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Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

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memory of the world for ever. Everybody will know Euodia and Syntyche.
Your city will be forgotten, although a battle that settled the fate of
the civilised world was fought outside your gates. But that little Jew
and the letter that he will write to that handful of believers that are
to be gathered by his preaching will last for ever.' The mightiest
thing done in Europe that morning was when the Apostle sat down by the
riverside, 'and spake to the women which resorted thither.'

The very same vulgar mistake as to what is great and as to what is
small is being repeated over and over again; and we are all tempted to
it by that which is worldly and vulgar in ourselves, to the enormous
detriment of the best part of our natures. So it is worth while to stop
for a moment and ask what is the criterion of greatness in our deeds? I
answer, three things - their motive, their sphere, their consequences.
What is done for God is always great. You take a pebble and drop it
into a brook, and immediately the dull colouring upon it flashes up
into beauty when the sunlight strikes through the ripples, and the
magnitude of the little stone is enlarged. If I may make use of such a
violent expression, drop your deeds into God, and they will all be
great, however small they are. Keep them apart from Him, and they will
be small, though all the drums of the world beat in celebration, and
all the vulgar people on the earth extol their magnitude. This altar
magnifies and sanctifies the giver and the gift. The great things are
the things that are done for God.

A deed is great according to its sphere. What bears on and is confined
to material things is smaller than what affects the understanding. The
teacher is more than the man who promotes material good. And on the
very same principle, above both the one and the other, is the doer of
deeds which touch the diviner part of a man's nature, his will, his
conscience, his affections, his relations to God. Thus the deeds that
impinge upon these are the highest and the greatest; and far above the
scientific inventor, and far above the mere teacher, as I believe, and
as I hope you believe, stands the humblest work of the poorest
Christian who seeks to draw any other soul into the light and liberty
which he himself possesses. The greatest thing in the world is charity,
and the purest charity in the world is that which helps a man to
possess the basis and mother-tincture of all love, the love towards God
who has first loved us, in the person and the work of His dear Son.

That which being done has consequences that roll through souls, 'and
grow for ever and for ever,' is a greater work than the deed whose
issues are more short-lived. And so the man who speaks a word which may
deflect a soul into the paths which have no end until they are
swallowed up in the light of the God who 'is a Sun,' is a worker whose
work is truly great. Brethren, it concerns the nobleness of the life of
us Christian people far more closely than we sometimes suppose, that we
should purge our souls from the false estimate of magnitudes which
prevails so extensively in the world's judgment of men and their
doings. And though it is no worthy motive for a man to seek to live so
that he may do great things, it is a part of the discipline of the
Christian mind, as well as heart, that we should be able to reduce the
swollen bladders to their true flaccidity and insignificance, and that
we should understand that things done for God, things done on men's
souls, things done with consequences which time will not exhaust, nor
eternity put a period to, are, after all, the great things of human

Ah, there will be a wonderful reversal of judgments one day! Names that
now fill the trumpet of fame will fall silent. Pages that now are read
as if they were leaves of the 'Book of Life' will be obliterated and
unknown, and when all the flashing cressets in Vanity Fair have smoked
and stunk themselves out, 'They that be wise shall shine as the
brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness
as the stars for ever and ever.' The great things are the Christian
things, and there was no greater deed done that day, on this round
earth, than when that Jewish wayfarer, travel-stained and
insignificant, sat himself down in the place of prayer, and 'spake unto
the women which resorted thither.' Do not be over-cowed by the loud
talk of the world, but understand that Christian work is the mightiest
work that a man can do.

Let us take from this incident a hint as to -

II. The law of growth in Christ's Kingdom.

Here, as I have said, is the thin thread of water at the source. We
to-day are on the broad bosom of the expanded stream. Here is the
little beginning; the world that we see around us has come from this,
and there is a great deal more to be done yet before all the power that
was transported into Europe, on that Sabbath morning, has wrought its
legitimate effects. That is to say, 'the Kingdom of God cometh not by
observation.' Let me say a word, and only a word, based on this
incident, about the law of small beginnings and the law of slow,
inconspicuous development.

