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Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

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too. We have to use the life that is given us. We have to see that we
do not quench it by sin, which drives the dove of God from a man's
heart. But the great truth is that if I open the door of my heart by
faith, Christ will come in, in His Spirit. If I take away the blinds
the light will shine into the chamber. If I lift the sluice the water
will pour in to drive my mill. If I deepen the channels, more of the
water of life can flow into them, and the deeper I make them the fuller
they will be.

Brethren, we have wasted much time and effort in trying to mend our
characters. Let us try to get that into them which will mend them. And
let us remember that, if we are full of faith, we shall be full of the
Holy Spirit, and therefore full of wisdom, full of grace and power,
full of goodness, full of joy, whatever our circumstances. And when
death comes, though it may be in some cruel form, we shall be able to
look up and see the opened heavens and the welcoming Christ.



DEIFIED AND STONED

'And when the people saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their
voices, saying in the speech of Lycaonia, The gods are come down to us
in the likeness of men. 12. And they called Barnabas, Jupiter; and
Paul, Mercurius, because he was the chief speaker. 13. Then the priest
of Jupiter, which was before their city, brought oxen and garlands unto
the gates, and would have done sacrifice with the people. 14. Which
when the apostles, Barnabas and Paul, heard of, they rent their
clothes, and ran in among the people, crying out. 15. And saying, Sirs,
why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you, and
preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living
God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are
therein: 16. Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their
own ways. 17. Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that
he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons,
filling our hearts with food and gladness. 18. And with these sayings
scarce restrained they the people, that they had not done sacrifice
unto them. 19. And there came thither certain Jews from Antioch and
Iconium, who persuaded the people, and, having stoned Paul, drew him
out of the city, supposing he had been dead. 20. Howbeit, as the
disciples stood round about him, he rose up, and came into the city:
and the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe. 21. And when they
had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they
returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch. 22. Confirming
the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the
faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom
of God.' - ACTS xiv. 11-22.

The scene at Lystra offers a striking instance of the impossibility of
eliminating the miraculous element from this book. The cure of a lame
man is the starting-point of the whole story. Without it the rest is
motiveless and inexplicable. There can be no explosion without a train
and a fuse. The miracle, and the miracle only, supplies these. We may
choose between believing and disbelieving it, but the rejection of the
supernatural does not make this book easier to accept, but utterly
chaotic.

I. We have, first, the burst of excited wonder which floods the crowd
with the conviction that the two Apostles are incarnations of deities.
It is difficult to grasp the indications of locality in the story, but
probably the miracle was wrought in some crowded place, perhaps the
forum. At all events, it was in full view of 'the multitudes,' and they
were mostly of the lower orders, as their speaking in 'the speech of
Lycaonia' suggests.

This half-barbarous crowd had the ancient faith in the gods unweakened,
and the legends, which had become dim to pure Greek and Roman, some of
which had originated in their immediate neighbourhood, still found full
credence among them. A Jew's first thought on seeing a miracle was, 'by
the prince of the devils'; an average Greek's or Roman's was 'sorcery';
these simple people's, like many barbarous tribes to which white men
have gone with the marvels of modern science, was 'the gods have come
down'; our modern superior person's, on reading of one, is
'hallucination,' or 'a mistake of an excited imagination.' Perhaps the
cry of the multitudes at Lystra gets nearer the heart of the thing than
those others. For the miracle is a witness of present divine power, and
though the worker of it is not an incarnation of divinity, 'God _is_
with him.'

But that joyful conviction, which shot through the crowd, reveals how
deep lies the longing for the manifestation of divinity in the form of
humanity, and how natural it is to believe that, if there is a divine
being, he is sure to draw near to us poor men, and that in our own
likeness. Then is the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation but one
more of the many reachings out of the heart to paint a fair picture of
the fulfilment of its longings? Well, since it is the only such that is
alleged to have taken place in historic times, and the only one that
comes with any body of historic evidence, and the only one that brings
with it transforming power, and since to believe in a God, and also to
believe that He has never broken the awful silence, nor done anything
to fulfil a craving which He has set in men's hearts, is absurd, it is
reasonable to answer, No. 'The gods are come down in the likeness of
men' is a wistful confession of need, and a dim hope of its supply.
'The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us' is the supply.

