Alexander Maclaren.

Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

. (page 15 of 57)
Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 15 of 57)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Christ, of whose humanity this is the document and proof that He says,
in the Prophet's words: 'I will put My trust in Him.'

Remember, too, that the same Jesus who is the Pattern is the Object and
the Inspirer of our faith; and that if we fulfil the conditions in the
text now under consideration, 'looking off' from all others,
stimulating and beautiful as their example may be, sweet and tender as
their love may be, and 'looking unto Jesus,' He will be in us, and
above us - in us to inspire, and above us to receive and to reward our
humble confidence.

So, dear friends, it all comes to this, 'Follow thou Me!' In that
commandment all duty is summed, and in obeying it all blessedness and
peace are ensured. If we will take Christ for our Captain, He will
teach our fingers to fight. If we obey Him we shall not want guidance,
and be saved from perplexities born of self-will. If we keep close to
Him and turn our eyes to Him, away from all the false and fleeting joys
and things of earth, we shall not walk in darkness, howsoever earthly
lights may be quenched, but the gloomiest path will be illuminated by
His presence, and the roughest made smooth by His bleeding feet that
passed along it. If we follow Him, He will lead us down into the dark
valley, and up into the blessed sunshine, where participation in His
own eternal life and glory will be salvation. If we march in His ranks
on earth, then shall we

'With joy upon our heads arise
And meet our Captain in the skies.'


'Refrain from these men, and let them alone; for if this counsel or
this work be of men, it will come to nought: 39. But if it be of God,
ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against
God.' - ACTS v. 38, 39.

The little that is known of Gamaliel seems to indicate just such a man
as would be likely to have given the advice in the text. His was a
character which, on its good side and by its admirers, would be
described as prudent, wise, cautious and calm, tolerant, opposed to
fanaticism and violence. His position as president of the Sanhedrin,
his long experience, his Rabbinical training, his old age, and his
knowledge that the national liberty depended on keeping things quiet,
would be very likely to exaggerate such tendencies into what his
enemies would describe as worldly shrewdness without a trace of
enthusiasm, indifference to truth, and the like.

It is, of course, possible that he bases his counsel of letting the
followers of Jesus alone, on the grounds which he adduces, because he
knew that reasons more favourable to Christians would have had no
weight with the Sanhedrin. Old Church traditions make him out to have
been a Christian, and the earliest Christian romance, a very singular
book, of which the main object was to blacken the Apostle Paul, roundly
asserts that at the date of this advice he was 'secretly our brother,'
and that he remained in the Sanhedrin to further Christian views. But
there seems not the slightest reason to suppose that. He lived and died
a Jew, spared the sight of the destruction of Jerusalem which,
according to his own canon in the text, would have proved that the
system to which he had given his life was not of God; and the only
relic of his wisdom is a prayer against Christian heretics.

It is remarkable that he should have given this advice; but two things
occur to account for it. Thus far Christianity had been very
emphatically the preaching of the Resurrection, a truth which the
Pharisees believed and held as especially theirs in opposition to the
Sadducees, and Gamaliel was old and worldly-wise enough to count all as
his friends who were the enemies of his enemies. He was not very
particular where he looked for allies, and rather shrank from helping
Sadducees to punish men whose crime was that they 'preached through
Jesus a resurrection from the dead.'

Then the Jewish rulers had a very ticklish part to play. They were
afraid of any popular shout which might bring down the avalanche of
Roman power on them, and they were nervously anxious to keep things
quiet. So Gamaliel did not wish to have any fuss made about 'these
men,' lest it should be supposed that another popular revolt was on
foot; and he thought that to let them alone was the best way to reduce
their importance. Perhaps, too, there was a secret hope in the old
man's mind, which he scarcely ventured to look at and dared not speak,
that here might be the beginning of a rising which had more promise in
it than that abortive one under Theudas. He could not venture to say
this, but perhaps it made him chary of voting for repression. He had no
objection to let these poor Galileans fling away their lives in
storming against the barrier of Rome. If they fail, it is but one more
failure. If they succeed, he and his like will say that they have done
well. But while the enterprise is too perilous for him to approve or be
mixed up in it, he would let it have its chance.

