Alexander Maclaren.

Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

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The fact that he changes his name as soon as he throws himself into
public and active life, is but gathering into one picturesque symbol
his great principle; 'If any man be in Christ Jesus, he is a new
creature. Old things are passed away and all things are become new.'

So, dear brethren, we may, from this incident before us, gather this
one great lesson, that the central heart of Christianity is the
possession of a new life, communicated to us through faith in that Son
of God, Who is the Lord of the Spirit. Wheresoever there is a true
faith, there is a new nature. Opinions may play upon the surface of a
man's soul, like moonbeams on the silver sea, without raising its
temperature one degree or sending a single beam into its dark caverns.
And that is the sort of Christianity that satisfies a great many of
you - a Christianity of opinion, a Christianity of surface creed, a
Christianity which at the best slightly modifies some of our outward
actions, but leaves the whole inner man unchanged.

Paul's Christianity meant a radical change in his whole nature. He went
out of Jerusalem a persecutor, he came into Damascus a Christian. He
rode out of Jerusalem hating, loathing, despising Jesus Christ; he
groped his way into Damascus, broken, bruised, clinging contrite to His
feet, and clasping His Cross as his only hope. He went out proud,
self-reliant, pluming himself upon his many prerogatives, his blue
blood, his pure descent, his Rabbinical knowledge, his Pharisaical
training, his external religious earnestness, his rigid morality; he
rode into Damascus blind in the eyes, but seeing in the soul, and
discerning that all these things were, as he says in his strong,
vehement way, 'but dung' in comparison with his winning Christ.

And his theory of conversion, which he preaches in all his Epistles, is
but the generalisation of his own personal experience, which suddenly,
and in a moment, smote his old self to shivers, and raised up a new
life, with new tastes, views, tendencies, aspirations, with new
allegiance to a new King. Such changes, so sudden, so revolutionary,
cannot be expected often to take place amongst people who, like us,
have been listening to Christian teaching all our lives. But unless
there be this infusion of a new life into men's spirits which shall
make them love and long and aspire after new things that once they did
not care for, I know not why we should speak of them as being
Christians at all. The transition is described by Paul as 'passing from
death unto life.' That cannot be a surface thing. A change which needs
a new name must be a profound change. Has our Christianity
revolutionised our nature in any such fashion? It is easy to be a
Christian after the superficial fashion which passes muster with so
many of us. A verbal acknowledgment of belief in truths which we never
think about, a purely external performance of acts of worship, a
subscription or two winged by no sympathy, and a fairly respectable
life beneath the cloak of which all evil may burrow undetected - make
the Christianity of thousands. Paul's Christianity transformed him;
does yours transform you? If it does not, are you quite sure that it
_is_ Christianity at all?

II. Then, again, we may take this change of name as being expressive of
a life's work.

_Paul_ is a Roman name. He strips himself of his Jewish connections and
relationships. His fellow-countrymen who lived amongst the Gentiles
were, as I said at the beginning of these remarks, in the habit of
doing the same thing; but they carried _both_ their names; their Jewish
for use amongst their own people, their Gentile one for use amongst
Gentiles. Paul seems to have altogether disused his old name of Saul.
It was almost equivalent to seceding from Judaism. It is like the acts
of the renegades whom one sometimes hears of, who are found by
travellers, dressed in turban and flowing robes, and bearing some
Turkish name, or like some English sailor, lost to home and kindred,
who deserts his ship in an island of the Pacific, and drops his English
name for a barbarous title, in token that he has given up his faith and
his nationality.

