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teachers who came down to Antioch. They were neither of them grave
faults, but they were real. In the one he was too facile in overlooking
a defect which showed unfitness for the work, and seems to have yielded
to family affection and to have sacrificed the efficiency of a mission
to it. Not only was he wrong in proposing to condone Mark's desertion,
but he was still more wrong in his reception of the opposition to his
proposal. With the firmness which weak characters so often display at
the wrong time, he was resolved, come what would, to have his own way.
Temper rather than principle made him obstinate where he should have
been yielding, as it had made him in Antioch yielding, where he should
have been firm. Paul's remonstrances have no effect. He will rather
have his own way than the companionship of his old friend, and so there
come alienation and separation. The Church at Antioch takes Paul's
view - all the brethren are unanimous in disapproval. But Barnabas will
not move. He sets up his own feeling in opposition to them all. The
sympathy of his brethren, the work of his life, the extension of
Christ's kingdom, are all tossed aside. His own foolish purpose is more
to him in that moment of irritation than all these. So he snaps the
tie, abandons his work, and goes away without a kindly word, without a
blessing, without the Church's prayers - but with his nephew for whom he
had given up all these. Paul sails away to do God's work, and the
Church 'recommends him to the grace of God,' but Barnabas steals away
home to Cyprus, and his name is no more heard in the story of the
planting of the kingdom of Christ.

One hopes that his work did not stop thus, but his recorded work does,
and in the band of friends who surrounded the great Apostle, the name
of his earliest friend appears no more. Other companions and associates
in labour take his place; he, as it appears, is gone for ever. One
reference (1 Cor. ix. 6) at a later date seems most naturally to
suggest that he still continued in the work of an evangelist, and still
practised the principle to which he and Paul had adhered when together,
of supporting himself by manual labour. The tone of the reference
implies that there were relations of mutual respect. But the most we
can believe is that probably the two men still thought kindly of each
other and honoured each other for their work's sake, but found it
better to labour apart, and not to seek to renew the old companionship
which had been so violently torn asunder.

The other instance of weakness was in some respects of a still graver
kind. The cause of it was the old controversy about the obligations of
Jewish law on Gentile Christians. Paul, Peter, and Barnabas all
concurred in neglecting the restrictions imposed by Judaism, and in
living on terms of equality and association in eating and drinking with
the heathen converts at Antioch. A principle was involved, to which
Barnabas had bean the first to give in his adhesion, in the frank
recognition of the Antioch Church. But as soon as emissaries from the
other party came down, Peter and he abandoned their association with
Gentile converts, not changing their convictions but suppressing the
action to which their convictions should have led. They pretended to be
of the same mind with these narrow Jews from Jerusalem. They insulted
their brethren, they deserted Paul, they belied their convictions, they
imperilled the cause of Christian liberty, they flew in the face of
what Peter had said that God Himself had showed him, they did their
utmost to degrade Christianity into a form of Judaism - all for the sake
of keeping on good terms with the narrow bigotry of these Judaising

Now if we take these two facts together, and set them side by side with
the eulogy pronounced on Barnabas as 'a good man, full of the Holy
Ghost and of faith,' we have brought before us in a striking form some
important considerations.

I. The imperfect goodness of good men.

A good man does not mean a faultless man. Of course the power which
works on a believing soul is always tending to produce goodness and
only goodness. But its operation is not such that we are always
equally, uniformly, perfectly under its influence. Power in germ is one
thing, in actual operation another. There may be but a little ragged
patch of green in the garden, and yet it may be on its way to become a
flower-bed. A king may not have established dominion over all his land.
The actual operation of that transforming Spirit at any given moment is
limited, and we can withdraw ourselves from it. It does not begin by
leavening all our nature.

So we have to note -

The root of goodness.

The main direction of a life.

The progressive character of goodness.

The highest style of Christian life is a struggle. So we draw practical
inferences as to the conduct of life.

This thought of imperfection does not diminish the criminality of
individual acts.

It does not weaken aspiration and effort towards higher life.