Note that Gamaliel regards the whole movement as the probable germ of
an uprising against Rome, as is seen from the parallels that he quotes.
It is not as a religious teaching which is true or false, but as a
political agitation, that he looks at Christianity.

It is to his credit that he stood calm and curbed the howling of the
fanatics round him, and that he was the first and only Jewish authority
who counselled abstinence from persecution.

It is interesting to compare him with Gallio, who had a glimpse of the
true relation of the civil magistrate to religious opinion. Gamaliel
has a glimpse of the truth of the impotence of material force against
truth, how it is of a quick and spiritual essence, which cannot be
cleaved in pieces with a sword, but lives on in spite of all. But while
all this may be true, the advice on the whole is a low and bad one. It
rests on false principles; it takes a false view of a man's duty; it is
not wholly sincere; and it is one impossible to be carried out. It is
singularly in accordance with many of the tendencies of this age, and
with modes of thought and counsels of action which are in active
operation amongst us to-day, and we may therefore criticise it now.

I. Here is disbelief professing to be 'honest doubt.' Gamaliel
professes not to have materials for judging. 'If - if'; was it a time
for 'ifs'? What was that Sanhedrin there for, but to try precisely such
cases as these?

They had had the works of Christ; miracles which they had investigated
and could not disprove; a life which was its own witness; prophecies
fulfilled; His own presence before their bar; the Resurrection and the

I am not saying whether these facts were enough to have convinced them,
nor even whether the alleged miracles were true. All that I am
concerned with is that, so far as we know, neither Gamaliel nor any of
his tribe had ever made the slightest attempt to inquire into them, but
had, without examination, complacently treated them as lies. All that
body of evidence had been absolutely ignored. And now he is, with his
'ifs,' posing as very calm and dispassionate.

So to-day it is fashionable to doubt, to hang up most of the Christian
truths in the category of uncertainties.

(_a_) When that is the fashion, we need to be on our guard.

(_b_) If you doubt, have you ever taken the pains to examine?

(_c_) If you doubt, you are bound to go further, and either reach
belief or rejection. Doubt is not the permanent condition for a man.
The central truth of Christianity is either to be received or rejected.

II. Here is disbelief masquerading as suspension of judgment.

Gamaliel talked as if he did not know, or had not decided in his own
mind, whether the disciples' claims for their Master were just or not.
But the attitude of impartiality and hesitation was the cover of rooted
unbelief. He speaks as if the alternative was that either this 'counsel
and work' was 'of man' or 'of God.' But he would have been nearer the
truth if he had stated the antithesis - God or devil; a glorious truth
or a hell-born lie. If Christ's work was not a revelation from above,
it was certainly an emanation from beneath.

We sometimes hear disbelief, in our own days, talking in much the same
fashion. Have we never listened to teachers who first of all prove to
their own satisfaction that Jesus is a myth, that all the gospel story
is unreliable, and all the gospel message a dream, and then turn round
and overflow in praise of Him and in admiration of it? Browning's
professor in _Christmas Day_ first of all reduces 'the pearl of price'
to dust and ashes, and then

'Bids us, when we least expect it,
Take back our faith - if it be not just whole,
Yet a pearl indeed, as his tests affect it.'

And that is very much the tone of not a few very superior persons
to-day. But let us have one thing or the other - a Christ who was what
He claimed to be, the Incarnate Word of God, who died for our sins and
rose again for our justification; or a Galilean peasant who was either
a visionary or an impostor, like Judas of Galilee and Theudas.

III. Here is success turned into a criterion of truth.

It is such, no doubt, in the long run, but not till then, and so till
the end it is utterly false to argue that a thing is true because
multitudes think it to be so. The very opposite is more nearly true. It
in usually minorities who have been right.

Gamaliel laid down an immoral principle, which is only too popular
to-day, in relation to religion and to much else.