So Paul, contemplating for his life's work preaching amongst the
Gentiles, determines at the beginning, 'I lay down all of which I used
to be proud. If my Jewish descent and privileges stand in my way I cast
them aside. "Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the
tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews, as touching the law, a
Pharisee," - all these I wrap together in one bundle, and toss them
behind me that I may be the better able to help some to whom they would
have hindered my access.' A man with a heart will throw off his silken
robes that his arm may be bared to rescue, and his feet free to run to

So we may, from the change of the Apostle's name, gather this lesson,
never out of date, that the only way to help people is to go down to
their level. If you want to bless men, you must identify yourself with
them. It is no use standing on an eminence above them, and
patronisingly talking down to them. You cannot scold, or hector, or
lecture men into the possession and acceptance of religious truth if
you take a position of superiority. As our Master has taught us, if we
want to make blind beggars see we must take the blind beggars by the

The spirit which led the Apostle to change the name of Saul, with its
memories of the royal dignity which, in the person of its great wearer,
had honoured his tribe, for a Roman name is the same which he formally
announces as a deliberately adopted law of his life. 'To them that are
without law I became as without law ... that I might gain them that are
without law ... I am made all things to all men, that I might by all
means save some.'

It is the very inmost principle of the Gospel. The principle that
influenced the servant in this comparatively little matter, is the
principle that influenced the Master in the mightiest of all events.
'He who was in the form of God, and thought not equality with God a
thing to be eagerly snatched at, made Himself of no reputation, and was
found in fashion as a man and in form as a servant, and became obedient
unto death.' 'For as much as the children were partakers of flesh and
blood, He Himself likewise took part of the same'; and the mystery of
incarnation came to pass, because when the Divine would help men, the
only way by which the Infinite love could reach its end was that the
Divine should become man; identifying Himself with those whom He would
help, and stooping to the level of the humanity that He would lift.

And as it is the very essence and heart of Christ's work, so, my
brother, it is the condition of all work that benefits our fellows. It
applies all round. We must stoop if we would raise. We must put away
gifts, culture, everything that distinguishes us, and come to the level
of the men that we seek to help. Sympathy is the parent of all wise
counsel, because it is the parent of all true understanding of our
brethren's wants. Sympathy is the only thing to which people will
listen, sympathy is the only disposition correspondent to the message
that we Christians are entrusted with. For a Christian man to carry the
Gospel of Infinite condescension to his fellows in a spirit other than
that of the Master and the Gospel which he speaks, is an anomaly and a

And, therefore, let us all remember that a vast deal of so-called
Christian work falls utterly dead and profitless, for no other reason
than this, that the doers have forgotten that they must come to the
level of the men whom they would help, before they can expect to bless

You remember the old story of the heroic missionary whose heart burned
to carry the Gospel of Jesus Christ amongst captives, and as there was
no other way of reaching them, let himself be sold for a slave, and put
out his hands to have the manacles fastened upon them. It is the law
for all Christian service; become like men if you will help them, - 'To
the weak as weak, all things to all men, that we might by all means
save some.'

And, my brother, there was no obligation on Paul's part to do Christian
work which does not lie on you.

III. Further, this change of name is a memorial of victory.

The name is that of Paul's first convert. He takes it, as I suppose,
because it seemed to him such a blessed thing that at the very moment
when he began to sow, God helped him to reap. He had gone out to his
work, no doubt, with much trembling, with weakness and fear. And lo!
here, at once, the fields were white already to the harvest,

Great conquerors have been named from their victories; Africanus,
Germanicus, Nelson of the Nile, Napier of Magdala, and the like. Paul
names himself from the first victory that God gives him to win; and so,
as it were, carries ever on his breast a memorial of the wonder that
through him it had been given to preach, and that not without success,
amongst the Gentiles 'the unsearchable riches of Christ.'

That is to say, this man thought of it as his highest honour, and the
thing best worthy to be remembered about his life, that God had helped
him to help his brethren to know the common Master. Is that your idea
of the best thing about a life? What would you, a professing Christian,
like to have for an epitaph on your grave? 'He was rich; he made a big
business in Manchester'; 'He was famous, he wrote books'; 'He was happy
and fortunate'; or, 'He turned many to righteousness'? This man flung
away his literary tastes, his home joys, and his personal ambition, and
chose as that for which he would live, and by which he would fain be
remembered, that he should bring dark hearts to the light in which he
and they together walked.