It does alleviate our doubts and fears when we find evil in ourselves.

II. The possible evil lurking in our best qualities.

In Barnabas, his amiability and openness of nature, the very
characteristics that had made him strong, now make him weak and wrong.

How clearly then there is brought out here the danger that lurks even
in our good! I need not remind you how every virtue may be run to an
extreme and become a vice. Liberality is exaggerated into prodigality;
firmness, into obstinacy; mercy, into weakness; gravity, into severity;
tolerance, into feeble conviction; humility, into abjectness.

And these extremes are reached when these graces are developed at the
expense of the symmetry of the character.

We are not simple but complex, and what we need to aim at is a
character, not an excrescence. Some people's goodness is like a wart or
a wen. Their virtues are cases of what medical technicality calls
hypertrophy. But our goodness should be like harmonious Indian
patterns, where all colours blend in a balanced whole.

Such considerations enforce the necessity for rigid self-control. And
that in two directions.

(_a_) Beware of your excellences, your strong points.

(_b_) Cultivate sedulously the virtues to which you are not inclined.

The special form of error into which Barnabas fell is worth notice. It
was over-indulgence, tolerance of evil in a person; feebleness of
grasp, a deficiency of boldness in carrying out his witness to a
disputed truth. In this day liberality, catholicity, are pushed so far
that there is danger of our losing the firmness of our grasp of
principles, and indulgence for faults goes so far that we are apt to
lose the habit of unsparing, though unangry, condemnation of unworthy
characters. This generation is like Barnabas; very quick in sympathy,
generous in action, ready to recognise goodness where-ever it is
beheld. But Barnabas may be a beacon, warning us of the possible evils
that dog these excellences like their shadows.

III. The grave issues of small faults.

Comparatively trivial as was Barnabas's error, it seems to have wrecked
his life, at least to have marred it for long years, and to have broken
his sweet companionship with Paul. I think we may go further and say,
that most good men are in more danger from trivial faults than from
great ones. No man reaches the superlative degree of wickedness all at
once. Few men spring from the height to the abyss, they usually slip
down. The erosive action of the sand of the desert is said to be
gradually cutting off the Sphinx's head. The small faults are most
numerous. We are least on our guard against them. There is a
microscopic weed that chokes canals. Snow-flakes make the sky as dark
as an eclipse does. White ants eat a carcase quicker than a lion does.

So we urge the necessity for bringing ordinary deeds and small actions
to be ruled and guided by God's Spirit.

How the contemplation of the imperfection, which is the law of life,
should lead us to hope for that heaven where perfection is.

How the contemplation of the limits of all human goodness should lead
us to exclusive faith in, and imitation of, the one perfect Lord. He
stands stainless among the stained. In Him alone is no sin, from Him
alone like goodness may be ours.


'And after [Paul] had seen the vision, immediately we endeavoured to go
into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us for to
preach the gospel unto them. 11. Therefore ... we came with a straight
course.' - ACTS xvi. 10, 11.

This book of the Acts is careful to point out how each fresh step in
the extension of the Church's work was directed and commanded by Jesus
Christ Himself. Thus Philip was sent by specific injunction to 'join
himself' to the chariot of the Ethiopian statesman. Thus Peter on the
house-top at Joppa, looking out over the waters of the western sea, had
the vision of the great sheet, knit at the four corners. And thus Paul,
in singularly similar circumstances, in the little seaport of Troas,
looking out over the narrower sea which there separates Asia from
Europe, had the vision of the man of Macedonia, with his cry, 'Come
over and help _us_!' The whole narrative before us bears upon the one
point, that Christ Himself directs the expansion of His kingdom. And
there never was a more fateful moment than that at which the Gospel, in
the person of the Apostle, crossed the sea, and effected a lodgment in
the progressive quarter of the world.

