Alexander Maclaren.

Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

. (page 39 of 57)
Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 39 of 57)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

and 'a great multitude' - referring to the latter. Besides these there
were a good many ladies of rank and refinement, as was also the case
presently at Beroea. Probably these, too, were proselytes.

The prominence of women among the converts, as soon as the gospel is
brought into Europe, is interesting and prophetic. The fact of the
social position of these ladies may suggest that the upper classes were
freer from superstition than the lower, and may point a not favourable
contrast with present social conditions, which do not result in a
similar accession of women of 'honourable estate' to the Church.

Opposition follows as uniform a course as the preaching. The broad
outlines are the same in each case, while the local colouring varies.
If we compare Paul's narrative in I Thessalonians, which throbs with
emotion, and, as it were, pants with the stress of the conflict, with
Luke's calm account here, we see not only how Paul felt, but why the
Jews got up a riot. Luke says that they 'became jealous.' Paul expands
that into 'they are contrary to all men; forbidding us to speak to the
Gentiles that they may be saved.' Then it was not so much dislike to
the preaching of Jesus as Messiah as it was rage that their Jewish
prerogative was infringed, and the children's bread offered to the
dogs, that stung them to violent opposition. Israel had been chosen,
that it might be God's witness, and diffuse the treasure it possessed
through all the world. It had become, not the dispenser, but the
would-be monopolist, of its gift. Have there been no Christian
communities in later days animated by the same spirit?

There were plenty of loafers in the market-place ready for any
mischief, and by no means particular about the pretext for a riot.
Anything that would give an opportunity for hurting somebody, and for
loot, would attract them as corruption does flesh-flies. So the Jewish
ringleaders easily got a crowd together. To tell their real reasons
would scarcely have done, but to say that there was a house to be
attacked, and some foreigners to be dragged out, was enough for the
present. Jason's house was probably Paul's temporary home, where, as he
tells us in 1 Thessalonians ii. 9, he had worked at his trade, that he
might not be burdensome to any. Possibly he and Silas had been warned
of the approach of the rioters and had got away elsewhere. At all
events, the nest was empty, but the crowd must have its victims, and
so, failing Paul, they laid hold of Jason. His offence was a very
shadowy one. But since his day there have been many martyrs, whose only
crime was 'harbouring' Christians, or heretics, or recusant priests, or
Covenanters. If a bull cannot gore a man, it will toss his cloak.

The charge against Jason is that he receives the Apostle and his party,
and constructively favours their designs. The charge against them is
that they are revolutionists, rebels against the Emperor, and partisans
of a rival. Now we may note three things about the charge. First, it
comes with a very distinct taint of insincerity from Jews, who were, to
say the least, not remarkable for loyalty or peaceful obedience. The
Gracchi are complaining of sedition! A Jew zealous for Caeesar is an
anomaly, which might excite the suspicions of the least suspicious
ruler. The charge of breaking the peace comes with remarkable
appropriateness from the leaders of a riot. They were the troublers of
the city, not Paul, peacefully preaching in the synagogue. The wolf
scolds the lamb for fouling the river.

Again, the charges are a violent distortion of the truth. Possibly the
Jewish ringleaders believed what they said, but more probably they
consciously twisted Paul's teachings, because they knew that no other
charges would excite so much hostility or be so damning as those which
they made. The mere suggestion of treason was often fatal. The wild
exaggeration that the Christians had 'turned the whole civilised world
upside down' betrays passionate hatred and alarm, if it was genuine, or
crafty determination to rouse the mob, if it was consciously trumped
up. But whether the charges were believed or not by those who made
them, here were Jews disclaiming their nation's dearest hope, and, like
the yelling crowd at the Crucifixion, declaring they had no king but
Caesar. The degradation of Israel was completed by these fanatical
upholders of its prerogatives.

