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that has been awaiting an answer for nineteen centuries upon His lips,
and is unanswered yet: 'Which of you convinceth Me of sin?' 'He is the
holy Servant,' whose consecration and character mark Him off from all
the class to which He belongs as the only one of them all who, in
completeness, has executed the Father's purpose, and has never
attempted anything contrary to it.

Now there is another step to be taken, and it is this. The Servant who
stands out in front of all the group - though the noblest names in the
world's history are included therein - could not be _the_ Servant unless
He were the Son. This designation, as applied to Jesus Christ, is
peculiar to these three or four earlier chapters of the Acts of the
Apostles. It is interesting because it occurs over and over again
there, and because it never occurs anywhere else in the New Testament.
If we recognise what I think must be recognised, that it is a quotation
from the ancient prophecies, and is an assertion of the Messianic
character of Jesus, then I think we here see the Church in a period of
transition in regard to their conceptions of their Lord. There is no
sign that the proper Sonship and Divinity of our Lord was clear before
them at this period. They had the facts, but they had not yet come to
the distinct apprehension of how much was involved in these. But, if
they knew that Jesus Christ had died and had risen again - and they knew
that, for they had seen Him - and if they believed that He was the
Messiah, and if they were certain that in His character of Messiah
there had been faultlessness and absolute perfection - and they were
certain of that, because they had lived beside Him - then it would not
be long before they took the next step, and said, as I say, 'He cannot
be the Servant unless He is more than man.'

And we may well ask ourselves the question, if we admit, as the world
does admit, the moral perfectness of Jesus Christ, how comes it that
this Man alone managed to escape failures and deflections from the
right, and sins, and that He only carried through life a stainless
garment, and went down to the grave never having needed, and not
needing then, the exercise of divine forgiveness? Brethren, I venture
to say that it is hopeless to account for Jesus Christ on naturalistic
principles; and that either you must give up your belief in His
sinlessness, or advance, as the Christian Church as a whole advanced,
to the other belief, on which alone that perfectness is explicable:
'Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ! Thou art the Everlasting Son of
the Father!'

II. And so, secondly, let us turn to the other contrast here - the
Servant and the slaves.

I said that the humble group of praying, persecuted believers seemed to
have wished to take a lower place than their Master's, even whilst they
ventured to assume that, in some sense, they too, like Him, were doing
the Father's will. So they chose, by a fine instinct of humility rather
than from any dogmatical prepossessions, the name that expresses, in
its most absolute and roughest form, the notion of bondage and
servitude. He is the Servant; we standing here are slaves. And that
this is not an overweighting of the word with more than is meant by it
seems to be confirmed by the fact that in the first clause of this
prayer, we have, for the only time in the New Testament, God addressed
as 'Lord' by the correlative word to _slave_, which has been
transferred into English, namely, _despot_.

The true position, then, for a man is to be God's slave. The harsh,
repellent features of that wicked institution assume an altogether
different character when they become the features of my relation to
Him. Absolute submission, unconditional obedience, on the slave's part;
and on the part of the Master complete ownership, the right of life and
death, the right of disposing of all goods and chattels, the right of
separating husband and wife, parents and children, the right of issuing
commandments without a reason, the right to expect that those
commandments shall be swiftly, unhesitatingly, punctiliously, and
completely performed - these things inhere in our relation to God.
Blessed the man who has learned that they do, and has accepted them as
his highest glory and the security of his most blessed life! For,
brethren, such submission, absolute and unconditional, the blending and
the absorption of my own will in His will, is the secret of all that
makes manhood glorious and great and happy.

Remember, however, that in the New Testament these names of slave and
owner are transferred to Christians and Jesus Christ. 'The Servant' has
His slaves; and He who is God's Servant, and does not His own will but
the Father's will, has us for His servants, imposes His will upon us,
and we are bound to render to Him a revenue of entire obedience like
that which He hath laid at His Father's feet.

