The Biblical Illustrator
But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession.
Ananias and Sapphira
The word Ananias means “grace of God”; and the word Sapphira signifies just “a sapphire,” the familiar jewel of brilliance and beauty. We should suppose these two people had an unusually bright prospect in the outset. Somebody there was who loved them enough to give them very fine names when they were little. Ananias lied; then it was that “the grace of God” went out of him for ever. Sapphira lied; when a woman loses the truth, it is as if the last light went out of a sapphire. (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
Ananias and Sapphira
Hitherto all has been progress and triumph. Faith has become enthusiasm. Earth caught the colouring, yea, the very life of heaven. Private ownership was swallowed up by social beneficence, and little restrictions and classifications were swept away by a generosity akin to the love of God. Now we come upon another aspect of affairs. We find a twist in the golden thread. The whole thing must come to a stop until this be rectified. Think of the Church standing still, though glowing with the enthusiasm of love, until judgment be satisfied! Why not treat the offence as a trifling one? Why not pass it over without notice? Because the Church is called unto holiness, and sin must ever bring down the anger and judgment of God. From the conduct of these people we see--
I. The vital difference between the spirit and the fashion of Christianity. We might say between a principle and a mere rule. Ananias tried to be a Christian from the outside. He put the hands of the clock to the right time, but left the mainspring broken and the pendulum still
1. We may imitate Christ, and yet not know Him after the spirit.
2. We may mingle with Christians, and yet know nothing of the spiritual power of Christianity. The incident says, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”
II. The fatal temptation to give the part as the whole. Observe not the part instead of the whole: not to give the part distinctly and avowedly as the part; but to give it as if it were really all. This is illustrated--
1. In speaking half-heartedly as if sincerely.
2. In giving a small contribution as if it exhausted our resources. “I cannot afford more,” is the chief lie of the Church.
3. In concealing our convictions by using words with various meanings.
4. In having outward associations which do not express the whole tendency and trust of the heart.
5. In modifying vows according to changes in circumstances--young man dedicating himself to the ministry: young tradesman vowing to consecrate his property: young Christian vowing to offer a solemn testimony for Christ.
III. The concealed sin as well as the public iniquity will be followed by the judgment of God. “Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.” “How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord?”
1. There is vet to be a reading of hearts.
2. Not only what we have done, but what we have left undone is to be judged.
3. Sins which apparently do no harm to society are to be punished. The voice of the judgment is, “The wages of sin is death.”
1. The Church is to be holy.
2. Though hand join in hand the wicked shall not go unpunished.
3. Discipline is of greater consequence than numbers.
4. The Christian power which heals one man destroys another. Contrast the cripple with Ananias. (J. Parker, D. D.)
Ananias and Sapphira
The apostolic Church had been welded into a remarkable unity of experience and purpose. All hours and places seemed filled with the presence of God. Men had forgotten their selfishness, and lived for each other and their Lord. Pentecost and millennium were apparently but a little way and a short time apart; and then suddenly, like lightning from a clear sky, came the crime of Ananias and Sapphira. The Church was the Church militant, and not triumphant, after all. The Judas among the apostles had, and was to continue to have, his descendants. The Church in the world was to be crippled and compromised by the world in the Church. The transaction was typical and the narrative suggestive. Notice, then--
I. The character of the sin. It was not simple falsehood. Misrepresentation, deceit, lying, in the ordinary affairs of life, are evils of incalculable magnitude; but this sin was the attempt to deceive and defraud God. In the fervour of their new-born faith and experience, men were parting with their property, and consecrating the price of it to Christ and His Church. Ananias and Sapphira had seen enough of the new religion to wish to be numbered among its followers; so they plotted to buy discipleship at a cheaper rate than their neighbours. In this they thought that they were measuring their business capacity against the business ignorance of Peter; in fact, they were trying to deceive the eyes that look through eternity. Many a man since has ventured upon the same experiment, In every community there are some who are convinced of the worth of religion, and outwardly unite with the Church. Neither their conduct nor their neglect is such as to subject them to discipline; and yet they are far from having made a complete surrender of themselves to God. Their religious life is a compromise. The bulk of their time and energy is devoted to self and the world; the dust and sweepings are offered to God. Fingers that glisten with diamonds drop dimes into the contribution-box. Luxuries are cheerfully paid for; but poverty and prudence are urged as excuses for mere pittances towards the cause of God. Ananias in broadcloth and Sapphira in silk Sit in the churches every sabbath, trying to cheapen the bargain with God, and cheating as well, by offering less than complete surrender.
II. The origin of the sin. In general it was due to an evil heart, but its specific root was the love of money.
1. Ananias and Sapphira, while they were not averse to the reputation of having made great sacrifices for the gospel, could not give up the pleasure of feeling that they had property; and so, as avaricious people, they “kept back part of the price.”
2. Perhaps they desired to have the means of purchasing more luxuries than were enjoyed by those who “had all things in common”; and so, as selfish people, they “kept back part of the price.”
3. Not impossibly, they were uncertain as to the permanence of this new faith, whose collapse would leave them without means of support; and so, as prudent people, they “kept back part of the price.” In our day, when men are called to choose between piety and property, there are many who prevaricate, and end with a compromise. The great aggressive enterprises of the Church are crippled for lack of financial support, and yet a very considerable portion of the wealth of Christian lands is in the hands of professed disciples. They are prodigal in their prayers and hymns and exhortations, but close-handed with their money. Like the tree in the ancient legend, which uttered a moan and bled whenever a twig was broken off, they writhe when forced to give for the glory of God and the salvation of men. The old poison of avarice is still in the veins of the Church; and Christ is dishonoured, and thousands perish, because so many, who call themselves His followers, “keep back part of the price.”
III. The discovery of the sin. It seemed unlikely that the transaction would be made public. The land was probably sold to some one outside the company. Ananias and Sapphira would not circulate the story of what they had done. But there was an uncalculated factor in the equation. It affected the kingdom of God, as well as the real estate market. It was fair dealing as between man and man; as between man and God it was fraud, and so it was sure to be discovered. It is a truth which men are slow to learn, that there is a Divine detective system in the universe. It is easy to deceive the world. Men may consider us generous, when in reality we are pinched in our charities; they may call us self-sacrificing, when in fact self-pleasing is the sovereign motive of our lives; they may esteem us devout, when we are cold and formal: but what is our trickery worth, so long as there is One that knows us altogether? Dionysius constructed a prison, so that he could hear all that was said by the prisoners, and so made them self-accusers in the day of their trial. To God this world is one vast whispering-gallery, and every sin which men commit reports itself to Him. What a wonderful day that will be when the secrets of all hearts are made known! Men ought always to live as in the light of the Great White Throne.
IV. The punishment of the sin.
1. It was startling and severe. One moment Ananias and Sapphira stood before the apostle in the flush of life and health, with the lie upon their lips; She next they were in eternity, beginning the experience of its unchanging awards. The penalty might be judged extreme for a single sin: but
2. It was anticipative and representative. The judgment continues to be executed. Men now who attempt to defraud God are not beaten down as with a lightning-stroke; but, all the same, they die spiritually. (Monday Club Sermons.)
Deception exposed and punished
I. Impious deception.
1. The possession devoted. “Ananias with Sapphira his wife sold a possession” (Acts 4:34; Acts 5:1; Leviticus 27:28; Ecclesiastes 5:4).
2. The part kept back (Malachi 3:8; Joshua 7:11; John 12:6; 1 Timothy 6:10).
3. Counterfeit benevolence. Lessons:
II. Immediate detection.
1. The source of the sin (Acts 5:3; John 13:27; Ephesians 4:27; James 4:7).
2. The inexcusableness of the sin (Acts 5:4; Leviticus 1:3; Exodus 25:2; 2 Corinthians 9:7).
3. The nature of the sin. Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God (Psalms 51:4; Genesis 39:9; Luke 15:21). Lessons:
III. Instant death.
3. The great fear (Psalms 111:10; Matthew 10:28; Philippians 2:12). Lessons:
Ananias and Sapphira
I. The sin. It was of no common magnitude. If we consider the circumstances we shall find--
1. That this falsehood was an imposition on the society with which Ananias was himself connected.
2. That it was designed to defraud the apostles and the whole Church.
3. That he could plead no appearance of external temptation.
4. That his purpose was veiled under the pretence of religious principles.
5. That his sin was deliberately and presumptuously directed against tim Holy Spirit of God.
II. The punishment.
1. It was death.
2. It was inflicted without warning.
3. It immediately followed the presumptuous transgression.
4. It produced great fear upon all the Church, and upon as many as heard of it.
1. That men may enjoy high advantages, may make a fair profession of religion, and may obtain admission to its most sacred external privileges, and yet may remain slaves to vicious dispositions, and strangers to the fear of God. Other examples we have in Cain, Esau, and Judas.
2. That men may travel far in the journey of lifE before they meet with those peculiar circumstances which are fitted to discover and display their true characters. So it was with Balaam, Hazael, and Judas.
3. How corrupting, enslaving, debasing is the spirit of avarice (Proverbs 21:26; 1 Timothy 6:9-10).
4. The encroaching nature of sinful principles and dispositions. Covetousness led to deliberate, aggravated falsehood and fraud, and to impiety so presumptuous as to provoke the immediate judgment of God. One transgression of the Divine law renders others in some degree necessary, and at the same time renders the mind blind to the sad consequences that must result from them.
5. The odious nature and pernicious tendency of the vices of lying, fraud, and hypocrisy (Proverbs 6:16; Proverbs 6:19; Habakkuk 2:9; Jeremiah 22:13; Malachi 1:14).
Conclusion: The fearful punishment of these two false disciples leads to the consideration of--
1. The omniscience of God. No human eye saw Cain murder his brother. Gehazi flattered himself that he was perfectly secure from detection. Ananias and Sapphira had no doubt prepared their plan with all possible secrecy; but they all forgot that “all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.”
2. How tremendous is the power of God over His creatures! He can bestow life, and He can withdraw it at His pleasure (Deuteronomy 32:39). (H. Thomson, D. D.)
Ananias and Sapphira
The sin and punishment of this pair of hypocrites present the first trace of a shade on the bright form of the young Church. As in Eden the enemy could not assert his evil sway in his proper form, so in his efforts in the Church he assumed a guise suited to effect his purpose--the guise of goodness. K foe within is more to be dreaded than a foe without. But no sooner did evil reveal itself within the Christian circle than the Spirit detected and judged it. The word “but” put the conduct of Ananias and his wife in sharp contrast with that of Barnabas. Matthew Henry calls it the “melancholy but.” We pass suddenly from the warm sunshine of the “son of consolation” to the gloom of hypocrisy and fraud. Evil is often a close neighbour to good. “The sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them.” How near to each other are chaff and wheat! but the chaff is not wheat, and is finally separated from it. Teaching by opposites is an impressive method of instruction.
I. The sin of Ananias and Sapphira. “Lying unto the Holy Ghost.” In verses 3 and 4 the personality and deity of the Spirit are asserted in an incidental way. Peter varies the charge of lying to the Spirit in the third verse to lying to God in the fourth. It is noteworthy that a similar exchange of expression occurs in Psalms 78:36 --“lied unto Him,” and verse 41, “tempted God.” Numbers 14:1-45. clearly show that the righteous judgment which Israel’s “lying” to God and “tempting” Him provoked was quite analogous to this of Ananias and Sapphira. Their case was aggravated far beyond that of Simon Magus or of Elymas. It resembles more closely that of Nadab and Abihu, of Achan and of Gehazi (Leviticus 10:1-20.; Joshua 7:1-26.; 2 Kings 5:20-27), but was more criminal, because committed against greater light and intensified by a more preferred hypocrisy. Let us note some of its aggravations.
1. Their act was gratuitous.
2. It was marked by covetousness.
3. Unbelief also entered into their guilt.
4. The sin was preconcerted. They “agreed together” to deceive the Church and the Spirit in the Church. The plan was concocted deliberately and dispassionately.
5. The devil’s agency in the sin. The question “why” implies that resistance to Satan’s influence had been possible. Ananias is addressed, not as a helpless creature whom the enemy had made his tool, but as one who had made him his partner and abettor. “Filled thine heart” means something more than to suggest or to encourage; it means affections engrossed and will dominated.
II. Their punishment. It was instantaneous. As their sin challenged both the omniscience and justice of God, He at once vindicated the holiness and majesty of His character. But why were these persons so swiftly and severely judged? Have not men lied to God since? Let these points be noted--
1. The sin of Ananias and Sapphira was peculiarly heinous and odious.
2. At their death “great fear came upon all.” To produce this was doubtless one of the objects intended. It was important also as a permanent testimony against similar offences in every age of the Church.
3. This judgment connects with God’s dispensational ways. At the opening of an economy a standard is established designed to characterise the entire period. At the beginning any gross departure is immediately punished. The first sabbath-breaker, the trespass of Nadab and Abihu at the first founding of the priesthood, and that of Achan at the first entrance into Canaan, were punished with death. Such inflictions are at the start the exhibition of God’s thoughts as to what the economy should be. Nothing false, hypocritical, or presumptuous is to be tolerated in it.
III. The lessons.
1. The Divine abhorrence of prevarication. If falsehood kindle among men the deepest resentment, what must be God’s feelings toward the hypocrite?
2. The certainty of the exposure of hypocrisy. All that is required is some pressure. “Be sure your sin will find you out”
3. Religious enthusiasm without grace is dangerous. People run fearful risks when they profess more than their spiritual strength can carry. In times of great religious excitement men pledge themselves to what they cannot fulfil. Or remarkable experiences are claimed; then trials are encountered, and failure succeeds. Pride forbids the acknowledgment of failure; professions are as loud as ever. And for all this there is no basis in fact--it is a mere mask to hide the true state of the heart. How much safer and nobler is the honest confession of a breakdown than such loud and hollow protestations! (W. G. Moorehead, D. D.)
Ananias and Sapphira--the enormity of religious pretension
I. The sin generating-power of avarice. “The love of money is the root of all evil.”
II. An undue attention to public sentiment. Ananias and Sapphira, without any heart sympathy with the community of goods, professed to adopt it because it was popular. They wished to appear as good as others, and did outwardly that for which they had no real respect.
III. A spiritual connection with the evil one. “He is a liar and the father of it.”
IV. Religious contributions regarded as crime (verse 4). There was no necessity for them to give it. God does not want our property except as it expresses our loving loyalty. Better far to hold money as a miser than to give it if the heart does not go with it. Gifts to pacify conscience or for display, or to get it back with interest, is an insult to Omniscience. Great contributions may be great sins.
V. A deliberate attmept to impose upon God and His Church (verse 9).
VI. A solemn display of Divine displeasure. Conclusion:
1. Social benevolence is the law of Christianity.
2. The tendency to depravity is to counterfeit goodness.
3. Satan’s influence is no palliation of man’s crime.
4. Hypocrisy must one day be unmasked and punished. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The sin and the doom of Ananias and Sapphira
I. A particular state of things occasioned by peculiar and temporary circumstances. Many who were strangers in Jerusalem would wish to remain; many would be detained longer than they anticipated; there might be serious consequences to some of them in relation to the synagogue, and they might be in danger of the confiscation of their goods; and perhaps there was an impression that the time was nigh when Christ would come, and when all property would cease. But, along with that, there was the gush of new feeling filling their hearts under the influence of their new faith. And so they clung to one another as really “members one of another”; and they showed it in this way. But--
1. It was never laid down by the apostles as a principle of the Church. This is distinctly stated by Peter. It was necessary, however, for money to be got. The most spiritual society and plans cannot go on without money. Here were many who at this time, and as public men, could not be doing anything, and many who were likely to be drawn into difficulty through their new faith; and the easiest and simplest way, to men who were not political economists, was just to throw the money into a common fund, and to live upon that as long as they could. But it is evident from the Epistles that it never was taught as a part of Christianity, for they recognise differences of rank and circumstance, and they do not call upon the rich to throw everything into a common fund. They prescribe appropriate duties to rich and poor, but they do not say that these distinctions are to be done away. Christianity is not so absurd a thing. If it were a matter of positive obligation upon a Christian to part with private property because wrong in itself, terrible consequences would follow. If it is wrong in me to have house or land, it is wrong for me to sell it to anybody else. True, indeed, you may come in with the idea that it is wrong for a Christian to have these things, and that a Christian (or a church) is to sell house and land. But are you going to doom a part of the earth to be eternally “the world”--unbelievers, to whom you will sell these things? Let us remember that the gospel is intended to be universal, and that you are not to lay down as a positive duty of the Church anything which all men cannot do. And all men cannot do this. As long as the earth lasts, there will be the land and fields and houses and private possessions; and if Christianity is to be a thing filling the earth, depend upon it, it never can do that if all people are to part with their possessions. Why, if Christianity is to be universal, the time will come when there will be nobody to buy. I do not think, therefore, that this is laid down as an obligation, or intended to be permanent, or that it involves in it a fixed principle that can become universal
2. It should, however, be remembered that a strong religious faith will bring Divine and eternal things very close to a man; and under its deep influence he will learn to hold cheaply the possessions of time, feeling that he knows not at what hour the Son of Man may come, when he must pass away from these things if they do not pass away from him.
3. Christians are to feel that they are members one of another, and that if one member suffers others must sympathise. But then the principle should be carried out fully; all men should remember that they are called upon to do this. And in this way the operation and influence of institutions and laws and habits are to be looked at and regarded, and everything which will operate with any crushing power upon a part of society; and the principle of pure humanity and Christian feeling should lead men to take out of the way what will injure a brother, and to impart of their substance and their sympathy for the promotion of universal happiness and tranquillity and comfort.
4. There are extraordinary times and circumstances when very extraordinary things may be required. There may be times when a peculiar and extraordinary call shall be made upon the liberality of the Church. And men in the Church may feel themselves called to a peculiar vocation; they may feel that God is urging them by His providence to the fulfilment of a mission for which they must free themselves from any entanglement. Barnabas had land, and he sold it, and he stood from that time forth a poor man, resting upon the Church; but then he was free to go anywhere--and he did go, fulfilling a mission to mankind. But you cannot make that universal with respect to all men.
II. This state of things became a snare to Ananias and Sapphira, and led them into sin. I daresay a public opinion sprung up among Christians, and perhaps they might look rather coldly upon those that did not do what others were doing. I daresay there was some kind of distinction thrown about those who were conspicuous for sympathy of this sort. And it made Ananias and his wife wish for the distinction without being willing to pay the price for it. And so they agreed to sell their property, and to lay down a part of the price, pretending it was the whole, and then to stand there as if they had stripped themselves, and to be claimants upon the common fund. This sin had some tremendous aggravations. Note--
1. The hypocrisy of the whole procedure. They were pretending, of course, to be moved by a Divine influence; to bring forth the fruit of the Spirit; pretending to give a sacred thing, “Corban,” given up for the service of God and of His people--and yet they were not doing it. And it was to get an odour of sanctity.
2. The deliberateness of it. It was not a thing done upon sudden temptation. They had their object; they formed their plan; they determined upon it, and went about its execution. When they met again, could they pray? Oh! what an extinction there must be of everything like personal and conjugal piety when they rose up to do this thing! Ah! when men agree together to do a great sin, all religious exercises, religious intercourse are gone.
3. The public lie to the apostles in the presence of such of the Church as might be standing round, to the apostles as the ministers of God, to God Himself in the apostles by His Holy Spirit. There was the determination thus to tell this lie, and there was the performance of it up to the last point.
4. The dishonesty that would be involved in the after conduct of this man, in his taking (as he would) his share from the common fund, as if he had given up all, and yet he had secreted this something upon which he could fall back. The man had no faith; he could not trust God, nor the Church, nor the apostles of God; and yet he pretended to do it.
5. The source of the sin, which was his giving way to the suggestions of the devil. “Why hath Satan filled thine heart?” And there was the consummation of Satanic suggestion--his presenting the fruit of it to the Church as if it was the result and work of the Spirit of God; for he stood there, not as doing a common act, but as doing a thing which was pre-eminently the fruit of the Spirit, and yet it was the fruit and the suggestion of the devil--as he might have known.
III. The punishment.
1. It was extreme and instantaneous. It was not a moderate act of discipline; the extreme penalty was inflicted in a moment. He was not put away--afforded time for confession and prayer, repentance and return, but he was struck dead as with lightning from heaven. A terrible thing this must have been. Only think of the members of the Church gathered about the apostles, and Ananias coming in with this money in his hand. Perhaps it might have been a considerable sum. Think of the feeling with which he was looked at by the poor and afflicted members of the Church; how they were gazing upon him, and thinking what an act of munificence it was, what a trophy to Divine grace, what a glorious manifestation of the power of faith and of religion and of God upon this man’s heart; and in a moment Peter strips him, and God strikes him dead.
2. Observe that Peter merely charges him with the sin, accuses him, puts it to his conscience, and the-man trembles and falls. Peter did not inflict the punishment; Peter had no more power to strike him dead than I have to strike any of you dead. The apostles were not so put in possession of omnipotence. In every instance where omnipotence was put forth, it was not man that wielded it; it was God. The volition of the Divine Mind went through the man, and that did it. It was not the man Peter--aye, and it was not the priest Peter (as some would be disposed to think). We will leave to other priests the pretension to this power; we will leave to the Pope the pretension that he makes to employ the secular sword because Peter did it. We say it was not Peter that did it; it was God employing Peter. Let us see it so done again; and if the Pope with a glance of his eye can strike a man dead, let him do it if he likes; but no priest, no pope is to claim secular power if all that they can do is to fulminate their curses or to put us into gaol. When Sapphira comes, Peter goes further, and he tells her that she shall die, which he had not told her husband. I think the difference results from this--that Peter himself had had a revelation made to him.
3. There is every reason to fear that this outward visible punishment was but the prelude of utter separation from God--the condemnation of both. We can hardly suppose that there was an act of forgiveness at the very same moment with this act of indignation, and that while these persons were sinking down dead under the expression of the Divine anger their souls were in that state that they could be received to the Divine bosom--“meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.”
4. Things like these should make us very careful how we push short, general statements too far and erect too much upon a particular statement. It is said, “The multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul.” Ananias and Sapphira were a part of that multitude. Was this the “one heart and one soul” that was diffused through them all? God forbid. It is said, “The Lord added to the Church daily such as should be saved.” He added these; is this a specimen? They were either converted, or they were not. If they were really converted, and added to the Church, this is the issue; a dreadful fall. Or they were not converted, and yet added by an outward profession; and then they were not in that state in which they could be ultimately saved. Let us not build too much upon a single expression. They might as a whole be “of one heart and of one soul,” but there might be many exceptions; the mass of those that were “added to the Church” might be truly converted, but there might be exceptions.
5. The intention of such a punishment as this.
1. While extraordinary proceedings in the ancient Church cannot be literally precedents to us, there may be a principle in them worth following. The conduct of the Church is not a precedent to us with respect to property, but yet there is a principle in it, showing how Christians ought to feel with respect to being members one of another. So with respect to the conduct of the apostle, and the manner in which God interfered through him; that cannot be literally imitated, but that is no reason why there should not be discipline and an anxiety to preserve the fellowship of the faithful such as a Christian fellowship ought to be.
2. The seriousness that there is about a religious profession. I suppose none of you would like to be denied the name of Christian. Now I do not ask you what you are giving or professing to give to God, but I wish you to ask yourselves what you are keeping back. Some of you give your bodily attendance--your ear, eye, attention. Where is your heart? Are you keeping that back? and will this be acceptable? Some of you are giving your intellect; are you keeping back your affections? Some of you are professing publicly, like Ananias and Sapphira, to give up all by the manner in which you are associated with the Christian Church. What are you keeping back? Those of you “that are rich in this world”--what are you keeping back of that which the Church needs? In a world like this, in the movements of the Church, this great missionary institution (and that is the proper idea of the Church, moving onward until it embrace the world), money must be had. God must have your money. How much are you keeping back? What driblets are the donations connected with religious societies compared to what some of them might be! And God has His eye upon that which is kept back as well as that which is given. Ah! there are some rich men in the Church who might dread indeed if Jesus Christ were to say, “I will come unto you”; if He were to come with the purpose of going over all their documents, and looking at all their books, and examining all their accounts, and seeing the actual state of their affairs, and marking and pointing out how accumulation was going on after accumulation, and if He were to look them in the face, and say, “Well, now, after all this, what is it you do for Me? I give you all this; it is all Mine; by a waive of My hand I could deprive you of it to-morrow--every bit of it; and I entrust it to you; you are My steward; do you keep anything back?”
3. Even the honours, distinctions, reputation, that may be to be possessed or acquired in God’s Church are things that are to be jealously watched lest they become temptations to sin.
4. The perfect confidence that Peter must have had in his own honesty when he acted in this way. If he did not thoroughly believe the resurrection, then he was a “false witness for God,” and the apostle, standing up and accusing these persons of lying to the Holy Ghost, would himself be the great incarnation of a far worse lie. I think that impossible.
5. The devil cannot fill your heart and lead you into sin unless you let him. (T. Binney.)
1. The case of Barnabas and that of Ananias sprang from the same movement and illustrate the same principles, yet they are reciprocally opposites. It is as necessary to moor a buoy over a rock or sand-bank as to show a light in a line with the safe entrance to the harbour. Barnabas is a light at the pier head; Ananias buoys a rock where many have perished, and warns the mariner from the place of doom. Both examples are useful. We may reap profit alike from the truth of the true and from the lie of the false. When our Lord taught His disciples how to pray, He placed near the humble suppliant of mercy a solemn hypocrite. When He taught the blessedness of pressing in while the door was open, He taught also how dreadful it is to be, even by a little, too late. This dual method is adopted everywhere in Scripture to enforce moral lessons. In morals as well as in physics you exert greater power when you apply an attraction on one side and a pressure on the other.
2. “But a certain man.” The little word “but” is the hinge on which great issues turn, e.g., “The righteous is cast away in his iniquity, but the righteous hath trope in his death.” The door that swings on this sharp pivot opens and shuts the way of life. Sometimes, as here, it turns from light to darkness, and sometimes from darkness to light.
3. The deep, sad cause of the conduct before us was the stirring of the religious emotions without a corresponding quickening of the moral sense. There may be much devotion of a certain kind where honesty, truth, or purity is feebly rooted and liable to die out. It is often said in certain quarters that a non-professor is more trustworthy than a professor, the common fallacy of magnifying a few glaring examples into a general law. If those who count that all piety is a mask worn to gain an end would only think, they would find that their theory destroys itself. Because honest men seem to be religious people trust them. But if it were the common rule that religious men were dishonest, they would cease to obtain credit; it would not pay a villain to assume religion, and when it ceased to pay he would cease to assume it. So the argument goes to prove that pious men, as a rule, are honest; and yet there is truth in the calumny, and because of this it lives. Apart from conscious scoundrels there are those who, although moved in a period of religious fervour, have not acquired a proper sense of the binding character of the Ten Commandments. The Anti-nomian is not a dried fossil in tomes of polemical theology; he is a living species. But true believers need not faint. Tares grow up with the wheat, but the wheat prevails even here, and at the end the separation will be complete and eternal. (W. Arnot, D. D.)
Ananias and Sapphira--Lessons of the narrative
I. It is vain to expect that in this world the Church will ever be perfectly pure. I mean not only that imperfections will always adhere to the members of the Church because “there is not a just man upon earth that doth good and sinneth not,” but farther, that hypocrites will be found intermixed with the saints. The wheat and the chaff lie together on the barn floor. No precautions, however strict, can prevent their admission; no discipline, however vigorous, no doctrine, however faithful, will be able to expel them.
II. We ought to guard against the predominance of any sinful passion, whether it be avarice, ambition, sensuality, envy, pride, or any other lust of the flesh or of the spirit. As “one sinner destroys much good,” so one sin reigning in the heart counteracts the efficacy of the best means, and may carry us to a very great length in depravity. If the restraints of providence be removed, and a strong temptation be presented in favourable circumstances, it will precipitate us into such excesses as shall dishonour us in the eyes of men, and provoke God to pour out upon us the fury of His wrath.
III. Impenitent sinners are always in danger of perishing by the vengeance of heaven. Judgment, indeed, is God’s “strange work,” but it is a work which a regard to His glory sometimes calls upon Him to perform. And when one victim falls, it is impossible to tell who shall be the next. A sentence of death is passed upon all unbelievers, the execution of which is delayed only by the long-suffering and patience of God. Let not men presume upon His patience, for, although Divine, it has its limits, beyond which it will not extend (Isaiah 33:14).
IV. Let us, above all things, study to be sincere in religion. What will hypocrisy avail? Can our artifice impose upon God? (Hebrews 4:13). In vain did Ananias and Sapphira secretly concert their plan and assume the confidence of conscious integrity to quash any,suspicion of their baseness. A good name, the esteem and friendly offices of Christians, and even worldly advantages, may be the recompense of dissimulation in this world, but what awaits it in the next? (Job 27:8). (J. Dick, A. M.)
The first sin
There is an old saying, “The corruption of the best is worst.” The better a thing is, the worse is its spoiling. The greater the elevation, the greater the fall. And this is true both of profession and of reality. When a man who has talked loudly is at length unmasked as an impostor, his exposure is more terrible than if he had never affected great virtue. And when a man who has felt the truth and power of religion is overtaken by the enemy, it is sometimes found that he gives himself over more entirely to the grasp of evil than one who had never known what it was to serve another master. We look upon this scene almost as we look upon man’s original fall; we seem to be reading of a paradise regained, when we are suddenly shocked and startled by the narrative of a paradise for the second time forfeited. Observe from the narrative--
I. That there is such a thing as acting a falsehood.
1. Ananias did not expressly say that the sum was the whole price. It was his wife who told an express falsehood. Ananias only gave it to be understood. We have to do with a God of truth, and where truth is not, there in His sight is falsehood. We often think that, if we can avoid saying the exact opposite of the truth, it is enough. Learn, then, that wherever deception is, there is falsehood. And how many of our words are “an attempt to steer dexterously between the truth and a lie”!
2. But, even beyond this, there may be an acted falsehood. Ananias, witnessing the honest self-devotion of others. He, too, will seem to have counted all things but loss for Christ. Just as Barnabas brought the profits of his sale of land, so does Ananias bring his. Every one gives him credit, and he intends that they should do so, for a devotion which thinks only of things above, and a self-forgetfulness which cannot enjoy so long as others suffer. No word, it may be, is spoken, but the act itself says all this, and the doer intends that all this should be understood. Alas! how much of the conduct of many of us is indeed no better than an acted lie! How much is done to throw dust into the eyes of others as to our real motive, our real self! Even apart from the positive purpose of deceiving, how impossible it is to give others a true and just idea of us as we are! How does confession itself turn upon our lips into self-parade and boasting! It is so, perhaps, in mercy to others. We might draw others downwards if they saw how low are our own attainments; we might tempt them to acquiesce in imperfections against which God would have them struggle on in hope. God save us all from the falsehood of the tongue, and from the falsehood of the life, from the lie acted as well as from the lie spoken!
II. What an illustration have we here of the “love of money is the root of all evil, which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” What made Ananias and Sapphira lie to the Holy Ghost? Was the lust of money the wish to save something out of the surrender of their all to Christ? Thus it was that they lost both worlds, even by trying to gain both! What is it but the love of money which creates some of the most characteristic evils of society? I speak not now of that honourable industry in the business of a lawful calling, which is as much the duty as it ever can be the interest of a Christian. I speak of those precarious, adventurous, idle methods of gaining, upon which God’s blessing cannot be asked, and upon which God’s curse almost visibly rests. I speak of wants created by an expenditure habitually exceeding income, and supplied by the exorbitant profits of a single week in the year. I speak of examples set to the young of unlawful ventures, by which many a life has been drawn astray from the beginning, and many a hopeful career cut short by crime and infamy. I speak of a love of gain, which has made sons indifferent to a father’s command and a mother’s happiness, reckless in destroying the inheritance of sisters, and at last regardless even of a country’s laws and the terrors of a wrath to come. Earnestly and affectionately would I warn the young of the fearful risks run by the first step into the region of chance.
III. What a responsibility is involved in being brought near to God as members of His Church! Well may this be recorded as the consequence of the fate of Ananias, that great fear came upon all the Church, and upon as many as heard these things. Yes, there is a reality in our connection with Christ which must tell upon us for good or for evil. These means of grace, these opportunities of worship, have a meaning, whether we will or no, and we ourselves are fearfully and wonderfully concerned in it. We must spend our lives, think our thoughts, speak our words, and do our acts, in the sight and hearing of God.
IV. How to cast out the fear of one another by the stronger and more impressive fear of God. Ananias and Sapphira committed this great sin in the hope of purchasing to themselves the good opinion of the Christian congregation to which they belonged. And they would have succeeded in this endeavour but for one consideration which they left out of sight. They would have succeeded in winning the esteem of man if they could only have kept God silent. And we also are daily tempted to live for the honour which comes to us from one another, and not for that honour which is of God only. When shall we give up this fatal habit of asking at each turn, What does the world say? what does the world do?--my world, I mean--the world of my family, my friends, my neighbourhood, and inquire rather, Is this right? Does Christ approve? Let me look up to Christ for direction. Let the whisper of His Spirit be my voice of admonition. And let me in all things thank the Lord for giving me warning. (Dean Vaughan.)
The first tare among the wheat
I. How the wicked one sows it.
II. How the Lord of the field plucks it out. (K. Gerok.)
Hypocrites appear after revivals
After a refreshing shower which has made all the flowers to smile till the teardrops of joy stand in their eyes, you will see your garden-paths spotted over with slugs and snails. These creatures lay concealed till the genial rain called them forth to make their slimy way towards, whatsoever they might devour. After this fashion revivals, of necessity, develop hypocrites; yet who would deplore the shower because of the snails, and who would rail at “times of refreshing” because mere pretenders are excited to make a base profession of a grace to which they are strangers? (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The Divine judgment on duplicity
The Church may defy the malice of her foes, but cannot afford to pass over faithlessness of professed friends. The Jews are borne with; hypocritical pretenders are visited with Divine vengeance. The sin here consisted in false pretence and misrepresentation.
I. The Church is not a pure, unmixed society of perfected believers. Members of the Apostolic Church fell into gross sin. Perfection is not to be looked for in the nursery or school. The Church is a training-ground of the immature, and yet men unreasonably expect perfection.
II. There is no absolute safety in the Church. There is danger necessarily involved in the weakness of all undeveloped life. The Church is not shielded from temptation. Wilfulness may lead to shipwreck of faith. New conditions of life involve new dangers. “Let him that thinketh he standeth,” etc.
III. Moral dangers may be increased by those who are nearest to us in the relationships of life. A man and his wife joined together in this sin. The perversion of family and social life to the degradation of spirits is not enough considered. If a husband induce his wife or a master his servant to violate conscience, neither need be surprised at reaping bitter fruit.
IV. Wilful sin persisted in by members of the Church involves them in dire and awful calamities. “Whose fan is in His hand.” (W. H. Davison.)
Ananias and Sapphira
Eden hardly puts forth its flowers before sin enters to cast a blight over everything. The Church is hardly founded before punishment falls on two of its members for their crimes. The fate of Ananias and Sapphira may seem hard. Their sin was not so heinous as some others that went unpunished.
I. Some considerations which serve to mitigate the seeming severity of the punishment.
1. The Church was in its infancy. Influences brought to bear upon it at that time were more effective than later on, when its character was more fixed. A sin was more consequential then. To have permitted Ananias and Sapphira to do wrong with impunity would have soon resulted in the corruption of the whole Church. An example must be made to deter others from repeating the sin.
2. The complete character of the sin is undescribed. Peter twice refers to it as a sin against the Holy Sprat (verses 3 and 9). This would suggest that the main element of the sin lay not in the external act, but in the condition of heart back of it. Sins are like icebergs--the larger part of them is unseen. We must not estimate the sinfulness of Ananias’ sin by its external impression upon us.
3. The Apostle Peter, in his relations with these unfortunate people, was under the immediate direction of the Holy Spirit. There was nothing of spitefulness or malice in Peter’s conduct. The will he obeyed was the will of another: The outcome was therefore due wholly to the immediate interposition of God.
4. All life is God’s, who gave it, and who may take it back to Himself whenever and in whatever manner He pleases without doing any injustice to any rights of the creature. That He took the lives of Ananias and Sapphira would have involved no injustice even if they had not sinned.
5. The loss of two lives was a means of saving many more. Others were deterred from sin.
II. The sin itself.
1. The action which turned out to be so wrong originated in a praiseworthy motive. To give up one’s property in part or in whole for the helping of the other Christians was a noble sacrifice. The act was praiseworthy.
2. We are led to suspect, however, that their whole hearts were not set on this disinterested view of the matter. They felt the force of others’ example. The approbation of the Church which followed such gifts was worth securing. There was a considerable enthusiasm aroused in their hearts. They could anticipate the happiness of hearing others praise their noble giving. But their hearts were not truly in the gift. The act conveyed the idea of a higher type of feeling than they really had.
3. The difference of extent between his good feeling and the larger deed was at once filled up by another feeling, a bad feeling. How often in producing good actions are two quantities of diverse kinds thus at work!
4. In the heart of Ananias selfishness grew until it predominated, and correspondingly unselfishness diminished until it was outweighed. The formal act of benevolence of Ananias was a good act, but it was made bad by the preponderance of vanity among the feelings which led to it. He wanted to seem more generous than he truly was. There was more of vanity than benevolence in his gift. He sinned really, therefore, in doing what was formally good.
5. For his act was a falsehood. The two persons were not brought to death for telling a falsehood so much as for acting a falsehood. They pretended to be giving a whole estate when they were giving but a part of it.
6. Their act was purely voluntary. True, Peter recognises the agency of Satan in the matter (verse 3), but this is to be recognised in every sin. He is the tempter. He cannot compel us to sin; he can only suggest. Sin is null and void until of our own volition we affix our sign-manual to it.
7. Hence we are not surprised to find that Ananias and Sapphira were perfectly deliberate in their wrong-doing. Peter said to her, “How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord?” (verse 9). That word “agreed” points to a plan. This is not an instance of a man’s yielding to a furious onslaught of temptation when he has let himself be caught unprepared by it. Ananias and Sapphira show a fox-like shrewdness in their sinning. They planned it deliberately, and they carried out their plan. Their sin was not as light as it seems before we analyse it.
III. The bearings of their sin.
1. It immediately affected men. Ananias defrauded his fellows. By not doing as he declared he intended to do he was defrauding others of that which, to be sure, had once been his, but had now, by his own voluntary profession, passed out of his ownership. He virtually acted the part of a thief.
2. His sin was also against God. He lied to the Holy Ghost (verse 3); he tempted the Spirit of the Lord (verse 9). His soul was in a certain relation to God, and every sin of whatever character was a violation of that relation. We owe obedience to God. Duty is obligation heavenward. Sin, whatever it be in act, has its determining element in the heart. It is the heart’s rebellion against its obligation to do the will of God. It is an offence against the sovereign Lord.
3. The two are identified; sin against man is sin against God. Ananias lied to the apostles; they were acting under the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit. Whatever he did toward them he did toward the Spirit which was in them. A man who shoots a prince strikes at a kingdom. Whoever sins against a fellow-man aims a blow at God. Lying, stealing, adultery, murder, are sins against men, but at the same moment they are sins against God. God hides Himself, as it were, in humanity, so that what we do to men we do to God.
