Alexander Maclaren.

Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

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go up to Him are likely to be heart-felt and to be heard. It is said of
Israel's army on one occasion, 'they cried unto God in the battle, and
He was entreated of them.' Do you think that theirs would be very
elaborate prayers? Was there any time to make a long petition when the
sword of a Philistine was whizzing about the suppliant's ears? It was
only a cry, but it _was_ a cry; and so 'He was entreated of them.' If
we are 'with Christ' we shall talk to Him; and if we are with Christ He
will talk to us. It is for us to keep in the attitude of listening and,
so far as may be, to hush other voices, in order that His may be heard,
If we do so, even here 'shall we ever be with the Lord.'

II. Now, note next the character that this companionship produces.

Annas and Caiaphas said to each other: 'Ah, these two have been with
that Jesus! That is where they have got their boldness. They are like

As is the Master, so is the servant. That is the broad, general
principle that lies in my text. To be with Christ makes men Christlike.
A soul habitually in contact with Jesus will imbibe sweetness from Him,
as garments laid away in a drawer with some preservative perfume absorb
fragrance from that beside which they lie. Therefore the surest way for
Christian people to become what God would have them to be, is to direct
the greater part of their effort, not so much to the acquirement of
individual characteristics and excellences, as to the keeping up of
continuity of communion with the Master. Then the excellences will
come. Astronomers, for instance, have found out that if they take a
sensitive plate and lay it so as to receive the light from a star, and
keep it in place by giving it a motion corresponding with the apparent
motion of the heavens, for hours and hours, there will become visible
upon it a photographic image of dim stars that no human eye or
telescope can see. Persistent lying before the light stamps the image
of the light upon the plate. Communion with Christ is the secret of
Christlikeness. So instead of all the wearisome, painful, futile
attempts at tinkering one's own character apart from Him, here is the
royal road. Not that there is no effort in it. We must never forget nor
undervalue the necessity for struggle in the Christian life. But that
truth needs to be supplemented with the thought that comes from my
text - viz. that the fruitful direction in which the struggle is to be
mainly made lies in keeping ourselves in touch with Jesus Christ, and
if we do that, then transformation comes by beholding. 'We all,
reflecting as a mirror does, the glory of the Lord, are transformed
into the same image.' 'They have been with Jesus,' and so they were
like Him.

But now look at the specific kinds of excellence which seem to have
come out of this communion. 'They beheld the _boldness_ of Peter and
John.' The word that is translated 'boldness' no doubt conveys that
idea, but it also conveys another. Literally it means 'the act of
saying everything.' It means openness of unembarrassed speech, and so
comes to have the secondary signification, which the text gives, of

Then, to be with Christ gives a living knowledge of Him and of truth,
far in advance of the head knowledge of wise and learned people. It was
a fact that these two knew nothing about what Rabbi _This_, or Rabbi
_That_, or Rabbi _The Other_ had said, and yet could speak, as they had
been speaking, large religious ideas that astonished these hide-bound
Pharisees, who thought that there was no way to get to the knowledge of
the revelation of God made to Israel, except by the road of their own
musty and profitless learning. Ay! and it always is so. An ounce of
experience is worth a ton of theology. The men that have summered and
wintered with Jesus Christ may not know a great many things that are
supposed to be very important parts of religion, but they have got hold
of the central truth of it, with a power, and in a fashion, that men of
books, and ideas, and systems, and creeds, and theological learning,
may know nothing about. 'Not many wise men after the flesh, not many
mighty, are called.' Let a poor man at his plough-tail, or a poor woman
in her garret, or a collier in the pit, have Jesus Christ for their
Companion, and they have got the kernel; and the gentlemen that like
such diet may live on the shell if they will, and can. Religious ideas
are of little use unless there be heart-experiences; and
heart-experiences are wonderful teachers of religious truth.