Barnabas was the older man, and his very silence suggested his superior
dignity. So he was taken for Jupiter (Zeus in the Greek), and the
younger man for his inferior, Mercury (Hermes in the Greek), 'the
messenger of the gods.' Clearly the two missionaries did not understand
what the multitudes were shouting in their 'barbarous' language, or
they would have intervened. Perhaps they had left the spot before the
excitement rose to its height, for they knew nothing of the
preparations for the sacrifice till they '_heard_ of it, and then they
'sprang forth,' which implies that they were within some place,
possibly their lodging.

If we could be sure what 'gates' are meant in verse 13, the course of
events would be plainer. Were they those of the city, in which case the
priest and procession would be coming from the temple outside the
walls? or those of the temple itself? or those of the Apostles'
lodging? Opinions differ, and the material for deciding is lacking. At
all events, whether from sharing in the crowd's enthusiasm, or with an
eye to the reputation of his shrine, the priest hurriedly procured oxen
for a sacrifice, which one reading of the text specifies as an
'additional' offering - that is, over and above the statutory
sacrifices. Is it a sign of haste that the 'garlands,' which should
have been twined round the oxen's horns, are mentioned separately? If
so, we get a lively picture of the exultant hurry of the crowd.

II. The Apostles are as deeply moved as the multitude is, but by what
different emotions! The horror of idolatry, which was their inheritance
from a hundred generations, flamed up at the thought of themselves
being made objects of worship. They had met many different sorts of
receptions on this journey, but never before anything like this.
Opposition and threats left them calm, but this stirred them to the
depths. 'Scoff at us, fight with us, maltreat us, and we will endure;
but do not make gods of us.' I do not know that their 'successors' have
always felt exactly so.

In verse 14 Barnabas is named first, contrary to the order prevailing
since Paphos, the reason being that the crowd thought him the superior.
The remonstrance ascribed to both, but no doubt spoken by Paul,
contains nothing that any earnest monotheist, Jew or Gentile
philosopher, might not have said. The purpose of it was not to preach
Christ, but to stop the sacrifice. It is simply a vehemently earnest
protest against idolatry, and a proclamation of one living God. The
comparison with the speech in Athens is interesting, as showing Paul's
exquisite felicity in adapting his style to his audience. There is
nothing to the peasants of Lycaonia about poets, no argumentation about
the degradation of the idea of divinity by taking images as its
likeness, no wide view of the course of history, no glimpse of the
mystic thought that all creatures live and move in Him. All that might
suit the delicate ears of Athenians, but would have been wasted in
Lystra amidst the tumultuous crowd. But we have instead of these the
fearless assertion, flung in the face of the priest of Jupiter, that
idols are 'vanities,' as Paul had learned from Isaiah and Jeremiah; the
plain declaration of the one God, 'living,' and not like these
inanimate images; of His universal creative power; and the earnest
exhortation to turn to Him.

In verse 16 Paul meets an objection which rises in his mind as likely
to be springing in his hearers: 'If there is such a God, why have we
never heard of Him till now?' That is quite in Paul's manner. The
answer is undeveloped, as compared with the Athenian address or with
Romans i. But there is couched in verse 16 a tacit contrast between
'the generations gone by' and the present, which is drawn out in the
speech on Mars Hill: 'but _now_ commandeth all men everywhere to
repent,' and also a contrast between the 'nations' left to walk in
their own ways, and Israel to whom revelation had been made. The place
and the temper of the listeners did not admit of enlarging on such
matters.

But there was a plain fact, which was level to every peasant's
apprehension, and might strike home to the rustic crowd. God _had_ left
'the nations to walk in their own ways,' and yet not altogether. That
thought is wrought out in Romans i., and the difference between its
development there and here is instructive. Beneficence is the
sign-manual of heaven. The orderly sequence of the seasons, the rain
from heaven, the seat of the gods from which the two Apostles were
thought to have come down, the yearly miracle of harvest, and the
gladness that it brings - all these are witnesses to a living Person
moving the processes of the universe towards a beneficent end for man.