4. Ananias’ sin affected the Church. The importance of Ananias’ sin is raised to a higher power by the fact that it concerned the welfare of the Church of Christ. His punishment is interpreted by this special bearing of his sin. Sin is thus reduplicated. Every man has special functions and relations, and every sin committed against him passes on and has an unlimited reach in these relations. One man shoots another. He sins against that man. But he does more. He makes a wife a widow; he makes children fatherless; he bereaves parents, relatives, and friends; he removes a man from the community who has a special function in it; he offends against the whole commonwealth, against all humanity indeed. Oh, the awful reach of sin! No man liveth to himself, and no man sinneth to himself.
5. The sin returned upon Ananias and his wife, who connived with him, in terrible retribution. Its wages were paid to the last farthing. As these unfortunate people were carried out to burial how impressive the reply to the heart’s question, “Does sin pay?”
6. Yet this affliction was made to bear good fruit under the providence of God. The effect on the Church was salutary. There were no more Ananiases.
IV. The inferences from this study.
1. Man’s accountability for sin. Satan suggests it, but man accepts his suggestion and is responsible for the result.
2. The folly of sin. As we look at Ananias and his wife, with their silly vanity, they seem almost irrational. To sin is truly, according to the plain-spokenness of the Book of Proverbs, to be a fool. To escape it we must be made wise by God.
3. Sin reaches to God. “Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight,” says the most heart-searching confession of sin ever penned.
4. The consequences of sin are more than we can anticipate--more as they develop after we have planted them in the field of the world’s life, more as they come back to us in the harvest of retribution.
5. Lying is an especially bad sin. So bad is it, that among sins which specifically exclude from heaven lying is particularly named. God is truth Himself. We are made to be like Him. (D. J. Burrell, D. D.)
Ananias and Sapphira
The question may be asked, Was not this punishment of Ananias and Sapphira too severe? No time was given for repentance; no opportunity was offered for them to consider their transgression, and to cry unto God for pardon. We may find answer to this inquiry, I think, in the following suggestions:--
1. Their sin was an aggravated one. “Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God,” were Peter’s words to Ananias. The peculiar enormity of their sin consisted in its being committed against the Holy Ghost. They knew of the Pentecostal gift; and now they come with a definitely settled purpose to deceive the Spirit of God in the persons of God’s chosen ones, thinking Him to be such a one as themselves. Dr. Lightfoot supposes that Ananias was not an ordinary believer, but a minister, and one that had received the gift of the Holy Ghost with the hundred and twenty. Yet he dared thus by dissembling to belie and shame that gift.
2. It was a deliberate sin. It was not committed as the result of a sudden temptation; but these two had consulted together about it, and had entered into a mutual agreement to work this deception upon the apostles and the Church. It was cold-blooded in every respect. There was apparently no necessity laid upon them by outward circumstances. Ananias shows himself to have been by deliberate choice a hypocrite.
3. Sin must have become the settled purpose of their lives. God does not pronounce condemnation unto death for an initial sin or for a series of sins. It is only when the soul becomes saturated with sin, when there is no longer hope of the man’s bearing fruit unto righteousness, that God casts him off. It must have been a crisis in their inner lives marking the determination of their souls--a crisis not apparent to men, but open and plain to the eye of God.
4. The severity of this punishment may have been due in a measure to the conditions surrounding the Church at that early period. The Church was in its infancy. We may further learn from this lesson--
Ananias and Sapphira
I. The sins of Ananias and Sapphira. No sin stands alone.
1. There was love of praise.
2. There was covetousness, an inordinate love of money. They clung to their gold.
3. There was lying.
4. There was hypocrisy, the pretence of godliness where none existed.
II. The revelation of God’s character. Every Divine act is a revelation of God. What does this event show?
1. God’s omniscience. He saw the sin, though it was secret.
2. God’s impartiality. He deals with His followers no more leniently than with His enemies when they do wrong.
3. God’s justice.
4. God’s power.
III. The teachings concerning the Church.
1. Its high moral standard. The power of the Church is in its purity. The Church must be better than the world if it is to save the world.
2. Its human imperfection. Let us not expect all the people in the earthly Church to be perfect.
3. Its responsibility. The Church is held to a high account for its members, and must put away every branch which is known to be dead.
Ananias and Sapphira
A well-matched pair, alike in ambition and in falsehood, Ananias and Sapphira. There are thousands of ways of telling a lie. A man’s whole life may be a falsehood, and yet never with his lips may he falsify once. There is a falsehood by look, by manner, as well as by lip. There are persons who are guilty of dishonesty of speech, and then afterward say “may be,” call it a white lie, when no lie is that colour. The whitest lie ever told was as black as perdition. There are those so given to dishonesty of speech that they do not know when they are lying. With some it is an acquired sin, and with others it is a natural infirmity. There are those whom you will recognise as born liars. Misrepresentation and prevarication are as natural to them as the infantile diseases, and are a sort of moral croup or spiritual scarlatina. Then there are those who in after-life have opportunities of developing this evil, and they go from deception to deception, and from class to class, until they are regularly graduated liars.
I. First of all, i speak of aguricultural falsehoods. There is something in the presence of natural objects that has a tendency to make one pure. The trees never issue false stock. The wheat-fields are always honest. Rye and oats never move out in the night, not paying for the place they occupy. Corn shocks never make false assignments. Mountain brooks are always current. The gold of the wheat-fields is never counterfeit. But, while the tendency of agricultural life is to make one honest, honesty is not the characteristic of all who come to the city markets from the country districts. “You hear the creaking of the dishonest farm waggon in almost every street of our great cities, a farm waggon in which there is not one honest spoke or one truthful rivet from tongue to tailboard.” The tendency in all rural districts is to suppose that sins and transgressions cluster in our great cities; but citizens and merchants long ago learned that it is not safe to calculate from the character of the apples on the top of the farmer’s barrel what is the character of the apples all the way down toward the bottom. Milk-cans are not always honest. The producer sometimes practically says to the merchant, “You get your money easily, anyhow.” Does he get it easily? Let those who get their living in the quiet farm and barn take the place of one of our city merchants, and see whether it is so easy. It is hard enough to have the hands blistered with outdoor work, but it is harder with mental anxieties to have the brain consumed. God help the merchants! And do not let those who live in country life come to the conclusion that all the dishonesties belong to city life.
II. I pass on to consider commercial lies. There are those who apologise for deviation from the right and for practical deception by saying it is commercial custom. In other words, a lie by multiplication becomes a virtue. There are large fortunes gathered in which there is not one drop of the sweat of unrequited toil, and not one spark of bad temper flashes from the bronze bracket, and there is not one drop of needlewoman’s heart’s blood on the crimson plush; while there are other fortunes about which it may be said that on every door-knob, and on every figure of the carpet, and on every wall, there is the mark of dishonour. There are large fortunes upon which God’s favour comes down, and it is just as honest and just as Christian to be affluent as it is to be poor. In many a house there is a blessing on every pictured wall, and on every scroll, and on every traceried window, and the joy that flashes in the lights, and that showers in the music, and that dances in the quick feet of the children pattering through the hall has in it the favour of God and the approval of man. But you and I know that there are in commercial life those who are guilty of great dishonesties of speech. A merchant says, “I am selling these goods at less than cost.” Is he getting for these goods a price inferior to that which he paid for them? Then he has spoken the truth. Is he getting more? Then he lies. But there are just as many falsehoods before the counter as there are behind the counter. A customer comes in and asks, “How much is this article? “ “It is five dollars.” “I can get that for four somewhere else.” Can he get it for four somewhere else, or did he say that just for the purpose of getting it cheap by depreciating the value of the goods? If so, he lied. Who would take the responsibility of saying how many falsehoods were yesterday told by hardware men, and clothiers, and lumbermen, and tobacconists, and jewellers, and importers, and shippers, and dealers in furniture, and dealers in coal, and dealers in groceries?
III. I pass on to speak of mechanical falsehoods. Among the artisans are those upon whom we are dependent for the houses in which we live, the garments we wear, the cars in which we ride. The vast majority of them are, so far as I know them, men who speak the truth. I am speaking now of those who promise to do that which they know they will not be able to do. They say they will come on Monday; they do not come until Wednesday. They say they will have the job done in ten days; they do not get it done before thirty. So in all styles of work there are those who are not worthy of their work.
IV. I pass on to speak of social lies. How much of society is insincere! You hardly know what to believe. They send their regards; you do not exactly know whether it is an expression of the heart or an external civility. They ask you to come to their house; you hardly know whether they really want you to come. We are all accustomed to take a discount from what we hear. Social life is struck through with insincerity. They apologise for the fact that the furnace is out; they have not had any fire in it all the winter. They apologise for the fare on their table; they never live any better. They decry their most luxurious entertainment to win a shower of approval from you. On small incomes we want the world to believe we are affluent, and society to-day is struck through with cheat and counterfeit and sham. How few people are natural!
V. I pass on to speak of ecclesistical lies, those which are told for the advancement or retarding of a church or sect. It is hardly worth your while to ask an extreme Calvinist what an Arminian believes. He will tell you an Arminian believes that a man can save himself. An Arminian believes no such thing. It is hardly worth your while to ask an extreme Arminian what a Calvinist believes. He will tell you that a Calvinist believes that God made some men just to damn them. A Calvinist believes no such thing. Then how often is it that there are misrepresentations on the part of individual churches in regard to other churches, especially if a church comes to great prosperity.
VI. Let us in all departments of life stand back from deception. “Oh!” says some one, “the deception that I practise is so small it don’t amount to anything.” Ah! my friends, it does amount to a great deal. “Oh!” you say, “when I deceive, it is only about a case of needles, or a box of buttons, or a row of pins.” The article may be so small you can put it in your vest pocket; but the sin is as big as the Pyramids, and the echo of your dishonour will reverberate through the mountains of eternity. There is no such thing as a small sin. They are all vast and stupendous, because they will have to come under inspection in the day of judgment. My friends, let us make our life correspond to what we are. Let us banish all deception from our behaviour. Let us remember that the time comes when God will demonstrate before an assembled universe just what we are. The secret will come out. We may hide it while we live, but we cannot hide it when we die. (T. De Witt Talmage.)
Privileged with the gospel, but not improved by it
In a room glazed with yellow glass the photographer would get heat and light from the sunshine, but he could not produce a photograph because yellow glass, while it lets in the light and heat of the sun, keeps out the chemical or actinic ray necessary to produce a portrait. And so it is true of many that, while they live in the free light and warmth of the gospel day, while the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world shines upon and all round them, they are not savingly changed, they are not transformed by the light into the image of God. So in the case of Gehazi, Judas, and Ananias, covetousness prevented the shining of the example of those around from converting and blessing the heart.
Hypocrites in the Church
An ingenious attempt to defraud was detected at the United States Mint recently. A package purporting to contain gold grains was delivered there by express from Little Rock. The general appearance of the grains was much like that daily received, and they also bore successfully the acid test. Subsequently a careful analysis was made to ascertain what the article really was and of what it was composed. The result was astonishing, revealing an ingenious device for the deception of parties dealing in gold bullion. The grains were found to be nothing more nor less than steel filings, and to give them the appearance of grains of the precious metal they were covered with fine gold, which was made to adhere by the use of a composition of turpentine. The Church and the world are often similarly imposed upon. Hypocrites are often able to pick up a coating of cant phrases and wear a sanctimonious appearance who are really base metal. Though the deception may succeed here, and for a time, ultimate detection is inevitable.
Christians say that they will give a tenth of their incomes, or more, to the work of Christ; and then comes a hard year of tightening in the market. They now think to themselves with a sweet caution, “I must retrench in benevolence this season.” Sometimes Christians make a show of contribution, but adroitly manage to get back a fair percentage.
The hardship of hypocrisy
Now, half the trouble which many people take to be smooth and worthless impostors in religion would make them genuine Christians. A lie is a great deal harder to tell than the truth. It is actually harder to be a successful hypocrite than to be a successful Christian. In the one case God is continually helping us. In the other case God is hindering us, and all the time is exposing us to detection and disgrace. It is really easier to possess a sincere heart-piety, and to let that inward light shine out naturally from the countenance and the conduct, than it is to go through life wearing the mask of false profession. To be a true Christian is a constant joy. To seem to be one when we are not is to wear a hateful galling yoke of bondage. In order to keep up appearances an insincere professor is incessantly obliged to do many things which are exceedingly distasteful and even loathsome. He must utter many a solemn falsehood which sticks in his throat. He must forfeit all self-respect. He must perform many a penance, and call it a pleasure. He lives in the constant dread that his mask may slip aside and reveal his real character. For no man ever went through a whole false life of professed piety without awakening occasional suspicion of his “godly sincerity.” Sometimes a sudden emergency jerks the mask aside and exposes the dissembler. Oh! what a wretched life is led by him who, in trying to “keep afloat” before his fellow-creatures, is constantly striving to caulk up those fatal leaks which he knows are sending him to the bottom! (H. W. Beecher.)
Dangers within the early Church
We have here the first great danger that arose from within the Christian Church. In the foregoing chapter a serious danger arose from without. Two of the apostles were cast into prison. This was the first storm of human rage that broke upon the infant Church, and it passed away, like many a storm of wind upon the tender plants of nature, without doing serious damage. But dangers from within are more to be dreaded. One traitor in the camp is more terrible than a host of enemies. One little worm in the heart of a plant is more destructive than the wildest tempest. Many a noble youth and many a young congregation have been sadly injured by worldly-mindedness. Note--
I. Peter detecting hypocrisy. The sin of these people was the common crime of great profession with little principle and less practice. They wished to be counted generous, while they were really selfish; and seeming to care little for the world, they were intensely ambitious, and anxious to get as much as possible of human praise and worldly commendation. This is an evil against which we have need to watch. Liberality is now fashionable in the Church. A man was famous in ancient times as he laid his axe upon the thick trees of Lebanon, and brought them clown to build the Jewish temple. A man is famous at the present day when he is able to give ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred, a thousand pounds, for the support of public charities or the extension of the gospel. These are noble deeds, which we cordially commend, but it is not impossible that in accordance with the generous fashions of our period many a large gift may be laid upon the altar of benevolence from no higher motive, and with no better purpose, than to stand well in public estimation. When Ananias and Sapphira came into the presence of Peter with their hypocrisy they were detected. Most likely the good Spirit endowed him with the power of discerning evil spirits. Certain it is that God is able to read the heart and motive of every man; and though we may succeed in imposing upon men, we must remember that God looks, with perfect eye, into all our professions, and thoroughly tests their sincerity. “Be not deceived; God is not mocked.”
II. Peter exposing falsehood. “Be sure thy sin will find thee out,” is written on one page of God’s Bible and on many pages of God’s providence. The efforts made to conceal a fault enhance its crime, and make the consequences more serious. Sin is often more than doubled before it is detected or checked or punished. “He that does one fault at first, and lies to hide it, makes it two.” The two or the two thousand faults spring from one. There was a first fault with the man who complained that his iniquities were more than the hairs upon his head.
1. The apostle calls the sin by its proper name, and traces it to its evil source. “Why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie?” Falsehood for the sake of worldly gain is one of the coolest and meanest crimes which a man is able to commit. The man smiles, and smiles again, to do his villainy. He is not only Satan-taught when his heart is filled to lie, but Satan-like, for every movement is crooked and cunning as the motions of a serpent. We read of Satan, in the days of Job, presenting himself, like an angel of light, with an air of piety, among the sons of God. He told our first parents (Genesis 3:5) great lies, which have their counterpart in those which men utter, by speech or action, when they wish their heartless worship to be taken for true devotion; put on a fair robe of friendship to cover the worst of enmity; or condescend to the meanness of a base transaction, as if it were a royal road to wealth, fame, and happiness.
2. Peter also exposed the essence of the crime. It was a daring offence against high Heaven--“unto God.” These words must have had a startling effect upon the transgressor. We have seen a child suffused with crimson shame and tears of bitter sorrow when caught and, checked in the utterance of falsehood. We have seen a man grow pale as a winding-sheet, struck silent as the dumb, and unable for a time to breathe a word of apology or a prayer for pardon when shown that he had been uttering a list of untruths. You can fancy what a person must feel in an open court, before a crowd of people, when a letter is produced in his own handwriting to show that he has spoken and sworn deceitfully. The man who sows handfuls of falsehood may be expected to reap sheaves of shame and sorrow and suffering. “All liars shall have their part in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
III. Peter condemning the guilty. His words embodied a severe reproof--“Why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart?” The question is sharper than any two-edged sword, and must have cut the guilty man most deeply. He was, no doubt, expecting great praise for his liberality. It was a meeting of the Church, where the apostles were waiting to receive the Christian offerings for the common treasury. Ananias stepped forward with an air of peculiar importance, and when he told of selling the estate and laid down the money he would look for a hearty commendation from Peter and a round of applause from the people. But what is this? Peter looks oppressed with sorrow and displeasure; the people are silent and still. And when the apostle proceeded to describe the sin and curse of falsehood, his condemnation would fall upon the soul of Ananias like a thunderbolt. It did so fall, not from the hand of Peter, but the hand of God, and the deceiver was laid prostrate in the stillness of death. His wife, three hours afterwards, appeared at the place of meeting with similar expectations to those of her husband. She anticipated many tender and hearty greetings from the assembled disciples; but when she entered all was solemnity and sorrow. The poor woman looked round in vain for a smile or sign of approbation. Her husband, too, was absent: none had dared to whisper to her that he was away to his grave; and when Peter asked about the land and its price she was ready to repeat and confirm her husband’s falsehood. Foolhardy presumption! Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not go unpunished. Like Ananias, she must be carried to a dishonoured grave; and in an instant she fell down and yielded up the ghost. Such was the first great danger within the Christian Church. The early Church was delivered by a stroke of judgment that must have clothed every member in sackcloth. We read that when Achan was taken from his tent and stoned for stealing the spoils of Jericho the impression made upon the Israelites was so profound that the scene of execution was named the Valley of Achor; or, the Vale of Sorrow. And here we have the Achor of the Christian Church; for assuredly the apostles and their people would retire from this awful meeting with bitter tears and bleeding hearts to mourn the terrible doom of Ananias and Sapphira. (J. Thompson, A. M.)
A broken vow
I. The character of Ananias and Sapphira.
1. Like ourselves, they belonged to a nation greatly blessed by God.
2. Like us, the heirs of religious memories and influences.
3. Like all of us, believers in the doctrines of Christianity; not infidels.
4. Like many of us, Church members--members of the Jerusalem, pentecostal Church--the Church of James, Barnabas, and Philip, noted for its orthodoxy, faith, and good works.
5. Like many of us, they did not go to the prayer meeting (compare Acts 4:31 with Acts 5:3). They missed the blessing and exposed themselves to temptation.
6. Like most of us, probably neither very rich nor very poor (Agur’s prayer).
7. A harmonious couple (Acts 5:9).
8. On the whole they were very reputable and highly-esteemed disciples.
II. Their temptation.
1. Temptation common to all. Its uses.
2. The particular temptation--a desire to gain popularity without losing their property.
III. Their sin.
1. Lying without speaking; giving a part of the worship of God for the whole.
2. Its essence a broken vow, aggravated by--
IV. Their punishment.
1. Sudden death a mercy to those prepared.
2. A blessing to Ananias and Sapphira, because it saved them from a long life of lying and hypocrisy.
3. Why, then, were they slain? Not because their guilt was greater, but--
4. As an example to us: like Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3), and Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:1-23.l-9).
Application. Our broken vows.
1. Unpaid subscriptions.
2. As Church officers.
3. As Church members.
4. At baptism.
5. At the Communion table.
6. To dying friends.
7. In sickness. (J. B. Converse.)
And kept back part of the price.
The sin of pretence and its punishment
They desired to have all the credit the Church would give them for acting as generously as Barnabas did, and yet, while getting credit for unselfish and unstinting liberality, to be able to enjoy in private somewhat of that which they were believed to have surrendered. And their calculations were terribly disappointed. They tried to play the hypocrite’s part on most dangerous ground, just when the Divine spirit of purity, sincerity, and truth had been abundantly poured out, and when the spirit of deceit and hypocrisy was therefore at once recognised. It was with the apostles and their spiritual natures then as it is with ourselves and our physical natures still. When we are living in a crowded city we notice not strange scents and ill odours and foul gases; our senses are dulled, and our perceptive powers are rendered obtuse because the whole atmosphere is a tainted one. But when we dwell in the pure air of the country, and the glorious breezes from mountain and moor blow round us fresh and free, then we detect at once, and at a long distance, the slightest ill odour or the least trace of offensive gas. The outpoured presence of the Spirit, and the abounding love which was produced thereby, quickened the perception of St. Peter. He recognised the hypocrisy, characterised the sin of Ananias as a lie against the Holy Ghost; and then the Spirit and Giver of life, seconding and supporting the words of St. Peter, withdrew His support from the human frame of the sinner, and Ananias ceased to live, just as Sapphira, his partner in deceit, ceased to live a few hours later. It may well have been that this incident was inserted in this typical Church history to correct a false idea which would otherwise have grown up. The apostles and their followers were now realising their freedom in the spirit; and some were inclined to run into licentiousness as the result of that freedom. They were realising, too, their relationship to God as one of pure filial love, and they were in great danger of forgetting that God was a God of justice and judgment as well, till this stern dispensation recalled them to a sense of the fact that eternal love is also eternal purity and eternal truth, and will by no means clear the guilty. (G. T. Stokes, D. D.)
The nature of the sin
That it was simply the sin of lying, is impossible to believe. He who calmly told them of their instant fate had himself lied most foully, and been forgiven. It is more plausible to maintain that their sin was something far worse than mere falsehood--that it was hypocrisy of the lowest type--that they could not endure to lack the praise of the noblest Christian conduct, or to make the necessary sacrifices--that they schemed to be considered the best, whilst they were, and knew that they were, very far below the best. All this is true and terrible, but does not satisfy us as an explanation of their awful end. I venture to suggest that Ananias and Sapphira suffered the extreme penalty, not as sinners, but as criminals; not in revenge for a flagrant insult offered to the Almighty, but as the due reward for a frightful wrong inflicted upon their fellowmen; not to accentuate the hideousness of a sin (for which purpose it had been unneeded and ineffective), but to mark the enormity of a crime which blasted the fairest prospect ever opened before the sons of men. It seems to me that they suffered death just as the dynamitards ought to suffer death, because in the recklessness of political hatred they destroy the lives of innocent people. Their crime was beyond all possible reach of human justice, therefore God Himself intervened to mark for once and all how great a crime, how vast a wrong they had committed in the sight of Heaven. Of what, then, were they guilty? What did they do? Before the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira communism was the rule within the Christian fold. It was practised freely as a natural, nay, a necessary part of a whole-hearted following after Christ. After the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira communism ceased to be the rule--apparently it ceased to exist. In the very next chapter we find, not communism, but “charity,” with all its paltry greeds and grudges. Why was this? What became of the communism? I say that Ananias and his wife killed it. Such a state of things depends essentially upon mutual confidence, and they killed that confidence. The fatal blow had been given: and what had been an actual working system, perfect in its principle, and boundless in its promise, faded at once into a beautiful dream Co-operation in the labours of life does very well for beavers, for they do not deceive one another, nor does one desire to grow fat at his neighbour’s expense, neither does another wish to take credit for having done what he has not really done. Why cannot Christian men he as true to one another, and to the society of which they form a part, as beavers? Ask Ananias and Sapphira. Before they began, there were no suspicions, no grudgings, no wealth, and no poverty, “neither was there any among them that lacked.” When they had ended there were rich and poor, there was “a murmuring” of one class against another, there was the foretaste of those monstrous evils which we deplore to-day. They only “told a lie,” but that lie gave a mortal blow to the mutual confidence on which any system of communism has to rest. If it is only to-day that we are beginning to face the social problems of advanced civilisation in their naked ugliness, if it is only to-day that we are in a position to estimate the results of unlimited competition, and the reign of universal greed; if it is only to-day that we are becoming thoroughly frightened at the hideous contrast between the professed principles and the existing facts of Christian society; it is for this very reason only to-day that we are able to appreciate the true moral of that tremendous and unexampled judgment. The socialism of the first believers was the fairest work of the Holy Ghost--it was the truest following after Christ--it was the loftiest faith and the broadest charity translated into that simple language of everyday life, which must be read and loved of all men. The “Magnificat” is the inspired hymn of gospel communism, it is the Marseillaise of the Christian socialist. Striking at once to the heart of the matter, rising at once to the principle of the new order, forestalling (like all inspired strains) the end from the beginning, it pronounces without mitigation, it exults without qualification, that “He hath put down the mighty,” etc. (R. Winterbotham, M. A.)
Making gain out of a pretence of godliness
When Nineveh was burned under Sardanapalus, great quantities of treasure were known to bare fallen into the fiery ruins. Belesis, governor of Babylon, had been one of the conspirators against the dead king, and was aware of all the circumstances of the sack of the city. He told the other generals that in the midst of the fight he had at one time despaired of success, and then he had solemnly sworn to the immortal gods that, if victory were vouchsafed him, he would convey bodily all the ashes of the conflagration to Babylon, and deposit them in a vast temple which he would erect to receive them in honour of the propitious deities: he added that his tender conscience would not permit him to delay the fulfilment of his vow. No one could object to so pious a proposal; so Belesis set the whole army at work to gather up the remains of the fire. When the valuable mass reached Babylon he smelted the heaps in great furnaces, and enriched himself to a fabulous amount with the gold and silver that came forth. This he had understood all along; but he was neither the first nor the last man who has put forward his conscience to make gain out of godliness with a villainous deceit. (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
Keeping back the price
We read in French history that Louis XI. once proffered the entire department of Bologne to the “Blessed Virgin Mary.” He drew up a deed, signed, sealed; he delivered it to the proper ecclesiastics of the Church. But with a peculiar perversity he kept all the revenues and taxes, appointing every year new collectors who might secure the income rigidly for himself without any peril of being tampered with by the priests. (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
Why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost.
is a Hebrew word meaning adversary or opponent, whether in war (1 Kings 5:4) or litigation (Psalms 109:6), often applied to human enemies, but in one place to an angel (Numbers 26:22), and with the article (2 Samuel 24:1), was a proper name without it (1 Chronicles 21:1), to the evil spirit or prince of the fallen angels, as the adversary and accuser of mankind (Job 1:7; Job 2:2; Zechariah 3:1-2; cf. Revelation 12:9-10). In this sense and application it is nearly equivalent to Diabolus (Revelation 12:9; Revelation 20:2), meaning slanderer, informer, false accuser; to which the English devil may be easily traced back, through the intermediate forms of the French Diable and Italian Diavolo. As the same being is the tempter of our race from the beginning (2 Corinthians 11:3), the name Satan sometimes has that special meaning (Matthew 4:10; Matthew 16:23; Mark 8:33), and so it is used here. (J. W. Alexander, D. D.)
Satan filling the heart
The question contains more than one truth in reference to Satan.
I. The existence and reality of Satan, that is to say of the evil spirit who is the prince of darkness, is throughout undeniably to be understood. It cannot here be considered as a mere allegory; the matter was too serious, and the speech of the apostle is much too impressive, severe and direct for that.
II. Evil does not exist and grow isolated in the human breast, but is connectively interwoven with the kingdom of evil in the invisible world. And precisely the worst sins, the subtlest hypocrisy, where evil clothes itself in the holiest garments of light, are the operations of Satan.
III. There are different degrees of the working of Satan, from the smallest temptation to the filling of the heart, i.e., entirely and completely taking possession of it, which is the terrible contrast to the “fulness of the Holy Spirit.”
IV. Man is responsible, and his will free even in relation to the powerful promptings of the devil. For Peter says not only Satan has filled thy heart, but asks why. And the reason he seeks lies evidently not in Satan, but in Ananias. “Why hast thou permitted it?” The apostle indirectly testifies that man, if he will, may resist the devil (1 Peter 5:9; James 4:7). There is no irresistible power of Satan. (G. V. Lechler, D. D.)
Lying to the Holy Spirit
Falsehood is particularly a sin against the Holy Spirit. It is a sin against--
I. His nature. One of His titles is “the Spirit of Truth.” It is essentially inherent in Him. He cannot Himself be false, and falsehood cannot dwell in His presence.
II. His word. Christ prayed “Sanctify them through Thy truth; Thy Word is truth.” This is the instrument by which He accomplishes all His purposes; and He will use no other. He tells all the truth as it regards God, man, sin, and salvation, time and eternity. Of such Jesus says, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” A lie is the rejection of the truth, and a direct resistance to the testimony and word of the Spirit.
III. His work in the heart. “Thou desirest truth in the inward parts.” When God writes His law upon the heart it is as a standard of truth which He sets up there. Establishing it within us, He entwines around it all our principles, affections and practices, He makes us “true men.”
IV. The character which He forms in His people. They are “of the truth,” “do the truth,” “speak the truth in their heart,” and are “girt about with truth.” (J. Morgan. D. D.)
The resistibility of evil
The Bible is a book of personalities--it has nothing to do with personifications, streams of tendency, etc. Here the personality of the Holy Spirit is clearly recognised, and Satan is no figure of speech. The resistibility of evil is the greatest moral of the text. Satan’s action is fully assumed, but Ananias is held responsible for the result: “Why hast thou permitted it?” Now we are all quite ready to blame the tempting power for our bad conduct. Supernatural evil comes in like a flood, and we think there is much to be said for us if we are swept away. We are told that in the East robbers employ magic to effect their nefarious purpose, their victims lying, with their eyes open, helpless spectators of the spoliation of their homes. Some men persuade themselves that they are similarly helpless in the presence of the arch thief. Not so, says the text. You can resist the devil and he will flee. There is no enchantment in wickedness which may prevail against a sincere and steadfast soul.
I. The very epithet we use to express the action of evil implies the resistibility of evil. Satan is the tempter, the initial action of evil is temptation. This is only another word for experiment or trial. It was the design of God (Deuteronomy 8:2), through certain discipline, to show Israel what was in His heart. Satan also tempts men, makes experiments upon their moral nature. But there is always this great distinction. God is ever aiming to realise the good that is in us, and to purge the evil; Satan to realise the evil and to purge the good. But uncertainty is of the very nature of temptation. When Satan makes an experiment upon us he may possibly succeed, he may possibly fail, according to the quality of our nature. He cannot coerce. Christ affirmed, “The prince of this world cometh and hath nothing in Me” Nothing that owned his sway. He was pure gold, and as such He went into the crucible, and as such He came out again. The alchemist sought to transmute base metals into gold; the devil seeks to turn gold into cinders, which can never be done in the physical world, much less in the ethical. If you are of baser metal in your inmost self--I do not care how much gilt you put on the surface, nor whether you have got the hall mark of the Church--if you are at the centre base metal when you are put into the crucible, base metal you will come out. But if there is nothing of the devil in us he can get nothing out of us. Loyal to the truth in your deepest thought and sympathy, the black storm may bow you down, but having done all, you stand; rotten at the heart, when the storm comes upon you, great is your fall. Experiment demonstrates: it does not necessitate.
II. The method of its approach and action indicates the resistibility of evil. The devil uses deceit. Temptation is cajolery. Evil comes in the wriggle of the serpent. All this is consolatory so far as it reveals the weakness which underlies all wickedness. Strong men do not resort to these equivocal methods; they wear no masks, proffer no bribes, tell no lies. The devil comes as a conjurer, not as a conqueror. The fowler setting his net shows that we are free; the destroyer proffering his sorcerous cup confesses that he has no authority to smite or bind; and seeing the serpent wriggling in the grass, it flashes on us in a moment how easily we may bruise his head. Irresistibility does not trick itself out in motley disguises. Be true in the inward parts and you shall be more than conqueror. The “properties” of a sorceror--mirrors, vapours, charms, incantations--will prevail nothing against the armour of light; the liar of ages will not deceive the simplicity of a little child (2 Thessalonians 2:7-12). The root of the whole matter is here. Do you love the truth in your inmost heart, and are you prepared to follow it at all sacrifices? Then no mystery of lawlessness or lying wonders, etc., shall lead you astray, but you shall hear a heavenly voice saying, “This is the way,” and walking in it you shall be safe from the fear of evil.
III. If evil were irresistible it would possess a power which God does not permit Himself to exercise. God respects the nature He has given, and does not compel us along any line of action. “Behold I stand at the door and knock.” The heart of man seems but a but of clay, yet before its lowly door stands the Majesty of the skies asking admittance. God respects the freedom He first gave, and if ever He enters we shall have to turn the key. He knocks, but He does no more. God made the human heart to be opened only from within; and be sure what God will not do no other power shall be permitted to do. We have kept God out, and surely we can keep the devil out. The deceiver may post himself before the windows of our soul, and we cannot drive him away; but as sure as we are men he can never put his sooty foot across the red threshold of our heart except we agree to it (Luke 22:31). The French proverb is right, “The devil goes away from a closed door.” The door of the soul is sacred: keep it shut, latch it with caution, bolt it with resolution, lock it with prayer, and all hell may gather about, as the Sodomites did about the door of Lot, yet they shall be baffled. But once have the door open, begin coquettings with evil, and the devil will soon be your guest and master.
IV. Evil is being constantly vanquished. Nothing is more terrible than that we should be convinced of the invulnerability of evil. Cortes sought to make the Mexicans believe that a Spaniard could not die, an illusion which unnerved them in the day of battle. We must entertain no such belief about evil. The spirits of wickedness are being tramped under foot every day. The Bible is full of the records of victory over temptation and sin. What is the lesson of the victory of our Lord in the wilderness but the powerlessness of the devil in the presence of faith and purity. In His strength His victory is being ever repeated “What’s done we partly may compute, but we know not what’s resisted.” We see the ugly side of life: if anybody goes to the bad we all know it. But all around us magnificent moral victories are being scored: if our eyes were opened and we could see everything that is going on many a sublime spectacle would inspire us with exultation. Now a young man has the cup of guilty pleasure pressed to his lips, but in the critical moment, on which hangs eternity, he dashes it to the ground; now a young maiden, by the grace of heaven, turns away from some alluring cluster, keeping her purity and her paradise; now a struggling tradesman prefers honesty to gold; now a politician loses an election rather than self respect. Poor human nature! We often get the worst of it, but not always. You have innumerable brothers and sisters in tribulation, who by God’s grace in miry pathways walk with unspotted robes, and the same grace shall be perfected in your weakness. The Jewish tradition says, “The devil cannot overcome except he first see your face.” Turn your face to the light and your back to the devil, and you shall never perish. Conclusion:
1. If you do not want Satan to fill your heart, take care that God fills it first. Satan filled Ananias’ heart because it was empty. Of his brethren we read “they were all filled with the Holy Ghost.” Satan could do nothing there. Here is our safety. When the devil finds an empty brain he fills it with false ideas, wicked plans; when he finds empty hands he fills them with mischiefs; when he finds an empty heart he fills it with vanities, burning passions, vicious sympathies and delights. If you wish to be saved from temptation’s power, keep your heart full of the love of God, your hands full of noble work, your mind full of high thought and desire.
2. You say, “Satan has filled my heart; oh wretched man that I am.” There is hope. The dispossessing power is sufficient. It is hard for a landlord to dispossess a bad tenant. He will not go out for the telling, you cannot frighten, coax, starve him out, it is only when the king’s officer comes that you will get rid of the objectionable party. It is terrible work indeed to get the diabolism out of our heart. The Rationalist says, “I will persuade him out,” but iniquity does not yield to argument. The Optimist says, “I will coax him out,” but passion does not yield to blandishments. The Legalist says, “I will frighten him out,” but lust will not yield to law. The Ascetic says, “I will starve him out,” but pride, selfishness, and sensuality do not yield to discipline. The Pessimist says, “Death shall pull down the tabernacle, and so give us relief from the ghastly dilemma,” to find relief only in the destruction of the house is to confess ourselves utterly vanquished. Appeal from earth to heaven. The strong man armed shall bind the strong man and eject him. Seek the delivering Christ, and although your fetters have been riveted through years of transgression, you shall be led into liberty and peace. Evil irresistible! never. “Thine is the kingdom, and the power,” etc. (W. L. Watkinson.)
Insincere Christians an easy prey to Satan
A good coloured man once said, in a class-meeting: “Brethren, when I was a boy, I took a hatchet and went into de woods. When I found a tree dat was straight, big, and solid, I didn’t touch dat tree; but when I found one leaning a little and hollow inside, I soon had him down. So when de debbil goes after Christians, he don’t touch dem dat stand straight and true; but dem dat lean a little and are hollow inside.”
The devil’s trade wind
One of W. Jay’s peculiarities was the manner in which he would surprise his hearers by a startling sentence. Preaching on the repentance of Judas he took occasion to attack the love of money, and at the close of one of the divisions of his subject, he cried out, “Avarice, avarice is the monsoon, the devil’s trade wind from the Church into hell.” At another time, speaking of the inconsistency of many professors of the gospel, after making a powerful appeal, he exclaimed, “Some of you, my dear brethren, are so inconsistent and undecided that if at this moment I saw the devil running away with you, I could not call out, ‘Stop thief!’--he would but carry off his own property!”
Satan’s worms of avarice
A journal devoted to the interests of horticulture states that a gardener in the employ of a gentleman at Pittsford, New York, has recently solved a problem which has long perplexed him. In the garden under his care is a large lawn, on which he has bestowed much labour, and which was his especial pride. For some time past a small patch on this lawn disfigured it, for the grass that grew there was poor and withered, in marked contrast to all around. For a long time the gardener vainly endeavoured to discover the cause of its decay. One day, as he stood meditatively gazing at it, he saw several birds settle upon it and thrust their beaks through the sod with much diligence and satisfaction. The gardener had the curiosity to turn up a portion of the punctured turf, and discovered, to his amazement, that the earth beneath was alive with a greedy multitude of large white grubs, which had completely consumed the roots of the grass. He continued the work, and at every fresh removal of the sod the same phenomenon presented itself, until quarts of the larvae were gathered and destroyed. It is to be feared that the lack of vigorous life in some portions of Christ’s vineyard, the Church, may have a similar cause. The root of the piety of the members is being destroyed by Satan’s worms of avarice, ambition, and love of pleasure. (Christian Herald.)
Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.
Lying unto God.
I. The sin. Men lie unto God--
1. When they use their profession as members of the Church for an instrument of self interest.
2. By making false pretences in their routine of worship.
3. By breaking their covenant of consecration.
4. By the offering of insincere prayers.
5. By self seeking in acts of Christian zeal.
II. The retribution--
1. Was the visitation of God.
2. Often comes in the form of a de-moralisation of soul, which renders recovery impossible at the last. (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
The permanence of a lie
A little boy to sell his paper told a lie. The matter came up in the Sunday school. “Would you tell a lie for three cents?” asked a teacher of one of the boys. “No, ma’am,” answered Dick, very decidedly. “For ten cents?” “No, ma’am.” “For a dollar?” “No, ma’am.” “For a thousand dollars?” Dick was staggered, A thousand dollars looked big--it would buy lots of things. While he was thinking another boy cries out “No, ma’am, because when the thousand dollars are gone and the things you have got with them are gone too, the lie is there all the same.” Ah, yes! That is so. A lie sticks. Everything else may go, but that will stay, and you will have to carry it round with you, whether you will or no--a hard and heavy load. (Biblical Museum.)