Now what I wish to do is to note how Paul and his little company
behaved themselves when they had received Christ's commandment. For I
think there are lessons worth the gathering to be found there. There
was no doubt about the vision; the question was what it meant. So note
three stages. First, careful consideration, with one's own common
sense, of what God wants us to do - 'Assuredly gathering that the Lord
had called us.' Then, let no grass grow under our feet - immediate
obedience - 'Straightway we endeavoured to go into Macedonia.' And then,
patient pondering and instantaneous submission get the reward - 'We came
with a straight course.' He gave the winds and the waves charge
concerning them. Now there are three lessons for us. Taken together,
they are patterns of what ought to be in our experience, and will be,
if the conditions are complied with.

I. First, Careful Consideration.

Paul had no doubt that what he saw was a vision from Christ, and not a
mere dream of the night, born of the reverberation of waking thoughts
and anxieties, that took the shape of the plaintive cry of the man of
Macedonia. But then the next step was to be quite sure of what the
vision meant. And so, wisely, he does not make up his mind himself, but
calls in the three men who were with him. And what a significant little
group it was! There were Timothy, Silas, and Luke - Silas, from
Jerusalem; Timothy, half a Gentile; Luke, altogether a Gentile; and
Paul himself - and these four shook the world. They come together, and
they talk the matter over. The word of my text rendered 'assuredly
gathering' is a picturesque one. It literally means 'laying things
together.' They set various facts side by side, or as we say in our
colloquial idiom, 'They put this and that together,' and so they came
to understand what the vision meant.

What had they to help them to understand it? Well, they had this fact,
that in all the former part of their journey they had been met by
hindrances; that their path had been hedged up here, there, and
everywhere. Paul set out from Antioch, meaning a quiet little tour of
visitation amongst the churches that had been already established.
Jesus Christ meant Philippi and Athens and Corinth and Ephesus, before
Paul got back again. So we read in an earlier portion of the chapter
that the Spirit of Jesus forbade them to speak the Word in one region,
and checked and hindered them when, baffled, they tried to go to
another. There then remained only one other road open to them, and that
led to the coast. Thus putting together their hindrances and their
stimuluses, they came to the conclusion that unitedly the two said
plainly, 'Go across the sea, and preach the word there.'

Now it is a very commonplace and homely piece of teaching to remind you
that time is not wasted in making quite sure of the meaning of
providences which seem to declare the will of God, before we begin to
act. But the commonest duties are very often neglected; and we
preachers, I think, would very often do more good by hammering at
commonplace themes than by bringing out original and fresh ones. And so
I venture to say a word about the immense importance to Christian life
and Christian service of this preliminary step - 'assuredly gathering
that the Lord had called us.' What have we to do in order to be quite
sure of God's intention for us?

Well, the first thing seems to me to make quite sure that we want to
know it, and that we do not want to force our intentions upon Him, and
then to plume ourselves upon being obedient to His call, when we are
only doing what we like. There is a vast deal of unconscious
insincerity in us all; and especially in regard to Christian work there
is an enormous amount of it. People will say, 'Oh, I have such a strong
impulse in a given direction, to do certain kinds of Christian service,
that I am quite sure that it is God's will.' How are you sure? A strong
impulse may be a temptation from the devil as well as a call from God.
And men who simply act on untested impulses, even the most benevolent
which spring directly from large Christian principles, may be making
deplorable mistakes. It is not enough to have pure motives. It is
useless to say, 'Such and such a course of action is clearly the result
of the truths of the Gospel.' That may be all perfectly true, and yet
the course may not be the course for you. For there may be practical
considerations, which do not come into our view unless we carefully
think about them, which forbid us to take such a path. So remember that
strong impulses are not guiding lights; nor is it enough to vindicate
our pursuing some mode of Christian service that it is in accordance
with the principles of the Gospel. 'Circumstances alter cases' is a
very homely old saying; but if Christian people would only bring the
common sense to bear upon their religious life which they need to bring
to bear upon their business life, unless they are going into the
_Gazette_, there would be less waste work in the Christian Church than
there is to-day. I do not want less zeal; I want that the reins of the
fiery steed shall be kept well in hand. The difference between a
fanatic, who is a fool, and an enthusiast, who is a wise man, is that
the one brings calm reason to bear, and an open-eyed consideration of
circumstances all round; and the other sees but one thing at a time,
and shuts his eyes, like a bull in a field, and charges at that. So let
us be sure, to begin with, that we want to know what God wants us to
do; and that we are not palming our wishes upon Him, and calling them
His providences.

