Alexander Maclaren.

Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

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_Chaps. I to XII_ VERSE 17.


THE ASCENSION (Acts i. 1-14)

THE THEME OF ACTS (Acts i. 1, 2; xxviii. 30, 31)

THE FORTY DAYS (Acts i. 3)




THE FOURFOLD SYMBOLS OF THE SPIRIT (Acts ii. 2, 3, 17; 1 John ii. 20)

PETER'S FIRST SERMON (Acts ii. 32-47)


A FOURFOLD CORD (Acts ii. 42)



'THE PRINCE OF LIFE' (Acts iii. 14, 15)







THE SERVANT AND THE SLAVES (Acts iv. 25, 27, 29)

THE WHEAT AND THE TARES (Acts iv. 32; v. 11)

WHOM TO OBEY, - ANNAS OR ANGEL? (Acts v. 17-32)

OUR CAPTAIN (Acts v. 31)

GAMALIEL'S COUNSEL (Acts v. 38, 39)

FILLED WITH THE SPIRIT (Acts vi. 3, 5, 8)

STEPHEN'S VISION (Acts vii. 56)

THE YOUNG SAUL AND THE AGED PAUL (Acts vii. 58; Philemon 9)



SIMON THE SORCERER (Acts viii. 21)

A MEETING IN THE DESERT (Acts viii. 26-40)


GRACE TRIUMPHANT (Acts ix. 1-12; 17-20)

'THIS WAY' (Acts ix. 2)





PETER'S APOLOGIA (Acts xi. 1-18)







THE ANGEL'S TOUCH (Acts xii. 7, 23)

'SOBER CERTAINTY' (Acts xii. 11)

RHODA (Acts xii. 13)



'The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began
both to do and teach, 2. Until the day in which He was taken up, after
that He through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the Apostles
whom He had chosen: 3. To whom also He shewed Himself alive after His
passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and
speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God: 4. And, being
assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not
depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which,
saith He, ye have heard of Me. 5. For John truly baptized with water;
but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence. 6.
When they therefore were come together, they asked of Him, saying,
Lord, wilt Thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? 7.
And He said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the
seasons, which the Father hath put in His own power. 8. But ye shall
receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall
be witnesses unto Me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in
Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. 9. And when He had
spoken these things, while they beheld, He was taken up; and a cloud
received Him out of their sight. 10. And while they looked stedfastly
toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white
apparel; 11. Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up
into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven,
shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven. 12.
Then returned they unto Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which
is from Jerusalem a Sabbath day's journey. 13. And when they were come
in, they went up into an upper room, where abode both Peter, and James,
and John, and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew,
James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon Zelotes, and Judas the brother of
James. 14. These all continued with one accord in prayer and
supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with
His brethren.' - ACTS i. 1-14.

The Ascension is twice narrated by Luke. The life begun by the
supernatural birth ends with the supernatural Ascension, which sets the
seal of Heaven on Christ's claims and work. Therefore the Gospel ends
with it. But it is also the starting-point of the Christ's heavenly
activity, of which the growth of His Church, as recorded in the Acts,
is the issue. Therefore the Book of the Acts of the Apostles begins
with it.

The keynote of the 'treatise' lies in the first words, which describe
the Gospel as the record of what 'Jesus _began_ to do and teach,' Luke
would have gone on to say that this second book of his contained the
story of what Jesus went on to do and teach after He was 'taken up,' if
he had been strictly accurate, or had carried out his first intention,
as shown by the mould of his introductory sentence; but he is swept on
into the full stream of his narrative, and we have to infer the
contrast between his two volumes from his statement of the contents of
his first.

The book, then, is misnamed Acts of the Apostles, both because the
greater number of the Apostles do nothing in it, and because, in
accordance with the hint of the first verse, Christ Himself is the doer
of all, as comes out distinctly in many places where the critical
events of the Church's progress and extension are attributed to 'the
Lord.' In one aspect, Christ's work on earth was finished on the Cross;
in another, that finished work is but the beginning both of His doing
and teaching. Therefore we are not to regard His teaching while on
earth as the completion of Christian revelation. To set aside the
Epistles on the plea that the Gospels contain Christ's own teaching,
while the Epistles are only Paul's or John's, is to misconceive the
relation between the earthly and the heavenly activity of Jesus.

The statement of the theme of the book is followed by a brief summary
of the events between the Resurrection and Ascension. Luke had spoken
of these in the end of his Gospel, but given no note of time, and run
together the events of the day of the Resurrection and of the following
weeks, so that it might appear, as has been actually contended that he
meant, that the Ascension took place on the very day of Resurrection.
The fact that in this place he gives more detailed statements, and
tells how long elapsed between the Resurrection Sunday and the
Ascension, might have taught hasty critics that an author need not be
ignorant of what he does not mention, and that a detailed account does
not contradict a summary one, - truths which do not seem very recondite,
but have often been forgotten by very learned commentators.

