibly there is one here who cannot stand upright because of his many sins. Sinner, stand upright on thy feet, for “all manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men.” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Faith to be healed
1. Faith is the one condition indispensable whenever one would receive blessings from God.
2. We must be willing to look for and recognise even feeble faith (Isaiah 42:3). It requires alertness and charity,
3. Christians must instantly honour true faith when they find it, not stop to question, and to search, and to disturb it.
4. He who has greatest faith of his own will detect faith in others most quickly.
5. Our Lord is wont to see faith sometimes when we declare we cannot. (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
The efficacy of faith
Take a piece of wax and a piece of gold of the same magnitude; the wax is not valuable with the gold; but as this wax is placed at the end of some will, by virtue of which some great estate is confirmed and conveyed, so it may be worth many hundred pounds. So faith, considered purely in itself, doth challenge nothing more than any other graces: nay, in some sense it is inferior, it being an empty hand; but as this hand receives the precious alms of Christ’s merits, and is an instrument or channel through which the blessed streams of life flow to us from Him, so it doth challenge a superiority over, and is more excellent than, all other graces whatsoever. (J. Spencer.)
Why is faith so essential? It is because of its receptive power. A purse will not make a man rich, and yet, without some place for his money, how could a man acquire wealth? Faith itself could not contribute a penny to salvation, but it is the purse which holds a precious Christ within itself, yea, it holds all the treasure of Divine love. If a man is thirsty, a rope and a bucket are not in themselves of much use to him, but yet if there is a well near at hand, the very thing that is wanted is a bucket and a rope by which the water can be lifted. Faith is the bucket by which a man may draw water out of the wells of salvation, and drink to his heart’s content. You may sometimes have stopped a moment at a street fountain, and have desired to drink, but you found you could not, for the drinking cup was gone. The water flowed, but you could not get at it. It was tantalising to be at the fountainhead, and yet to be thirsty still in want of a little cup. Now faith is that little cup, which we hold up to the flowing stream of Christ’s grace; we fill it, and then we drink and are refreshed. Hence the importance of faith. It would have seemed to our forefathers an idle thing to lay down a cable under the sea from England to America, and it would be idle now were it not that science has taught us how to speak by lightening; yet the cable itself is now of the utmost importance, for the best invention of telegraphy would be of no use for purposes of transatlantic communication if there were not the connecting wire between the two continents. Faith is just that; it is the connecting link between our souls and God, and the living message flashes along it to our souls. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men.
The theology of heathendom
In the words and acts of these heathen Lystrians, there comes out the native theology of human hearts everywhere and in all conditions. There are three great theological beliefs involved in their conduct:
I. That the Divinity is always manifest in the miraculous. Though logically, perhaps, it could not be proved, man everywhere believes it. Whenever anything extraordinary in nature occurs, the human spectators, as well in civilised as savage states, involuntarily feel that God is at work. This doctrine, thus held by the heart of depraved humanity, accords with the teachings of the Bible.
II. That the Divinity assumes human forms. “In the likeness of men.” This was the general belief of heathendom. This may be regarded--
1. As a dim memory in the soul of paradise, where God held fellowship with man.
2. As a prophetic sentiment of that grand incarnation “when the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.”
III. That the Divinity is to be worshipped when appearing in the human form. These heathens, believing that Barnabas was Jupiter, and Paul, Mercurius, began their worship, Now, the theology which comes out from the hearts of these heathens, and which is written in the souls of all, serves several important purposes.
1. As an eternal hindrance to the reign of atheism. Atheism is a contradiction to the profoundest faith of the human heart. Whatever system of doctrine is contrary to the intuitions of humanity cannot stand.
2. As indicating the responsibility of heathens. “There is a light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” God has left no man without some measure of inner light.
3. As presumptive evidence in favour of the gospel. The gospel agrees with the primitive beliefs of human hearts.
4. As a guarantee for the spread of Christianity. The congruity of Christian theism with the theism of the soul is a pledge of its ultimate triumph. The gospel brings God to man in miraculous works and in a human form, and all this that he might worship. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The worship of success
How ready the world is to pay tribute to apparent success! If a physician works a startling cure; if a commander wins a great victory; if an author writes a popular book: if an inventor contrives a wonderful machine; if a financier rolls up a vast fortune--the world looks up to him and calls him great. There are, indeed, those who are ready to give him homage beyond what mere man ought ever to receive. It is rarely an intelligent tribute which is paid to such a man. The display of his power dazzles the eyes of those who observe him, and they are ready to worship him because he possesses what they lack and long for. (H. C. Trumbull, D. D.)
And they called Barnabas, Jupiter; and Paul, Mercurius.--A well-known legend recounts how Jupiter and Mercury had once wandered through this region in quest of shelter and entertainment, which was everywhere refused until they came to the cottage of Philemon. When, then, the people saw the miracle, and heard the words of Paul and Barnabas, they thought that the gods of their old legend had again come down to them. In calling Barnabas Jupiter it is supposed that they were guided by the greater age, and probably the more dignified appearance of this apostle over his companion, whose bodily presence was weak, while the greater eloquence of Paul procured him the name of Mercury--the God of eloquence. (W. Denton, M. A.)
Sirs, why do ye these things?
In a position similar to that of Herod, they act in an opposite manner (Acts 12:22). And yet there was no small temptation in the matter. They might think this idolatrous prejudice must be excused: there is a spark of truth in it; the esteem for our persons may be serviceable in the spread of the gospel; the idea of the appearance of gods on earth may lead to the doctrine of Christ the Son of God. But that would be nothing else than to suppose that the end sanctifies the means. How often do we thus act? And always to the detriment of the truth and honour of God, which we thought to promote. The apostles took vigorous measures; they tore asunder the web of this delusion when it was yet forming itself, instead of helping to complete it; and God permits them to succeed. (G. V. Lechler, D. D.)
The danger of accepting false homage
Let no one say, this is nothing, for a creature, conscious of his infirmity and mortality, to refuse to be worshipped as a god. Alas! we have painful evidence that it is something. For, not to mention the deification of emperors, one of our own countrymen, Captain Cook, suffered himself to be taken for one, the god of war, in the Sandwich Islands, and to be worshipped with idolatrous ceremonies, thinking it afforded a fortunate opportunity of swaying the savage mind. Alas! the savages killed him whom they had adored. (J. Bennett, D. D.)
The flatterer repulsed
When the French ambassador visited the illustrious Bacon in his last illness, and found him in bed with the curtains drawn, he addressed this fulsome compliment to him: “You are like the angels, of whom we hear and read much, but have not the pleasure of seeing them.” The reply was the sentiment of a philosopher and language not unworthy of a Christian: “If the complaisance of others compares me to an angel, my infirmities tell me I am a man.” (Biblical Museum.)
Effects of turning to God
“I saw with mine own eyes, when in Africa two or three years ago,” says the Rev. W. Allen, “the notorious skull temple, or Juju house, not long ago the scene of the most ghastly horrors; I saw the very men who had been the high priests of Juju, and ringleaders in all kinds of atrocities; I saw the accursed grove where human victims were constantly slain, and twins cast out to die; but the temple had fallen into ruins, the skulls were crumbling to dust, the idols lay grovelling on the ground, the grove was the highway to God’s house, and the once cannibal priests and people were all assembled in church, and joining with earnest fervour in the worship of Almighty God. And since then, and within the last two years, the tottering temple has been deliberately razed to the ground, the human skulls decently interred, and all the detestable tokens of their former idolatry, some of which had been procured at a tremendous cost, and had been regarded as of priceless value, were handed over to Bishop Crowther, forwarded by him to me, and are now in London. In lieu of their former skull temple the natives have erected at their own expense, at a cost of not less than £2,000, a church which seats two thousand people, which is now Bishop Crowther’s cathedral, and at the consecration of which over three thousand natives were present.”
The sublimity of Christianity and the worthlessness of human popularity
I. The sublimity of Christianity. This is seen--
1. In the spirit it generates. It is the characteristic of mean-natured men that they seek homage from their fellows. Many of the heathen emperors put themselves up as gods; and there are those now in every circle who are craving to be the idols of their sphere. But here you have two men to whom the highest honours were unanimously and enthusiastically offered--repudiating them with a holy indignation. What gave them this spirit? Christianity! The man who has this spirit is too great, not only to seek, but to receive the honours which worldly men covet.
2. In the God it reveals.
3. In the revolutions it effects. The work of Christianity is to turn souls from the false to the true, from the shadowy to the real, from the creature to the Creator. The gods of men are vanities, whether Jupiter or Mercurius, or worldliness, fashion, pleasure, or pride. What a grand thing, then, is Christianity! All the systems of men to it are as tapers to the sun.
II. The worthlessness of human popularity. How long did this public desire to worship the apostles continue at Lystra? It had a very brief existence (verse 19). What a rapid reaction! The enthusiastic adorers are transformed to malignant foes; the men who are honoured as gods one hour, are treated the next as wretched criminals deserving death. This is popularity. “Hosanna” today, “Crucify” tomorrow. What a worthless thing! How much beneath the man to value, still less to court. He who worships popularity worships--
1. A corrupt god. So long as the world is depraved, the popular thing must be wrong.
2. A capricious god. It approves today what it denounces tomorrow. Little men go after popularity, and their little souls adore it; great men are followed by popularity, and their great, natures care nothing for it. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The apostolic testimony against heathenism
Derbe and Lystra would be as different from Iconium and Antioch as villages in India would be from the larger towns of the presidencies. But we need not go so far to find illustration. In spite of railways, telegraphs, newspapers, and cheap postage, there are many quiet places in our own land where the pulses of our great national life are feebly felt, and where the people are living very much as their fathers did fifty years ago. The gospel message confronts totally fresh circumstances. At Lystra there was heathenism densely ignorant and loyal, there were superstitions much less easily dealt with and destroyed. Three things are here declared--
I. A living God of redemption, as against hero worship. I do not see much to choose between the ancient heathen deification of heaven, and its more modern form of the canonisation of saints. I do know, however, that the men so dealt with would recoil from such worship. There was only one that accepted homage and worship. Angels and apostles repudiated it. And yet there has always been a readiness to offer homage to the heroes in every age, and especially when the honour is useless to him to whom it is paid. The fathers persecute and slay the prophet, whose sepulchre their children build. Is it wrong, then, that men should honour human greatness? By no means. No true man can read of heroisms of calm, patient endurance, as well as of daring, without having his nobler pulses stirred. But hero-worship has its dangers. It may be paralysing instead of inspiring. Because, when you come to think about it, a man’s heroism is a lonely and incommunicable splendour. And the greatest men have their imperfections. Then what glad tidings are these of the apostles of the Christ, leading the generous and appreciative instincts of men aright! Our hopes and prayers, our trusts and appeals, are turned to Him from whom all heroes have their nobility, and in Him all we also may live and move and have a grander being. Our life is in the living God, and the gospel has not done its perfect work until the trust of the soul is drawn up away from all things lower and temporal, and fixed upon Him whom to know is life eternal. Then in our own kind and way we shall have heroes also.
II. A living providence as against the worship of natural forces. Who shall say that this is aimed but at the superstition of a barbaric age, and that there is no such heathenism now? Heathenism is ignorance. Anciently it was an ignorance by reason of the clearer truth having been not yet proclaimed. Today it is an ignorance through rejection of the message of the Most High. The older heathenism is the nobler of these two. But better, happier than either, the glory of the gospel which points to the living God, who is the careful, loving Providence of all His children. To know this is to fear no evil; it is to live in the house of the Lord continually.
III. A living God of righteousness and true command, as against self-will. Who shall tell us what is right and good? Man’s own reason and instinct, the agreement of society. Thus speaks heathenism, and its morality has been a disastrous failure. The nations who have walked, and still walk, in their own ways, are not the benefactors of the world. The gospel says national interests lie in the path of national duty. Selfishness is never right. Violence carries its own death sentence. A man is too wayward to guide his life in safety, too weak, too changeful to be left to fashion his own destiny. Thank God for the word He has spoken and the doings of His activity; good unto all, even to the unthankful and evil. The very heart of the glad tidings is the fact of a personal, living Lord. Not a force, not a general drift of things, but a Father, who is eager to redeem His children unto Himself. (D. Jones Hamer.)
The pastoral office
I. Its true spirit. The minister of Christ is a man of “like passions” with his hearers, and his success depends on his establishing a sense of oneness with them. This is one of Paul’s grand themes. It behoved Christ “to be made like unto His brethren.”
II. Its perils. Notwithstanding the levelling attacks on it, an undoubted respect for it still exists. In this lies danger. Our people place us on a high pedestal on which we are expected never to stagger. Should we fail in any degree our influence is diminished. If it be enjoined that men should account ministers “stewards of the mysteries of God,” it is no less plainly declared that “we are not sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves.”
III. Its week. To call men to “turn from vanities to the living God.”
1. No vanity can satisfy the human spirit.
2. God is ready to welcome all who turn to Him. (M. B. Hogg, B. A.)
The living God.--
The living God
Is God real? This is the question of the ages. Four philosophers are discussing it together. The first says, “There is no God.” This is the atheist. The second says, “I cannot tell, and therefore I do not think about it.” This is the agnostic. The third says, “I cannot be sure that God is, nor what He is; but I think He is thus and so, and I act upon this supposition.” The fourth says, “God is: I know Him.” This is the apostle of religion. We have to ask, Which of these four has the facts on his side? In regard to the first, he stands alone, and is in the difficult position of having to prove a positive by negatives. He must sweep the universe from end to end, and show that it is empty, and prove that an effect may exist without a cause. The second and third stand together in theory, though they differ in practice. They both admit the idea of God, but they cannot discover the reality. The second says that he will have nothing to do with it. But the third declares it is so beautiful that he will worship it and make it the guide of his life. Now, in regard to their common view, one thing is clear. It is unreasonable. For if there were no God it would be impossible for us to find traces of Him. But if He is in the universe, there must be evidences of His being and power. We have, therefore, an antecedent probability in favour of the fourth view.
I. The world is full of God. He is on every side of you. You touch not His substance, nor see His face, but He is here as really as light, gravity, electricity, though you cannot see them. You know them; they are manifested by their workings. So God is manifested in the world. There are three forms in which this manifestation comes to us. Power, wisdom, beauty.
1. Look at these mighty forces which permeate our globe. Do not all these tell us of a living fountain of force? The heathen saw in a lightning flash a thunderbolt hurled by Jupiter. We call it an effect of electricity. But what is electricity but an effluence of an Almighty Will?
2. But consider how wonderfully these forces, and the material substances which they are incessantly changing, are adapted to the production of certain definite and desirable results. No intelligent person can fail to see in the universe that which in any human production we should call wisdom, though on a scale much more vast. How intricate and majestic the combination of forces which keeps the heavens balanced; how skilful and exact the construction of the eye!