Again, to be with Christ frees from the fear of man. It was a new thing
for such persons as Peter and John to stand cool and unawed before the
Council. Not so very long ago one of the two had been frightened into a
momentary apostasy by dread of being haled before the rulers, and now
they are calmly heroic, and threats are idle words to them. I need not
point to the strong presumption, raised by the contrast of the
Apostles' past cowardice and present courage, of the occurrence of some
such extraordinary facts as the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the
Descent of the Spirit. Something had happened which revolutionised
these men. It was their communion with Jesus, made more real and deep
by the cessation of His bodily presence, which made these unlearned and
non-official Galileans front the Council with calmly beating hearts and
unfaltering tongues. Doubtless, temperament has much to do with
courage, but, no doubt, he who lives near Jesus is set free from undue
dependence on things seen and on persons. Perfect love casts out fear,
not only of the Beloved, but of all creatures. It is the bravest thing
in the world.

Further, to be with Christ will open a man's lips. The fountain, if it
is full, must well up. 'Light is light which circulates. Heat is heat
which radiates.' The true possession of Jesus Christ will always make
it impossible for the possessor to be dumb. I pray you to test
yourselves, as I would that all professing Christians should test
themselves, by that simple truth, that a full heart must find
utterance. The instinct that drives a man to speak of the thing in
which he is interested should have full play in the Christian life. It
seems to me a terribly sad fact that there are such hosts of good, kind
people, with some sort of religion about them, who never feel any
anxiety to say a word to any soul concerning the Master whom they
profess to love. I know, of course, that deep feeling is silent, and
that the secrets of Christian experience are not to be worn on the
sleeve for daws to peck at. And I know that the conventionalities of
this generation frown very largely upon the frank utterance of
religious convictions on the part of religious people, except on
Sundays, in Sunday-schools, pulpits, and the like. But for all that,
what is in you will come out. If you have never felt 'I was weary of
forbearing, and I could not stay,' I do not think that there is much
sign in you of a very deep or a very real being with Jesus.

III. The last point to be noted is, the impression which such a
character makes.

It was not so much what Peter and John said that astonished the
Council, as the fact of their being composed and bold enough to say

A great deal more is done by character than by anything else. Most
people in the world take their notions of Christianity from its
concrete embodiments in professing Christians. For one man that has
read his Bible, and has come to know what religion is thereby, there
are a hundred that look at you and me, and therefrom draw their
conclusions as to what religion is. It is not my sermons, but your
life, that is the most important agency for the spread of the Gospel in
this congregation. And if we, as Christian people, were to live so as
to make men say, 'Dear me, that is strange. That is not the kind of
thing that one would have expected from that man. That is of a higher
strain than he is of. Where did it come from, I wonder?' 'Ah, he
learned it of that Jesus' - if people were constrained to speak in that
style to themselves about us, dear friends, and about all our brethren,
England would be a different England from what it is to-day. It is
Christians' lives, after all, that make dints in the world's conscience.

Do you remember one of the Apostle's lovely and strong metaphors? Paul
says that that little Church in Thessalonica rung out clear and strong
the name of Jesus Christ - resonant like the clang of a bugle, 'so that
we need not to speak anything.' The word that he employs for 'sounded
out' is a technical expression for the ringing blast of a trumpet. Very
small penny whistles would be a better metaphor for the instruments
which the bulk of professing Christians play on.

'Adorn the doctrine of Christ.' And that you may, listen to His own
word, which says all I have been trying to say in this sermon: 'Abide
in Me. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself except it abide in the
vine, no more can ye, except ye abide in Me.'


'But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in
the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. 20.
For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard. 21. So
when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding
nothing how they might punish them, because of the people: for all men
glorified God for that which was done. 22. For the man was above forty
years old, on whom this miracle of healing was shewed. 23. And being
let go they went to their own company, and reported all that the chief
priests and elders had said unto them. 24. And when they heard that,
they lifted up their voice to God with one accord, and said, Lord, Thou
art God, which hast made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all that
in them is: 25. Who by the mouth of Thy servant David hast said, Why
did the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things? 26. The kings
of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against
the Lord, and against His Christ. 27. For of a truth against Thy holy
child Jesus, whom Thou hast anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate,
with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together,
28. For to do whatsoever Thy hand and Thy counsel determined before to
be done. 29. And now, Lord, behold their threatenings: and grant unto
Thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak Thy word, 30. By
stretching forth Thine hand to heal; and that signs and wonders may be
done by the name of Thy holy child Jesus. 31. And when they had prayed,
the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were
all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with
boldness.' - ACTS iv. 19-31.

