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receive remission of sins.' A remarkable variation in the text is
suggested by Blass in his striking commentary, who would omit 'Lord'
and read, 'The word which He sent to the children of Israel, bringing
the good tidings of peace through Jesus Christ, - this [word] belongs to
all.' That reading does away with the chief difficulties, and brings
out clearly the thought which is more obscurely expressed in a
contorted sentence by the present reading.

The subsequent _resume_ of the life of Jesus is substantially the same
as is found in Peter's other sermons. But we may note that the highest
conceptions of our Lord's nature are not stated. It is hard to suppose
that Peter after Pentecost had not the same conviction as burned in his
confession, 'Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.' But in
these early discourses neither the Divinity and Incarnation nor the
atoning sacrifice of Jesus is set forth. He is the Christ, 'anointed
with the Holy Ghost and with power.' God is with Him (Nicodemus had got
as far as that). He is 'ordained of God to be the judge of quick and
dead.'

We note, too, that His teaching is not touched upon, nor any of the
profounder aspects of His work as the Revealer of God, but His
beneficence and miraculous deliverances of devil-ridden men. His death
is declared, but without any of the accusations of His murderers,
which, like lance-thrusts, 'pricked' Jewish hearers. Nor is the
efficacy of that death as the sacrifice for the world's sin touched
upon, but it is simply told as a fact, and set in contrast with the
Resurrection. These were the plain facts which had first to be accepted.

The only way of establishing facts is by evidence of eye-witnesses. So
Peter twice (verses 39, 41) adduces his own and his colleagues'
evidence. But the facts are not yet a gospel, unless they are further
explained as well as established. Did such things happen? The answer
is, 'We saw them.' What did they mean? The answer begins by adducing
the 'witness' of the Apostles to a different order of truths, which
requires a different sort of witness. Jesus had bidden them 'testify'
that He is to be Judge of living and dead; that is, of all mankind.
Their witness to that can only rest on His word.

Nor is that all. There is yet another body of 'witnesses' to yet
another class of truths. 'All the prophets' bear witness to the great
truth which makes the biography of the Man the gospel for all
men, - that the deepest want of all men is satisfied through the name
which Peter ever rang out as all-powerful to heal and bless. The
forgiveness of sins through the manifested character and work of Jesus
Christ is given on condition of faith to any and every one who
believes, be he Jew or Gentile, Galilean fisherman or Roman centurion.
Cornelius may have known little of the prophets, but he knew the burden
of sin. He did not know all that we know of Jesus, and of the way in
which forgiveness is connected with His work, but he did know now that
it was connected, and that this Jesus was risen from the dead, and was
to be the Judge. His faith went out to that Saviour, and as he heard he
believed.

III. Therefore the great gift, attesting the divine acceptance of him
and the rest of the hearers, came at once. There had been no confession
of their faith, much less had there been baptism, or laying on of
Apostolic hands. The sole qualification and condition for the reception
of the Spirit which John lays down in his Gospel when he speaks of the
'Spirit, which they that believe on Him should receive,' was present
here, and it was enough. Peter and his brethren might have hesitated
about baptizing an uncircumcised believer. The Lord of the Church
showed Peter that He did not hesitate.

So, like a true disciple, Peter followed Christ's lead, and though
'they of the circumcision' were struck with amazement, he said to
himself, 'Who am I, that I should withstand God?' and opened his heart
to welcome these new converts as possessors of 'like precious faith' as
was demonstrated by their possession of the same Spirit. Would that
Peter's willingness to recognise all who manifest the Spirit of Christ,
whatever their relation to ecclesiastical regulations, had continued
the law and practice of the Church!