3. And then, the beauty of it all! Whence is this derived? If the universe were but a vast machine, what power could it have to touch our spirits? Why should our hearts leap up when we behold a rainbow? It is but the refraction of certain rays of light in certain drops of water. An orchard in the springtime; a field of golden grain in summer, etc., these are but chemical effects, the natural results of the changes of the seasons. Why should they be so lovely? Surely the grain, the fruit, the snow, could have been produced just as well without beauty. Who has informed them with this gracious splendour? God it is whose presence makes the world alive with beauty: He it is whose vision thrills us when we know it not.
II. In the moral world we touch Him yet more closely: He reveals Himself to us as a person. Here we stand in another world from that which is known to our senses. Absolutely different from the feelings of wonder or delight at the things which are seen is the sentiment of moral obligation, the distinction between right and wrong, the voluntary movement of the soul under the laws of good and evil. No external force, no law of nature, no command of man can create that which we call duty; and yet it is a reality which we cannot question. Nothing in the universe is more real than this, and in this I touch God. He it is that commands and binds me. He reveals to me this world within the world, and summons me to live aright. The universe is filled with His voice, saying, “Thou shalt,” and “Thou shalt not.” But, mark you, there is no constraint laid upon me. My will is free. I can, I must, choose for myself between good and evil. And here is the wonder of it; here is the manifest presence of the living God. For if the moral law were natural and impersonal, it would bind us resistlessly as gravity or electricity.
III. We find God in the world as an historical reality. Just as we know the reality of the Persian, or the Grecian, or the Roman empires by their records on stone or parchment, by the traces which they have left in the world, so we know that God is a reality by the records sod results of His dealings with men. If you deny all traces of a supreme Providence, the history of the world becomes an inexplicable fable. How has the race been preserved in numberless perils? how have human industry and knowledge and character been unfolded and developed? how, amid the crash of falling empires and the dust of ruined civilisations, have learning and virtue been kept alive, and the happiness of humanity enlarged century by century; if it be not by the indwelling and in working of an almighty and all-wise Governor? God in history is a reality. And more than this, we have the actual record of His special dealings with men and nations. The Bible is a history of men and of God. Above all, He has shined forth clearly in the person and life of Jesus Christ. This Divine-human Master and Saviour of men is to us the unshaken evidence of the reality of God. When we see Him we see the Father, for He and the Father are one.
IV. In the spiritual life, the life of faith and hope and love and prayer, we meet and touch the living God. No mere vision of distempered sleep was that experience of Jacob, by the ford of Jabbok. It was a reality. When the tide of penitence sweeps over the soul, and we are humbled in the dust crying for pardon, have we not felt the touch of His forgiving hand laid upon us in secret? Have we not cast ourselves in faith upon Him whom we see not, as one who leaps into the darkness, and found our Father’s everlasting arms embracing, bearing us up? (H. J. Van Dyke, D. D.)
Which made heaven and earth.
God in Nature
I. The Almighty Creator (verse 15).
II. The Holy Governor (verse 16).
III. The Gracious Preserver (verse 17). (K. Gerok.)
God known by His works
It is said of the great Galileo--who had been accused of infidelity, because he asserted that the earth went round the sun, in apparent contradiction to the language of Scripture--that when questioned by the Roman Inquisition as to his belief in God, he pointed to a straw lying on the floor of his dungeon, and said to his accusers, that from the structure of even so insignificant an object as that, he could infer the existence of an intelligent Creator.
The book of revelation and of nature
There are two books whence I collect my divinity besides that written one of God, another of His servant, Nature--that universal and public manuscript that lies exposed to the eyes of all. Those who never saw Him in one have discovered Him in the other. Surely the heathens knew better how to read and join these mystical letters than we Christians, who cast a more careless eye on these common hieroglyphics, and disdain to suck divinity from the flowers of nature. (Sir T. Browne.)
Natural religion, its uses and defects
I. God may be known by the light of nature (Romans 1:19-20).
1. His existence; for it is certain that nothing could make itself, but must have been made by someone. Who but God made the worlds?
2. What He is, viz., that He is a Spirit, perfect in wisdom and power.
3. His absolute dominion over all things (Genesis 14:19), and His right to dispose of all things as He pleases (Romans 9:20).
4. That though He is the absolute and natural Lord of all things that He has made, yet He is pleased to deal with His rational creatures in a way of moral government, and will reward them according to their works. Conscience may discover so much of the natural law and will of God as a righteous Governor if it be properly and wisely employed (Romans 2:14-15).
5. That He is a universal Benefactor to mankind, even above and beyond their deserts, and notwithstanding all their provocations. The text declares this.
II. What are the various uses of this knowledge of God, which is attainable by the light of nature?
1. To convince men of sin against the law of God, and to lay all mankind under a sense of guilt and self-condemnation. The Apostle Paul begins with this doctrine in the first chapter of Romans.
2. As it is designed to awaken men to the practice of their duty, so it has had some influence on mankind, at least by the fear of punishment, to keep, preserve, and restrain part of them from the extremest degrees of wickedness. Where there has been nothing of this knowledge, mankind have almost lost their superior rank among the creatures, and degenerated into a brutal nature.
3. It gives some encouragement to guilty creatures to repent of their sins, and to return to God by a general hope of acceptance, though they had no promise of pardoning grace. And this was the very principle upon which some of the better sort of the Gentiles set themselves to practise virtue, to worship God and endeavour to become like Him.
4. It serves to vindicate the conduct of God as a righteous Governor in His severe dealings with obstinate and wilful sinners both here and hereafter. This will leave them without excuse in the great day when God shall judge the secrets of all hearts. Their own consciences will accuse them and bear witness against them (Romans 1:20-21; Romans 2:15; Romans 3:5-6).
5. It prepares the way for preaching and receiving the gospel of His grace. St. Paul (Acts 17:22, etc.), by discoursing first on natural religion comes at last to awaken men to repentance, and preaches Jesus with the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment (verse 31).
III. What are the defects or imperfections of it?
1. It is but a small portion of the things of God which the bulk of mankind can generally be supposed to learn merely by their own reasonings. The bulk of mankind, even in the learned nations, did actually know but little of the true God, or of their duty towards Him, or the way of obtaining future happiness.
2. The light of nature, even in those things which it did teach the heathen world, is but dim and feeble, and leaves mankind under many doubts and uncertainties in matters of considerable importance (Acts 17:27). “The world by wisdom knew not God.”
3. All the knowledge of God which they arrived at by the light of nature had actually but little influence to reform the hearts or the lives of mankind (verse 16). See the iniquities numbered up in a large and detestable catalogue (Romans 1:1-32.).
4. This knowledge of God by the light of nature doth rather serve to show men their sin and misery than discover any effectual relief; and in this respect it comes infinitely short of what the revelation of the gospel of Christ hath done.
1. Since the rational knowledge of God and natural religion has its proper uses, and especially to lay a foundation for our receiving the gospel of Christ let it not be despised. There may be some necessary occasions for our recourse to it in a day of temptation, when our faith of the gospel may be tried and shaken.
2. Since this knowledge of God, which is attainable by the light of nature has so many defects, let us never venture to rest in it.
3. Since the nations which have only the light of nature are forced to feel out their way to God through such dusky glimmerings, let us bless the Lord that we are born in a land where the Book of Grace lies open before us, as well as the book of nature, to teach us the knowledge of God and His salvation. (I. Watts, D. D.)
Nevertheless He left not Himself without witness.--
Witnesses for God
I. The text in its immediate bearing--that God hath a “witness” of Himself.
1. In His visible creation. “Which made heaven and earth,” etc. Look at nature, composed of an endless diversity of organised substances. Examine these, and you will see that each part is admirably adapted to its particular end. The design indicates a designer. The universe could no more make itself, than a watch could make itself. Intelligence is equally visible in the contrivance by which the minutest creature puts out its smallest antennae to the warm sun, as in the very movements of the solar system. God “left not Himself without a witness” also of tits power; that evidences itself in carrying on the influence under which each thing severally performs its own functions.
2. In His providence. To wisdom and power He has superadded goodness. The great end in view is a benevolent end. The Creator is the Governor. He appointed certain seasons for the benefit of man; and this the apostles referred to. And this too amidst human unworthiness, superstitions, and idolatries. Justly had He swept away a rebellious people; but goodness withheld the sword, and it only pierced the cloud to let down fatness upon their heads. In the midst of wrath He “remembers mercy.” Amidst the wonders of the visible creation are not many of you living “without God in the world”? Ask this yourselves; and ask, in all your unworthiness, in all your proneness to idolatry, if aught can restrain the Divine and righteous indignation but the Divine goodness.
II. The text under its more amplified consideration. God has other “witnesses.”
1. The Bible--a standing exposition of His will, record of His laws, exhibition of His perfections; containing His judgments against sin; presenting His remonstrance against offending man. But the Bible--pregnant with the great scheme of human redemption; unfolding His new covenant; rich in promises to “all who call upon Him.” The Bible is the grandest, the most magnificent monument of the love of God.
2. The Church. God has never been without a band of holy men upon the earth. They have been its salt to preserve it from a universal putrefaction. It is as old as Abel’s day. It lived in the forms of patriarchal life. And from the time of Christ, amidst all the malice of the wicked, and the assaults and conspiracies of hell itself, its existence shall continue until the Church militant becomes the Church triumphant. God, in the foundations of His Church, in its appointed ordinances, in the burden of its devoted preachers, in the conversion, the blessed experience of its members, has a witness upon earth.
3. The Holy Spirit. He is a “witness” of God whom believers have within them, in an experimental knowledge of the truths and comforts from God, where all before was the utter darkness of ignorance and the barrenness of perished hopes.
4. The reason of man. This, in its healthy exercise, when it is unwarped by prejudice, makes certain discoveries of God in the moral relations which His character bears to us; and out of which great responsibilities grow. Reason, that in admitting His claims, draws an inference of the guilt of man in not fulfilling them; but whereby man, in His own eyes, becomes obnoxious to punishment, is a “witness” of God.
5. Conscience. If by its fears and its pains, painting a judgment to come, a man is restless and perturbed, there is in it surely a witnessing for God in the verity of His Word, “Be sure your sin shall find you out.”
6. Believers are the witnesses of His faithfulness, of His power, of His love. (T. J. Judkin.)
It has been perhaps too much the fashion to leave out this topic from our teaching. The Christian minister’s one business is to preach Christ. But is he therefore bound to narrow his teaching to some one or two of Christ’s doctrines? I do not find our Lord Himself, nor His apostles, refusing the topics of what is called the religion of nature. These things are the avenues of the gospel.
I. God’s witnesses.
1. Paul says distinctly that nature is God’s witness (Romans 1:20). Men may argue themselves out of anything: and so they may argue themselves out of the belief that this fair world, with its bright lights and its fruitful seasons, its ordinances of day and night, of life given and life replenished, is a proof of a personal Creator. But we can heartily echo the wise saying, “Nature could no more have made me, than fashion could have made the coat I wear.”
2. And Providence too is God’s witness. We can say with perfect confidence to any young man whose course in life is still undecided for good or evil, there is no doubt that that power, whatever it be, which presides over the course of the world is a power which loves righteousness and hates iniquity. If you live morally and religiously you will live, on the whole, happily. Act as if there were no God, and you will live to curse the day when you first gave way to temptation. Somehow or other human life is so ordered that in the long run it is well with the righteous and ill with the wicked.
3. And who shall deny that God has a witness also in the human conscience? What is this strange thing within me which presumes to sit in judgment upon myself? this thing which certainly I did not place there, and which however I may disregard and disobey I cannot wholly dethrone, but something through which God still communicates with me still threatens, punishes? These elementary evidences are too much left out or slurred over in our modern teaching. And they lie under all that is more distinctively Christian. It is only a man with a conscience to whom Christ can call. It is only a man whom Nature has instructed and Providence has disciplined who can feel the mercy of a gospel or see any beauty in a Saviour that he should desire Him. My brethren, have we all learned these elementary lessons? For these also, like the gospel, may be first disregarded and at last denied. And then, with them, goes all else; all living sense of responsibility, all godly fear, all quickening and sustaining hope.
4. Nor has God left Himself without a witness to you. You did not bring yourselves into being, nor can you preserve for one day, by any choice or any providence of your own, the very spark and seed of life. And as the gift, and the continuance, of being, so also the things which have befallen you; sickness and health, sorrow and joy, failure and success, danger and deliverance, neglect and love have been rather ordered for you than chosen by you. And not only so; but something within tells you how tenderly and how forbearingly you have been dealt with; that you have not been forgotten in trouble, nor let alone ill sin, nor rewarded entirely according to your wickedness: the lot assigned you has been even more medicinal than penal, and yet more evidently considerate and personal than either. These things your better self confesses to you; and the experience of life has been to you God’s witness.
II. To what? To His own being and character. To the fact that there is a God, and that He is this and not that; a God of truth, not of falsehood; a God of holiness, not of evil; a God of love, not of hatred. You remember how often these words close a paragraph of the Old Testament prophecies; “And ye shall know that I am the Lord.” Even so it is with those evidences of which we have spoken. They are to make God known to man. And for what purpose? As a point of theory or of doctrine? As a display of Divine greatness to end with itself? Not so: but for this end which is worthy of God; “This is life eternal, that they might know Thee.” “That by these ye might be partakers of the Divine nature,” etc. This knowledge can be communicated only through Jesus Christ; only by the Holy Spirit of God working in man’s heart as the Spirit of the Eternal Father and of the Eternal Son. (Dean Vaughan.)
The beneficence of God, manifested in fruitful seasons, a witness for God
God never wrought a miracle to confute an atheist, because His ordinary works are sufficient. Yet many move among the works of God, without acknowledging their Divine Author. How useful to all such might be the serious study of our text. Consider--
I. The beneficence of God. This is too copious a thing to speak of as it deserves. Its origin is in past eternity; it extends throughout eternity to come. Think of a Being, all-perfect, all-powerful, all-wise, employing His mighty energies in perpetually doing good. What an immense amount of happiness He must be continually diffusing! It is true, God has other attributes, some of sterner aspect. He is the moral Governor of mankind; bound to punish all iniquity. And visitations of the Divine wrath against sin are no proofs against the Divine beneficence. It is also true that God’s own people, who now love Him, do also suffer; but our very sufferings are sent in beneficence. They come with a message of our Father’s love; they are softened by His kind pity; they do us good while they stay; they leave a fragrant remembrance when they go.