But, again, the charges were true in a far other sense than their
bringers meant. For Christianity is revolutionary, and its very aim is
to turn the world upside down, since the wrong side is uppermost at
present, and Jesus, not Caesar, or any king or emperor or czar, is the
true Lord and ruler of men. But the revolution which He makes is the
revolution of individuals, turning them from darkness to light; for He
moulds single souls first and society afterwards. Violence is always a
mistake, and the only way to change evil customs is to change men's
natures, and then the customs drop away of themselves. The true rule
begins with the sway of hearts; then wills are submissive, and conduct
is the expression of inward delight in a law which is sweet because the
lawgiver is dear.

Missing Paul, the mob fell on Jason and the brethren. They were 'bound
over to keep the peace.' Evidently the rulers had little fear of these
alleged desperate revolutionaries, and did as little as they dared,
without incurring the reproach of being tepid in their loyalty.

Probably the removal of Paul and his travelling companions from the
neighbourhood was included in the terms to which Jason had to submit.
Their hurried departure does not seem to have been caused by a renewal
of disturbances. At all events, their Beroean experience repeated that
of Philippi and of Thessalonica, with one great and welcome difference.
The Beroean Jews did exactly what their compatriots elsewhere would not
do - they looked into the subject with their own eyes, and tested Paul's
assertions by Scripture. 'Therefore,' says Luke, with grand confidence
in the impregnable foundations of the faith, 'many of them believed.'
True nobility of soul consists in willingness to receive the Word,
combined with diligent testing of it. Christ asks for no blind
adhesion. The true Christian teacher wishes for no renunciation, on the
part of his hearers, of their own judgments. 'Open your mouth and shut
your eyes, and swallow what I give you,' is not the language of
Christianity, though it has sometimes been the demand of its professed
missionaries, and not the teacher only, but the taught also, have been
but too ready to exercise blind credulity instead of intelligent
examination and clear-eyed faith. If professing Christians to-day were
better acquainted with the Scriptures, and more in the habit of
bringing every new doctrine to them as its touchstone, there would be
less currency of errors and firmer grip of truth.


'Then Paul stood In the midst of Mars-hill, and said, Ye men of Athens,
I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. 23. For as I
passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this
inscription, To the Unknown God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship,
him declare I unto you. 24. God, that made the world, and all things
therein, seeing that He is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in
temples made with hands; 25. Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as
though He needed any thing, seeing He giveth to all life, and breath,
and all things; 26. And hath made of one blood all nations of men for
to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times
before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; 27. That they
should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after Him, and find Him,
though He be not far from every one of us: 28. For in Him we live, and
move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said,
For we are also His offspring. 29. Forasmuch then as we are the
offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto
gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device. 30. And the
times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every
where to repent: 31. Because he hath appointed a day, in the which He
will judge the world in righteousness by that Man whom He hath
ordained; whereof He hath given assurance unto all men, in that He hath
raised Him from the dead. 32. And when they heard of the resurrection
of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of
this matter. 33. So Paul departed from among them. 34. Howbeit certain
men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the
Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.' - ACTS
xvii. 22-34.

'I am become all things to all men,' said Paul, and his address at
Athens strikingly exemplifies that principle of his action. Contrast it
with his speech in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch, which appeals
entirely to the Old Testament, and is saturated with Jewish ideas, or
with the remonstrance to the rude Lycaonian peasants (Acts xiv. 15,
etc.), which, while handling some of the same thoughts as at Athens,
does so in a remarkably different manner. There he appealed to God's
gifts of 'rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons,' the things most
close to his hearers' experience; here, speaking to educated
'philosophers,' he quotes Greek poetry, and sets forth a reasoned
declaration of the nature of the Godhead and the relations of a
philosophy of history and an argument against idolatry. The glories of
Greek art were around him; the statues of Pallas Athene and many more
fair creations looked down on the little Jew who dared to proclaim
their nullity as representations of the Godhead.