PETER'S APOLOGIA

'And the apostles and brethren that were in Judaea heard that the
Gentiles had also received the word of God. 2. And when Peter was come
up to Jerusalem, they that were of the circumcision contended with him,
3. Saying, Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst eat with
them. 4. But Peter rehearsed the matter from the beginning, and
expounded it by order unto them, saying, 5. I was in the city of Joppa
praying: and in a trance I saw a vision, A certain vessel descend, as
it had been a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it
came even to me: 6. Upon the which when I had fastened mine eyes, I
considered, and saw fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts,
and creeping things, and fowls of the air. 7. And I heard a voice
saying unto me, Arise, Peter; slay, and eat. 8. But I said, Not so,
Lord: for nothing common or unclean hath at any time entered into my
mouth. 9. But the voice answered me again from heaven, What God hath
cleansed, that call not thou common. 10. And this was done three times:
and all were drawn up again into heaven. 11. And, behold, immediately
there were three men already come unto the house where I was, sent from
Caesarea unto me. 12. And the Spirit bade me go with them, nothing
doubting. Moreover these six brethren accompanied me, and we entered
into the man's house: 13. And he shewed us how he had seen an angel in
his house, which stood and said unto him, Send men to Joppa, and call
for Simon, whose surname is Peter; 14. Who shall tell thee words,
whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved. 15. And as I began to
speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning. 16. Then
remembered I the word of the Lord, how that He said, John indeed
baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost. 17.
Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as He did unto us, who
believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand
God? 18. When they heard these things, they held their peace, and
glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted
repentance unto life.' - ACTS xi. 1-18.

Peter's action in regard to Cornelius precipitated a controversy which
was bound to come if the Church was to be anything more than a Jewish
sect. It brought to light the first tendency to form a party in the
Church. 'They... of the circumcision' were probably 'certain of the
sect of the Pharisees which believed,' and were especially zealous for
all the separating prescriptions of the ceremonial law. They were
scarcely a party as yet, but the little rift was destined to grow, and
they became Paul's bitterest opponents through all his life, dogging
him with calumnies and counterworking his toil. It is a black day for a
Church when differences of opinion lead to the formation of cliques.
Zeal for truth is sadly apt to enlist spite, malice, and blindness to a
manifest work of God, as its allies.

Poor Peter, no doubt, expected that the brethren would rejoice with him
in the extension of the Gospel to 'the Gentiles,' but his reception in
Jerusalem was very unlike his hopes. The critics did not venture to
cavil at his preaching to Gentiles. Probably none of them had any
objection to such being welcomed into the Church, for they can scarcely
have wished to make the door into it narrower than that into the
synagogue, but they insisted that there was no way in but through the
synagogue. By all means, said they, let Gentiles come, but they must
first become Jews, by submitting to circumcision and living as Jews do.
Thus they did not attack Peter for preaching to the Roman centurion and
his men, but for eating with them. That eating not only was a breach of
the law, but it implied the reception of Cornelius and his company into
the household of God, and so destroyed the whole fabric of Jewish
exclusiveness. We condemn such narrowness, but do many of us not
practise it in other forms? Wherever Christians demand adoption of
external usages, over and above exercise of penitent faith, as a
condition of brotherly recognition, they are walking in the steps of
them 'of the circumcision.'

Peter's answer to the critics is the true answer to all similar hedging
up of the Church, for he contents himself with showing that he was only
following God's action in every step of the way which he took, and that
God, by the gift of the divine Spirit, had shown that He had taken
these uncircumcised men into His fellowship, before Peter dared to 'eat
with them.' He points to four facts which show God's hand in the
matter, and thinks that he has done enough to vindicate himself
thereby. The first is his vision on the housetop. He tells that he was
praying when it came, and what God shows to a praying spirit is not
likely to mislead. He tells that he was 'in a trance,' - a condition in
which prophets had of old received their commands. That again was a
guarantee for the divine origin of the vision in the eyes of every Jew,
though nowadays it is taken by anti-supernaturalists as a demonstration
of its morbidness and unreliableness. He tells of his reluctance to
obey the command to 'kill and eat.' A flash of the old brusque spirit
impelled his flat refusal, 'Not so, Lord!' and his daring to argue with
his Lord still, as he had done with Him on earth. He tells of the
interpreting and revolutionary word, evoked by his audacious objection,
and then he tells how 'this was done thrice,' so that there could be no
mistake in his remembrance of it, and then that the whole was drawn up
into heaven, - a sign that the purpose of the vision was accomplished
when that word was spoken. What, then, was the meaning of it?

