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Jesus the Christ.

III. And now, lastly, look at these words as setting forth the true
centre of Christ's work.

'He has sent Him to bless you in turning away every one of you from his
iniquities.' I have already spoken about the gross, narrow, carnal
apprehensions of Messiah's work which cleaved to the disciples during
all our Lord's life here, and which disturbed even the sanctity of the
upper chamber at that last meal, with squabbles about precedence which
had an eye to places in the court of the Messiah when He assumed His
throne. But here Peter has shaken himself clear of all these, and has
grasped the thought that, whatever derivative and secondary blessings
of an external and visible sort may, and must, come in Messiah's train,
_the_ blessing which He brings is of a purely spiritual and inward
character, and consists in turning away single souls from their love
and practice of evil. That is Christ's true work.

The Apostle does not enlarge as to how it is done. We know how it is
done. Jesus turns away men from sin because, by the magnetism of His
love, and the attractive raying out of influence from His Cross, He
turns them to Himself. He turns us from our iniquities by the expulsive
power of a new affection, which, coming into our hearts like a great
river into some foul Augean stable, sweeps out on its waters all the
filth that no broom can ever clear out in detail. He turns men from
their iniquities by His gift of a new life, kindred with that from
which it is derived.

There is an old superstition that lightning turned whatever it struck
towards the point from which the flash came, so that a tree with its
thousand leaves had each of them pointed to that quarter in the heavens
where the blaze had been.

And so Christ, when He flings out the beneficent flash that slays only
our evil, and vitalises ourselves, turns us to Him, and away from our
transgressions. 'Turn us, O Christ, and we shall be turned.'

Ah, brethren! that is the blessing that we need most, for 'iniquities'
are universal; and so long as man is bound to his sin it will embitter
all sweetnesses, and neutralise every blessing. It is not culture,
valuable as that is in many ways, that will avail to stanch man's
deepest wounds. It is not a new social order that will still the
discontent and the misery of humanity. You may adopt collective
economic and social arrangements, and divide property out as it pleases
you. But as long as man continues selfish he will continue sinful, and
as long as he continues sinful _any_ social order will be pregnant with
sorrow, 'and when it is finished it will bring forth death.' You have
to go deeper down than all that, down as deep as this Apostle goes in
this sermon of his, and recognise that Christ's prime blessing is the
turning of men from their iniquities, and that only after that has been
done will other good come.

How shallow, by the side of that conception, do modern notions of Jesus
as the great social Reformer look! These are true, but they want their
basis, and their basis lies only here, that He is the Redeemer of
individuals from their sins. There were people in Christ's lifetime who
were all untouched by His teachings, but when they found that He gave
bread miraculously they said, 'This is of a truth the Prophet! That's
the prophet for my money; the Man that can make bread, and secure
material well-being.' Have not certain modern views of Christ's work
and mission a good deal in common with these vulgar old Jews - views
which regard Him mainly as contributing to the material good, the
social and economical well-being of the world?

Now, I believe that He does that. And I believe that Christ's
principles are going to revolutionise society as it exists at present.
But I am sure that we are on a false scent if we attempt to preach
consequences without proclaiming their antecedents, and that such
preaching will end, as all such attempts have ended, in confusion and
disappointment.

They used to talk about Jesus Christ, in the first French Revolution,
as 'the Good _Sansculotte_.' Perfectly true! But as the basis of that,
and of all representations of Him, that will have power on the diseases
of the community, we have to preach Him as the Saviour of the
individual from his sin.

And so, brethren, has He saved you? Do you begin your notions of Jesus
Christ where His work begins? Do you feel that what you want most is
neither culture nor any superficial and external changes, but something
that will deal with the deep, indwelling, rooted, obstinate self-regard
which is the centre of all sin? And have you gone alone to Him as a
sinful man? As the Apostle here suggests, Jesus Christ does not save
communities. The doctor has his patients into the consulting-room one
by one. There is no applying of Christ's benefits to men in batches, by
platoons and regiments, as Clovis baptized his Franks; but you have to
go, every one of you, through the turnstile singly, and alone to
confess, and alone to be absolved, and alone to be turned, from your
iniquity.