A man never deceives himself so much as when he attempts to deceive God. (J. Caryl.)
The retribution of falsehood
George Eliot, in “Romola,” powerfully illustrates in that remarkable book the embarrassments involved in one cowardly departure from truth. In the chapter headed “Tito’s Dilemma,” the occasion arises for Tito to fabricate an ingenious lie. Many chapters on we find him experiencing the inexorable law of human souls that we prepare ourselves for sudden deeds by the reiterated choice of good or evil that gradually determines character, and it becomes a question whether all the resources of lying will save him from being crushed. At another time we read: “Tito felt more and more confidence as he went on; the lie was not so difficult when it was once begun, and as the words fell easily from his lips, they gave him a sense of power such as men feel when they have begun a muscular feat successfully.” The penalty is enforced a few pages later. “But he had borrowed from the terrible usurer Falsehood, and the loan had mounted and mounted with the years, till he belonged to the usurer, body and soul.”
It was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in.
I think that one of the master incantations, one of the most signal deceits, which we practise upon ourselves, comes from the use of language. There are words that we learn in childhood which we abandon when we come to manhood. Generally speaking, our fireside words are old Saxon words--short, knotty, tough, and imbued with moral and affectional meanings; but as we grow older these words are too rude and plain for our use, and so we get Latin terms and periphrases by which to express many of our thoughts. When we talk about ourselves we almost invariably use Latin words, and when we talk about our neighbours we use Saxon words. And one of the best things a man can do, I think, is to examine himself in the Saxon tongue. If a man tells that which is contrary to the truth let him not say, “I equivocate”; let him say, “I lie.” Lie! why, it brings the judgment day right home to a man’s thought. Men do not like it, but it is exactly the thing that will most effectually touch the moral sense; and the more the moral sense is touched the better. If a man has departed from rectitude in his dealings with another, let him not say, “I took advantage,” which is a roundabout long sentence: let him say, “I cheated.” That is a very direct word. It springs straight to the conscience, as the arrow flies whizzing from the bow to the centre of the mark. Does it grate harshly on your ear? Nevertheless, it is better that you should employ it; and you should come to this determination: “I will call things that I detect in my conduct by those clear-faced, rough-tongued words that my enemies would use if they wanted to sting me to the quick.” (H. W. Beecher.)
The sin in the purpose more than in the act
It is said by sceptics that St. Peter’s question to Sapphira, “Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much?” was a temptation to the sin of falsehood; but it is plain, from the story in the fifth chapter of the Acts, that Sapphira had committed herself to a fraudulent undertaking. The sin had been already committed when she adopted her sinful purpose. Peter’s question was only to make the secret purpose known. It is an abuse of language to speak of tempting one to do what he has committed himself to do, We do not tempt a shopkeeper when we propose to buy what he wishes to sell. No more did Peter tempt Sapphira to become a liar. She was a liar before his question, quite as much as after her answer. The ethical principle is that it is the purpose, not the act, which constitutes the essential sin.
The sin of Sapphira greater than that of Ananias
1. She had longer time for consideration.
2. Peter, by a yet more pointed question, gave her a much better opportunity for reflection, and for giving glory to God.
3. She answered still more shamelessly.
4. And is, therefore, obliged to listen more fully to her sentence, and to hear what has happened to her husband. (Rieger.)
The perversion of the marriage bond
In families where marriage is nothing more than--
1. A fellowship of goods and a business transaction to become rich instead of a union of hearts in the Lord; or,
2. A union to the service of the world, the flesh, and the devil, instead of a pious resolution. “I and my house will serve the Lord.” And,
3. A walking together to hell, it may be to a hell on earth, or to eternal perdition, instead of the married pair being helpers of one another’s joys and blessedness, and striving how the one might bring the other to heaven. “How is it that ye have agreed together?”--a serious question to every married pair. (K. Gerok.)
Then she fell down straightway at his feet and gave up the ghost.--
Death by the visitation of God
It would not be difficult to find some instances of direct and swift punishment even in modern times. In the old town of Devizes the tourist is led up to see an interesting inscription in the public market-place. It reads thus: “The mayor and corporation of Devizes avail themselves of the stability of this building to transmit to future times the record of an awful event which occurred in this market-place in the year 1753; hoping that such a record may serve as a salutary warning against the danger of impiously invoking the Divine vengeance, or of calling on the holy name of God to conceal the devices of falsehood and fraud. On Thursday, the 25th of January, 1753, Ruth Pierce, of Pottera, in this county, agreed with three other women to buy a sack of wheat in the market, each paying her due proportion towards the same. One of these women, in collecting the several quotas of money, discovered a deficiency, and demanded of Ruth Pierce the sum which was wanting to make good the amount. Ruth Pierce protested that she had paid her share, and said she wished she might drop down dead if she had not. She rashly repeated this awful wish, when, to the consternation of the surrounding multitude, she instantly fell down and expired, having the money concealed in her hand.” (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
And great fear came upon all the Church.
After judgment, revival
The case of Ananias served several important ends.
I. It bore a very emphatic testimony to truth. Falsehood in the world was a great barrier in the way of the Church. It was difficult to build even that Divine edifice without a foundation, without something in humanity of which it might take hold. Unless the Church find or generate truth it will not overcome the world; it will sink as in a mire. And so at the outset a miracle was employed to set truth as on a rock for ever. The death of Ananias and Sapphira is the arm of the Lord revealed to deliver the body of the Church in her youth from a consumption which, if not so checked, might have brought her down to an early grave, although no breath of persecution had ever blown upon her. We learn here the work of God to cast out of the body the poison that would undermine life is as stupendous as His work to shield the Church from the power of her foes.
II. Great fear came upon the Church. It is a healthful symptom, a needed discipline. “Lord, is it I?” “Let him that thinketh he standeth,” etc. It was Christ who said, “Remember Lot’s wife.” Many centuries after the event, He directed that it should be kept in memory. These dark monuments have obtained a place in the Word that liveth and abideth for ever, that their warning may be available in all nations and times. Fear also came on as many as heard. As a natural consequence, “of the rest durst no man join himself to them,” i.e., those who were not of them dared not pretend to be of them. The stroke of judgment scared the hypocrites.
III. Believers were the more added. The judgment on false professors hastened instead of hindering conversions. The terror of the Lord effectually persuaded men to take refuge in His mercy.
1. Believers were added to the Lord; not merely to the communicants roll. “Your life is hid with Christ in God.” The life of the branch depends on being in the vine; although its fairness may depend on its being interlaced in bonds of love with other branches.
2. Multitudes were added. This is the common experience still. A great number came at one time with a rush: and a period of comparative barrenness supervenes. Again there is a revival, and again a time of coldness. Ask yourself, Has the tide risen in my time and carried in many on its wave, and am I left behind? But even when the heaving of the spiritual tide in our neighbourhood has ceased, the door is not shut. We are as welcome when we come one by one as when we press in with a crowd.
3. “Both men and women.” There was a reason for specifying this. The gospel enfranchises and elevates woman. She owes to Christ not only her home in heaven, but her rightful place in the world. Nor women exclusively; for when the Word comes in power it makes quick work with that lordly pride in which men wrap themselves when they select philosophy or politics as their sphere, and leave religion to women. (W. Arnot, D. D.)
And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought.--
The wrath of God by the mouth of the apostles had consumed two hypocrites; but relief by the hands of the apostles happened to a great number of miserable people. The Lord proved thereby that judgment is His strange work, but that He delights in mercy. And as He shows His zeal against the wicked, so He does not turn His heart away from the wretched. (Apostolic Pastor.)
Phases of the young Church
The text presents the young Church as--
I. An organ of restorative power. The works were miraculous and material, but they may be regarded as specimens and symbols of those spiritual works which the true Church is constantly performing for the benefit of mankind. This restorative power was--
1. Manifestly Divine. So little did the people regard the works as the effects of the natural powers of the apostles, that they considered the very shadow of Peter sufficient. The moral power of the Church to restore souls is also incontrovertibly Divine. No man, however exalted his piety, extensive his attainments, or brilliant his talents, can restore one lost soul.
2. Very extensive. Great were the crowds of sick folk, and various their diseases; but they were healed every one. So the healing power in the Church is equal to every case.
II. An institution differently affecting different men.
1. In some it produced a revulsion. “And of the rest,” the class to which Ananias had belonged, “durst no man join himself to them.” A church whose discipline is so severely pure, which will not tolerate untruthfulness, dishonesty, or selfishness, is sure to keep aloof the carnal, mercenary, and false.
2. In some it awakened admiration. “But the people magnified them.” Incorruptible sincerity and high spiritual purity will always command the honour and respect of the unsophisticated multitudes. The common people heard Christ gladly, because He spoke the true thing in the true spirit. And so the people will always honour the Church for what is pure and noble in her members.
3. In some it effected a conversion (Acts 5:14). (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The power of God with the apostles
1. As when the earth opened and swallowed up Dathan and Abiram and their company, the people fled at the cry of them, and said, “Lest the earth swallow us also”; so the fate of Ananias and Sapphira operated as a warning to all who were of a like spirit, and made them afraid of tempting God by a false profession, lest they should be struck dead in like manner. But though the false hearted were thus restrained, those whose consciences bore them witness that they were upright before God were not discouraged, nay, they were even induced the more to unite themselves with the company of disciples.
2. The peculiar words, “Added to the Lord,” do not stand in the text without a strictly appropriate meaning. Ananias and Sapphira had been added to the Church, but not to the Lord. The judgment executed upon them guarded the growing society from being corrupted in spirit as it increased in numbers. Alas! how often is this the case. The visible Church increases in numbers but decays in piety. The real prosperity of the Church, then, consists in two things--in its being enlarged, and in its being edified; in multitudes being added to the community, and believers added to the Lord. And there seem to have been two causes of this happy state of things. The apostles had prayed that the Lord would give them boldness to speak the Word by stretching forth His hand to heal, etc. In the text we find that the prayer was answered. And as the support which they asked was given, no doubt it was given for the end for which they asked it, namely, to embolden them in speaking the Word. We have then three things for consideration.
I. The Word preached. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” Men cannot call on that only name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved unless they know it; and they cannot know it unless it be revealed to them. And though it is in the power of God to reveal it without the instrumentality of men, yet such is not His ordinary method. “Of His own will begat He us by the Word of truth.” If we are begotten again, it is “not of corruptible seed but of incorruptible, by the Word of God which liveth and abideth for ever.” Though he that planteth is nothing, and he that watereth nothing; though God alone giveth the increase; yet there must be the planter and the waterer. To expect the fruit from man without the blessing of God would be vain confidence; to expect it from God without the human means which He has appointed would be presumption. The true path of wisdom--the golden mean--in this case is, not to neglect the means of grace, and not to rest in them; to use them diligently, yet to look beyond them. There is a regard to instruments which is faulty, and when men glory in one above another, so as to say, “I am of Paul, and I of Apollos,” etc., this is to ascribe to man what is the work of God; nevertheless, the preaching of the Word is a Divine ordinance, and ought to be attended to.
II. The Word accompanied with signs confirming it. Though it has pleased God to withdraw the miraculous confirmation, is therefore all Divine confirmation of the Word withheld? Though gifts of healing have ceased, is there no way by which the Lord bears witness to His truth? Yes: there surely is, and that the most important of all. The body might be healed, but that healing would be only for a time; it must at length die, and the soul might be lost. The blind eye might be opened, and the natural light poured in upon its before insensible organs; but in a little while it must be closed again in death: and the soul might be consigned to the blackness of darkness for ever. The most important confirmation, and what is equally above the power of man, is that which quickens the soul that was dead in trespasses and sins; which opens the blind eyes, so that he who was spiritually blind may say, I see. He who is brought out of darkness into light, has the witness in himself; and while he lets his light shine before men, he may be a witness to ethers also; proving to them that there is a power of Divine grace working mightily in them that believe, and enabling them to do what in the strength of nature they could not perform.
III. The benefits of healing conferred in answer to faith. These “signs and wonders” were an evidence to all men of the power of God with them, a proof of their commission from Him, who thus set His seal to their preaching, and confirmed the truth of the doctrine which they taught. And the doctrine thus delivered and confirmed was variously received. Some believed, and some believed not. But multitudes believed: and these showed their faith by acting as men always do when they are fully persuaded of the truth of any report. They hasted to make their sick friends and relations partakers of the benefit. And we should go ourselves to Christ for the healing of our own souls in the first place; and then do what we can to carry our friends to Him. (J. Fawcett, M. A.)
Of the rest durst no man join himself to them.--
The ungodly repelled
I. That a living and spiritual Christianity repels the ungodly from the communion of the Church.
1. It does so by awakening a feeling of hatred--
(a) The sinfulness of seeking to make religion pleasing to the world.
(b) The condition of the Church, or believer, loved by the world.
2. It does so by producing feelings of fear and reverence.
3. It does so by acting upon the conscience.
II. That a living and spiritual Christianity is not easily imitated.
1. It is by feigning Christianity that ungodly men enter the communion of the Church.
2. Human nature has a wonderful power in counterfeiting religion--assisted by the devil.
3. But the more spiritual that religion in, the less easily is it counterfeited--detection is more likely.
4. And the self-denial being generally greater, is not likely to be practised.
5. Hence, a spiritual Church will not be joined by worldly men.
III. That being in a spiritual state, the Church possessed much of the spirit of judgment
1. The Spirit is promised to the Church as “a spirit of judgment” (Isaiah 28:6).
2. The statement of the text is connected with its exercise (verses 1-11).
3. This spirit is still needed--should be asked.
4. The ground of admission into the Church is a credible, profession; when it is declared credible, there is a judgment.
5. When the Church is spiritual, the possession of this Spirit of judgment will be moreapparent.
6. This matter rests with the members of the Church. A languid body will not cast off disease.
IV. That persecution was a test of discipleship.
1. The world applies a test as well as the Church--sometimes a severer and more searching one.
2. But only when the Church is living. 3, The Church is not diminished (verse 14). (James Stewart.)
Authority and faith
This beautiful picture of the apostles ruling the infant Christian community and bearing a never-ceasing testimony to their Risen Lord, displays to us the great principles on which the Christian Church is founded. We find here the principle of authority and the existence of office in the Church--office and authority cheerfully recognised and submitted to. Of the rest of the Christian body none durst join himself to the apostles. Their office was of Divine appointment. There was nothing in this exceeding reverence with which the apostolic office was viewed inconsistent with the personal belief of every Christian in the Saviour as his Saviour, and in the gift of the Holy Spirit as given directly to him. How different would the Church of the present day be from that of those primitive times if there were now, as some suppose, an inconsistency between authority and faith, and a man must needs believe the less in Christ his Saviour the more he believes in the Church of Christ as a Divinely ordered system of authority and government I Rightly regarded by those who use it, and by those for whose benefit it is used, there is no earthly means which ought to help men so much to faith in the Lord as the Christian Church, set before men’s eyes, witnessing to His story by its very existence, which began with the apostles, whom He chose and educated through all their weakness to carry on His work on earth when He had entered heaven, to help them from thence by His unfailing grace, end to fit them for an office and a work which, without Him, they could never have fulfilled. (Dean Travers Smith.)
Inasmuch that they brought forth the sick.
., that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow them.
The shadow of Peter
The miracles of Christ and His apostles were mainly miracles of healing--a fact to be well noted. The power to work these has been withdrawn; but the same object is still accomplished by the prayerful use of natural means. Still the heart of the believer is alive to the tender offices of compassion; still, in the shadow of the Christian, the sorrows of the unfortunate obtain relief. Charity may be not unaptly denominated the Christian’s shadow. A shadow is the reflection of a substance: charity is a habit of conduct, reflected from a Christian disposition. A shadow represents, in some degree, the form and aspect of the substance; charity pourtrays, in outline, the figure of the child of God. A shadow moves with the substance it represents, attends and imitates it in every step and posture: charity accommodates itself, in equal vigour, to every change of capacity and circumstance;--in prosperity, is liberal; in adversity, considerate; humble in joy, cheerful in affliction. But a shadow can only be reflected by a stronger light than that in which the substance stands or moves. And what is that light?
I. Shall we find that ray within? In the tenderness and fervency of our own affections? Many are the deeds of kindness prompted by instinctive feeling: but are not deeds of very different hue as often prompted by the same emotions? Are not “evil thoughts, adulteries,” etc., things which “defile a man,” the offspring also of the heart? And shall we think to derive our light from such a source? Shall we follow, in security, a guide so blind and treacherous? Nay, we are assured that “the heart,” with all its flexibility of control, “is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” So far from directing our judgment, it must itself be brought perpetually to justice; instead of holding “a light unto our path,” it ever needs “a lantern to its own.”
II. Shall we look around us for that ray? And shall we find it in the selfishness and ambition of the world, the blandishments of man’s admiration? It has become a practice somewhat too prevalent to urge the contributions of the wealthy, without regard to rectitude of principle or motive, on the pretext that, so long as charitable institutions are upheld, no matter with what design of their supporters, the object of such application is substantially realised. But there is a case of the giver to be taken into consideration; and the effect on his mind is decidedly injurious. He is taught to repose a merit upon actions which, under existing circumstances, assume a character entirely the reverse of meritorious. He is taught to attach an undue value to wealth, as a vital source, and not an accidental garb, of beneficence: to allow to charity its plenary importance in the rank of virtues, but to limit the scope of charity to the bare performance of alms-giving. And lastly, he is taught to look to man, and not to God, for his reward. Why else are we reminded of the generosity of those who have thought to make their peace with heaven fur the defects of an unprofitable life by bequeathing their possessions to the poor, when the near approach of death withdraws the further prospect of gratifications which have constituted the chief endearment of their lives? The poor enjoy their pittance, it is true; but at whose and at what expense? to those who give, the probability of that mortifying reproof hereafter, “Who hath required this at thy hand?” To those who urged the gift, the sure and certain recompense of the ceremonious Pharisee, who preached sacrifice and not mercy, and put other burdens on the souls of men than the covenant of their Lord and Master.
III. If we find it neither within us, nor around us, it remains only that we lift our eyes above us, even to that “Sun of Righteousness,” who rose, the offering for our redemption, and the example of our duty, with “healing in His wings.” “From Him have we this commandment, that he who loveth God, should love his brother also.” “The love of Christ constraineth us.” It is only under the influence of this prevailing motive that our principles and habits can be warmed into a generous concern for the whole household of Christ; it is only under the brightness of His presence that the Christian’s shadow can be reflected. The frame of mind required for such an exercise of benevolence is the repose inspired by a firm and humble trust in the providence of the Almighty, and the efficacy of His Son’s atonement; a calm and holy peace, which leaves the mind at liberty to toil, for righteousness’ sake, amid the sneers and censures of the ungodly, and, like the pattern of its daily practice, to “go about doing good.” And what other influence can be named, capable of producing this blessedness of tone and spirit, but the constraint of the love of God? Will you say that inducements, at least of equal weight, are given us, in the dread of future punishment. But fear is, after all, but a flickering and inconstant meteor, totally incapable of reflecting that steady shadow we are now employed in contemplating. Think not I would deny the efficacy of an arrangement which converts even the fears and apprehensions of the sinner into occasions and instruments of good, and thus not seldom penetrates his soul through the only avenue unchoked by the brambles of worldly-windedness. I merely argue that the sensations of fear and terror are incompetent of themselves to generate that steadiness of principle and habit, that abandonment of selfish and carnal interests, that devotion of the heart and life to the will and purposes of the Creator, which manifests itself in a regard and concern for all the creatures of His hands. I say that an intermediate process must take place; that the inner man must be purified as well as roused; must first learn to love God, and then, and not till then, will love his brother also. There is not a star that twinkles in the firmament on high but has its appointed sphere of service and occupation: but from the sun alone we behold our fair proportions represented. There is not a motive, a feeling, in the constitution of a human being but may be made conducive, by God’s blessing, towards the great end of his probation; but it is only beneath the love of God that the Christian’s shadow lies unfolded. (P. Hall, M. A.)
We all cast shadows, i.e., exert unconscious influences. Some men are always, without seeming effort or thought, making other people happy. But there are others whose presence depresses and saddens us. This is so in the secular sphere; but our unconscious influence spreads into wider areas. God works out His grandest purposes by undemonstrative agents. The earthquake and lightning are as nothing compared with attraction and heat. And so with human influences.
1. Because our voluntary efforts are only occasional and interrupted, while our unconscious energy is everywhere operative and constant.
2. Our constant and silent energy is most expressive of our real character. Consider a few practical applications.
I. It should impress us with a sense of the importance of human life.
II. We are responsible for our unconscious influence. We may think to evade this on the ground that the evil we do is unintentional. But apply this to physical evil; to the case of Solomon’s lunatic who said, “I am in sport”; or to the man who, exerting no positive influence, lets a blind man fall over a precipice. Just to do nothing is to do terrible evil; but in such a world no man can do nothing. Our whole mortal life is embodied force.
III. Death does not destroy this unconscious influence. The Greeks used to term the disembodied spirit a shadow, an invisible presence, haunting the scenes of its former life, and though not in this sense yet, as abiding influences, the dead are still with us. On the one hand, Lord Byron, Bonaparte, Voltaire, etc., yet stalk the earth and gibber their influence; on the other, Calvin, Luther, Wesley, Chalmers, still live. This truth is a warning to all workers of iniquity, but an encouragement to every true child of God. (C. Wadsworth, D. D.)
Casting shadows in life
Our text shows--
I. The power there may be in comparative trifles. As a metaphor few figures are more frequently used in the Scriptures than that of the “shadow.” Sometimes it is suggestive of blessing, as “the shadow of a great rock in a weary land,” or “the shadow of the Almighty”; sometimes the opposite, as “the shadow of death.” A shadow! What is more insignificant? Intangible and unsubstantial, is it not the veriest trifle? Yet how solemnly impressive it is.
1. The most irresistible forces of the world in nature are those that we can neither see nor hear. The earthquake’s tread makes us tremble, and so does the roar of the hurricane. How appalling the thunder and lightning; but how far inferior are they in either benign or blasting influence to the quieter, subtler force of electricity, gravitation, heat, or light.
2. In science and civilisation the quieter forces have counted most. The grandest discoveries have usually emerged from some by-way of accident. The most thrilling pages of history are but chronicles of events that have nearly all turned on the pivot of some trivial circumstance. Mohammedanism was the product of a spider’s web woven behind the fleeing prophet and deceiving his pursuers. The battle of Waterloo was suspended upon the co-operation of Blucher, whose life escaped the enemy’s sword by the simple circumstance of wearing the cap of a common soldier, and for the reason that the clasp of his own helmet had broken.
3. Just so it is in religion. Are we not astonished often to find that the little things we say and do tell more radically and widely than some of our most demonstrative actions? Then, too, the very constancy of those trifles tells. Repeated blows of a little hammer may be more effective than the single downfall of the ponderous sledge. The clock strikes at intervals, the ticking is momentary; we hear the one, we do not notice the other; yet the hour stroke comes not if the ticking fails.
II. As no shadow can be cast without light, our text illustrates the essential place Christ holds in all true religion, in the world and in the soul. If the sun be clouded, or the atmosphere hazy, no distinct shadows can be east. The sun must shine out to make shadows. So the distinctness of shadows of grace indicate the strong or feeble shining of the “Sun of Righteousness.”
1. Nationalities like Italy and Russia and South America tell us of “the cloudy and dark day.” England and America, on the other hand, bourgeoned with beauty, tell of the sun shining warmly and clearly from a gospel sky.
2. As in the world, so in the soul. Saul of Tarsus, “breathing out threatenings and slaughter,” stands in striking contrast with Paul, the singing pilgrim in the dungeon of Philippi, and the same man near martyrdom exclaiming, “I am now ready to be offered up,” etc. Whence came the difference? Ah! Christ commenced shining upon him near that Damascene gate, and the light grew brighter and sweeter and clearer every day, so that he shouted, “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” Peter and James and Jn exclaimed on a glory-lit summit, “It is good to be here!” because “Jesus in the midst” was the centre of the glory. Shadows of noble action and happy feeling can come from those only who are wont to bask in the light of “One above the brightness of the sun.”
III. Every one exerts an influence, quiet but real, unconscious but a fact. Every one casts a shadow. The ghost of Banquo no more persistently refuses to “down at the bidding” of Macbeth than the ghostly shadow of the person or thing on which the sun is falling refuses to disappear. A man may simply stand still in a thoroughfare, he will soon find all eyes upon him, and all excitement about him. Every act, word, look, attitude, is a moral dynamic upon those around us. They are forces with which we are building or destroying. A whisper has often been clothed with the attribute of thunder. Unconsciousness of it is no argument against the fact. Peter was not thinking of the shadow he threw; much less how eagerly the sick sought it. So lasting is the influence that it lingers behind when the living have passed away. “He being dead yet speaketh.” “No man liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself.” How startling the warning to the worker of wickedness, while the good may take its lessons of perpetual encouragement. “The evil that men do,” and the good, too, “lives after them.” This is true of great lives; it is equally true of the humblest. The intoning of Niagara can be heard farther away, but the rippling of the rill is just as real and sweeter. Mont Blanc witnesses to Divine power, but not more effectually than the violet tells us of the Divine skill and goodness by its beauty and fragrance. The eagle may soar higher, but the little canary has a sweeter song. As I mark the trivial act of the poor widow dropping her two mites, unconscious that any eye was watching, and then remember what a sermon that lowly act has been preaching to the world from that day to this; then am I ready to express the deep conviction that a shadow of influence beyond conception clings to the most obscure person; and often the humblest act. How this fact shows the dignity and importance of human life, and with what tremendous responsibility it invests it!
IV. The sombre and empty character of some kinds of religion; only a shadow. The shadow is dark and intangible; alas if our religion be “only that and nothing more”! Pity that any should get but a gloomy, and so a false, impression of religion from the representation we give them. It has been said that “every one lives for a funeral”; but can we not wait for the funeral till life is over? Must we see it every day? “We meet such people,” says a writer, “every day, and they have always some new distress for us. Their sweetest smile is suggestive of the neuralgia, and their most cordial greeting depresses like an east wind. They go home at night like an undertaker to a funeral, and children cease singing, and wives refrain from smiles. They go abroad in the morning like a Scotch mist from the Highlands, to drizzle discontent in the street and market-place. They enter the house of God to render its songs of praise requiems, and its oil of joy ice water; and their religious light shines before men as heaven’s sunshine through stained glass, and the priest at the shrine looks like a variegated ghost, and the reverend worshippers like brindled hobgoblins. A croaking raven is the device on their shields--a coffin with cross-bones the blazon on their banner.” Surely such a religious spirit and demeanour argue a wrong idea altogether of God and of truth. Peevish, morose, severe, fault-finding and censorious Christians are guilty, though they may not mean it, of dishonouring their Lord arid defaming the Church by the cheat of a shadow. True religion is sweet as the light, joyous as childhood, and benevolent as love. So the Scriptures represent it, and true hearts have ever felt it.
V. The real benevolence and cheer there is, or ought to be, in genuine religion. Peter’s shadow was eagerly sought by the sick ones or their friends, not because it was a shadow, but because to them it was the symbol of healing and cheer. So on whatever threshold the shadow of a Christian falls, in whatever company he moves, his coming should start a smile of pleasure; a manifest benison should beam in his face. “Good-will to men” was the cradle song over the Saviour, and it should be perpetuated as an echo in the life of every child of God. Heaven, as represented to us, is all joy, and earth should resemble heaven as far as sin and suffering will allow, by the prevalence of an atmosphere of cheerfulness over it. There are those whose presence is like the ripple of water by the wayside, or the shadow of groves on a hot day like an oasis in a vast sandy desert, or the singing of the nightingale in the darkness. (J. M. McNulty, D. D.)
The healing shadow
Who ever heard of the shadow of a person acting the part of a physician? They had no right to suppose that any good would come of such an extraordinary plan, And they had certainly no right to make Peter cure their friends in their own way, by a device of their own, without consulting him first as to whether it would be agreeable or not. Now the remarkable thing is, though these people were thus ignorant and superstitious, neither God nor Peter found fault with them. They used Peter’s shadow as a charm, and God made it to them what they wished it to be. Now, why was this? Because of the simplicity of their belief. And does not God often throw His power into the means which we ourselves devise, if we have only childlike faith? Little children come to church with their parents, and they are not always able to understand the meaning of the service. But their attendance is not useless on that account. If they place themselves in their simple faith under the shadow of God’s house, the blessing will assuredly not be wanting. It is not an intellectual knowledge of deep mysteries that God values, but a simple faith in Himself. The shadow of a tree or rock is a very delightful and refreshing thing on a burning summer day. It cools the heated frame, and imparts vigour and strength to the languid body. And if an inanimate thing can do so much good by its shadow, you would expect that the shadow of a human being would be more effectual still. I do not know that the shadow of our bodies would help much to keep off the too hot sun from a friend, but most certainly the shadow or influence of a good character can help others a great deal. We read in the fairy tale of a Peter Schlemihl, the man without a shadow, who frightened everybody else, and was miserable himself. But in real life there is no such thing as a person without a shadow. We have all a shadow to our natures as we have a shadow to our bodies. They say that it was from the shadow thrown by the figure of a girl on a wall, on a sunny day, that the art of drawing a picture was first found out. And so from the shadows which people cast as they pass by on the way of life, we can draw their portraits in our own mind; and these portraits are wonderfully like--much more true to life than the old silhouettes that used to be cut out of black paper. “If people’s tempers should cast shadows, what would they be?” said a little boy once, as he walked beside a companion, and saw his shadow on the road. “Jn’s shadow would be a fist doubled up, for he is always quarrelling; and Andrew’s would be that of a dove, for he is always amiable and pleasant; and Jane’s would be that of a letter X, for she is as cross as two sticks; and my own shadow, what would it be?” He stopped short. He was afraid of what kind of shadow his own temper would cast. Now supposing you follow out the little boy’s idea, and believe what is actually true, that you are throwing off impressions of what you really are all around you, and in fact can no more help doing so than you can prevent your bodies from casting real shadows on the road as you walk along; and each of you should ask himself or herself, What kind of shadow is my temper casting? It might perhaps surprise you to see yourselves as others see you. (H. Macmillan, LL. D.)
Healing and hurting shadows
This record is the indication of a belief that stirred some human souls in old times, and ought to stir them still--a belief that there is something in a shadow cast from one over another, of a deep and potent power; a deed done sometimes the hand has no part in; a word said the tongue never utters; a virtue going out of me, or a vice, apart from my determination; a shadow of my spirit and life cast for good or evil, as certain and inseparable as my shadow on the wall. For instance, there is some mysterious force by which men, the first time we meet them, cast a shadow of light or darkness we cannot account for, and cannot overcome. What these subtle influences are no man has ever told us.
“I do not like thee, Dr. Fell;
The reason why I cannot tell;
But--I do not like thee, Dr. Fell,”
is the inner and instinctive verdict we pass on some men; probably, also, that some men pass on us. Their shadows hurt us: our shadows hurt them. Foremost of all shadows is the shadow of the home; where, four times in a century, God makes a new earth, and out of which he peoples a new heaven. I have sat bareheaded in the noblest Gothic cathedral on the earth. And for years I sat, in my youth, in a simple country church, joining in the old liturgies that, in one form or another, had been said or sung ever since the Saxon embraced the Christian faith. And once, I remember, I rose in the grey light, and stood alone by Niagara, while the sound of its mighty thunder rose up fresh and pure, unbroken as yet and undefiled by the clamour of those many changers who deserve a whip of not very small cords for profaning that place in which, of all places, the soul longs to be alone with her God. These were sacred places. But the holiest of all, the place whose shadow stretches over forty-five hundred miles of earth and sea, and forty years of time, and is still a shadow of healing, is a little place built of gray stone. There, bending over the picture in the great Bible, or listening to psalm or song or story, the child lived in the shadow of that home; and it became to him as the very gate of heaven, so dear and good, that no great cathedral, no grand scene in nature, no place for worship anywhere, can be what that grey-stone cottage was. I wonder whether we have any deep consciousness of the shadows we are weaving about our children in the home; whether we ever ask ourselves if, in the far future, when we are dead and gone, the shadow our home casts now will stretch over them for bane or blessing. It is possible we are full of anxiety to do our best, and to make our homes sacred to the children. We want them to come up right, to turn out good men and women, to be an honour and praise to the home out of which they sprang. But this is the pity and the danger, that while we may not come short in any real duty of father and mother, we may yet cast no healing and sacramental shadow over the child. I look back with wonder on that old time, and ask myself how it is that most of the things I suppose my father and mother built on especially to mould me to a right manhood are forgotten and lost out of my life. But the tender, unspoken love; the sacrifices made, and never thought of, it was so natural to make them; ten thousand little things, so simple as to attract no notice, and yet so sublime as I look back at them--they fill my heart still and always with tenderness when I remember them, and my eyes with tears. All these things, and all that belong to them, still come over me, and cast the shadow that forty years, many of them lived in a new world, cannot destroy. To make this question clear, if we can, let me open to you a glimpse of some shadows that are being cast in some homes every day, not over children alone, but over men and women also.
1. Here is a man who has been down town all day, in the full tide of care, that from morning till night floods the markets, offices, and streets of all our great cities. Tired, nervous, irritable, possibly a little disheartened, he starts for his home. If it is winter, when he enters there is a bit of bright fire, that makes a bad temper seem like a sin in the contrast; a noise of children that is not dissonant; and an evident care for his comfort, telling, plainer than any words, how constantly he has been in the mind of the house-mother, while breasting the stress and strife of the day; while a low, sweet voice, that excellent thing in woman, greets him with words that ripple over the fevered spirit like cool water. And the man who can nurse a bad temper after that deserves to smart for it. There is no place on the earth, into which a man can go with such perfect assurance that he will feel the shadow of healing, as into such a home as that. It is the very gate of heaven.
2. But I will open another door. Here is a home into which the man goes with the same burden on him. When he enters querulous questions meet him as to whether he has forgotten what he ought never to have been required to remember. Plaintive bewailings are made to him of the sad seventy-seventh disobedience of the children, or the radical depravity of the servants; and a whole platoon-fire of little things is shot at him, so sharp and ill-timed, that they touch the nerve like so many small needles. It is in such things as these that the shadows are cast, that hurt, but never heal: that drive thousands of men out of their homes into any place that will offer a prospect of comfort and peace, even for an hour.
3. But let me not be unfair. The evil shadow may just as certainly come from the man. Here is another man in the mood I have tried to touch. All day long he has fretted at the bit; but society has held him in. He goes home too, but it is to spume out his temper. The very sound of his foot casts a shadow that can hurt, but can never heal. If his wife is silent, he calls her sulky: if she speaks, he snaps her. If his children tome to him with innocent teasings he would give a year of his life some day to bring back again, they are pushed aside, or sent out of the room, or even--God forgive him--are smitten. He eats a moody dinner: takes a cigar; bitter, I hope, and serves him right; takes a book, too--not Charles Lamb or Charles Dickens, I warrant you--and, in one evening, that man has cast a shadow he may pray, some day, in a great agony, may be removed, and not be heard.
4. Then again, what shadows of healing fall, in their turn, from the children! No affliction that can ever come through children ever equals that which comes with their utter absence; while the heaviest affliction to most, the death of the little one, often casts a shadow of healing that could come in no other way. I went one day to see a poor German woman, whose children had all been down with scarlet fever. Four were getting well again; one was dead. And it was very touching to see how the shadow of that dead child had come over the mother, and sent its blessing of healing through all the springs of her life. “These are beautiful children,” I said.
“Oh, yes! but I should have seen the one that died.” While he was with her, he was like the rest. But now, when he was gone, he cast the shadow. The little shroud was turned into a white robe, that glistened and shone in the sun of Paradise, so that she was blinded; the broken prattle had filled out into an angel-song; the face shone as the face of an angel; and, all unknown to herself, God had laid her where the shadow of the little one up in heaven could touch her with its healing. And no shadow is so full of healing as that shadow of the child that is always a child in heaven. The most gentle and patient will sometimes feel a touch of irritation at the waywardness of the one that is with us; but no father or mother in this world ever did bring back any sense of such a feeling toward the one Chat is gone. The shadow of healing destroys it for ever. (R. Collyer, D. D.)
All things are engaged in writing their history. “The plant, the pebble, goes attended by its shadow. The rolling rock leaves its scratches on the mountain; the river, its channel in the soil; the animal, its bones in the stratum; the fern and leaf, their model epitaph in the coal. The falling drop makes its sculpture in the sand or stone. Not a foot steps into the snow or along the ground but prints, in characters more or less lasting, a map of its march. Every act of man inscribes itself on the memory of his fellows, and in his own manners and face. The air is full of sounds, the sky of tokens; the ground is all memoranda and signatures, and every object covered with hints which speak to the intelligent.
Here was the apostle who had gone forth purposed to heal men; and one by one as they were brought up he commanded them to stand; and they stood whole. Thus he exerted a conscious and voluntary power. But as he passed along the streets, his shadow fell upon many, and they sprang up behind him, he knowing little or nothing of it; so that his shadow or unconscious influence, also, was working at the same time. Now, all of us have both kinds of influence or power--that which we understand and mean, and that “which falls like a shadow, the existence of which we do not understand or recognise.
I. Unconscious influence in a bad sphere. Men may act unconsciously in the production of trouble, far more than they themselves suspect; for their unconscious influence works according to the quality of that which is in them. When men pursue voluntary courses, they often hide the reality, and put forth that which is not real but simulated. Thus, perhaps, one makes himself friendly to a person whom he does not like, for purposes of business. Sometimes men suppress anger because good-nature will carry their purposes better. So that a man’s overt and open conduct may not be in the line of nature. But there is an influence derived from that which you actually are.
1. A proud man may carry himself intentionally in such a way that every one he meets is made to feel his inferiority. But a man may tarry himself in such a way that without the slightest intention he shall insult his fellow-men, and make a perpetual aggression upon them. Your pride does not always exert itself according to your will. It has a magnetism of its own. A man may carry in his hand, if he please, a mignonette, and he may carry it because it is sweet. He may also put fetid odours in his clothes. He may hide them, not wishing that others shall know that they are there. But they will make themselves known, whether he wants them to or not. So a man may carry himself in the strong qualities of his nature, wishing well; but if those qualities are harmful in their tendency he will produce mischief in spite of his good intentions.
2. A man’s selfishness may act as good conductors of heat do. If you put your hand upon wood it seems relatively warm; and if you put it on iron it seems excessively cold. They are of the same temperature, as measured by the thermometer, only the iron, being a good conductor, has the power of drawing heat rapidly from your hand, while the wood, being a poor conductor, draws it but sparingly. So it is with men. Some men exhaust you, they suck you dry, and you know not what is the matter. A man may have a nature such that when you are in his presence you are perpetually conscious that your sympathy is drawn upon and exhausted. He is a good conductor. His effect upon you is to chill you. And he does not intend any harm. Unconscious selfishness always works in that way. A man may be consciously selfish and not half so offensive as a man whose selfishness is never positively aggressive, but who carries an inward nature that all the while and everywhere draws upon men, making the whole room and house uncomfortable.