Clearly it swept away at once the legal distinction of clean and
unclean meats, and of it, too, may be spoken what Mark, Peter's
mouthpiece, writes of earthly words of Christ's: 'This He said, making
all meats clean.' But with the sweeping away of that distinction much
else goes, for it necessarily involves the abrogation of the whole
separating ordinances of the law, and of the distinction between clean
and unclean persons. Its wider application was not seen at the moment,
but it flashed on him, no doubt, when face to face with Cornelius. God
had cleansed him, in that his prayers had 'gone up for a memorial
before God,' and so Peter saw that 'in every nation,' and not among
Jews only, there might be men cleansed by God. What was true of
Cornelius must be true of many others. So the whole distinction between
Jew and Gentile was cut up by the roots. Little did Peter know the
width of the principle revealed to him then, as all of us know but
little of the full application of many truths which we believe. But he
obeyed so much of the command as he understood, and more of it
gradually dawned on his mind, as will always be the case if we obey
what we know.

The second fact was the coincident arrival of the messengers and the
distinct command to accompany them. Peter could distinguish quite
assuredly his own thoughts from divine instructions, as his account of
the dialogue in the trance shows. How he distinguished is not told;
that he distinguished is. The coincidence in time clearly pointed to
one divine hand working at both ends of the line, - Caesarea and Joppa.
It interpreted the vision which had 'much perplexed' Peter as to what
it 'might mean.' But he was not left to interpret it by his own
pondering. The Spirit spoke authoritatively, and the whole force of his
justification of himself depends on the fact that he knew that the
impulse which made him set out to Caesarea was not his own. If the
reading of the Revised Version is adopted in verse 12, 'making no
distinction,' the command plainly referred to the vision, and showed
Peter that he was to make no distinction of 'clean and unclean' in his
intercourse with these Gentiles.

The third fact is the vision to Cornelius, of which he was told on
arriving. The two visions fitted into each other, confirmed each other,
interpreted each other. We may estimate the greatness of the step in
the development of the Church which the admission of Cornelius into it
made, and the obstacles on both sides, by the fact that both visions
were needed to bring these two men together. Peter would never have
dreamed of going with the messengers if he had not had his narrowness
beaten out of him on the housetop, and Cornelius would never have
dreamed of sending to Joppa if he had not seen the angel. The cleft
between Jew and Gentile was so wide that God's hand had to be applied
on both sides to press the separated parts together. He had plainly
done it, and that was Peter's defence.

The fourth fact is the gift of the Spirit to these Gentiles. That is
the crown of Peter's vindication, and his question, 'Who was I, that I
could withstand God?' might be profitably pondered and applied by those
whose ecclesiastical theories oblige them to deny the 'orders' and the
'validity of the sacraments' and the very name of a Church, to bodies
of Christians who do not conform to their polity. If God, by the gift
of His Spirit manifest in its fruits, owns them, they have the true
'notes of the Church,' and 'they of the circumcision' who recoil from
recognising them do themselves more harm thereby than they inflict on
these. 'As many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of
God,' even though some brother may be 'angry' that the Father welcomes
them.



THE FIRST PREACHING AT ANTIOCH

'And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they ware
come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21.
And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed,
and turned unto the Lord.' - ACTS xi. 20, 21.

Thus simply does the historian tell one of the greatest events in the
history of the Church. How great it was will appear if we observe that
the weight of authority among critics and commentators sees here an
extension of the message of salvation to Greeks, that is, to pure
heathens, and not a mere preaching to Hellenists, that is, to
Greek-speaking Jews born outside Palestine.