The only chance for persecution to succeed is to smite hard and
swiftly. If you cannot strike, do not threaten. Menacing words only
give courage. The rulers betrayed their hesitation when the end of
their solemn conclave was but to 'straitly threaten'; and less heroic
confessors than Peter and John would have disregarded the prohibition
as mere wind. None the less the attitude of these two Galilean
fishermen is noble and singular, when their previous cowardice is
remembered. This first collision with civil authority gives, as has
been already noticed, the main lines on which the relations of the
Church to hostile powers have proceeded.

I. The heroic refusal of unlawful obedience. We shall probably not do
injustice to John if we suppose that Peter was spokesman. If so, the
contrast of the tone of his answer with all previously recorded
utterances of his is remarkable. Warm-hearted impulsiveness, often
wrong-headed and sometimes illogical, had been their mark; but here we
have calm, fixed determination, which, as is usually its manner, wastes
no words, but in its very brevity impresses the hearers as being
immovable. Whence did this man get the power to lay down once for all
the foundation principles of the limits of civil obedience, and of the
duty of Christian confession? His words take rank with the
ever-memorable sayings of thinkers and heroes, from Socrates in his
prison telling the Athenians that he loved them, but that he must 'obey
God rather than you,' to Luther at Worms with his 'It is neither safe
nor right to do anything against conscience. Here I stand; I can do
nothing else. God help me! Amen.' Peter's words are the first of a long

This first instance of persecution is made the occasion for the clear
expression of the great principles which are to guide the Church. The
answer falls into two parts, in the first of which the limits of
obedience to civil authority are laid down in a perfectly general form
to which even the Council are expected to assent, and in the second an
irresistible compulsion to speak is boldly alleged as driving the two
Apostles to a flat refusal to obey.

It was a daring stroke to appeal to the Council for an endorsement of
the principle in verse 19, but the appeal was unanswerable; for this
tribunal had no other ostensible reason for existence than to enforce
obedience to the law of God, and to Peter's dilemma only one reply was
possible. But it rested on a bold assumption, which was calculated to
irritate the court; namely, that there was a blank contradiction
between their commands and God's, so that to obey the one was to
disobey the other. When that parting of the ways is reached, there
remains no doubt as to which road a religious man must take.

The limits of civil obedience are clearly drawn. It is a duty, because
'the powers that be are ordained of God,' and obedience to them is
obedience to Him. But if they, transcending their sphere, claim
obedience which can only be rendered by disobedience to Him who has
appointed them, then they are no longer His ministers, and the duty of
allegiance falls away. But there must be a plain conflict of commands,
and we must take care lest we substitute whims and fancies of our own
for the injunctions of God. Peter was not guided by his own conceptions
of duty, but by the distinct precept of his Master, which had bid him
speak. It is not true that it is the cause which makes the martyr, but
it is true that many good men have made themselves martyrs needlessly.
This principle is too sharp a weapon to be causelessly drawn and
brandished. Only an unmistakable opposition of commandments warrants
its use; and then, he has little right to be called Christ's soldier
who keeps the sword in the scabbard.

The articulate refusal in verse 20 bases itself on the ground of
irrepressible necessity: 'We cannot but speak.' The immediate
application was to the facts of Christ's life, death, and glory. The
Apostles could not help speaking of these, both because to do so was
their commission, and because the knowledge of them and of their
importance forbade silence. The truth implied is of wide reach. Whoever
has a real, personal experience of Christ's saving power, and has heard
and seen Him, will be irresistibly impelled to impart what he has
received. Speech is a relief to a full heart. The word, concealed in
the prophet's heart, burned there 'like fire in his bones, and he was
weary of forbearing.' So it always is with deep conviction. If a man
has never felt that he must speak of Christ, he is a very imperfect
Christian. The glow of his own heart, the pity for men who know Him
not, his Lord's command, all concur to compel speech. The full river
cannot be dammed up.