II. Its manifestation in “fruitful seasons.”
1. God “gave us rain from heaven.” So Jeremiah: “Are there any among the vanities of the Gentiles that can cause rain?” So, too, Zechariah: “Ask ye of the Lord rain … for the idols have spoken vanity.” The rain coming in its season, is the gift of God. In giving rain God uses means; vapours, being exhaled from the sea and the surface of the earth, gather into clouds, and clouds being condensed by cold descend in showers; but who gave these laws to Nature? Is Nature God? Is she not rather a handmaid to Deity? Philosophers often stop at the second causes; and having shown how certain causes produce certain effects, seem reluctant to say who is the cause of these causes. Not so the apostle. “He gave us rain from heaven.” Their danger was, to attribute to idols what was the gift of God. There is a danger now of making second causes idols. “Behold,” says Elihu, “He maketh small the drops of water,” etc. Think what the earth would become if God were to withhold the rain in its season.
2. God gives the rain, and the rain helps to make the fruitful seasons; but God is their true Author. He created the earth with its properties suited to vegetation; He made the plants; He has preserved their succession; He “giveth seed to the sower.” The very strength and skill of the cultivator of the soil are from Him. And thus “He gives us fruitful seasons.” Some, indeed, more so than others; but this is, that our dependence may be felt, our obligations owned, our prayers and our praises called forth. Take the seasons altogether through a considerable series of years; do we not find that fruitfulness is their general characteristic, unfruitfulness the exception?--while the Divine goodness is continually manifested both in giving and withholding, the very harshness in the latter case being meant as a salutary chastening.
III. The witness for God which is manifested beneficence bears in all countries.
1. Although “in times past God suffered all nations to walk in their own ways, He left not Himself without witness.” The “rain” was His “witness”; all its showers testified of His power, His providence, and His beneficence. “Fruitful seasons” were His “witnesses”; the spring with its opening buds, the summer with its chaplets of flowers, autumn with its golden sheaves, the very winter with its well-stored fruits, all testified of God in the ears of nations, too often unheeding the voice from heaven and bent on their own ungodliness. How clear is Scripture in showing the inexcusableness of heathenism and idolatry!
2. Now surely, if the beneficence of God in “giving rain and fruitful seasons” was a witness for God to heathens, it is so also to us. To how many careless, thoughtless and ungrateful people, even in Christian lands, are the “fruitful seasons” a witness for God, leaving them without excuse! (J. Hambleton, M. A.)
Man must have some religion
Lord Chesterfield, being in Brussels on one occasion, supped with Voltaire and a Madame C., his disciple. “I think,” said the lady, “the British Parliament consists of some five or six hundred members, the best informed and sensible men in the kingdom, does it not?” “It is so supposed, madame,” was the formal reply. “What then,” continued she, “can be the reason they tolerate so great an absurdity as the Christian religion?” “I suppose, madame,” said his lordship, “it is because they have not been able to substitute anything better in its place; when they can, I doubt not but that in their wisdom they will readily accept it.” Chesterfield, in his sly, ironical reply, went on the assumptions--
I. That some religion men must have. This he shared with the most sagacious men in all ages. It has been inferred--
1. From the teachings of the past, as found in history, tradition, and fable. From the beginning to this hour, wherever the foot of man has trod, religion has been found.
2. From the necessity of religion to the well-being of society. All great legislators and statesmen have seen this and acted accordingly; for, as De Tocqueville remarks, “Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot.”
3. From the manifest requirements of the individual. Every man stands in manifest need of religion, and that, however it may be with the living, when men come to die, almost all wish this want were supplied, and regret that they had not before taken measures to supply it.
4. From a consideration of human nature and the elements which compose it. The religious instinct belongs to it as much as any other. This religiousness is no accident: it comes of man’s weakness and dependence as a finite being; of his intelligence, which looks for and is not satisfied without a first cause, personal and infinitely wise; above all of his conscience. Till this is torn from man’s breast, he must believe there is a ruler over him in the heavens.
II. That if any is nowadays adopted it must be Christianity. The choice is only between Paganism, Mohammedanism, Deism, and Christianity.
1. The first may be dismissed at once. When the world, under apostolic teaching, renounced heathenism, it renounced it forever.
2. The claims of Mohammedanism may be disposed of with like despatch. All that is contained in the Koran, which commends itself religiously to our judgment, has been taken from the Bible: the rest is folly and impurity. Bereft of external advantages, there is nothing within to recommend it, either in its origin, history, or spirit. The adoption of such a system by persons brought up under Christian influence is not to be thought of.
3. But what about Deism or natural religion--a system which acknowledges God, but rejects revelation and Christianity. Well, we need a religion which will with authority and certainty instruct us about the nature and character of God, and our relations to Him. We need it to assure us of and guide us to immortality. We need it to help us to bear the burdens of life; to strengthen us in holy living, and to cheer us with bright and well-grounded hope, and make us more than conquerors over death. So much for the individual’s wants. But for society we further need a religion that will take strong hold on the general mind, and by its own inherent energy, acting through appropriate means on the public conscience, will purify and elevate it, giving us honesty in business, moderation and forbearance in ordinary intercourse, and kindliness and affection in domestic life. Now, can Deism accomplish these purposes for the world?
4. Thus has God shut us up to Christianity. God hath not left Himself without witness. By the very nature which He hath given us, the circumstances in which He has placed us, and the facilities which He has supplied to our hand (to say nothing of miracles, and prophecies, and various other historical, moral, and critical proofs), He has plainly and unmistakably shown where truth, interest, and duty lie. As by a voice from heaven He has said of Jesus: “This is My beloved Son; hear ye Him.” “This is the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.” (W. Sparrow, D. D.)
Revelation to be expected
I. Revelation necessary for man.
1. To give us more light respecting God. The light of nature shows us that there is one God, who is intelligent, powerful, righteous, good. But what do you find flooding almost the entire world? Polytheism--the belief that there is not simply one God, but many. And not only so; there is not a single instance of a nation rising out of its belief in many gods, and by its own culture attaining to the knowledge of one God.
2. To give us more light in reference to our duty. Some heathen moralists taught much and admirably respecting human duty, but they also taught what was the very reverse. But we have to look not at what one or two have reached through their unaided powers, but at what have been the prevalent views and moral practices of the world. Read the close of the first chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. A man will in character take after the being he worships. The heathen gods were immoral. What could you expect, therefore, but to find the people as vile at least as the imaginary beings they worshipped. Nay, immorality of the foulest kind was a part of the worship of the gods. Both Cicero and Cato throw their apologetic mantle over the grossest vices.
3. To give us more light on human destiny. Taking the light of nature alone, there is good ground for the conclusion that the soul is immortal, and that sin will not go unpunished. But philosophers, who reasoned well of a future state, lost faith in their own conclusions. And then how dim and shadowy the notions of the future world! The druids believed in something like the transmigration of souls. The Scandinavians had their Flame world and their Mist world, and their Valhalla for the brave, and their Hellheim for the coward. The Greeks and Romans had their Tartarus and their Elysium.
4. To give us new power. We not only need more power than nature gives, but more power than nature has. The heathen moralists knew a great deal more than they practised. Whatever their amount of light, they never acted up to it, and had no power to act up to it. What was also needed was a new passion. Suppose, as some have averred, that you can extract a perfect code of morals from heathen teachers, there is one thing you cannot do, and that is make men love it. Kindle in the heart such a flame of love as burned in the heart of Paul, and then you will have done something to establish your position.
5. To give man comfort. Human sorrow is a great subject; and what is the root of our sorrow? It is sin. The conscience is guilty, and hence remorse, anxiety, and fear. Nature spake of God’s goodness, but when man cried for mercy there was no answer. Nature spake of righteousness, and told him that sin would be punished; but when he asked if there could be no forgiveness, nature was dumb. That man might have peace for his conscience, joy in his grief, and hope in his death, a revelation from God was needed assuring him that there is forgiveness with Him.
II. Revelation likely for gun. The grounds of this hope are--
1. The constitution of the human race. Humanity has descended from a single pair, and is continuing to multiply. The population of the globe is over 1,200,000,000, add to this the millions that have died, and the question raised is: Is it likely that God would have made man to multiply, if He had had no intention of counteracting in some way the ruin of his sin? I hardly think it, and therefore I see here something which begets the hope of a revelation.
2. The struggle which we see everywhere between good and evil. Sin certainly has the mastery, but it is not a mastery which is unchallenged. Now, if man had been abandoned of God, I can hardly think we should have had this struggle. Nay, more, look at the world, and say if it seems made for a race of beings who are as certainly given over to extinction. Is this not a world in which there is much goodness? “Thou hast sinned, but hope still; these are the two sayings that predominate in the vast murmur of nature.”
3. The fatherly relationship of God to man. This idea is certainly one which obtains full recognition only in Christ, but wherever God has been acknowledged, He has been understood and worshipped as a Father. Now, we know what an earthly father’s feelings are. Can we suppose that they are less strong and less tender in God? Now look at man’s necessities on the one hand, and God’s fatherly compassion on the other, and then say if it is likely that God would make no revelation of Himself, and give no relief. (A. Oliver, B. A )
Rain from heaven.--
Rain a Divine blessing
Rain indicates sovereign power and goodness--“it tarrieth not for man, nor waiteth for the sons of men.” In seasons of eastern drought, when the earth is parched, when “the field is wasted, and the land mourneth, and the new wine is dried up,” when the dread of hunger appalls everyone, and even the dumb brutes are looking up to heaven in stupid despair; then it is felt that man cannot help himself, that he must only wait and long and pray till the clouds begin to gather, for he is conscious of being wholly in the power of a higher Will. Day after day passes, and the sun looks down on burnt pasture, dry channels, and a cracked and dusty soil. At evening there are hopeful symptoms, but they are vanished before the morning. The heavens are anxiously scanned if the smallest speck may be discovered, and the imagination often creates it. It is hoped that the wind may veer, and every breath excites, and then belies such an expectation. Spirit and energy are gone--“dimness of anguish” is seen on every countenance. Men dream of floods, and waken to more disappointment. They can do nothing, and devise nothing, to better themselves, No wonder, then, that the giving of rain was associated with Divinity. It is pointedly asked in a Greek drama, when the existence of Jupiter is denied--“And who then giveth rain?” as if this were proof beyond all doubt. In Southern Africa, where the idea of God is nearly effaced, there is still a belief in a Supreme Power, whose awful prerogative is, not to create men or govern them, but simply to give rain--a gift which is felt to be so necessary, and withal is conferred or withheld in such precarious and variable times and quantities; the dreaded Deity is He who brings them what they so much want, and on the gift of which they can never count--He is the rainmaker. Nay, in that dry upland region of Lycaonia water was often scarce; the heaven as iron, and the earth as brass, and water fetched up from deep wells was so precious as to be sold for money. It was with peculiar point, therefore, that the apostle turned his audience to God--who is doing good--giving rain from heaven. (J. Eadie, D. D.)
Fruitful seasons are
I. The gift of God. “He gave,” “He fills.” Among the numerous scenes of beauty with which the world is furnished, there are few more calculated to delight the eye and heart than a rich autumnal prospect. It is delightful to allow the mind to rest on a wide extent of country whose plains are richly covered with waving fields of corn, and the mountains clothed with verdant pasturage, or overshadowed by the stately forest. It is delightful to reflect what a prodigious amount of enjoyment is prepared for sensitive and rational beings by the fruits of the earth arriving and arrived at maturity. It is natural to put the question, Whence originates so rich a scene?
1. Man is a proud, vain creature, and he is very apt to take the credit of almost everything to himself. Even in what is the production of human ingenuity and industry, man has but little to boast; it is merely the result of powers, which God bestowed on him, on materials bestowed by God. But there is seen less to nourish pride when contemplating the riches of harvest. Man has been at work, but human ingenuity and labour have done but little in producing the results. Man can plant and water, but man cannot give the increase. He cannot cause it to rain on the earth, to cause the bud of the tender herb to spring forth.
2. But it may be said that it is to be traced to the eternal laws of nature, to the independent qualities and powers of matter. It is not very easy to attach meaning to these phrases; we question their existence altogether if they mean anything more or less than a name for the ordinary way in which the great Supreme Agent has been accustomed to manifest His wisdom and power in producing certain effects. And if we were to admit the existence of “the eternal laws of nature,” or “the independent qualities and powers of matter,” they could not satisfactorily account for the result; for surely they must operate always precisely in the same way, It the productions of the earth are to be attributed to them, we should naturally expect that all seasons would be alike. Nothing is more self-evident than that what is in itself inert can act only as it is acted upon. And it is a principle of our nature which we cannot resist, that whenever we perceive an end steadily prosecuted, and means employed in order to gain that end, there has been the operation of a superintending being--there has been intelligence at work. The language of the Bible is the language of sound philosophy. “Thou visitest the earth and waterest it,” etc.
II. A witness of God to men. When God gives us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, He gives us a testimony with regard to--
1. His existence. We reason from the effects to a cause. There is no way of accounting for the regular motion of the earth, but by admitting that there does exist such a Being, infinitely wise, powerful, and good, as the Being whom we describe by the name of God.
2. His power. All the created powers in the universe cannot produce the humblest weed that grows in our fields. If we allow our minds to reflect on what is necessary, in order to the production of a fertile harvest, we shall be struck with amazement at the display of the power of God. Think of what is exhaled in the shape of vapour from seas, and rivers, and lakes, in every part of the earth--taken into the upper regions of the atmosphere, and there condensed, and sent down on the earth in the shape of dew and of rain--insinuating itself into the soil, making the seeds that are imbedded there to expand and grow upward. Thus God brings forth the various fruits of the earth to maturity, and furnishes abundance of food for man and beast.
3. His wisdom. How wonderfully does God adapt different soils to different grains--different grains to the constitutions of different animals! How wonderfully does He regulate the various degrees of heat, and cold, and moisture, so as to gain the great end of producing abundance of salutary food for His prodigious family of sensible and irrational beings. “How wonderful are Thy works, O Lord! in wisdom hast Thou made them all.”
4. His goodness. Think what a quantity of suffering is prevented by an abundant harvest. What mind can form any conception of the horrors produced by a single season failing? And there is also the communication of an incalculable measure of happiness. No mind can form any conception of the degree of enjoyment that is produced through the world in consequence of the bounties of harvest.
5. His sovereignty. Every season is not a fruitful season; and the same seasons are not equally fruitful in every district of the same country, or in different countries. The same God, who, when He causes it to rain on one land, withholds rain from another--punishes one part of the world with scarcity, whilst He blesses another with plenty. It is the voice of God proclaiming, “Be still, and know that I am God: have not I a right to do what I will with My own? None shall stay My arm; and none dare say to Me, What doest Thou?”
6. His patience. The pensioners upon the Divine bounty are rebels against it. Surely, though God be not slack concerning His threatenings, as some men count slackness, He is long suffering, not willing that any should perish. Oh, how hardened are men’s hearts not to feel the force of this appeal. (J. Brown, D. D.)