If that be correct, this was a great stride forward in the development
of the Church. It needed a vision to overcome the scruples of Peter,
and impel him to the bold innovation of preaching to Cornelius and his
household, and, as we know, his doing so gave grave offence to some of
his brethren in Jerusalem. But in the case before us, some Cypriote and
African Jews - men of no note in the Church, whose very names have
perished, with no official among them, with no vision nor command to
impel them, with no precedent to encourage them, with nothing but the
truth in their minds and the impulses of Christ's love in their
hearts - solve the problem of the extension of Christ's message to the
heathen, and, quite unconscious of the greatness of their act, do the
thing about the propriety of which there had been such serious question
in Jerusalem.

This boldness becomes even more remarkable if we notice that the
incident of our text may have taken place before Peter's visit to
Cornelius. The verse before our text, 'They which were scattered abroad
upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled, ... preaching
the word to none but unto the Jews only,' is almost a _verbatim_
repetition of words in an earlier chapter, and evidently suggests that
the writer is returning to that point of time, in order to take up
another thread of his narrative contemporaneous with those already
pursued. If so, three distinct lines of expansion appear to have
started from the dispersion of the Jerusalem church in the
persecution - namely, Philip's mission to Samaria, Peter's to Cornelius,
and this work in Antioch. Whether prior in time or no, the preaching in
the latter city was plainly quite independent of the other two. It is
further noteworthy that this, the effort of a handful of unnamed men,
was the true 'leader' - the shoot that grew. Philip's work, and Peter's
so far as we know, were side branches, which came to little; this led
on to a church at Antioch, and so to Paul's missionary work, and all
that came of that.

The incident naturally suggests some thoughts bearing on the general
subject of Christian work, which we now briefly present.

I. Notice the spontaneous impulse which these men obeyed.

Persecution drove the members of the Church apart, and, as a matter of
course, wherever they went they took their faith with them, and, as a
matter of course, spoke about it. The coals were scattered from the
hearth in Jerusalem by the armed heel of violence. That did not put the
fire out, but only spread it, for wherever they were flung they kindled
a blaze. These men had no special injunction 'to preach the Lord
Jesus.' They do not seem to have adopted this line of action
deliberately, or of set purpose. 'They believed, and therefore spoke.'
A spontaneous impulse, and nothing more, leads them on. They find
themselves rejoicing in a great Saviour-Friend. They see all around
them men who need Him, and that is enough. They obey the promptings of
the voice within, and lay the foundations of the first Gentile Church.

Such a spontaneous impulse is ever the natural result of our own
personal possession of Christ. In regard to worldly good the instinct,
except when overcome by higher motives, is to keep the treasure to
oneself. But even in the natural sphere there are possessions which to
have is to long to impart, such as truth and knowledge. And in the
spiritual sphere, it is emphatically the case that real possession is
always accompanied by a longing to impart. The old prophet spoke a
universal truth when he said: 'Thy word was as a fire shut up in my
bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.' If we
have found Christ for ourselves, we shall undoubtedly wish to speak
forth our knowledge of His love. Convictions which are deep demand
expression. Emotion which is strong needs utterance. If our hearts have
any fervour of love to Christ in them, it will be as natural to tell it
forth, as tears are to sorrow or smiles to happiness. True, there is a
reticence in profound feeling, and sometimes the deepest love can only
'love and be silent,' and there is a just suspicion of loud or vehement
protestations of Christian emotion, as of any emotion. But for all
that, it remains true that a heart warmed with the love of Christ needs
to express its love, and will give it forth, as certainly as light must
radiate from its centre, or heat from a fire.

Then, true kindliness of heart creates the same impulse. We cannot
truly possess the treasure for ourselves without pity for those who
have it not. Surely there is no stranger contradiction than that
Christian men and women can be content to keep Christ as if He were
their special property, and have their spirits untouched into any
likeness of His divine pity for the multitudes who were as 'sheep
having no shepherd.' What kind of Christians must they be who think of
Christ as 'a Saviour for me,' and take no care to set Him forth as 'a
Saviour for you'? What should we think of men in a shipwreck who were
content to get into the lifeboat, and let everybody else drown? What
should we think of people in a famine feasting sumptuously on their
private stores, whilst women were boiling their children for a meal and
men fighting with dogs for garbage on the dunghills? 'He that
withholdeth bread, the people shall curse him.' What of him who
withholds the Bread of Life, and all the while claims to be a follower
of the Christ, who gave His flesh for the life of the world?