Such slavery is the only freedom. Liberty does not mean doing as you
like, it means liking as you ought, and doing that. He only is free who
submits to God in Christ, and thereby overcomes himself and the world
and all antagonism, and is able to do that which it is his life to do.
A prison out of which we do not desire to go is no restraint, and the
will which coincides with law is the only will that is truly free. You
talk about the bondage of obedience. Ah! 'the weight of too much
liberty' is a far sorer bondage. They are the slaves who say, 'Let us
break His bonds asunder, and cast away His cords from us'; and they are
the free men who say, 'Lord, put Thy blessed shackles on my arms, and
impose Thy will upon my will, and fill my heart with Thy love; and then
will and hands will move freely and delightedly.' 'If the Son make you
free, ye shall be free indeed.'

Such slavery is the only nobility. In the wicked old empires, as in
some of their modern survivals to-day, viziers and prime ministers were
mostly drawn from the servile classes. It is so in God's kingdom. They
who make themselves God's slaves are by Him made kings and priests, and
shall reign with Him on earth. If we are slaves, then are we sons and
heirs of God through Jesus Christ.

Remember the alternative. You cannot be your own masters without being
your own slaves. It is a far worse bondage to live as chartered
libertines than to walk in the paths of obedience. Better serve God
than the devil, than the world, than the flesh. Whilst they promise men
liberty, they make them 'the most abject and downtrodden vassals of
perdition.'

The Servant-Son makes us slaves and sons. It matters nothing to me that
Jesus Christ perfectly fulfilled the law of God; it is so much the
better for Him, but of no value for me, unless He has the power of
making me like Himself. And He has it, and if you will trust yourselves
to Him, and give your hearts to Him, and ask Him to govern you, He will
govern you; and if you will abandon your false liberty which is
servitude, and take the sober freedom which is obedience, then He will
bring you to share in His temper of joyful service; and even we may be
able to say, 'My meat and my drink is to do the will of Him that sent
me,' and truly saying that, we shall have the key to all delights, and
our feet will be, at least, on the lower rungs of the ladder whose top
reaches to Heaven.

'What fruit had ye in the things of which ye are now ashamed? But being
made free from sin, and become the slaves of God, ye have your fruit
unto holiness; and the end everlasting life.' Brethren, I beseech you,
by the mercies of God, that ye yield yourselves to Him, crying, 'O
Lord, truly I am Thy servant. Thou hast loosed my bonds.'



THE WHEAT AND THE TARES

'And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one
soul: neither said any of them that aught of the things which he
possessed was his own; but they had all things common.' - ACTS iv. 32.

'And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard
these things.' - ACTS v. 11.

Once more Luke pauses and gives a general survey of the Church's
condition. It comes in appropriately at the end of the account of the
triumph over the first assault of civil authority, which assault was
itself not only baffled, but turned to good. Just because persecution
had driven them closer to God and to one another, were the disciples so
full of brotherly love and of grace as Luke delights to paint them.

I. We note the fair picture of what the Church once was. The recent
large accessions to it might have weakened the first feelings of
brotherhood, so that it is by no means superfluous to repeat
substantially the features of the earlier description (Acts ii. 44,
45). 'The multitude' is used with great meaning, for it was a triumph
of the Spirit's influence that the warm stream of brotherly love ran
through so many hearts, knit together only by common submission to
Jesus. That oneness of thought and feeling was the direct issue of the
influx of the Spirit mentioned as the blessed result of the disciples'
dauntless devotion (Acts iv. 31). If our Churches were 'filled with the
Holy Ghost,' we too should be fused into oneness of heart and mind,
though our organisations as separate communities continued, just as all
the little pools below high-water mark are made one when the tide comes
up.

