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Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

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again the mischief-makers, and, with the astuteness of their race,
pushed the Gentiles to the front, and this time tried a new piece of
annoyance. 'The brethren' bore the brunt of the attack; that is, the
converts, not Paul and Barnabas. It was a cunning move to drop
suspicions into the minds of influential townsmen, and so to harass,
not the two strangers, but their adherents. The calculation was that
that would stop the progress of the heresy by making its adherents
uncomfortable, and would also wound the teachers through their
disciples.

But one small element had been left out of the calculation - the sort of
men these teachers were; and another factor which had not hitherto
appeared came into play, and upset the whole scheme. Paul and Barnabas
knew when to retreat and when to stand their ground. This time they
stood; and the opposition launched at their friends was the reason why
they did so. 'Long time _therefore_ abode they.' If their own safety
had been in question, they might have fled; but they could not leave
the men whose acceptance of their message had brought them into
straits. But behind the two bold speakers stood 'the Lord,' Christ
Himself, the true Worker. Men who live in Him are made bold by their
communion with Him, and He witnesses for those who witness for Him.

Note the designation of the Gospel as 'the word of His grace.' It has
for its great theme the condescending, giving love of Jesus. Its
subject is grace; its origin is grace; its gift is grace. Observe, too,
that the same connection between boldness of speech and signs and
wonders is found in Acts iv. 29, 30. Courageous speech for Christ is
ever attended by tokens of His power, and the accompanying tokens of
His power make the speech more courageous.

The normal course of events was pursued. Faithful preaching provoked
hostility, which led to the alliance of discordant elements, fused for
a moment by a common hatred - alas! that enmity to God's truth should be
often a more potent bond of union than love! - and then to a wise
withdrawal from danger. Sometimes it is needful to fling away life for
Jesus; but if it can be preserved without shirking duty, it is better
to flee than to die. An unnecessary martyr is a suicide. The Christian
readiness to be offered has nothing in common with fanatical
carelessness of life, and still less with the morbid longing for
martyrdom which disfigures some of the most pathetic pages of the
Church's history. Paul living to preach in the regions beyond was more
useful than Paul dead in a street riot in Iconium. A heroic prudence
should ever accompany a trustful daring, and both are best learned in
communion with Jesus.



UNWORTHY OF LIFE

'... Seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of
everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles.' - ACTS xiii. 46.

So ended the first attempt on Paul's great missionary journey to preach
to the Jews. It is described at great length and the sermon given in
full because it is the first. A wonderful sermon it was; touching all
keys of feeling, now pleading almost with tears, now flashing with
indignation, now calmly dealing with Scripture prophecies, now glowing
as it tells the story of Christ's death for men. It melted some of the
hearers, but the most were wrought up to furious passion - and with
characteristic vehemence, like their ancestors and their descendants
through long dreary generations, fell to 'contradicting and
blaspheming.' We can see the scene in the synagogue, the eager faces,
the vehement gestures, the hubbub of tongues, the bitter words that
stormed round the two in the midst, Barnabas like Jupiter, grave,
majestic, and venerable; Paul like Mercury, agile, mobile, swift of
speech. They bore the brunt of the fury till they saw it to be hopeless
to try to calm it, and then departed with these remarkable words.

They are even more striking if we notice that 'judge' here may be used
in its full legal sense. It is not merely equivalent to _consider_, for
these Jews by no means thought themselves unworthy of eternal life, but
it means, 'ye adjudge and pass sentence on yourselves to be.' Their
rejection of the message was a self-pronounced sentence. It proved them
to be, and made them, 'unworthy of eternal life.' There are two or
three very striking thoughts to be gathered from these words which I
would dwell on now.

I. What constitutes worthiness and unworthiness.

There are two meanings to the word 'worthy' - deserving or fit. They run
into each other and yet they may be kept quite apart. For instance you
may say of a man that 'he is worthy' to be something or other, for
which he is obviously qualified, not thinking at all whether he
deserves it or not.

