Copyright
Alexander Maclaren.

Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

. (page 19 of 57)
Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 19 of 57)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


teacher has often to teach a pupil his ignorance, to begin with; but it
should be so done as to create desire for instruction, and to kindle
confidence in him as instructor. It is insolent to ask, 'Understandest
thou?' unless the questioner is ready and able to help to understand.

The invitation to a seat in the great man's chariot showed how
eagerness to learn had obliterated distinctions of rank, and swiftly
knit a new bond between these two, who had never heard of each other
five minutes before. A true heart will hail as its best and closest
friend him who leads it to know God's mind more clearly. How earthly
dignities dwindle when God's messenger lays hold of a soul!

So the chariot rolls on, and through the silence of the desert the
voices of these two reach the wondering attendants, as they plod along.
The Ethiopian was reading the Septuagint translation of Isaiah, which,
though it missed part of the force of the original, brought clearly
before him the great figure of a Sufferer, meek and dumb, swept from
the earth by unjust judgment. He understood so much, but what he did
not understand was who this great, tragic Figure represented. His
question goes to the root of the matter, and is a burning question
to-day, as it was all these centuries ago on the road to Gaza. Philip
had no doubt of the answer. Jesus was the 'lamb dumb before its
shearers.' This is not the place to enter on such wide questions, but
we may at least affirm that, whatever advance modern schools have made
in the criticism and interpretation of the Old Testament, the very
spirit of the whole earlier Revelation is missed if Jesus is not
discerned as the Person to whom prophet and ritual pointed, in whom law
was fulfilled and history reached its goal.

No doubt much instruction followed. How long they had rode together
before they came to 'a certain water' we know not, but it cannot have
been more than a few hours. Time is elastic, and when the soil is
prepared, and rain and sunlight are poured down, the seed springs up
quickly. People who deny the possibility of 'sudden conversions' are
blind to facts, because they wear the blinkers of a theory. Not always
have they who 'anon with joy receive' the word 'no root in themselves.'

As is well known, the answer to the eunuch's question (v. 37) is
wanting in authoritative manuscripts. The insertion may have been due
to the creeping into the text of a marginal note. A recent and most
original commentator on the Acts (Blass) considers that this, like
other remarkable readings found in one set of manuscripts, was written
by Luke in a draft of the book, which he afterwards revised and
somewhat abbreviated into the form which most of the manuscripts
present. However that may be, the required conditions in the doubtful
verse are those which the practice of the rest of the Acts shows to
have been required. Faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God was the
qualification for the baptisms there recorded.

And there was no other qualification. Philip asked nothing about the
eunuch's proselytism, or whether he had been circumcised or not. He did
not, like Peter with Cornelius, need the evidence of the gift of the
Spirit before he baptized; but, notwithstanding his experience of an
unworthy candidate in Simon the sorcerer, he unhesitatingly
administered baptism. There was no Church present to witness the rite.
We do not read that the Holy Ghost fell on the eunuch.

That baptism in the quiet wady by the side of the solitary road, while
the swarthy attendants stood in wonder, was a mighty step in advance;
and it was taken, not by an Apostle, nor with ecclesiastical sanction,
but at the bidding of Christian instinct, which recognised a brother in
any man who had faith in Jesus, the Son of God. The new faith is
bursting old bonds. The universality of the Gospel is overflowing the
banks of Jewish narrowness. Probably Philip was quite unconscious of
the revolutionary nature of his act, but it was done, and in it was the
seed of many more.

The eunuch had said that he could not understand unless some man guided
him. But when Philip is caught away, he does not bewail the loss of his
guide. He went on his road with joy, though his new faith might have
craved longer support from the crutch of a teacher, and fuller
enlightenment. What made him able to do without the guide that a few
hours before had been so indispensable? The presence in his heart of a
better one, even of Him whom Jesus promised, to guide His servants into
all truth. If those who believe that Scripture without an authorised
interpreter is insufficient to lead men aright, would consider the end
of this story, they might find that a man's dependence on outward
teachers ceases when he has God's Spirit to teach him, and that for
such a man the Word of God in his hand and the Spirit of God in his
spirit will give him light enough to walk by, so that, in the absence
of all outward instructors, he may still be filled with true wisdom,
and in absolute solitude may go 'on his way rejoicing.'