The first result and marvellous proof of that oneness was the so-called
'community of goods,' the account of which is remarkable both because
it all but fills this picture, and because it is broken into two by
verse 33, rapidly summarising other characteristics. The two halves may
be considered together, and it may be noted that the former presents
the sharing of property as the result of brotherly unity, while the
latter traces it ('for,' v. 34) to the abundant divine grace resting on
the whole community. The terms of the description should be noted, as
completely negativing the notion that the fact in question was anything
like compulsory abolition of the right of individual ownership. 'Not
one of them said that aught of the things which he possessed was his
own.' That implies that the right of possession was not abolished. It
implies, too, that the common feeling of brotherhood was stronger than
the self-centred regard which looks on possessions as to be used for
self. Thus they possessed as though they possessed not, and each held
his property as a trust from God for his brethren.

We must observe, further, that the act of selling was the owners', as
was the act of handing the proceeds to the Apostles. The community had
nothing to do with the money till it had been given to them. Further,
the distribution was not determined by the rule of equality, but by the
'need' of the recipients; and its result was not that all had share and
share alike, but that 'none lacked.'

There is nothing of modern communism in all this, but there is a lesson
to the modern Church as to the obligations of wealth and the claims of
brotherhood, which is all but universally disregarded. The spectre of
communism is troubling every nation, and it will become more and more
formidable, unless the Church learns that the only way to lay it is to
live by the precepts of Jesus and to repeat in new forms the spirit of
the primitive Church. The Christian sense of stewardship, not the
abolition of the right of property, is the cure for the hideous facts
which drive men to shriek 'Property is theft.'

Luke adds two more points to his survey, - the power of the Apostolic
testimony, and the great grace which lay like a bright cloud on the
whole Church. The Apostles' special office was to bear witness to the
Resurrection. They held a position of prominence in the Church by
virtue of having been chosen by Jesus and having been His companions,
but the Book of Acts is silent about any of the other mysterious powers
which later ages have ascribed to them. The only Apostles who appear in
it are Peter, John, and James, the last only in a parenthesis recording
His martyrdom. Their peculiar work was to say, 'Behold! we saw, and
know that He died and rose again.'

II. The general description is followed by one example of the surrender
of wealth, which is noteworthy as being done by one afterwards to play
a great part in the book, and also as leading on to an example of
hypocritical pretence. Side by side stand Barnabas and the wretched
couple, Ananias and Sapphira.

Luke introduces the new personage with some particularity, and, as He
does not go into detail without good reason, we must note his
description. First, the man's character is given, as expressed in the
name bestowed by the Apostles, in imitation of Christ's frequent
custom. He must have been for some time a disciple, in order that his
special gift should have been recognised. He was a 'son of
exhortation'; that is, he had the power of rousing and encouraging the
faith and stirring the believing energy of the brethren. An example of
this was given in Antioch, where he 'exhorted them all, that with
purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.' So much the more
beautiful was his self-effacement when with Paul, for it was the latter
who was 'the chief speaker.' Barnabas felt that his gift was less than
his brother's, and so, without jealousy, took the second place. He,
being silent, yet speaketh, and bids us learn our limits, and be
content to be surpassed.

We are next told his rank. He was a Levite. The tribe to which a
disciple belongs is seldom mentioned, but probably the reason for
specifying Barnabas' was the same as led Luke, in another place, to
record that 'a great company of the priests was obedient to the faith.'
The connection of the tribe of Levi with the Temple worship made
accessions from it significant, as showing how surely the new faith was
creeping into the very heart of the old system, and winning converts
from the very classes most interested in opposing it. Barnabas'
significance is further indicated by the notice that he was 'a man of
Cyprus,' and as such, the earliest mentioned of the Hellenists or
foreign-born and Greek-speaking Jews, who were to play so important a
part in the expansion of the Church.

His first appearance witnessed to the depth and simple genuineness of
his character and faith. The old law forbidding Levites to hold land
had gradually become inoperative, and perhaps Barnabas' estate was in
Cyprus, though more probably it was, like that of his relative Mary,
the mother of Mark, in Jerusalem. He did as many others were doing, and
brought the proceeds to the assembly of the brethren, and there
publicly laid them at the Apostles' feet, in token of their authority
to administer them as they thought well.