Three points are signalised as occupying the forty days: commandments
were given, Christ's actual living presence was demonstrated (by sight,
touch, hearing, etc.), and instructions concerning the kingdom were
imparted. The old blessed closeness and continuity of companionship had
ceased. Our Lord's appearances were now occasional. He came to the
disciples, they knew not whence; He withdrew from them, they knew not
whither. Apparently a sacred awe restrained them from seeking to detain
Him or to follow Him. Their hearts would be full of strangely mingled
feelings, and they were being taught by gentle degrees to do without
Him. Not only a divine decorum, but a most gracious tenderness,
dictated the alternation of presence and absence during these days.

The instructions then given are again referred to in Luke's Gospel, and
are there represented as principally directed to opening their minds
'that they might understand the Scriptures.' The main thing about the
kingdom which they had then to learn, was that it was founded on the
death of Christ, who had fulfilled all the Old Testament predictions.
Much remained untaught, which after years were to bring to clear
knowledge; but from the illumination shed during these fruitful days
flowed the remarkable vigour and confidence of the Apostolic appeal to
the prophets, in the first conflicts of the Church with the rulers.
Christ is the King of the kingdom, and His Cross is His throne, - these
truths being grasped revolutionised the Apostles' conceptions. They are
as needful for us.

From verse 4 onwards the last interview seems to be narrated. Probably
it began in the city, and ended on the slopes of Olivet. There was a
solemn summoning together of the Eleven, which is twice referred to
(vs. 4, 6). What awe of expectancy would rest on the group as they
gathered round Him, perhaps half suspecting that it was for the last
time! His words would change the suspicion into certainty, for He
proceeded to tell them what they were not to do and to do, when left
alone. The tone of leave-taking is unmistakable.

The prohibition against leaving Jerusalem implies that they would have
done so if left to themselves; and it would have been small wonder if
they had been eager to hurry back to quiet Galilee, their home, and to
shake from their feet the dust of the city where their Lord had been
slain. Truly they would feel like sheep in the midst of wolves when He
had gone, and Pharisees and priests and Roman officers ringed them
round. No wonder if, like a shepherdless flock, they had broken and
scattered! But the theocratic importance of Jerusalem, and the fact
that nowhere else could the Apostles secure such an audience for their
witness, made their 'beginning at Jerusalem' necessary. So they were to
crush their natural longing to get back to Galilee, and to stay in
their dangerous position. We have all to ask, not where we should be
most at ease, but where we shall be most efficient as witnesses for
Christ, and to remember that very often the presence of adversaries
makes the door 'great and effectual.'

These eleven poor men were not left by their Master with a hard task
and no help. He bade them 'wait' for the promised Holy Spirit, the
coming of whom they had heard from Him when in the upper room He spoke
to them of 'the Comforter.' They were too feeble to act alone, and
silence and retirement were all that He enjoined till they had been
plunged into the fiery baptism which should quicken, strengthen, and
transform them.

The order in which promise and command occur here shows how graciously
Jesus considered the Apostles' weakness. Not a word does He say of
their task of witnessing, till He has filled their hearts with the
promise of the Spirit. He shows them the armour of power in which they
are to be clothed, before He points them to the battlefield. Waiting
times are not wasted times. Over-eagerness to rush into work,
especially into conspicuous and perilous work, is sure to end in
defeat. Till we feel the power coming into us, we had better be still.

The promise of this great gift, the nature of which they but dimly
knew, set the Apostles' expectations on tiptoe, and they seem to have
thought that their reception of it was in some way the herald of the
establishment of the Messianic kingdom. So it was, but in a very
different fashion from their dream. They had not learned so much from
the forty days' instructions concerning the kingdom as to be free from
their old Jewish notions, which colour their question, 'Wilt Thou at
this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?' They believed that
Jesus could establish His kingdom when He would. They were right, and
also wrong, - right, for He is King; wrong, for its establishment is not
to be effected by a single act of power, but by the slow process of
preaching the gospel.

Our Lord does not deal with their misconceptions which could only be
cured by time and events; but He lays down great principles, which we
need as much as the Eleven did. The 'times and seasons,' the long
stretches of days, and the critical epoch-making moments, are known to
God only; our business is, not to speculate curiously about these, but
to do the plain duty which is incumbent on the Church at all times. The
perpetual office of Christ's people to be His witnesses, their
equipment for that function (namely, the power of the Holy Spirit
coming on them), and the sphere of their work (namely, in ever-widening
circles, Jerusalem, Samaria, and the whole world), are laid down, not
for the first hearers only, but for all ages and for each individual,
in these last words of the Lord as He stood on Olivet, ready to depart.