IV. Here is a selfish neutrality pretending to be judicial calmness.

Even if it were true that success is a criterion, we have to help God
to ensure the success of His truth. No doubt, taking sides is very
inconvenient to a cool, tolerant man of the world. And it is difficult
to be in a party without becoming a partisan. We know all the beauty of
mild, tolerant wisdom, and that truth is usually shared between
combatants, but the dangers of extremes and exaggeration must be faced,
and perhaps these are better than the cool indifference of the
eclectic, sitting apart, holding no form of creed, but contemplating
all. It is not good for a man to stand aloof when his brethren are

In every age some great causes which are God's are pressing for
decision. In many of them we may be disqualified for taking sides. But
feel that you are bound to cast your influence on the side which
conscience approves, and bound to settle which side that is, Deborah's
fierce curse against Meroz because its people came not up to the help
of the Lord against the mighty was deserved.

But the region in which such judicial calmness, which shrinks from
taking its side, is most fatal and sadly common, is in regard to our
own individual relation to Jesus, and in regard to the establishment of
His kingdom among men.

'He that is not with Me is against Me.' Neutrality is opposition. Not
to gather with Him is to scatter. Not to choose Him is to reject Him.

Gamaliel had a strange notion of what constituted 'refraining from
these men and letting them alone,' and he betrayed his real position
and opposition by his final counsel to scourge them, before letting
them go. That is what the world's neutrality comes to.

How poor a figure this politic ecclesiastic, mostly anxious not to
commit himself, ready to let whoever would risk a struggle with Rome,
so that he kept out of the fray and survived to profit by it, cuts
beside the disciples, who had chosen their side, had done with 'ifs,'
and went away from the Council rejoicing 'that they were counted worthy
to suffer shame for His Name'! Who would not rather be Peter or John
with their bleeding backs than Gamaliel, sitting soft in his
presidential chair, and too cautious to commit himself to an opinion
whether the name of Jesus was that of a prophet or a pretender?


'Men ... full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom.' ... 'A man full of faith
and of the Holy Ghost....' 'Stephen, full of faith and power.' - ACTS
vi. 3, 5, 8.

I have taken the liberty of wrenching these three fragments from their
context, because of their remarkable parallelism, which is evidently
intended to set us thinking of the connection of the various
characteristics which they set forth. The first of them is a
description, given by the Apostles, of the sort of man whom they
conceived to be fit to look after the very homely matter of stifling
the discontent of some members of the Church, who thought that their
poor people did not get their fair share of the daily ministration. The
second and third of them are parts of the description of the foremost
of these seven men, the martyr Stephen. In regard to the first and
second of our three fragmentary texts, you will observe that the cause
is put first and the effect second. The 'deacons' were to be men 'full
of the Holy Ghost,' and that would make them 'full of wisdom.' Stephen
was 'full of faith,' and that made him 'full of the Holy Ghost.'
Probably the same relation subsists in the third of our texts, of which
the true reading is not, as it appears in our Authorised Version, 'full
of faith and power,' but as it is given in the Revised Version, 'full
of grace and power.' He was filled with grace - by which apparently is
here meant the sum of the divine spiritual gifts - and therefore he was
full of power. Whether that is so or not, if we link these three
passages together, as I have taken the liberty of doing, we get a point
of view appropriate for such a day [Footnote: Preached on Whit Sunday.]
as this, when all that calls itself Christendom is commemorating the
descent of the Holy Spirit, and His abiding influence upon the Church.
So I simply wish to gather together the principles that come out of
these three verses thus concatenated.

I. We may all, if we will, be full of the Holy Spirit.

If there is a God at all, there is nothing more reasonable than to
suppose that He can come into direct contact with the spirits of the
men whom He has made. And if that Almighty God is not an Almighty
indifference, or a pure devil - if He is love - then there is nothing
more certain than that, if He can touch and influence men's hearts
towards goodness and His own likeness, He most certainly will.

The probability, which all religion recognises, and in often crude
forms tries to set forth, and by superstitious acts to secure, is
raised to an absolute certainty, if we believe that Jesus Christ, the
Incarnate Truth, speaks truth to us about this matter. For there is
nothing more certain than that the characteristic which distinguishes
Him from all other teachers, is to be found not only in the fact that
He did something for us on the Cross, as well as taught us by His word;
but that in His teaching He puts in the forefront, not the
prescriptions of our duty, but the promise of God's gift; and ever says
to us, 'Open your hearts and the divine influences will flow in and
fill you and fit you for all goodness.' The Spirit of God fills the
human spirit, as the mysterious influence which we call life permeates
and animates the whole body, or as water lies in a cup.