We have here an instance of the law of small, silent beginnings. Let us
go back to the highest example of everything that is good; the life of
Jesus Christ. A cradle at Bethlehem, a carpenter's shop in Nazareth,
thirty years buried in a village, two or three years, at most, going up
and down quietly in a remote nook of the earth, and then He passed away
silently and the world did not know Him. 'He shall not strive nor cry,
nor cause His voice to be heard in the streets.' And as the Christ so
His Church, and so His Gospel, and so all good movements that begin
from Him. Destructive preparations may be noisy; they generally are.
Constructive beginnings are silent and small. If a thing is launched
with a great beating of drums and blowing of trumpets, you may be
pretty sure there is very little in it. Drums are hollow, or they would
not make such a noise. Trumpets only catch and give forth wind. They
say - I know not whether it is true - that the _Wellingtonia gigantea_,
the greatest of forest trees, has a smaller seed than any of its
congeners. It may be so, at any rate it does for an illustration. The
germ-cell is always microscopic. A little beginning is a prophecy of a
great ending.

In like manner there is another large principle suggested here which,
in these days of impatient haste and rushing to and fro, and religious
as well as secular advertising and standing at street corners, we are
very apt to forget, but which we need to remember, and that is that the
rate of growth is swift when the duration of existence is short. A reed
springs up in a night. How long does an oak take before it gets too
high for a sheep to crop at? The moth lives its full life in a day.
There is no creature that has helpless infancy so long as a man. We
have the slow work of mining; the dynamite will be put into the hole
one day, and the spark applied - and then? So 'an inheritance may be
gotten hastily at the beginning, but the end thereof shall not be

Let us apply that to our own personal life and work, and to the growth
of Christianity in the world, and let us not be staggered because
either are so slow. 'The Lord is not slack concerning His promises, as
some men count slackness. One day is with the Lord as a thousand years,
and a thousand years as one day.' How long will that day be of which a
thousand years are but as the morning twilight? Brethren, you have need
of patience. You Christian workers, and I hope I am speaking to a great
many such now; how long does it take before we can say that we are
making any impression at all on the vast masses of evil and sin that
are round about us? God waited, nobody knows how many millenniums and
more than millenniums, before He had the world ready for man. He waited
for more years than we can tell before He had the world ready for the
Incarnation. His march is very slow because it is ever onwards. Let us
be thankful if we forge ahead the least little bit; and let us not be
impatient for swift results which are the fool's paradise, and which
the man who knows that he is working towards God's own end can well
afford to do without.

And now, lastly, let me ask you to notice, still further as drawn from
this incident -

III. The simplicity of the forces to which God entrusts the growth of
His Kingdom.

It is almost ludicrous to think, if it were not pathetic and sublime,
of the disproportion between the end that was aimed at and the way that
was taken to reach it, which the text opens before us. 'We went out to
the riverside, and we spake unto the women which resorted thither.'
That was all. Think of Europe as it was at that time. There was Greece
over the hills, there was Rome ubiquitous and ready to exchange its
contemptuous toleration for active hostility. There was the unknown
barbarism of the vague lands beyond. Think of the established
idolatries which these men had to meet, around which had gathered, by
the superstitious awe of untold ages, everything that was obstinate,
everything that was menacing, everything that was venerable. Think of
the subtleties to which they had to oppose their unlettered message.
Think of the moral corruption that was eating like an ulcer into the
very heart of society. Did ever a Cortez on the beach, with his ships
in flames behind him, and a continent in arms before, cast himself on a
more desperate venture? And they conquered! How? What were the small
stones from the brook that slew Goliath? Have we got them? Here they
are, the message that they spoke, the white heat of earnestness with
which they spoke it, and the divine Helper who backed them up. And we
have this message. Brethren, that old word, 'God was in Christ
reconciling the world to Himself,' is as much needed, as potent, as
truly adapted to the complicated civilisation of this generation, as
surely reaching the deepest wants of the human soul, as it was in the
days when first the message poured, like a red-hot lava flood, from the
utterances of Paul. Like lava it has gone cold to-day, and stiff in
many places, and all the heat is out of it. That is the fault of the
speaker, never of the message. It is as mighty as ever it was, and if
the Christian Church would keep more closely to it, and would realise
more fully that the Cross does not need to be propped up so much as to
be proclaimed, I think we should see that it is so. That sword has not
lost its temper, and modern modes of warfare have not antiquated it. As
David said to the high priests at Nob, when he was told that Goliath's
sword was hid behind the ephod, 'Give me that. There is none like it.'
It was not miracles, it was the Gospel that was preached, which was
'the power of God unto salvation.'