The witness of harvest
We are met to acknowledge the goodness of God in giving us the fruits of the earth in their season. It is a supreme function of the Church to idealise common things, to give a religious interpretation to all the great interests and occasions of our earthly life, and by means of prayer and praise, silent meditation and spoken discourse, to make men and women more truly and deeply conscious of the Eternal Presence and Care. The harvest is really an occasion which has a direct relation to all our lives. For us the sun shines and the rain falls, and the order of creation keeps its unbroken course, and the miracle of growth and fruition is yearly wrought. Agriculture is not only the oldest but the most fundamental of all human industries. Our whole social order rests upon it, and all our interests and activities are affected by it. We live by bread, though not by bread alone. Our daily bread is the material basis of all our higher functions and energies--trade and politics, science and art, law and poetry, religion and philanthropy.
1. A harvest thanksgiving service is helpful to us by making us include what are called the works of nature in our devout meditations. There are not a few religious people upon whom the manifestations of power and wisdom, of beauty and goodness in the natural order of the world are in a great part thrown away. In his diary of his travels on the Continent the saintly Fletcher laments the delight he took in the beauty of the Rhine as an evidence of his worldliness, and the type of religionists which he represented is far from being extinct. We need not judge them; only we have a right to turn to the book of Job, to the Psalms, and the parables of Jesus to prove that the highest order of the religious mind is that which is most alive to the spiritual significance of material things. By the whole-souled religious man nothing natural is treated with indifference. Every instance of beneficent order and ministry deepens his sense of the Divine wisdom and goodness. The moving life of nature is a parable of the higher life.
2. A harvest thanksgiving service is a distinct and beautiful confession of God as the living God, in whom we and all creatures and things live and move and have our being. Anything that helps to quicken and deepen this confidence is of real use when there is a spirit abroad in the world which would wither and destroy it. Physical science is in the ascendant, and the language of the ancient Scriptures which represents God as the living God, the living Spirit of thought, order, power, beauty, and goodness that pervadeth all things, does not appeal to us as it once did. The danger to faith is not in results and theories, but in the excessive and exclusive concentration of men’s minds on the material side of things; in such an absorbing attention to one class of facts that other facts of transcendent importance are slighted or ignored. Indeed, all the great results of our latter-day knowledge instead of making the world less divine make it more divine, and if their significance was by us truly realised, then, instead of being set forth in abstract propositions and mathematical signs they would be expressed in poetry and set to music. The gains of science, instead of being the losses of faith, only enlarge, make more wonderful and glorious, the temple in which God is seen and worshipped. But there is another form of modern thought which some seem to think strikes at the root of the faith which gives meaning to this service, and is simply fatal to the spirit of thanksgiving to God. It is a human Providence, we are told, which makes us what we are and gives us what we have, and if we are to give praise and glory to anyone for the things which make the world beautiful, and human life fair and good and worth living, let it be to humanity, to the men in past and present times through whose thought and labour and sacrifice this hard, unfriendly earth has been subdued, and discoveries and inventions have been made, and all the things which are covered and expressed by the word “civilisation” have been won. It is little or nothing that any deity outside humanity does or has done for us; let us be grateful to mankind. Yes, grateful to mankind we ought to be; but must our gratitude end there, and the sacrifice of our thanksgiving be only for human altars? Nay! After we have done all that is meet and right in the way of expressing our gratitude to the human race and to individual members of the race, we still have left in our hearts an immense fund of gratitude which can only spend itself on one object, one Being, one God, the Father of all, who is above all, through all, and in all. The earth, God has given to the children of men, and like all God’s best gifts we have to work for it in order to win it. And whence the power to work? In the last and final analysis we must ascribe all to God, confess the human providence to be after all the Divine Providence, and bow down before the Deity who not only transcends but is immanent in His creation and in His children, the ultimate and everlasting Source of all.
3. A harvest thanksgiving service is a recognition of the Divine presence in the regular courses and ordinary processes of nature. Among men from age to age the extraordinary phenomena have been regarded as most Divine. “If the sun were to rise but once,” says Bishop Hall, “we should all be ready to turn Persians and worship it, but because we see it rising and setting every day no man regardeth it.” Like the Jews of old, unless we see signs and wonders we will not believe. But to the devout and deep-seeing man the whole earth is full of the glory of the Lord, its sights and sounds a constant and continuous revelation of the living God; and for him to be impressed with the thought, “Surely God is here,” things do not need to be invested with scarlet robes. The daily dawn, the depths of the midnight sky, the spring flowers breaking from the earth, the loveliness of June, the golden glories of the autumn, the outspread snow, are to the wise man none the less wonderful because they are familiar.
4. A harvest thanksgiving may also remind us that in our sowing and reaping, in our buying and selling, and in all our material interests and concerns we have to do with God. What atheism worse than that which excludes God from the world of daily life, which gives us practically a world without God except so far as the Church is concerned, which conceives the Lord of heaven and earth to be only interested in ecclesiastical assemblies and conferences, in missionary and evangelistic schemes, and societies for converting Jews, and such like things! We need to be reminded again and again that there is but one God, one law, one life, that the kingdom of God ruleth over all, over our cornfields as well as over our mission fields, over our shops as well as over our churches, over our domestic and business relations as well as over our holy orders and our ecclesiastical connections, over farmers, tradesmen, bankers, architects, lawyers, clerks, artisans as well as over bishops and curates, Scripture readers and travelling evangelists. Until we believe this and act upon the belief, the life that now is will never be what God meant it to be, and what it ought to be--a Divine discipline and service, holy throughout unto the Lord.
5. A harvest thanksgiving service reminds us in a very vivid and impressive way of the ever-old and ever-new fact of the Divine goodness. There are three aspects of the Divine goodness which the harvest more especially puts before us: first of all its free character. Its bounty is God’s flee gift. Though we must work with God to get the Divine blessing out of many things, for we are not God’s paupers but His children, yet from the help we get from the daisy at our feet to the unspeakable help that comes from the Christ dying on the Cross, it is all in a most real and profound sense the free gift of God. Then, secondly, harvest speaks to us of the universal character of the Divine goodness. The ungodly man who obeys faithfully the natural conditions which are but another name for the Divine order and will, succeeds as well as the godly man, even better, if the godly man is ignorant, indolent, and careless. God is good, and His tender mercies are over all His works. Then, again, harvest speaks to us of the constancy of the Divine goodness. While the earth remaineth, seed time and harvest, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease. O that men would praise the Lord for His goodness! Thanksgiving is born of a reasonable spiritual confidence in the Divine goodness. The mystery and sublimity of the universe may excite wonder and awe, but only the sense of the essential goodness of the universe can awaken and nourish gratitude. Gratitude in its highest sense and noblest quality is only possible to the man whose religious faith enables him to trust the world and life as meaning good to him and to all men. But how is gratitude to be shown? Only let gratitude be felt, and it cannot help showing itself. Words of thanksgiving are good when they are sincere, and expression develops and strengthens the inward feeling. But words are not the only form of self-expression, nor the highest. And how displeasing to God must be some kinds of thanksgiving--empty words, or the thanksgiving of successful wickedness, of men whose good things have been got by cheating and lying, by unjust and unbrotherly competition, and by grinding the faces of the poor! The praise God likes best is the praise of the life. Not in words only, but in acts of sympathy and loving kindness, in love giving itself in service to mankind, in lives consecrated to truth and goodness, to duty and charity, let our souls ascend now and always in thankfulness to God. (John Hunter.)
The witness of the harvest
Nothing is more worthy of note in St. Paul’s methods than the care which he always took to adapt himself to the varying conditions and characters of those amongst whom he laboured. This statement concerning his mode of work is amply borne out by the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles. His theme was always the same, but his method of presenting that theme was constantly changing with his change of place and circumstances. He had but one gospel to preach--the gospel of Christ crucified; but he preached that gospel with an ever-varying accent and with great manifoldness of expression. At Athens he found his text not in Jewish lore, but in the altars of their gods, and in that literature of which every Greek was lawfully proud. And here at Lystra amongst the Barbarians of Lycaonia he speaks from that revelation of God whose “line is gone out through all the earth, and its words to the end of the world.” Let us not suppose, however, that the witness of God’s works, to which the apostle appeals in my text, is of importance only to such people as those of Lystra. There is, perhaps, a danger of our thinking that the teachings of Natural Religion have been superseded by those of Revelation. This is a great mistake. Our Lord came not to destroy, but to fulfil that exhibition of religious truth which is contained in the works of nature. The Bible does, it is true, exhibit the imperfection of that revelation; but it nowhere discredits it. On the contrary, it constantly pays its tribute to it, and urges us to study it, as containing the alphabet of its own more glorious disclosures. On the part of the first Christian teachers there was no wholesale churlish denunciation of other religions. They rejoiced to recognise the truths which they contained, though those truths were encrusted, and often hidden out of sight, by the accumulated errors of ages. Nor does the Bible regard natural theology as merely a stepping stone by which men are to pass into the holy of holies of its revelations, and which afterwards is to be disregarded as of no further use; but it speaks of it as being an essential part of the whole fabric of truth, which must ever remain an integral and necessary portion of it. Natural theology is the base of the ladder which rests upon the earth, while the top of it is in heaven; and the ladder cannot stand without its base. Nowhere is this more distinctly set forth than in the teaching of our blessed Master Himself. He directs our attention to the lilies, the mustard seed, the tares, and the harvest, as being Divinely ordained preachers of the truths of religion. Indeed, never was there any teacher who lived in such intimate communion with nature as Jesus of Nazareth. No writer of the New Testament was more perfectly versed in this department of the school of Christ than the apostle Paul. His sermons and his treatises teem with lessons drawn from the storehouse of nature.
I. Observe that the operations of nature through which God provides for the creatures bear witness to His existence and to His continual presence and activity in the midst of His works.
1. I know that it is fashionable to sneer at the design argument for the Being of God. But sneering is a very common device resorted to by men who have no argument with which to sustain their cause. In spite of all the sneers of our critics we are prepared to maintain that the argument is irrefragable, that the universe exhibits thought, and that thought implies a thinker; that the universe exhibits uniformity of thought, and that this uniformity of thought implies that there is but one Thinker whose wisdom has laid the plans of this marvellous world in which we dwell. No, the man is without excuse who can look at this masterpiece of thought and say, “There is no Thinker behind it all.”
2. For a moment let us single out from the midst of the manifold operations of nature those to which the apostle particularly refers in my text, that is to say, those connected with the supply of food for the creatures. When we consider that the seasons of our climate, with all their manifold effects, are produced by an inclination of the axis of the earth at an angle of 23½° to the plane of its orbit, and when we consider what would follow if there were no such inclination, or were that inclination varied through ever so small an angle, we can not but feel that there must have been a Designer who gave the earth the exact tilt necessary to the production of its harvests. When we consider how that, in the production of every blade of corn, and of every apple upon the tree, there is a nice mathematical balancing of the forces of gravitation and life, in order that the vital force may be able to overcome the force of gravitation, and shoot forth the cornstalk or the tree to the proper height necessary for its fruit bearing; we cannot but believe that there must have been a great Mathematician who made these delicate adjustments. When we look at the marvellous machinery by which all this vegetable life takes up and appropriates to itself the fructifying properties of the sell beneath it, of the air around it, of the clouds above it, and of the sun which is millions of miles away from it, we are bound to confess that this machinery must have had a Constructor to make it. The apostle mentions rain, and well he may, for the laboratory in which God prepares His rain is well worthy of our inspection. Consider the mighty force which the sun exerts as he lifts the water up into the clouds. See how by the air currents God carries the fruit-bearing showers from one region to another. Look into the processes of rarefaction and condensation by which He prepares the golden drops to distil fatness upon the earth, and then answer the question which God put to Job, “Hath the rain a father? Or who hath begotten the drops of dew? Out of whose womb came the ice? And the hoary frost of heaven who hath gendered it?” (Job 38:28-29).
3. “Ah, but,” says the modern objector, “this is all done in obedience to law! Exactly, that is our point. It is all done in obedience to law. And law means order. And order means thought. And thought means a thinker. The fact that the whole world is under the sway of law is a proof that it has been created by a Designer, and is not the evolution of chance.
4. “Well, but,” says the objector again, “it may be that God must have been there to give the laws, but, when He had given them, He left the universe to their sway, and now it is vain to seek for God in a world which He has given over to the control of law.” Again we ask, “What is the use of laws without an executive to administer them?” He Himself administers the laws which He has given. God not only was in nature, He is in it.
5. In our stupidity, when the stupendous is often repeated before our eyes, we forget its wondrousness, and the very regularity and profusion with which God’s mercies are bestowed seem to deaden our sense of obligation. Custom is a juggler who befools us all, and makes us think that a thing is not wonderful when we see it often. I know that to some the discoveries of science seem to militate against worship. But this is only because these persons imagine that when things are discovered and named they are brought out of the region of mystery. Ignorance is not the mother of religion.
II. Our text bids us see in the fruitful seasons a proof of God’s goodness towards men. In spite of all the sorrow and discord of human life, the apostle declares that, even apart from revelation, there is in the bounteous provision of God’s providence abundant proof of His goodness towards men. Notwithstanding men’s wickedness, He makes age after age provision for their wants (Matthew 5:45). Nothing shows the hardness of men’s hearts much more than the way in which they partake of the bounties of God’s providence, without any grateful recognition of the Giver. Paul declares in my text that an unenlightened heathen ought to hear the harvest witness to God’s goodness. How much more then ought we, who have the light of revelation, to acknowledge His hand in the bounty of His gifts! How careful should we be not to squander these blessings in the service of our lusts! These gifts of God proclaim how lovingly He provides for our happiness. He might have made our food unpleasant and insipid. Instead of that He has associated much pleasure even with the lowest actions of our life, to be a symbol to us of His good will respecting us in all things. Ungodly man, let God’s mercies awaken thee to a sense of thy guilt, and let gratitude to Him, because He has not visited thee with the ruin clue to thy sins, constrain thee to offer the only harvest thanksgiving which God will accept.
III. Lastly, the harvest witness, though valuable, is after all very imperfect. (G. A. Bennetts, B. A.)
The voices of the harvest
I. Harvest time as a witness for God. The apostles reminded the people that they had no excuse for their ingratitude or idolatry; the order and fruitfulness of the seasons testified to the fact of--
I. The Divine existence. Every court in the temple of nature is crowded with witnesses to the Divine existence.
2. The Divine attributes--
II. Harvest time as an apocalypse to man. The processes and phenomena speak to the reason and spiritual intuitions of man. The brutes gaze unconsciously upon creation, but man can reflect, deduce, conclude. When the brawny reapers thrust in the sickle and gather the harvest home, we have revealed--
1. The complex character of nature’s laws. From the initial step in preparing the ground for the reception of the seed to the time when the garners are stored with the finest of the wheat, what majesty, manifoldness, mercy, and mystery are displayed! Life out of death; real good out of apparent evil--blight, mildew, etc. Kept under restraint, under constant control.