Consider how that metaphor is caught up, and from a different point of
view is confirmed, in regard to the completeness which it predicates,
by other metaphors of Scripture. What is the meaning of the Baptist's
saying, 'He shall baptise you in the Holy Ghost and fire'? Does that
not mean a complete immersion in, and submersion under, the cleansing
flood? What is the meaning of the Master's own saying, 'Tarry ye...
till ye be clothed with power from on high'? Does not that mean
complete investiture of our nakedness with that heavenly-woven robe? Do
not all these emblems declare to us the possibility of a human spirit
being charged to the limits of its capacity with a divine influence?

We do not here discuss questions which separate good Christian people
from one another in regard of this matter. My object now is not to lay
down theological propositions, but to urge upon Christian men the
acquirement of an experience which is possible for them. And so,
without caring to enter by argument on controversial matters, I desire
simply to lay emphasis upon the plain implication of that word,
'_filled_ with the Holy Ghost.' Does it mean less than the complete
subjugation of a man's spirit by the influence of God's Spirit brooding
upon him, as the prophet laid himself on the dead child, lip to lip,
face to face, beating heart to still heart, limb to limb, and so
diffused a supernatural life into the dead? That is an emblem of what
all you Christian people may have if you like, and if you will adopt
the discipline and observe the conditions which God has plainly laid

That fulness will be a growing fulness, for our spirits are capable, if
not of infinite, at any rate of indefinite, expansion, and there is no
limit known to us, and no limit, I suppose, which will ever be reached,
so that we can go no further - to the possible growth of a created
spirit that is in touch with God, and is having itself enlarged and
elevated and ennobled by that contact. The vessel is elastic, the walls
of the cup of our spirit, into which the new wine of the divine Spirit
is poured, widen out as the draught is poured into them. The more a man
possesses and uses of the life of God, the more is he capable of
possessing and the more he will receive. So a continuous expansion in
capacity, and a continuous increase in the amount of the divine life
possessed, are held out as the happy prerogative and possibility of a
Christian soul.

This Stephen had but a very small amount of the clear Christian
knowledge that you and I have, but he was leagues ahead of most
Christian people in regard to this, that he was 'filled with the Holy
Spirit.' Brethren, you can have as much of that Spirit as you want. It
is my own fault if my Christian life is not what the Christian lives of
some of us, I doubt not, are. 'Filled with the Holy Spirit'! rather a
little drop in the bottom of the cup, and all the rest gaping
emptiness; rather the fire died down, Pentecostal fire though it be,
until there is scarcely anything but a heap of black cinders and grey
ashes in your grate, and a little sandwich of flickering flame in one
corner; rather the rushing mighty wind died down into all but a dead
calm, like that which afflicts sailing-ships in the equatorial regions,
when the thick air is deadly still, and the empty sails have not
strength even to flap upon the masts; rather the 'river of the water of
life' that pours 'out of the throne of God, and of the Lamb,' dried up
into a driblet.

That is the condition of many Christian people. I say not of which of
us. Let each man settle for himself how that may be. At all events here
is the possibility, which may be realised with increasing completeness
all through a Christian man's life. We may be filled with the Holy