The calm simplicity of the account of the Ascension is remarkable. So
great an event told in such few, unimpassioned words! Luke's Gospel
gives the further detail that it was in the act of blessing with
uplifted hands that our Lord was parted from the Eleven. Two
expressions are here used to describe the Ascension, one of which ('was
taken up') implies that He was passive, the other of which ('He went')
implies that He was active. Both are true. As in the accounts of the
Resurrection He is sometimes said to have been raised, and sometimes to
have risen, so here. The Father took the Son back to the glory, the Son
left the world and went to the Father. No chariot of fire, no
whirlwind, was needed to lift Him to the throne. Elijah was carried by
such agency into a sphere new to him; Jesus ascended up where He was

No other mode of departure from earth would have corresponded to His
voluntary, supernatural birth. He carried manhood up to the throne of
God. The cloud which received Him while yet He was well within sight of
the gazers was probably that same bright cloud, the symbol of the
Divine Presence, which of old dwelt between the cherubim. His entrance
into it visibly symbolised the permanent participation, then begun, of
His glorified manhood in the divine glory.

Most true to human nature is that continued gaze upwards after He had
passed into the hiding brightness of the glory-cloud. How many of us
know what it is to look long at the spot on the horizon where the last
glint of sunshine struck the sails of the ship that bore dear ones away
from us! It was fitting that angels, who had heralded His birth and
watched His grave, should proclaim His Second Coming to earth.

It was gracious that, in the moment of keenest sense of desolation and
loss, the great hope of reunion should be poured into the hearts of the
Apostles. Nothing can be more distinct and assured than the terms of
that angel message. It gives for the faith and hope of all ages the
assurance that He will come; that He who comes will be the very Jesus
who went; that His coming will be, like His departure, visible,
corporeal, local. He will bring again all His tenderness, all His
brother's heart, all His divine power, and will gather His servants to

No wonder that, with such hopes flowing over the top of their sorrow,
like oil on troubled waters, the little group went back to the upper
room, hallowed by memories of the Last Supper, and there waited in
prayer and supplication during the ten days which elapsed till
Pentecost. So should we use the interval between any promise and its
fulfilment. Patient expectation, believing prayer, harmonious
association with our brethren, will prepare us for receiving the gift
of the Spirit, and will help to equip us as witnesses for Jesus.


'The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began
both to do and teach. 2. Until the day in which He was taken up.' - ACTS
i. 1, 2.

'And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received
all that came in unto him, 31. Preaching the kingdom of God, and
teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all
confidence, no man forbidding him.' - ACTS xxviii. 30, 31.

So begins and so ends this Book. I connect the commencement and the
close, because I think that the juxtaposition throws great light upon
the purpose of the writer, and suggests some very important lessons.
The reference to 'the former treatise' (which is, of course, the Gospel
according to Luke) implies that this Book is to be regarded as its
sequel, and the terms of the reference show the writer's own conception
of what he was going to do in his second volume. 'The former treatise
have I made ... of all that Jesus _began_ both to do and teach until
the day in which He was taken up.' Is not the natural inference that
the latter treatise will tell us what Jesus _continued_ 'to do and
teach' _after_ He was taken up? I think so. And thus the writer sets
forth at once, for those that have eyes to see, what he means to do,
and what he thinks his book is going to be about.

So, then, the name 'The Acts of the Apostles,' which is not coeval with
the book itself, is somewhat of a misnomer. Most of the Apostles are
never heard of in it. There are, at the most, only three or four of
them concerning whom anything in the book is recorded. But our first
text supplies a deeper reason for regarding that title as inadequate,
and even misleading. For, if the theme of the story be what Christ did,
then the book is, not the 'Acts of the _Apostles_,' but the 'Acts of
_Jesus Christ_' through His servants. He, and He alone, is the Actor;
and the men who appear in it are but instruments in His hands, He alone
being the mover of the pawns on the board.

That conception of the purpose of the book seems to me to have light
cast upon it by, and to explain, the singular abruptness of its
conclusion, which must strike every reader. No doubt it is quite
possible that the reason why the book ends in such a singular fashion,
planting Paul in Rome, and leaving him there, may be that the date of
its composition was that imprisonment of Paul in the Imperial City, in
a part of which, at all events, we know that Luke was his companion.
But, whilst that consideration may explain the point at which the book
stops, it does not explain the way in which it stops. The historian
lays down his pen, possibly because he had brought his narrative up to
date. But a word of conclusion explaining that it was so would have
been very natural, and its absence must have had some reason. It is
also possible that the arrival of the Apostle in the Imperial City, and
his unhindered liberty of preaching there, in the very centre of power,
the focus of intellectual life, and the hot-bed of corruption for the
known world, may have seemed to the writer an epoch which rounded off
his story. But I think that the reason for the abruptness of the
record's close is to be found in the continuity of the work of which it
tells a part. It is the unfinished record of an incomplete work. The
theme is the work of Christ through the ages, of which each successive
depository of His energies can do but a small portion, and must leave
that portion unfinished; the book does not so much end as stop. It is a
fragment, because the work of which it tells is not yet a whole.