And that message was preached with earnestness. There is one point in
which every successful servant of Jesus Christ who has done work for
Him, winning men to Him, has been like every other successful servant,
and there is only one point. Some of them have been wise men, some of
them have been foolish. Some of them have been clad with many puerile
notions and much rubbish of ceremonial and sacerdotal theories. Some of
them have been high Calvinists, some of them low Arminians; some of
them have been scholars, some of them could hardly read. But they have
all had this one thing: they believed with all their hearts what they
spake. They fulfilled the Horatian principle, 'If you wish me to weep,
your own eyes must overflow' - and if you wish me to believe, you must
speak, not 'with bated breath and whispering humbleness,' but as if you
yourself believed it, and were dead set on getting other people to
believe it, too.

And then the third thing that Paul had we have, and that is the
presence of the Christ. Note what it says in the context about one
convert who was made that morning, Lydia, 'whose heart the Lord
opened.' Now I am not going to deduce Calvinism or any other 'ism' from
these words, but I pray you to note that there is emerging on the
surface here what runs all through this book of Acts, and animates the
whole of it, viz., that Jesus Christ Himself is working, doing all the
work that is done through His servants. Wherever there are men aflame
with that with which every Christian man and woman should be aflame,
the consciousness of the preciousness of their Master, and their own
responsibility for the spreading of His Name, there, depend upon it,
will be the Christ to aid them. The picture with which one of the
Evangelists closes his Gospel will be repeated: 'They went everywhere
preaching the word, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word
with signs following.'

Dear brethren, the vision of the man of Macedonia which drew Paul
across the water from Troas to Philippi speaks to us. 'Come over and
help us,' comes from many voices. And if we, in however humble and
obscure, and as the foolish purblind world calls it, 'small,' way,
yield to the invitation, and try to do what in us lies, then we shall
find that, like Paul by the riverside in that oratory, we are building
better than we know, and planting a little seed, the springing whereof
God will bless. 'Thou sowest not that which shall be, but bare grain
... and God giveth it a body as it hath pleased Him.'


'And when her masters saw that the hope of their gains was gone, they
caught Paul and Silas, and drew them into the marketplace unto the
rulers, 20. And brought them to the magistrates, saying, These men,
being Jews, do exceedingly trouble our city, 21. And teach customs,
which are not lawful for us to receive, neither to observe, being
Romans. 22. And the multitude rose up together against them: and the
magistrates rent off their clothes, and commanded to beat them. 23. And
when they had laid many stripes upon them, they cast them into prison,
charging the jailer to keep them safely: 24. Who, having received such
a charge, thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast
in the stocks. 25. And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang
praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them. 26. And suddenly there
was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were
shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one's
bands were loosed. 27. And the keeper of the prison awaking out of his
sleep, and seeing the prison doors open, he drew out his sword, and
would have killed himself, supposing that the prisoners had been fled.
28. But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, Do thyself no harm: for
we are all here. 29. Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and
came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, 30. And brought
them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? 31. And they
said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and
thy house. 32. And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all
that were in his house. 33. And he took them the same hour of the
night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his,
straightway. 34. And when he had brought them into his house, he set
meat before them, and rejoiced, believing In God with all his
house.' - ACTS xvi. 19-34.