II. The lame and impotent conclusion of the perplexed Council. How
plain the path is when only duty is taken as a guide, and how
vigorously and decisively a man marches along it! Peter had no
hesitation, and his resolved answer comes crashing in a straight
course, like a cannon-ball. The Council had a much more ambiguous
oracle to consult in order to settle their course, and they hesitate
accordingly, and at last do a something which is a nothing. They wanted
to trim their sails to catch popular favour, and so they could not do
anything thoroughly. To punish or acquit was the only alternative for
just judges. But they were not just; and as Jesus had been crucified,
not because Pilate thought Him guilty, but to please the people, so His
Apostles were let off, not because they were innocent, but for the same
reason. When popularity-hunters get on the judicial bench, society must
be rotten, and nearing its dissolution. To 'decree unrighteousness by a
law' is among the most hideous of crimes. Judges 'willing to wound, and
yet afraid to strike,' are portents indicative of corruption. We may
remark here how the physician's pen takes note of the patient's age, as
making his cure more striking, and manifestly miraculous.

III. The Church's answer to the first assault of the world's power. How
beautifully natural that is, 'Being let go, they went to their own,'
and how large a principle is expressed in the naive words! The great
law of association according to spiritual affinity has much to do in
determining relations here. It aggregates men, according to sorts; but
its operation is thwarted by other conditions, so that companionship is
often misery. But a time comes when it will work unhindered, and men
will be united with their like, as the stones on some sea-beaches are
laid in rows, according to their size, by the force of the sea. Judas
'went to his own place,' and, in another world, like will draw to like,
and prevailing tendencies will be increased by association with those
who share them.

The prayer of the Church was probably the inspired outpouring of one
voice, and all the people said 'Amen,' and so made it theirs. Whose
voice it was which thus put into words the common sentiment we should
gladly have known, but need not speculate. The great fact is that the
Church answered threats by prayer. It augurs healthy spiritual life
when opposition and danger neither make cheeks blanch with fear nor
flush with anger. No man there trembled nor thought of vengeance, or of
repaying threats with threats. Every man there instinctively turned
heavenwards, and flung himself, as it were, into God's arms for
protection. Prayer is the strongest weapon that a persecuted Church can
use. Browning makes a tyrant say, recounting how he had tried to crush
a man, that his intended victim

'Stood erect, caught at God's skirts, and prayed,
So _I_ was afraid.'

The contents of the prayer are equally noteworthy. Instead of minutely
studying it verse by verse, we may note some of its salient points.
Observe its undaunted courage. That company never quivered or wavered.
They had no thought of obeying the mandate of the Council. They were a
little army of heroes. What had made them so? What but the conviction
that they had a living Lord at God's right hand, and a mighty Spirit in
their spirits? The world has never seen a transformation like that.
Unique effects demand unique causes for their explanation, and nothing
but the historical truth of the facts recorded in the last pages of the
Gospels and first of the Acts accounts for the demeanour of these men.

Their courage is strikingly marked by their petition. All they ask is
'boldness' to speak a word which shall not be theirs, but God's. Fear
would have prayed for protection; passion would have asked retribution
on enemies. Christian courage and devotion only ask that they may not
shrink from their duty, and that the word may be spoken, whatever
becomes of the speakers. The world is powerless against men like that.
Would the Church of to-day meet threats with like unanimity of desire
for boldness in confession? If not, it must be because it has not the
same firm hold of the Risen Lord which these first believers had. The
truest courage is that which is conscious of its weakness, and yet has
no thought of flight, but prays for its own increase.

