Copyright
Alexander Maclaren.

Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

. (page 32 of 57)
Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 32 of 57)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


religious teachers and thinkers are left behind, and that their words
are preserved and read rather for their antiquarian and historical
interest than because of any impulse or direction for the present which
may linger in them; and if they founded institutions, these too, in
their time, will crumble and disappear.

But I do not mean to say that the truths which Luther rescued from the
dust of centuries, and impressed upon the conscience of Teutonic
Europe, are getting antiquated. I only mean that his connection with
them and his way of putting them, had its limitations and will have its
end: 'This man, having served his own generation by the will of God,
was gathered to his fathers, and saw corruption.'

What _were_ the truths, what was his contribution to the illumination
of Europe, and to the Church? Three great principles - which perhaps
closer analysis might reduce to one; but which for popular use, on such
an occasion as the present, had better be kept apart - will state his
service to the world.

There were three men in the past who, as it seems to me, reach out
their hands to one another across the centuries - Paul, St. Augustine,
and Martin Luther, The three very like each other, all three of them
joining the same subtle speculative power with the same capacity of
religious fervour, and of flaming up at the contemplation of divine
truth; all of them gifted with the same exuberant, and to fastidious
eyes, incorrect eloquence; all three trained in a school of religious
thought of which each respectively was destined to be the antagonist
and all but the destroyer.

The young Pharisee, on the road to Damascus, blinded, bewildered, with
all that vision flaming upon him, sees in its light his past, which he
thought had been so pure, and holy, and God-serving, and amazedly
discovers that it had been all a sin and a crime, and a persecution of
the divine One. Beaten from every refuge, and lying there, he cries:
'What wouldst Thou have me to do, Lord?'

The young Manichean and profligate in the fourth century, and the young
monk in his convent in the fifteenth, passed through a similar
experience; - different in form, identical in substance - with that of
Paul the persecutor. And so Paul's Gospel, which was the description
and explanation, the rationale, of his own experience, became their
Gospel; and when Paul said: 'Not by works of righteousness which our
own hands have done, but by His mercy He saved us' (Titus iii. 5), the
great voice from the North African shore, in the midst of the agonies
of barbarian invasions and a falling Rome, said 'Amen. Man lives by
faith,' and the voice from the Wittemberg convent, a thousand years
after, amidst the unspeakable corruption of that phosphorescent and
decaying Renaissance, answered across the centuries, 'It is true!'
'Herein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith.'
Luther's word to the world was Augustine's word to the world; and
Luther and Augustine were the echoes of Saul of Tarsus - and Paul
learned his theology on the Damascus road, when the voice bade him go
and proclaim 'forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are
sanctified by faith that is in Me' (Acts xxvi. 18). That is Luther's
first claim on our gratitude, that he took this truth from the shelves
where it had reposed, dust-covered, through centuries, that he lifted
this truth from the bier where it had lain, smothered with sacerdotal
garments, and called with a loud voice, 'I say unto thee, arise!' and
that now the commonplace of Christianity is this: All men are sinful
men, justice condemns us all, our only hope is God's infinite mercy,
that mercy comes to us all in Jesus Christ that died for us, and he
that gets that into his heart by simple faith, he is forgiven, pure,
and he is an heir of Heaven.

There are other aspects of Christian truth which Luther failed to
apprehend. The Gospel is, of course, not merely a way of reconciliation
and forgiveness. He pushed his teaching of the uselessness of good
works as a means of salvation too far. He said rash and exaggerated
things in his vehement way about the 'justifying power' of faith alone.
Doubtless his language was often overstrained, and his thoughts
one-sided, in regard to subjects that need very delicate handling and
careful definition. But after all this is admitted, it remains true
that his strong arm tossed aside the barriers and rubbish that had been
piled across the way by which prodigals could go home to their Father,
and made plain once more the endless mercy of God, and the power of
humble faith. He was right when he declared that whatever heights and
depths there may be in God's great revelation, and however needful it
is for a complete apprehension of the truth as it is in Jesus that
these should find their place in the creed of Christendom, still the
firmness with which that initial truth of man's sinfulness and his
forgiveness and acceptance through simple faith in Christ is held, and
the clear earnestness with which it is proclaimed, are the test of a
standing or a falling Church.