This incident gives us the Apostle's first experience of purely Gentile
opposition. The whole scene has a different stamp from that of former
antagonisms, and reminds us that we have passed into Europe. The
accusers and the grounds of accusation are new. Formerly Jews had led
the attack; now Gentiles do so. Crimes against religion were charged
before; now crimes against law and order. Hence the narrative is more
extended, in accordance with the prevailing habit of the book, to
dilate on the first of a series and to summarise subsequent members of
it. We may note the unfounded charge and unjust sentence; the joyful
confessors and the answer to their trust; the great light that shone on
the jailer's darkness.

I. This was a rough beginning of the work undertaken at the call of
Christ. Less courageous and faithful men might have thought, 'Were we
right in "assuredly gathering" that His hand pointed us hither, since
this is the reception we find?' But though the wind meets us as soon as
we clear the harbour, the salt spray dashing in our faces is no sign
that we should not have left shelter. A difficult beginning often means
a prosperous course; and hardships are not tokens of having made a

The root of the first antagonism to the Gospel in Europe was purely
mercenary. The pythoness's masters had no horror of Paul's doctrines.
They were animated by no zeal for Apollo. They only saw a source of
profit drying up. Infinitely more respectable was Jewish opposition,
which was, at all events, the perverted working of noble sentiments.
Zeal for religion, even when the zeal is impure and the notions of
religion imperfect, is higher than mere anger at pecuniary loss. How
much of the opposition since and to-day comes from the same mean
source! Lust and appetite organise profitable trades, in which 'the
money has no smell,' however foul the cesspool from which it has been
brought. And when Christian people set themselves against these
abominations, capital takes the command of the mob of drink-sellers and
consumers, or of those from haunts of fleshly sin, and shrieks about
interfering with honest industry, and seeking to enforce sour-faced
Puritanism on society. The Church may be very sure that it is failing
in some part of its duty, if there is no class of those who fatten on
providing for sin howling at its heels, because it is interfering with
the hope of their gains.

The charge against the little group took no heed of the real character
of their message. It artfully put prominent their nationality. These
early anti-Semitic agitators knew the value of a good solid prejudice,
and of a nickname. 'Jews' - that was enough. The rioters were
'Romans' - of a sort, no doubt, but it was poor pride for a Macedonian
to plume himself on having lost his nationality. The great crime laid
to Paul's charge was - troubling the city. So it always is. Whether it
be George Fox, or John Wesley, or the Salvation Army, the disorderly
elements of every community attack the preachers of the Gospel in the
name of order, and break the peace in their eagerness to have it kept.
There was no 'trouble' in Philippi, but the uproar which they
themselves were making. The quiet praying-place by the riverside, and
the silencing of the maiden's shout in the streets, were not exactly
the signs of disturbers of civic tranquillity.

The accuracy of the charge may be measured by the ignorance of the
accusers that Paul and his friends were in any way different from the
run of Jews. No doubt they were supposed to be teaching Jewish
practices, which were supposed to be inconsistent with Roman
citizenship. But if the magistrates had said, 'What customs?' the
charge would have collapsed. Thank God, the Gospel has a witness to
bear against many 'customs'; but it does not begin by attacking even
these, much less by prescribing illegalities. Its errand was and is to
the individual first. It sets the inner man right with God, and then
the new life works itself out, and will war against evils which the old
life deemed good; but the conception of Christianity as a code
regulating actions is superficial, whether it is held by friends or

There is always a mob ready to follow any leader, especially if there
is the prospect of hurting somebody. The lovers of tranquillity showed
how they loved it by dragging Paul and Silas into the forum, and
bellowing untrue charges against them. The mob seconded them; 'they
rose up together [with the slave-owners] against Paul and Silas.' The
magistrates, knowing the ticklish material that they had to deal with,
and seeing only a couple of Jews from nobody knew where, did not think
it worth while to inquire or remonstrate. They were either cowed or
indifferent; and so, to show how zealous they and the mob were for
Roman law, they drove a coach-and-six clean through it, and without the
show of investigation, scourged and threw into prison the silent
Apostles. It was a specimen of what has happened too often since. How
many saints have been martyred to keep popular feeling in good tune!
And how many politicians will strain conscience to-day, because they
are afraid of what Luke here unpolitely calls 'the multitude,' or as we
might render it, 'the mob,' but which we now fit with a much more
respectful appellation!