3. So combativeness may take on forms which will detract from the happiness of every one. The more obvious forms, bad as they are, probably, if measured by the mischief which they work, would not be found to produce one-half the discomfort of society which arises from the latent forms--what we call ill-nature. It hovers in the air. It is in silence as much as in the short, sharp reply. So men oftentimes fill the circles in which they live with malign influences. They poison the air with suspicion, with envy, with jealousy. A look, a hint, a shrug, may convey the wretched insinuation; or the unconscious atmosphere of jealousy make itself felt.
4. I may mention, also the unconscious wrong which sorrow commits upon those who are about it. Sorrow is not a thing to be controlled altogether; and yet we must exhort men to beware of the extremely selfish tendencies and qualities of sorrow. You have a right, as far as you can, to lean on sympathising friends, and so relieve your sorrow: and men should help the sorrowful; but, after all one has no right to distribute his sorrow. This is true, too, in the matter of ill-health. Invalids are privileged persons; but they should not privilege themselves. Because one is sick he has no right to set aside all laws of love, and disinterestedness, and honour.
5. Men’s good qualities even may act unfavourably upon other men. For example, a man may be perfectly upright, and yet carry his conscience in such a way that it is perpetually condemning men. There is a kind of arrogance of goodness. Deliver me from a person who never does wrong--and knows it; from one whose tongue never makes any mistakes--and keeps account of that fact. If there be anything that is provoking to a poor sinner--and most of us are poor sinners--it is one of these perfect people who move about without much temptation--a perpetual rebuke to us all the time--a kind of stinging censure to our infelicities and inferiorities.
II. Unconscious influence in a good sphere. If the predominant faculties are sweet and gracious, then you will carry with you a sweet and gracious atmosphere, so that while you are doing good on purpose, you will be doing more good without purpose. There be men whom we might almost wish to have walk up and down in the street, in order to shed abroad their disposition--unconscious to themselves. There is goodness that means to be good; and there is a great deal of goodness which is better, that comes out from the eye, from the lips, or from the pores--I had almost said from the skin--and that is not conscious of being good. And when one dwells in such a royal bounty of kindness and goodness in himself that his very shadow, falling on men, makes them happy, that unconscious kindness and goodness is wealth indeed. When the train is stopped, the engineer springs from the locomotive and oils the machinery at every point, so that the oil runs in at all the joints. We look at him and at the engine, and admire them. But we never say a word to the oil, or about it. And yet the engine, and what it does, are largely dependant upon the lubrication which the oil brings. Now there are lubricators among men who keep the machinery of society oiled, so as to prevent its joints from wearing, and its journals from heating.
1. Such a man is one who is thoroughly good-natured. Men are as much perceived that carry good-nature in society as spicewood is that carries sweet odours. There is no danger of there being too many men who are not easily irritated, who look on the bright side of things, and who tend to solace--men that you can cushion on, and not touch the hard angles of an exacting, conscientious spirit. It is a great comfort just to look at a man who is good-natured. I remember once riding on a cold night. I was so cold that I almost feared that I should freeze. After awhile I came across a blacksmith’s shop. I saw a bright light on the forge. I wanted to get off and warm myself, but I was afraid that I should be so numb that I could not get on again. So I sat and looked at the fire a moment; and then I said: “Well, I feel better just for looking at you,” and rode on. I have seen persons whose very presence, when the night was dark, and the way was difficult, and all things were freezing, filled you with comfort. There are thousands of times when men want to be thawed out. Men have power enough, but it is frozen; they need sympathy. And there are men who are supplying this element without knowing what they are doing. Many men are shot along the way of encouragement, and made to triumph, by some man who never dreams that he is doing anything for them. It is a good investment to have good-nature, and so much of it that you exhale it, as flowers do their odours; for you do not know who will take the comfort of it.
2. So, too, there is great inspiration in humour and in wit. Among the gifts which have been made to humanity, none in the lower sphere of virtues should call forth our thankfulness more than these. They civilise life. They carry with them a perpetual Blessing.
3. Still more are trust, devotion, humility. We think more of what Christ was, than of what He said or did. He always seems as one with a shining face. None go near Him without feeling the sanctity of His presence. None go near Him without feeling inspired toward good.
4. And so while we do and teach, our best work is that which we perform without knowing it. Silence under provocation is better than doctrine to many and many a man. Fortitude under trouble is a testimony to religion which is far better than a thousand proof-texts. In your boyhood, as you will very well remember, you used to write with invisible ink; and there was nothing for the recipient to do but to take the paper and hold it to the fire, and straightway out came the message. You are writing with invisible letters on thousands of children’s hearts; on the hearts of passers-by; on the hearts of those whom you meet in every circle where you move. (H. W. Beecher.)
I. We all exert some kind of influence. The law of influence every atom has to obey. A bird can neither scatter its songful notes in the air, nor soar in the heavens, without setting in motion pulsations which vibrate through all space. So man is so closely united to his fellows by various ties that he cannot live unto himself. In our social gatherings we meet with some persons around whom there is a kind of atmosphere charged with enkindling and attractive elements; and we meet with others who have a something about them which is dampening and rapelling. As leaven influences the meal, so we in some way affect those with whom we come into contact. Now this influence is--
1. Voluntary. Our Lord declared that the apostles should heal all manner of diseases. In this chapter we have a fulfilment of this prediction. The apostles voluntarily touched the sick and healed them. So, whenever we do anything with an aim, we exert voluntary and conscious influence.
2. Involuntary. The shadow which Peter cast upon the diseased restored them. Unintentionally and unconsciously a curative virtue went out from him. It is this influence which we all possess, an influence which flows from us, and floats about us insensibly
II. The secret of beneficial influence. Christian character. A man may have but little of this world’s goods, and may occupy a lowly sphere; but if he has the Christ-like disposition, his influence, as was the shadow of Peter, will be rife with benediction. On the other hand, a man may possess extensive knowledge, immense wealth, and may move in the highest circles; but unless he has the Christ-like spirit, his treasures and status may fill him with pride; he may use them as instruments in the service of the god of this world, and render his influence as deadly as a pestilence. Or, prompted by some selfish motives, he may devote them very largely to benevolent purposes; but, lacking the true spirit, he produces in our minds a feeling of his hollowness and insincerity. If such an one would really benefit his fellows his heart must be renewed. Spirituality of character alone will give weight and value to riches, learning and position, when used in the service of Christ. If our voluntary influence is to be good, our involuntary influence must be good, and if our involuntary influence is to be good we must be right at the core. We must be quickened ere we can quicken. We must be recipients of the Divine ere we can be its distributors. Lord Peter-borough said of Fenelon: “He is a delicious creature; I was forced to get away from him as fast as I could, else he would have made me pious.” Thus our influence will be a wondrous force for good in proportion to the holiness of our life.
III. A few reasons which should urge us to exert a beneficial influence.
1. Because of our responsibility. We are as responsible for the influence which our character pours out apart from our own will, as we are for the influence of the words we intentionally utter, and the deeds we intentionally perform. Surely, then, it should be our supreme effort to model our character according to the Divine plans. We should see to it that our foundation and materials are such as shall endure the fire-tests of the Judgment.
2. Because we owe so much to such influence. The good that men do is not interred with their bones. What would have been the character of our laws, literature, art, commerce, and morals, apart from the influence of those whose footfalls are no longer heard on earth! Do not sceptics and infidels owe their best privileges to the influence of those who were animated by the faith which they reject!
3. Because it will be a source of infinite joy. It will cause joy to well up in the heart now--a joy which springs from the sense of duty done, from a quiet conscience, from making others happy and noble. But who can depict the joy to which it will give rise in the future?
4. Because it is the will of Christ. “Let your light so shine,” etc. (E. H. Palmer.)
The mysterious power of a man filled with the Holy Ghost
1. He repels the wicked (verse 13), and attracts the good.
2. He is the torment of unclean spirits (verse 16), but gives rest to the weary and heavy-laden (verse 18).
3. To the enemies of truth He is as the savour of death unto death--Ananias and Sapphira; the priests and elders--and to souls desiring salvation, a savour of life unto life--the sick, and those who were added to the Church. (K. Gerok.)
Then the high priest rose up.
Vain efforts to oppose the gospel
I. The effort in this case; by the imprisonment of the leaders of the gospel (Acts 5:17-18). The whole Jewish authority was in opposition.
II. Its vanity.
1. Because God was on the side of the gospel (Acts 5:19-24).
2. Because the people wanted and needed the gospel (Acts 5:20-21; Acts 5:25-28). The rulers were fighting against the deepest requirements of the human soul. The gospel is for the people.
3. Because Christ is a Prince as well as a Saviour (Acts 5:29-32). (Christian Age.)
The priests and the preachers
I. The devil some times makes use of the best instruments for the basest of his purposes. The Sadducees the best sect: the high priest the pick of his nation.
II. Persecution must be reckoned as the cost of Christian courage. The age of martyrdom not yet closed.
III. God’s deliverances of His chosen often appear like miraculous interventions of His own hand (Psalms 91:11-12).
IV. The true purpose of every Christian career is to “go stand and speak to the people all the words of this life: by testimony or works.”
V. The devil’s minions are usually the earliest to become frightened when the fight really begins.
VI. What satan fears most is good doctrinal teaching (Acts 5:28).
VII. The grand principle of the gospel is unqualified obedience to God.
VIII. The entire gospel is contained in the story of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation.
IX. The limit of human responsibility is found in stating the truth and living up to it. (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
The Sanhedrin and the apostles
In considering the lessons to be drawn from this history we see--
I. How God overrules opposition for the good of His Church. It seemed indeed a dark hour for the cause of Christ when the apostles were shut up in the common prison, and left, apparently, in the power of their bitterest enemies. They were now beginning to realise the truth of their Lord’s words: “They shall lay their hands on you, and persecute you,” etc. But they had no reason for despondency, for in that same prediction was also the promise of help: “And it shall turn to you for a testimony.” In the faith of this they waited on the Lord. Nor did they wait in vain. It was a triumphant answer to the teaching of the Sadducees, who denied the existence of angels, and it was also calculated to instruct and elevate the faith of the Church. Nor was the lesson lost. As mercies granted make us bold to ask for more, so, we may believe, this deliverance was remembered on a subsequent occasion, when the disciples met together to pray for the release of Peter. But more especially was this event blessed to the apostles themselves. The angel who delivered them said, “Go, stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life.” Their trial and deliverance, after all, increased their qualifications to preach. Satan defeated himself. So it has ever been in the experience of God’s faithful ministers. Many a sore trial or dark night of sorrow has fitted them to proclaim more clearly and positively the words of life. The apostles in prison, Paul in Nero’s dungeon, and John Bunyan in Bedford jail, are events which show how God can make the trials and persecutions of His servants advance His glory and turn to them “for a testimony.” We cannot but admire the prompt and faithful obedience of the apostles. To stand in that public place and teach in the name of Jesus was to expose themselves again to danger and death. Carnal prudence might say, “You are now delivered; hide yourselves until this storm of indignation has swept by.” But no; these were men who thought more of Christ than of their personal safety.
II. Rationalism confounded. The high priest and his council slept undisturbed by the visits of angels. On the morrow they were to pass sentence, But instead of their anticipated triumph came their discomfiture. Evil is never so near its defeat as when it seems to be in the hour of its triumph. The morrow came; the high priest, his council and the Sanhedrin were assembled, and officers were sent to bring in the prisoners. The officers return, with their faces proclaiming their amazement, saying, “The prison truly found we shut with all safety,” etc. (verse 23). Here was something that confounded all their plans and put a new phase on the matter before them. Just when rationalism thought to put down the supernatural, lo! it appears in a new manifestation before them. The perplexity of the council is further increased when one came saying, “Behold, the men whom ye put into prison are standing in the temple, and teaching the people.” When men escape from prison it is to hide themselves, but these prisoners go at once to repeat their offence. It was this conduct, as much as the strangeness of their deliverance, that impressed the senate. Then, as often since, men were made to see that there is a hidden spiritual force about the gospel which cannot be accounted for, save on the ground that the life of Christ is in it.
III. The enemies of the gospel made to fear and respect those who are fearless in proclaiming it. The high priest and his council have now heard where their former prisoners are, but how were they to arrest them? A short hour before they deemed it enough to send the ordinary officers to drag them to their tribunal. But now (verse 26) they were compelled to show special consideration to the apostles, and the latter are set before the Sanhedrin with something of honour and deference. The meeting is most significant: it presents one of those striking contrasts between the old and the new which history now and then furnishes. On one side are men of this world, who have no aims or hopes beyond the grave--men of policy and self-interest, controlled in their actions by “fear of the people”; on the other side, men who are living for eternity, and who through the risen Christ have seen the glorified life beyond the grave--men whose conduct is shaped only by the fear of God. The issue between them is the struggle of the ages; they represent the parties of to-day. Which side are you on? (S. J. Niccolls, D. D.)
I. The apostles in prison. The high priest and the Sadducees “were filled with jealousy.”
1. Because of the popularity and success of the apostles (verse 12-16). The rapid growth of the Church was a threat to them. It presented to them the uneasy suggestion of some day being called to account for having crucified the Head of the Church (verse 28).
2. Because the apostles were still giving, with great power, their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus (Acts 4:33). They were tolling the knell of the Sadducees as a sect.
3. The apostles represented the vital energy of this new sect. If they only could be silenced, the propagating power of the new faith would be gone.
II. The apostles released. Observe--
1. Its manners By an angel in such a way that the prison guards were unaware of their going (verse 23).
2. Its suggestions.
III. The apostles in the temple. Note--
1. That the apostles were not allowed to flee, they were released that they might return to the thick of the fray.
2. That with the release of the prisoners the mission of the angel ceased. They were to speak the words of eternal life. It is not by the eloquence of angels, but by the often faltering testimony of men, that the world is to be won to Christ.
3. That the apostles were to speak “all the words,” not a part merely--to speak without fear and favour--to speak just as freely as though no Sanhedrin or prisons or crosses were in existence.
4. That they must have spoken that morning with peculiar power. The circumstances suggest that they could not have done otherwise.
IV. The apostles on trial. Before they were brought to trial, the Sanhedrin “were much perplexed,” and were particularly concerned as to “ whereunto this would grow.” They were in dread of miracles and of the influence of miracles. In the midst of their perplexity, the astounding information was brought that their late prisoners were doing openly what the Sanhedrin had forbidden them to do. But on account of the manifest favour of the people toward the apostles, the officers brought them without violence, fearing to be stoned if, in any way, they roughly treated them. When brought before the council the apostles--
1. Were reminded of the prohibition which they had just been disregarding--a prohibition which the apostles, at the time, intimated that they must disregard.
2. Were accused now of trying to bring “this man’s blood” upon them. This man’s blood, however, they had invoked upon themselves (Matthew 27:25).
V. The apostles’ answer.
1. It was bold. It laid down the principle, “We must obey God rather than men.” That was like the reply of that heroic trio (Daniel 3:16-17). So Socrates at Athens, “I honour and love you, but I shall obey God rather than you.”
2. It was faithful. In reciting the facts that impelled them to speak in spite of the prohibition of the Sanhedrin, Peter again pressed home the guilt of the rulers before whom he stood. God had raised up Jesus, whom they slew, and exalted Him with His right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour.
3. It was suggestive of mercy. Peter pointed out that God had exalted Jesus “to give repentance to Israel, and remission of sins.” In this was an answer to the charge that the apostles were endeavouring to bring the blood of “this man” upon them. They were--but for their redemption! Peter’s address is short, but it contains the substance of the gospel. To the rulers as well as to the people in the temple, the apostles were enabled to speak “all the words of this life.”
4. It gave the reason why they must speak. They were “witnesses of these things.” They were chosen of Christ to speak. They were not alone in their witness. The Holy Spirit witnessed with them, and through them, and through others--thus Divinely confirming their testimony. And here was a hint to the rulers. If they would not accept the witness of the apostles, they should accept the higher witness of the Spirit. (M. G. Hazard.)
I. The apostles imprisoned and released.
1. Put in prison (Acts 4:1; Acts 13:45; Acts 17:5; Luke 21:12).
2. Led out of prison (Acts 12:7; Acts 16:26; Hebrews 1:14).
3. Teaching in the temple.
4. Sent by the council.
5. Lessons: Faithful witnesses for Christ--
II. The apostles on trial.
1. The apostles brought (Matthew 14:5; 1 Peter 2:13).
2. The apostles examined.
(a) Ye have filled Jerusalem with your teaching. “Ye shall be My witnesses … in Jerusalem” (Acts 1:8). “ Shall go forth … the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3). “The earth shall be filled with knowledge … of the Lord” (Habakkuk 2:14).
(b) “And intend to bring this Man’s blood upon us “ (Matthew 27:25; Acts 2:36; Acts 3:14).
3. Lessons: If the disciples of Christ are faithful--
III. The apostles’ answer.
1. The declaration. “We must obey God rather than men” (chap. 4:19; Daniel 3:18; Daniel 6:10).
2. The reason for the declaration.
(a) “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew” (Acts 2:24; Acts 3:26; 1 Corinthians 15:13).
(b) “Him did God exalt … to give repentance to Israel” (chap. 2:33; Philippians 2:9; Matthew 1:21).
(a) Because of that which Jesus has done to purchase their perfect obedience.
(b) Because of the exaltation of the One whom they serve.
(c) Because they are witnesses for Christ, their witness being effective in proportion to their fidelity to God. (S. S. Times.)
The activity and bafflement of the persecutors
I. The apostles’ arrest and imprisonment. The new attack was occasioned by the things described in verses 12-16. Note--
1. The feeling of the persecutors--“Indignation.”
2. Their conduct. They laid hands upon the apostles and put them into the common prison, of all places the most revolting and disreputable. Thus, as ever, bigotry shows the weakness of its opinion and the malignity of its aims, by substituting force for argument, might for right.
II. Their deliverance and commission.
1. Their deliverance. On the former occasion they were released by the timid and apprehensive policy of their oppressors; here by a direct messenger from heaven. Prison walls, iron gates, massive chains are nothing to an angel.
2. Their commission.
3. This deliverance and commission had a twofold effect upon their enemies.
III. Their arraignment and defence.
1. Their arraignment (verse 28). The language expresses--
To “bring blood on the head” is a Hebrew idiom for having to answer for the death of another. They had cried, “His blood be upon us,” now they deprecated that as the direst of judgments.
2. Their defence (verses 29-32). We have here--
(a) That Christ is exalted to the highest dignity--“the right hand of God.”
(b) That He is so exalted for the sublimest functions--“to be a Prince and a Saviour.”
(c) That in these functions He has to communicate to the world the greatest of blessings--repentance and forgiveness.
The imprisonment and deliverance of the apostles
I. The conflict of force.
1. On the side of the persecutors (verses 17, 18).
2. On the side of the persecuted (verses 19, 21).
II. The conflict of argument.
1. The Sanhedrin (verse 21).
2. The apostles (verses 29,32).
III. The conflict of policy.
1. The violent party (verse 33).
2. The moderate party (verses 34-42).
1. Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.
2. The moral cowardice of bravado. The Sanhedrin put the apostles in prison, but dared not ask how they got out.
3. “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
4. The inefficacy of force to crush the truth. (J. Bennett, D. D.)
The apostles persecuted
1. (verses 17, 18). There all evil power ends. The policy may admit of great variety in detail, but it is all summed up in that poor sentence. How differently it might have read remembering the dignity and culture of the Sanhedrim--“Let us instantly dare them to controversy, and in the hearing of all the people put silence to their doctrine.” No; their only resource was physical force. It is the same thing in all ages. No man can answer the truth; he can only lay hands on the truth-teller.
2. But having looked at the darkness, let us see if it be all darkness (verses 18, 19). So the affairs of men are not bounded by what we can see, and measure, and add up. There are invisible agencies over which we have no control. All the stars fight for God, all the angels of heaven assist the good man. They have always identified themselves with Christian effort. They were with Christ in all the crises of His life; and now they were with Christ’s servants in theirs. Men can shut us up; angels can deliver us. Men can do the destructive work upon our persons and ministry, whether in the pulpit, in the home, or in business; but God can do the constructive work, and set up again what has been shattered by violence. To know this is power, emancipation. The great difficulty is to realise the invisible. Lord, increase our faith! Give us those inward, all-piercing eyes that see angels everywhere, as the prophet saw them when the hosts of Samaria encamped round about him.
3. “And when they heard that they entered into the temple early and taught.” The apostles were always prepared, never better at one time than at another. They could preach early in the morning; they could study in prison; they could face the highest men in the nation; they could answer questions extemporaneously and completely; they could heal the sick and teach inquirers at once. Are we in the apostolic succession? Have we not to go to books of reference? But the Christian professor ought never to have to go away in order to find a word for his Master. The Church is losing power by not living in the atmosphere of Christian thought, service, love. The apostles received their commissions from the angels; but had a little child said, “There are some poor people in the temple who want to hear about Jesus,” the apostles would have accepted the call instantly. How can we teach Jesus if we do not know Him? But if He be our heart’s delight and supreme love, then we shall always be prepared in the best sense to speak for Him, not artistically and in a literary sense, but with that all-piercing power that touches every man to the core.
4. No angel had called upon the Sanhedrin during the night. So they came in the morning to go about their day’s work. But the prisoners were not forthcoming. Think of a whole court being put hors de combat. God is always making fools of those who oppose Him. The officers return. Hear their statement (verse 23). This is an aspect of the terrible power of God. He lets things remain just as they are, to all human appearance, but sucks the life out of them. He leaves prisons great shells. God can work so secretly, so completely. Circumstances have been your prison, and bewilderment, and prejudice, but an angel has come in the night-time and delivered you.
5. What a message was that of verse 25! Your expostulation has come to nothing. God has not touched a key in the girdle of the prison keeper, but He has used His own. The men were brought before the senate, and they said, “We ought to obey God.” This was their strength. Not “We had a vision, and were compelled to this act, otherwise we would have remained in prison and come.” Be gentle with some men. Peter denied his Master, and some of us would have expelled him for ever from the Church. But Jesus recovered him, and here he is, a hero. Have any of us slipped? There is no reason why we should slip for ever. Give a man an opportunity of getting up again. Those who heard Peter were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay him. I would we had more such preaching. Whether it is the knife is too short or blunt, or the hand too cowardly, we never get down into the heart.
6. There was one wise man in the council--Gamaliel. He called them to common sense. He told them of two men of marvellous pretensions who subsided into oblivion, and his argument was, “Give the men time.” Time is the enemy of the bad--the friend of the good. If this be a nine-days’ wonder, do not let us be angry on the fourth day: five days more will show us what it is made of. He prevailed, and the council compounded with the occasion by simply beating the men they intended to slay.
7. When the apostles were dismissed, what think you they said? “No more of this; we cannot endure being trampled on. We have done enough, now we will resume our ordinary tasks.” Nay, read verse 41. Their wounds were medals. You could never have had a sentence like this from a mere artist. No literary man could have hit upon this expression. Have you ever suffered shame? Did they obey the prohibition? No: daily in the temple and in every house they ceased not to preach, teaching Jesus Christ. There was a new tone in their voices. Peter’s suffering developed that womanly element without which a man can never be complete in any great ministry. What examples we have to follow! We see from their history the worst that can be done to us. “Fear not them that kill the body.”
8. This history shows us whence true power comes. The power that bears affliction comes not out of our own hearts, but from heaven. (J. Parker, D. D.)
But the angel of the Lord by night opened the prison doors.
I. That human authority is powerless to oppose the will of God. The king on his throne, the judge on the bench, the soldier in his rank, etc., can only claim Divine protection when they discharge the functions of their office on the ground of truth, honour, and justice. Nowhere is obedience to true authority more emphatically enforced than in the Word of God; but nowhere is human authority, exercised contrary to righteousness, condemned with greater severity. Be assured that every sentence against the truth will be reversed. Every attempt to hinder the progress of the gospel will be punished.
II. That God has instruments of the highest order to carry out His behests. There are many records in the Bible of the glorious services which angels have done to the Church. Are they not all ministering spirits? etc. When ordinary means are unavailable God can command extraordinary help for His people. Let us strengthen our faith by this truth. It is not wise to indulge in any speculation as to the manner or mystery of such interposition. Neither is it expedient to indulge in the sentimentalism which hands everything over to the Lord to be done by Him to save human energy. True faith never pries into God’s mysteries; if it did, it would no longer be faith. True faith inspires all our energy in fulfilment of our duty. But, beyond this, faith trusts in a higher power when other means are exhausted.
III. That no prison can detain the men whom God requires for the work. The greatest of all teachers had devoted all His time to instruct these men in the principles of the kingdom. They witnessed His mighty deeds, and were made participators of His power. The evidences of Christianity were inscribed on their consciousness, and that was the book which the ages would read. Furthermore, the Holy Ghost had descended upon them, and had endowed them with additional qualifications for their work. Many souls had been saved, and the Church duly formed. If the world might be redeemed, evidently God intended it to be done by their instrumentality. Can you conceive of any prison, or authority, that could silence the voice of truth, the voice of the Cross, the voice of God? A necessity was laid upon them to preach the gospel which not only they felt, but all the world must feel. The angel came, and said, “Go, stand in the temple and preach the words of this life.” When the Lord says go, it is of no use for man to stand in the way with his feeble no. If we have a mission from Jesus to the world, however circumscribed our sphere to-day, God will send His angel to open the prison. If we are straightened, it is in ourselves and not in Him. (Weekly Pulpit.)
A tide was kept back strangely for twelve hours once, and so a host of Christians in Holland were saved from slaughter by the Duke of Alva. A tremendous wind once scattered the Armada of Spain over the wide wastes of the North Sea, and so Protestant England was spared to the world. John Knox moved his usual seat away from before the window one night, pressed by a feeling he could neither understand nor resist; an hour later there came a musket-ball crashing through the glass and burying itself harmlessly in the opposite wall. Such things occur almost every day in some conspicuous and exposed lives. One man has a conviction that he must not take a certain train; another feels that danger lies in his embarking upon a certain ship: the train is afterwards wrecked, or the vessel is lost: now the man knows that God interposed and protected him; and he offers a new consecration of his life thus spared as the only return he can make. (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
Angelic interference and apostolic work
The apostles might well say, as Elisha did, “They that be with us,” etc. It is only to carnal eyes that the world ever seems to get the better of believers. Very formidable machinery is set in motion to silence the apostles; but the touch of an angel’s hand makes it all vain. This, the opening of the prison doors, the angel could do; but there was a part of the work to be done which no angel could fulfil. And the mighty one who set the apostles free, bore the message which bade them, “go and preach all the words of this life.” Let us accept these two lessons for use to-day and every day. By His angel hosts, as well as by all other means, the Lord works out our well-being. And if we rightfully boast that the agency is none the less mighty because unseen, so the blessings and deliverances administered to us are often unseen also but no less real. Along the channel and amidst the circumstances of ordinary things, our welfare is being as certainly wrought out, as if we saw prisons broken, or sickness healed, or the bitterness of death pass us by. It were but a poor faith that would limit our Lord’s help only to extraordinary interferences of His power. The next lesson is two in one. The Master sends us help, and works mightily on our behalf to this end, that we may go and witness for Him. Next, we must never so trust in the forces of Divine aid put at our service as to look to them either to do our work or to make it needless. The weakest and most helpless of us, being helped of God, has some mission entrusted to him to make known “the words of this life.” If we make it our rule to “obey God rather than men,” we shall be maintained by God’s resources instead of man’s help. (G. S. Rowe.)
Go, stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life.--
The proclamation and the power of the gospel
I. The manifestation of a power which provides for the continued publication of the gospel. An attempt was made to suppress truth by the imprisonment of its heralds. Evidently men are not to be judged by the positions they may be compelled to occupy. The best, as well as the worst, of mankind have occupied dungeons. God seemed to take no notice of the monstrous iniquity. But oftentimes there is a great calm before the storm. How breathlessly calm the army is just before making the terrible charge I And when God appears blind and deaf to the wrongs done under the sun, then it is that avenging angels grasp their swords and await in dread silence the word of command. For Jerusalem there was in store an all-consuming penalty; but the hour for its infliction had not yet come. Nevertheless, it was necessary for the enemies of the Church to be taught the absurdity, as well as the wickedness, of their opposition. First, they are allowed every advantage. They lodge and carefully guard their captive; then, as easily as light passes through the air, the prisoners pass through to liberty. You might as well attempt to chain down a ghost as any man, or cause, or truth, when God has said, “Go forth.”
II. The attractive description of the gospel couched in the phrase, “The words of this life.” How often God comes to win our poor confidence, love, and service! It was when Jesus had scarcely done reproving the cities of Galilee that He said, “Come unto Me all ye that labour,” etc. Marvellous in themselves, these words are more marvellous as coming from Christ at that particular moment, as if, though He seemed to have no fruit of His labour, He would plead with men again. And, similarly, the apostles had not only to preach, but to illustrate, in their own graciousness, the grace of God. They escaped from bondage, not to flee nor to be avenged, but to proclaim again the truth for which they had suffered.
1. Such a proclamation involved of necessity a profound view of sin. We are dead, physically, when the air is no longer inhaled; mentally, when the truth produces no impression upon the mind; and spiritually, when God is unloved by our hearts. We may be the cleverest of the clever, and yet “dead in trespasses and in sin.”
2. But Christ brings to believers a new life. He confers the Holy Spirit, who creates the blessed life--Christ in you, in your thoughts and aims, your consciences and affections. And if Christ be in you ye shall not be barren and unfruitful; sinful habits will fall off the soul, just as dead foliage drops to the earth in this spring-time, when the rising life within the tree puts forth tender shoots to dislodge the withered leaves which all the winter may have defied the angriest wind to tear them from their boughs.
3. Christ nourishes that life. All ministers, etc., are commanded to speak to the people all the words of this life. But can life be nourished by words? It depends. Golden plates, being empty, are of no avail for those perishing with hunger. Perfect wires, unconnected with a source of electricity, convey no message. Words also may be empty platters or mere wires; but may they not be infinitely more? “God said, Let there be light; and there was light.” Some one announced to you, “She is dead”--merely three words; but their meaning froze your blood. We have heard these words: “Christ came into the world to save sinners.” Are they mere words? They may be; and yet they may be so filled with life by the Holy Ghost that they shall quicken in men’s hearts a vitality that shall never fade away.
III. The publicity of Christianity.
1. No doubt the temple was a very convenient place because of the multitudes that resorted there. But who can fail to see another kind of appropriateness? It was there that men had seen types and shadows age after age. The gospel was to be preached as an interpretation of the old revelation; a key was supplied which made plain the cypher which had been obscure.
2. Further, it is evident that Christianity courts publicity. Christ is uplifted for all to see. So His missionaries are bound to be as plain and clear as possible. Who ever heard that the apostles arranged a dark seance, or preferred to speak their words in corners? The gospel is addressed not to a clique, but broadly to humanity. There is no man or woman or child anywhere who does not need Christ; and there is no one upon whom Christ would not shine. (W. J. Henderson, B. A.)
Divine idea of Christianity
There is a strong tendency to place the religion of Christ by the side of other kindred systems, and the Word of God on the same level with the Koran, Shasters, and writings of ancient philosophers and poets. This arises from a forgetfulness of--
I. This Divine definition of Christianity. “This life.” As a life Christianity is distinguished from all other systems. It is the one only life--God given and God sustained. This life is confined to no sect. It is co-extensive with faith in Christ. It is a life which breathes, feels, loves, and hates. It has its own sphere, literature, food, world.
II. This Divine designation of the gospel. As “all the words of this life,” the gospel stands alone. When the Bible speaks all other books are silent. Men who try to discover the truth by the aid of ancient philosophers and religions are as those who light a candle in the middle of a cloudless day in order to discover the sun. The gospel is “all the words of this life,” because it is the Word by which this life is--
1. Discovered. Here the gospel stands alone. What amongst the vanities of the heathen ever discovered to a soul “this life “ spoken of in the text? These leave men still in darkness and uncertainty, while “life and immortality are brought to light by the gospel.”
2. Imparted. Here again the gospel stands alone. Men try to draw unfavourable comparisons between the writings of Scripture and those of uninspired men, but assuming that such comparisons are just, they give no advantage. The man who wants to reap a harvest does not scatter glittering pearls in his field because they look much better than his “bare grain,” but knowing that his corn possesses an inherent vitality, which will reproduce itself manifold, he commits it to the soil. The gospel was never intended to satisfy the cravings of critics, but to impart “this life.”
3. Sustained. This life has wants and cares, emotions and hopes, peculiar to itself. In the gospel we have that which exactly meets its necessities. You have soul needs, which all the words of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and Shakespeare together would not satisfy, but which are more than satisfied by the gospel. In “the words of this life,” you have that which strengthens and consolidates life’s trust; inspires and sustains life’s hope, and rekindles and inflames life’s love. Christ is in them! That is the secret. He in the Word sustains the soul.
4. Governed. Here again the gospel is without a rival. The daily prayer of a true heart is, “Order my steps in Thy Word,” and its daily testimony is, “Thy Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
III. This divine delegation of the church. “Go, stand and speak in the temple to the people,” etc. There is no ambiguity here. The Divine commission was clear and simple. In this we see the Church’s work to-day.
1. “The words of this life” are to be preached. Not by ministers only. “Let him that heareth say, come.”
2. They only are to be preached. “Speak,” etc. The apostles were not to go and draw comparisons between these words and others, they were to preach the gospel. They knew nothing amongst men but “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”
3. They are to be preached earnestly. “Stand and speak.” Let conventional forms and usages be forgotten. The theme demanded zeal. The old masters might sit and teach their philosophies, but as “Jesus stood and cried, If any man thirst let him come unto Me and drink.” so we must consecrate our whole manhood to this surpassing work.
4. They are to be preached exhaustively. “All the words.” The pleasant with the painful; the doctrine with the promise; the ‘warning with the invite. It was Paul’s boast that he had not “shunned to declare the whole counsel of God.”
5. They are to be preached universally “to the people.” They were to classify men. Every creature is God’s limit, and who ‘is he that shall dare to circumscribe? To the converted and to the unconverted; to the “elect” and to the “reprobate”; “to the people,” indiscriminately and universally, we are to “stand and speak all the words of this life.” (W. H. Burton.)
The religion of the people
Before Christ came, truth was considered to be the benediction of the few rather than the birthright of the many, the property of certain classes rather than the possession of the masses. But when Christ appeared He broke down the caste of light and learning, and brought the glorious truths of the gospel into the open market of the world.
I. The command of the angel. It was in direct opposition to the command of the Jewish hierarchy. There occurs a period in all lives when there is a conflict between the higher and the lower, between the external voice of authority and the inward voice of conscience, a period when the soul must dare to assert the majesty of eternal right in the face of the whole world. When the Lord speaks to us, either in the written Word or through the voice of conscience, or it may be in the events of providence, we must disregard custom and creed and yield to the dictates of the still small voice within.
II. The place of the apostles’ ministry. The temple of nature is one vast symbol of God. In the circle of sky above our heads, in the round ocean beneath our feet, we see the image of His eternity, in the light we see His perfection, in the lily His purity. Every common bush is aflame with the glory of God. And so it was in the temple at Jerusalem. It contained the symbols and the shadows of redemption. We have in the action of the apostles the recognition of the great principle of the right and privilege of every man who is filled with the Spirit to teach and to preach in the temple of the living God.
III. The persons to whom the apostles spoke. It is the crowning glory of the gospel, that it appeals to the people and admits the masses into the inner shrine and sanctuary of truth. It is impossible to estimate the transcendent blessing which a cheap Bible has conferred upon mankind, and the liberty to read the sacred oracles in one’s native tongue.
IV. The purport of the apostles’ message. The life of Christ challenges the attention of the world. “This life” is the life of God manifest in the flesh, the life of the Divine and the human in one person, the life of the Eternal looking through the windows of time. In Christ is the fountain of life. He came to give life, and to give it more abundantly. (J. C. Shanks.)
Christianity, a voice to the people
The record is instructive. Why not send the angel straight to “the people”? An angel could not be imprisoned. The Divine system of operation is not to get certain things done, but done in a certain way. He does not go out of the common course of things, unless it is absolutely necessary. He honours His laws and arrangements. In using men in the promotion of Christianity, He best advances its process of education, discipline, and development. Human thought, sympathy, and affection are awakened and matured both in the dispensers and recipients of the gospel, and thus this ordinance “blesses him who gives and him who receives.” If angels are not employed to preach the gospel, then, it is because they would not be the best preachers. To angels they might be, but not to men. Note here--
I. The proclamation. “The words of this life.”
1. The reference is to Sadducean unbelief, A truth is most needed when it is least liked, and the age that rejects it should have it kept, with martyr constancy, before its eye.
2. “Life” is the burden of the message. This, in its lowest state, is prized above all temporal blessings. Under a law of death, Christianity assures us of the perpetuity of our existence. It thus gives an infinite multiplication of the present life of man. What was a probability in the minds of wisest philosophers, became a proclamation in the mouths of Jewish rustics.
3. The existence of man hereafter is not, however, the only, nor the chief, prospect of blessing afforded by the gospel. Existence may be the bier of souls. Life, in its fulness, consists in the healthful and unfettered activity of the whole man. It includes, therefore, a perfect nature and a perfect state. Hence it is so frequently put for the whole of gospel goodness. “He shall have everlasting life,” is the entire promise made to faith. Man is a moral being. This supposes that he has moral powers and moral responsibilities. Sin is a violation of his nature, and it subjects him to punishment. As sinful, he is evil within, and he is exposed to evil as an infliction. Both these are called “death.” Carnality is “death.” Punishment is “death.” The design of the gospel is to remove and prevent this death; to renew our nature, and then put us into a scene and sphere in which all its dispositions and principles may have free course and be glorified; to make us right, and surround us with a right lot. The whole work of Christ, and the operations of His Holy Spirit are designed to quicken the soul, to bring out, unite, and purify its powers, and prepare it for a state in which there shall be no hindrance to, but every facility for its love and joy and work: in one word, that it may “have life, and have it more abundantly.” Through Christ we are restored to God, His law, His likeness, His love, His service; and no otherwise can we find our true place and rule and end.
4. And what a beautiful light is the gospel thus presented in! How accordant is it with the deepest and most advanced thought! How natural is its mercy! How agreeable its provision! And how indispensable its blessing! How every other method and object would miserably fail! All ornaments, instruments, advantages--what are they apart from life?
II. The place. “The temple:” Do we not see in this publicity--
1. The truthfulness of the gospel? The first preachers of the gospel did not secrete themselves, choose select audiences, go to strange people, nor wait until the matters of which they spake had been forgotten, or could not so well be sifted. Their message, intended for the people’s benefit, was committed to the people’s scrutiny. Based on history, they proclaimed it to those who had the fullest opportunities and means of trying its historical integrity. They knew that they spoke the truth, and knew that others knew it too. And what could convince them but Christ’s resurrection and ascension? The gospel is the same to-day. It is open to the inspection of all. It comes before the people in its full utterances and evidences. It especially challenges investigation. It allows of no means of bringing men to its adoption but their conviction of its truth. And it promotes, as all reason and history go to show, a spirit of intelligence, dangerous to any system that cannot stand the test.