Paul's flexibility of mind and power of adapting himself to every
circumstance were never more strikingly shown than in that great
address to the quick-witted Athenians. It falls into three parts: the
conciliatory prelude (vers. 22, 23); the declaration of the Unknown God
(vers. 24-29); and the proclamation of the God-ordained Man (vers. 30,

I. We have, first, the conciliatory prelude. It is always a mistake for
the apostle of a new truth to begin by running a tilt at old errors. It
is common sense to seek to find some point in the present beliefs of
his hearers to which his message may attach itself. An orator who
flatters for the sake of securing favour for himself is despicable; a
missionary who recognises the truth which lies under the system which
he seeks to overthrow, is wise.

It is incredible that Paul should have begun his speech to so critical
an audience by charging them with excessive superstition, as the
Authorised Version makes him do. Nor does the modified translation of
the Revised Version seem to be precisely what is meant. Paul is not
blaming the Athenians, but recording a fact which he had noticed, and
from which he desired to start. Ramsay's translation gives the truer
notion of his meaning - 'more than others respectful of what is divine.'
'Superstition' necessarily conveys a sense of blame, but the word in
the original does not.

We can see Paul as a stranger wandering through the city, and noting
with keen eyes every token of the all-pervading idolatry. He does not
tell his hearers that his spirit burned within him when he saw the city
full of idols; but he smothers all that, and speaks only of the
inscription which he had noticed on one, probably obscure and
forgotten, altar: 'To the Unknown God.' Scholars have given themselves
a great deal of trouble to show from other authors that there were such
altars. But Paul is as good an 'authority' as these, and we may take
his word that he did see such an inscription. Whether it had the full
significance which he reads into it or not, it crystallised in an
express avowal that sense of Something behind and above the 'gods many'
of Greek religion, which found expression in the words of their noblest
thinkers and poets, and lay like a nightmare on them.

To charge an Athenian audience, proud of their knowledge, with
ignorance, was a hazardous and audacious undertaking; to make them
charge themselves was more than an oratorical device. It appealed to
the deepest consciousness even of the popular mind. Even with this
prelude, the claims of this wandering Jew to pose as the instructor of
Epicureans and Stoics, and to possess a knowledge of the Divine which
they lacked, were daring. But how calmly and confidently Paul makes
them, and with what easy and conciliatory adoption of their own
terminology, if we adopt the reading of verse 23 in Revised Version
('What ye worship ... this,' etc.), which puts forward the abstract
conception of divinity rather than the personal God.

The spirit in which Paul approached his difficult audience teaches all
Christian missionaries and controversialists a needed and neglected
lesson. We should accentuate points of resemblance rather than of
difference, to begin with. We should not run a tilt against even
errors, and so provoke to their defence, but rather find in creeds and
practices an ignorant groping after, and so a door of entrance for, the
truth which we seek to recommend.

II. The declaration of the Unknown God has been prepared for, and now
follows, and with it is bound up a polemic against idolatry.
Conciliation is not to be carried so far as to hide the antagonism
between the truth and error. We may give non-Christian systems of
religion credit for all the good in them, but we are not to blink their
contrariety to the true religion. Conciliation and controversy are both
needful; and he is the best Christian teacher who has mastered the
secret of the due proportion between them.

Every word of Paul's proclamation strikes full and square at some
counter belief of his hearers. He begins with creation, which he
declares to have been the act of one personal God, and neither of a
multitude of deities, as some of his hearers held, nor of an impersonal
blind power, as others believed, nor the result of chance, nor eternal,
as others maintained. He boldly proclaims there, below the shadow of
the Parthenon, that there is but one God, - the universal Lord, because
the universal Creator. Many consequences from that fact, no doubt,
crowded into Paul's mind; but he swiftly turns to its bearing on the
pomp of temples which were the glory of Athens, and the multitude of
sacrifices which he had beheld on their altars. The true conception of
God as the Creator and Lord of all things cuts up by the roots the
pagan notions of temples as dwelling-places of a god and of sacrifices
as ministering to his needs. With one crushing blow Paul pulverises the
fair fanes around him, and declares that sacrifice, as practised there,
contradicted the plain truth as to God's nature. To suppose that man
can give anything to Him, or that He needs anything, is absurd. All
heathen worship reverses the parts of God and man, and loses sight of
the fact that He is the giver continually and of everything. Life in
its origination, the continuance thereof (breath), and all which
enriches it, are from Him. Then true worship will not be giving to, but
thankfully accepting from and using for, Him, His manifold gifts.