If I might venture to alter the position of words in my text, I would
lay them, so modified, on the hearts of all my friends whom my words
may reach now, and say, 'Unto you - _unto thee_, God, having raised up
His Son Jesus, sent Him to bless you, _first_ in turning away every one
of you from his iniquities.'



THE FIRST BLAST OF TEMPEST

'And as they spake unto the people, the priests, and the captain of the
temple, and the Sadducees, came upon them, 2. Being grieved that they
taught the people, and preached through Jesus the resurrection from the
dead. 3. And they laid hands on them, and put them in hold unto the
next day: for it was now even-tide. 4. Howbeit many of them which heard
the word believed; and the number of the men was about five thousand.
5. And it came to pass on the morrow, that their rulers, and elders,
and scribes, 6. And Annas the high priest, and Caiaphas, and John, and
Alexander, and as many as were of the kindred of the high priest, were
gathered together at Jerusalem. 7. And when they had set them in the
midst, they asked, By what power, or by what name, have ye done this?
8. Then Peter, filled with the Holy Ghost, said unto them, Ye rulers of
the people, and elders of Israel, 9. If we this day be examined of the
good deed done to the impotent man, by what means he is made whole; 10.
Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the
name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised
from the dead, even by Him doth this man stand here before you whole.
11. This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is
become the head of the corner. 12. Neither is there salvation in any
other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men,
whereby we must be saved. 13. Now when they saw the boldness of Peter
and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they
marvelled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with
Jesus. 14. And beholding the man which was healed standing with them,
they could say nothing against it.' - ACTS iv. 1-14.

Hitherto the Jewish authorities had let the disciples alone, either
because their attention had not been drawn even by Pentecost and the
consequent growth of the Church, or because they thought that to ignore
the new sect was the best way to end it. But when its leaders took to
vehement preaching in Solomon's porch, and crowds eagerly listened, it
was time to strike in.

Our passage describes the first collision of hostile authority with
Christian faith, and shows, as in a glass, the constant result of that
collision in all ages.

The motives actuating the assailants are significantly analysed, and
may be distributed among the three classes enumerated. The priests and
the captain of the Temple would be annoyed by the very fact that Peter
and John taught the people: the former, because they were jealous of
their official prerogative: the latter, because he was responsible for
public order, and a riot in the Temple court would have been a scandal.
The Saddueees were indignant at the substance of the teaching, which
affirmed the resurrection of the dead, which they denied, and alleged
it as having occurred 'in Jesus.'

The position of Sadducees and Pharisees is inverted in Acts as compared
with the Gospels. While Christ lived, the Pharisees were the soul of
the opposition to Him, and His most solemn warnings fell on them; after
the Resurrection, the Sadducees head the opposition, and among the
Pharisees are some, like Gamaliel and afterwards Paul, who incline to
the new faith. It was the Resurrection that made the difference, and
the difference is an incidental testimony to the fact that Christ's
Resurrection was proclaimed from the first. To ask whether Jesus had
risen, and to examine the evidence, were the last things of which the
combined assailants thought. This public activity of the Apostles
threatened their influence or their pet beliefs, and so, like
persecutors in all ages, they shut their eyes to the important
question, 'Is this preaching true or false?' and took the easier course
of laying hands on the preachers.

So the night fell on Peter and John in prison, the first of the
thousands who have suffered bonds and imprisonment for Christ, and have
therein found liberty. What lofty faith, and what subordination of the
fate of the messengers to the progress of the message, are expressed in
that abrupt introduction, in verse 4, of the statistics of the increase
of the Church from that day's work! It mattered little that it ended
with the two Apostles in custody, since it ended too with five thousand
rejoicing in Christ.