2. The connection between Divine sovereignty and human free agency.
3. The correspondence between cause and effect. In quality and quantity. “Whatsoever a man soweth that also shall he reap.” The more thorough and severe the cultivation of the soil, the richer the harvest. In moral discipline, the severer the trial, the nobler and richer the character.
4. The dependence of man upon God--“In Him we live and move,” etc. “He gives rain,” etc. “He fills our hearts with food and gladness.” The thought with which we plan and purpose; the strength with which we labour and gather, all come from Him.
5. The duty of man to bless God. (F. W. Brown.)
Seasons of spiritual fruitfulness
I. The refreshing communication--“Rain from heaven.”
1. Its celestial origin. Neither rain nor that which it illustrates is a creature of man or nature. Spiritual influences come direct from God.
2. Its Divine manifestations.
3. Its connection with other gifts. The work of the Spirit must never be dissociated from that of Christ. In the spiritual world “the Sun of Righteousness” is as needful as the outpouring of the Spirit.
II. The fertility effected.
1. The seasons--private and public. There are spring, summer, autumn, winter for the soul; seed time and harvest. Each is as needful in grace as in nature.
2. Their fruitfulness. A fruitful season is beautiful and useful. The Christian is to grow in grace and utility.
III. The result experienced--“filling our hearts.”
1. The sphere--“the heart.” Religion is experimental. When refreshing seasons come they are felt.
2. The action--“filling,” not leaving the heart half empty.
3. The contents--“food and gladness.”
IV. The witness of all this to God--to His wisdom, power, love, etc. (R. G. Dillon, D. D.)
Food and gladness.--
Food and gladness
What God hath joined together let no man put asunder.
I. He gives food. By the clumsy management and the disastrous sin of man, there are in some places and times many who want food. But this is not God’s fault. He giveth food though we may waste or withhold it. He giveth milk to the babe from the breast of the mother, and bread to man from the bosom of the earth. Bad laws, bad government, artificial society, evil habits, ignorance, waste, extravagance, drink, and laziness starve the weaker children in His household, but the living God giveth food.
II. He gives gladness. Some think of this as a thing which God permits rather than gives; and some are driven from religion by a fancy that it is all gloomy and austere. This is not so. Learn, then, to thank God for what some of you have never associated with His gifts--your joys; passing gladness as well as spiritual ecstasy: for the sense of sight, hearing, taste, and touch. Learn to feel God as near you when the sun shines and the marriage bells ring as when the cloud depresses or the knell tolls. But remember that lasting gladness is dependent on union with Christ, the imperishable Bread of Life. (Henry Jones, M. A.)
Food and gladness
I propose to call your attention, first, to what God does for us through nature, and, secondly, to the limit of His beneficence, a limit which in our case, as in the case of the Lycaonians, points toward the kingdom of grace. First, then, God “fills our hearts with food and gladness,” or, rather, more literally, He “fills our hearts with nourishment and cheerfulness.” If through the agencies of nature we have food and gladness, we owe these to the kindness of God. But, further, in the case of man, who is far the highest of the animals, God supplies other wants besides the hunger and thirst of the body. He feeds our minds and hearts by furnishing us with various interests and resources. While He gives us work to do, He gives us also times for rest, and in our times of rest He surrounds us with objects of interest. Paul gives this truth a still deeper meaning when he says that God fills our hearts with gladness, or with cheerfulness--i.e., He gives us the material not only for living, but for living cheerfully. Those fresh children of nature at Lystra were happy in their lives--with their oxen, and their garlands, and their belief that the gods might come down to them any day in the likeness of men. Far from blaming their happiness, the apostle told them that God was pleased with it, and had arranged the world so as to secure it. To us, as to them, nature is a witness that He intends us to be happy. There is a certain free and reckless pleasure in nature which is one of God’s straight gifts to our humanity. And if Nature thus makes even the ignorant and thoughtless happy, it brings fuller and more lasting joys to the well-trained mind. Observe, however, what Paul says about those teachings of nature. Not that they convince all men of the goodness of the living God. There are many upon whom they have no such influence--many who take nature’s benefits thanklessly and sceptically. He merely says that God has “not left Himself without a witness.” The teaching of nature confirms our faith, and deepens our faith, and enlarges our faith; but it is not sufficient in itself; it is incomplete, variable, and broken, requiring other teachers. We shall take note of some points at which nature may fail, and does fail, to effect this good work of witness bearing with which God has entrusted her.
1. Observe, then, that God does not fill the hearts of all men with food. Even in this, the plainest of her offices, nature fails. There is a dark cellar in her workshop, where she keeps many prisoners, and appears rather as a pitiless monster, “ravening with tooth and claw,” than as a kindly fostering nurse.
2. Observe, secondly, that even when He fills the mouth with food He does not always fill the heart with gladness. We have seen that His general design in surrounding us with what is good and pleasant is to make us happy. But not always. Sometimes, through no fault of ours, but through His mysterious providence, there are causes of bitterness which turn all life’s comforts into gall.
3. Thus we are led to the last consideration which will occupy us, viz., that even if God fills our hearts both with food and with gladness, we require something more. In order to reach the purpose of our existence it is not enough that we should be comfortable, well fed, cheerful, and appreciative of the general goodness of God. Food and gladness, for example, however plentifully and liberally they are supplied, do not prepare us for the time when our food may be taken away from us and our gladness turned into mourning. On the contrary, they only serve to accentuate the severity of such an issue by giving it the bitterness of contrast. Still less do these things equip us for the hour of death and for our reckoning with the laws of God. We have the hunger of our souls for peace--a restless craving which is also sure to grow, and which we shall never be able to satisfy so readily as we can now, even at this present time. We need a grasp of the Great Hand that orders our life, to steady us when our cup overflows with blessings.
And there came thither certain Jews … Who persuaded the people, and, having stoned Paul, drew him out of the city.
The fickleness of the Lystrians
It would not be difficult to find a parallel to this among modern converts, and it is easy to account for it. The Jews would be ready with another interpretation of the miracle. They would say that it had been accomplished, not by Divine agency, but by some diabolical magic, as once they had said at Jerusalem (Matthew 12:24). The Lystrians, whose own interpretation had been disavowed by the apostles, would readily adopt the new theory suggested by those who appeared to be well acquainted with the strangers. Their feelings changed, with a revulsion as violent as that which afterwards overtook the barbarians of Malta, who first thought Paul a murderer and then a god. (J. S. Howson, D. D.)
Fickleness of the populace
One of the most curious stones in the world is found in Finland, where it occurs in many places. It is a natural barometer and actually foretells probable changes in the weather. It is called “semakuir,” and turns black shortly before an approaching rain, while in fine weather it is mottled with spots of white. For a long time this curious phenomenon was a mystery, but an analysis of the stone shows it to be a fossil mixed with clay and containing a portion of rock salt and nitre. This fact being known, the explanation was easy. The salt, absorbing the moisture, turned black when the conditions were favourable for rain, while the dryness of the atmosphere brought out the salt from the interior of the stone in white spots on the surface. How many men are like these rocks, variable and changeful according to their surroundings. At one moment they will applaud a certain person, or course Of action, but when their enthusiasm cools down they will seek to destroy the one they had previously exalted. It was so in the days of our Lord and the apostles, and is so still (Acts 14:11-19).
The stoning of Paul
1. Stones are the answer of those who have no arguments.
2. Those who have no arguments are wont to try to inflame the passions of the people.
3. When God has a great work for a man to do, his enemies cannot take his life.
4. When a true servant of God is made to suffer in one city, he will not cease to work, but will go on to the next.
5. When a true servant of God is made to suffer, he will intermit his work as little as possible. “On the morrow,” if he can, he will take it up again. (S. S. Times.)
Stoning the gods
(text and 2 Corinthians 11:25):--That is no ordinary heap of stones. See, there is blood on it, the blood of one of earth’s best sons. Only a dozen years between the man who held the clothes of Stephen’s murderers and the martyr Paul, for he was a martyr then in intention, and for anything we know he literally died for the truth, For he tells us, “Whether in the body or out of the body I cannot tell.” Persecutors may become helpers. The pirate may yet carry lawful cargo. Do you wish it were so? Then haul down your ensign and run up the white flag and red cross. Cease to do evil, learn to do well. “Sermons in stones.” Yes, there are many homilies in such a blood-stained stone heap as this.
I. The way the world uses its benefactors. Stone the man who healed the cripple! That is the way we always do. Does not the world often starve its geniuses? Who expects wealth for an inventor? The history of poets and painters tells us of hunger and nakedness. Some of the books that live were written in garrets and cells. Don’t expect gratitude if you are doing good. You will be better off than God if you get thanks for kindness. Look at the Cross.
II. Bigotry brutalises ignorance. “Certain Jews persuaded the people.” You have the history of persecution epitomised in that nineteenth verse. The priests have pulled the strings before today, and are trying to get hold of them now. Let us beware of ignorance. Education has always been the foe of priestcraft. But let us not content ourselves with our children learning everything but the Word of God. Popery has no chance so long as the Bible is understood by the people. Do not fear new ideas. There will be quite enough to throw stones at the man with a new idea without your throwing one. If a man loves God he has been promised “a crown of life,” and you will not like, should you see him crowned, to think of the time when you threw a stone at his head! Religion will not save you from bigotry; there are no bigots like religious ones. Let us learn to tolerate the man who loves God, seeing that we shall have to live with him forever.
III. Persecution is limited in its results. “Once was I stoned.” Paul lived twenty years after this, but never was stoned again. The enemy had tried to do it before, but was not able. I was stoned, not killed; at least, though left for dead, I rose up and came into the city. The foes of God may beat out our brains, but they cannot kill the truth. Paul did not give up the work to which he was called because he had to suffer. No, brave little man. He comes into Lystra again. Here was good for evil. Mark how the Christian hero makes his very sufferings useful, telling the Church, and every scar illustrated the truth that “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.” By and by he visited Lystra again, and found fruit remaining. How true it is that the blood of the martyr is the seed of the Church. Such men as Timothy are cheap at such a price. Let us trust God, even when we are hurt in doing good; out of our wounds there may flow that which shall heal many. (T. Champness.)
The next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe.--
From Derbe to Antioch
I. The apostles’ work on the way shows that duty in them was superior--
1. Indoctrinating. The apostles confirmed them in the faith--
2. Organising. “And when they had ordained them elders in every Church.” Because the oldest men are supposed to have the greatest knowledge and experience, the most influential officers in the Church are spoken of as “elders.” The Churches were young and inexperienced. The apostles, therefore, took from their number some of the most competent to take charge of the Churches in their own absence.
3. Dedicating. “And had prayed with fasting,” etc. They did not commend them to the officers they had appointed, but to “the Shepherd and Bishop of souls.” Probably they had no prospect of seeing them again.
II. Their work when they reached Antioch (verses 26-28).
1. This is the first missionary meeting, and therefore of special interest.
(a) It was a very populous place, and the meeting was likely to obtain large publicity. The two great sections of the ancient world, Jews and Gentiles, would have an opportunity of knowing something about the triumphs of this new religion.
(b) Its wealth, too, would enable it to render support to the good cause.
(c) It was, moreover, the place whence the mission had originated (Acts 13:1).
2. The following things are taught by this first missionary meeting:--That the missionary enterprise--
The close of the first missionary journey
1. The enemy can be as active as the friend; sometimes we think can outdo him in energy. The Jews had no easy work to get to Lystra. They also had to travel the hundred and thirty miles which separated the towns. But what is that when the heart is burning with hatred?
2. Paul was but once stoned, and he never forgot it! “Once was I stoned.” No man can forget that experience. Those who stoned Stephen lay down their clothes at a young man’s feet whose name was Saul. The wheel of Providence turns round! There is justice at the very heart of things.
3. They left Paul, “supposing he had been dead.” Many a time has Christianity been stoned and “supposed to be dead,” but the error is in the supposition. Whatever is true rises again. It may be thrown down; over it all hell may have a moment’s laugh--but it finds its feet again! “Truth is great, and must prevail.”
4. The next day Paul travelled twenty miles with Barnabas to Derbe; and the thought came to them that they would go, step for step, along the road they had come. People do not know you on one visit. Paul and Barnabas, therefore, went back, “confirming,” etc., with this line added: “we must through much tribulation,” etc. We cannot copy pathos. We must learn it by life. We may not write our sermons with ink, for then they would be but rhetorical emptiness. We must live them. Paul was suffering when he said those words. There was a subdued sob in the man’s emphasis as he said this. Strangers might not detect it, but the speaker himself was conscious that a new thread--a golden one--was being run through the web of his eloquence as he exhorted the Christians to accept tribulation, not as a discredit, but as an endorsement.
5. Paul and his colleague came back to Antioch. Into no speech with which I am acquainted is so much meaning condensed as there is in verse 27. Look at it.
6. They left one impression upon the Church--how God “had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles.” There is no whine in that tone! They were very heroes. Instead of saying, “The way is very difficult,” they said, “The door is open.” The stoning was a very little thing when the apostles thought that the Gentile provinces were to be added to the empire of their Lord.
7. Nor was this all. An incident happened not recorded here. Twenty years afterwards Paul wrote a letter to his “own son in the faith,” and in that letter he said, “Thou hast fully known my … afflictions, which came unto me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra,” etc.; and in the loving Timothy, who would carry on his own noble work, he found a compensation for the stoning at Lystra. We do not always know what we are doing, but the Master knows, and that is enough. (J. Parker, D. D.)
The end of the first missionary journey
I. Suffering for the faith. Willingness to suffer for Christ is the highest test of devotion to Him. Persecution soon unmasks hypocrisy, while real piety has a face that appears the more beautiful and saintly.
1. The stoning of Paul. Note--
His recovery. Observe--
3. His departure. Paul was indomitable, He did not lose a day’s work because of his stoning. Such a witness for Christ is a host in himself.
II. Confirming in the faith.
1. Preaching the gospel. The missionaries were as eager for souls as ever. The cause that we suffer for becomes the more dear to our hearts. At Derbe the two appear to have met with no opposition. Paul omits it in the list of places where he suffered (2 Timothy 3:11).
2. Confirming the disciples.
3. Organising the churches. In their up journey, a body of believers had been gathered in each place. On their way down, the apostles “appointed for them elders,” giving them a form of organisation apparently much like that of the synagogue. The object seems to have been not so much church government, as the securing of leaders to whom the disciples could look for encouragement and instruction. Thus the two missionaries ensured permanency to their work.