And then closely connected with this central principle, and yet
susceptible of being stated separately, are the other two; of neither
of which do I think it necessary to say more than a word. Following on
that great discovery - for it was a discovery - by the monk in his
convent, of justification by faith, there comes the other principle of
the entire sweeping away of all priesthood, and the direct access to
God of every individual Christian soul. There are no more external
rites to be done by a designated and separate class. There is one
sacrificing Priest, and one only, and that is Jesus Christ, who has
sacrificed Himself for us all, and there are no other priests, except
in the sense in which every Christian man is a priest and minister of
the most high God. And no man comes between me and my Father; and no
man has power to do anything for me which brings me any grace, except
in so far as mine own heart opens for the reception, and mine own faith
lays hold of the grace given.

Luther did not carry that principle so far as some of us modern
Nonconformists carry it. He left illogical fragments of sacramentarian
and sacerdotal theories in his creed and in his Church. But, for all
that, we owe mainly to him the clear utterance of that thought, the
warm breath of which has thawed the ice chains which held Europe in
barren bondage. Notwithstanding the present portentous revival of
sacerdotalism, and the strange turning again of portions of society to
these beggarly elements of the past, I believe that the figments of a
sacrificing priesthood and sacramental efficacy will never again
permanently darken the sky in this land, the home of the men who speak
the tongue of Milton, and owe much of their religious and political
freedom to the reformation of Luther.

And the third point, which is closely connected with these other two,
is this, the declaration that every illuminated Christian soul has a
right and is bound to study God's Word without the Church at his elbow
to teach him what to think about it. It was Luther's great achievement
that, whatever else he did, he put the Bible into the hands of the
common people. In that department and region, his work perhaps bears
more distinctly the traces of limitation and imperfection than anywhere
else, for he knew nothing - how could he? - of the difficult questions of
this day in regard to the composition and authority of Scripture, nor
had he thought out his own system or done full justice to his own
principle.

He could be as inquisitorial and as dogmatic as any Dominican of them
all. He believed in force; he was as ready as all his fellows were to
invoke the aid of the temporal power. The idea of the Church, as helped
and sustained - which means fettered, and weakened, and paralysed - by
the civic government, bewitched him as it did his fellows. We needed to
wait for George Fox, and Roger Williams, and more modern names still,
before we understood fully what was involved in the rejection of
priesthood, and the claim that God's Word should speak directly to each
Christian soul. But for all that, we largely owe to Luther the creed
that looks in simple faith to Christ, a Church without a priest, in
which every man is a priest of the Most High, - the only true democracy
that the world will ever see - and a Church in which the open Bible and
the indwelling Spirit are the guides of every humble soul within its
pale. These are his claims on our gratitude.

Luther's work had its limitations and its imperfections, as I have been
saying to you. It will become less and less conspicuous as the ages go
on. It cannot be otherwise. That is the law of the world. As a whole
green forest of the carboniferous era is represented now in the rocks
by a thin seam of coal, no thicker than a sheet of paper, so the stormy
lives and the large works of the men that have gone before, are
compressed into a mere film and line, in the great cliff that slowly
rises above the sea of time and is called the history of the world.

II. Be it so; be it so! Let us turn to the other thought of our text,
the perpetual work of the abiding Lord.

'He whom God raised up saw no corruption.' It is a fact that there are
thousands of men and women in the world to-day who have a feeling about
that nineteen-centuries-dead Galilean carpenter's son that they have
about no one else. All the great names of antiquity are but ghosts and
shadows, and all the names in the Church and in the world, of men whom
we have not seen, are dim and ineffectual to us. They may evoke our
admiration, our reverence, and our wonder, but none of them can touch
our hearts. But here is this unique, anomalous fact that men and women
by the thousand love Jesus Christ, the dead One, the unseen One, far
away back there in the ages, and feel that there is no mist of oblivion
between them and Him.