The arrest seems to have been due to a sudden thought on the part of
the priests, captain, and Sadducees, without commands from the
Sanhedrin or the high priest. But when these inferior authorities had
got hold of their prisoners, they probably did not quite know what to
do with them, and so moved the proper persons to summon the Sanhedrin.
In all haste, then, a session was called for next morning. 'Rulers,
elders, and scribes' made up the constituent members of the court, and
the same two 'high priests' who had tried Jesus are there, attended by
a strong contingent of dependants, who could be trusted to vote as they
were bidden. Annas was an _emeritus_ high priest, whose age and
relationship to Caiaphas, the actual holder of the post and Annas's
son-in-law, gave him an influential position. He retained the title,
though he had ceased to hold the office, as a cleric without a charge
is usually called 'Reverend.'

It was substantially the same court which had condemned Jesus, and
probably now sat in the same hall as then. So that Peter and John would
remember the last time when they had together been in that room, and
Who had stood in the criminal's place where they now were set.

The court seems to have been somewhat at a loss how to proceed. The
Apostles had been arrested for their words, but they are questioned
about the miracle. It was no crime to teach in the Temple, but a crime
might be twisted out of working a miracle in the name of any but
Jehovah. To do that would come near blasphemy or worshipping strange
gods. The Sanhedrin knew what the answer to their question would be,
and probably they intended, as soon as the anticipated answer was
given, to 'rend their clothes,' and say, as they had done once before,
'What need we further witnesses? They have spoken blasphemy.' But
things did not go as was expected. The crafty question was put. It does
not attempt to throw doubt on the reality of the miracle, but there is
a world of arrogant contempt in it, both in speaking of the cure as
'this,' and in the scornful emphasis with which, in the Greek, 'ye'
stands last in the sentence, and implies, 'ye poor, ignorant fishermen.'

The last time that Peter had been in the judgment-hall his courage had
oozed out of him at the prick of a maid-servant's sharp tongue, but now
he fronts all the ecclesiastical authorities without a tremor. Whence
came the transformation of the cowardly denier into the heroic
confessor, who turns the tables on his judges and accuses them? The
narrative answers. He was 'filled with the Holy Ghost.' That abiding
possession of the Spirit, begun on Pentecost, did not prevent special
inspiration for special needs, and the Greek indicates that there was
granted such a temporary influx in this critical hour.

One cannot but note the calmness of the Apostle, so unlike his old
tumultuous self. He begins with acknowledging the lawful authority of
the court, and goes on, with just a tinge of sarcasm, to put the vague
'this' of the question in its true light. It was 'a good deed done to
an impotent man,' for which John and he stood there. Singular sort of
crime that! Was there not a presumption that the power which had
wrought so 'good' a deed was good? 'Do men gather grapes of thorns?'
Many a time since then Christianity has been treated as criminal,
because of its beneficence to bodies and souls.

But Peter rises to the full height of the occasion, when he answers the
Sanhedrin's question with the pealing forth of his Lord's name. He
repeats in substance his former contrast of Israel's treatment of Jesus
and God's; but, in speaking to the rulers, his tone is more severe than
it was to the people. The latter had been charged, at Pentecost and in
the Temple, with crucifying _Jesus_; the former are here charged with
crucifying the _Christ_. It was their business to have tested his
claims, and to have welcomed the Messiah. The guilt was shared by both,
but the heavier part lay on the shoulders of the Sanhedrin.

Mark, too, the bold proclamation of the Resurrection, the stone of
offence to the Sadducees. How easy it would have been for them to
silence the Apostle, if they could have pointed to the undisturbed and
occupied grave! That would have finished the new sect at once. Is there
any reason why it was not done but the one reason that it could not be
done?

Thus far Peter has been answering the interrogation legally put, and
has done as was anticipated. Now was the time for Annas and the rest to
strike in; but they could not carry out their programme, for the fiery
stream of Peter's words does not stop when they expected, and instead
of a timid answer followed by silence, they get an almost defiant
proclamation of the Name, followed by a charge against them, which
turns the accused into the accuser, and puts them at the bar. Peter
learned to apply the passage in the Psalm (v. 11) to the rulers, from
his Master's use of it (Matt. xxi. 42); and there is no quaver in his
voice nor fear in his heart when, in the face of all these learned
Rabbis and high and mighty dignitaries, he brands them as foolish
builders, blind to the worth of the Stone 'chosen of God, and
precious,' and tells them that the course of divine Providence will run
counter to their rejection of Jesus, and make him the very 'Head of the
corner,' - the crown, as well as the foundation, of God's building.