III. Reporting the progress of the faith.
1. Returning home. The return journey was a sort of triumphal tour, very different from the going. Then they were unknown--now, multitudes of disciples were eager to give them greeting. Persecutions awaited them then--blessings now. They came back, as come the husbandmen from the harvest fields, with their arms full of sheaves.
2. Reporting to the Church. The first missionary report contained--
End of Paul’s first missionary journey
I. Paul coming forward as the greatest missionary to the Gentiles.
1. What position he should take, how he would discharge the duties of his office, were unsettled questions when he was separated to this work. When the parties set out, their names stand Barnabas and Saul. Now the pen of Luke seems naturally to write, Paul and Barnabas.
2. He went out with the sanction of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit today, as then, calls and makes genuine missionaries; not churches, not missionary societies. We cannot say how this call may come. We are not to look for visions and voices. The knowledge of one’s own powers, the circumstances of life, the trend of thought, and the outward invitation from authorised sources, it may be, may constitute a clear call of God.
3. He wrought miracles to attest his place as an ambassador of Jesus Christ. Elymas and the lame man at Lystra.
4. More remarkable, and far more lasting in its power, was Paul’s true eloquence. He so spake that great multitudes believed. Now, to produce these immediate effects, we ought to remember that he did not address those to whom the gospel was a tale that had been told. This is the position of the modern Christian audience. But the mind of Paul was originally broad, penetrating, and fertile. He had been well trained, and to his native strength and careful culture must be added his marvellous experience at conversion. Yet his chief power was that which we may share--the power of the Holy Spirit.
5. Throughout the journey Paul showed the highest forms of Christian courage. The journey was attended with manifold perils. He was stoned and left for dead at Lystra. In all this he bore up bravely and patiently. He endured hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. He fought the good fight of faith. In all respects, he came back to Antioch approved as a workman.
II. The rejection of Christ by the Jews. They were in all the places whither the apostles came. It was natural and necessary for the apostles to make the offer of salvation to their own countrymen first, nor was this in vain; but the fires of jealousy burst forth when they heard the Gentiles invited to come to their own feast. So Paul was compelled to take a new and definite position, saying, “Lo! we turn unto the Gentiles.” Unto the Gentiles! Has the Church of Christ remembered the words of Paul, and been true to his spirit? Christ’s ministry was chiefly to the lapsed and overlooked classes. Centuries of history show little effort on the part of the Christian body to reclaim the lost sheep wandering in the wilderness.
III. The open door among the Gentiles. At Cyprus, Sergius Paulus was eager to hear God’s Word. At Antioch, the whole city came out to hear Paul. Even the superstition that led the Lycaonians to propose Divine honours to Paul and Barnabas was in itself a force that might be turned to useful channels. The heathen were not prejudiced against the gospel as the Jews were.
IV. The establishment of churches. The new faith must have a new form. It would not do to let the zeal of first love expend itself in individualised work. There must be organisation and order. We cannot determine precisely the form of these young apostolic churches, nor is it necessary that we should. Christ left no external organisation, but gave over this work to the Holy Spirit who should come to guide into all truth. (Sermons by the Monday Club.)
The best gain of a servant of God returning home
1. Wounds received in the service of his Lord (verses 19, 20).
2. Souls gained for the kingdom of Christ (verses 21-23).
3. Psalms sung by the assistance of God (verses 26, 27).
Apostles and Crusaders on the same track
Conrad and Louis, each with an army at first of seventy thousand men, marched through part of the districts traversed by Paul and Barnabas alone and unprotected. The former came to fight the battle of the Cross with human power, and their journey was encompassed with defeat and death; the latter, too, passed through much tribulation, bus from victory to victory, for the Lord was their tower and shield. (J. S. Howson, D. D.)
And when they had preached the gospel.--
The minister’s work
I. Preaching. Announcing the glad tidings; proclaiming that gospel which is the power of God unto salvation, and so securing conversions.
II. Teaching. Instructing the converts in the doctrines, displaying the privileges, and enforcing the duties of the new faith.
III. Confirmation--establishment in the faith.
IV. Exhortation. Stimulus and encouragement to higher privilege and nobler endeavour.
We must through much tribulation enter the kingdom of God.
Continuance in the faith
I. The disciples had been but newly converted to the faith, and they required to be established through grace. They were very likely to have been discouraged by the sufferings of the apostles, their instructors in the faith. They may have begun to fear that they had not counted the cost of religion: they had looked on the bright side of their profession; they had glowed with the zeal of new converts to Christ. But they might now have begun, for the first time, to discover that religion has its dark side. It is altogether probable that they had found it easier to make resolutions than to keep them; and to be exalted in hope more practicable than to be weaned from the world. We see, then, at once the bent and the need of the soul; its bent, to fall back, after the fairest professions of religion; its need, to be daily strengthened and advanced in the saving gifts of Divine grace. The seed may be withered by the early blight--the slender flame may be extinguished by the rising blast. Watchfulness must be added to knowledge, and prayer to watchfulness; and the seat of religion must be not in the imagination nor the affections merely--not in the understanding even, as separate from the heart, but in the soul.
II. The apostle, in the text, “exhorted them to continue in the faith.” The source of all final perseverance in religion is doubtless the grace of God. The means by which that grace operates on the heart is by a “continuance in the faith.” The apostles Barnabas and Paul, we must suppose, on this occasion opened to their new converts the whole foundation of Christian belief--the whole body of Christian motives, and a corresponding practice. To the Jews amongst them they appealed from their own Scriptures, and showed the prophecies that had gone before: respecting Jesus and His great salvation. To the Gentiles they preached, no doubt in kindred strains, Jesus and the resurrection, Christ and Him crucified. Here was, no doubt, a faith, which both admitted and required, and would reward, inquiry. The more they reflected upon the great truths of the gospel, the more they observed the state of the world around them, the more they would hail the glad tidings of the gospel. It was a revelation of truth, a communication of strength, from God to men. It embraced that which was most suitable to their wants, and most agreeable to their hopes. It promised, on the most sure grounds, pardon of sin, peace with God, renovation of the heart. This is, then, the faith in which still we exhort you to continue. It is that which we invite you to gain, and then to hold fast even to the end. It is no single effort of the understanding embracing these Divine truths, no words of confession. It must be a deliberate consideration of the grounds on which your faith is built, and all your hopes depend. It must be a comparison of the feelings of the heart with the standard of Divine truth. It must be an application of the great truths of Scripture to all the circumstances and relations of life. It must be a daily viewing of things through the glass of God’s Word, and a reference of all events to the future and eternal world.
III. We are warned that the walk of faith will not be altogether a thornless path--the triumph of faith not a bloodless victory; “and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.” The words are introduced in the text with an abruptness in the language, which shows the strong impression on the mind of the apostle delivering them, of their nature and truth. Each apostle was ever anxious assuredly to impress on the minds of his converts, no less than on his own, the costs, as well as the gains, of religion. It may be doubtless necessary that outward afflictions should first bring home the wandering sinner to God. His past life may have been conversant with companions who must be forsaken, and habits to be renounced. He will, at all events, find himself placed in a world that will little understand the principles on which he is acting, and that may deride the faith which he professes, or the purity which he exhibits. Nor can he feel otherwise than painfully affected at the sight of wickedness around him. (C. J. Hoare, M. A.)
The necessity of tribulation
In some of the most delicate manufactures of the country, the web in a rude and unsightly state enters a vessel filled with a certain liquid, passes slowly through, and emerges continuously at the opposite side. As it enters the cloth seems all of one colour, and that dim; as it emerges it glitters in a variety of brilliant hues arranged in cunning figures. The liquid is composed of biting acids; and the reason why the fabric is strained through it is that all the deforming and defiling things which have adhered to it in preceding processes may be discharged, and the figures already secretly imprinted may shine out in their beauty. If it were allowed to remain one minute too long in the bath the fabric would be destroyed; but the manufacturer has so tempered the ingredients and timed the passage that while the impurities are thoroughly discharged the fabric comes out uninjured. In wisdom and love the Lord has mingled the ingredients of our tribulation, and determined its duration, so that none of his should be lost, and so that every grace of the Spirit should be brought out in all its beauty. (W. Arnot, D. D.)
The necessity of tribulation
It would seem to be a great hardship to a lump of iron ore, if it were conscious, that it should have to be melted, separated from its accretions, beaten together into a bar of pure metal, then heated again and cooled suddenly, exposed in this way in quick succession to the most rapid and intense changes of temperature, and hammered furiously while these terrible processes are going on. “Why can not I be left in peace,” it might say, “in my condition as ore? I am contented with that form of life.” Yet it is only by such processes that it can be promoted in quality from the sluggish state of raw metal, compounded with alloy, to steel. (T. Starr King.)
The condition of tribulation
The expression is used in the sense of travelling through: as if they lay about our road. And this is an encouraging similitude. It sets us forth as superior to the tribulations: and sets them forth as our appointed way, not to have the mastery over us, but to be faced and left behind, just as the traveller faces and leaves behind the dangers or rough places of his road. “Tribulation,” a term implying “crushing” or “fretting”; that outward galling which narrow and intricate ways, or long borne burdens, produce on the traveller. It is a word joined by St. Paul to another signifying “narrowness of space to move in,” and which we render “anguish,” as representing the Latin angustiae,” narrowness of space.” It is then through many of these gallings, these narrow inlets, or pressing burdens, that our way must be made to the land of rest. Let us trace the fact--
I. In its rise. First of all, strait is the gate itself that leadeth unto life. Through one mental process in the main do men enter into the life of the Spirit. And though that life issues in the best expansion of the whole man, yet this introductory process is eminently a contracting one. When a man for the first time opens his eyes on God’s true state, and his own; when he first sees what God demands of him, and what he has to render to God, the sight is one which shrinks up whatever he may before have thought of anything that is his own; it is a tribulation, a passing through a strait, too narrow for any of those encumbrances which lay about and almost constituted his unrenewed and worldly being. This lies at the very head of his course, and cannot be avoided. Many endeavour to avoid it; and no doubt it is easy enough: but in doing so, they miss the way to the kingdom of God. They stand with the strait gate before them, looking up the narrow path. Between it and the broad way are several tracks, not so difficult, and better frequented; decoys which the enemy has constructed--the ways which seem right unto a man, but the end thereof is the way of death.
1. There is the comely track of formalism--spanning the valleys of humiliation with its perfect arches, piercing the toilsome steeps with its readier and smoother approaches. There, is no tribulation; daily, conscience is set to sleep with choicest music; daily, the satisfied eyes gaze on the fair pictures of self-denial and piety.
2. Then there is the wide and smooth path of worldly profession, where all that is rough and unpleasing in religion is avoided and cast aside. Tribulation enough there is indeed in such a course, but not of the right sort for our purpose; forever and anon the rough unmannerly protest of God’s inward witness breaks through, and in laughter the heart is sorrowful. And tribulation enough to come: for the hope of such an one shall perish.
II. In its nature, it is two fold, essential and incidental; that which every Christian must feel, and that into which he is liable, from varying circumstances, to be thrown.
1. He is guilty; unworthy; grieves God’s Holy Spirit; does the evil thing he has resolved against, and the good which he has determined to do falls unwrought from his hands. And from this springs grief and trouble continually. Nor does such necessary trouble come from self-contemplation only. “Rivers of water,” said the psalmist, “run down mine eyes, because men keep not Thy law.” And then “everyone that will live godly in Christ Jesus must suffer persecution.” The world will not endure tranquilly one who lives above the world. “If they have hated Me, they will hate you.”
2. This last-mentioned tribulation seems, from its varying aspect, to form our transition to those which are incidental: not necessary to every child of God, but sent to some in full measure, to some in less degree, and to others perhaps hardly at all; providential chastenings of our heavenly Father, the sicknesses, dejections, and bereavements of the people of God. These troubles are in fact our highest privileges. To be allowed to enter into the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings--do we not ever feel this to be our truest exaltation in life?
III. Its progress. “Tribulation worketh patience.” Oh blessed advance! from suffering, to “Father, if it be Thy will”; from patience to “approval”--the passing through and coming out of the fire tested and fit for the Master’s use. Would you have a counsellor in the things of God? Take a Christian who has known sorrow. Would you have a comforter and a Christian friend? Consort with one who has known sorrow. Wouldst thou thyself become mature in Christ, a ripened and ready Christian, glorifying Him largely, and bearing witness to Him with power? Oh refuse not, pass not by, the cup of tribulation; learn obedience from the things which thou hast suffered; be thou, as He was, made perfect through sufferings. But this is not all. And now in the end, let us look onward and upward. Let us stand with the beloved apostle, and behold that great multitude. “These are they which came out of great tribulation!” (Dean Alford.)
Tribulation: its necessity and issue
I. Tribulation. You may think something more consolatory might have been looked for from Barnabas than “much tribulation,” but we recognise the voice of “the son of consolation,” when those sorrows are represented as preparing us for heaven. But we must take care not to misapply his words.
1. Though the kingdom is to be entered through “much tribulation,” there may be “much tribulation” which does not lead to the kingdom. Admitting that all suffering is the consequence of sin, yet what man endures now is at most but a temporal punishment. There is no expiatory power in our sufferings. You are not to think that because “many are the troubles of the righteous,” that everyone who has many troubles must therefore be righteous.
2. There is, however, a different, though equally erroneous inference, which may be drawn from our text. When a man, whose course of life on the whole is one of evenness, reads of entering the kingdom through much tribulation, there is great likelihood of his suspecting that he is destitute of the chief evidence of being a child of God. If the greatness of trouble distress and harass one Christian, the very want of trouble may be a trial to another. But--
II. Its necessity and issue. The text describes affliction as the ordinary instrument through which God fits His people for their glorious inheritance. God thereby disciplines His people; detaches them from earthly things; refines their affections. It is in the furnace of trial that He burns out of us the impurities of indwelling corruption. For whatever tends to increase present holiness, tends equally to increase future happiness. Not, indeed, that the tribulation is indispensable. God, if He pleased, could make us ready for the kingdom through some other process; but the “much tribulation” is His ordinary course. I understand from this what St. Paul means when he says, “We glory in tribulations.” He found tribulation grievous in itself, but he gloried in it as a preparation for heaven. Of what avail would it be, that the palace should be prepared for the inhabitant, unless the inhabitant be prepared for the palace. (H. Melvill, B. D.)
Tribulation and its uses
I. The declaration that the people of God must through tribulation enter the kingdom of God.
1. That they are an afflicted people there can be no doubt. And not only so, but those whom God blesses the most He afflicts the most. Take, e.g., Abraham, Jacob, Job, Moses, Paul, etc. But not only these, all the saints must expect it. The Word tells us not, “we may” but “we must.” Sometimes we forget that it is God’s appointment, that it cannot be otherwise.