In spite of all modern impugners, it still remains true that the
phenomena of 'nature,' their continuity, their co-operation, and their
beneficent issues, demand the recognition of a Person with a loving
purpose moving them all. '_Thou_ crownest the year with Thy goodness;
and _Thy_ paths drop fatness.'

III. The malice of the Jews of Antioch is remarkable. Not content with
hounding the Apostles from that city, they came raging after them to
Lystra, where there does not appear to have been a synagogue, since we
hear only of their stirring up the 'multitudes.' The mantle of Saul had
fallen on them, and they were now 'persecuting' _him_ 'even unto
strange cities.'

No note is given of the time between the attempted sacrifice and the
accomplished stoning, but probably some space intervened. Persuading
the multitudes, however fickle they were, would take some time; and
indeed one ancient text of Acts has an expansion of the verse: 'They
persuaded the multitudes to depart from them [the Apostles], saying
that they spake nothing true, but lied in everything.'

No doubt some time elapsed, but few emotions are more transient than
such impure religious excitement as the crowd had felt, and the ebb is
as great as the flood, and the oozy bottom laid bare is foul. Popular
favourites in other departments have to experience the same fate - one
day, 'roses, roses, all the way'; the next, rotten eggs and curses.
Other folks than the ignorant peasants at Lystra have had devout
emotion surging over them and leaving them dry.

Who are 'they' who stoned Paul? Grammatically, the Jews, and probably
it was so. They hated him so much that they themselves began the
stoning; but no doubt the mob, which is always cruel, because it needs
strong excitement, lent willing hands. Did Paul remember Stephen, as
the stones came whizzing on him? It is an added touch of brutality that
they dragged the supposed corpse out of the city, with no gentle hands,
we may be sure. Perhaps it was flung down near the very temple 'before
the city,' where the priest that wanted to sacrifice was on duty.

The crowd, having wreaked their vengeance, melted away, but a handful
of brave disciples remained, standing round the bruised, unconscious
form, ready to lay it tenderly in some hastily dug grave. No previous
mention of disciples has been made. The narrative of Acts does not
profess to be complete, and the argument from its silence is precarious.

Luke shows no disposition to easy belief in miracles. He does not know
that Paul was dead; his medical skill familiarised him with protracted
states of unconsciousness; so all he vouches for is that Paul lay as if
dead on some rubbish heap 'without the camp,' and that, with courage
and persistence which were supernatural, whether his reviving was so or
not, the man thus sorely battered went back to the city, and next day
went on with his work, as if stoning was a trifle not to be taken
account of.

The Apostles turned at Derbe, and coming back on their outward route,
reached Antioch, encouraging the new disciples, who had now to be left
truly like shepherdless sheep among wolves. They did not encourage them
by making light of the dangers waiting them, but they plainly set
before them the law of the Kingdom, which they had seen exemplified in
Paul, that we must suffer if we would reign with the King. That 'we' in
verse 22 is evidently quoted from Paul, and touchingly shows how he
pointed to his own stoning as what they too must be prepared to suffer.
It is a thought frequently recurring in his letters. It remains true in
all ages, though the manner of suffering varies.



DREAM AND REALITY

'The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men.' - ACTS xiv. 11.

This was the spontaneous instinctive utterance of simple villagers when
they saw a deed of power and kindness. Many an English traveller and
settler among rude people has been similarly honoured. And in Lycaonia
the Apostles were close upon places that were celebrated in Greek
mythology as having witnessed the very two gods, here spoken of,
wandering among the shepherds and entertained with modest hospitality
in their huts.