But not even this bold indictment ends the stream of his speech. The
proclamation of the power of the Name was fitly followed by pressing
home the guilt and madness of rejecting Jesus, and that again by the
glad tidings of salvation for all, even the rejecters. Is not the
sequence in Peter's defence substantially that which all Christian
preaching should exhibit? First, strong, plain proclamation of the
truth; then pungent pressing home of the sin of turning away from
Jesus; and then earnest setting forth of the salvation in His name, - a
salvation wide as the world, and deep as our misery and need, but
narrow, inasmuch as it is 'in none other.' The Apostle will not end
with charging his hearers with guilt, but with offering them salvation.
He will end with lifting up 'the Name' high above all other, and
setting it in solitary clearness before, not these rulers only, but the
whole world. The salvation which it had wrought on the lame man was but
a parable and picture of the salvation from all ills of body and
spirit, which was stored in that Name, and in it alone.

The rulers' contempt had been expressed by their emphatic ending of
their question with that 'ye.' Peter expresses his brotherhood and
longing for the good of his judges by ending his impassioned, or,
rather, inspired address with a loving, pleading 'we.' He puts himself
on the same level with them as needing salvation, and would fain have
them on the same level with himself and John as receiving it. That is
the right way to preach.

Little need be said as to the effect of this address. Whether it went
any deeper in any susceptible souls or not, it upset the schemes of the
leaders. Something in the manner and matter of it awed them into
wonder, and paralysed them for the time. Here was the first instance of
the fulfilment of that promise, which has been fulfilled again and
again since, of 'a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall
not be able to gainsay nor resist.' 'Unlearned,' as ignorant of
Rabbinical traditions, and 'ignorant,' or, rather, 'private,' as
holding no official position, these two wielded a power over hearts and
consciences which not even official indifference and arrogance could
shake off. Thank God, that day's experience is repeated still, and any
of us may have the same Spirit to clothe us with the same armour of
light!

The Sanhedrin knew well enough that the Apostles had been with Jesus,
and the statement that 'they took knowledge of them' cannot mean that
that fact dawned on the rulers for the first time. Rather it means that
their wonder at the 'boldness' of the two drove home the fact of their
association with Him to their minds. That association explained the
marvel; for the Sanhedrin remembered how He had stood, meek but unawed,
at the same bar. They said to themselves, 'We know where these men get
this brave freedom of speech, - from that Nazarene.' Happy shall we be
if our demeanour recalls to spectators the ways of our Lord!

How came the lame man there? He had not been arrested with the
Apostles. Had he voluntarily and bravely joined them? We do not know,
but evidently he was not there as accused, and probably had come as a
witness of the reality of the miracle. Notice the emphatic 'standing,'
as in verse 10, - a thing that he had never done all his life. No wonder
that the Sanhedrin were puzzled, and settled down to the 'lame and
impotent conclusion' which follows. So, in the first round of the
world-long battle between the persecutors and the persecuted, the
victory is all on the side of the latter. So it has been ever since,
though often the victors have died in the conflict. 'The Church is an
anvil which has worn out many hammers,' and the story of the first
collision is, in essentials, the story of all.



WITH AND LIKE CHRIST

'Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that
they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marvelled; and they took
knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus.' - ACTS iv. 13.