PHILIP THE EVANGELIST

'But Philip was found at Azotus: and passing through he preached in all
the cities, till he came to Caesarea.' - ACTS viii. 40.

The little that is known about Philip, the deacon and evangelist, may
very soon be told. His name suggests, though by no means conclusively,
that he was probably one of the so-called Hellenists, or foreign-born
and Greek-speaking Jews. This is made the more probable because he was
one of the seven selected by the Church, and after that selection
appointed by the Apostles, to dispense relief to the poor. The purpose
of the appointment being to conciliate the grumblers in the Hellenist
section of the Church, the persons chosen would probably belong to it.
He left Jerusalem during the persecution 'that arose after the death of
Stephen.' As we know, he was the first preacher of the Gospel in
Samaria; he was next the instrument honoured to carry the Word to the
first heathen ever gathered into the Church; and then, after a journey
along the sea-coast to Caesarea, the then seat of government, he
remained in that place in obscure toil for twenty years, dropped out of
the story, and we hear no more of him but for one glimpse of his home
in Caesarea.

That is all that is told about him. And I think that if we note the
contrast of the office to which men called him, and the work to which
God set him; and the other still more striking contrast between the
brilliancy of the beginning of his course, and the obscurity of his
long years of work, we may get some lessons worth the learning. I take,
then, not only the words which I read for my text, but the whole of the
incidents connected with Philip, as our starting-point now; and I draw
from them two or three very well-worn, but none the less needful,
pieces of instruction.

I. First, then, we may gather a thought as to Christ's sovereignty in
choosing His instruments.

Did you ever notice that events exactly contradicted the intentions of
the Church and of the Apostles, in the selection of Philip and his six
brethren? The Apostles said, 'It is not reason that we should leave the
Word of God and serve tables. Pick out seven relieving-officers; men
who shall do the secular work of the Church, and look after the poor;
and we will give ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.'
So said man. And what did facts say? That as to these twelve, who were
to 'give themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word,' we never
hear that by far the larger proportion of them were honoured to do
anything worth mentioning for the spread of the Gospel. Their function
was to be 'witnesses,' and that was all. But, on the other hand, of the
men that were supposed to be fitted for secular work, two at all events
had more to do in the expansion of the Church, and in the development
of the universal aspects of Christ's Gospel, than the whole of the
original group of Apostles. So Christ picks His instruments. The
Apostles may say, 'These shall do so-and-so; and we will do so-and-so.'
Christ says, 'Stephen shall proclaim a wider Gospel than the Apostles
at first had caught sight of, and Philip shall be the first who will go
beyond the charmed circle of Judaism, and preach the Gospel.'

It is always so. Christ chooses His instruments where He will; and it
is not the Apostle's business, nor the business of an ecclesiastic of
any sort, to settle his own work or anybody else's. The
Commander-in-Chief keeps the choosing of the men for special service in
His own hand. The Apostolic College said, 'Let them look after the
poor, and leave us to look after the ministry of the Word'; Christ
says, 'Go and join thyself to that chariot, and speak there the speech
that I shall bid thee.'

Brethren, do you listen for that voice calling you to your tasks, and
never mind what men may be saying. Wait till _He_ bids, and you will
hear Him speaking to you if you will keep yourselves quiet. Wait till
He bids you, and then be sure that you do it. Christ chooses His
instruments, and chooses them often in strange places.