2. Many reasons might be given for this.
II. The exhortation. “Exhorting them to continue in the faith.” The great remedy for this much affliction is, not to be looking at the affliction; it is to continue in the faith. Whether we regard faith as the doctrine of Christ, or as continuing in faith, living not to ourselves, but to God--in either point of view it comes to the same truth; it is the life of faith. Happy is the man who, the more the waters come upon him, the higher he rises. We can honour Christ in nothing more than in the life of faith.
III. The prospect. We sometimes read of a Chinese taking a traveller through a wilderness, and then bringing him at once into a beautiful garden. He passes over craggy rocks, through brambles and nettles, and everything offensive; and then in one moment his guide brings him into the most lovely exhibition of the powers of nature and art. Just so is it with God: He takes us through a world of brambles into a garden of Eden, and if we have more foretaste of it we should think of it more. If a man eats grapes, he cannot avoid being reminded that there is a place where grapes come from. The way to be living above the troubles of life is to be much in the anticipation of glory: for as surely as the earnest is given, so surely shall the eternal reality be enjoyed. The great principle is to be looking forward to future glory. But we want more than this; we want a present Christ and if we are living by faith we shall possess this. God wants our hearts for Himself. (J. H. Evans, M. A.)
The path of tribulation
I. The road to the kingdom of God. The text does not mean that all who are the subjects of suffering shall be the inheritors of glory. So far is the one from securing the other, that unless suffering is improved, the trials of this life will only add to the guilt and misery of eternity. What is meant is that tribulation is found a means of sanctifying the family of God, and that it is a means so extensively employed and blessed for that purpose that it may with propriety be represented as the road to the kingdom of God.
II. The travellers--The disciples. There are many who walk in the paths of suffering who are not Christ’s disciples; but the path now in view is the path of holy suffering: Jesus Christ Himself travelled this road. The best friends of God, in every age of time, have travelled it. The prophets (James 5:10). The apostles (1 Corinthians 4:9-13). Let, then, the traveller on this road know, not only that God’s best friends have preceded him, and that many will follow Him; but let him also know that he forms a part of a large and goodly fellowship (1 Peter 5:9).
III. The necessity for their travelling by this road. As men we are fallen sinful creatures, and therefore we must meet with punishment, and as Christians we are imperfect creatures, and therefore we must meet with discipline.
IV. Its termination. It conducts to God’s heavenly kingdom. The world receives a very different treatment from the master it serves, from that which Christians receive at the hands of Jesus Christ. The prince of this world promises his servants a happiness in this life, which he can never afford; but is either altogether silent about the end of their course, or deceives them with the expectation of a felicity which they will never attain. Christ predicts tribulation; but then He more than counterbalances the tribulation by the present joys of religion; while He promises glory at the end of their course. In the kingdom of God there will be no more tribulation. Sin, which is the grand scourge of man, will obtain no admittance there; consequently sorrow, which is the inseparable companion of sin, shall be equally excluded (Revelation 21:4; Psalms 16:11). In the kingdom of God the tribulations of this life will increase the happiness of the former sufferer (Hebrews 12:10-11; Revelation 7:14-17). (Essex Congregational Remembrancer.)
The way of tribulation
I. Its travellers: all true Christians; “we”; therefore do not wonder at it.
II. Its necessity. “We must”; therefore do not shun it.
III. Its nature: rugged and long; “through much tribulation,” therefore prepare for it.
IV. Its end: blessedness; “the kingdom of God”; therefore do not neglect it. (K. Gerok.)
The way to the kingdom
This verse exhibits the ordinary Christian curriculum. Paul and Barnabas pass through a whole district expressly to teach this. The instruction is the same in every city.
1. “The kingdom of God,” in its widest sense, denotes the Church, under all its forms and dispensations. In New Testament usage, the reference of the phrase is to Messiah’s kingdom. Either in its initial and visible state here, or in its perfected condition in a future life. The latter is its meaning here. We who are in the kingdom in its incipiency here, “must through much tribulation enter into” the perfection of the same kingdom hereafter.
2. In this way heaven and earth do not lie far asunder. The one grows out of the other. Heaven is the summer of the year of which we have in this world the wintry beginning. And from the first there is a looking springwards, and even a touch of summer in the soul that is panting towards it. Even physically there is no vacuum between this lower and the higher world, while, morally, there stretches between them “a new and living way,” by which all the faithful are going up to heaven, yet carrying something of heaven with them as they go. The toilsome journey through this world of peril and sin is not merely the passing of so much time until the dawning of the day; it is an express progress by the right way to the city of habitation.
3. Entertain the thought that going through earthly tribulations is entering in. It is not that we must pass through all the straits and pressures of this life, and then the entrance will be given according to the dictate of an arbitrary will. If we “continue in the faith,” the entrance is accomplished: death then is but a servitor to open the gate: the grave is but a side room where we leave a vestment which will not be needed for a while, and which meantime will be changed into a glorious robe fit for immortal wear.
4. Think for a little of this unalterable, yet very gracious necessity of this lifelong “must.” For this is not a truth that comes to us naturally. Look, for instance, at a palace or a gentleman’s estate. They are talked of far and near for their beauty. Suppose one sets out for the purpose of seeing them, what will he expect to see when he comes near? Rough roads, neglected fields, thorns and briars up to the very gate and doors? No. That being the focus and centre of all, it “must” have meet setting. Well, God is taking His children to a kingdom! to a “house” with “many mansions,” and our natural thought would be that as soon as they turn face heavenwards, there will be, not only a great inward, but also a great outward change. There will, now, be something of the bloom of the garden on everything; and as they go on, the way will become more pleasant, obstructions in it fewer, and more easily over come. But against that theory of life lies this text. Of course there are many exceptions. Multitudes of infants go to the perfect kingdom of God almost as soon as they are born. Also, there are great “varieties” of experience among those who live. The principle is not one of mechanical exactness. Nor are we to conclude that tribulation is measured out according to character--much of it to the sinful, and less to the pure. In some instances the reverse of this is the truth--the finest gold sometimes lies molten in the hottest fires. “We must”--
I. For probation. A man must be proved before he can be approved. A thing--or still more, a man--may look fair, and be useless. In mercantile and public life, men are advanced from lower to higher place only after successful probation. God tries and trains men, before, and for, advancement. The advancement is to be very great: the trial must be very true. And in order to be true it must be severe and searching.
II. For purification God’s fires are hot, but they are purifying. He Himself is “a consuming fire” only to what is evil: He is a purifying and preserving fire to all that is good. But is not all tribulation punitive? No. It is not possible to trace all suffering up to sin in the suffering person. Broken laws bring down their penalties; and is so far as tribulation consists of penalty, of course it is punitive. But many a sufferer, in his little human measure, “bears the sins” of others. If in the sufferer there be faith, all that is punitive is yet so assuaged and filled with grace that it is purifying far more than punitive. Thus proving, and purifying, run on together to the very end, when the death fire will burn out the last dregs of corruption, and perfect the life-process of conformity to the image of Christ.
III. In order to the attainment of a real and deep fellowship with Christ. Christian fellowship is life in Christ. All that life is, or contains of good, of growth by grace to glory, is “in Him.” We have joy in Him; “That My joy might remain in you.” We have peace in Him; “My peace I give unto you.” And strength, the “strength” that “is made perfect in weakness.” And should, then, the trouble of life be excluded? No. It is the unchanging law that we “bear about with us in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus.” This is “the fellowship of His sufferings” from which in due time fellowship in glory will arise.
IV. For the sake of others. God often uses the suffering of one for the sanctifying of another. Here is a house through which a spirit of worldliness would soon flow; but up in the top room is a little sufferer from whose bed every day flows out another spirit which keeps the house in dewy softness. Or, one in maturer life, and, in so far as man can judge, ripe for the better state, is kept lingering here, a living lesson of patience and gentleness, a living proof to many of the all-sufficiency of the grace of Christ. As “no man liveth,” as “no man dieth,” so no man suffereth to himself. (A. Raleigh, D. D.)
Consolations on the way to the kingdom
1. Have I lost my goods, and foregone a fair estate? Had all the earth been mine, what is it to heaven? Had I been the lord of all the world, what were this to a kingdom of glory?
2. Have I parted with a dear consort--the sweet companion of my youth; the tender nurse of my age; the partner of my sorrows for many years? She is but stepped a little before me to that happy rest, which I am punting towards, and wherein I shall speedily overtake her. In the meantime and ever, my soul is espoused to that glorious and immortal husband, from whom it shall never be parted.
3. Am I bereaved of some of my dear children, the sweet pledges of our matrimonial love, whose parts and hopes promised me comfort in my declined age? Why am I not rather thankful it hath pleased my God out of my loins to furnish heaven with some happy guests? Why do I not, instead of mourning for their loss, sing praises to God for preferring them to that eternal blessedness?
4. Am I afflicted with bodily pain and sickness, which banishes all sleep from my eyes, and exercises me with lingering torture? Ere long this momentary distemper shall end in an everlasting rest.
5. Am I threatened by the sword of an enemy? Suppose that man to be one of the guardians of paradise, and that sword as flaming as it is sharp, that one stroke should let me into that place of inconceivable pleasure, and admit me to feed on the tree of life forever. Cheer up, then, oh my soul: and upon thy fixed apprehension of the glory to be revealed, even in the midnight of thy sorrows, and in the deepest darkness of death itself, sing then to thy God songs of confidence, of joy, of praise and thanksgiving. (Bp. Hall.)
Difficulties in the way
The old proverb tells us that the way to the stars lay through difficulties. To reach high ground we must expect hard climbing. It is so in the life of the world. Look at the great soldier: the country honours him, crowds shout his praises. But to gain his position, he has endured hardness. Look at a famous painter at his work, How easily he seems to cover his canvas with almost living forms. But you forget the years of patient toil, and study, and self-denial.
I. If we are to gain the high places of heaven we must expect obstacles in our way.
1. But the true Christian will not be driven back by difficulties. Diogenes wished to become the pupil of a famous cynic philosopher, and was refused. Still Diogenes persisted, and the philosopher raised his staff to smite him. “Strike,” said Diogenes, “you will not find a staff hard enough to conquer my perseverance.” And so he had his wish. Let no blows be hard enough to drive us back from the kingdom of heaven.
2. For us all there is the Hill Difficulty to be climbed, and the Valley of Humiliation to be entered. We are proud of our schemes, and God sweeps them all away like a cobweb. We trust to our own righteousness, and God allows us to fall into a terrible temptation, like David. We thought, like St. Peter, that we could stand, and, behold, we have fallen. We trusted in our own strength, like Samson, and the Philistines, our sins, have bound us hand and foot in the prison.
3. Sometimes the difficulty lies right across our path like a rock, or like a baud of armed men. Once in battle an Austrian general was surrounded on all sides by the enemy. He sent a message to his commander asking whither he should retreat. And the answer came back in one word--“Forward!” That is the watchword of every true Christian man.
II. The greatest obstacles in our path to heaven are--
1. The world which hinders us on our heavenly journey in the form of bad company. Many a pilgrim has lost his way by forming godless or careless acquaintances.
2. The flesh. Who has not the desire to go forward in the path of duty, and yet suffered himself to listen to the whisper, “A little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep”? Who has not found the bad thought, hated and unwelcome, yet forcing itself upon him at the holiest seasons? Well, if we are to continue our journey to heaven we must be masters of our flesh. It is better for us to enter into life maimed or blind, than to have two eyes, all that we desire or wish for, at the cost of our own soul.
3. The devil. Sometimes he comes as a roaring lion, openly attacking us; sometimes he comes as an angel of light, whispering soft, tempting promises in our ears.
III. The way to meet these difficulties.
1. Do not think too much of them beforehand; meet them bravely when they come, but do not meet them half way. When a man builds a house he does not stay to think what a long task it is; he just goes on day by day adding brick to brick, till the whole is finished. Let us day by day try to do our duty, to build up a little bit of a holy life, and the difficulties and obstacles will be overcome.
2. Then we must trust ourselves to our Guide. If you were to try to climb some of the Swiss mountains you would come to places where it would be impossible for you to proceed alone. Then your guide would bid you to trust entirely to him, to allow yourself to be bound to him, and to have no fear. In all the difficulties and dangers of our pilgrimage we must trust ourselves entirely to the Lord Jesus Christ. (H. J. Wilmot Buxton, M. A.)
The process of purification
I. The universality of tribulation. No one who has thoroughly observed the conditions of life can avoid coming to this conclusion, that suffering forms a large portion of human history. Youth encounters troubles; then, as life advances, there are deeper sorrows. And as we get older still, life assumes the character of a struggle, and ofttimes in the very midst of it, “man goeth to his long home.” Not that this constitutes the whole of life; but we do live in a world whose Creator appears to have consulted something else besides the happiness of His creatures.
II. The reason for this.
1. If we were to discover, say some plant, so widely distributed that we could not go into any one region of the globe without beholding it, our reason would at once compel us to the conclusion, that its universal existence proves some universal purpose, and that its secret must sooner or later be discoverable. Sorrow is universal, and there must therefore be a reason for its being universal. Paul says in our text, “we must”; “it is the order of things, that through much tribulation we enter the kingdom of God.” Wherever he went he found trouble; and he found everywhere necessity for the same line of argument; he had to “confirm,” that is, to strengthen the souls of the disciples; to exhort them to continue steadfast in the belief of Christianity as a message of glad tidings, notwithstanding all their present trials.
2. But does the kingdom of God here mean heaven? Not exclusively. It means the government of God. The kingdom of God means the government of God; and “tribulation” is derived from the Latin tribulum, the threshing instrument or roller by which the Romans separated the corn from the husks.
3. Tribulation looked at in this light is capable of the most extended application. We may apply it to youth, at its very entrance upon the real discipline of life; to some thoughtful mind, harassed with doubts; to the active, hearty, energetic man of business, who may in this day of unnatural competition be tempted to practical falsehoods, to neglect the soul for the body; to the man of fixed income, whose family cares are a perpetual embarrassment.
III. What is meant by the kingdom of God and how does tribulation facilitate our entrance into it? The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but--
1. “Righteousness,” and righteousness is only attainable by tribulation. It is not easy to be good.
2. “Peace”: and this is another happy result of tribulation. By nature we do not love peace. You have seen the horse broken in for man’s use. Now peace, the very opposite of all this discontent, only comes through the discipline of tribulation.
3. “Joy in the Holy Ghost.” But this in the present life only comes through the tribulation of penitence; and the happy throng above have come out of great tribulation. (W. G. Barrett.)
Through tribulation to glory
We have here--
I. The designation of heaven--the kingdom of God. A kingdom has its king, its laws, its social relationships. It conveys the idea of locality and grandeur. It is both a place and a state.
II. The particular characteristic of heaven. It is the kingdom of God. It will therefore be inconceivably great, inconceivably holy, inconceivably blessed and happy.