Two young Galilean fishermen, before the same formidable tribunal which
a few weeks before had condemned their Master, might well have quailed.
And evidently 'Annas, the high priest, and Caiaphas, and John, and
Alexander, and as many as were of the kindred of the high priest,' were
very much astonished that their united wisdom and dignity did not
produce a greater impression on these two contumacious prisoners. They
were 'unlearned,' knowing nothing about Rabbinical wisdom; they were
'ignorant,' or, as the word ought rather to be rendered, 'persons in a
private station,' without any kind of official dignity. And yet there
they stood, perfectly unembarrassed and at their ease, and said what
they wanted to say, all of it, right out. So, as great astonishment
crept over the dignified ecclesiastics who were sitting in judgment
upon them, their astonishment led them to remember what, of course,
they knew before, only that it had not struck them so forcibly, as
explaining the Apostles' demeanour - viz.,'that they had been with
Jesus.' So they said to themselves: 'Ah, that explains it all! There is
the root of it. The company that they have kept accounts for their
unembarrassed boldness.'

Now, I need not notice by more than a word in passing, what a testimony
it is to the impression that that meek and gracious Sufferer had made
upon His judges, that when they saw these two men standing there
unfaltering, they began to remember how that other Prisoner had stood.
And perhaps some of them began to think that they had made a mistake in
that last trial. It is a testimony to the impression that Christ had
made that the strange demeanour of His two servants recalled the Master
to the mind of the judges.

I. The first thing that strikes us here is the companionship that
transforms.

The rulers were partly right, and they were partly wrong. The source
from which these men had drawn their boldness was their being with
Christ; but it was not such companionship with Christ, as Annas and
Caiaphas had in view, that had given them courage. For as long as the
Apostles had His personal presence with them, there was no perceptible
transforming or elevating process going on in them; and it was not
until after they had lost that corporeal presence that there came upon
them the change which even the prejudiced eyes of these judges could
not help seeing.

The writer of Acts gives a truer explanation with which we may fill out
the incomplete explanation of the rulers, when he says, 'Then Peter,
_filled with the Holy Ghost_, said unto them.' Ah, that is it! They had
been with Jesus all the days that He went in and out amongst them. They
had companioned with Him, and they had gained but little from it. But
when He went away, and they were relegated to the same kind of
companionship with Him that you and I have or may have, then a change
began to take place on them. And so the companionship that transforms
is not what the Apostle calls 'knowing Christ after the flesh,' but
inward communion with Him, the companionship and familiarity which are
as possible for us as for any Peter or John of them all, and without
which our Christianity is nothing but sounding brass and tinkling
cymbal.

They were 'with Jesus,' as each of us may be. Their communion was in no
respect different from the communion that is open and indispensable to
any real Christian. To be with Him is possible for us all. When we go
to our daily work, when we are compassed about by distracting and
trivial cares, when men come buzzing round us, and the ordinary
secularities of life seem to close in upon us like the walls of a
prison, and to shut out the blue and the light - oh! it is hard, but it
_is_ possible, for every one of us to think these all away, and to
carry with us into everything that blessed thought of a Presence that
is not to be put aside, that sits beside me at my study table, that
stands beside you at your tasks, that goes with you in shop and mart,
that is always near, with its tender encircling, with its mighty
protection, with its all-sufficing sweetness and power. To be with
Christ is no prerogative, either of Apostles and teachers of the
primitive age, or of saints that have passed into the higher vision;
but it is possible for us all. No doubt there are as yet unknown forms
and degrees of companionship with Christ in the future state, in
comparison with which to be 'present in the body is to be absent from
the Lord'; but in the inmost depth of reality, the soul that loves is
where it loves, and has whom it loves ever with it. 'Where the treasure
is, there will the heart be also,' and we may be with Christ if only we
will honestly try hour by hour to keep ourselves in touch with Him, and
to make Him the motive as well as the end of the work that other men do
along with us, and do from altogether secular and low motives.

Another phase of being with Christ lies in frank, full, and familiar
conversation with Him. I do not understand a dumb companionship. When
we are with those that we love, and with whom we are at ease, speech
comes instinctively. If we are co-denizens of the Father's house with
the Elder Brother, we shall talk to Him. We shall not need to be
reminded of the 'duty of prayer,' but shall rather instinctively and as
a matter of course, without thinking of what we are doing, speak to Him
our momentary wants, our passing discomforts, our little troubles.
There may be a great deal more virtue in monosyllabic prayers than in
long liturgies. Little jets of speech or even of unspoken speech that



Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 10 of 57)