II. The next lesson that I would take from this story is the
spontaneous speech of a believing heart.

There came a persecution that scattered the Church. Men tried to fling
down the lamp; and all that they did was to spill the oil, and it ran
flaming wherever it flowed. For the scattered brethren, without any
Apostle with them, with no instruction given to them to do so, wherever
they went carried their faith with them; and, as a matter of course,
wherever they went they spoke their faith. And so we read that, not by
appointment, nor of set purpose, nor in consequence of any
ecclesiastical or official sanction, nor in consequence of any
supernatural and distinct commandment from heaven, but just because it
was the natural thing to do, and they could not help it, they went
everywhere, these scattered men of Cyprus and Cyrene, preaching the
word.

And when this Philip, whom the officials had relegated to the secular
work of distributing charity, found himself in Samaria, he did the
like. The Samaritans were outcasts, and Peter and John had wanted to
bring down fire from heaven to consume them. But Philip could not help
speaking out the truth that was in his heart.

So it always will be: we can all talk about what we are interested in.
The full heart cannot be condemned to silence. If there is no necessity
for speech felt by a professing Christian, that professing Christian's
faith is a very superficial thing. 'We cannot but speak the things that
we have seen and heard,' said one of the Apostles, thereby laying down
the great charter of freedom of speech for all profound convictions.
'Thy word was as a fire in my bones when I said, I will speak no more
in Thy name,' so petulant and self-willed was I, 'and I was weary with
forbearing,' and ashamed of my rash vow; 'and I could not stay.'

Dear friends, do you carry with you the impulse for utterance of
Christ's name wherever you go? And is it so sweet in your hearts that
you cannot but let its sweetness have expression by your lips? Surely,
surely this spontaneous instinctive utterance of Philip, by which a
loving heart sought to relieve itself, puts to shame the 'dumb dogs'
that make up such an enormous proportion of professing Christians. And
surely such an experience as his may well throw a very sinister light
on the reality - nay! I will not say the _reality_, that would be too
uncharitable - but upon the depth and vitality of the profession of
Christianity which these silent ones make.

III. Another lesson that seems to me strikingly illustrated by the
story with which we are concerned, is the guidance of a divine hand in
common life, and when there are no visible nor supernatural signs.

Philip goes down to Samaria because he must, and speaks because he
cannot help it. He is next bidden to take a long journey, from the
centre of the land, away down to the southern desert; and at a certain
point there the Spirit says to him, 'Go! join thyself to this chariot.'
And when his work with the Ethiopian statesman is done, then he is
swept away by the power of the Spirit of God, as Ezekiel had been long
before by the banks of the river Chebar, and is set down, no doubt all
bewildered and breathless, at Azotus - the ancient Ashdod - the
Philistine city on the low-lying coast. Was Philip less under Christ's
guidance when miracle ceased and he was left to ordinary powers? Did he
feel as if deserted by Christ, because, instead of being swept by the
strong wind of heaven, he had to tramp wearily along the flat shore
with the flashing Mediterranean on his left hand reflecting the hot
sunshine? Did it seem to him as if his task in preaching the Gospel in
these villages through which he passed on his way to Caesarea was less
distinctly obedience to the divine command than when he heard the
utterance of the Spirit, 'Go down to the road which leads to Gaza,
which is desert'? By no means. To this man, as to every faithful soul,
the guidance that came through his own judgment and common sense,
through the instincts and impulses of his sanctified nature, by the
circumstances which he devoutly believed to be God's providence, was as
truly direct divine guidance as if all the angels of heaven had blown
commandment with their trumpets into his waiting and stunned ears.

And so you and I have to go upon our paths without angel voices, or
chariots of storm, and to be contented with divine commandments less
audible or perceptible to our senses than this man had at one point in
his career. But if we are wise we shall hear Him speaking the word. We
shall not be left without His voice if we wait for it, stilling our own
inclinations until His solemn commandment is made plain to us, and then
stirring up our inclinations that they may sway us to swift obedience.
There is no gulf, for the devout heart, between what is called
miraculous and what is called ordinary and common. Equally in both does
God manifest His will to His servants, and equally in both is His
presence perceived by faith. We do not need to envy Philip's brilliant
beginning. Let us see that we imitate his quiet close of life.