Now in the first of these senses - we are all unworthy of eternal life.
That is just to state in other words the tragic truth of universal
sinfulness. The natural outcome and issue of the course which all men
follow is death. But yet there are men who are fit for and capable of
eternal life. Who they are and what fitness is can only be ascertained
when we rightly understand what eternal life is. It is not merely
future blessedness or a synonym for a vulgar heaven. That is the common
notion of its meaning. Men think of that future as a blessed state to
which God can admit anybody if He will, and, as He is good, will admit
pretty nearly everybody. But eternal life is a present possession as
well as a future one, and passing by its deeper aspects, it includes -

Deliverance from evil habits and desires.

Purity, and love of all good and fair things.

Communion with God.

As well as forgiveness and removal of punishment.

What then are the qualifications making a man worthy of, in the sense
of fit for, such a state?

(_a_) To know oneself to be unworthy.

He who judges himself to be worthy is unworthy. He who knows himself to
be unworthy is worthy.

The first requisite is consciousness of sin, leading to repentance.

(_b_) To abandon striving to make oneself worthy.

By ourselves we never can do so. Many of us think that we must do our
best, and then God will do the rest.

There must be the entire cessation of all attempt to work out by our
own efforts characters that would entitle us to eternal life.

(_c_) To be willing to accept life on God's terms.

As a mere gift.

(_d_) To desire it.

God cannot give it to any one who does not want it. He cannot force His
gifts on us.

This then is the worthiness.

II. How we pass sentence on ourselves as unworthy.

It is quite clear that 'judge' here does not mean consider, for a sense
of unworthiness is not the reason which keeps men away from the Gospel.
Rather, as we have seen, a proud belief in our worthiness keeps very
many away. But 'judge' here means 'adjudicate' or 'pronounce sentence
on,' and worthy means fit, qualified.

Consider then -

(_a_) That our attitude to the Gospel is a revelation of our deepest
selves.

The Gospel is a 'discerner of thoughts and intents of the heart.' It
judges us here and now, and by their attitude to it 'the thoughts of
many hearts shall be revealed.'

(_b_) That our rejection of it plainly shows that we have not the
qualifications for eternal life.

No doubt some men are kept from accepting Christ by intellectual doubts
and difficulties, but even these would alter their whole attitude to
Him if they had a profound consciousness of sin, and a desire for
deliverance from it.

But with regard to the great bulk of its hearers, no doubt the
hindrance is chiefly moral. Many causes may combine to produce the
absence of qualification. The excuses in the parable' - farm, oxen,
wife' - all amount to engrossment with this present world, and such
absorption in the things seen and temporal deadens desire. So the
Gospel preached excites no longings, and a man hears the offer of
salvation without one motion of his heart towards it, and thus
proclaims himself 'unworthy of eternal life.'

But the great disqualification is the absence of all consciousness of
sin. This is the very deepest reason which keeps men away from Christ.

How solemn a thing the preaching and hearing of this word is!

How possible for you to make yourselves fit!

How simple the qualification! We have but to know ourselves sinners and
to trust Jesus and then we 'shall be counted worthy to obtain that
world and the resurrection from the dead.' Then we shall be 'worthy to
escape and to stand before the Son of Man.' Then shall we be 'worthy of
this calling,' and the Judge himself shall say: 'They shall walk with
Me in white, for they are worthy.'



'FULL OF THE HOLY GHOST'

'And the disciples were filled with joy, and with the Holy
Ghost.' - Acts xiii. 52.

That joy was as strange as a garden full of flowers would be in bitter
winter weather. For everything in the circumstances of these disciples
tended to make them sad. They had been but just won from heathenism,
and they were raw, ignorant, unfit to stand alone. Paul and Barnabas,
their only guides, had been hunted out of Antioch by a mob, and it
would have been no wonder if these disciples had felt as if they had
been taken on to the ice and then left, when they most needed a hand to
steady them. Luke emphasises the contrast between what might have been
expected, and what was actually the case, by that eloquent 'and' at the
beginning of our verse, which links together the departure of the
Apostles and the joy of the disciples. But the next words explain the
paradox. These new converts, left in a great heathen city, with no
helpers, no guides, to work out as best they might a faith of which
they had but newly received the barest rudiments, were 'full of joy'
because they were 'full of the Holy Ghost.'