III. Why was Barnabas' act singled out for mention, since there was
nothing peculiar about it? Most likely because it stimulated Ananias
and his wife to imitation. Wherever there are signal instances of
Christian self-sacrifice, there will spring up a crop of base copies.
Ananias follows Barnabas as surely as the shadow the substance. It was
very likely a pure impulse which led him and his wife to agree to sell
their land; and it was only when they had the money in their hands, and
had to take the decisive step of parting with it, and reducing
themselves to pennilessness, that they found the surrender harder than
they could carry out. Satan spoils many a well-begun work, and we often
break down half-way through a piece of Christian unselfishness. Well
begun is half - but only half - ended.

Be that as it may, Peter's stern words to Ananias put all the stress of
the sin on its being an acted lie. The motives of the trick are not
disclosed. They may have been avarice, want of faith, greed of
applause, reluctance to hang back when others were doing like Barnabas.
It is hard to read the mingled motives which lead ourselves wrong, and
harder to separate them in the case of another. How much Ananias kept
back is of no moment; indeed, the less he retained the greater the sin;
for it is baser, as well as more foolish, to do wrong for a little
advantage than for a great one.

Peter's two questions bring out very strikingly the double source of
the sin. 'Why hath Satan filled thy heart?' - an awful antithesis to
being filled with the Spirit. Then there is a real, malign Tempter, who
can pour evil affections and purposes into men's hearts. But he cannot
do it unless the man opens his heart, as that 'why?' implies. The same
thought of our co-operation and concurrence, so that, however Satan
suggests, it is we who are guilty, comes out in the second question,
'How is it that _thou_ hast conceived this thing in thy heart?'
Reverently we may venture to say that not only Christ stands at the
door and knocks, but that the enemy of Him and His stands there too,
and he too enters 'if any man opens the door.' Neither heaven nor hell
can come in unless we will.

The death of Ananias was not inflicted by Peter, 'Hearing these words'
he 'fell down and' died. Surely that expression suggests that the stern
words had struck at his life, and that his death was the result of the
agitation of shame and guilt which they excited. That does not at all
conflict with regarding his death as a punitive divine act.

One can fancy the awed silence that fell on the congregation, and the
restrained, mournful movement that ran through it when Sapphira
entered. Why the two had not come in company can only be conjectured.
Perhaps the husband had gone straight to the Apostles after completing
the sale, and had left the wife to follow at her convenience. Perhaps
she had not intended to come at all, but had grown alarmed at the delay
in Ananias' return. She may have come in fear that something had gone
wrong, and that fear would be increased by her not seeing her husband
in her quick glance round the company.

If she came expecting to receive applause, the silence and constraint
that hung over the assembly must have stirred a fear that something
terrible had happened, which would be increased by Peter's question. It
was a merciful opportunity given her to separate herself from the sin
and the punishment; but her lie was glib, and indicated determination
to stick to the fraud. That moment was heavy with her fate, and she
knew it not; but she knew that she had the opportunity of telling the
truth, and she did not take it. She had to make the hard choice which
we have sometimes to make, to be true to some sinful bargain or be true
to God, and she chose the worse part. Which of the two was tempter and
which was tempted matters little. Like many a wife, she thought that it
was better to be loyal to her husband than to God, and so her honour
was 'rooted in dishonour,' and she was falsely true and truly false.

The judgment on Sapphira was not inflicted by Peter. He foretold it by
his prophetic power, but it was the hand of God which vindicated the
purity of the infant Church. The terrible severity of the punishment
can only be understood by remembering the importance of preserving the
young community from corruption at the very beginning. Unless the
vermin are cleared from the springing plant, it will not grow. As
Achan's death warned Israel at the beginning of their entrance into the
promised land, so Ananias and Sapphira perished, that all generations
of the Church might fear to pretend to self-surrender while cherishing
its opposite, and might feel that they have to give account to One who
knows the secrets of the heart, and counts nothing as given if anything
is surreptitiously kept back.



WHOM TO OBEY, - ANNAS OR ANGEL?