If, then, we put these two things - the beginning and the ending of the
Acts - together, I think we get some thoughts about what Christ began to
do and teach on earth; what He continues to do and teach in heaven; and
how small and fragmentary a share in that work each individual servant
of His has. Let us look at these points briefly.

I. First, then, we have here the suggestion of what Christ began to do
and teach on earth.

Now, at first sight, the words of our text seem to be in strange and
startling contradiction to the solemn cry which rang out of the
darkness upon Calvary. Jesus said, 'It is finished!' and 'gave up the
ghost.' Luke says He 'began to do and teach.' Is there any
contradiction between the two? Certainly not. It is one thing to lay a
foundation; it is another thing to build a house. And the work of
laying the foundation must be finished before the work of building the
structure upon it can be begun. It is one thing to create a force; it
is another thing to apply it. It is one thing to compound a medicine;
it is another thing to administer it. It is one thing to unveil a
truth; it is another to unfold its successive applications, and to work
it into a belief and practice in the world. The former is the work of
Christ which was finished on earth; the latter is the work which is
continuous throughout the ages.

'He began to do and teach,' not in the sense that any should come after
Him and do, as the disciples of most great discoverers and thinkers
have had to do: namely, systematise, rectify, and complete the first
glimpses of truth which the master had given. 'He began to do and
teach,' not in the sense that after He had 'passed into the heavens'
any new truth or force can for evermore be imparted to humanity in
regard of the subjects which He taught and the energies which He
brought. But whilst thus His work is complete, His earthly work is also
initial. And we must remember that whatever distinction my text may
mean to draw between the work of Christ in the past and that in the
present and the future, it does not mean to imply that when He
'ascended up on high' He had not completed the task for which He came,
or that the world had to wait for anything more, either from Him or
from others, to eke out the imperfections of His doctrine or the
insufficiencies of His work.

Let us ever remember that the initial work of Christ on earth is
complete in so far as the revelation of God to men is concerned. There
will be no other. There is needed no other. Nothing more is possible
than what He, by His words and by His life, by His gentleness and His
grace, by His patience and His Passion, has unveiled to all men, of the
heart and character of God. The revelation is complete, and he that
professes to add anything to, or to substitute anything for, the
finished teaching of Jesus Christ concerning God, and man's relation to
God, and man's duty, destiny, and hopes, is a false teacher, and to
follow him is fatal. All that ever come after Him and say, 'Here is
something that Christ has not told you,' are thieves and robbers, 'and
the sheep will not hear them.'

In like manner that work of Christ, which in some sense is initial, is
complete as Redemption. 'This Man has offered up one sacrifice for sins
for ever.' And nothing more can He do than He has done; and nothing
more can any man or all men do than was accomplished on the Cross of
Calvary as giving a revelation, as effecting a redemption, as lodging
in the heart of humanity, and in the midst of the stream of human
history, a purifying energy, sufficient to cleanse the whole black
stream. The past work which culminated on the Cross, and was sealed as
adequate and accepted of God in the Resurrection and Ascension, needs
no supplement, and can have no continuation, world without end. And so,
whatever may be the meaning of that singular phrase, 'began to do and
teach,' it does not, in the smallest degree, conflict with the
assurance that He hath ascended up on high, 'having obtained eternal
redemption for us,' and 'having finished the work which the Father gave
Him to do.'

II. But then, secondly, we have to notice what Christ continues to do
and to teach after His Ascension.

I have already suggested that the phraseology of the first of my texts
naturally leads to the conclusion that the theme of this Book of the
Acts is the continuous work of the ascended Saviour, and that the
language is not forced by being thus interpreted is very plain to any
one who will glance even cursorily over the contents of the book
itself. For there is nothing in it more obvious and remarkable than the
way in which, at every turn in the narrative, all is referred to Jesus
Christ Himself.

For instance, to cull one or two cases in order to bring the matter
more plainly before you - When the Apostles determined to select another
Apostle to fill Judas' place, they asked Jesus Christ to show which 'of
these two Thou hast chosen.' When Peter is called upon to explain the
tongues at Pentecost he says, 'Jesus hath shed forth this which ye now
see and hear.' When the writer would tell the reason of the large first
increase to the Church, he says, 'The Lord added to the Church daily
such as should be saved.' Peter and John go into the Temple to heal the

Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 1 of 57)