That is because He does for you and me what none of these other men can
do. Luther preached about the Cross; Christ _died_ on it. 'Was Paul
crucified for you?' there is the secret of His undying hold upon the
world. The further secret lies in this, that He is not a past force but
a present one. He is no exhausted power but a power mighty to-day;
working in us, around us, on us, and for us - a living Christ. 'This Man
whom God raised up from the dead saw no corruption,' the others move
away from us like figures in a fog, dim as they pass into the mists,
having a blurred half-spectral outline for a moment, and then gone.

Christ's death has a present and a perpetual power. He has 'offered one
sacrifice for sins for ever'; and no time can diminish the efficacy of
His Cross, nor our need of it, nor the full tide of blessings which
flow from it to the believing soul. Therefore do men cling to Him today
as if it was but yesterday that He had died for them. When all other
names carved on the world's records have become unreadable, like
forgotten inscriptions on decaying grave-stones, His shall endure for
ever, deep graven on the fleshly tables of the heart. His revelation of
God is the highest truth. Till the end of time men will turn to His
life for their clearest knowledge and happiest certainty of their
Father in heaven. There is nothing limited or local in His character or
works. In His meek beauty and gentle perfectness, He stands so high
above us all that, to-day, the inspiration of His example and the
lessons of His conduct touch us as much as if He had lived in this
generation, and will always shine before men as their best and most
blessed law of conduct. Christ will not be antiquated till He is
outgrown, and it will be some time before that happens.

But Christ's power is not only the abiding influence of His earthly
life and death. He is not a past force, but a present one. He is
putting forth fresh energies to-day, working in and for and by all who
love Him. We believe in a living Christ.

Therefore the final thought, in all our grateful commemoration of dead
helpers and guides, should be of the undying Lord. He sent whatsoever
power was in them. He is with His Church to-day, still giving to men
the gifts needful for their times. Aaron may die on Hor, and Moses be
laid in his unknown grave on Pisgah, but the Angel of the Covenant, who
is the true Leader, abides in the pillar of cloud and fire, Israel's
guide in the march, and covering shelter in repose. That is our
consolation in our personal losses when our dear ones are 'not suffered
to continue by reason of death.' He who gave them all their sweetness
is with us still, and has all the sweetness which He lent them for a
time. So if we have Christ with us we cannot be desolate. Looking on
all the men, who in their turn have helped forward His cause a little
way, we should let their departure teach us His presence, their
limitations His all-sufficiency, their death His life.

Luther was once found, at a moment of peril and fear, when he had need
to grasp unseen strength, sitting in an abstracted mood, tracing on the
table with his finger the words '_Vivit_! _vivit_!' - 'He lives! He
lives!' It is our hope for ourselves, and for God's truth, and for
mankind. Men come and go; leaders, teachers, thinkers speak and work
for a season and then fall silent and impotent. He abides. They die,
but He lives. They are lights kindled, and therefore sooner or later
quenched, but He is the true light from which they draw all their
brightness, and He shines for evermore. Other men are left behind and,
as the world glides forward, are wrapped in ever-thickening folds of
oblivion, through which they shine feebly for a little while, like
lamps in a fog, and then are muffled in invisibility. We honour other
names, and the coming generations will forget them, but 'His name shall
endure for ever, His name shall continue as long as the sun, and men
shall be blessed in Him; all nations shall call Him blessed.'



JEWISH REJECTERS AND GENTILE RECEIVERS

'And the next Sabbath day came almost the whole city together to hear
the word of God. 45. But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were
filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by
Paul, contradicting and blaspheming. 46. Then Paul and Barnabas waxed
bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have
been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves
unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles. 47. For so
hath the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set thee to be a light of
the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the
earth. 48. And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and
glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal
life believed. 49. And the word of the Lord was published throughout
all the region. 50. But the Jews stirred up the devout and honourable
women, and the chief men of the city, and raised persecution against
Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them out of their coasts. 51. But they
shook off the dust of their feet against them, and came unto Iconium.
52. And the disciples were filled with joy, and with the Holy Ghost.