'Then the high priest rose up, and all they that were with him, (which
is the sect of the Sadducees,) and were filled with indignation, 18.
And laid their hands on the apostles, and put them in the common
prison. 19. But the angel of the Lord by night opened the prison doors,
and brought them forth, and said, 20. Go, stand and speak in the temple
to the people all the words of this life. 21. And when they heard that,
they entered into the temple early in the morning, and taught. But the
high priest came, and they that were with him, and called the council
together, and all the senate of the children of Israel, and sent to the
prison to have them brought. 22. But when the officers came, and found
them not in the prison, they returned, and told, 23. Saying, The prison
truly found we shut with all safety, and the keepers standing without
before the doors: but when we had opened, we found no man within. 24.
Now when the high priest and the captain of the temple and the chief
priests heard these things, they doubted of them whereunto this would
grow. 25. Then came one and told them, saying. Behold, the men whom ye
put in prison are standing in the temple, and teaching the people. 26.
Then went the captain with the officers, and brought them without
violence: for they feared the people, lest they should have been
stoned. 27. And when they had brought them, they set them before the
council: and the high priest asked them, 28. Saying, Did not we
straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and,
behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to
bring this man's blood upon us. 29. Then Peter and the other apostles
answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men. 30. The God of
our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree. 31. 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. 32. And we are
His witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God
hath given to them that obey Him.' - ACTS v. 17-32.

The Jewish ecclesiastics had been beaten in the first round of the
fight, and their attempt to put out the fire had only stirred the
blaze. Popular sympathy is fickle, and if the crowd does not shout with
the persecutors, it will make heroes and idols of the persecuted. So
the Apostles had gained favour by the attempt to silence them, and that
led to the second round, part of which is described in this passage.

The first point to note is the mean motives which influenced the
high-priest and his adherents. As before, the Sadducees were at the
bottom of the assault; for talk about a resurrection was gall and
wormwood to them. But Luke alleges a much more contemptible emotion
than zeal for supposed truth as the motive for action. The word
rendered in the Authorised Version 'indignation,' is indeed literally
'zeal,' but it here means, as the Revised Version has it, nothing
nobler than 'jealousy.' 'Who are those ignorant Galileans that they
should encroach on the office of us dignified teachers? and what fools
the populace must be to listen to them! Our prestige is threatened. If
we don't bestir ourselves, our authority will be gone.' A lofty spirit
in which to deal with grave movements of opinion, and likely to lead
its possessors to discern truth!

The Sanhedrin, no doubt, talked solemnly about the progress of error,
and the duty of firmly putting it down, and, like Jehu, said, 'Come,
and see our zeal for the Lord'; but it was zeal for greetings in the
marketplace, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the other
advantages of their position. So it has often been since. The
instruments which zeal for truth uses are argument, Scripture, and
persuasion. That zeal which betakes itself to threats and force is, at
the best, much mingled with the wrath and jealousy of man.

The arrest of the Apostles and their committal to prison was simply for
detention, not punishment. The rulers cast their net wider this time,
and secured all the Apostles, and, having them safe under lock and key,
they went home triumphant, and expecting to deal a decisive blow
to-morrow. Then comes one of the great 'buts' of Scripture. Annas and
Caiaphas thought that they had scored a success, but an angel upset
their calculations. To try to explain the miracle away is hopeless. It
is wiser to try to understand it.

The very fact that it did not lead to the Apostles' deliverance, but
that the trial and scourging followed next day, just as if it had not
happened, which has been alleged as a proof of its uselessness, and
inferentially of its falsehood, puts us on the right track. It was not
meant for their deliverance, but for their heartening, and for the
bracing of all generations of Christians, by showing, at the first
conflict with the civil power, that the Lord was with His Church. His
strengthening power is operative when no miracle is wrought. If His
servants are not delivered, it is not that He lacks angels, but that it
is better for them and the Church that they should lie in prison or die
at the stake.



Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 13 of 57)