2. The indifference of Christianity. The whole state of the Jewish Church was corrupt. And the time had come when the gorgeous ceremonial ceased to be obligatory, and realism took the place of ritualism. I can imagine some who would not have used the temple at all. There have been reformers who would have shunned the place, or only have frequented it to warn men of the sin and folly of making use of it. So did not they. And this is but one instance of the moderation of the first preachers of Christianity. Jesus did not shrink from contact even with doubtful things around Him. And His servants addressed the people through their familiar ideas, and conciliated them by conformity to their habits. We find one now prudently circumcising a disciple, and now as prudently joining some who had a vow. These things bear marks of the healthy character of apostolical religion, not to say proofs of apostolical inspiration. Men always work fresh theories to death. And when I find the first preachers of the gospel as calm as they were earnest, making no account of secondary matters, but every account of matters of first importance, I cannot but admire the reasonableness of their faith, and am disposed to admit that, in this, they were “taught of God.”
3. There is still a higher suggestion. The temple was the great symbol of the Jewish religion which had virtually passed away. In declaring the gospel in its porch, the apostles declared the fulfilment of all it was designed to signify. When the temple became a church, it was in the natural order of Divine Providence. What more meet than that the spot which had witnessed the premonitions of the gospel, should be the scene of its complete announcements? Nor must we stop at Judaism. There have been other great religions among men. In Christianity you have all these met and satisfied, and in it alone. It stands in the porch of humanity, and “speaks all the words of this life.”
III. The people. “Speak to the people.”
1. We have here a specimen of the genius and design of the gospel.
2. Let us obey the angel’s charge. There are temptations to restriction. This mission may be harder and, in some respects, less profitable than that of others. But remember also, that, in others, it will be most fruitful. And “the people”--the great body of the people mare in special need of these “words of life.” Christianity, by the influence of its truths and principles, has raised the people, and will yet raise them to a higher social position. The views it gives of man’s nature and relations must excite a desire for a position which the masses have not yet attained. It is impossible to mark the tendencies of our own day, without seeing that power is being wonderfully diffused. Whatever our views, whatever our apprehensions, be it desired or be it dreaded, persons and classes will be of less importance than they have been, and men in general will be of more. We may forbid the tide, but it will come in. With this destiny before the people, our duty is--
Christianity a life
1. There are two ideas of life--necessary existence and voluntary action. Thousands of men live, pass away, and are nameless for ever. Others live in a higher sense--Live an idea--and hence leave behind them a heritage of good deeds and life-inspiring words.
2. The unit of life is the most strongly marked fact in the universe of God. It begins with an eternal thought in the existence of a supreme personality, and is traceable through every order of beings. We speak of a nation’s history. What is it? The history of men and women in the aggregate ends of their actions. The Magna Charta and the Declaration of Independence, while expressions of national sentiment, are yet histories, to that extent, of every man whose voice and hands were raised in their defence or promotion. Every great working principle, every theory of reformation and progress must have a life-force behind it. Its recommendation, its truth, and its power are one with this vital force. The gospel of Jesus Christ has behind it this vital force in a transcendently striking fulness. It is pre-eminently a life. It is not a theory, but an experience; not a speculation, but a certainty; not an abstract idea, but a vital truth.
I. It was spoken. Men live by what they speak. All that is left of human life in the past are the few ‘scattered words of poets, seers, and philosophers, gathered up after the banquet of time. The words of the gospel were spoken by a man, the man Christ Jesus. It came welling up from the life-fountains, as His holy eyes looked on sin and sorrow. “Language was given man to conceal his thoughts.” But the language of Christ brought them forth in a revelation of beauty and power. So Divine were these words in their meaning that, when rough men were sent to bind the people’s Teacher, they were disarmed and went back to those who sent them, saying, “Never man spake like this arian.” But His words were also linked with the power of life. Each was a life-principle. “The words which I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” Yea, He was Himself the living Word--the eternal Loges--spoken from the beginning. Peter read this truth in the Master’s early utterances, and boldly asked, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.”
II. It was acted. Its precepts and promises were not spoken, like the philosophy of Greece, in the retirement of the academy, to a few disciples, but they were given to the thirsting multitudes in the midst of arduous toils. Christ worked while He preached. In the highest sense the gospel is a drama, enacted upon the stage of the universe. It represents itself, and its effect is its own eternal life-necessity and life-efficiency. The sympathy provoked in the hearts of its spectators also deepens the life-idea. It is not an aesthetic sentiment awakened by its delicate finish of language and character, or of profound emotion stirred by its tragic colouring, but of deep self-felt interest in the letter of its purpose and the efficacy of its sacrifice. Every scene in the grand drama is real. The real feet of the “Man of Sorrows” pressed the sands of Galilee; a hand of flesh touched the blind eyes; a human heart wept tears through human eyes over the grave of Lazarus. Human blood was found on the cross, and stained the grass in “the place of a skull.” A real body was laid in the new tomb of Joseph, and a glorified human body rose through ethereal depths, and on a cloud-chariot ascended to the kingdom above.
III. It was lived. Christ practised what He preached. The great truths and heavenly virtues which He held up to others found illustration and shone with Divinest radiance in His own life. In an absolute sense, then, this gospel may be styled a life--a perfect life. None other is. It stands out in chiselled beauty and symmetry. The Child of children; the Brother of brothers; the Friend of friends; the Man of men; His life was confined to the proper channels of duty, while the perfect balance of His whole nature made Him ever the Just, the True, the Good.
IV. It was felt. It felt not only for humanity, but felt with it; and came not only with a relief for human woe, but came to share that woe.
1. There is a time in every life when sorrow and care are a strange and pathetic poetry. But after a while they become strangely real. Experience makes them part of life, and thus the chords of sympathy are struck through all the race. It was thus that Christ learned to sympathise with man. With man He quaffed the bitter chalice; with man, trod the path of thorns; with man, tasted death, and with him, slumbered in the grave. But He rose as the earnest of immortality to man’s slumbering dust.
2. But this sympathy is not only with human sorrow, but also with human joy. It is a lyre strung with chords of grief and chords of joy. Sometimes they are struck in unison, sometimes singly, but always to throbs of human hope. The gospel is a religion of light. Gloom was never on His face. (H. M. Dubose.)
Distinguishing properties of spiritual life
I. The nature of the gospel, as here intimated. “All the words of this life.” It is the design of the gospel to restore man to a certain life. With regard to its matter, the gospel is styled the word of truth; with regard to its end, the word of life. The apostles embraced Jesus Christ as “having the words of eternal life.” There is a life, lost by the fall to man, restored by the gospel. Christians experience a great transition, no less than from death to life. Jesus Christ came to give life, and to give it more abundantly; the gospel being a fuller ministration of the blessings related to spiritual and eternal life than the Old Testament. This life consists in the effects of the gospel on the spirits of men. Their state is essentially changed by the introduction of this life: “all things become new.” God, who was the object of aversion, becomes the object of love; God, who was disregarded, becomes the chief source of happiness; His favour, which was left out of sight, becomes the great prize and end of our being; we press after this beyond all beside.
II. Some distinguishing properties of this life. None can form an adequate conception of it but those who experience it. This is the case with every kind of life; you could not judge of the life you live, unless you had experienced its functions, its pleasures and its pains. Similarly, the natural man cannot know the things of the spiritual; they must be spiritually discerned. This is--
1. A supernatural and spiritual life. It is not produced by any natural causes or means; none can impart it to another, none can produce it in himself. God must give it; it is called a “new creation,” “born of the Spirit--born of God.” It is a life quite distinct from every other kind of life; there is vegetable life, distinct from sentient or animal life; and, above this, there is the life of reason, which reaches to the past and the future by reflection and anticipation, and diffuses existence over interminable space; but as far superior to this, as this is to the life of mere sensation, is the life of spirituality.
2. A most elevated life. It brings us into an alliance with the Father and the Spirit by Jesus Christ. He who has this life places his interest in heaven. He would not exchange the sufferings of this life for all that riches could purchase, all that pleasure could offer, all the glory of time; for he feels himself called to the station of those who are “kings and priests to God”; he is enabled to reign over his fleshly appetites and desires, and to sit down with Jesus Christ in heavenly places. Never shall we know what real dignity is till we experience this life. This is the life that Jesus Christ lived.
3. A holy life. It partakes the nature of its Author, the Holy Spirit; it is given for the very purpose of recovering man from sin to holiness; the necessity that existed for Christ’s interposition springs entirely out of this design. It is a life which creates pure desires; wars against everything base and evil; makes men strive against sin even unto death.
4. A progressive life. All life is such, vegetable, human, and Divine. The views of a Christian become clearer, his faith strengthens, his consolations improve, and, if he has not so much fervour as at first, his increasing stability amply compensates for the decrease. The saints are described as rich and flourishing in old age. Grace is represented as at first a blade, then an ear, then the full corn; as a little leaven leavening the lump. The Christian pilgrim, forgetful of things behind, presses on to things before; he is never satisfied until he is with God; his path is like the light shining more and more to the perfect day.
5. An eternal life. “I give My sheep eternal life.” As this life commences with the eternal purpose and Spirit of God, so it is destined to flourish with God for ever and ever. The life of believers is the same, in its essential spirituality, with the life of those who live in heaven; they have the same pleasures, the same devotion; they feed on the same bread, taste the same salvation, sing the same new song.
1. He that has experienced this life has a knowledge of its value that surpasses all that description, even the description given in the Word of God itself, can impart to others. He has had realising foretastes of unutterable, unchangeable, interminable glory and felicity; he seems almost to have entered within the veil.
2. But without this life, heaven itself, as it is the exhibition of God, must prove a most unsuitable element. There must be a new heart, new tastes, a new life in the soul. They that have not this grand specific, must die in their sins. (Robert Hall.)
The gospel message
I. The substance of our message. It consists of “words.” Too great a distinction is sometimes made between words and things. Brought together, ranged in the order of living thought, they are among the mightiest things on earth. But above all words of law and literature, statesmanship and science, military despatch and moral disquisition, pictorial and philosophical history, poetical and pathetic sentiment--are the words of this life.
1. It is life from death. Not life following death, as in the order of vegetation, where the sap that has fallen down into the root comes up again to vitalise the dry and barren branches. Men do not carry in their souls the seeds of this new life; its appearance is not through a development, but through a regeneration.
2. It is life through death. You get this life through the sacrifice of the Great High Priest. God breathed into “man’s nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.” That was all which was necessary for the first life. That you and I might have the second the Eternal Word becomes a man, that through death He might destroy and “deliver,” becoming “obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross.”
3. It is life for death instead of it. Death in trespasses and sins is but the forerunner of another death, a death to deepen, grow, intensify itself, and not to end with the destruction of the body, but to go on consuming the soul without annihilating it. Our message includes words of death; we would solemnly repeat them, but they are in service to the words of life, they illustrate them by contrast. If the gospel proclaims life in exchange for death, then the terrors of the death enhance our conceptions of the life that delivers us from it.
II. The illustrations of our message. Whether the apostles were sent to the temple because there so many types of the words of life were before them and the hearers, or not, certainly the temple was like an open picture-book, from which they could illuminate what they had to say. Judaism was “a shadow of good things to come.” The apostles as they declared the words of this life stood in the midst of the shadow.
1. Entering the temple, the apostles passed the brazen sea (Exodus 30:17-21). Through purification the Jews were to be saved from death. Through the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Ghost we live. The defilement of sin is the power of death--cleansed from that defilement we escape that death. Through the deep evil of our hearts we are shut out of God’s presence, bathed in the water of the Spirit, made clean through the new birth, we can cross the threshold of God’s palace, and bow before His throne, and minister in His service.
2. Beyond the brazen sea stood the altar. It proclaimed that “without shedding of blood there is no remission.” Death for life; no life for the sinner but through the death of another.
3. Beyond and at the end of the temple was the veil (Leviticus 16:2). There was not access within the veil at all times even for Aaron, for the people at large there was no access at all. Most emphatically did this declare the holiness of Jehovah and the sinfulness of man. The drawn curtain before the Holy of Holies means that the gospel undraws it; rather, the death of Christ rends it in twain (Hebrews 10:3; Hebrews 10:16-22). Such are the words of this life, they show the way open; they offer the privilege of the High Priest to all; they offer it continually.
III. The ends of our message.
1. The inspiration of this life. “How shall they call on Him on whom they have not believed?” “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” Thus we speak that men may live, believing that God will put life into His own words when we utter them. We do not try to play the philosopher, but we would walk in the steps of the Hebrew prophet. We would study Ezekiel’s vision, believing there is a lesson in it for us.
2. For the nourishment of this life. Peter describes the believer “as born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God,” and that which he recognises as the germ of life, he presents as the food of life. “As new-born babes desire the sincere milk of the Word that ye may grow thereby.” The new life, God connects with means in its nurture as in its inspiration. The minister is not simply a herald, he is to be a pastor feeding his flock, a father taking care of his family. Christians want what will feed their spiritual life, and strengthen it, and refresh it, recover it when faint, revive it when feeble.
3. The diffusion of this life. It is communicative. He who conveys it to another has no less of it himself, but more. The heavens drop down rain; through a million channels does it flow to fertilise the land. Spiritual life comes from God, who makes you and me bearers of it to others. Conscious of having it and enjoying it, how can we help striving to give it to others who perish through the want of its blessing? (J. Stoughton, D. D.)
The burden of the preacher--speaking in the temple
The religion of the Pharisee was one of bodily forms, that of the Sadducee one of intellectual negations, and thus both were opposed to a religion the crowning characteristic of which was life. The ever-new life of the gospel comes to burst every lifeless ceremony, and so confound the Pharisee; it comes to open the graves and confute the Sadducee. The apostles were the representatives of this new life. Their touch brought health where there was sickness. Their words enlivened souls. What were the arguments of infidels and the authority of priests before this all-prevailing power? One of the last shifts of despotism was resorted to--they laid hands upon the men and dragged them out of sight. But as the Prince Of Life Himself burst the common prison of death, so He led these His servants forth from the common prison of Jerusalem, saying, “Go, stand and speak in the temple,” etc.
I. The character of the preacher’s commission.
1. He is sent by Christ. “No man taketh this honour to himself.” Even Christ was the Sent of God. And of His disciples He said, “As Thou has sent Me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world.” The twelve were called apostles because they were sent by Him. When He left the earth He said, “Go ye therefore And lo! I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” How was He to be with them but by working and ruling spiritually in the midst of His Church, “giving some apostles, and some prophets,” etc. They are the true successors to the apostles who, called from the world into the Church, are still further moved by the Holy Spirit to devote themselves to the work of the ministry.
2. Is furnished and supported by Christ. The question is, How is one man to minister to the wants of a congregation of men, and sympathise with all its multiform life--rejoice with them that rejoice, and weep with them that weep; guide the erring, cheer the disconsolate, convince the doubting; have a word for the young, for the middle-aged, and for the old. Who is sufficient for all this? Looked at from the human side alone, no one is sufficient. He may have the strength of Samson, the brain of Shakspeare, the courage of Luther, the tenderness of Howard, the eloquence of Chrysostom; but if he has nothing more than what is human, he is unfit for his work. Whatever his natural advantages may be, he requires an unction from on high--he must be upheld and nourished, and guided by the Spirit of Christ. And he is so upheld.
3. Is responsible to Christ. To have Christ for one’s Master is the chief of blessings. Men may misunderstand us, deal out scant justice, fail in sympathy, and forsake us, but Christ will not. No faithful act of any servant of Christ can pass unnoticed or unappreciated by Him, but we have this consideration also for our warning. If our faithfulness is noticed, so is our unfaithfulness. If Christ has done so much for the world, He will look after those whose business it is to watch for souls.
II. The subjectmatter of the preacher’s message. The subject is--
1. A definite one.
2. A profound one. Life is a great deep. Who can fathom the soul amid the darkness that is within? disclose its origin in the darkness that is behind? tell its issues in the darkness that is before? If the gospel, then, has any reality and power it must say something satisfactory as to what we are, whence we have come, whither we are going, and what we ought to do. The gospel does this. The Bible is emphatically a Book of Life. Everywhere it is full of life. In the Old Testament there is the life of God; in the Gospels there is the life of Christ; in the Epistles there is the life of the Spirit--everywhere the life of regenerated man. It, is not a book of skeletons, but of beings clothed with flesh and blood. Like nature, it has an appearance of abruptness and disorder, which rests, however, on the eternal order.
3. A broad one. “All the words.” “The commandment is exceeding broad.” The gospel-kingdom is “a place of broad rivers and streams.” What richness and variety there is in the Word of God. As the book stretches over a great breadth of time, so it stretches over a corresponding breadth of spiritual life. It has its high mountains on which the clouds of heaven are resting, in the doctrines of the Divine fore-knowledge, predestination, and sovereignty. It has its fruitful plains in the moral activities and good works of men. It has its city life in its civil and ecclesiastical arrangements. It has its quiet valleys in which lie the beauties of domestic life. And it has its great rivers in the principles that run from the beginning to the end of the book. The preacher, then, should not dwell exclusively on the mountain tops of high doctrine, nor should he stand always on the plain, preaching what is called mere morality. If men will insist on opening their eyes to one set of facts, and shutting them to another equally true set of facts, it is not probable that they will preach “all the words of this life.” And whence come the narrowness of sectarianism and the bitterness of bigotry, but from a disregard of this truth--that the Word of God has many sides?
III. The suitability of this message to the circumstances and wants of all men. The Word was to be spoken to the people in the temple, where they were wont to congregate, in a language they could understand. The types in the temple had now served their purpose as forms of worship, and preaching had now become the chief work of the Church.
1. Speech is a noble faculty, whereby man resembles God, in that He reveals Himself by a word, and so comes into closer contact with his fellow-man. As an institution in society, public speech can never become obsolete; and as a part of the service of the Church it is coeval with the Church. Preaching is more essential to the Church than any other form of worship. Forms of worship belong to particular dispensations, but the preacher belongs to every dispensation. Whatever the form of worship in the antediluvian and patriarchal ages, there were always preachers. In the Jewish Church all the prophets were preachers. The reason is that the preacher’s function, being simple and direct, is suited to every age.
2. It is sometimes said that the press is invading the domain of the pulpit. Not so; the press is a handmaid of the pulpit, and instead of silencing the preacher it gives him a voice that extends to the ends of the earth, so that every week we may hear one divine preaching in New York and another in London. As a propagator of religious literature the press ministers to the pulpit; and with regard to other matters, the publication of things secular and ephemeral, the press is here altogether out of the province of the pulpit, which has to do with the spiritual and eternal. The question is, How is a man to be most deeply impressed with Divine truth? We cannot answer by saying that he ought to stay at home, reading the Bible or a sermon, for in private he wants three influences which he has at Church.
3. The words of the Bible suit all phases of life. It has pleasant pictures for the simple-minded, grammatical difficulties for the scholar, deep problems for the philosopher, guiding precepts for the practical, visions of beauty for the poet, hoary wisdom for the experienced, and songs for the dying in the dark valley. It has words for the father in his family, for the master among his servants, for the teacher among his scholars, for the judge on the bench, for the king on the throne. It has words for different states of mind: words of enlightenment for the ignorant, of conviction for the sceptical, of consolation for the bereaved, of warning for the thoughtless, of condemnation for the impenitent, and of forgiveness for the contrite in heart.
4. All earnest persons who come to the temple to worship God in simplicity of heart will hear words that will suit their case. And how varied are the wants represented in a congregation of worshippers! No two hearers altogether alike, but all alike in this, that they are by nature under one common condemnation, and must become partakers of a common salvation. The young are here with the world before them untried and unknown; they need a Saviour to keep them from the bitterness, unbelief, and vanity of the world. The middle-aged are here, with the world’s work resting on their shoulders, and they need strength, wisdom, and the sweet charity of the Christian life to enable them to do that which is true, faithful, and kind. The old are here, with their histories in time about to be closed for ever; and they require to have their anchor cast within the veil, and to be at peace with God, and there are words of life for all. (F. Ferguson, D. D.)
Preachers must reach the people
A minister whose congregation numbers about forty all told rejoiced in the smallness of it, because he professed that a greater work could be done with a few than with a large number. In answer, a friend suggested that he should infer from that statement that a greater work could be done with no people at all. This reduced the hypothesis to an absurdity. “I am sure,” said one, “that the better a man preaches the smaller his congregation will become.” This shows what a large number of very excellent preachers we have in London. But our business is to reach the people somehow. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Christianity and the people
We read of Jesus, that “all the people were very attentive to hear Him.” Moreover, the people retain the truth when they receive it. Note this fact in history: the Reformation in Spain was among the nobility, and it was the same in Italy, and the work soon subsided. In England the common people received the truth from Wycliffe, and it never died out. If you wanted to burn a haystack, you would set it alight at the bottom; and if you want a whole nation to feel the power of the gospel, it must first be received by labourers and artisans. The martyrs of England were largely taken from weavers, and such like. The people love the man “chosen out of the people.” The Bible is their charter, the gospel is their estate, and when they know it they will retain it with heroic constancy. What is more, they will spread it. Christ’s first preachers were of the people, and in the streets of London to-day, and in the Sunday-schools of England to-day, you will find that the people are to the front in holy work. We are glad to see the noble, the great, the rich, the cultured dedicated to our Lord, but, after all, our chief hope lies among the people. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Ministers must preach the whole gospel
Dear brethren, it is forbidden us to omit any part of the gospel. I am very glad it is, for if we were permitted we should sometimes shirk the unpopular parts of it. Yet surely it would be very dangerous to omit any part of the gospel, would it not? It would be like a physician giving a prescription to a dispenser, and the dispenser omitting one of the ingredients. He might kill the patient by the omission. The worst results follow the keeping back of any doctrine; we may not see those results, but they will follow. Possibly only the next generation will fully display the mischief done by a truth concealed or denied. It would be a dangerous experiment for any one of us to make. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
And when they heard that they entered into the temple … But the high priest … called the council together.
The characteristics of opposition to the truth
The contrast is very graphic. The apostles in public disseminating the truth: the Jewish authorities at the same moment plotting in private for its suppression. The conference suggests at once the characteristics which mark opposition to the truth, and the motives by which the opponents are actuated. Sometimes, in a given conflict, the characteristics are displayed in the same natural order of development as here. At other times each mark distinguishes some individual or movement.
I. Confidence (Acts 5:21). The apostles were locked up and therefore safe. It only remained to summon and sentence them. Then all would be over: the position of the authorities secured, and Christianity a thing of the past. So, in effect, have persecutors argued all through time. Christ was a babe at Bethlehem. All the babes at Bethlehem were murdered; therefore Herod was safe. Diocletian inscribed on pillars that the name of Christian was everywhere destroyed. Intellectual opponents have argued in the same way. How many times has Christianity been killed and buried from the time of Celsas and Porphyry to those of Voltaire and Tom Paine.
II. Disappointment. The prison doors were locked, and the sentries were at their posts, but the prisoners were gone, So, in effect, has it ever been found. Doors do not always open and close at an angel’s bidding to set the prisoner free; but his influence and his message finds its way somehow through the thickest walls. Paul was not less effective in a dungeon, nor was Bunyan. And though opponents may be permitted to wreak their full vengeance on their prisoner, martyrdom only enhances power. John the Baptist’s influence is all the greater for his tragic death, and Christ lifted up on the Cross is drawing all men unto Him. Bishop Tunstall may burn Tyndale’s Bibles, but that only provides Tyndale with the means of publishing more.
III. Bafflement (Acts 5:23-24). The authorities felt themselves fairly brought to bay, and began to cherish the secret suspicion that these Galilean peasants would in the long run be too strong for them. And no wonder. The possibilities of the men for whom prison doors would open were boundless, and so they doubted whereunto these things would grow. And now the information comes that they were not only at liberty, but were doing in the most public place the very thing for which they had been imprisoned. This would only increase the bafflement. It was the same in the great persecutions of the early Church. The doubt whereunto these things would grow made even the philosophic Hadrian a persecutor, but eventually made the politic Constantine a Christian. The same doubt agitates the heathen as he sees his cherished convictions and constitutions crumbling and Christianity slowly but surely rising on their ruins. The same doubt agitates the sceptic as he sees his books dwindling in circulation and Bibles multiplying.
1. Seen in the method of arrest (Acts 5:26).
2. But more powerfully in the dread lest their own imprecation, “His blood be upon us,” should be fulfilled (Acts 5:28). “Conscience makes cowards of us all.” Nor can it be denied that a large share of the anti-Christian attack all through the centuries is due to the fear of consequences. This will explain a good deal of its virulence.
1. Christians must expect the truth to be opposed. “What concord hath Christ with Belial.”
2. In spite of opposition Christians must maintain the truth. It is a sacred deposit to be defended at all costs.
3. Let Christians be animated by the thought that truth is mighty and will prevail. (J. W. Burn.)
And when they had brought them, they set them before the council.
The accusation this time is simply that the apostles had not complied with the former judgment--they were guilty of contempt of court. They had not, however, broken their parole, for they had given none, having declared that they would continue to preach in the name of Jesus. And now the judges are thinking not of truth and justice, but simply of their own safety (Acts 5:28). They believed that the apostles were working up the multitude to revenge the murder of the Saviour. It is interesting to observe how shy they were of introducing the name of Jesus; but in proportion as the rulers avoided it, the apostles proclaimed it. It was a stone of stumbling to the former which might grind them to powder: it was a strong tower to the latter, into which they ran and were safe. Peter’s reply to the question was, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” Whence had this man this wisdom and this courage? How much the world owes to Peter’s reply! It is the foundation of all true liberty. Peter’s defence is one of the finest specimens of pleading on record. It is clear and cogent; it is very short, but long enough. The speaker says all that is needful, and then stops. In this short space he defends himself, confounds his adversaries, and commends Christ. The address assumes the form of a syllogism which would not have been so remarkable on the lips of Paul, but which we are surprised to find in the unpremeditated defence of a simple and impetuous fisherman. After announcing the general principle that wherever God claims obedience man’s claim must stand in abeyance, he shows that this case comes under the rule. The God of our fathers he takes care to trace all up to the God of Israel whom the Sanhedrin acknowledged--“raised up Jesus whom ye slew.” The point of the arrow is at their breast again. In one sense he is in their power; in another they are in his. “Him God hath exalted.” He pillories the priests as enemies of God and crucifiers of the Messiah. But this is not the dictate of revenge. He is feeling for an opening into the consciences of the judges, that he may introduce the gospel; and therefore now offers through the exalted Prince and Saviour remission of sins. The preachers have an eye to the magistrates, the bystanders, the officers, the young advocates, such as Saul of Tarsus, who might be hanging about the court. And who shall tell whether Saul, through Peter’s word, received an arrow into his heart which would not out for all his intemperate zeal until he surrendered at Damascus. The witnesses were careful to sow beside all waters, not knowing which might bear fruit. (W. Arnot, D. D.)
The apostles persecuted
I. The arrest by the council. The arrest of Peter and his brother apostles took place at the instigation of the council before whom they were brought. It was the intent of the rulers to make the new doctrine odious by making its teachers criminals. Thus reasoned the rulers. Moreover, they believed that truth confined behind bars and stone walls could not be very dangerous. But how little they understood the nature of the truth! There is a vitality in ideas utterly beyond the power of man to conceive. When once they are fully grasped by and instilled into the mind they become living, permanent influences. The teachings were safely lodged in men’s hearts outside the prison, and not confined within the prison. The rulers also made the mistake of supposing that they could prevent the growth of the gospel by the power of authority. “Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this Name?” They had no doubt as to their power to suppress it. But human authority takes no account of the intense enthusiasm which truth inspires in men who believe it, and the degree of self-sacrifice which it can evoke. You can never be sure that your authority has stopped up all loopholes of escape. You can never be sure that your authority can inspire fear enough to terrify the advocate of it into silence.
II. Peter’s reply to the council. Here was another instance in which Christ’s words were to come true, for He had said some time previously, “But when they shall deliver you up, be not anxious how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that hour what ye shall speak” (Matthew 10:19). Peter, in his reply, admitted the truth of the charges. The apostles had indeed refused to recognise the authority of the council, because they recognised a higher authority. “We ought to obey God rather than men.” Peter, however, goes still farther. Not satisfied with merely answering their charges, he assumes the aggressive by re-affirming the doctrines he had been teaching the people, and boldly sets forth the claims of Christ. There is no shadow of a spirit of compromise in his words. Peter makes the startling announcement that Christ was a Prince. “Him bath God exalted … to be a Prince.” Peter, nevertheless, unflinchingly declared the new truth, that salvation was not in a system, but in a man. There was one more step necessary to complete Peter’s argument, which was that he and his fellow apostles had irrevocably committed themselves to these truths. “We are His witnesses of these things.” Thus the reply of Peter’s threw the necessity of action upon the council.
III. The release by the council. They began in bluster and ended in ignominious defeat. Gamaliel, the master mind among them, rises to state his position, having first, however, secured a temporary removal of the apostles. In private session he pleads for caution, his fundamental ground being that they cannot decide upon the merita of the case. They cannot tell yet whether this new movement is of God or of man. If it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; if it be of man, it will come to an end of itself. They had had two marked instances in their own history of the schemes of men coming to an untimely end-namely, those of Theudas and Judas. This incident in the history of the early Church clearly shows two or three things which it is well to note. And one is that ideas cannot be suppressed by persecuting their advocates; and yet the world is very slow in learning this lesson. To shut Peter in jail is no answer to the doctrine he taught, that salvation is of Christ. Fanatic, dreamer, bigot, heretic, are names freely hurled against individuals who are doing what they can for their fellow-men. But these titles have no more power to prevent thought or action than a thistledown can keep back the tides. The personal equation in persecution makes it the infernal thing it is. Another thing to be remarked is that persecution serves the hated truth a good turn by causing it to be clearly stated before the public. If you will consider the causes that called forth four of Peter’s sermons, you will find that; it was the opposition or doubt of unbelievers. (E. S. Tead.)
Did we not straitly command you.., and behold ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine.--
Fidelity under intimidation
Basil being offered the alternative of con, forming to the Arian creed or of resigning his bishopric, he answered the prefect, who was interrogating him, with calm dignity, that he could not obey the emperor’s will, “because it was inconsistent with that of his Sovereign Lord, and he could not worship any human creature, being himself a subject of that Lord, and commanded to be like Him.” “Do you know his dignity to whom you speak?” asked Modestus. “I do,” was the reply, “and I respect it, but that of God is greater. We are both His servants, and among Christians greatness depends not upon rank, but upon faith.” The prefect threatened him with pains and penalties. The bishop smiled as he answered, “What are such threats to me? He who has nothing to lose can scarce fear confiscation, and I have no possession save these mean garments and some few books. Neither does he fear exile who counts no spot on earth his home, being here but a pilgrim and sojourner, seeking safer place of rest; heaven is my home. Nor do I fear torture; my frail body would endure but little--you could strike but one blow, and my pain is past; I should but depart the sooner to Him, for whose service alone I am willing to live, and after whom my soul yearns.” Modestus could not forbear expressing his surprise at the boldness of the bishop’s speech. “Perhaps,” was the answer, “you have not before met with a Christian bishop, or under such circumstances you would have found the same conduct.” The emperor yielded, and, his child being dangerously ill, the Empress Dominica even sought Basil’s prayers on the young Galatus’ behalf.
We ought to obey God rather than man.
The word “ought” is but an old past form of the verb “owe”; it is, in fact, but another spelling of “owed.” What, therefore, we ought to do, we owed to do; what we ought to be, are owed to be. To God we owe our lives; we ought to pay Him with our lives. What we owe to our fellow-man, is that which we owe it to God to do for an honoured creature of God. We ought to do it because we owe to do it. And yet we go on saying we ought to do and we ought to be, never thinking that what we ought we owe, and that what we owe we do not pay! (H. C. Trumbull, D. D.)
is the word which sets forth the sense of duty. It differs from all the other words of the language save those of cognate meaning--a word without moods, tenses, conjugation, above time, space, and circumstance, a word like eternity, perfect and complete in itself. Ought! Whence came it? Not from time, for it is not subject to the laws of time as other words; it is a stray word from eternity. In virtue of this word, the central word of conscience, man is in eternity, and eternity is in man. This word “ought,” or, if you like, the truth which this word symbolises, the momentous truth of duty and obligation, is a “great light” hung up in the sky of the soul for ever; and however bright the lustre of the sun in the material firmament of the senses, it pales by the side of the exceeding brightness of the “great light which rules the day” in the inner heavens of the spirit. (J. Cynddylan Jones, D. D.)
Obedience to God
I. Its necessity.
1. Commanded (Deuteronomy 13:4; Deuteronomy 10:12).
2. The condition of acceptance with God (Exodus 19:5; Jeremiah 7:23).
3. The condition of securing God’s help (Exodus 23:22; Deuteronomy 7:9).
4. Expected of God’s people (Deuteronomy 27:9-10).
5. More than burnt-offerings (1 Samuel 15:22).
6. A fit return for God’s mercies (1 Samuel 15:24).
7. Must obey God rather than man (Acts 4:19-20; Acts 5:29).
8. Exhorted (Jeremiah 26:13; Jeremiah 38:20).
9. A proof of friendship to Christ (John 15:14).
II. What it includes.
1. Obeying God’s voice (Exodus 19:5; Jeremiah 7:23).
2. Obeying God’s law (Joshua 1:7; Isaiah 42:24).
3. Bringing every thought into obedience to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).
4. Obeying the gospel (Romans 1:5; Romans 6:17; Romans 10:16).
5. Keeping God’s commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
III. How to be rendered. Should be--
1. From the heart (Deuteronomy 11:13; Romans 6:1).
2. Willingly (Psalms 18:44; Isaiah 1:19).
3. Faithfully (Joshua 22:2-3).
4. Undeviating (Deuteronomy 28:14).
5. Constantly (Philippians 2:12).
IV. Motives to.
1. Promises to (Exodus 23:22; 1 Samuel 12:14-15; Isaiah 1:19).
2. Blessedness of (Deuteronomy 11:27; Deuteronomy 28:1-14; Luke 11:28; James 1:5).
3. Disobedience punished (Deuteronomy 11:28; Deuteronomy 28:15-68; Joshua 5:6; Isaiah 1:20). (S. S. Times.)
Obedience to God
The proposition is one which receives an unanimous assent. It is a truth seen by intuition. If there be a God, and He has any will respecting our conduct, we ought to obey Him. We owe Him obedience on every account. He is our Maker, Proprietor, Benefactor, and a Being infinitely perfect, incapable of willing anything inconsistent with the strictest rectitude. We ought to obey Him. Ought we! Then why have we disobeyed Him? Out of thy own mouth will lie judge and condemn us. But since there are mistakes as to what obedience is and is not, let us--
I. Draw some distinctions.
1. The mere doing of what God commands does not constitute obedience, unless we also abstain from what He forbids. Negative precepts are as obligatory as positive precepts.
2. Obedience must be universal. It must not only have respect to all that is forbidden and required. The same reasons exist why we should be conformed to the whole will as to any part of the will of God. If, therefore, any one disobeys God in any respect, he forfeits the character of obedience; and hence it is written, “cursed is every one who continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them.”
3. To obey God is not simply to act according to His will, but because it is His will. An accidental conformity of the will of man to the will of God is not obedience. It must be intentional. An atheist may do what God requires, but you would not therefore say that he obeys God. A man may do some things which God requires from some inferior consideration. Thus some are scrupulously honest, because dishonesty is disgraceful, or an inherent principle of integrity, and not out of regard to the Supreme Lawgiver. The very same elements go into the constitution of filial obedience. A dutiful son is one who does what his parent instructs, not because it falls in with his own inclination, or because he is to gain anything by it, but out of regard to the will of his parent. It is apparent, then, that there may be a great deal of morality and right acting among men where there is no obedience to God.
4. A doing according to God’s will, out of a regard to God, does not alone constitute obedience. It depends on the nature of the regard. The regard may be servile--dread of the effects of God’s displeasure at disobedience. It may be mercenary--expectation of reward for obedience. But the regard that is had to God in all acceptable obedience is the union of respect and love.
5. Obedience, to be acceptable, must be internal as well as external. External actions are really but the expression of obedience. In what is the law of God summarily comprehended but in a twofold exercise of the heart? “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbour as thyself.” All pious and charitable acts must, in His account, pass for nothing, unless they are the expressions of love, the obedience of the heart
II. Characteristics of obedience. It must be--
1. Constant; not occasional and interrupted. There exist the same imperative reasons why God should be obeyed at all times, as at any time. And the love of God, the principle of obedience, is not a fitful and feverish excitement, but a regular and healthful pulsation.
2. Unconditional. We ought to obey God, whatever the difficulty, the circumstances, or the consequences. There is no power of dispensation. And yet how many exceptions are taken on the mere score of inconvenience--e.g., as regards the Sabbath law. And must the laws of the great and dreadful God, whose majesty is such that all nations are before Him as nothing, bend to human convenience? What! is it our duty to obey God only when it is convenient and agreeable, or when it does not seem to interfere with any of our secular interests?
3. Supreme and primary, and not subordinate and secondary. This obligation takes the precedence of every other. They must bend to it. It will bend to none. Whoever is disobeyed, God must be obeyed.
4. Immediately, without hesitation. Delay is disobedience, even though it should be accompanied with the determination to obey hereafter. Is God’s law fulfilled by good resolutions and dutiful purposes?
5. Unquestioning. We have no right to ask the reason of His commands, or their utility. It is enough that He commands. Some little Sunday-school girls were questioned in reference to the petition, “Thy will be done,” etc. “How do angels in heaven do it?” “Immediately,” said one; “actively,” said another; “unitedly,” replied a third; and then there was a pause, when one little girl said ‘“without asking any questions.”
6. Submission. The reasons for obedience to God’s perceptive will are the same as those for submission to His providential will. “Thy will be done,” means “be Thy purposes accomplished, as well as be Thy commands obeyed.”
7. Sinlessness is necessary to the perfection of obedience, but not to its reality. Yet the desire and prayer, and aim and effort, and struggle to be free from it is. (W. Nevins, D. D.)
Three classes of people
I. The spirit of the believer. This is shown in the conduct of the disciples under persecution.
1. A working spirit. As soon as set free, they are found in the temple at work for Christ.
2. A conscientious spirit. “We ought “is the principle controlling their conduct.
3. A witnessing spirit. Notice how strong and how clear is their testimony (Acts 5:30-32).
4. A rejoicing spirit (Acts 5:41). They were glad at the privilege of suffering for their Master’s cause.
II. The spirit of the unbeliever. Notice how this stands in marked contrast with the believer’s spirit.
1. There is the fear of men (Acts 5:26). While the apostles are fearless of popular opinion, their persecutors are fearful, and stand in awe of the people’s wrath.
2. There is hatred against the truth (Acts 5:28; Acts 5:33). These men were not sincere seekers after the truth. The truth was the particular object of their enmity.
3. There is the spirit of persecution (Acts 5:40). Either the disciples were right or they were wrong. If they were wrong, the priests’ party need have no rear--their cause would come to naught. If they were right, it was a crime to beat them. But to repress truth by violence has been the aim of persecution in all ages.