Further, loyalty to Christ creates the same impulse. If we are true to
our Lord, we shall feel that we cannot but speak up and out for Him,
and that all the more where His name is unloved and unhonoured. He has
left His good fame very much in our hands, and the very same impulse
which hurries words to our lips when we hear the name of an absent
friend calumniated should make us speak for Him. He is a doubtfully
loyal subject who, if he lives among rebels, is afraid to show his
colours. He is already a coward, and is on the way to be a traitor. Our
Master has made us His witnesses. He has placed in our hands, as a
sacred deposit, the honour of His name. He has entrusted to us, as His
selectest sign of confidence, the carrying out of the purposes for
which on earth His blood was shed, on which in heaven His heart is set.
How can we be loyal to Him if we are not forced by a mighty constraint
to respond to His great tokens of trust in us, and if we know nothing
of that spirit which said: 'Necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto
me, if I preach not the gospel!' I do not say that a man cannot be a
Christian unless he knows and obeys this impulse. But, at least, we may
safely say that he is a very weak and imperfect Christian who does not.

II. This incident suggests the universal obligation on all Christians
to make known Christ.

These men were not officials. In these early days the Church had a very
loose organisation. But the fugitives in our narrative seem to have had
among them none even of the humble office-bearers of primitive times.
Neither had they any command or commission from Jerusalem. No one there
had given them authority, or, as would appear, knew anything of their
proceedings. Could there be a more striking illustration of the great
truth that whatever varieties of function may be committed to various
officers in the Church, the work of telling Christ's love to men
belongs to every one who has found it for himself or herself? 'This
honour have all the saints.'

Whatever may be our differences of opinion as to Church order and
offices, they need not interfere with our firm grasp of this truth.
'Preaching Christ,' in the sense in which that expression is used in
the New Testament, implies no one special method of proclaiming the
glad tidings. A word written in a letter to a friend, a sentence
dropped in casual conversation, a lesson to a child on a mother's lap,
or any other way by which, to any listeners, the great story of the
Cross is told, is as truly - often more truly - preaching Christ as the
set discourse which has usurped the name.

We profess to believe in the priesthood of all believers, we are ready
enough to assert it in opposition to sacerdotal assumptions. Are we as
ready to recognise it as laying a very real responsibility upon us, and
involving a very practical inference as to our own conduct? We all have
the power, therefore we all have the duty. For what purpose did God
give us the blessing of knowing Christ ourselves? Not for our own
well-being alone, but that through us the blessing might be still
further diffused.

'Heaven doth with us as men with torches do,
Not light them for themselves.'

'God hath shined into our hearts' that we might give to others 'the
light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus
Christ.' Every Christian is solemnly bound to fulfil this divine
intention, and to take heed to the imperative command, 'Freely ye have
received, freely give.'

III. Observe, further, the simple message which they proclaimed.

'Preaching the Lord Jesus,' says the text - or more accurately
perhaps - 'preaching Jesus as Lord.' The substance, then, of their
message was just this - proclamation of the person and dignity of their
Master, the story of the human life of the Man, the story of the divine
sacrifice and self-bestowment by which He had bought the right of
supreme rule over every heart; and the urging of His claims on all who
heard of His love. And this, their message, was but the proclamation of
their own personal experience. They had found Jesus to be for
themselves Lover and Lord, Friend and Saviour of their souls, and the
joy they had received they sought to share with these Greeks,
worshippers of gods and lords many.

Surely anybody can deliver that message who has had that experience.
All have not the gifts which would fit for public speech, but all who
have 'tasted that the Lord is gracious' can somehow tell how gracious
He is. The first Christian sermon was very short, and it was very
efficacious, for it 'brought to Jesus' the whole congregation. Here it
is: 'He first findeth his brother Simon, and saith unto him, We have
found the Messias.' Surely we can all say that, if we have found Him.
Surely we shall all long to say it, if we are glad that we have found



Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 23 of 57)