So Paul declares the one God as Creator and Sustainer of all. He goes
on to sketch in broad outline what we may call a philosophy of history.
The declaration of the unity of mankind was a wholly strange message to
proud Athenians, who believed themselves to be a race apart, not only
from the 'barbarians,' whom all Greeks regarded as made of other clay
than they, but from the rest of the Greek world. It flatly contradicted
one of their most cherished prerogatives. Not only does Paul claim one
origin for all men, but he regards all nations as equally cared for by
the one God. His hearers believed that each people had its own patron
deities, and that the wars of nations were the wars of their gods, who
won for them territory, and presided over their national fortunes. To
all that way of thinking the Apostle opposes the conception, which
naturally follows from his fundamental declaration of the one Creator,
of His providential guidance of all nations in regard to their place in
the world and the epochs of their history.

But he rises still higher when he declares the divine purpose in all
the tangled web of history - the variety of conditions of nations, their
rise and fall, their glory and decay, their planting in their lands and
their rooting out, - to be to lead all men to 'seek God.' That is the
deepest meaning of history. The whole course of human affairs is God's
drawing men to Himself. Not only in Judea, nor only by special
revelation, but by the gifts bestowed, and the schooling brought to
bear on every nation, He would stir men up to seek for Him.

But that great purpose has not been realised. There is a tragic 'if
haply' inevitable; and men may refuse to yield to the impulses towards
God. They are the more likely to do so, inasmuch as to find Him they
must 'feel after Him,' and that is hard. The tendrils of a plant turn
to the far-off light, but men's spirits do not thus grope after God.
Something has come in the way which frustrates the divine purpose, and
makes men blind and unwilling to seek Him.

Paul docs not at once draw the two plain inferences, that there must be
something more than the nations have had, if they are to find God, even
His seeking them in some new fashion; and that the power which
neutralises God's design in creation and providence is sin. He has a
word to say about both these, but for the moment he contents himself
with pointing to the fact, attested by his hearers' consciousness, and
by many a saying of thinkers and poets, that the failure to find God
does not arise from His hiding Himself in some remote obscurity. Men
are plunged, as it were, in the ocean of God, encompassed by Him as an
atmosphere, and - highest thought of all, and not strange to Greek
thought of the nobler sort - kindred with Him as both drawing life from
Him and being in His image. Whence, then, but from their own fault,
could men have failed to find God? If He is 'unknown,' it is not
because He has shrouded Himself in darkness, but because they do not
love the light. One swift glance at the folly of idolatry, as
demonstrated by this thought of man's being the offspring of God, leads
naturally to the properly Christian conclusion of the address.

III. It is probable that this part of it was prematurely ended by the
mockery of some and the impatience of others, who had had enough of
Paul and his talk, and who, when they said, 'We will hear thee again,'
meant, 'We will not hear you now.' But, even in the compass permitted
him, he gives much of his message.

We can but briefly note the course of thought. He comes back to his
former word 'ignorance,' bitter pill as it was for the Athenian
cultured class to swallow. He has shown them how their religion ignores
or contradicts the true conceptions of God and man. But he no sooner
brings the charge than he proclaims God's forbearance. And he no sooner
proclaims God's forbearance than he rises to the full height of his
mission as God's ambassador, and speaks in authoritative tones, as
bearing His 'commands.'

Now the hint in the previous part is made more plain. The demand for
repentance implies sin. Then the 'ignorance' was not inevitable or
innocent. There was an element of guilt in men's not feeling after God,
and sin is universal, for 'all men everywhere' are summoned to repent.
Philosophers and artists, and cultivated triflers, and sincere
worshippers of Pallas and Zeus, and all 'barbarian' people, are alike
here. That would grate on Athenian pride, as it grates now on ours. The
reason for repentance would be as strange to the hearers as the command
was - a universal judgment, of which the principle was to be rigid
righteousness, and the Judge, not Minos or Rhadamanthus, but 'a Man'
ordained for that function.