Then there is another plain, practical consideration that comes out of
this story, and that is, Do not be above being taught by failures and
hindrances. You know the old proverb, 'It is waste time to flog a dead
horse.' There is not a little well-meant work flung away, because it is
expended on obviously hopeless efforts to revivify, perhaps, some
moribund thing or to continue, perhaps, in some old, well-worn rut,
instead of striking out into a new path. Paul was full of enthusiasm
for the evangelisation of Asia Minor, and he might have said a great
deal about the importance of going to Ephesus. He tried to do it, but
Christ said 'No.' and Paul did not knock his head against the stone
wall that lay between him and the accomplishment of his purpose, but he
gave it up and tried another tack. He next wished to go up into
Bithynia, and he might have said a great deal about the needs of the
people by the Euxine; but again down came the barrier, and he had once
more to learn the lesson, 'Not as thou wilt, but as I will.' He was not
above being taught by his failures. Some of us are; and it is very
difficult, and needs a great deal of Christian wisdom and
unselfishness, to distinguish between hindrances in the way of work
which are meant to evoke larger efforts, and hindrances which are meant
to say, 'Try another path, and do not waste time here any longer.'

But if we wish supremely to know God's will, He will help us to
distinguish between these two kinds of difficulties. Some one has said,
'Difficulties are things to be overcome.' Yes, but not always. They
very often are, and we should thank God for them then; but they
sometimes are God's warnings to us to go by another road. So we need
discretion, and patience, and suspense of judgment to be brought to
bear upon all our purposes and plans.

Then, of course, I need not remind you that the way to get light is to
seek it in the Book and in communion with Him whom the Book reveals to
us as the true Word of God: 'He that followeth Me shall not walk in
darkness, but shall have the light of life.' So careful consideration
is a preliminary to all good Christian work. And, if you can, talk to
some Timothy and Silas and Luke about your course, and do not be above
taking a brother's advice.

II. The next step is Immediate Submission.

When they had assuredly gathered that the Lord had called them,
'immediately' - there is great virtue in that one word - 'we endeavoured
to go into Macedonia.' Delayed obedience is the brother - and, if I may
mingle metaphors, sometimes the father - of disobedience. It sometimes
means simple feebleness of conviction, indolence, and a general lack of
fervour. It means very often a reluctance to do the duty that lies
plainly before us. And, dear brethren, as I have said about the former
lesson, so I say about this. The homely virtue, which we all know to be
indispensable to success in common daily life and commercial
undertakings, is no less indispensable to all vigour of Christian life
and to all nobleness of Christian service. We have no hours to waste;
the time is short. In the harvest-field, especially when it is getting
near the end of the week, and the Sunday is at hand, there are little
leisure and little tolerance of slow workers. And for us the fields are
white, the labourers are few, the Lord of the harvest is imperative,
the sun is hurrying to the west, and the sickles will have to be laid
down before long. So, '_immediately_ we endeavoured.'

Delayed duty is present discomfort. As long as a man has a conscience,
so long will he be restless and uneasy until he has, as the Quakers
say, 'cleared himself of his burden,' and done what he knows that he
ought to do, and got done with it. Delayed obedience means wasted
possibilities of service, and so is ever to be avoided. The more
disagreeable anything is which is plainly a duty, the more reason there
is for doing it right away. 'I made haste, and delayed not, but made
haste to keep Thy commandments.'

Did you ever count how many '_straightways_' there are in the first
chapter of Mark's Gospel? If you have not, will you do it when you go
home; and notice how they come in? In the story of Christ's opening
ministry every fresh incident is tacked on to the one before it, in
that chapter, by that same word 'straightway.' 'Straightway' He does
that; 'anon' He does this; 'immediately' He does the other thing. All
is one continuous stream of acts of service. The Gospel of Mark is the
Gospel of the servant, and it sets forth the pattern to which all
Christian service ought to be conformed.