'And it came to pass in Iconium, that they went both together into the
synagogue of the Jews, and so spake, that a great multitude both of the
Jews and also of the Greeks believed. 2. But the unbelieving Jews
stirred up the Gentiles, and made their minds evil affected against the
brethren. 3. Long time therefore abode they speaking boldly in the
Lord, which gave testimony unto the word of His grace, and granted
signs and wonders to be done by their hands. 4. But the multitude of
the city was divided: and part held with the Jews, and part with the
Apostles. 5. And when there was an assault made both of the Gentiles,
and also of the Jews with their rulers, to use them despitefully, and
to stone them, 6. They were ware of it, and fled unto Lystra and Derbe,
cities of Lycaonia, and unto the region that lieth round about: 7. And
there they preached the Gospel.' - ACTS xiii. 44-52; xiv. 1-7.

In general outline, the course of events in the two great cities of
Asia Minor, with which the present passage is concerned, was the same.
It was only too faithful a forecast of what was to be Paul's experience
everywhere. The stages are: preaching in the synagogue, rejection
there, appeal to the Gentiles, reception by them, a little nucleus of
believers formed; disturbances fomented by the Jews, who swallow their
hatred of Gentiles by reason of their greater hatred of the Apostles,
and will riot with heathens, though they will not pray nor eat with
them; and finally the Apostles' departure to carry the gospel farther
afield. This being the outline, we have mainly to consider any special
features diversifying it in each case.

Their experience in Antioch was important, because it forced Paul and
Barnabas to put into plain words, making very clear to themselves as
well as to their hearers, the law of their future conduct. It is always
a step in advance when circumstances oblige us to formularise our
method of action. Words have a wonderful power in clearing up our own
vision. Paul and Barnabas had known all along that they were sent to
the Gentiles; but a conviction in the mind is one thing, and the same
conviction driven in on us by facts is quite another. The discipline of
Antioch crystallised floating intentions into a clear statement, which
henceforth became the rule of Paul's conduct. Well for us if we have
open eyes to discern the meaning of difficulties, and promptitude and
decision to fix and speak out plainly the course which they prescribe!

The miserable motives of the Jews' antagonism are forcibly stated in
vs. 44, 45. They did not 'contradict and blaspheme,' because they had
taken a week to think over the preaching and had seen its falseness,
but simply because, dog-in-the-manger like, they could not bear that
'the whole city' should be welcome to share the message. No doubt there
was a crowd of 'Gentile dogs' thronging the approach to the synagogue;
and one can almost see the scowling faces and hear the rustle of the
robes drawn closer to avoid pollution. Who were these wandering
strangers that they should gather such a crowd? And what had the
uncircumcised rabble of Antioch to do with 'the promises made to the
fathers'? It is not the only time that religious men have taken offence
at crowds gathering to hear God's word. Let us take care that we do not
repeat the sin. There are always some who -

'Taking God's word under wise protection,
Correct its tendency to diffusiveness.'

It needed some courage to front the wild excitement of such a mob, with
calm, strong words likely to increase the rage.

'Lo, we turn to the Gentiles.' This is not to be regarded as announcing
a general course of action, but simply as applying to the actual
rejecters in Antioch. The necessity that the word should first be
spoken to the Jews continued to be recognised, in each new sphere of
work, by the Apostle; but wherever, as here, men turned from the
message, the messengers turned from them without further waste of time.
Paul put into words here the law for his whole career. The fit
punishment of rejection is the withdrawal of the offer. There is
something pathetic in the persistence with which, in place after place,
Paul goes through the same sequence, his heart yearning over his
brethren according to the flesh, and hoping on, after all repulses. It
was far more than natural patriotism; it was an offshoot of Christ's
own patient love.