III. The spirit of indecision. This we observe in the counsel of Gamaliel. His plea may be interpreted as the utterance of a noble toleration or of an unprincipled expediency; perhaps both elements entered into it.
Obedience to God rather than man
A stern father one day, when he came home from his business, heard a noise as if some one were talking in his little boy’s room. He asked his wife what it was. She told him it was Johnnie praying. This made him angry. He told his little son, in a decided tone, that if he dared to do it again he must leave the house and find another home. Like Daniel, dear Johnnie knew all he must suffer; but he determined to keep on praying. The next day his father came home and found him praying again. He went at once to his little room, and in a gruff voice said, “Pack up your things and be off. I’ll not have any of your praying in my house. You shall not live with me.” And so the poor fellow packed up the little that was his, and took his bundle and walked downstairs to say “goodbye.” He went first to his mother and sister, and gave them the “good-bye” kiss; and then, with a full heart, he leaned over the cradle and pressed his quivering lips to those of the little one he loved so much. His mother stood by weeping. How could he part with her? At last, throwing his arms around her neck, and with tears in his eyes, he sobbed, “Good-bye, mother!” And then the little hero turned kindly to his stern father, and, holding out his hand, said, “Good-bye, father.” But the father could not bear it any longer. He could not keep the hot tears from his eyes. No, he could not, after all, drive away his noble boy. “Johnnie, you need not go now. Pray for me. I have been a wicked man to try to keep you from praying. I was wrong; you were right in praying. Oh, pray for reel” was all he could say. And Johnnie did pray. Yes, and the father prayed too. He became a converted man, and loved, with his family, to bow before the mercy-seat. (E. P. Hammond.)
Obedience to God in spite of danger
One Saturday there was a little boy named Jamie Brown pushing along the road on his way home. He had only travelled about a mile, when, at a turn of the road, three or four very wicked boys, who disliked him for going to church, and refusing to join them in mischief, came rushing out from a clump of trees with a fierce bull-dog, and said, “Brown, you must say the bad words we tell you before you go another step, or we’ll send the dog at you.” And then they began to swear, and speak the worst of words. Now there was one thing Jamie had learned at his mother’s fireside, and that was, that it was wrong to take God’s name in vain, and wrong to foul the tongue with bad words. But he simply said, “Let me go; I want to get home.” “Not one step farther,” said the biggest fellow, “until you say these words after me. Swear this oath, and we’ll let you go,” and he repeated wild and wicked words. “I dare not say that,” replied the boy; “and you have no right to ask me.” “Swear the oath this moment, or we will let slip the dog.” “I will not swear that oath; and you have no right to let slip the dog on me.” They gave him one more chance, and then let loose the dog. That night, as his mother and the other children sat round the fire, the brave boy told the rest of the adventure. It came into his head, as his savage persecutors were unloosing the dog, that God, who shut the mouths of the lions in the den where Daniel was, could shut the mouth of the fierce dog on that lonely road. And God did shut the mouth of the dog. The big, hulking scoundrels, more brutal than their dog, yelled it at the harmless boy. The dog barked furiously for a second or two, and went rushing up to him. But it neither bit nor offered to bite. And Jamie was delivered out of their hands. (N. T. Anecdotes.)
Him hath God exalted with His right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.
The end of the Saviour’s exaltation
Elevation is necessary to influence. Of what advantage is a candle under a bushel? While the sun is below our earth, all is dark and cold; but when he rises, he scatters his enlightening and enlivening beams. When the shrub rises up out of the ground, it requires support; but when it becomes a tree, the birds lodge in its branches. A man in the obscurity and contractedness of private life can only pour forth benevolent wishes and shed ineffectual tears. But give him pre-eminence, and thousands are protected by his power and enriched by his bounty. Take the case of Joseph, e.g. But a greater than Joseph is here. Jesus suffered from the hands of sinners; but His sufferings led to His exaltation. Some are exalted as princes who are by no means saviours. They sacrifice the lives of their subjects to save their own; but He sacrificed Himself for the welfare of His subjects. They are princes of war; but He is “the Prince of peace.” They are princes of death; but He is “the Prince of life.” They are princes and destroyers; but He is “a Prince and a Saviour.” Let us take three views of the blessings which the exalted Saviour gives.
I. Their meaning.
1. What is repentance? The inquiry is necessary because of the counterfeits of repentance. Pharaoh, Ahab, and Judas repented, and yet died in their sins. An old divine tells us that “Genuine repentance consists in having the heart broken for sin, and from it.”
2. And what is forgiveness? It does not render a man innocent. Sin contracts guilt, and guilt binds over to punishment; forgiveness cancels this obligation, and restores the offender to safety. And frequently among men forgiveness extends no further. But God takes pleasure in those whom He pardons, and indulges them with the most intimate friendship. When two individuals have been at variance, the hardest to believe in reconciliation is the offender. A man once offended Augustus, and the emperor, to show his greatness of mind, declared that he pardoned him. But the poor creature, fearing the declaration was too good to be true, desired his majesty to give him some present as a proof that he had really forgiven him. Thus anxious is the awakened mind. Such a free and full forgiveness after all his heinous provocations seems incredible; he therefore desires a token for good: and many pledges of the most perfect reconciliation the God of all grace affords.
II. Their connection. This is not a meritorious connection, as if repentance deserved forgiveness, for they are both given; and how can one gift merit another? But there is between them a connection of--
1. Propriety. It would not accord with the wisdom of God to for give one incapable of enjoying or serving Him--yea, one who abhors Him. If a servant or a child were to behave improperly, though goodness may incline you to pardon, you would naturally require a proper state of mind, and signs of sorrow, confession, and reformation; otherwise your forgiveness would look like connivance or indifference, and encourage a repetition of disobedience.
2. Certainty. No one ever really enjoyed forgiveness without repentance; and no one ever truly exercised repentance without forgiveness. On the other hand, “He that confesseth, and forsaketh his sins, shall have mercy.”
III. Their source. Some think repentance a very legal subject; but there never was a greater mistake. For, not to mention that our Lord “came to call sinners to repentance,” and that the apostles “went forth preaching everywhere that men should repent,” repentance is peculiarly evangelical. The law has nothing to do with it; it does not even command it; all it has to do with the transgressor is to condemn. It allows him neither liberty nor ability to repent; but the gospel gives him both, and Christ was exalted to effect the purpose of the gospel. And if repentance be a gift, can the forgiveness be a purchase? Hence two things follow.
1. If we possess these blessings, we learn to whom we are to address our praise. “In the Lord have I righteousness and strength.”
2. If we want them, we see to whom we are to address our prayers. (W. Jay.)
Exalted to give
1. The murderer is haunted by the ghost of his victim. This is a part of the sublime machinery of providence for the punishment, and so for the prevention of crime. All history teems with examples of this. Witness Herod--“John the Baptist, whom I beheaded, is risen from the dead.” These high priests were compelled to undergo this inevitable sentence, “Whom ye slew, God has exalted.” Their victim has risen, and the murderers tremble. They showed Him no mercy, and expect none from Him. But now that He is exalted, and His enemies in His power, instead of taking vengeance He offers remission.
2. The water is exalted into the heavens that it may give rain. In the same way He who comes as rain on the mown grass was exalted that He might give Himself as the Living Water. The exalted Giver bestows every kind of good. “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” But the fundamental benefit, without which all others would be of no avail, is the twin gift promised in our text.
3. Repentance and forgiveness constitute one entire redemption. These two God has joined as He has joined the right and left sides of a body to make one organised life. To separate them is to destroy them. Forgiveness is an act of the Supreme God, repentance the act of sinful man, and yet both are the gift of the risen Redeemer. It is not like two portions of an extended straight line, but like two halves of a great revolving ring--as it goes rapidly round it seems as if this half were impelling that, and sometimes as if that were impelling this. From one point of view repentance seems to draw forgiveness, from another forgiveness seems to work repentance. It is true Christ says, “If any man open I will come in”; but it is also true that no one would open unless moved by the plaintive voice, “Behold I stand at the door and knock.” It is opening from within that lets the Saviour enter, but it is the pressure of the Saviour that causes the fastenings of the heart to give way.
4. We cannot determine the precise point at which the process begins. I do not know the point in the circle which the Spirit touches to communicate motion. All I know is that He gives it motion, and that when one point moves all move. And this wheel is like Ezekiel’s, so high that it is dreadful. The upper part is in heaven, while its lower edge rolls upon the earth. Forgiveness is an act done by God; the official act of the Judge on the great white throne. Repentance is a rending and a melting of the heart here upon earth. The lower part of the circle is in the chambers of the sinner’s soul, and yet every movement of a hair’s breadth is accompanied by a corresponding movement on high. So “there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth.” These two were joined in Peter’s own experience. When he had denied his Lord, “the Lord looked on Peter”; that look conveyed pardon, and the repenting disciple went out and wept bitterly. (W. Arnot, D. D.)
Christ an exalted Prince and a glorified Saviour
I. The exaltation of christ, properly speaking, consists of four parts--His resurrection, ascension, sitting at the right hand of God, and His coming to judge the world. It is to His sitting at the right hand of God, however, that our attention is here called. And, regarding it, three circumstances are noticed in the text.
1. The dignity to which Christ is raised.
2. The character in which He is raised, “a Prince and a Saviour.”
3. The agency of the Father in the exaltation of His Son--“Him hath God exalted.” We are here carried back to the council of peace, the agreement of the Divine persons in reference to the salvation of men. The Father was bound to exalt the Mediator when His work of humiliation was accomplished.
II. Its blessed consequences. Amongst these are the glory of God, the establishment of order and harmony in the universe, the increased light thrown upon God’s character and designs; but what chiefly concerns us is that the exalted Saviour bestows--
2. Forgiveness. Conclusion: This subject ought to be improved, especially by--
(a) The hypocrite knows that he is not what he pretends to be. Yet, notwithstanding your aggravated guilt, you are invited to the Saviour.
(b) Let the self-deceiver open his eyes to his true state and character.
You say you repent; but yours is a legal repentance, which consists in a dread of the Divine wrath. Such a sorrow works death. Repentance unto life, on the other hand, is that sorrow which flows from a believing view of the atonement of Christ and of the evil of sin, as manifested in the Cross, and is recognised to be genuine only by the fruits of holiness which result from it. (W. Orr.)
A Prince and a Saviour
I. Note Christ’s titles and learn their meaning.
1. A Prince. This tells of--
2. A Saviour. Observe here--
3. Put the words together--
II. Approach him, then, under these two characters.
1. As a Prince. And how shall we do that?
2. As Saviour.
III. Mark his gifts.
1. Repentance. This does not mean to give space for repentance, nor to make repentance acceptable, but to give repentance itself. What is repentance?
(a) He can give thee to change thy mind about all the past, so that the things which pleased thee shall grieve thee, that which charmed thee shall disgust thee.
(b) He can also change thy mind as to the present and the future, so that instead of looking for present pleasure thou wilt find thy delight in future glory realised by faith.
IV. Ask Him for these gifts.
1. Humbly. You do not deserve them. You have no claim to His love, and must not set up any.
2. Importunately. Do not come with a cold heart and a trifling spirit. Come with this resolve, “I will not leave the Cross till my sins have left me.”
3. Believingly--believing that Christ can give, and that He is as willing as He is able.
4. Now. The Romans when they meant to bring things to an issue with an Oriental tyrant, sent their ambassador to bring his answer back--yes or no, war or peace. The messenger when he saw the king stooped down, and drew a ring upon the ground round the monarch; and then said, “Step outside that ring, and it means war; before you leave that circle you must accept our terms of peace, or know that Rome will use her utmost force to fight with you.” I draw a ring round you, and I demand an answer. Sinner, wilt thou now be saved or not? To-day is the accepted time, to-day is the day of salvation. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Jesus Christ a Prince and a Saviour
I. A Prince. According to--
1. His heavenly origin.
2. His Divine credentials, even when in the form of a servant.
3. His glorious exaltation to the right hand of God.
II. A saviour.
1. Already in the manger by His self renunciation.
2. On the Cross by His sacrifice.
3. On the throne by His intercession.
III. A Prince and a Saviour.
1. If He were not a Saviour He could not be a Prince--His fairest princely ornament is His crown of thorns.
2. If He were not a Prince He could not be a Saviour--the efficacy of His sacrifice depends on His Divine dignity.
3. As a Prince we must honour and obey Him, and as a Saviour love and confide in Him, in order to become partakers of His salvation. (K. Gerok.)
Repentance the gift of Christ
The doctrine of the gospel appears to be not only that Christ taught the efficacy of repentance, but rendered it of the efficacy which it is, by what He did and suffered for us; that He obtained for us the benefit of having our repentance accepted unto eternal life; not only that He revealed to sinners that they were in a capacity of salvation by what He did and suffered for them. And it is our wisdom thankfully to accept the benefit by performing the conditions on which it is offered, on our part without disputing how it is procured on His. (Bp. Butler.)
Repentance and remission of sin
I. The offices of Christ the Lord in His heavenly state, or what He is exalted to be, viz., “a Prince and a Saviour.”
II. The gifts at His disposal, or what He is able to bestow, viz., “repentance and forgiveness of sins.” Application:
1. Give to Him whom God hath exalted an exalted place in your thoughts and affections.
2. Give to Him, at all times, the daily homage of your faith and love and obedience.
3. See that you value these blessings which He is exalted to bestow, and that you faithfully seek them according to His Word.
4. Take, then, the full consolation and encouragement of having such an exalted Redeemer. (James Brewster.)
Repentance and forgiveness
There are some who would object to this phraseology as unsound, if it were not the phraseology of Holy Writ. It appears to savour too much of legalism, both because it is repentance--not faith--with which the forgiveness of sins stands connected, and because in the statement of the two things, repentance is placed first in order. But it will be seen upon examination that here, as everywhere else, the grace of the gospel and the authority of the law are equally recognised, and that there is not the slightest sacrifice of the one of these Divine dispensations to the other.
I. Repentance and forgiveness of sins are here employed to denote the whole extent of that salvation which Christ has effected in our behalf.
1. Forgiveness of sins denotes it as applied to our condition. We are in a state of guilt--Liable to God’s displeasure, and under a sentence of condemnation. But Christ by “suffering, the just for the unjust,” procures for us “redemption, even the forgiveness of sins.” And thus, the only thing which separated between God and us being effectually removed, we are restored to His favour, and regain a title to every blessing.
2. Repentance denotes it in reference to our character. A change of character is as essential for us as a change of condition. Though pardon and eternal life had been procured for us, yet these we could not enjoy so long as we were alienated from God, by whom that pardon was to be granted and with whom that eternal life was to be spent. And accordingly provision is made in the gospel scheme for producing the revolution in our moral nature which is thus found to be indispensable. Of this revolution Christ is the author, as He is of every other benefit. In this way our salvation is complete.
3. The circumstance that faith is not specified does not amount to an underrating of its value, or a depriving it of its just province. Repentance includes faith, not only as one of its component parts, but as its essential feature. Faith, whether considered simply as a belief in the Divine testimony respecting Christ, or as an actual embracing of Him, and trusting in Him, enters into the very substance of repentance. Note that it is the “repentance of Israel” that is especially spoken of. They had crucified Christ. Their repentance must necessarily have mainly consisted in a transition from their obstinate infidelity to faith in Jesus as a suffering Saviour. In like-manner the predominant sin of all who have not repented, is that Christ has been offered to them, and that they have refused the offer. So that when they repent, the great thing they have to do is to open their ears and hearts to the message which the gospel brings them concerning the Saviour, and to flee for refuge in His Divine person and finished work.
II. Though repentance is first in order, it does not bear to forgiveness of sins the relation of cause to effect, and is not the condition of forgiveness. Were there nothing in the passage itself to indicate this we should be entitled to explain it by what the Bible says as to the nature of repentance--viz., that it cannot meritoriously contribute to the attainment of any blessing from God; and by the general analogy of Scripture, one of whose great objects is to strip all human moralities of every thing like good desert, or in cancelling the guilt of man. But we have no occasion to wander front the text. Forgiveness comes to us from Divine mercy. Christ is exalted to give it. And, represented as His gift, it is not traced to repentance as its source. Nay, the very juxtaposition of the two benefits serves to put them on the same footing- Repentance is just as much a gift as forgiveness. And if this be so, does it not; exclude altogether the idea of forgiveness being earned or deserved by repentance and virtually prohibit us from attaching any merit to the change that is effected in our character, more than to the change that is effected in our condition? And by, teaching us to assign the whole of our salvation to the achievement of Christ alone, does it not discountenance every feeling of confidence in our own performances, and bid us cherish as profound humility, in respect to our need of repentance, as in respect to our need of forgiveness? We must therefore simply regard ourselves as the mere undeserving recipients of both. We may recognise the distinction, that while the one is bestowed upon us, the other is wrought in us; but still for neither of them must we feel indebted to any virtue or efficiency of our own.
III. Repentance is indissolubly linked with forgiveness, and unless the first is wrought in us, most certainly the second is not conveyed to us. Men are very apt to overlook this. The fear of hell is felt to be so awful that they are desirous to escape from it, and the hope of heaven so delightful that they willingly entertain it. And as the gospel proposes a plan, whose tendency is to deliver from the one and to encourage the other, they cherish the expectation that, through Divine mercy, all will be well with them at last. But all this while they have overlooked that moral change without which punishment cannot be shunned, nor felicity reached. Now it requires no elaborate train of argument to demonstrate the utter groundlessness and danger of such views.
1. “God commandeth all men everywhere to repent”--Christ has said, “Except ye repent, ye shall all perish” and, with all the rich mercy which it unfolds, the gospel gives no one the slightest ground to hope for salvation, if the exhortation to repent is neglected. And do not you perceive that this position is a proof more ample and conclusive than anything else, that repentance is essential? Men are so much in love with sin that they not only cherish the prospect of going into heaven, though unprepared for it, but resolutely shut out from their view all that the God of heaven has told them of the necessity of a moral renovation, and deliberately rest upon the grace He has manifested, while they as deliberately maintain the character with which that grace is declared by Him to be completely irreconcilable. Wherefore, I would say to all such, look to this declaration of the Apostle Peter, in which repentance is as emphatically announced as forgiveness. It is honoured by having conferred upon it the precedence to forgiveness. At any rate, so closely are the two conjoined that you cannot look upon either without seeing both.
2. And besides this, consider repentance and forgiveness as proceeding alike from Christ. He died to purchase them--He is exalted to communicate them. And could this have been the case, unless both of them had been necessary for you? If both of them are thus demonstrated to be necessary for you, upon what principle consistent with duty or with safety can you be contented with only one of them? Are not you, in rejecting the other, doing what you can at once to frustrate the Saviour’s sufferings on the Cross, and to dishonour the power which He exercises, the mercy which He manifests, on His throne? (A. Thomson, D. D.)
The salvation in Christ
I. Offered by Him--as the Prince and the Saviour.
II. To be appropriated by us--in repentance and forgiveness of sins. (K. Gerok.)
And we are witnesses of these things; and so also is the Holy Ghost.
The witness of the Word and of the Spirit
The book of Acts is one continuous testimony to the Ascension. As the Gospels contain the record of what Jesus began, so the Acts contain the record of what He continued “to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). Our Lord prolongs His days, and some of the earliest of the new “days of the Son of Man” are recorded here. This word of St. Peter sums up the witness to the Ascension in a more compendious form than any other. It unites the two testimonies--of God and man--as they are not elsewhere--united. Let us consider these as--
I. The sum of the historical testimony to the facts of the gospel. That which the evangelists afterwards wrote the apostles now preach under the inspiration of the same Spirit, viz.
1. The Divine mission of Christ. “The God of our fathers raised up His Son Jesus.” Peter is here, and as long as we follow him in this book, a minister of the circumcision. Jesus in His preaching is the promise given to the fathers of the Jewish covenant. “Beginning at Jerusalem “ He testifies to the council, who, however, could only receive the first principles of the doctrine of the dignity of Christ. Hence the reserve with which the holy name is always introduced. It is not God’s “only begotten Son,” but His “Servant” Son, whom He raised up of the seed of David, a prophet approved of God as the other prophets were. But St. Peter did not preach only for Jews. His words are so ordered as to bear the higher and broader meaning. The “Servant” was not only a descendant of Abraham and a prophet like unto Moses; God “raised Him up” in a sense that has no parallel. As Divine, Christ’s goings forth were from everlasting; as human, He was raised up by a peculiar and heavenly generation. St. Paul at Antioch takes up Peter’s words, and gives them the wider application.
2. The death of Christ. Here also we mark the specific application to Jewish hearers. St. Peter proclaimed Christ’s death as it could only have been proclaimed to the actual crucifiers. The same message that offered them pardon painted their crime in its most awful colours. The death of Christ is the central theme of New Testament testimony as declared by human witnesses under the direction of the Holy Ghost. As a fact, it has the largest place in the record. Here only all the evangelists unite, and wherever we turn in the later scriptures the Crucifixion is always near at hand. This, however, is a light thing compared with the meaning of the event. The “tree” becomes the “Cross,” and it is placed in the centre of New Testament theology. While the work of Christ’s mission is the whole sum of truth, the Cross is the whole sum of Christ’s work, and it is at the foot of the Cross that the apostles survey the whole truth as it is in Jesus.
3. The exaltation of Christ. Once more we mark the influence of Peter’s hearers. Every word is chosen to mark the contrast between the act of men and the act of God. They raised Him up to the tree; God raised Him up to a glory that was the measure of His humiliation. This is the testimony of the Holy Ghost to all mankind, and in a special sense. The apostles could only witness to Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension, but the Spirit throughout the entire New Testament proclaims through the apostles that Jesus sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.
II. The saving supremacy of Christ as our Prince and Saviour at the right hand of the Father. It was declared by our Lord that the Spirit should glorify Him after His departure, and one part of that office He discharged by giving Him the new names acquired by His death.
1. Christ became, by His ascension, the Prince of His people. He was not that in the deepest and widest sense until He was received into the heavens. Then God highly exalted Him because of the suffering of death.
2. So also He became our Saviour, in the most comprehensive sense only, when, all His offices complete, He began His mediatorial reign. “His name shall be called Jesus,” said the angel; and by that name He was always known. “Unto you is born a Saviour,” said the angels; but we never hear that name given Him till now.
3. But the full significance of the new name is found only in the combination.
III. The salvation which our Prince in heaven bestows on man upon earth. And here St. Peter preaches, as the organ of the Holy Ghost, the “common salvation,” to use his own phrase, in a manner that is by no means common.
1. Jesus in heaven is the Giver of repentance and pardon. These two words express the whole sum of salvation provided in Christ and proclaimed in His gospel. The former comprises all that is to be wrought in man as preparation; the latter comprises all that man, thus prepared, receives from Christ’s mercy. The two together comprise “all the words of this life.”
2. To these things bear the apostles witness, and so does also the Holy Ghost--
I. The respective witnesses--the apostles in the first case, and the Holy Ghost in the second. With regard to the apostles: we may remark, that their evidence, as it will bear the strictest scrutiny, so it is worthy of universal credit.
1. These witnesses must have had the strongest reasons for what they affirmed, concerning the Saviour’s resurrection--or they would not have espoused a cause so extremely unpopular and hazardous.
2. Next to their peculiar situation--the nature of the evidence which these persons gave affords the strongest grounds of confidence. They were eye-witnesses of the fact.
3. And this is further strengthened by the number of witnesses herein concerned.
4. The place where they declared the fact strongly confirms it. They chose the spot where the event happened--the city where dwelt the very murderers of the Son of God--as the first place in which to spread their report.
5. The time which they chose also is another evidence of their integrity. While the transactions of Calvary were yet fresh in the memory of all, and while the enemies of the Saviour were still in transports of joy on account of their supposed victory, His disciples boldly declared that He was raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven.
II. But there is a higher kind of evidence: The Holy Ghost also (Mark 16:20; Acts 4:33).
1. This He did by enabling them to work miracles in confirmation of the truth.
2. The transforming effects of the gospel on the hearts and lives of men afford us another proof.
3. Consolation and peace afforded to the mourner are also in proof. His smile makes the poor, the needy, the trembling rejoice.
1. The evidence of an ascended Saviour gives us encouragement for faith and prayer, and love, and praise.
2. How dangerous for sinners to disobey and dishonour Him! (American National Preacher.)
God’s chosen witnesses
(text, and Isaiah 43:10):--Men bear for God two kinds of testimony--in-voluntary and voluntary.
I. The Jews were involuntary witnesses. They had “the law and the prophets.” They glorified in this. But their formalism and worldliness prevented them from seeing the meaning of these oracles of God. They were called into court, as it were, by God. “Bring forth the blind that have eyes, and the deaf that have ears”; “Let all nations be gathered” and confronted with these Hebrews. Who among the heathen can announce coming and far-distant events, or even show former things? But the Jews can. The law and prophets in their hands--books seven centuries old--declare the history of man from the Creation and announce the coming One--“My servant whom I have chosen”--seven centuries in advance. You Hebrews, God said by Isaiah (Isaiah 43:8), “with eyes but seeing not,” hold these books in your hands. “Ye are My” unconscious, involuntary “witnesses.” So He may say still. These Hebrews nave, most tenaciously, and often at the hazard of their lives, held fast these sacred volumes through all these centuries. Peeled and scattered over the earth, they have guarded these documents while they have misread them; “a blind people that have eyes”--shrewd, far-seeing, and intelligent in all other matters, but perverse and ignorant in this, they have remained involuntary witness-bearers to the veracity and supremacy of God.
II. Christians are voluntary witnesses in a twofold capacity--as a Church and as individuals.
1. Against atheism asserting there is no God, the Church proclaims: “There is, and we know, worship and obey Him.”
2. Against paganism, with its many gods, the Church testifies: “The Lord our God is one Lord.”
3. Against many-faced infidelity denying that there is any revelation from God, if there is a God at all, the Church avers: “We have. God spake at sundry times and in various ways to the fathers by the prophets. In these last days He has spoken unto us by His Son.”
4. Against those who deny the manifestation of God in three persons, the Church keeps uttering its benediction: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all.”
5. Those who deny the necessity for any atonement may hear the Church declare: “The wages of sin is death, but we have redemption through the blood of Christ, even the forgiveness of sins,” and see her “showing forth His death till He come” in her holy communion.
6. To sceptics who scornfully ask: “Where is the promise of His coming?” the Church testifies: “We wait for the Son of God from heaven. He will appear, and then all mysteries will be solved.”
7. To Romanists who assert that there are other mediators than Jesus, the Church proclaims “one God and one Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus.”
8. False liberalism may say to the sinner: “Be sincere and you need no more”; the Church echoes her Founder’s words: “Except a man be born from above he cannot see the kingdom of heaven,” and those of His beloved disciple: “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” (J. Hall, D. D.)
The evidence from experience
Does the religion of Christ stand the test of the Baconian philosophy?
I. We shall probably find Christianity a religion that will submit to the test of experience, because--
1. It is a religion for all men. There is nothing in Christianity narrow, exclusive, sectarian. Now how can this be unless it be put to the test of fact? The masses cannot reason closely.
2. Only by commending itself to his experience will this religion do for any man all the time. There are times when philosophy and theology cannot sustain a man. In trouble and death mere reason will not sustain him. He must then know his support.
3. The method of experience has been found to be better fitted to give an understanding of things. The world knew little of the sciences till Bacon’s time. One pound of fact is worth a ton of argument. It is probable, therefore, that God designing a religion for all men would so arrange that it could be subjected to the most convincing test.
II. Does Christianity submit itself to tests that man can try? Yes; let us observe them--
1. A verification of the promises of the Bible as touching
2. Let us come to the heart of Scripture. We are told that he who believes will be saved. Can we know we are saved? If there is a fact in the universe of which we may be certain, it is that Christ reveals Himself to the believer as his Saviour.
III. A few questions to those who still object.
1. Is mystery confined to Christianity? I will undertake to explain the mystery of the Trinity to any man who will unfold the mystery of a single seed.
2. On the testimony of a few competent witnesses we believe in the wonderful revelation of the spectroscope. Millions of competent witnesses declare that they know by experience Christianity to be true.
3. Owen finds a fossil five hundred feet down. He says that animal lived on the surface because there are sockets for eyes. Nature makes nothing in vain. It must have lived where light was. Now in man we find yearnings, hopes that nothing but immortality can satisfy. Can you believe that God made light for the eyes, but nothing for the soul? Conclusion: Many doubt the possibility of knowing the forgiveness of sins. I say to a man, “Saturn has three rings and eight satellites.” Says he, “That cannot be, for I have conversed with many men who have looked at Saturn, but they never saw any rings or moons.” I apply the telescope to his eye; he looks, but sees nothing. Why? He is blind. (C. D. Foss, D. D.)
The test of experience
There are two methods by which conclusions are reached--the method of argument and that of experience. These have their representatives in Aristotle and Bacon. By the first we are led by reason; by the second fact. Which is the better method? A farmer ploughing his field turns to the light a bit of yellow substance. He examines it. It seems to be gold. He reasons; gold has been found in the neighbourhood; the geological conditions are all favourable, and it, has the appearance and gravity of gold. This is the first method. But suppose he takes that substance to the metallurgist, and an acid is applied that will take hold of nothing else but gold. He now knows through experience that it is gold. Take the case of character: you wish to know if a man is honest. You say he looks honest, has honest associates, comes of an honest stock. Now that is all argument. But suppose his partner says, “I know he is honest; he has been with me for twenty years.” That is the method of Bacon--experience. Is it not the most conclusive? (C. D. Foss, D. D.)
When they heard that they were cut to the heart.
Cut to the heart
The strict meaning of the verb describes the action of a saw, as in Hebrews 11:37. Used figuratively, it seems to imply a more lacerating pain than the “pricked to the heart” of Acts 2:37, leading not to repentance but to hatred. The persons spoken of are principally the high priest and his Sadducean followers (Acts 2:17). (Dean Plumptre.)
Preaching to the heart
What would be thought of a doctor who, when called in to a suffering patient, should not at once prescribe the best and swiftest remedy without note or comment; but should proceed to discuss the comparative merits of homoeopathy and allopathy, with sly sarcastic glances at massage, hydropathy and faith-healing, then go on to describe, negatively, all the medicines which have been, or might be given; then positively to describe a remedy recently discovered by a young German doctor, saying he was not quite certain whether it would be effectual, but it was worth trying; that, in any case, with or without medicine, the patient would probably be cured, in this world or the next, and that in the course of a few years, such is the march of intellect in this enlightened age, a better remedy would, no doubt, be discovered? Equally foolish and wrong it is for a Christian minister, standing before a congregation, all suffering more or less from mental and moral disorders, doubts and fears, sins and sorrows, ignorance and self-deceit--all hungering and thirsting after righteousness, or if not, the more needing a warm-hearted gospel of truth and love to awaken in them a sense of unrighteousness--to make the staple of his discourse a series of clever hair splitting of words with all the opinions of commentators (A B C to Z) who had tried to find out (say) what St. Paul meant, perhaps winding up with the consolatory remark, that after all, it was not so much to be regretted that the true key to his meaning had been lost, as probably, if Paul had lived now, he would not only have used different words but held different opinions! Let us learn all that grammar and theology can put into our heads, but when we go into the pulpit we go not as grammarians, theologians, scientists, or philosophers, but as preachers to speak from the heart to the heart. Our people ask for bread, not flour and “water; for water, not oxygen and hydrogen. (R. Bruce, D. D.)
The victory of the truth
Whoever will not receive truth into his heart, will perhaps be pierced to the heart by the truth. Even this is a victory. (Starke.)
I. The character of the chief priests and elders; persecuting the servant as they had persecuted the Lord.
1. One new feature there is in this persecution. Among the impugners of our Lord’s own doctrine the Pharisee is the more conspicuous: it is he whose hypocrisy made him dread Christ’s discernment and holiness, and whose very orthodoxy gave a self-sufficiency to his judgment peculiarly unfavourable to the reception of the truth. But no sooner has Christ left the earth than the opposite party becomes the assailant. And most natural it was that a gospel built upon a resurrection should irritate most strongly the sect which denied that great hope of man. While it was a mere tenet they bore it with composure; when it became a statement of fact, it was at once a struggle for life and death. Great as were the faults of the Pharisee, he had a shorter path to traverse if once his steps should be turned in the direction of Christ’s kingdom. The Sadducee was a cold, scoffing, irreligious materialist.
2. And if there be a body of professed Christians who seek to divest the gospel of its supernatural character; who resolve its whole system of duty into respectability rather than holiness and good nature rather than charity; who practically make their nest here, and leave out of sight the world to come; then that body is the type of the Sadducee of other days; and those who have seen anything of the working of that spirit will be at no loss to understand how the Sadducee should outrun the Pharisee in the bitterness of his hostility to all that is distinctive and characteristic in the gospel. The spirit of the Sadducee is in all of us by nature, struggling in us for the mastery with that of the Pharisee and the Herodian. Each of these is but the development of one attribute of fallen nature. What is the Sadducee but the man who avows his disbelief in mysteries of which we all have too feeble a grasp? And what shall we say of those who have accustomed themselves to treat everything lightly till nothing is serious, who have a jest ready for every revelation, and a scoff for every demand of duty, till at length they can neither tremble at God’s terrors nor believe in God’s love? The Sadducees of our day do not gather themselves together in council to judge the disciples of the Lord: they themselves use the same name, and would be indignant at the denial of the title. But they hate, none the less, and they persecute too, those who truly believe; point at them as ignorant, as old-fashioned, as righteous overmuch, as slaves of the letter, as exclusive and positive and self-sufficient. May such persons ask themselves seriously this one question, Am I certain that I shall never want Christ in loneliness and sorrow, in age and sickness, in She hour of death, and in the day of judgment?
II. And when we turn from this hostility are we not struck with the existence in these days of many a Gamaliel; Of many a man who is at once observant and candid, anxious to do nothing rashly, waiting, rather to examine credentials, or even to see the end, before he pronounces himself decisively either for or against the gospel?
1. These men have much in them that is attractive, and at first sight all that is reasonable. What but good can come, we might inquire, of that prudent and sensible reminder, in a time of religious excitement and enthusiasm (Acts 2:38)? And no doubt such a voice is useful. Happy the nation which has such men amongst its counsellors, when an act of hasty tyranny is in danger of treading out the spark of grace and truth! This was the part of Nicodemus, when the case of One greater than the apostles was at issue. Not long afterwards this timid and doubting ally is found testifying a love and a devotion refused by men who owe to Christ their all.
2. But yet we must not overrate a quality which has so much in it of good. Candour, moderation, an open mind and a calm judgment are useful qualities, and at certain times may rise even into great virtues. But not all of them together will suffice to save a soul. There are just a few great questions on which minds ought to be made up; on which if the evidence we possess be not sufficient for conviction, it is our first and most bounden duty to seek and to obtain more. Such a question, above all others, is that of the truth and power, of the person and work, of the Messiahship and Divinity of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To be candid on this subject is better indeed than to be prejudiced, scoffing, or hostile; but he who is merely candid concerning Christ is in danger of a life-long suspense, of an ultimate indifference. Men of mere candour, are commonly men who in great emergencies disappoint, and in critical decisions are even worse than foes. Their presence is fatal to generous impulses, to noble enthusiasms. Erasmus was the Gamaliel of the Reformation; calm, critical, deliberative, discerning: but where would the Reformation have been if beside Erasmus there had not been a Luther? If all had waited to see whether this counsel or this work was of men or of God, by watching for its issue, the blow for truth had never been struck, and a reformed faith had never emerged from the mists of Papal darkness. In details, or on subjects of minor moment, it is harmless, it is right, to be Gamaliels; but on the one great question, of having, or not having a Saviour, that man is a fool who postpones his decision, a lost man who dies without making it.
III. The common people who magnified the believers though they durst not join them, and who gladly used their beneficent and healing power. These too have their counterpart amongst us, There are men and women who reverence religion, who count the Christian alone happy, who delight to profit by Christian converse and to record the triumphs of the gospel, but who yet shrink from membership. Such persons are not against Christ, nor are they yet quite with Him. They are something more than candid inquirers; something far beyond men waiting, like Gamaliel, to see the end. Would that they could be induced to take just that one step which divides them from every hope and every comfort of a Christian! Would that they could be led to become not spectators only, but inmates of the sacred porch of Solomon! Believe only, not that Christ died for some, but that He died for thee; no longer an admirer but a partaker of the promises, yea, a fellow citizen with the saints, and of the very household of God!
IV. The Altogether Christian. Hear his creed as it is rehearsed in this record. I believe that I ought to obey God rather than men; that God has exalted Christ to be a Prince and a Saviour; that the very purpose of that exaltation is that He may bestow repentance and bestow forgiveness; that God for His sake gives His Holy Spirit to all who set themselves in His strength to obey. This was the faith which enabled apostles to brave persecution, nay, to rejoice to be counted worthy to suffer shame, or even death itself, for the one sufficient name in which alone is salvation. Conclusion: Who can doubt which of those four characters is the one which it would be happiest to live with, safest and most glorious to possess in death? Believe only, and it shall be yours! (Dean Vaughan.)
Gamaliel, a doctor of the law, had in reputation of all the people.--
I. It is strange how a single name here and there secures remembrance.
1. It is almost as when one looks out across the sea, and upon the surface, all grey and monotonous, there comes one flash of silver. Why should that especial wave have such peculiar privilege? It is not any larger than the rest, and is made of no different water; it is simply that it happened to leap just where the sun was smiting, and so it becomes illustrious. So the sun of history shines on this great sea of human life; and the special career which happens to leap just where the sun is striking catches his glory and seizes men’s notice and remembrance. If the man’s life is larger than other lives, so much the better,--it catches so much more of sunshine. If it is of special fineness, made of more lustrous stuff than Other men’s, so much the better still--it turns the sunshine into a peculiar radiance. But still the essential thing is that it should leap at the right moment and should be turned the right way. With these conditions even a very common life becomes illustrious; and without them the largest and the finest character melts back into the bosom of the humanity out of which it sprung, unnoticed, unremembered.
2. These illustrious men when they appear are of more than merely phenomenal value. In their illumination the whole mass of humanity finds its illustration and understands itself. Each of them becomes the representative of some smaller group, to which he almost gives his name. Often, indeed, it is only a degenerate caricature of the higher nature which they present. The dogmatist names himself by the great name of St. Paul. The feeble sentimentalist counts himself the twin-brother of St. John. The dainty sceptic, dabbling in unbelief, takes the name of earnest, puzzled, simple-souled St. Thomas to himself. But, after all, there is a constant tendency in their association with the highest types of their several natures and tendencies to draw them upward and to make each of them a more worthy expression of his characteristic qualities than he could be if he knew it only in himself. In this truth lies one of the greatest advantages of the study of the representative men of human history.
3. I ask you to turn to the story of a man whose name flashes for a moment as the light of the New Testament history falls upon the life of Jerusalem at the beginning of the Christian Church. The flash is only for a moment, and yet the impression which it leaves is very clear. He is peculiarly a representative man, and the nature which he represents is one which appeals peculiarly to our modern life.