IV. The last lesson that I would draw is this - the nobility of
persistence in unnoticed work.

What a contrast to the triumphs in Samaria, and the other great
expansion of the field for the Gospel effected by the God-commanded
preaching to the eunuch, is presented by the succeeding twenty years of
altogether unrecorded but faithful toil! Persistence in such unnoticed
work is made all the more difficult, and to any but a very true man
would have been all but impossible, by reason of the contrast which
such work offered to the glories of the earlier days. Some of us may
have been tried in a similar fashion, all of us have more or less the
same kind of difficulty to face. Some of us perhaps may have had
gleams, at the beginning of our career, that seemed to give hope of
fields of activity more brilliant and of work far better than we have
ever had or done again in the long weary toil of daily life. There may
have been abortive promises, at the commencement of your careers, that
seemed to say that you would occupy a more conspicuous position than
life has had really in reserve for you. At any rate, we have all had
our dreams, for

'If Nature put not forth her power
About the opening of the flower,
Who is there that could live an hour?'

and no life is all that the liver of it meant it to be when he began.
We dream of building palaces or temples, and we have to content
ourselves if we can put up some little shed in which we may shelter.

Philip, who began so conspicuously, and so suddenly ceased to be the
special instrument in the hands of the Spirit, kept plod, plod,
plodding on, with no bitterness of heart. For twenty years he had no
share in the development of Gentile Christianity, of which he had sowed
the first seed, but had to do much less conspicuous work. He toiled
away there in Caesarea patient, persevering, and contented, because he
loved the work, and he loved the work because he loved Him that had set
it. He seemed to be passed over by his Lord in His choice of
instruments. It was he who was selected to be the first man that should
preach to the heathen. But did you ever notice that although he was
probably in Caesarea at the time, Cornelius was not bid to apply to
_Philip_, who was at his elbow, but to send to Joppa for the Apostle
Peter? Philip might have sulked and said: 'Why was I not chosen to do
this work? I will speak no more in this Name.'

It did not fall to his lot to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. One who
came after him was preferred before him, and the Hellenist Saul was set
to the task which might have seemed naturally to belong to the
Hellenist Philip. He too might have said, 'He must increase, but I must
decrease.' No doubt he did say it in spirit, with noble self-abnegation
and freedom from jealousy. He cordially welcomed Paul to his house in
Caesarea twenty years afterwards, and rejoiced that one sows and
another reaps; and that so the division of labour is the multiplication
of gladness.

A beautiful superiority to all the low thoughts that are apt to mar our
persistency in unobtrusive and unrecognised work is set before us in
this story. There are many temptations to-day, dear brethren, what with
gossiping newspapers and other means of publicity for everything that
is done, for men to say, 'Well, if I cannot get any notice for my work
I shall not do it.'

Boys in the street will refuse to join in games, saying, 'I shall not
play unless I am captain or have the big drum.' And there are not
wanting Christian men who lay down like conditions. 'Play well thy
part' wherever it is. Never mind the honour. Do the duty God appoints,
and He that has the two mites of the widow in His treasury will never
forget any of our works, and at the right time will tell them out
before His Father, and before the holy angels.



GRACE TRIUMPHANT

'And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the
disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, 2. And desired of him
letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this
way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them hound unto
Jerusalem. 3. And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly
there shined round about him a light from heaven: 4. And he fell to the
earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest
thou Me? 5. And he said, Who art Thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am
Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the
pricks. 6. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt Thou
have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city,
and it shall be told thee what thou must do. 7. And the men which
journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no
man. 8. And Saul arose from the earth: and when his eyes were opened,
he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into
Damascus. 9. And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat
nor drink. 10. And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named
Ananias; and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said,
Behold. I am here, Lord. 11. And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go
into the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of
Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus; for, behold, he prayeth, 12. And
hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his
hand on him, that he might receive his sight.... 17. And Ananias went
his way, and entered Into the house; and putting his hands on him said,
Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way
as thou earnest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight,
and be filled with the Holy Ghost. 18. And immediately there fell from
his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and
arose, and was baptized. 19. And when he had received meat, he was
strengthened. Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were
at Damascus. 20. And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues,
that He is the Son of God.' - ACTS ix. 1-12; 17-20.