II. If we are 'full of faith' we shall be filled with the Spirit.

That is the condition as suggested by one of our texts - 'a man full of
faith,' and therefore 'of the Holy Ghost.' Now, of course, I believe,
as I suppose all people who have made any experience of their own
hearts must believe, that before a soul exercises confidence in Jesus
Christ, and passes into the household of faith, there have been playing
upon it the influences of that divine Comforter whose first mission is
to 'convince the world of sin.' But between such operations as these,
which I believe are universally diffused, wheresoever the Word of God
and the message of salvation are proclaimed - between such operations as
these, and those to which I now refer, whereby the divine Spirit not
only operates upon, but dwells in, a man's heart, and not only brings
conviction to the world of sin, there is a wide gulf fixed; and for all
the hallowing, sanctifying, illuminating and strength-giving operations
of that divine Spirit, the pre-requisite condition is our trust. Jesus
Christ taught us so, in more than one utterance, and His Apostle, in
commenting on one of the most remarkable of His sayings on this
subject, says, 'This spake He concerning the Holy Spirit which _they
that believed_ in Him were to receive.' Faith is the condition of
receiving that divine influence. But what kind of faith? Well, let us
put away theological words. If you do not believe that there is any
such influence to be got, you will not get it. If you do not want it,
you will not get it. If you do not expect it, you will not get it. If
professing to believe it, and to wish it, and to look for it, you are
behaving yourself in such a way as to show that you do not really
desire it, you will never get it. It is all very well to talk about
faith as the condition of receiving that divine Spirit. Do not let us
lose ourselves in the word, but try to translate the somewhat
threadbare expression, which by reason of its familiarity produces
little effect upon some of us, and to turn it into non-theological
English. It just comes to this, - if we are simply trusting ourselves to
Jesus Christ our Lord, and if in that trust we do believe in the
possibility of even _our_ being filled with the divine Spirit, and if
that possibility lights up a leaping flame of desire in our hearts
which aspires towards the possession of such a gift, and if belief that
our reception of that gift is possible because we trust ourselves to
Jesus Christ, and longing that we may receive it, combine to produce
the confident expectation that we shall, and if all of these combine to
produce conduct which neither quenches nor grieves that divine Guest,
then, and only then, shall we indeed be filled with the Spirit.

I know of no other way by which a man can receive God into his heart
than by opening his heart for God to come in. I know of no other way by
which a man can woo - if I may so say - the Divine Lover to enter into
his spirit than by longing that He would come, waiting for His coming,
expecting it, and being supremely blessed in the thought that such a
union is possible. Faith, that is trust, with its appropriate and
necessary sequels of desire and expectation and obedience, is the
completing of the electric circuit, and after it the spark is sure to
come. It is the opening of the windows, after which sunshine cannot but
flood the chamber. It is the stretching out of the hand, and no man
that ever, with love and longing, lifted an empty hand to God, dropped
it still empty. And no man who, with penitence for his own act, and
trust in the divine act, lifted blood-stained and foul hands to God,
ever held them up there without the gory patches melting away, and
becoming white as snow. Not 'all the perfumes of Araby' can sweeten
those bloody hands. Lift them up to God, and they become pure.
Whosoever wishes that he may, and believes that he shall, receive from
Christ the fulness of the Spirit, will not be disappointed. Brethren,
'Ye have not because ye ask not.' 'If ye, being evil, know how to give
good gifts to your children,' shall not 'your Heavenly Father give the
Holy Spirit to them that ask Him?'

III. Lastly, if we are filled with the Spirit we shall be 'full of
wisdom, grace, and power.'

The Apostles seemed to think that it was a very important business to
look after a handful of poor widows, and see that they had their fair
share in the dispensing of the modest charity of the half-pauper
Jerusalem church, when they said that for such a purely secular thing
as that a man would need to be 'full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom.'
Surely, something a little less august might have served their turn to
qualify men for such a task! 'Wisdom' here, I suppose, means practical
sagacity, common sense, the power of picking out an impostor when she
came whining for a dole. Very commonplace virtues! - but the Apostles
evidently thought that such everyday operations of the understanding as
these were not too secular and commonplace to owe their origin to the
communication to men of the fulness of the Holy Spirit.

May we not take a lesson from that, that God's great influences, when
they come into a man, do not concern themselves only with great
intellectual problems and the like, but that they will operate to make
him more fit to do the most secular and the most trivial things that
can be put into his hand to do? The Holy Ghost had to fill Stephen
before he could hand out loaves and money to the widows in Jerusalem.

And do you not think that your day's work, and your business
perplexities, come under the same category? Perhaps the best way to
secure understanding of what we ought to do, in regard to very small
and secular matters, is to keep ourselves very near to God, with the

Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 15 of 57)