III. The difficulty of admission. To get there we must pass through much tribulation. No man gained heaven without difficulty. He must be tried and purified as in a furnace. He must endure the assaults of Satan. He must overcome his natural evil nature. He must struggle with unbelief, persecution, pain. But he shall enter in and obtain joy and gladness, Sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Homilist.)
We grow best under weights
We learn that it is out of struggles that we must get the nobleness and beauty of character after which we are striving. One of the old Scotch martyrs had on his crest the motto, Sub pondere cresco (“I grow under a weight”). On the crest was a palm tree, with weights depending from its fronds. In spite of the weights the tree was straight as an arrow, lifting its crown of graceful foliage high up in the serene air. It is well known that the palm grows best loaded down with weights. Thus this martyr testified that he, like the beautiful tree of the Orient, grew best in his spiritual life under weights. This is the universal law of spiritual growth. There must be resistance, struggle, conflict, or there can be no development of strength. We are inclined to pity those whose lives are scenes of toil and hardship, but God’s angels do not pity them if only they are victorious; for in their overcoming they are climbing daily upward towards the holy heights of sainthood. The beatitudes in the Apocalypse are all for overcomers. Heaven’s rewards and crowns lie beyond battle plains. Spiritual life always need opposition. It flourishes most luxuriantly in adverse circumstances. We grow best under weights. We find our richest blessings in the burdens we dread to take up. (J. R. Miller, D. D.)
Tribulation, its necessity
Many Christians are dull, and stupid, and useless, because they have not had disaster enough to wake them up. The brightest scarf that heaven makes is thrown over the shoulders of the storm. You cannot make a thorough Christian life out of sunshine alone. There are some very dark hues in the ribbon of the rainbow; you must have in life the blue as well as the orange. Mingling all the colours of the former makes a white light; and it takes all the shades, and sadnesses, and vicissitudes of life to make the white lustre of a pure Christian life.
And thence sailed to Antioch … And when they were come, and had gathered the Church together, they rehearsed all that God had done.
Apostles and Crusaders at Antioch: a historical contrast
If when we contrast the voyage of Paul and Barnabas across the bay of Attalia with the voyage of those who sailed over the same waters eleven centuries later, our minds are powerfully drawn towards the pure days of early Christianity, when the power of faith made human weakness irresistibly strong, the same thoughts are not less forcibly presented when we contrast the reception of the Crusaders at Antioch with the reception of the apostles in the same city. We are told that Raymond, “Prince of Antioch,” waited with much expectation for the arrival of the French king; and that when he heard of his landing at Seleucia he gathered together all the nobles and chief men of the people and went out to meet him, and brought him into Antioch with much pomp and magnificence, showing him all reverence and homage, in the midst of a great assemblage of the clergy and people. All that Luke tells us of the reception of the apostles after their victorious campaign is what he says in the text. Thus the kingdom of God came at the first “without observation”--with the humble acknowledgment that all power is given from above, and with a thankful recognition of our Father’s love to all mankind. (J. S. Howson, D. D.)
I. There is great need in the world for missionaries.
1. There was great need for them in the days of the early Church.
2. There is much more need in the present day.
II. It is the duty of the Church to take up the subject of foreign missions, because--
1. The Church of all earthly things is the most, and indeed only, capable.
2. The Church itself, having received the glad tidings, ought from gratitude to make them known to others.
III. This duty, if rightly performed, will surely meet with success. Not necessarily at first, but eventually.
IV. It is the Saviour’s command that the gospel should be preached in all lands. (T. Newsome.)
1. It is well that missionaries should occasionally return. Their return will strengthen them, and again arouse the Churches to a new interest in the missionary cause.
2. The true missionary will report, not what he has done, but what God has done with him.
3. The true missionary will report holy God has opened the door of faith to those to whom he was sent. (S. S. Times.)
The report of the mission
This was the first missionary report ever presented. Of late years these rehearsals have been common. And it is well that it should be so, provided that the accounts are truthfully given and the results anxiously weighed. Let us observe--
I. The object of the apostles’ mission.
1. You all know how ill any work must be done which has not a definite aim. What would a carpenter’s, a builder’s, a lawyer’s, or a physician’s work be without some end set before it? Too often in religious matters this is left out of sight. A clergyman, as it is said, “performs duty”--that is, he has gone through the public service, etc. But was that his end, or only the means to his end? A serious question. Far too often we do make these duties ends: if we can perform our duty (as it is sometimes said) creditably, we are ready to say, “I have done my duty; I have gained my end.” But who does not see that no amount of labour thus accomplished necessarily implies the slightest sense of the real work of the ministry? Where is the end in all this? No builder would satisfy his employer by merely being seen so many hours each day at his work, if nothing came of it, or nothing but crooked walls, leaking roofs, etc. It is even so in things spiritual. He is not a good workman who has nothing to show for it but his toil. True, in these matters, unlike the other, men cannot by any skill or any devotion secure his object: God gives, and withholds; and he who thinks that his own labour or even his own prayer can guarantee success has not yet learned his first lesson in the school of Jesus Christ. St. Paul’s object is forcibly expressed in his own words, “That ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God.” Turning, conversion, was and still is the end of the ministry.
2. If this is indeed the meaning of our office, and its responsibility, can any exhortation be more needful than that which bids the congregation remember its object and so aid its work? If its end is to turn you to God, yours surely will be the chief loss and the chief misery if it fails.
II. Its methods. We are struck by its unity, and we are struck also by its variety.
1. St. Paul appears to speak quite differently to the Jews at Antioch and to the idolaters at Lystra. With the one he argues from the Scriptures; with the other only from the book of nature. And how can it be otherwise if a man is in earnest? Does the physician proceed, without inquiry, to apply one mode of treatment everywhere, and expect the recovery of health, which is his object, to reward such unreasoning efforts? Even so it is with the physician of the soul. His first business is to ascertain where men stand, what men know and believe. Till he knows something upon these points, he can only employ the bow at a venture. To speak to a man of salvation when he has never been conscious of danger, to offer a man forgiveness who has never trembled at sin, is to cover up the mischief instead of extirpating it, to comfort a man in his sins instead of rescuing him from them. Till the people of Lystra knew that there was one God, it was idle to say to them, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” On the other hand, those who already possessed the evidence also of a Divine revelation, those whose fault it was to count themselves safe because they had honoured God with a ceremonial worship, must be instructed out of that revelation itself as to the sinfulness of sin, as to the need and the promise and the coming of a Saviour, in the language of a prophet in whom they believed.
2. More than half the failures of our ministry arise from inappropriate teaching and from inappropriate hearing. There is a man here, as there once was when Jesus Himself was the Preacher, possessed by the spirit of an unclean devil. He comes hither, drawn perhaps by custom, perhaps by a wish to gloss over his lost state, perhaps by an instinctive longing to lull the disquietude of his soul. This man meets Jesus here. But too often it is only a hearing of the sound--something about guilt, about atonement, about the mercy of God--and the man goes away as he came; what he has understood he has misapplied; the unclean spirit is still there, soothed, calmed, lulled, like the surfeited snake till its next fit of hunger. That man ought to have been told of God in conscience before he was told of God in redemption. Till he has trembled at judgment to come, till he has cried out against himself as a sinner, he can scarcely profit, he may even be fatally injured, by the offer of a pardon which he wants not, or of a Saviour whom he will only crucify afresh.
3. What cannot be done by the preacher must be done for himself by the individual hearer. Let a man ask himself, “Is that word for me? Does that suit my case? God give me the spirit of wisdom in hearing, lest ‘that which should be for my health be to me the occasion of falling.’”
III. It had also a careful regard to the carrying on of that which was well begun.
1. In the form of regular supervision. “They ordained elders in every congregation.” He who is turned to God still needs training. It is a comfort to us to believe that our assemblies for worship and instruction had their origin in the institutions of the primitive Church. It is not the one reception of the one great truth which will secure us from the risk of falling away. The minister has to learn; and if he do not learn, his ministry will soon become a vain repetition, a barren and a wearisome form, both to himself and to those who hear him. Even so is it with the congregation. They too have need to learn in the school of God; and the services of this place ate designed to help them in learning.
2. In the form of well-instructed expectation (verse 22). Neither our Saviour nor His apostles ever misled men as to the nature of the Christian life below--that it must be a conflict, and therefore a life of tribulation. (Dean Vaughan.)
I. What did the apostles rehearse in the ears of the Church? “All that God had done with them.” Not all that they had done of themselves, by dint of their own efforts, by the power of their own persuasion. Not how many good sermons they had preached, what overflowing congregations were attracted to hear them, or what unbounded applause had been bestowed upon their ministry. Nor did they make their sufferings the theme of conversation: yet they were “destitute, afflicted, tormented” (Hebrews 11:37). “They related all that God had done with them.” Not what the Almighty had performed by His own immediate agency, independent of all human instrumentality; but what He had done by their hands, as the servants of His will.
1. God had by them communicated instruction in Divine things to the people whom they addressed.
2. They not only taught many: they were also made the happy instruments of leading a great multitude to believe in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
3. God made them the instruments of confirming the souls of the disciples.
4. God had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.
II. To whom the apostles rehearsed the things which God had done by their instrumentality. “They gathered the Church together,” etc. Let us inquire, what were the discriminating marks by which the primitive Churches were distinguished?
1. By their disunion with the world. The primitive Christians had their “conversation in the world” (2 Corinthians 1:12), and mixed promiscuously with human society, “working with their own hands” (1 Corinthians 4:12). They were not “slothful in business”; but “fervent in spirit, serving the Lord” (Romans 12:11). Notwithstanding, they held no unnecessary intercourse with ungodly men, never selecting them as companions; for “the friendship of the world is enmity with God” (James 4:4). Although they were in the world, they were not of it.
2. The members of the primitive Churches were distinguished by the sanctity of their characters, and the consistency of their conduct. Each of them could adopt the language of St. Paul (Galatians 2:20). The principles by which they were actuated were faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and love to His holy name.
III. What were the motives that induced the apostles to rehearse what God had done with them?
1. We may conceive that it was done to express the warm and grateful effusions of their hearts.
2. The apostles rehearsed what God had done by their means, to gladden the hearts of others.
3. They rehearsed what God had done by them, as a public acknowledgment of the obligations under which they were laid to Him. (R. Treffry.)
And how He had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles.--
God opening doors:--He who has the keys of David can open all doors. No preacher must assume these keys to himself, but must pray that God, who only can use them effectually, will do so. And if anything is to be effected for the salvation of souls, God must open four doors--the door of the preacher’s mouth, the doors of the hearer’s ear and heart, the door of heaven. (K. Gerok.)
The door of faith
I. This metaphor sets forth that the simple act of trust in God, as revealed in Christ, is the way by which we pass into the house of God. Christ says, “I am the Door,” and faith is the means of access. This faith is the outer door, the vestibule which leads to the real opening by which we enter into all the mystery and the sweetness of the Divine home. It is a very little, low door. There are a great many much more pretentious ways to God held out to men. There are the doors of contemplation, of asceticism, of ceremonial, of a self-righteous, proud, purity of life; but a man cannot get more than a step inwards if he tries them. But there is a narrow portal yonder, and if a man will go down upon his knees, and if he will leave his sins outside, it will be like one of those narrow passages with a little tiny aperture in it, where a hunted race used to take up their abode, and which widened out into a broad apartment where a man could stand in safety and warmth and home. We go through this narrow door of trust, but we come out into the large room of our Father’s house.
II. The other side of the metaphor suggests the means by which God can enter into us. The door into our hearts is faith. There is no possibility, in heaven or in earth, for God to come with His blessings into any man’s heart except through the door of that man’s faith. You take a flask, seal it hermetically, tie a bit of canvas over the mouth of it, pitch that with tar, and plunge it into the Atlantic; and the inside of it will be as dry as if it was in the midst of African deserts. And as long as a man’s heart is hermetically sealed, which it is by the absence of faith, it is all one to him, as if there were no mercy. The ocean of mercy and love is all outside of him. Notice, in passing, how small a thing a door is--just a piece of timber worth a few shillings. Yes! but if a king comes in, there is a dignity about it. Faith in itself is nothing; it is precious because it is a means by which we lay hold upon precious things.
III. This door is to be kept open by ourselves. We read of Lydia’s heart being opened by the Lord; and we read of Christ knocking at the door, waiting for our opening of it to Him. These are two halves of a great truth. Lydia’s heart would never have been opened had she not willed. You are responsible for exercising and for continuing to exercise this act of faith. This is one of those doors that shut to in a moment if not clasped back. Day by day we must get rid of the world’s rubbish that tries to choke up the doorway, by prayer, by effort to expel the evil. The Lord stands before each of us and summons us, “Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors: and the King of glory shall come in.” Let us answer, “Come in, Thou blessed of the Lord; wherefore standest Thou without!” (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
The open gate of salvation
The trouble with many people is that they want to have a hundred curious questions about God and heaven answered before they come to Christ and trust in Christ. They do not act so in other matters. If a man is out in the woods at night and has lost his way, he does not sit down on a log and wait for the sun to rise, or for someone to kindle a bonfire that shall illuminate the whole forest. No, no. If the glimmer of a candle reaches his eye, no matter how faint and far away, he rejoices--he begins at once to move in that direction. The light shows that he can be saved if he will follow it. And it is so with even the feeblest shining of the light of life which reaches a man. Let him be faithful to what it reveals, and he is sure of salvation. Says Dr. Parkhurst: “Light is a sure guide, because, unlike sound, it goes in straight lines. If you were to strike the tired, diminished end of a sunbeam a million, million miles from the sun, you are on the certain track of the sun the instant you begin treading upwards the glittering highway that that sunbeam spreads out for you. And wherever and howsoever far out upon the circumference of Christ’s character you take your position and begin threading inward any one of its radiating lines, you move by a line as straight as a sunbeam towards the heart and centre of the entire matter. One radius is as good as another for finding the centre. Each of the twelve gates thresholded a main avenue of the heavenly Jerusalem.” The gate of heaven is not away up yonder; it is wherever we look to Christ as the Opener of heaven to the penitent and believing soul. He said, “I am the door; by Me if any man enter in he shall be saved.” The gospel, whenever we study it as earnest seekers after truth, presents to us one of the pearly gates of paradise.
God’s open doors
There are few men who would pass through a gold mine, having full permission to carry away with them choicest specimens of its choicest treasures, who would not make good use of such an opportunity. All along the highway of life God is setting before each traveller opportunities to be and to do which are far more valuable than the richest treasures of gold or gems which earth offers. These opportunities are so many open doors which lead to the treasure houses of God, prepared for all who seek, and offered to all who ask. (H. W. Beecher.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Acts 14". The Biblical Illustrator. https://beta.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25