This chapter begins with 'but,' which contrasts Saul's persistent
hatred, which led him to Gentile lands to persecute, with Philip's
expansive evangelistic work. Both men were in profound earnest, both
went abroad to carry on their work, but the one sought to plant what
the other was eager to destroy. If the 'but' in verse 1 contrasts, the
'yet' connects the verse with chapter viii. 3. Saul's fury was no
passing outburst, but enduring. Like other indulged passions, it grew
with exercise, and had come to be as his very life-breath, and now
planned, not only imprisonment, but death, for the heretics.

Not content with carrying his hateful inquisition into the homes of the
Christians in Jerusalem, he will follow the fugitives to Damascus. The
extension of the persectution was his own thought. He was not the tool
of the Sanhedrin, but their mover. They would probably have been
content to cleanse Jerusalem, but the young zealot would not rest till
he had followed the dispersed poison into every corner where it might
have trickled. The high priest would not discourage such useful zeal,
however he might smile at its excess.

So Saul got the letters he asked, and some attendants, apparently, to
help him in his hunt, and set off for Damascus. Painters have imagined
him as riding thither, but more probably he and his people went on
foot. It was a journey of some five or six days. The noon of the last
day had come, and the groves of Damascus were, perhaps, in sight. No
doubt, the young Pharisee's head was busy settling what he was to begin
with when he entered the city, and was exulting in the thought of how
he would harry the meek Christians, when the sudden light shone.

At all events, the narrative does not warrant the view, often taken
now, that there had been any preparatory process in Saul's mind, which
had begun to sap his confidence that Jesus was a blasphemer, and
himself a warrior for God. That view is largely adopted in order to get
rid of the supernatural, and to bolster up the assumption that there
are no sudden conversions; but the narrative of Luke, and Paul's own
references, are dead against it. At one moment he is 'yet breathing
threatening and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord,' and in
almost the next he is prone on his face, asking, 'Lord, what wilt Thou
have me to do?' It was not a case of a landslide suddenly sweeping
down, but long prepared for by the gradual percolation of water to the
slippery understrata, but the solid earth was shaken, and the mountain
crashed down in sudden ruin.

The causes of Saul's conversion are plain in the narrative, even though
the shortened form is adopted, which is found in the Revised Version.
The received text has probably been filled out by additions from Paul's
own account in chapter xxvi. First came the blaze of light outshining
the midday sun, even in that land where its beams are like swords. That
blinding light 'shone round about him,' enveloping him in its glory.
Chapter xxvi. (verse 13) tells that his companions also were wrapped in
the lustre, and that all fell to the earth, no doubt in terror.

Saul is not said, either in this or in his own accounts, to have seen
Jesus, but I Corinthians xv. 8 establishes that he did so, and Ananias
(v. 17) refers to Jesus as having 'appeared.' That appearance, whatever
may have been the psychological account of it, was by Paul regarded as
being equal in evidential value to the flesh-and-blood vision of the
risen Lord which the other Apostles witnessed to, and as placing him in
the same line as a witness.

It is to be noted also, that, while the attendants saw the light, they
were not blinded, as Saul was; from which it may be inferred that he
saw with his bodily eyes the glorified manhood of Jesus, as we are told
that one day, when He returns as Judge, 'every eye shall see Him.' Be
that as it may, - and we have not material for constructing a theory of
the manner of Christ's appearance to Saul, - the overwhelming conviction
was flooded into his soul, that the Jesus whom he had thought of as a
blasphemer, falsely alleged to have risen from the dead, lived in
heavenly glory, amid celestial brightness too dazzling for human eyes.

The words of gentle remonstrance issuing from the flashing glory went
still further to shake the foundations of the young Pharisee's life;
for they, as with one lightning gleam, laid hare the whole madness and



Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 19 of 57)