Now that latter phrase, so striking here, is characteristic of this
book of the Acts, and especially of its earlier chapters, which are
all, as it were, throbbing with wonder at the new gift which Pentecost
had brought. Let me for a moment, in the briefest possible fashion, try
to recall to you the instances of its occurrence, for they are very
significant and very important.

You remember how at Pentecost 'all' the disciples were 'filled with the
Holy Ghost.' Then when the first persecution broke over the Church,
Peter before the Council is 'filled with the Holy Spirit,' and
therefore he beards them, and 'speaks with all boldness.' When he goes
back to the Church and tells them of the threatening cloud that was
hanging over them, they too are filled with the Holy Spirit, and
therefore rise buoyantly upon the tossing wave, as a ship might do when
it passes the bar and meets the heaving sea. Then again the Apostles
lay down the qualifications for election to the so-called office of
deacon as being that the men should be 'full of the Holy Ghost and
wisdom'; and in accordance therewith, we read of the first of the
seven, Stephen, that he was 'full of faith and of the Holy Ghost,' and
therefore 'full of grace and power.' When he stood before the Council
he was 'full of the Holy Ghost,' and therefore looked up into heaven
and saw it opened, and the Christ standing ready to help him. In like
manner we read of Barnabas that he 'was a good man, full of the Holy
Ghost and of faith.' And finally we read in our text that these new
converts, left alone in Antioch of Pisidia, were 'full of joy and of
the Holy Ghost.'

Now these are the principal instances, and my purpose now is rather to
deal with the whole of these instances of the occurrence of this
remarkable expression than with the one which I have selected as a
text, because I think that they teach us great truths bearing very
closely on the strength and joyfulness of the Christian life which are
far too much neglected, obscured, and forgotten by us to-day.

I wish then to point you, first, to the solemn thought that is here, as
to what should be -

I. The experience of every Christian,

Note the two things, the universality and the abundance of this divine
gift. I have often had occasion to say to you, and so I merely repeat
it again in the briefest fashion, that we do not grasp the central
blessedness of the Christian faith unless, beyond forgiveness and
acceptance, beyond the mere putting away of the dread of punishment
either here or hereafter, we see that the gift of God in Jesus Christ
is the communication to every believing soul of that divine life which
is bestowed by the Spirit of Christ granted to every believing heart.
But I would have you notice how the universality of the gift is
unmistakably taught us by the instances which I have briefly gathered
together in my previous remarks. It was no official class on which, on
the day of Pentecost, the tongues of fire fluttered down. It was to the
whole Church that courage to front the persecutor was imparted. When in
Samaria the preaching of Philip brought about the result of the
communication of the Holy Spirit, it was to all the believers that it
was granted, and when, in the Roman barracks at Caesarea, Cornelius and
his companion listened to Peter, it was upon them all that that Divine
Spirit descended.

I suppose I need not remind you of how, if we pass beyond this book of
the Acts into the Epistles of Paul, his affirmations do most
emphatically insist upon the fact that 'we are all made to drink into
one Spirit'; and so convinced is he of the universality of the
possession of that divine life by every Christian, that he does not
hesitate to say that 'if any man have not the Spirit of Christ he is
none of His,' and to clear away all possibility of misunderstanding the
depth and wonderfulness of the gift, he further adds in another place,
'Know ye not that the Spirit is in you, except ye be reprobates?'
Similarly another of the New Testament writers declares, in the
broadest terms, that 'this spake he of the Holy Spirit,
which' - Apostles? no; office-bearers? no; ordained men? no;
distinguished and leading men? No - '_they that believe on Him_ should
receive.' Christianity is the true democracy, because it declares that
upon all, handmaidens and servants, young men and old men, there comes
the divine gift. The world thinks of a divine inspiration in a more or
less superficial fashion, as touching only the lofty summits, the great
thinkers and teachers and artists and mighty men of light and leading
of the race. The Old Testament regarded prophets and kings, and those
who were designated to important offices, as the possessors of the
Divine Spirit. But Christianity has seen the sun rising so high in the
heavens that the humblest floweret, in the deepest valley, basks in its
beams and opens to its light. 'We have _all_ been made to drink into
the one Spirit.'