The incident is a very striking and picturesque one. The shepherd
people standing round, the sudden flash of awe and yet of gladness
which ran through them, the tumultuous outcry, which, being in their
rude dialect, was unintelligible to the Apostles till it was
interpreted by the appearance of the priest of Jupiter with oxen and
garlands for offerings, the glimpse of the two Apostles - the older,
graver, venerable Barnabas, the younger, more active, ready-tongued
Paul, whom their imaginations converted into the Father of gods and
men, and the herald Mercury, who were already associated in local
legends; the priest, eager to gain credit for his temple 'before the
city,' the lowing oxen, and the vehement appeal of the Apostles, make a
picture which is more vividly presented in the simple narrative than
even in the cartoon of the great painter whom the narrative has
inspired.

But we have not to deal with the picturesque element alone. The
narratives of Scripture are representative because they are so
penetrating and true. They go to the very heart of the men and things
which they describe: and hence the words and acts which they record are
found to contain the essential characteristics of whole classes of men,
and the portrait of an individual becomes that of a class. This joyful
outburst of the people of Lycaonia gives utterance to one of the most
striking and universal convictions of heathenism, and stands in very
close and intimate relations with that greatest of all facts in the
history of the world, the Incarnation of the Eternal Word. That the
gods come down in the likeness of men is the dream of heathenism. 'The
Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,' is the sober, waking truth
which meets and vindicates and transcends that cry.

I. The heathen dream of incarnation.

In all lands we find this belief in the appearance of the gods in human
form. It inspired the art and poetry of Greece. Rome believed that gods
had charged in front of their armies and given their laws. The solemn,
gloomy religion of Egypt, though it worshipped animal forms, yet told
of incarnate and suffering gods. The labyrinthine mythologies of the
East have their long-drawn stories of the avatars of their gods
floating many a rood on the weltering ocean of their legends. Tibet
cherishes each living sovereign as a real embodiment of the divine. And
the lowest tribes, in their degraded worship, have not departed so far
from the common type but that they too have some faint echoes of the
universal faith.

Do these facts import anything at all to us? Are we to dismiss them as
simply the products of a stage which we have left far behind, and to
plume ourselves that we have passed out of the twilight?

Even if we listen to what comparative mythology has to say, it still
remains to account for the tendency to shape legends of the earthly
appearance of the gods; and we shall have to admit that, while they
belong to an early stage of the world's progress, the feelings which
they express belong to all stages of it.

Now I think we may note these thoughts as contained in this universal
belief:

The consciousness of the need of divine help.

The certainty of a fellowship between heaven and earth.

The high ideal of the capacities and affinities of man.

We may note further what were the general characteristics of these
incarnations. They were transient, they were 'docetic,' as they are
called - that is, they were merely apparent assumptions of human form
which brought the god into no nearer or truer kindred with humanity,
and they were, for the most part, for very self-regarding and often
most immoral ends, the god's personal gratification of very ungodlike
passions and lust, or his winning victories for his favourites, or
satisfying his anger by trampling on those who had incurred his very
human wrath.

II. The divine answer which transcends the human dream.

We have to insist that the truth of the Incarnation is the corner-stone
of Christianity. If that is struck out the whole fabric falls. Without
it there may be a Christ who is the loftiest and greatest of men, but
not the Christ who 'saves His people from their sins.'

That being so, and Christianity having this feature in common with all
the religions of men, how are we to account for the resemblance? Are we
to listen to the rude solution which says, 'All lies alike'? Are we to
see in it nothing but the operation of like tendencies, or rather
illusions, of human thought - man's own shadow projected on an
illuminated mist? Are we to let the resemblance discredit the Christian
message? Or are we to say that all these others are unconscious
prophecies - man's half-instinctive expression of his deep need and much
misunderstood longing, and that the Christian proclamation that Jesus
is 'God manifest in the flesh' is the trumpet-toned announcement of
Heaven's answer to earth's cry?

Fairly to face that question is to go far towards answering it. For as
soon as we begin to look steadily at the facts, we find that the
differences between all these other appearances and the Incarnation are
so great as to raise the presumption that their origins are different.
The 'gods' slipped on the appearance of humanity over their garment of
deity in appearance only, and that for a moment. Jesus is 'bone of our
bone and flesh of our flesh,' and is not merely 'found in fashion as a
man,' but is 'in all points like as we are.' And that garb of manhood
He wears for ever, and in His heavenly glory is 'the Man Christ Jesus.'