The jailer, on his part, in the true spirit of small officials, was
ready to better his instructions. It is dangerous to give vague
directions to such people. When the judge has ordered unlawful
scourging, the turnkey is not likely to interpret the requirement of
safe keeping too leniently. One would not look for much human kindness
in a Philippian jail. So it was natural that the deepest, darkest, most
foul-smelling den should be chosen for the two, and that they should he
thrust, bleeding backs and all, into the stocks, to sleep if they could.

II. These birds could sing in a darkened cage. The jailer's treatment
of them after his conversion shows what he had neglected to do at
first. They had no food; their bloody backs were unsponged; they were
thrust into a filthy hole, and put in a posture of torture. No wonder
that they could not sleep! But what hindered sleep would, with most
men, have sorely dimmed trust and checked praise. Not so with them. God
gave them 'songs in the night.' We can hear the strains through all the
centuries, and they bid us be cheerful and trustful, whatever befalls.
Surely Christian faith never is more noble than when it triumphs over
circumstances, and brings praises from lips which, if sense had its
way, would wail and groan. 'This is the victory that overcometh the
world.' The true anaesthetic is trust in God. No wonder that the baser
sort of prisoners - and base enough they probably were - 'were listening
to them,' for such sounds had never been heard there before. In how
many a prison have they been heard since!

We are not told that the Apostles prayed for deliverance. Such
deliverance had not been always granted. Peter indeed had been set
free, but Stephen and James had been martyred, and these two heroes had
no ground to expect a miracle to free them. But thankful trust is
always an appeal to God. And it is always answered, whether by
deliverance from or support in trial.

This time deliverance came. The tremor of the earth was the token of
God's answer. It does not seem likely that an earthquake could loosen
fetters in a jail full of prisoners, but more probably the opening of
the doors and the falling off of the chains were due to a separate act
of divine power, the earthquake being but the audible token thereof. At
all events, here again, the first of a series has distinguishing
features, and may stand as type of all its successors. God will never
leave trusting hearts to the fury of enemies. He sometimes will stretch
out a hand and set them free, He sometimes will leave them to bear the
utmost that the world can do, but He will always hear their cry and
save them. Paul had learned the lesson which Philippi was meant to
teach, when he said, though anticipating a speedy death by martyrdom,
'The Lord will deliver me from every evil work, and will save me into
His heavenly Kingdom.'

III. The jailer behaves as such a man in his position would do. He
apparently slept in a place that commanded a view of the doors; and he
lay dressed, with his sword beside him, in case of riot or attempted
escape. His first impulse on awaking is to look at the gates. They are
open; then some of his charge have broken them. His immediate thought
of suicide not only shows the savage severity of punishment which he
knew would fall on him, but tells a dreary tale of the desperate sense
of the worthlessness of life and blank ignorance of anything beyond
which then infected the Roman world. Suicide, the refuge of cowards or
of pessimists, sometimes becomes epidemic. Faith must have died and
hope vanished before a man can say, 'I will take the leap into the

Paul's words freed the man from one fear, but woke a less selfish and
profounder awe. What did all this succession of strange things mean?
Here are doors open; how came that? Here are prisoners with the
possibility of escape refusing it; how came that? Here is one of his
victims tenderly careful of his life and peacefulness, and taking the
upper hand of him; how came that? A nameless awe begins to creep over

Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 37 of 57)