II. Let us recall the history of Gamaliel. He was one of the most famous teachers of the Jewish law.
1. All Jewish history declares that he was one of the ablest of the learned men of the nation. There were two schools among the Jews--that of Shammai, which was strict and narrow; and that of Hillel, which was liberal and free. Gamaliel was the grandson of Hillel, and belonged to his school. He was one of the few rabbis who allowed their students the study of Greek literature. He taught that all persons engaged in works of mercy, duty, or necessity, should be exempt from the more stringent Sabbatical traditions; he bade his disciples greet even the pagans on their feast-days with the “Peace be with you.” In ways like these he showed the largeness of his spirit, and the people loved him. He was one of the seven among the Jewish doctors who alone have been honoured with the supreme title of Rabban. He lived to a good old age, and died about 60 a.d.
2. In the New Testament Gamaliel appears twice, and both times in the most interesting way.
(a) We can picture to ourselves Gamaliel watching Paul, and we can think of the calm large-minded teacher following the career of his fiery-hearted scholar, and, however he disagreed with what he thought his delusions, rejoicing in his faithfulness and force.
(b) And if we look the other way, there are few things finer than to see the reverence and gratitude with which the best men of active life look back to the quiet teachers who furnished them with the materials of living. Even from the midst of his missionary journeys, and his prison in Rome, we are able to believe that St. Paul looked back to the lessons of faithfulness and generosity which he had learned of the great teacher of his youth.
(c) There are some of us whose work in life seems to assume mainly this character. Parents, teachers, quiet helpers of other lives, it seems as if we were rather providing other souls with the conditions of living than living ourselves. In the apparent stationariness of much of our experience, seeing life flow by us, as the river flows by the tree, it is good to live thus by the life to which we try to minister, as the tree lives by the river whose waters it at the same time does something to colour and to direct.
III. Gamaliel believed in God.
1. To him, surrounding all that man does and working through it, there is God. And with God are the final issues and destinies of things. Work as man will, he cannot make a plan succeed which God disowns; work as man will, he cannot make a plan fail which God approves. That is a noble and distinct faith. These words of Gamaliel are the words of all progressive spirits. They were the words of Luther, who opened Europe and made the best of modern history a possibility. Fitly do they stand to-day carved upon the pedestal of his great statue at Wittenberg.
2. Nobody can doubt that Gamaliel went back from the Sanhedrin to teach with all his might that Christianity was wrong. He had his thoughts, and he upheld them. He said, “This is the truth”; only, as he said that, he must have said also to his scholars--young Saul of Tarsus sitting there among them “There are men here in Jerusalem--earnest, brave, enthusiastic, wofully deluded, as I think--who are asserting that the Christ has come, and that His reign has begun. I think these men are wrong. I give you my reasons. By and by you will see their fanaticism wither and dry up because no life of God is in it. But now let them alone. Believe your truth, assert it, prove it, live it: so will you do your best to kill this folly.” That was Gamaliel. That is the true spirit always. Men do not flee out of the furnace of bigotry only to freeze on the open and desolate plains of indifference. You believe, and yet you have no wish to persecute; and any reader of the history of faith--nay, any student of his own soul--knows how rarely these two conditions have met in perfect harmony.
3. Persecution sounds like a bygone word, and yet all persecution has not passed away. Social ostracism comes in to take the place of the more crude and violent punishments of other days, and persecution lingers still in a form yet more subtle--in the disposition to attach disastrous consequences in this world or the next to honest opinions which we hold to be mistaken; the desire to fasten ripen intellectual convictions those stigmas of wickedness which can belong only to personal character. When that last form of terrorism shall have passed away, then persecution will have finally perished. Man will cease persecuting his brother man, partly because he will outgrow the wish to persecute, but partly also because he will see how useless it is to persecute. We shall come in the end to welcome all the honest and earnest thought of men, partly because we see the good of it, however it differs from our own, and partly because we cannot help ourselves. It is by the combined forces of these two causes that every great progress of human thought has taken place.
4. And when all persecution goes, there will come a chance and a demand for the two forms of human influence which will then have all the work to do. When you have thoroughly believed that it is both wrong and useless to try to frighten your fellow-man out of his faith trite yours, then what remains? First, you may argue with him, tell him why you believe, show him how unreasonable his unbelief or his fanaticism is. And if you cannot argue, or if your friend is one to whose mind arguments bring no conviction, then you must live your faith. And then just trying to live out its own life, to turn its own assured belief into obedient action, gradually other people become aware that the true soul is bearing a witness to truth which must have power. In a live State the soldiers have their useful duty, but it is not the soldiers who make the State’s true strength. Its faithful citizens,,living their industrious lives within its institutions, which their lives are always filling with life, they are the true defenders of the State, making it strong, and making its strength impressively manifest to all the world. So the great faith needs learned reasoners; but it needs obedient servants and disciples more.
5. And that brings us back to Gamaliel. Was he, then, right? Could he then, can a man to-day, leave all to God and be quietly sure that He will vindicate the truth? A thousand fluctuations in the varying battle make us doubt. Many and many a time it seems as if between the error and the truth it were merely a question of which had the cleverest men upon its side. And yet you know that, if there be a God at all, Gamaliel was right. There must be time, there must be patience; but the real final question of two trees is the question of their roots. That which is rooted in God must live. The final glory of Gamaliel lies there. He believed that God was the only life of this world, that all which did not live in Him must die. We do not know whether Gamaliel ever became a Christian. The legends say that he did. History seems to say that he did not. But at least we know that if we have rightly read his character and story, he made the Christian faith more possible for other men, and he must somewhere, if not here, then beyond, have come to the truth and to the Christ Himself. (Bp. Phillips Brooks.)
The speech of Gamaliel at the Sanhedrin
I. Good oratory neutralised by a corrupt audience.
1. The speaker.
(a) If the movement was undivine, opposition was unnecessary--it would come to nought of itself. In support of this, first, he gives facts referring to Theudas and Judas. Secondly, he states a principle--viz., that the human would perish and the Divine flourish. The argument is ad hominem, his hearers on their own principles were bound to take his advice. They professed to regard the new religion as an undivine thing and therefore need not take the trouble of opposing it.
(b) If the movement was of God, opposition would be futile and impious. Attempts to crush the cause of God are as futile as attempts to roll back the tides of the ocean, or reverse the course of the planets--worse than futile, it is fighting against God.
2. So far, Gamaliel’s speech seems powerful, and one might have thought that he would have gained his end. But no; they pursued their course of persecution (verse 40). What rendered this oratory so ineffective? The character of the audience. Prejudice warped their judgment and malice inspired their hearts. The eloquence of a discourse depends upon the mind of the auditory. Hence what is felt to be eloquence in one audience would not be in another. He is the most eloquent man in his sphere who advocates the wishes of his hearers: otherwise, though he reasons with the logic of Aristotle, and declaims with the power of Demosthenes, his eloquence will not be felt. Paul was a babbler at Athens. Let, then, hearers who would benefit free their minds from prejudice and listen with candour; and let speakers be above pandering to low tastes and sectarian sympathies.
II. Culpable indifference justifying itself by plausible logic. The non-intervention here recommended may in some aspects admit of justification. Statesmen, e.g., have no right to interfere with the religious opinions and movements of the people, so long as there is no infringement of the rights of others. The conscience is sacred to God. Men may argue, but not coerce. Again, the advice may be justified on the ground of social philosophy, supposing Gamaliel believed Christianity to be an imposture. The way to give social power to error is to persecute it. But looking at it in a broad light the councillor displayed a reprehensible moral indifference. Because--
1. As a man, he was bound to satisfy himself whether the apostles’ cause was of man or of God by honest investigation.
2. He had abundant evidence to satisfy himself on the question.
3. If it was the work of God he was bound to go heart and soul into it. We cannot therefore but regard his argument as formularised to apologise for his indifference. In this respect he is a type of a large class whose policy is to allow things to take their course and settle themselves whether true or false.
III. A test by which the divinity of Christianity is established. “If it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it.” Christianity has not been overthrown, but has gone on conquering and to conquer.
IV. An example of the all-conquering spirit of genuine religion (verses 40-42). Observe--
1. Their exultation in ignominious suffering which can only be accounted for by--
2. Their invincibility in prohibited labour. No power could break down their holy purpose. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
I. A good counsel.
1. As a rule of judgment when we see the end of God’s ways. Then at last it shall certainly hold good. “Every plant which My Heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted up.”
2. As a rule of conduct when carnal zeal will resort to carnal weapons in spiritual matters; and when no light has arisen as to whether a work be of God or man. In this sense Luther applied this counsel to the Elector of Treves as one undecided.
II. A bad counsel.
1. As a rule of judgment when, in the midst of the imperfect course of the world, good and evil are judged according to their external and temporary success. As a rule of conduct, when it is transformed into a pillow of laziness, to get rid of an inward and earnest decision, when God’s Word speaks distinctly enough, and God’s Spirit points clearly enough; and to avoid courageous acting and energetic witness-bearing, when we are really decided. (K. Gerok.)
I. A good counsel.
1. Of humility before God, the Supreme Judge.
2. Of charitableness toward our neighbour who thinks differently, and perhaps erroneously.
3. Of watchfulness over our passions.
II. A bad counsel.
1. Of a policy judging only according to outward success.
2. Of a toleration toward that which is evil.
3. Of an indifferentism undecided in itself. Conclusion: Better the deed of the apostles than the counsel of Gamaliel. (K. Gerok.)
Before these days rose up Theudas.
Theudas: an ancient personage with modern lessons
Who Theudas was I do not know, and have carefully refrained from inquiring. Biographical details are of small importance when we are in search of substantial principles. The point of this passage lies in the fact that Theudas was a wholly insignificant person, just like a thousand other men who have made a noise in their day, drawn the gaze of the world for a few hours and then passed into silence and oblivion. The apostles are summoned before the council which has already resolved on their death. Then stands up Gamaliel--the teacher of Paul, a man “had in reputation among all the people”--and reads the excited Sanhedrin a lesson out of their own national history. He says in substance: “This alarm, this hurrying to and fro, this calling for the scourge and the dungeon, this breathless haste, is all the result of narrow vision and small outlook. Our own time is not the first to witness startling movements. ‘Before these days rose up Theudas,’ and drew four hundred men after him. Yet that uprising which seemed so terrible has been almost forgotten. Wider horizon would make us calm. Learn the lesson of your past. God’s great plan moves through the ages to its sure accomplishment. If this new teaching be not of Him, it will be like all the rest--a mere noise followed by a great silence. But if God is behind this teaching--beware lest haply ye be found to fight against God.” These words may imply that Gamaliel was almost ready to embrace Christianity, or they may indicate only that he was a broad and tolerant Jew. In either case the application to our restless, eager, disputatious age is very clear. Old formulae are recast, until many souls more timid than wise, loving quiet more than truth, cry, “Alas I what shall we do?” The true answer cannot be given either by intense partisanship or by cynical indifference. The true answer is to be found in the unfaltering faith which sees God behind the shifting panorama of human thought and action, and knows that whatever lights may cross our firmament--whether glowing planet, shooting meteor, or steady star--He calleth them all by name in the greatness of His power.
I. God’s kingdom on earth is not a novelty. The first thing for us to remember is that the kingdom of God on earth is not a novelty, Christianity is not an experiment, and that “before these days” ten thousand similar dangers have been triumphantly surmounted. The man who is not in league with the past cannot face the future. We need to see things in large perspective, to stand off from our little immediate task, as the painter stands away from his canvas, that he may return to it with surer touch. Even in the common responsibilities of daily life some knowledge of history is quite as important as acquaintance with the multiplication table. Let the man who despairs of our political leaders to-day read the story of the attacks made on Washington in the darkest days of the Revolution. Let the man who is bewildered by the sudden influx of new knowledge, and cannot adjust himself at once to the fresh truth poured into his mind, remember the great shock given to humanity--a shock which seemed to dislocate all systems of science and all hymns of the faith--when Copernicus proclaimed that this earth, instead of being the centre of the universe, for the sake of which sun and stars were created, around which the ordered sky revolved, was but a mote floating in the boundless void, an insignificant star sending its tiny ray into the infinite darkness. The present generation is specially deficient in historical perspective. Our life has been so swift, so wholly modern, that we are intensely individual, delighting often in segregation from the past. Thus, having small background for present endeavour, we grow restless and are easily tossed by conflicting winds. History says, too, as Nature to Emerson: “Why so hot, my little man?” The history of the Christian Church is a splendid armoury for faith. The future of Christianity does not depend on what is won or lost this morning. The success of God’s kingdom in the earth is not staked on the success of my little scheme any more than the coming of spring depends on the success of the pansy bed in my garden. That kingdom was before we came into being, it will endure when we are gone--it is the work of Him who was, and is, and is to be, the Almighty. Behind all the men that come and go, the theories that rise and fall, stands “God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.”
II. A background of triumphant history. We are writing now, but never before, “1892” on all our letters, notes, deeds. These figures are vastly more than a conventional argument. They are eloquent with strong assurance. They are like a flag brought home from battle, smoke-begrimed, blood-stained, bullet-torn, but bright with its original splendid colour, and vocal with great inspiring speech. We have no right to live as did the Church of the first century, when much was tentative and experimental. We have a background of triumphant history. Steadily is the kingdom of Christ spreading from the river unto the ends of the earth. Witty and keen have been the attacks on the faith--sometimes they have purged it from excrescences, oftener they have glanced off and rebounded. The opponents of Christianity are remembered because of the grandeur of what they attacked. In this Christian land we do not accept Christian faith to see whether it is true; we accept it as we accept the earth beneath our hurrying feet and the untroubled sky that overarches all. Hence we see the place and purpose of the Old Testament, whose peculiar function is to show us that God is behind and within human history, and that all history culminates in the revelation of Jesus Christ. God’s primary revelation is not through the speech, but through events. The Old Testament precedes the New to show us God behind and within the nation’s life, and when we once see and believe that, a historical Saviour becomes not only credible but inevitable.
III. Use of the historical in scripture. A noble Christian man recently told me that in his private reading of the Psalms he always used an expurgated edition, from which all imprecatory and otherwise objectionable passages had been expunged. Surely this is the acme of religious prudery, and the fastidiousness of one who is totally devoid of the historical sense. If we expurgate the Songs of David, why not expurgate his life also? Surely his deeds of vengeance are worse than his revengeful prayers. Then having struck out from his life all that offends our purism, and having made him the man he ought to have been but was not, we shall be ready to remodel the entire history of Israel--very much as Cibber proposed to remodel Shakespeare, making King Lear to be at last rewarded for his suffering, and making the tragedy of Hamlet to end with the death of the king and queen and the happiness of Ophelia. When we have been through the Bible and struck out the great black record of human sin, we shall have banished the shining story of redemption also. The imprecatory Psalms are as truly the expression of a certain stage in Israel’s life, and so part of the story of redemption, as the paintings of the early Byzantine school are part of the history of Christian art. What if the faces limned by those first Christian painters are hard and wooden? They are to us the priceless expression of a great endeavour which has made Iraphael and Da Vinci possible. To lift the Psalter to the level of the Sermon on the Mount is to spoil them both. But the most practical thing is still unsaid. When a man has attained the historical point of view, when his Bible is no longer a fiat surface like a Chinese picture, but a tong vista of historical persons and events, and the great story of God’s love for man is seen slowly unfolding through the millenniums, when a man keeps himself familiar with God’s working “before these days,” he will possess a spiritual poise and central peace which nothing can disturb. It is a great thing to believe in a God who watches over my life and cares for me. It is a grander thing to rest in a God whose purposes are larger and longer than any concerns of mine possibly can be. I could not admire the Hudson River if I thought its only purpose was to fill my drinking cup. I could not wonder greatly at the sun if I thought its only purpose was to shine in at my window. I need a God greater than my need. I want a Saviour far beyond my private personal lack. If I do not believe in a God who has some grander work to do than to make me happy, I shall soon cease to believe at all. I shall soon find that God does not always make me happy, and then I shall lose faith. Through all ages runs His purpose. From everlasting to everlasting His great thoughts realise themselves in the ceaseless unfolding of creation, and our highest glory is not to bend His purpose but to bend our lives into harmony with it. Has any man come here in a state of tumult and alarm, perplexed by the problems of the time, and confronted by movements he cannot fathom? I bid you think of the God who before these days has guided His Church and ever will guide. Is any man here saying: “God has forgotten me; my plan does not prosper”? Is your plan, then, the first thing in your desire, or God’s plan? Is it the building of your nest or the achievement of the world’s redemption? He is the Alpha and Omega--we are to fit in somewhere in His Divine alphabet and spell out His eternal thought. (W. H. P. Faunce, D. D.)
The false prophet and the true
I. The false.
1. Rises up of his own accord as Theudas and Judas.
2. Boasts himself to be somebody.
3. Draws away the people after him.
4. Falls from heaven as a wandering star. Theudas and Judas perished, and their followers were dispersed.
II. The true.
1. Is raised up by God.
2. Does not boast of himself, but gives glory to God.
3. Leads souls to the Lord.
4. Will shine as stars for ever and ever. (K. Gerok.)
And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone.
The witness of history to Christianity
1. Christianity was on trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin. It had then no history. Now it has an history of more than eighteen hundred years. Wisely spake that wisest of Jewish Rabbis: Let us wait awhile and see. If it be of men, no blow is needed. If it be of God, no smiting will do it any harm. Leave it to history. Such was the appeal. We are ready now for the verdict. If Gamaliel were here I would be willing to leave it all to his candid judgment. Is Christianity a success or a failure?
2. This argument from history requires discrimination. Mere age makes out nothing decisive for a religion. Religions in general are apt to be long-lived; longer-lived than civil politics.
I. Its first conflict was with Judaism, with which it should have had no conflict at all. Judaism, then fifteen centuries old, was not human, but Divine. And Christianity had come out of it, as an apple comes out of its bud and blossom. But madness ruled the hour. They hanged their Prophet on a tree, hissing that awful prayer which God has been answering ever since: “His blood be on us and on our children.” Many Jews, as we know, passed over into the Christian Church, in all, perhaps some ten or twelve thousand within the first six years. Then their most learned and ablest Rabbi, Saul of Tarsus, went over to the new religion. And his voice rang all along the northern shore of the Mediterranean, from Damascus to Spain, in countless synagogues, entreating his countrymen to follow him. It was their golden opportunity. And they lost it. Judaism, they shouted, is final. Not Judaism, answered the pupil of Gamaliel, but Christianity. This was the point at issue. In their madness the people thought they could tear the Roman eagles from their battlements and reestablish the fallen throne of David. They tried, and failed. Judaism was shattered when, as foretold by Daniel, the oblation ceased. Since then no smoke of sacrifice has ascended from Mount Moriah. Since then the story of our Christian sacrifice has gone round the globe. And almost everywhere it finds the forsaken and scattered remnants of that ancient people, over whose city the Redeemer wept.
II. The second conflict of Christianity was with the Graeco-Roman civilisation. The whole theatre of ancient history, the whole garden of ancient letters, art, and social refinement, now acknowledged the supremacy of Rome.’ Christianity she greeted with contempt and scorn.
1. In this lay the safety of the new religion. It thus had chance to grow. All over the Roman Empire its roots went down into the soil unnoticed. After a hundred years its branches were in all the air. There were at least two or three millions of Christians. They were a people by themselves, sifted out of society, organised, drilled, and handled by their leaders, as no other religious body ever had been. They could no longer be ignored. And then the leaven had been working upwards, as well as downwards, among the people. The commercial middle class furnished many converts. By and by philosophers and scholars began to come over, who boldly proclaimed the new faith as the final philosophy. Christianity could no longer be despised. Books had been written in its defence, and these books must be replied to. Then there came out on the heathen side such champions as Fronto, Lucian, and Celsus, learned and witty men, attacking Christianity with every known weapon of argument, abuse, and raillery. By and by, persecution began in terrible earnest. It was, however, chiefly the work of mobs, stirred up and hounded on by men whose interests were imperilled. Of the emperors, only Nero and Domitian, and they for reasons of their own, had dipped their hands willingly in Christian blood. Now, soon after the middle of the second century, persecution began to be a part of the imperial policy. It was assumed that the old Roman religion was essential to the welfare of the Roman State. It was seen that Christianity was getting the better of that old Roman religion. Bad emperors, like Commodus and Heliogabalus, who cared nothing for the welfare of the State, let the new religion alone. Able, patriotic, high-toned emperors, like Marcus Aurelius, Decius, and Diocletian, could not let it alone. Those were times of awful agony when the powerful Roman Empire, shutting the gates of the ampitheatre, leaped into the arena face to face with the Christian Church. When those gates were opened, the victorious Church went forth, with the baptism of blood on her saintly brow, bearing a new Christian Empire in her fair, white arms. It only remained for heathen frenzy to contest this verdict of Providence, as Jewish frenzy had contested the verdict of Providence in Palestine. Philosophers had been for some time at work, elaborating what we call the New Platonism, a strange conglomerate, which taught one God in the lecture-room and many gods in the market-place; which discoursed loftily of union with God; and stooped to magical arts. This was the informing spirit of that notable reaction and revival of heathenism which found a fit champion in Julian, who, burning with zeal for the old religion, resolved to put the new religion down. Did he do it? In less than two years after mounting the throne of the Caesars, he, pierced by a Persian arrow, confessed “Thou hast conquered, O Galilean.” But Christianity, you tell me, did not save the life of the Roman Empire. No, it came too late for that. But Christianity prolonged that life; by a century or two in the Occident, by six or eight centuries in the Orient.
III. The third conflict was with the Teutonic barbarians. In German forests Christian captives were the first evangelists. They had to learn a new language which had then no alphabet. The men that spoke it had no culture. In a hundred years those rude barbarians were reading their Gothic Bibles. From tribe to tribe the sacred message ran till, in another hundred years, the barbarian conquest of Rome was essentially a Christian conquest. From generation to generation the missionary work went on, till at last the whole Teutonic race in Europe, now numbering well-nigh eighty millions, took on a Christian civilisation, higher, stronger, more radiant than that of Greece and Rome. The Kelts, now numbering about nine millions, were also evangelised; the Slaves, now numbering nearly eighty millions, came later; then the Scandinavians, one of the finest races in history, now numbering some eight millions, whose old mythology is richer and grander than that of ancient Greece, and whom it took two centuries to conquer. And not one of the nobler historic peoples, once evangelised, has ever let go its hold of the gospel. The decayed churches of the Orient are only decayed, not dead, while the tide that went over them is evidently going out.
IV. The fourth great conflict is with a lower type of heathenism at home and abroad, and is now in progress. There is, indeed, a conflict with science which is sharp enough just now, and many good people are needlessly alarmed about it. There are tidal waves in all human affairs, and scepticism, like everything else, comes and goes on its endless round. But every time Christianity sails through it all like an ironclad. The great mass of Christians have never troubled themselves about it. Augustine made an end of Manicheism. The great schoolmen of the thirteenth century silenced the sceptics of the twelfth. And out of the scepticism of the fifteenth century came the reaction that culminated in the Protestant Reformation. Christianity, the mother of universities, the nurse and patron of all high study, has no fear of science. No. The real strain and conflict of our day are more practical. Christianity has conquered all the best races in history thus far. Now, can it conquer to the bottom as it has already conquered to the top? Can it bring the whole human family, its lowest peoples with its highest, into one common fold? Can it evangelise the Chinese, Japanese, Polynesians, Africans, North American Indians? Can it evangelise its own cities, going down into the cellars, up into the garrets of its own heathens here at home? Hard as the task may be, Christianity stands squarely committed to it. If Christianity fails in this its supreme endeavour, it is not of God. But it will not fail. What it can do may be known from what it has done. We have carried the gospel into the huts of the bushmen, we shall yet carry it into every cellar and every garret of every Christian city. Let us be of good courage. It is not long we shall have to wait. (R. D. Hitchcock, D. D.)
Gamaliel and his advice; or the policy of caution and neutrality
Broadly speaking, men divide themselves into three classes in relation to Christianity. First, there are the open enemies, who never miss an opportunity of offering unto it the most energetic and violent opposition. Secondly, there are the earnest advocates and the zealous propagators of Christianity. Thirdly, but coming midway between these two classes, there is another, which we might term the cautious, timid, and perhaps temporising, neutral class. Speech after speech was delivered in favour of physical violence. At length Gamaliel arose. His speech was what we might call a moderate speech. It counselled caution, “refrain,” “take heed.” “Do not lay rash and violent hands on these men.” “Do not endeavour to stamp out this new religion or irreligion by rash and violent methods.”
I. The favourable aspect of this policy. Let us point out what there is that is commendable in this policy of awaiting the test of time.
1. Time certainly is a most searching and accurate test. It is very difficult to judge a movement that is in its infancy. By their fruits movements too are known. But then you must allow time for the fruit to appear and to mature.
2. Certainly this policy is opposed to that objectionable method of procedure which is characterised by “zeal without knowledge.” There are those whose zeal in itself is really commendable; and they rush on rashly, never taking time to consider the bearing of present action on future events; they will run and risk their life to rescue a child in danger, but, perhaps, they will knock down half-a-dozen children on their way and do them serious harm. They will spend their best energies to advance a principle which they hold dear, but, perhaps, they will trample on many other principles which are equally true and Divine. “Zeal without knowledge.” Their warm hearts are not under the direction of wise heads. Their action, while enthusiastic, is ill-directed. Well, Gamaliel and his friends are not guilty of this fault. They are never led into anything rash. If they err, they err on the safe side. They do not do much harm if they do no good. They will not hinder a good movement, though they may not help it. They will not further a bad cause, though they may do nothing to hinder it. Their policy is to refrain, to take heed, to take no action until time makes it quite clear whether the cause be human or Divine.
3. There is some amount of wise, cautious humility and devoutness also about this policy of Gamaliel and his friends. They greatly fear lest they should be found fighting against God, opposing His will and purpose. They knew that that would not only he fruitless, but sinful and blasphemous. It is a sad thing to find even a portion of one’s life fruitless. Moral fruitlessness is a terrible calamity. To fight against God then is fruitless, for He must conquer in the end and our work come to nought. But it s also sinful, and even blasphemous. Blasphemy, properly so called, is speaking against God, but there is also a blasphemy which consists in acting against Him, in using those faculties with which He Himself has endowed us, to frustrate His will and purpose, and to further the ends and intents of the devil. Well, Gamaliel and his friends strove to steer clear of this evil. They are cautiously humble and devout. They would not for the world be found fighting against God. Hence their policy is to “take heed,” to “refrain,” to wait until time proves whether God be in the movement or not.
II. The unfavourable aspects of this policy.
1. It makes this mistake, it regards the external results of a movement as the unfailing test of its character. Or to put it in this way: It says, “this movement succeeds--it is Divine; this movement fails--it is human.” Success or failure is taken as the test. But is it a true test? Some of the most successful movements have had the least of God in them, and some of the least successful have had the most of God in them. The followers of Buddha are more numerous than all other religionists. Is Buddhism more Divine because of that? It is evident then that external success is not an absolute test of the spirituality and Divinity of a religion, or of the character of a movement. Results I results! That is the great cry of the day. And it is almost thought that spiritual results can be got to order just like material results. You send your boy to the tailor for a suit of clothes; he gets it, you are satisfied. Do you send him in the same spirit to the master of the grammar school, saying, “I want a good education for my boy, so much time, so much money?” The master would reply, “Education is not to be had to order; there are other matters to be taken into consideration: has your son the ability, the application to learn? Without that I can do nothing with him.” If it is so with intellectual results, how much more so with moral and spiritual results. We cannot get true conversions to order; we may get spurious ones. Nor is it possible to count true converts. Men can count heads; but it takes God Himself to count hearts. Therefore the test of external results is not an absolutely safe test. Are we, therefore, not to aim for success? By all means. All the success that we can get; as many hearers, as many converts, as many Christian workers as possible. Only do not rely on external results as furnishing an unfailing test of the character of any work. This the policy of Gamaliel is guilty of.
2. Moreover this policy is productive of culpable inactivity and moral cowardice. Now the most critical period of any movement, or of any new religion, is its infancy. Then does it bear the severest brunt of prejudice and hostility. The severest period in the history of Christianity was the apostolic age and the ages immediately following. We ought to thank God that there were men brave enough and strong enough to overcome the first opposition. After a while it makes itself felt in the world; it proves itself to be a power for good. Now Gamaliel and his friends will join it. “We are glad to see you even now, you Gamalielites; but you did not lend us a helping hand when the waves of opposition nearly swamped our ship; we and our cause would have perished for you; you looked out on us with timid, cautious, neutral eyes. But now that we have got to shore, and established our character and power, you seek to join our ranks. Come in; even at this hour we are glad to see you; only we must tell you that you have been guilty of culpable inactivity and of moral cowardice.” Gamaliel and his friends will only join a successful cause, but a flagging interest they will refrain from touching. On the other hand, take a movement directly the reverse of that to which we have alluded, not only not Divine, but sinful and calculated to do a terrible amount of mischief. In its earlier years its destructive features are not written in large letters, still they are written in such letters as the keen observer can read. What do Gamaliel and his friends do? They refrain from taking any action. They allow the evil, the mischievous movement to grow, to establish itself. They might nip it in the bud, were they to take prompt, decisive action. “You cautiously timid, inactive Gamalielites, you are anxious not to be found fighting against God; wherefore are ye not equally desirous to fight for Him? You do not further His will when you allow evil to grow unchallenged and unopposed.” There are many of whom it may be said, “They have done no evil.” But what evil have they opposed, what good have they done? Nothing! Then is their poor, harmless inactivity culpable in the sight of God.
3. Then there is that further error in this policy of neutrality and delay, viz., that it presumes too much on Divine power and relies too little on human instrumentality. It says, “If that work or counsel be of God, He will make it successful; if it be sinful, then He will bring it to nought.” Now, how does God promote His purposes? Through good men. How does He baffle and bring to nought evil doings? Through good men. The old excuse for inactivity is, “God will see to it.” No! He will not, unless you place yourself humbly in His hand and say, “Send me, send me!” What was the excuse of our ancestors who were opposed to modern missions: “If God means to convert the world He will see to that.” But He would never convert the world unless the men came forward and severally said, “Send me, send me!” We can never rely too much on Divine power; we can never rely too much on human co-operation. Are we allowing Him to use us for that grand purpose? Or are we endeavouring to cover our culpable inactivity by the old excuse: “The work is His, and He will see to it.” What is the conclusion of the whole matter? Every movement, social, political, religious, let us try to understand. Let us bring to bear upon it the faculties which God has given us, without prejudice and with prayer. Should it remain a mystery, let us wait, not listlessly, but with faces wistfully upturned towards heaven, solicitous to know the will of God. When light is given from heaven let us act accordingly, whether in favour or in opposition, act sincerely, with heart and soul. By doing the will of God, as far as it is revealed, we shall know more of the doctrine. (Henry Harries, M. A.)
Gamaliel’s feeling was this--“God is the supreme ruler, truth comes from Him, and He will take care of it. What is not true has in it the seeds of its own destruction, and will sooner or later come to nothing. Men are very poor judges of what is true or false. God is the judge, time the test.”
1. This conviction is the foundation of all true tolerance, liberality of mind, and of charity and candour in judging. For want of it we are often falsely liberal, or foolishly bigoted.
2. I need hardly say how this principle and conviction bears upon our daily life, or point out how much calmness, wisdom, and peace it would, if recognised, pour upon the distractions which surround us. We live in the midst of new things. In our religious, social and political life new and startling opinions meet us. Like Gamaliel we see old faiths and old institutions in Church and State, and old habits, relations, and customs in society crumbling away or threatened.
3. And if it should seem that an example such as that of Gamaliel is too much insisted on, that the preacher who again and again enforces largeness of mind, charity in judging, patience and gentleness in thought and action, together with the rest of the Christian graces and tempers, shows himself unmindful of his special work, and of his duty to teach the way of salvation for the souls of men; then I would submit that, in enforcing these things, we are setting forth man’s salvation; for the soul which lives in the feeling and conviction that God our Father is constantly present, and overrules all things; that He will take care of the truth and of us when we stand upon it; the soul that tries to catch the Spirit of Christ, and to let it penetrate thought, temper, and action; the soul that waits to see what God will establish and what He will overthrow, that soul lives in the light of the truth; and he who lives in the truth, lives in the love of God; and where God’s truth and love are, there is salvation, strength, and peace. (John Congreve, M. A.)
The success of Christianity an argument for its Divine origin
I. The argument from the success of the gospel of Christ. It may be regarded, like all other evidences, as an argument from miracles. Here are certain undoubted facts. They cannot be accounted for without the immediate hand of God. Note, then, that this success has been--
1. Wide and extensive. In the early ages this excited universal attention both among friends and foes. About thirty years after our Lord’s death, Tacitus tells us that an “immense multitude” of Christians were either crucified or burned alive in Rome during the Neronian persecution, whence we may have some idea of the number of Christians in that capital. Forty years later, Pliny, in his letter to Trajan, states that in Bithynia the heathen temples had been deserted, and the victims used in sacrifice had ceased to be purchased. By the end of the second century Tertullian exclaimed, “We are but of yesterday, and we have filled up every place: towns, islands, castles, boroughs, councils, camps, tribes, wards, palace, senate, forum; we have left you nothing but your temples.” In little more than three centuries the Roman empire became professedly Christian under Constantine; and all the efforts of his successor Julian could not avert the total downfall of Paganism. The wide diffusion of the gospel, though in a corrupt form, did not cease. It was extended from Britain to China, and the foundation was laid of the present Christian nations of Europe, which have never since abjured the religion of the Cross. It has become the religion of the New World, and the efforts of missions have, in recent times, given it a footing in parts of the earth the most remote from one another, and renewed its early triumphs. The spread and hold of the gospel is thus a truly wonderful fact, when we consider its scanty beginnings and forlorn prospects. Even an unbeliever who looks calmly at this astonishing fact may well feel something of the misgiving of Gamaliel.
2. Inward and radical. All experience shows how hard a thing it is to make men converts even to the mere outward forms of a new religion; and the attempt to convert men from one sanctuary to another--from the synagogue, for example, to the Church, or from Popish to Protestant temples--is still more arduous. We can judge of this matter from the widest experience; for we see what frightful sufferings have been in all ages endured, what wars have been waged, what mutinies have been stirred up, from men’s reluctance to change their religion. Had the gospel only brought heathen nations into the same state that Christian nations are in at this day, though not a single person had been regenerated, it would have been something not easy to explain without calling in the power of God. But the true miracle begins with making man a new creature in Christ Jesus, and when we see this done everywhere among the polished Greeks and the wandering Scythians, among masters and slaves, among Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles--we are constrained to exclaim, “This is the finger of God!” In this sense the age of miracles is not past, and never will be. What is the turning of water into wine to the turning of a sinner into a saint? Compare heathenism, even in its brightest scenes and noblest passages, with Christianity, the martyrdom of Socrates with that of Stephen, the life of Plato with that of Paul or John, the return of Regulus to die at Carthage in his country’s cause with the advance of Luther to Worms to testify for Christ’s truth. Where was there a Howard among the heathen? Where a Wilberforce? Where a Francis Xavier? Where anything corresponding to the honourable women who have laboured much in the Lord, and who, from the beginning, have been last at the Cross and first at the sepulchre? These are all facts to be accounted for, and with them the whole moral and spiritual influence of the gospel in life and in death; and so long as Christianity can produce them we feel that it is in a great measure independent of other signs and wonders. It bears upon its front the very seal of heaven.
3. Prolonged and renewed. When Gamaliel compared the gospel to the movements in the days of Theudas, or of Judas of Galilee, he was quite in order. Had the cause of Christ been no more Divine than theirs, it would, after some noise and commotion, have as speedily died away. There is something very impressive in the vitality of genuine Christianity. Persecution drove it from Jerusalem; but it returned and dwelt there when its Jewish persecutors were scattered and overthrown. The Roman Caesars arrayed against it the brute force of forty legions, but the empire with all its forces became subject to the Cross. There is a plant called the rose of Jericho, one of a class which, when withered by the scorching heats, rolls up its leaves into the form of a ball, and suffers itself to be drawn from the ground, and borne on the wings of the wind to a great distance, till, meeting with moisture, its roots again strike down, its leaves spread, and its rose-like colour returns in all its beauty. Thus did Christianity roll over the arid wastes of the Middle Ages, till, in the Reformation period, it reasserted its living power, and all but equalled its ancient glory: and since then the same sign has been repeated; for as it rolled harmlessly over the great desert of Popery, so has it, not less uninjured, crossed the dreary sands of infidelity which have spread out to intercept it, and expanded in our own days at home and abroad with all its primitive loveliness. Everywhere it puts forth the same flowers--zeal for God, love to Christ, pity for men. The self-renewing power of the gospel exceeds all fable. The converts of Polynesia, Ceylon, Burmah, Madagascar, speak all one tongue, and exalt one name which is above every name. Christianity has returned to the old seats of revelation, to Ur of the Chaldees, to Shechem, to Nazareth, to Bethlehem. It converts the house of Voltaire into a Bible depository, and the palace of Frederick the Great into a meeting-place of Christian union.
II. Some objections to its force, which, however, one and all, turn out in its favour, and strengthen its validity. It is objected--
1. That false religions have had great success in the world. Not to mention the various systems of idolatry, there is the delusion of the Arabian prophet which spread over a very wide circle with great rapidity, and even expelled Christianity from its ancient territories. But we may use here the tests already employed.
2. That it has not been universal. Many are staggered by the slow progress of the gospel, and by the fact that it is not yet the religion of the majority of the human race. This difficulty admits of a complete answer. Consider how it limits the power of God. Upon this supposition He cannot reveal Himself to one or many without revealing Himself to all. Even one true conversion is a superhuman result, and much more a multitude of such conversions; and all that we are warranted to infer from the partial nature of the result is, that the Divine Author of the gospel has, for reasons known to Himself, not chosen everywhere to exert the same power. To hold that God must work at the full stretch of Omnipotence before we can know that it is God, is the same absurdity as to hold that a man must speak at the full pitch of his voice before he can be recognised. We must plainly know what God’s intentions were before we find fault with the partial success of the gospel.
3. That this success has been less with those who profess to be influenced by the gospel, than might have been expected from a Divine religion. What evils have been associated with the Christian name, what scandals, what inconsistencies! But we must first of all separate between nominal and genuine Christians. The distinction exists among Christians alone; for no other religion is spiritual enough to allow of this division. Is the true Church, then, to blame for its nominal adherents and their evils? Nay, is not the tribute to its own light and truth and goodness all the greater that men seek to cloak even their vices under its venerable sanction? It is among true Christians that the true effects of Christianity are to be seen, and here we fearlessly join issue with objectors. And is there not in Christian lands a general purpose, somewhere deep down in the heart of the worldling, to become himself a Christian? “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.”
III. Some inferences which follow. The success of Christianity is--
1. A tribute to the glory of the Saviour. Every onward movement is like a step in some solemn piece of martial music which sounds His praise. Every conversion is a trophy to His invincibility. Every land added to His sway is another crown placed upon His head. And the final conquest of the world will awake the final peal of the anthem to His glory. It is delightful to a Christian heart to identify the success of the gospel with the personal efforts and sympathies of the Redeemer.
2. A source of confidence to the Church. Christianity can never be in such danger again, as it has already triumphed over. Had it been of man, it had long ago come to nought. Its enemies have assailed it with every possible weapon, and searched every rivet of its armour. And therefore it moves a smile of pity when this hero or the other comes forth against the gospel, forgetful of the hosts that have sunk already in the attempt, like insects rushing against the flame, or birds of night glaring defiance at the sun.