His name, in its commemoration of his first success, would act as a
stimulus to service and to hope. No doubt the Apostle, like the rest of
us, had his times of indolence and languor, and his times of
despondency when he seemed to have laboured in vain, and spent his
strength for nought. He had but to say 'Paul' to find the antidote to
both the one and the other, and in the remembrance of the past to find
a stimulus for service for the future, and a stimulus for hope for the
time to come. His first convert was to him the first drop that predicts
the shower, the first primrose that prophesies the wealth of yellow
blossoms and downy green leaves that will fill the woods in a day or
two. The first convert 'bears in his hand a glass which showeth many
more.' Look at the workmen in the streets trying to get up a piece of
the roadway. How difficult it is to lever out the first paving stone
from the compacted mass! But when once it has been withdrawn, the rest
is comparatively easy. We can understand Paul's triumph and joy over
the first stone which he had worked out of the strongly cemented wall
and barrier of heathenism; and his conviction that having thus made a
breach, if it were but wide enough to let the end of his lever in, the
fall of the whole was only a question of time. I suppose that if the
old alchemists had turned but one grain of base metal into gold they
might have turned tons, if only they had had the retorts and the
appliances with which to do it. And so, what has brought one man's soul
into harmony with God, and given one man the true life, can do the same
for all men. In the first fruits we may see the fields whitening to the
harvest. Let us rejoice then, in any little work that God helps us to
do, and be sure that if so great be the joy of the first fruits, great
beyond speech will be the joy of the ingathering.

IV. And now last of all, this change of name is an index of the spirit
of a life's work.

'Paul' means 'little'; 'Saul' means 'desired.' He abandons the name
that prophesied of favour and honour, to adopt a name that bears upon
its very front a profession of humility. His very name is the
condensation into a word of his abiding conviction: 'I am less than the
least of all saints.' Perhaps even there may be an allusion to his low
stature, which may be pointed at in the sarcasm of his enemies that his
letters were strong, though his bodily presence was 'weak.' If he was,
as Renan calls him, 'an ugly little Jew,' the name has a double

But, at all events, it is an expression of the spirit in which he
sought to do his work. The more lofty the consciousness of his vocation
the more lowly will a true man's estimate of himself be. The higher my
thought of what God has given me grace to do, the more shall I feel
weighed down by the consciousness of my unfitness to do it. And the
more grateful my remembrance of what He has enabled me to do, the more
shall I wonder that I have been enabled, and the more profoundly shall
I feel that it is not my strength but His that has won the victories.

So, dear brethren, for all hope, for all success in our work, for all
growth in Christian grace and character, this disposition of lowly
self-abasement and recognised unworthiness and infirmity is absolutely
indispensable. The mountain-tops that lift themselves to the stars are
barren, and few springs find their rise there. It is in the lowly
valleys that the flowers grow and the rivers run. And it is they who
are humble and lowly in heart to whom God gives strength to serve Him,
and the joy of accepted service.

I beseech you, then, learn your true life's task. Learn how to do it by
identifying yourselves with the humbler brethren whom you would help.
Learn the spirit in which it must be done; the spirit of lowly
self-abasement. And oh! above all, learn this, that unless you have the
new life, the life of God in your hearts, you have no life at all.

Have you, my brother, that faith by which we receive into our spirits
Christ's own Spirit, to be our life? If you have, then you are a new
creature, with a new name, perhaps but dimly visible and faintly
audible, amidst the imperfections of earth, but sure to shine out on
the pages of the Lamb's Book of Life; and to be read 'with tumults of
acclaim' before the angels of Heaven. 'I will give him a white stone,
and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that
receiveth it.'


'... John, departing from them, returned to Jerusalem.' - ACTS xiii. 13.