So if we take Jesus Christ for our Example, unhasting and unresting in
the work of the Lord, we shall let no moment pass burdened with
undischarged duty; and we shall find that all the moments are few
enough for the discharge of the duties incumbent upon us.

III. So, lastly, careful consideration and unhesitating obedience lead
to a Straight Course.

Well, it is not so always, but it is so generally. There is a wonderful
power in diligent doing of God's known will to smooth away difficulties
and avoid troubles. I do not, of course, mean that a man who thus
lives, patiently ascertaining and then promptly doing what God would
have him do, has any miraculous exemption from the ordinary sorrows and
trials of life. But sure I am that a very, very large proportion of all
the hindrances and disappointments, storms and quicksands, calms which
prevent progress and headwinds that beat in our faces, are directly the
products of our negligence in one or other of these two respects, and
that although by no means absolutely, yet to an extent that we should
not believe if we had not the experience of it, the wish to do God's
will and the doing of it with our might when we know what it is have a
talismanic power in calming the seas and bringing us to the desired

But though this is not always absolutely true in regard of outward
things, it is, without exception or limitation, true in regard of the
inward life. For if my supreme will is to do God's will then nothing
which is His will, and comes to me because it is can be a hindrance in
my doing that.

As an old proverb says, 'Travelling merchants can never be out of their
road.' And a Christian man whose path is simple obedience to the will
of God can never be turned from that path by whatever hindrances may
affect his outward life. So, in deepest truth, there is always a calm
voyage for the men whose eyes are open to discern, and whose hands are
swift to fulfil, the commandments of their Father in heaven. For them
all winds blow them to their port; for them 'all things work together
for good'; with them God's servants who hearken to the voice of His
commandments, and are His ministers to do His pleasure, can never be
other than in amity and alliance. He who is God's servant is the
world's master. 'All things are yours if ye are Christ's.'

So, brethren, careful study of providences and visions, of hindrances
and stimulus, careful setting of our lives side by side with the
Master's, and a swift delight in doing the will of the Lord, will
secure for us, in inmost truth, a prosperous voyage, till all storms
are hushed, 'and they are glad because they be quiet; so He bringeth
them to their desired haven.'


'And on the sabbath day we went forth without the gate, by a river
side, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down,
and spake unto the women which were come together.' - ACTS xvi. 13

This is the first record of the preaching of the Gospel in Europe, and
probably the first instance of it. The fact that the vision of the man
of Macedonia was needed in order to draw the Apostle across the straits
into Macedonia, and the great length at which the incidents at Philippi
are recorded, make this probable. If so, we are here standing, as it
were, at the wellhead of a mighty river, and the thin stream of water
assumes importance when we remember the thousand miles of its course,
and the league-broad estuary in which it pours itself into the ocean.
Here is the beginning; the Europe of to-day is what came out of it.
There is no sign whatever that the Apostle was conscious of an epoch in
this transference of the sphere of his operations, but we can scarcely
help being conscious of such.

And so, looking at the words of my text, and seeing here how
unobtrusively there stole into the progressive part of the world the
power which was to shatter and remould all its institutions, to guide
and inform the onward march of its peoples, to be the basis of their
liberties, and the starting-point of their literature, we can scarcely
avoid drawing lessons of importance.

The first point which I would suggest, as picturesquely enforced for us
by this incident, is -

I. The apparent insignificance and real greatness of Christian work.

There did not seem in the whole of that great city that morning a more
completely insignificant knot of people than the little weather-beaten
Jew, travel-stained, of weak bodily presence, and of contemptible
speech, with the handful of his attendants, who slipped out in the
early morning and wended their way to the quiet little oratory, beneath
the blue sky, by the side of the rushing stream, and there talked
informally and familiarly to the handful of women. The great men of
Philippi would have stared if any one had said to them, 'You will be
forgotten, but two of these women will have their names embalmed in the

Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 36 of 57)