But _the_ difference between all these other appearances of gods and
the Incarnation lies in the acts to which they and it respectively led,
and the purposes for which they and it respectively took place. A god
who came down to suffer, a god who came to die, a god who came to be
the supreme example of all fair humanities, a god who came to suffer
and to die that men might have life and be victors over sin - where is
he in all the religions of the world? And does not the fact that
Christianity alone sets before men such a God, such an Incarnation, for
such ends, make the assertion a reasonable one, that the sources of the
universal belief in gods who come down among men and of the Christian
proclamation that the Eternal Word became flesh are not the same, but
that these are men's half-understood cries, and this is Heaven's answer?



'THE DOOR OF FAITH'

'And when they were come, and had gathered the church together, they
rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the
door of faith unto the Gentiles.' - ACTS xiv. 27.

There are many instances of the occurrence of this metaphor in the New
Testament, but none is exactly like this. We read, for example, of 'a
great door and effectual' being opened to Paul for the free ministry of
the word; and to the angel of the Church in Philadelphia, 'He that
openeth and none shall shut' graciously says, 'I have set before thee a
door opened, which none can shut.' But here the door is faith, that is
to say faith is conceived of as the means of entrance for the Gentiles
into the Kingdom, which, till then, Jews had supposed to be entered by
hereditary rite.

I. Faith is the means of our entrance into the Kingdom.

The Jew thought that birth and the rite of circumcision were the door,
but the 'rehearsing' of the experiences of Paul and Barnabas on their
first missionary tour shattered that notion by the logic of facts.
Instead of that narrow postern another doorway had been broken in the
wall of the heavenly city, and it was wide enough to admit of
multitudes entering. Gentiles had plainly come in. How had they come
in? By believing in Jesus. Whatever became of previous exclusive
theories, there was a fact that had to be taken into account. It
distinctly proved that faith was 'the gate of the Lord into which,' not
the circumcised but the 'righteous,' who were righteous because
believing, 'should enter.'

We must not forget the other use of the metaphor, by our Lord Himself,
in which. He declares that He is the Door. The two representations are
varying but entirely harmonious, for the one refers to the objective
fact of Christ's work as making it possible that we should draw near to
and dwell with God, and the other to our subjective appropriation of
that possibility, and making it a reality in our own blessed experience.

II. Faith is the means of God's entrance into our hearts.

We possess the mysterious and awful power of shutting God out of these
hearts. And faith, which in one aspect is our means of entrance into
the Kingdom of God, is, in another, the means of God's entrance into
us. The Psalm, which invokes the divine presence in the Temple, calls
on the 'everlasting doors' to be 'lifted up,' and promises that then
'the King of Glory will come in.' And the voice of the ascended Christ,
the King of Glory, knocking at the closed door, calls on us with our
own hands to open the door, and promises that He 'will come in.'

Paul prayed for the Ephesian Christians 'that Christ may dwell in your
hearts through faith,' and there is no other way by which His
indwelling is possible. Faith is not constituted the condition of that
divine indwelling by any arbitrary appointment, as a sovereign might
determine that he would enter a city by a certain route, chosen without
any special reason from amongst many, but in the nature of things it is
necessary that trust, and love which follows trust, and longing which
follows love should be active in a soul if Christ is to enter in and
abide there.

III. Faith is the means of the entrance of the Kingdom into us.

If Christ comes in He comes with His pierced hands full of gifts.
Through our faith we receive all spiritual blessings. But we must ever
remember, what this metaphor most forcibly sets forth, that faith is
but the means of entrance. It has no worth in itself, but is precious
only because it admits the true wealth. The door is nothing. It is only
an opening. Faith is the pipe that brings the water, the flinging wide
the shutters that the light may flood the dark room, the putting
oneself into the path of the electric circuit. Salvation is not



Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 34 of 57)