3. A motive of conversion to the unbeliever. There is nothing so mournful as to be at once on the wrong, and on the losing side. To perish in a good cause surrounds the name with glory; but where is the wisdom, the magnanimity, the honour of dying a martyr to error, to folly, to sin and wickedness? This is not to be a hero, but a traitor; not to be a sacrifice, but a suicide! (J. Cairns, D. D.)
Moral truths inextinguishable
M’Kenzie, in his North American tour, speaking of the country bordering on the Slave Lake, says: “It is covered with large trees of spruce pine and white birch; when these are destroyed poplars succeed, though none were before to be seen.” Evelyn notices a fact very similar to this, which is observed in England, in Nova Scotia, and in the United States of America, that where fires have destroyed the original wood the new saplings which spring up are generally different species of trees. All these phenomena indicate the inextinguishableness or vegetable vitality; and on this point they may be employed to typify the inextinguishableness of moral truths in our world. No fires of insurrection, no deluges of persecution, no changes in the forms of human society by kings, or priests, or mobs have ever had the effect of obliterating moral ideas. They are inextinguishable, and spring up unaccountably in perennial beauty despite all social conflagrations and convulsions. (Scientific Illustrations.)
The fate of antagonists to Christianity
“Gibbon, Voltaire, Chesterfield, Hume, and Paine,” said an unbeliever, “are the champions of infidelity. Their works completely overthrow Christianity.” “What!” said a Christian; “overthrow Christianity! Are you aware of the way in which the Most High God has thwarted their designs and overruled their evil purposes? Let me tell you that in Gibbon’s hotel at Lake Leman is a room where Bibles are sold. The printing-press from which Voltaire’s infidel works were issued has been used to print the Word of God. Chesterfield’s parlour, once an infidel club-room, is now a vestry, where Christians meet for prayer anti praise. Hume predicted the death of Christianity in twenty years, but he has gone to his grave, and the first meeting of the Bible Society in Edinburgh was held in the room where the prince of sceptics died. Paine, on landing at New York, was foolish enough to prophesy that in five years not a Bible would be found in the United States. But it is a fact that there are more Bible Societies to-day in America than in any other country in the world.” The unbeliever was silenced. (J. L. Nye.)
They departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer.
Heroic for the truth
I. The bitter antagonism of wicked men to the truth, as seen in their desperate attempts to arrest its progress in the world. The history of truth has ever been one of trial and conflict. He who was “The Truth” had to contend with the antagonism of men; and the noble army of martyrs shows how desperate and determined have been the attempts of cruel, wicked men to arrest the course of truth. Arrayed against the apostles was--
1. Social status. The Founder of Christianity was of humble origin, the apostles were of the common people; and of course the high priest and the rulers could not consent to be taught by them. So for ages persons of social rank and great worldly wealth have not favoured Christianity, but rather hindered it.
2. Legal might. The judges and the lawyers, who ought to have defended them, sided against them; and for centuries history repeated itself in this particular, and the strong arm of the law, instead of being extended to defend the truth, has drawn the sword to persecute and destroy.
3. Mental power. At the council there was the elite of the intelligence of the Jewish nation. And from that time until now there have been men of brilliant powers arrayed against the truth--powers worthy of a nobler employment and end. Polished and poisoned have been the arrows that have been shot at the army of the Cross.
4. Sympathy of numbers. Many believed, but many did not believe. Truth has always been in the minority, so far as numbers are concerned. Error has usually gained the show of hands. Men with high and holy purposes must expect comparative loneliness. It was so with the Master, largely so with the apostles, and has been so more or less with all intellectual giants and true moral reformers.
5. Antiquity. They were Nonconformists, and the Jews would feel the utmost disdain for those who dared to dissent from their national establishment. Those who opposed the apostles venerated Abraham and Moses; but Christ they regarded as an innovator and a sower of sedition. Error has still pretext for pleading that antiquity is on its side; for sin is as old as Eden. All these things were arrayed against the truth, and yet it won its way. And if these things could not impede it when it was a streamlet, shall they succeed now that it is a mighty river? If alien and hardy hands could not uproot the truth when it was a newly-planted sapling, shall any hands be able to lift it now it is a deep-rooted mighty tree? God is on the side of truth, and its early victories are a pattern and pledge of its constant and complete triumph over all antagonistic forces.
II. The sublime heroism of holy men for the truth, as seen in their determined labours to accelerate its progress in the world. Notice--
1. Its nature.
2. Its secret. They were not fanatics, but calm, cool, and common-sense men.
Four classes in the school of suffering
I. Those obliged to suffer.
II. Those willing to suffer.
III. Those able to suffer.
IV. Those permitted to suffer. (Hartman.)
Rejoicing in tribulation
I. What the apostles felt.
1. Not mere resignation. It is reckoned a high Christian grace not to murmur at afflictive providences, but to submit--not trying to pierce the inscrutable, but saying, “Thy will, not mine be done.”
2. Not mere acquiescence. This is a grace higher still, involving as it does the confession that God’s will is good will, and God’s way, however painful, the best way. Its language is, “All things work together for good,” etc.
3. But joyfulness--perhaps the highest grace possible, being exultation that at whatever personal cost God’s will is done. Certainly the most difficult grace to exercise, and one which goes clean contrary to all the tendencies of our nature. We naturally love ease, prosperity, honour; but when we are enabled to rejoice as the apostles did in pain, adversity, and ignominy we are more than conquerors.
II. How to account for it.
1. Not on the ground of the expectation of ulterior benefit. Many a man has rejoiced in the trouble and suffering which would certainly issue in wealth or honour. Witness the conduct of warriors and explorers. The apostles could gain nothing except further suffering.
2. Not on the ground of a hope of heaven. This has been the support of many a Christian martyr and sufferer, is quite legitimate, and was a source of comfort often to the apostles themselves, but it does not seem to have been taken into account here.
3. But on the ground that Christ counted them worthy to suffer for His name. It was suffering--
The history of the Church, as given in the Acts of the Apostles, shows the enmity of the carnal mind towards God. But the persecution to which the apostles were subject has its bright, no less than its dark side. It shows us the integrity--the courage of these men of God. Many have hazarded life from love of worldly honour and glory; self, in some form or other, has been the prompting motive; and they have won the applause of man. But a higher and nobler feeling has induced the followers of Christ to go to the prison and stake.
I. The situation of these men of God. The circumstances in which they were placed were harassing and painful. The whole weight of the civil power was brought to bear upon them. They were also put to shame. They were men of high moral sensibility, and keenly felt the degradation attached to a public whipping, as if they had been robbers, yet they rejoiced. But what fault had they committed? They were punished because they preached pardon to the guilty, and salvation through Christ to them that believe.
II. The judgment they formed of the treatment they received. They rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for the name of their Lord and Master.
1. May this not have arisen from the conviction that opposition would redound to the Saviour’s glory? They knew that His cause would in the end prevail, however it might for a season be hindered.
2. Moreover, they might have formed their judgment on a principle that regarded themselves. They knew that their ascended Lord had foretold the certainty of persecution, and now in the fulfilment of the prediction, they saw an evidence of the truthfulness of their Great Master, and of their relation to Him. They therefore rejoiced in the grace of God.
III. On what grounds and by what means may we rejoice if we should be called to suffer for the name of Christ? It is still true, that through much tribulation we are to enter the kingdom of God. Children have been persecuted by their parents for the sake of their piety and religious zeal. Servants have been mocked and dismissed from their situations on account of their faith. Tenants have been turned out of their houses and farms because they have obeyed the voice of conscience. And not a few have suffered in their trade, because they have followed their convictions in the worshipping of God.
1. If we would be associated with the apostles in this case, we must reckon by faith--not by sight. A man may resign himself to the observance of the established usages of society, he may conform to the standard of the world’s morality; but he will never submit to reproach for the name of Christ, unless he sees His Divine excellency, and loves Him in sincerity.
2. Again, if we would account it joy to be persecuted for the sake of Christ, our eye must be single in His cause.
3. In a word, finally, you must seek for a constant supply of the spirit of grace. These men of God were filled with joy in the Holy Ghost. (American National Preacher.)
Joy in Christian work, and peace amid tribulation
I. Many people can imagine Church workers feeling pleasure under certain conditions and experiences of their work--in its hours of success, and scenes of glad acceptance and sympathetic reception; but hardly any, without careful thought, could understand men professing themselves as happy after enduring such an ordeal as the apostles had just passed through. Yet let me point you to analogies. First take the case of the scholar, the man who loves and pursues knowledge for its own sake. Have we not heard of men who are content, nay, supremely happy in toiling on steadily and silently for years, wrapped up in and devoted to enlarging their ever-increasing stores of information? Such there have been and are, who deny themselves all other pleasures, even health, not to speak of worldly advantage or social advancement, who work on in silence and solitude, finding their one joy in their enthusiastic devotion to this their only object in life. Or take the case of the man of science. Not the man who studies literature or law or history, but the man who is engaged in wresting fresh secrets from nature; not in order to patent an invention and make a large fortune, but who loves nature and science for their own sake, whose one object seems to be making constant additions to the number of known facts or verified laws and operations. Again, have we not read of travellers and explorers perfectly possessed by their life of adventure; ever seeking to scale heights which no one else has reached, to penetrate further into unknown regions, and who for this purpose have endured almost incredible hardship and toil; to whom labours well-nigh superhuman seemed as nothing, who would face with readiness situations where they verily went with their lives in their hands? I might go on to speak of the love of the soldier, the engineer, the artist, the musician, for their callings. For we shall find that the greatest men in every sphere of life have had, as it were, a perfect passion for their profession, and have followed it not for any outside reward or emolument it might bring, but for its own sake. Now, may I take Christianity as a profession, and give the widest interpretation to the true Christian work? Is it quite impossible for the Christian worker to find such an interest in the work itself, apart from any hope of reward, as a scholar, an artist, a soldier finds in his profession? The true artist has a pure and enthusiastic love for art; the scholar’s one object in life is knowledge; what, then, is the Christian worker’s means and object of rejoicing? Must it not be in the increase of goodness? Christ and Christianity have but one object--the righteousness of man, the placing of good in the stead of evil. Notice how different the conduct of the apostles now from what it was previous to the resurrection. Then, at the advent of a few armed men, they had fled in terror and deserted their Master. Now, they were joyfully prepared to suffer persecution and death on His behalf. What had produced the change? What but a revelation of the true nature of their Master?
II. With joy is closely allied peace. Peace is the inward state of feeling of which holy joy is the manifestation. The Christian lives in two spheres--in the world and also in Christ. In the first sphere he must be in a state of conflict with much he finds around him. But he lives also in close communion with his Master; and so far as he tries to do his Master’s service, to obey His will, to be led by His Spirit, he is at peace. We are all, in one way or another, seeking for happiness. Physical life depends on conformation to the laws of nature. Spiritual life depends on conformation to the Spirit of God. The object of the will of Gad is righteousness, goodness, truth. This, if we would have peace, must be the object of our wills also. Hence, in the pursuit of goodness, even in the midst of tribulation, shall we find joy. (W. E. Chadwick, M. A.)
The effects of persecution
Unless a grain of mustard-seed be bruised, the extent of its virtue is never acknowledged. For without bruising it is insipid, but if it be bruised it becomes hot, and it gives out all those pungent properties that were concealed in it. Thus every good man, so long as he is not smitten, is regarded as insipid, and of slight account. But if the grinding of persecution crush him, instantly he gives forth all the warmth of his savour, and all that before appeared to be weak and contemptible is turned into godly fervour, and that which in peaceful times he had been glad to keep from view within his own bosom, he is driven by the force of tribulation to make known. (St. Gregory.)
The joy of suffering for Christ
Guy de Brez, a French minister, was prisoner in the Castle of Tournay, in Belgium. A lady who visited him said she wondered how he could eat, or drink, or sleep in quiet. “Madam,” said he, “my chains neither terrify me nor break my sleep; on the contrary, I glory and take delight therein, esteeming them at a higher rate than chains and rings of gold, or jewels of any price whatever. The rattling of my chains is like the effect of an instrument of music in my ears--not that such an effect comes merely from my chains, but it is because I am bound therewith for maintaining the truth of the gospel.”
And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.
Daily apostolic labours
This is a suggestive picture of the life and work of the early Church. We like to trace enterprises to their beginnings, rivers to their springs. These were times of holy zeal and fervour which may be accounted for by four considerations.
1. The apostles felt the impulse of a new undertaking.
2. They held fresh in memory their intercourse with their Lord.
3. They had the inward energy of the Holy Spirit.
4. They were inspired by the truths they preached. The text is one of the best exhibitions of this energy, and suggests to us--
I. Our work. “Teaching and preaching Jesus Christ.” That may seem to be the specific work of apostles and ministers, but in truth it is the work of every Christian. Moses wished that “all the Lord’s people were prophets”; Jesus said, “Go home to thy friends and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee.”
1. The subject.
2. The mode.
II. Our spheres. “In the temple and in every house.” Not only in appointed sanctuaries, but also in--
1. Society, which we are to leaven and purify for Christ with wise teachings and preachings.
2. Our houses--homes where family bonds and sympathies make for it a preparatory atmosphere. Our first circle to win for Christ is the home circle. But these two circles cannot be properly occupied in any one way or by any one agency. We want--
III. Our times. “Daily,” i.e., always. Not a day should pass without some witness for Christ. Christ wants service from us on week-days as well as Sundays. We may preach--
1. Christ’s spirit, which is charity.
2. Christ’s will, which is holiness.
3. Christ’s salvation. (R. Tuck, B. A.)
Ministerial fidelity and devotedness
In this brief but emphatic record of the labours of the first apostles we may find a pattern after which to model ours, in the prosecution of that great work to which we have been set apart.
I. Examine the comprehensive character of the ministerial office delineated--marking its adaptation to the end for which it was originally instituted. The recovery of the sinner--his restoration to the Divine image and favour, is the revealed purpose of God. We must not shun to declare the whole counsel of God. Herein we perceive what should constitute the staple of our preaching. It is Christ, in the glory of His person, in the all-sufficiency of His offices, in the riches of His grace.
1. To preach Jesus is to announce Him as a Peacemaker, who brought in, by His one oblation of Himself once offered, an atonement. It is to herald Him as the Saviour, to the exclusion of all other humanly-devised methods, wherein salvation is sought; a Saviour, suitable and sufficient--suitable as man, sufficient as God--His deity being the altar upon which His humanity was immolated; “the altar sanctifying the gift.”
2. To preach Jesus is “to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins”; a righteousness resulting from His obedience, at once active and passive, exacted and rendered as the sinner’s substitute, and imparted unto all who exercise faith in Him.
3. Further, the title of Christ is applied to the Saviour. Christ, the anointed Prophet, Priest, Advocate, and King.
4. It is further recorded of the apostles that they did not restrict their labours to the service of the temple, but that they instructed “from house to house.” “We watch for souls,” and should therefore have our people under constant inspection, and ever-wakeful supervision. By such a course we shall best prove that we are indeed alive to their highest interests; by this will the cause of religion and morality and public tranquillity be best advanced; by this, too, shall we be best prepared for meeting that solemn inquiry, “Where is the flock that was given thee, thy beautiful flock?”
5. Another remark upon this part of our subject is suggested by the expression, “they taught Jesus Christ.” It is in the power of conduct, as well as of words, to convey instruction. “Ye,” said our Lord, “are the light of the world.” Like a moral Pharos, enkindled from above, we are placed in a direct line with the haven of eternity, in order that, by the concentrated beams of purity of doctrine and of conduct, we may guide the endangered sinner across these perilous waters, wherein many are engulphed and for ever lost. We are to be “ensamples unto our flock,” giving strength and power to our public admonitions by the consistency of our private deportment. That which we have “heard and seen,” tasted, and are enjoying, we declare unto our perishing fellow sinners; and this invests our addresses with a charm and power which nothing short of it could possibly impart. Ours it is to utter testimony confirmed by experience; and who can fail to admit its force, in its peculiar fitness for the end designed?
II. The constancy and fulness of dedication to their work exhibited by the apostles, furnishing for our imitation a just and impressive pattern. It was a noble declaration of the twelve, “We will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.” They appear to have been influenced by an “inconceivable severity of conviction, that they had one thing to do.” Upon this one object the whole force of their mind was expended. For its furtherance they were content to suffer the loss of all things, deeming reproach an honour, suffering a privilege, a martyr’s death a gain. The necessity for this self-sacrificing devotedness still exists, in order to our reaching the highest style of ministerial excellence.
1. The ministry of the gospel, in its widest acceptation, is emphatically the work we have to do. Well may we, engaged in such an undertaking, affirm in the language of Nehemiah, “I am doing a great work.” The magnitude of that work will be further seen in the diversity of the employment connected with its due discharge. To the Christian pastor belongs the study of human character in its every different aspect. He will have to adapt his resources to the peculiarities of every rank and age in the Church and in the world.
2. The disproportion between our powers and the undertaking upon which they are to be expended is another consideration calculated to prove the necessity for the accumulated force of all our powers in its performance.
3. Moreover, we may observe that the amount of our success will bear some proportion to our efforts. The seed will reproduce itself, and the greater the quantity sown in prayer and watered by that gracious influence which faithful sustained supplication calls down, the more abundant will be the crop. The manifestation of this success may be for a while denied; we may be permitted to toil on, witnessing but little fruit of our labour; nevertheless, the result is certain. (Henry Abney, B. A.)
A model Christian ministry
I. Its subject. Not things about Jesus Christ, but Himself. Creeds may satisfy the reason, but the heart craves a Person. The heart grows, but creeds are stationary. Christ and His fulness ever transcend our utmost need. A ministry of which Christ is not the grand theme is a misnomer--worthless and injurious:
II. Its method. “Preaching,” i.e., evangelising; “teaching,” i.e., instructing those who have received the evangel, Notice--
1. The great importance of these two things.
2. The difficulty of doing both well.
3. The difficulty of obtaining appreciation for both in one congregation. Yet the Church must have and exercise both.
III. Its spheres.
2. Domestic (Acts 2:46).
IV. Its frequency. “Daily.” Here is a message for those who never enter the sanctuary except on the Lord’s day. (W. Jones.)
I. Its subject. “Jesus Christ.” This was not one subject of many; it was the only one. Note that this is a subject of--
1. Infinite importance. “Neither is there salvation in any other.” You may be interested in many subjects; you may love music, history, etc.; but you may die to-morrow; and without an interest in Christ you are lost: and therefore to know how you are to be saved must be matter of infinite importance.
2. Unequalled suitableness. It is adapted to the moral necessities of all mankind.
3. Endless vapory. The mind of man is so constituted that it never can be happy without variety; and that variety is furnished us in the heavens and on the earth. But in Christ all God’s various wonders meet; He is the great Centre of both worlds, in whom the glories of both are concentrated. I can hardly look at an object in creation without being reminded of Him; and the Bible is intended that whichever way I look it should preach to me about Jesus Christ.
4. Peculiar sweetness. What is so sweet to a starving man as food, to a weary traveller as rest, to the criminal as pardon?
5. Singular efficacy. It is the power of God and the wisdom of God. And what subject has the efficacy which this possesses? Mahometanism has converted its millions; but how? By the sword and by the allowance of sensual indulgence. Idolatry has its millions; but they curse their senseless and blood-thirsty deities for the slavery which they impose upon them. But without any carnal weapons, or human authority, the simple preaching of Christ, which first conquered the Roman world, brought England into the state into which it now is, and will, by its blessed conquests, finally convert and subdue the whole world. If you are alarmed at the vice and misery of London, see the trophies of the simple preaching of Jesus Christ. Saul, the persecuting bigot; Mary Magdalene, the habitation of foul demons; the thief on the cross, etc.
6. Eternal duration. Many subjects which are excellent in their nature, and adapted to the present wants of man, involve only the interests of time. But this one subject promises present peace and eternal felicity. I would be a Christian if its influence extended no further than the waters of Jordan. But although there is great blessedness now, it is but a taste of what is to come.
II. Its method.
1. Public preaching. This was according to the charge of our Saviour, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature,” and according to the plan of Divine wisdom. By the foolishness of preaching “it pleased God to save them that believe.” And this is a mode adapted to the wants, habits, and the constitution of the human mind. People are fond of a crowd, and God has so ordained it, that by the preaching of the gospel multitudes should be gathered to listen to it. They could not spare the time nor the money that books would require, to derive the same instruction; therefore they are congregated to save both. The same attention employed in reading would not produce the same effects that are produced by preaching; there is a certain charm, enthusiasm in the human voice, the piercing look, the animated manner of the speaker, which no books in the world can supply. There is also something in the place; there is something charming to the mind in a place consecrated to the service of God. If ever the world is converted, preachers must be multiplied, and multiplied to an extent of which, at present, we have very little knowledge: we must not wait till new churches are built. We must convert school-rooms into preaching-places, and barns into chapels, and every house we can enter for a spot in which multitudes can be assembled to hearken to the words of life. This was the apostolical plan. John Mark’s was the house where the people met together to pray for Peter’s deliverance. The Church assembled in the house of Aquila and Priscilla. The Church assembled in the house of Onesiphorus. And if these cannot be obtained, then we must have open-air preaching, with the sky for a sounding-board and the multitudes around for a congregation. Every spot is consecrated. If you go on board a ship, Christ was there before, and preached there. If you go to the hills, the apostles preached there before you. If you go to the prisons, the apostles preached there before you.
2. Private teaching. They were net satisfied with public preaching, but they went to every house. This is the communication of the truth to individuals, as the other was the communication of the truth to multitudes. David had often heard Nathan speak in public; but he heard him in private to purpose when he came and related his parable, and then said, “Thou art the man.” I doubt not that a part of this private tuition consisted in the application of the consolation of the gospel to individuals who have been pricked in their hearts, and their minds somewhat illuminated by the truth: they had to strengthen them that were weak, and to bring back those who had fallen away. But the chief end of this private tuition was, to seek out that which was lost. Now ministers are not only to teach and preach to them who will come, but they are to go to those who will not come. They are not only to invite people to come to the temple, but they are to go to their houses.
III. Its constancy. “Daily … they ceased not.” The influence of the Spirit of God produced three blessed states of mind.
1. Burning zeal for their Master’s glory. They went into “every house”; not only those into which they were invited; of the rich as well as of the poor; of the learned as well as the illiterate. And what though it was said, “You have no business here; keep your religion to yourself!” Their Master’s honour was what they attempted to sustain: and if men dishonoured them they bound the scorn to their brow, and gloried in their shame.
2. Ardent love for the souls of men.
3. Indefatigable perseverance in their work. (J. Sherman.)
Teaching and preaching
As preachers, the apostles proclaimed the gospel to men; and as teachers they expounded its doctrines and enforced its duties. In this they obeyed the command of their Lord, “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. Go and disciple all nations,… teaching them.” During His own personal ministry He exemplified what He thus enjoined. “He went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom.”
I. This command was laid not upon the apostles alone, but upon the ministry which they had so vigorously inaugurated.
1. In the age which succeeded that of the apostles preaching and teaching were sedulously maintained by the Christians. From every congregation men seem to have gone forth as evangelists to make known the message of salvation; and in the assemblies of the believers, besides the reading of the Scriptures, a discourse delivered in the audience of the people formed a regular part of the service. Justin Martyr, in the former half of the second century, gives an account of how service was conducted in the assembly of the Christians on the Lord’s day; and he says that after the reading of the Scriptures the president delivered a discourse of a hortatory character in which he admonished his hearers to reduce to practice what they had heard read. These discourses were homely, unartificial addresses, partaking rather of the nature of conversational utterances than regularly constructed orations or discourses. In the Eastern churches, where they chiefly were in use in the earliest age, the name homily was given to them, a word which signifies intercourse, converse, and secondarily, instruction. For a long time these homilies continued to be mere expositions of Scripture with practical applications and exhortations, often of the simplest character, but sometimes containing the results of careful investigation and profound thought, as in the case of Origen, whose homilies are still valued by scholars for their suggestiveness and the light they sometimes throw on the meaning of Scripture.
2. As Christianity advanced, and the Christian assemblies became more numerous and cultured, the addresses of the pastors came to be of a more ambitious, character, and to be formed more on the model of the oratory of the senate or the forum. The slightly elevated platform which at first was common.to the reader and to the preacher, was by the latter exchanged for, first, a loftier pulpit, and afterwards for a throne, from which the bishop delivered his oration. Gradually the ancient wholesome usage of expounding the prophetic and evangelic writings was relinquished, and discourses in praise of martyrs, or funeral orations, highly ornate harangues, and pieces of artificial rhetoric were in their stead offered to the people, who, captivated by the gaudy show, followed the usage of the theatre, and at the close of each eloquent burst, expressed their approbation by acclamation and clapping of hands.
3. During the Middle Ages, and on to the time of the Reformation,)reaching and teaching had well-nigh ceased. It is true, sermons continued to be written, and were probably delivered, but as they were in a tongue which only the learned understood, they were confined in their use to the clergy; and it is true also that enlightened rulers like Charlemagne and Alfred the Great saw the importance of the people being instructed in religion, and took measures to enforce on the clergy the duty of preaching to the people in the vulgar tongue; but how little prepared were the clergy may be gathered from the fact that the Emperor found it necessary to enjoin that “bishops and presbyters are themselves to understand the Lord’s Prayer, and preach it to all that each may know what he asks of God.” Now and then a man fired by holy zeal--a Tauler, a Wicliffe, a Huss, a Gerson, a Savonarola--preached the gospel to the people and taught them the truths and duties of Christianity, and doubtless there were faithful but unknown men labouring in retired districts. But for the most part, all through these dreary centuries, the pulpit was virtually a nonentity in Christendom, and the people perished for lack of knowledge. Things were at the worst when the dawn of a better day arrived, and, as Milton expresses it, “then was the Sacred Bible sought out of the dusty corners where profane falsehood and neglect had thrown it, the schools opened, Divine and human learning raked out of the embers of forgotten tongues, the princes and cities trooping apace to the new-erected banner of salvation.”
4. All the leading reformers were assiduous and eminent preachers, and by this more than any other means they made good their position and effected a real and lasting revival of religious life among the nations. Since then, in all the Protestant Churches, preaching and teaching have been recognised as a chief duty of the Christian pastor; and even in the Romish and Greek churches the value of these is to a greater or less extent practically acknowledged.
II. A tendency has shown itself of late to depreciate preaching as compared with the devotional parts of our public services. A cry has been heard for less preaching and more of prayer and praise. But after much consideration and observation I am brought to the conclusion, that not for instruction alone, but for devotion and spiritual quickening as well, it is needful that the preaching of God’s Word should keep that place in the service of the sanctuary which the wisdom and the piety of our ancestors led them to assign to it. Consider well the following things.
1. The testimony of experience is strongly in favour of the value of preaching as a means of sustaining spiritual life in the Church. Turn over the volumes of Church history and it will be found that the free add earnest preaching of God’s Word has ever gone hand in hand with a lively state of religious feeling and an earnest and elevated devotion among the people; whilst, on the other hand, when the Church has relied principally on prayer and praise for the sustenance of her spiritual vigour, coldness, indifference, and formality have become characteristic of her members, and the pure fire of devotion on her altar has given place to a lurid and unwholesome flame.
2. Devotion being the utterance of feeling has no self-sustaining power. No emotion, high or low, holy or common, sustains itself; unless it be fed from without it becomes feeble and dies. But how is devotional emotion to be fed except by the Word of God? But it is by preaching and teaching in the sanctuary that the Word of God is chiefly and most effectually to be ministered to the people.
3. Whatever help devotional exercises may lend to She sanctification of the soul, they can never minister so directly to this as does the preaching of God’s Word. If devotion fans the flame, it is preaching that must supply the fuel, and it is by it that the fire is to be kindled. Pure affections spring from holy thoughts, and holy thoughts are the offspring of Divine knowledge.
4. The proper hearing of God’s Word is in itself an act of worship and devotion. If indeed it is merely to be pleased by an interesting preacher that people come to church; or if they come merely to sit in judgment on him or to enjoy an intellectual pastime or a sensational display--then truly they are as far from worship as if they were engaged in any secular pursuit or worldly amusement. But if they come to hear God’s Word, bowing their minds and hearts to the utterance of the Divine mind and seeking the blessing which lies in the reception of the truth, then do they in that very act rise to a true devotion, and offer a worship which is acceptable to God. (W. L. Alexander, D. D.)
I. The subject. To preach Jesus Christ aright we must preach Him in--
1. His infinite and indisputable Godhead. Take away the Divinity of Christ from the gospel, and you have nothing whatever left upon which the anxious soul can rest. If Christ were not God He was the basest of impostors.
2. His true humanity. We must never make Him to be less manlike because He was perfectly Divine. We must have a human Christ, not of shadows or fancies, one to whom we can talk, with whom we can walk, “who in His measure feels afresh what every member bears.”
3. His personality. A doctrinal Christ, a practical Christ, or an experimental Christ. I do not feel to be sufficient for the people of God. We want a personal Christ. This has been a power to the Romish Church--a power which they have used for ill, but always a power. Whatever we fail to preach we must preach Him. If we are wrong in many points, if we be but right here, this will save our ministry from the flames; but if we be wrong here, however orthodox we may pretend to be, we cannot be right in the rest.
4. His solitary mediatorship. Admitting the efficacy of the intercession of living saints for sinners, yet must we have it that the only Mediator in the heavens, and the only direct Intercessor with God, is the Man Christ Jesus. Nay, we must not be content with making Him the only Mediator; we must set aside all approach to God in any way whatever, except by Him. We must not only have Him for the Priest, but we must have Him for the Altar, the Victim, and the Offerer too. We must not permit for a moment the fair white linen of His righteousness to be stained by the patch-work of our filthy rags.
5. His authority as the only Lawgiver and Rabbi of the Church. When you put it down as a canon of your faith that the Church has right and power to decree rites and ceremonies, you have robbed Christ of His proper position. Or when you claim the office of controlling other men’s consciences by the decree of the Church, or the vote of a synod apart from the authority of Christ, you have taken away from Christ that chair which He occupies in the Christian Church.
6. His dignity as the sole King of the Church. The Church is queen above all queens, and Christ her only King. If any of our acts violate the civil laws we are citizens, and we acknowledge the right of a state to govern us as individuals. But we maintain that the excommunication of a Christian Church can never be reversed by the civil power, nor are its censures to be examined, much less to be removed, mitigated, or even judged.
7. His supremacy as the King of kings. He has an absolute right to the entire dominion of this world.
II. The surpassing excellencies of the subject.
1. Blessed variety. There are many strings to the harp of the gospel. There are some brethren who are so charmed with five of the strings, which certainly have very rich music in them, that they never meddle with any of the others; the cobwebs hang on the rest while these five are pretty well worn out. Any man who preaches Christ will ensure variety in his preaching. He is all manner of precious perfume, myrrh, and aloes, and cassia. He is all sorts of music, He is everything that is sweet to the ear; He is all manner of fruits; there is not one dainty in Him, but many. He is all manner of raiment; He is golden raiment for beauty, He is the warm raiment for comfort, He is the stout raiment for harness in the day of battle. There are all things in Christ, and he that hath Christ will have as great a variety as there is to be found in the scenery of the world where are no two rocks alike, and no two rivers wind in precisely the same manner, and no two trees grow in precisely the same form.
2. It suits all sorts of people. Are there rebels? Preach Christ; it will suit them. Are there pardoned sinners? What is better to melt their hearts than the blood of the Lord Jesus? Are there doubting Christians? What can cheer them better than the name of Christ? Are there strong believers? What is stronger meat than Jesus crucified? Are there learned, polite, intellectual hearers? If they are not satisfied with Christ they ought to be. Are there poor, ignorant, unlettered men? Jesus Christ is just the thing to preach to them--a naked Christ to their simple ears. Jesus Christ is a topic that will keep in all climates. Stand in New Zealand in the midst of uncivilised men, stand in the midst of poetical Persia or fickle France, the Cross is adapted to all.
III. The power of this subject.
1. To promote the union of the people of God. There is a man there, he is almost a Puseyite. “I do not like him,” says one. There is another man, a Presbyterian; he cannot bear Independency. “Well, I like him a little better; but I do not suppose we shall get on very well.” There is another man, a very strong Calvinist. “I shall not admire him.” Stop, stop! That man yonder, whom I called almost a Puseyite, was George Herbert; but what a Christian! What a lover of Jesus! You know that hymn of his, “How sweetly doth my Master’s sound!” That second man, the Presbyterian, who would not have liked George Herbert, was Samuel Rutherford. What a seraphic spirit! Well, now, I think, we will introduce Mr. Rutherford and Mr. Herbert together, and I am persuaded when they begin to speak about their Master they will find each other next of kin; and I feel sure that, by this time, Samuel Rutherford and George Herbert have found each other out in heaven, and are sitting side by side. That high Calvinist was Dr. Hawker. Now, I am sure, George Herbert would not have liked Dr. Hawker, and I am certain that Dr. Hawker would not have liked George Herbert, and I do not suppose that Samuel Rutherford would have had anything to do with either of them. But what a sweet spirit! He cannot take up his pen, but dips it in Christ and begins to write about his Lord at once. “Precious Immanuel--precious Jesus.” Those words in his morning and evening portions are repeated again and again. Let a man stand up and exalt Christ, and we are all agreed.
2. Upon the heart of sinners. There is a person, now a member of my church, whose conversion was owing to the reading of that hymn--“Jesus, lover of my soul.” “Ah,” says he, “does Jesus love my soul? Then how vile I have been to neglect Him!” There are scores whose conversion is distinct and directly traceable, not to doctrine--though that is often useful--nor experience, nor practice, though these are fruitful, but to the preaching of Christ. This is a seed which seldom rots under the clod. One may fall upon the stony ground, but it oftener happens that the seed breaks the stone when it falls. We ought to thunder out the threatenings of God, but they must never be the main topic. Judge not any man’s ministry. The world has too often condemned the man whom God intended to honour. Say not of such an one “He can do no good, for his language is rough and rude.” Say not of another that his style is too often marred with flippancy. Say not of a third that he is too erudite or soars too high. Every man in his own order. If that man preach Christ, whether he be Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, God will bless the Christ he preaches, and forgive the error which mingled with his ministry. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Little beginnings have large endings. A man drops a small seed upon the earth, and it starts up and expands into a tree of a thousand arms. The slender rill that leaps from a rock presently increases to a stream, and the stream swells into a river, and the river, gathering as it rolls, becomes the arm of the sea; and then there is a mingling, a sweeping, and a spreading of the waters through the circuit of the broad ocean. And so of the rise and progress of the religion of Jesus. At first there was the utterance of a single voice in the solitudes of the wilderness, and next was the testimony of the Son of God to Himself in the village and in the city; forthwith was the gathering of the twelve, and a declaration from these of the gospel to the surrounding nations. Then arose from the apostles the great company of preachers multiplying and widening their circles of influence abroad the earth unto this present, and looking forward we anticipate the time when the whole world, now lying in darkness, shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the channels of the sea. Yes, whatever is or shall be, the aspect of the globe in the light and beauty of holiness cometh under God of preaching. This is the great lever, which by little and little is lifting the wide universe out of the bondage of ignorance and superstition. It was this which overturned the Mosaical economy, which struck to their centre and shivered the idols of the heathen, which enkindled a light, that the power of the most numerous and mighty of adversaries could not put out, which snatched from the grasp of Satan, which drew as brands from the burning, thousands of souls now ministering before the throne of the Lamb.
I. Our obligations to preach Jesus Christ. It is the solemn object of our ordination, and we should be recreants from our vows, apostate from the articles of our faith, and traitors to the cause we professedly espouse, were we to gainsay the appeal that presses. To teach and preach Jesus is the great business of our days; whatever be the varieties of our talents, if the lines converge not to this centre our talents are abused; whatever be the plenitude of our strength, if it be not consecrated to this, our strength is worse than unprofitable. Our lamp must burn at the altar, our sinews must bear the cross. Our obligations to preach Jesus Christ rest upon the conviction--
1. That sinners have need of Him. In their natural estate they area
(a) In their ignorance of the true God and Jesus Christ, whom He hath sent.
(b) To the interests of their souls, preferring the evil and rejecting the good, and turning their back to the only light which shines from to lead their steps to heaven.
(a) As despoiled of the privileges and honours of a happier estate.
(b) As defrauded by an enemy of the birthright of the sons of God.
(c) As cast from the affluence of the garden into the necessities of the wilderness.
(d) As the heirs of bodily sorrows, and as the victims of an inwardly consuming anguish because of guilt and the judgment.
(e) As the slaves of sin and the subjects.to death, temporally and eternally.
(a) As possessing no garment in their own righteousness, nor in that of others, wherewith they might stand clothed in the sight of God.
(b) As wanting that white raiment which alone Christ can put on.
2. That in all the multifarious wants of man, Christ is the One, the near, the all-sufficient, the ever-living, the inexhaustible supply. The poor wandering and fainting flock lacks a shepherd to guide and cherish--Christ is the true Shepherd. The plague-stricken lack the hand of the physician to bind up and heal--Christ is the wise Physician, The deceived, the forsaken, and the abandoned lack the faithful adviser, the able defender, the counsellor for good--Christ is the unchangeable Friend, and the mighty Advocate, and the Prince of Peace.
3. That without Him everything is nothing, whilst with Him and in Him there is abundantly more than we can either ask or think to satisfy and enrich here, and to bless everlastingly.
II. What it is to preach Jesus Christ.
1. In substance. Let us analyse the title--
2. The manner should be characterised with a spirit of simplicity, decision, faithfulness, affection, and the devotion of a holy zeal. The man should be forgotten in his message, the wise, after the rudiments of this world, should be hidden to himself and others in the office of the minister of Christ.
III. The posture in which you should hear Christ preached.
1. As fully sensible of the value of the privilege of hearing. What gem had not David plucked from his royal crown for one of the opportunities with which you are blessed? How lavish had priests been of their distinctions and prophets of their gifts in exchange for one hour of your sabbaths. And oh, the treasures expended and the blood shed for your present liberty.
2. As men personally concerned and addressed in every appeal and invitation and reproof, in every promise and curse. You should bring the application home, not fancying how well the preacher’s word affixes to some one else.
3. With humility, keeping self in subjection, schooling down your natural arrogancy into the dependence and simple credence of the little child.
4. With watchfulness against the sins and temptations that are most prevailing; and with prayer to the Holy Spirit of God that He may impress, and sanctify, and guide you into all truth.
5. With faith receiving the mysteries of Christ as mysteries--as those deeper things of God, whose reception is for an exercise of faith here, and whose solution and discovery shall be amongst the felicities of eternity. (T. J. Judkin.)
The right kind of preaching
A sermon devoted to metaphysics is a stack of dry corn-stalks, after the corn has been ripped out with the husking-peg, a sermon given up to sentimental and flowery speech is as a nosegay flung to a drowning sailor. A sermon devoted to moral essay is a basket of chips to help on the great burning. What the world wants now is to be told in the most flat-footed way of Jesus Christ who comes to save men from eternal damnation.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Acts 5". The Biblical Illustrator. https://beta.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25