What raving nonsense that would appear to men who had largely lost the
belief in a life beyond the grave! The universal Judge a man! No wonder
that the quick Athenian sense of the ridiculous began to rise against
this Jew fanatic, bringing his dreams among cultured people like them!
And the proof which he alleged as evidence to all men that it is so,
would sound even more ridiculous than the assertion meant to be proved.
'A man has been raised from the dead; and this anonymous Man, whom
nobody ever heard of before, and who is no doubt one of the speaker's
countrymen, is to judge us, Stoics, Epicureans, polished people, and we
are to be herded to His bar in company with Boeotians and barbarians!
The man is mad.'

So the assembly broke up in inextinguishable laughter, and Paul
silently 'departed from among them,' having never named the name of
Jesus to them. He never more earnestly tried to adapt his teaching to
his audience; he never was more unsuccessful in his attempt by all
means to gain some. Was it a remembrance of that scene in Athens that
made him write to the Corinthians that his message was 'to the Greeks


'...He will judge the world in righteousness by that Man whom He hath
ordained; whereof He hath given assurance unto all men, in that He hath
raised Him from the dead.' - ACTS xvii. 31.

I. The Resurrection of Jesus gives assurance of judgment.

(_a_) Christ's Resurrection is the pledge of ours.

The belief in a future life, as entertained by Paul's hearers on Mars
Hill, was shadowy and dashed with much unbelief. Disembodied spirits
wandered ghostlike and spectral in a shadowy underworld.

The belief in the Resurrection of Jesus converts the Greek peradventure
into a fact. It gives that belief solidity and makes it easier to grasp
firmly. Unless the thought of a future life is completed by the belief
that it is a corporeal life, it will never have definiteness and
reality enough to sustain itself as a counterpoise to the weight of
things seen.

(_b_) Resurrection implies judgment.

A future bodily life affirms individual identity as persisting beyond
the accident of death, and can only be conceived of as a state in which
the earthly life is fully developed in its individual results. The
dead, who are raised, are raised that they may 'receive the things done
in the body, according to that they have done, whether it be good or
bad.' Historically, the two thoughts have always gone together; and as
has been the clearness with which a resurrection has been held as
certain, so has been the force with which the anticipation of judgment
to come has impinged on conscience.

Jesus is, even in this respect, our Example, for the glory to which He
was raised and in which He reigns now is the issue of His earthly life;
and in His Resurrection and Ascension we have the historical fact which
certifies to all men that a life of self-sacrifice here will assuredly
flower into a life of glory there, 'Ours the Cross, the grave, the

II. The Resurrection of Jesus gives the assurance that He is Judge.

The bare fact that He is risen does not carry that assurance; we have
to take into account that He has risen.

After such a life.

His Resurrection was God's setting the seal of His approval and
acceptance on Christ's work; His endorsement of Christ's claims to
special relations with Him; His affirmation of Christ's sinlessness.
Jesus had declared that He did always the things that pleased the
Father; had claimed to be the pure and perfect realisation of the
divine ideal of manhood; had presented Himself as the legitimate object
of utter devotion and of religious trust, love, and obedience, and as
the only way to God. Men said that He was a blasphemer; God said, and
said most emphatically, by raising Him from the dead: 'This is My
beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.'

With such a sequel.

'Christ being raised from the dead, dieth no more,' and that fact sets
Him apart from others who, according to Scripture, have been raised.
His resurrection is, if we may use such a figure, a point; His
Ascension and Session at the right hand of God are the line into which
the point is prolonged. And from both the point and the line come the
assurance that He is the Judge.

III. The risen Jesus is Judge because He is Man.

That seems a paradox. It is a commonplace that we are incompetent to
judge another, for human eyes cannot read the secrets of a human heart,
and we can only surmise, not know, each other's motives, which are the
all-important part of our deeds. But when we rightly understand
Christ's human nature, we understand how fitted He is to be our Judge,

Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 39 of 57)