Note also the divine command. Paul bases his action on a prophecy as to
the Messiah. But the relation on which prophecy insists between the
personal servant of Jehovah and the collective Israel, is such that the
great office of being the Light of the world devolves from Him on it
and the true Israel is to be a light to the Gentiles. These very Jews
in Antioch, lashing themselves into fury because Gentiles were to be
offered a share in Israel's blessings, ought to have been discharging
this glorious function. Their failure showed that they were no parts of
the real Israel. No doubt the two missionaries left the synagogue as
they spoke, and, as the door swung behind them, it shut hope out and
unbelief in. The air was fresh outside, and eager hearts welcomed the
word. Very beautifully is the gladness of the Gentile hearers set in
contrast with the temper of the Jews. It is strange news to heathen
hearts that there is a God who loves them, and a divine Christ who has
died for them. The experience of many a missionary follows Paul's here.

'As many as were ordained to eternal life believed.' The din of many a
theological battle has raged round these words, the writer of which
would have probably needed a good deal of instruction before he could
have been made to understand what the fighting was about. But it is to
be noted that there is evidently intended a contrast between the
envious Jews and the gladly receptive Gentiles, which is made more
obvious by the repetition of the words 'eternal life.' It would seem
much more relevant and accordant with the context to understand the
word rendered 'ordained' as meaning 'adapted' or 'fitted,' than to find
in it a reference to divine foreordination. Such a meaning is
legitimate, and strongly suggested by the context. The reference then
would be to the 'frame of mind of the heathen, and not to the decrees
of God.'

The only points needing notice in the further developments at Antioch
are the agents employed by the Jews, the conduct of the Apostles, and
the sweet little picture of the converts. As to the former, piously
inclined women in a heathen city would be strongly attracted by Judaism
and easily lend themselves to the impressions of their teachers. We
know that many women of rank were at that period powerfully affected in
this manner; and if a Rabbi could move a Gentile of influence through
whispers to the Gentile's wife, he would not be slow to do it. The ease
with which the Jews stirred up tumults everywhere against the Apostle
indicates their possession of great influence; and their willingness to
be hand in glove with heathen for so laudable an object as crushing one
of their own people who had become a heretic, measures the venom of
their hate and the depth of their unscrupulousness.

The Apostles had not to fear violence, as their enemies were content
with turning them out of Antioch and its neighbourhood; but they obeyed
Christ's command, shaking off the dust against them, in token of
renouncing all connection. The significant act is a trace of early
knowledge of Christ's words, long before the date of our Gospels.

While the preachers had to leave the little flock in the midst of
wolves, there was peace in the fold. Like the Ethiopian courtier when
deprived of Philip, the new believers at Antioch found that the
withdrawal of the earthly brought the heavenly Guide. 'They were filled
with joy.' What! left ignorant, lonely, ringed about with enemies, how
could they be glad? Because they were filled 'with the Holy Ghost.'
Surely joy in such circumstances was no less supernatural a token of
His presence than rushing wind or parting flames or lips opened to
speak with tongues. God makes us lonely that He may Himself be our
Companion.

It was a long journey to the great city of Iconium. According to some
geographers, the way led over savage mountains; but the two brethren
tramped along, with an unseen Third between them, and that Presence
made the road light. They had little to cheer them in their prospects,
if they looked with the eye of sense; but they were in good heart, and
the remembrance of Antioch did not embitter or discourage them.
Straight to the synagogue, as before, they went. It was their best
introduction to the new field. There, if we take the plain words of
Acts xiv. 1, they found a new thing, 'Greeks,' heathens pure and
simple, not Hellenists or Greek-speaking Jews, nor even proselytes, in
the synagogue. This has seemed so singular that efforts have been made
to impose another sense on the words, or to suppose that the notice of
Greeks, as well as Jews, believing is loosely appended to the statement
of the preaching in the synagogue, omitting notice of wider
evangelising. But it is better to accept than to correct our narrative,
as we know nothing of the circumstances that may have led to this
presence of Greeks in the synagogue. Some modern setters of the Bible
writers right would be all the better for remembering occasionally that
improbable things have a strange knack of happening.

The usual results followed the preaching of the Gospel. The Jews were



Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 32 of 57)