The few brief notices of John Mark in Scripture are sufficient to give
us an outline of his life, and some inkling of his character. He was
the son of a well-to-do Christian woman in Jerusalem, whose house
appears to have been the resort of the brethren as early as the period
of Peter's miraculous deliverance from prison. As the cousin of
Barnabas he was naturally selected to be the attendant and secular
factotum of Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. For
some reason, faint-heartedness, lack of interest, levity of
disposition, or whatever it may have been, he very quickly abandoned
that office and returned to his home. His kindly-natured and indulgent
relative sought to reinstate him in his former position on the second
journey of Paul and himself. Paul's kinder severity refused to comply
with the wish of his colleague Barnabas, and so they part, and Barnabas
and Mark sail away to Cyprus, and drop out of the Acts of the Apostles.
We hear no more about him until near the end of the Apostle Paul's
life, when the Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon show him as
again the companion of Paul in his captivity. He seems to have left him
in Rome, to have gone to Asia Minor for a space, to have returned to
the Apostle during his last imprisonment and immediately prior to his
death, and then to have attached himself to the Apostle Peter, and
under his direction and instruction to have written his Gospel.

Now these are the bones of his story; can we put flesh and blood upon
them: and can we get any lessons out of them? I think we may; at any
rate I am going to try.

I. Consider then, first, his - what shall I call it? well, if I may use
the word which Paul himself designates it by, in its correct
signification, we may call it his - apostasy.

It was not a departure from Christ, but it was a departure from very
plain duty. And if you will notice the point of time at which Mark
threw up the work that was laid upon him, you will see the reason for
his doing so. The first place to which the bold evangelists went was
Cyprus. Barnabas was a native of Cyprus, which was perhaps the reason
for selecting it as the place in which to begin the mission. For the
same reason, because it was the native place of his relative, it would
be very easy work for John Mark as long as they stopped in Cyprus,
among his friends, with people that knew him, and with whom no doubt he
was familiar. But as soon as they crossed the strait that separated the
island from the mainland, and set foot upon the soil of Asia Minor, so
soon he turned tail; like some recruit that goes into battle, full of
fervour, but as soon as the bullets begin to 'ping' makes the best of
his way to the rear. He was quite ready for missionary work as long as
it was easy work; quite ready to do it as long as he was moving upon
known ground and there was no great call upon his heroism, or his
self-sacrifice; he does not wait to test the difficulties, but is
frightened by the imagination of them, does not throw himself into the
work and see how he gets on with it, but before he has gone a mile into
the land, or made any real experience of the perils and hardships, has
had quite enough of it, and goes away back to his mother in Jerusalem.

Yes, and we find exactly the same thing in all kinds of strenuous life.
Many begin to run, but one after another, as 'lap' after 'lap' of the
racecourse is got over, has had enough of it, and drops on one side; a
hundred started, and at the end the field is reduced to three or four.
All you men that have grey hairs on your heads can remember many of
your companions that set out in the course with you, 'did run well' for
a little while: what has become of them? This thing hindered one, the
other thing hindered another; the swiftly formed resolution died down
as fast as it blazed up; and there are perhaps some three or four that,
'by patient continuance in well-doing,' have been tolerably faithful to
their juvenile ideal; and to use the homely word of the homely Abraham
Lincoln, kept 'pegging away' at what they knew to be the task that was
laid upon them.

This is very 'threadbare' morality, very very familiar and
old-fashioned teaching; but I am accustomed to believe that no teaching
is threadbare until it is practised; and that however well-worn the
platitudes may be, you and I want them once again unless we have obeyed
them, and done all which they enjoin. And so in regard to every career
which has in it anything of honour and of effort, let John Mark teach
us the lesson not swiftly to begin and inconsiderately to venture upon
a course, but once begun to let nothing discourage, 'nor bate one jot
of heart or hope, but still bear up and steer right onward.'

And still further and more solemnly still, how like this story is to
the experience of hundreds and thousands of young Christians! Any man
who has held such an office as I hold, for as many years as I have
filled it, will have his memory full - and, may I say, his eyes not
empty - of men and women who began like this man, earnest, fervid, full
of zeal, and who, like him, have slackened in their work; who were
Sunday-school teachers, workers amongst the poor, I know not what, when
they were young men and women, and who now are idle and unprofitable

Some of you, dear brethren, need the word of exhortation and earnest
beseeching to contrast the sluggishness, the indolence of your present,
with the brightness and the fervour of your past. And I beseech you, do
not let your Christian life be like that snow that is on the ground
about us to-day - when it first lights upon the earth, radiant and
white, but day by day gets more covered with a veil of sooty blackness
until it becomes dark and foul.