We may observe, too, the body of belief expressed in the prayer. First
it lays hold on the creative omnipotence of God, and thence passes to
the recognition of His written revelation. The Church has begun to
learn the inmost meaning of the Old Testament, and to find Christ
there. David may not have written the second Psalm. Its attribution to
him by the Church stands on a different level from Christ's attribution
of authorship, as, for instance, of the hundred and tenth Psalm. The
prophecy of the Psalm is plainly Messianic, however it may have had a
historical occasion in some forgotten revolt against some Davidic king;
and, while the particular incidents to which the prayer alludes do not
exhaust its far-reaching application, they are rightly regarded as
partly fulfilling it. Herod is a 'king of the earth,' Pilate is a
'ruler'; Roman soldiers are Gentiles; Jewish rulers are the
representatives of 'the people.' Jesus is 'God's Anointed.' The fact
that such an unnatural and daring combination of rebels was predicted
in the Psalm bears witness that even that crime at Calvary was
foreordained to come to pass, and that God's hand and counsel ruled.
Therefore all other opposition, such as now threatened, will turn out
to be swayed by that same Mighty Hand, to work out His counsel. Why,
then, should the Church fear? If we can see God's hand moving all
things, terror is dead for us, and threats are like the whistling of
idle wind.

Mark, too, the strong expression of the Church's dependence on God.
'Lord' here is an unusual word, and means 'Master,' while the Church
collectively is called 'Thy servants,' or properly, 'slaves.' It is a
different word from that of 'servant' (rather than 'child') applied to
Jesus in verses 27 and 30. God is the Master, we are His 'slaves,'
bound to absolute obedience, unconditional submission, belonging to
Him, not to ourselves, and therefore having claims on Him for such care
as an owner gives to his slaves or his cattle. He will not let them be
maltreated nor starved. He will defend them and feed them; but they
must serve him by life, and death if need be. Unquestioning submission
and unreserved dependence are our duties. Absolute ownership and
unshared responsibility for our well-being belong to Him.

Further, the view of Christ's relationship to God is the same as occurs
in other of the early chapters of the Acts. The title of 'Thy holy
Servant Jesus' dwells on Christ's office, rather than on His nature.
Here it puts Him in contrast with David, also called 'Thy servant.' The
latter was imperfectly what Jesus was perfectly. His complete
realisation of the prophetic picture of the Servant of the Lord in
Isaiah is emphasised by the adjective 'holy,' implying complete
devotion or separation to the service of God, and unsullied, unlimited
moral purity. The uniqueness of His relation in this aspect is
expressed by the definite article in the original. He is _the_ Servant,
in a sense and measure all His own. He is further _the_ Anointed
Messiah. This was the Church's message to Israel and the stay of its
own courage, that Jesus was the Christ, the Anointed and perfect
Servant of the Lord, who was now in heaven, reigning there. All that
this faith involved had not yet become clear to their consciousness,
but the Spirit was guiding them step by step into all the truth; and
what they saw and heard, not only in the historical facts of which they
were the witnesses, but in the teaching of that Spirit, they could not
but speak.

The answer came swift as the roll of thunder after lightning. They who
ask for courage to do God's will and speak Christ's name have never
long to wait for response. The place 'was shaken,' symbol of the effect
of faithful witness-bearing, or manifestation of the power which was
given in answer to their prayer. 'They were all filled with the Holy
Ghost,' who now did not, as before, confer ability to speak with other
tongues, but wrought no less worthily in heartening and fitting them to
speak 'in their own tongue, wherein they were born,' in bold defiance
of unlawful commands.

The statement of the answer repeats the petition verbatim: 'With all
boldness they spake the word.' What we desire of spiritual gifts we
get, and God moulds His replies so as to remind us of our petitions,
and to show by the event that these have reached His ear and guided His
giving hand.


'We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.' - ACTS
iv. 20.

The context tells us that the Jewish Council were surprised, as they
well might be, at the boldness of Peter and John, and traced it to
their having been with Jesus. But do you remember that they were by no
means bold when they were with Jesus, and that the bravery came after
what, in ordinary circumstances, would have destroyed any of it in a

Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 11 of 57)