Let me remind you too of how, from the usage of this book, as well as
from the rest of the New Testament teaching, there rises the other
thought of the abundance of the gift. 'Full of the Holy Spirit' - the
cup is brimming with generous wine. Not that that fulness is such as to
make inconsistencies impossible, as, alas, the best of us know. The
highest condition for us is laid down in the sad words which yet have
triumph in their sadness - 'The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and
the Spirit against the flesh.' But whilst the fulness is not such as to
exclude the need of conflict, it is such as to bring the certainty of
victory.

Again if we turn to the instances to which I have already referred, we
shall find that they fall into two classes, which are distinguished in
the original by a slight variation in the form of the words employed.
Some instances refer to a habitual possession of an abundant spiritual
life moulding the character constantly, as in the cases of Stephen and
Barnabas. Others refer rather to occasional and special influxes of
special power on account of special circumstances, and drawn forth by
special exigencies, as when there poured into Peter's heart the Divine
Spirit that made him bold before the Council; or as when the dying
martyr's spirit was flooded with a new clearness of vision that pierced
the heavens and beheld the Christ. So then there may be and ought to
be, in each of us, a fulness of the Spirit, up to the edge of our
capacity, and yet of such a kind as that it may be reinforced and
increased when special needs arise.

Not only so, but that which fills me to-day should not fill me
to-morrow, because, as in earthly love, so in heavenly, no man can tell
to what this thing shall grow. The more of fruition the more there will
be of expansion, and the more of expansion the more of desire, and the
more of desire the more of capacity, and the more of capacity the more
of possession. So, brethren, the man who receives a spark of the divine
life, through his most rudimentary and tremulous faith, if he is a
faithful steward of the gift that is given to him, will find that it
grows and grows, and that there is no limit to its growth, and that in
its limitless growth there lies the surest prophecy of an eternal
growth in the heavens.

A universal gift, that is to say, a gift to each of us if we are
Christians, an abundant gift that fills the whole nature of a man,
according to the measure of his present power to receive - that is the
ideal, that is what God means, that is what these first believers had.
It did not make them perfect, it did not save them from faults or from
errors, but it was real, it was influential, it was moulding their
characters, it was progressive. And that is the ideal for all
Christians. Is it our actual? We are meant to be full of the Holy
Ghost. Ah! how many of us have never realised that there is such a
thing as being thus possessed with a divine life, partly because we do
not understand that such a fulness will not be distinguishable from our
own self, except by bettering of the works of self, and partly because
of other reasons which I shall have to touch upon presently! Brethren,
we may, every one of us, be filled with the Spirit. Let each of us ask,
'Am I? and if I am not, why this emptiness in the presence of such
abundance?'

And now let me ask you to look, in the second place, at what we gather
from these instances as to -

II. The results of that universal, abundant life.

Do not let us run away with the idea that the New Testament, or any
part of it, regards miracles and tongues and the like as being the
normal and chiefest gifts of that Divine Spirit. People read this book
of the Acts of the Apostles and, averse from the supernatural,
exaggerate the extent to which the primitive gift of the Holy Spirit
was manifested by signs and wonders, tongues of fire, and so on. We
have only to look at the instances to which I have already referred to
see that far more lofty and far more conspicuous than any such external
and transient manifestations, which yet have their place, are the
permanent and inward results, moulding character, and making men. And
Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians goes as far in the way of
setting the moral and spiritual effects of the divine influence above
the merely miraculous and external ones, as the most advanced opponent
of the supernatural could desire.