Many of us have to acknowledge that the fervour of early days has died
down into coldness. The river that leapt from its source rejoicing, and
bickered amongst the hills in such swift and musical descent, creeps
sluggish and almost stagnant amongst the flats of later life, or has
been lost and swallowed up altogether in the thirsty and encroaching
sands of a barren worldliness. Oh! my friends, let us all ponder this
lesson, and see to it that no repetition of the apostasy of this man
darken our Christian lives and sadden our Christian conscience.

II. And now let me ask you to look next, in the development of this
little piece of biography, to Mark's eclipse.

Paul and Barnabas differed about how to treat the renegade. Which of
them was right? Would it have been better to have put him back in his
old post, and given him another chance, and said nothing about the
failure; or was it better to do what the sterner wisdom of Paul did,
and declare that a man who had once so forgotten himself and abandoned
his work was not the man to put in the same place again? Barnabas'
highest quality, as far as we know, was a certain kind of broad
generosity and rejoicing to discern good in all men. He was a 'son of
consolation'; the gentle kindness of his natural disposition, added to
the ties of relationship, influenced him in his wish regarding his
cousin Mark. He made a mistake. It would have been the cruellest thing
that could have been done to his relative to have put him back again
without acknowledgment, without repentance, without his riding
quarantine for a bit, and holding his tongue for a while. He would not
then have known his fault as he ought to have known it, and so there
would never have been the chance of his conquering it.

The Church manifestly sympathised with Paul, and thought that he took
the right view; for the contrast is very significant between the
unsympathising silence which the narrative records as attending the
departure of Barnabas and Mark - 'Barnabas took Mark, and sailed away to
Cyprus' - and the emphasis with which it tells us that the other partner
in the dispute, Paul, 'took Silas and departed, being recommended by
the brethren to the grace of God.'

The people at Antioch had no doubt who was right, and I think they were
right in so deciding. So let us learn that God treats His renegades as
Paul treated Mark, and not as Barnabas would have treated him, He is
ready, even infinitely ready, to forgive and to restore, but desires to
see the consciousness of the sin first, and desires, before large tasks
are re-committed to hands that once have dropped them, to have some
kind of evidence that the hands have grown stronger and the heart
purified from its cowardice and its selfishness. Forgiveness does not
mean impunity. The infinite mercy of God is not mere weak indulgence
which so deals with a man's failures and sins as to convey the
impression that these are of no moment whatsoever. And Paul's severity
which said: 'No, such work is not fit for such hands until the heart
has been "broken and healed,"' is of a piece with God's severity which
is love. 'Thou wast a God that forgavest them, though Thou tookest
vengeance of their inventions.' Let us learn the difference between a
weak charity which loves too foolishly, and therefore too selfishly, to
let a man inherit the fruit of his doings, and the large mercy which
knows how to take the bitterness out of the chastisement, and yet knows
how to chastise.

And still further, this which I have called Mark's eclipse may teach us
another lesson, viz., that the punishment for shirking work is to be
denied work, just as the converse is true, that in God's administration
of the world and of His Church, the reward for faithful work is to get
more to do, and the filling a narrower sphere is the sure way to have a
wider sphere to fill. So if a man abandons plain duties, then he will
get no work to do. And that is why so many Christian men and women are
idle in this world; and stand in the market-place, saying, with a
certain degree of truth, 'No man hath hired us.' No; because so often
in the past tasks have been presented to you, forced upon you, almost
pressed into your unwilling hands, that you have refused to take; and
you are not going to get any more. You have been asked to work, - I
speak now to professing Christians - duties have been pressed upon you,
fields of service have opened plainly before you, and you have not had
the heart to go into them. And so you stand idle all the day now, and
the work goes to other people that will do it. Thus God honours them,

Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 30 of 57)