Let us look, and it can only be briefly, at the various results which
are presented in the instances to which I have referred. The most
general expression for all, which is the result of the Divine Spirit
dwelling in a man, is that it makes him good. Look at one of the
instances to which we have referred. 'Barnabas was a good man' - was he?
How came he to be so? Because he was 'full of the Holy Ghost.' And how
came he to be 'full of the Holy Ghost'? Because he was 'full of faith.'
Get the divine life into you, and that will make you good; and,
brethren, nothing else will. It is like the bottom heat in a
green-house, which makes all the plants that are there, whatever their
orders, grow and blossom and be healthy and strong. Therein is the
difference between Christian morality and the world's ethics. They may
not differ much, they do in some respects, in their ideal of what
constitutes goodness, but they differ in this, that the one says, 'Be
good, be good, be good!' but, like the Pharisees of old, puts out not a
finger to help a man to bear the burdens that it lays upon him. The
other says, 'Be good,' but it also says, 'take this and it will make
you good.' And so the one is Gospel and the other is talk, the one is a
word of good tidings, and the other is a beautiful speculation, or a
crushing commandment that brings death rather than life. 'If there had
been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness had
been by the law.' But since the clearest laying down of duty brings us
no nearer to the performance of duty, we need and, thank God! we have,
a gift bestowed which invests with power. He in whom the 'Spirit of
Holiness' dwells, and he alone, will be holy. The result of the life of
God in the heart is a life growingly like God's, manifested in the
world.

Then again let me remind you of how, from another of our instances,
there comes another thought. The result of this majestic, supernatural,
universal, abundant, divine life is practical sagacity in the commonest
affairs of life. 'Look ye out from among you seven men, full of the
Holy Ghost and of wisdom.' What to do? To meet wisely the claims of
suspicious and jealous poverty, and to distribute fairly a little
money. That was all. And are you going to invoke such a lofty gift as
this, to do nothing grander than that? Yes. Gravitation holds planets
in their orbits, and keeps grains of dust in their places. And one
result of the inspiration of the Almighty, which is granted to
Christian people, is that they will be wise for the little affairs of
life. But Stephen was also 'full of grace and power,' two things that
do not often go together - grace, gentleness, loveliness, graciousness,
on the one side, and strength on the other, which divorced, make wild
work of character, and which united, make men like God. So if we desire
our lives to be full of sweetness and light and beauty, the best way is
to get the life of Christ into them; and if we desire our lives not to
be made placid and effeminate by our cult of graciousness and
gracefulness, but to have their beauty stiffened and strengthened by
manly energy, then the best way is to get the life of the 'strong Son
of God, immortal love,' into our lives.

The same Stephen, 'full of the Holy Ghost,' looked up into heaven and
saw the Christ. So one result of that abundant life, if we have it,
will be that even though as with him, when he saw the heavens opened,
there may be some smoke-darkened roof above our heads, we can look
through all the shows of this vain world, and our purged eyes can
behold the Christ. Again the disciples in our text 'were full of joy,'
because 'they were full of the Holy Spirit,' and we, if we have that
abundant life within us, shall not be dependent for our gladness on the
outer world, but like explorers in the Arctic regions, even if we have
to build a hut of snow, shall be warm within it when the thermometer is
far below zero; and there will be light there when the long midnight is
spread around the dwelling. So, dear friends, let us understand what is
the main thing for a Christian to endeavour after, - not so much the
cultivation of special graces as the deepening of the life of Christ in
the spirit.

We gather from some of these instances -

III. The way by which we may be thus filled.

We read that Stephen was 'full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,' and
that Barnabas was 'full of the Holy Ghost and of faith,' and it is
quite clear from the respective contexts that, though the order in
which these fulnesses are placed is different in the two clauses, their
relation to each other is the same. Faith is the condition of
possessing the Spirit. And what do we mean in this connection by faith?
I mean, first, a belief in the truth of the possible abiding of the
divine Spirit in our spirits, a truth which the superficial
Christianity of this generation sorely needs to have forced upon its
consciousness far more than it has it. I mean aspiration and desire
after; I mean confident expectation of. Your wish measures your
possession. You have as much of God as you desire. If you have no more,
it is because you do not desire any more. The Christian people of
to-day, many of whom are so empty of God, are in a very tragic sense,
'full,' because they have as much as they can take in. If you bring a
tiny cup, and do not much care whether anything pours into it or not,
you will get it filled, but you might have had a gallon vessel filled
if you had chosen to bring it. Of course there are other conditions



Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 33 of 57)