Alexander Maclaren.

Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

. (page 4 of 57)
Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 4 of 57)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He
was raised the third day according to the Scriptures.'

Well, then, may we take up the ancient glad salutation, 'The Lord is
risen!' and, turning from these thoughts of the disaster and despair
that that awful supposition drags after it, fall back upon sober
certainty, and with the Apostle break forth in triumph, 'Now is Christ
risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept'!


'And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one
accord in one place. 2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as
of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were
sitting. 3. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of
fire, and it sat upon each of them. 4. And they were all filled with
the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit
gave them utterance. 5. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews,
devout men, out of every nation under heaven. 6. Now when this was
noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded,
because that every man heard them speak in his own language. 7. And
they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are
not all these which speak Galileans? 8. And how we hear every man in
our own tongue, wherein we were born? 9. Parthians, and Medes, and
Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and
Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, 10. Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt,
and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and
proselytes. 11. Cretes, and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our
tongues the wonderful works of God. 12. And they were all amazed, and
were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this? 13. Others,
mocking, said, These men are full of new wine.' - ACTS ii. 1-13.

Only ten days elapsed between the Ascension and Pentecost. The attitude
of the Church during that time should be carefully noted. They obeyed
implicitly Christ's command to wait for the 'power from on high.' The
only act recorded is the election of Matthias to fill Judas's place,
and it is at least questionable whether that was not a mistake, and
shown to be such by Christ's subsequent choice of Paul as an Apostle.
But, with the exception of that one flash of doubtful activity, prayer,
supplication, patient waiting, and clinging together in harmonious
expectancy, characterised the hundred and twenty brethren.

They must have been wrought to an intense pitch of anticipation, for
they knew that their waiting was to be short, and they knew, at least
partially, what they were to receive, namely, 'power from on high,' or
'the promise of the Father.' Probably, too, the great Feast, so near at
hand, would appear to them a likely time for the fulfilment of the

So, very early on that day of Pentecost, they betook themselves to
their usual place of assembling, probably the 'large upper room,'
already hallowed to their memories; and in each heart the eager
question would spring, 'Will it be to-day?' It is as true now as it was
then, that the spirits into whom the Holy Spirit breathes His power
must keep themselves still, expectant, prayerful. Perpetual occupation
may be more loss of time than devout waiting, with hands folded,
because the heart is wide open to receive the power which will fit the
hands for better work.

It was but 'the third hour of the day' when Peter stood up to speak; it
must have been little after dawn when the brethren came together. How
long they had been assembled we do not know, but we cannot doubt how
they had been occupied. Many a prayer had gone up through the morning
air, and, no doubt, some voice was breathing the united desires, when a
deep, strange sound was heard at a distance, and rapidly gained volume,
and was heard to draw near. Like the roaring of a tempest hurrying
towards them, it hushed human voices, and each man would feel, 'Surely
now the Gift comes!' Nearer and nearer it approached, and at last burst
into the chamber where they sat silent and unmoving.

But if we look carefully at Luke's words, we see that what filled the
house was not agitated air, or wind, but 'a sound as of wind.' The
language implies that there was no rush of atmosphere that lifted a
hair on any cheek, or blew on any face, but only such a sound as is
made by tempest. It suggested wind, but it was not wind. By that first
symbolic preparation for the communication of the promised gift, the
old symbolism which lies in the very word 'Spirit,' and had been
brought anew to the disciples' remembrance by Christ's words to
Nicodemus, and by His breathing on them when He gave them an
anticipatory and partial bestowment of the Spirit, is brought to view,
with its associations of life-giving power and liberty. 'Thou hearest
the sound thereof,' could scarcely fail to be remembered by some in
that chamber.

But it is not to be supposed that the audible symbol continued when the
second preparatory one, addressed to the eye, appeared. As the former
had been not wind, but like it, the latter was not fire, but 'as of
fire.' The language does not answer the question whether what was seen
was a mass from which the tongues detached themselves, or whether only
the separate tongues were visible as they moved overhead. But the final
result was that 'it sat on each.' The verb has no expressed subject,
and 'fire' cannot be the subject, for it is only introduced as a
comparison. Probably, therefore, we are to understand 'a tongue' as the
unexpressed subject of the verb.

Clearly, the point of the symbol is the same as that presented in the
Baptist's promise of a baptism 'with the Holy Ghost and fire.' The
Spirit was to be in them as a Spirit of burning, thawing natural
coldness and melting hearts with a genial warmth, which should beget
flaming enthusiasm, fervent love, burning zeal, and should work
transformation into its own fiery substance. The rejoicing power, the
quick energy, the consuming force, the assimilating action of fire, are
all included in the symbol, and should all be possessed by Christ's

But were the tongue-like shapes of the flames significant too? It is
doubtful, for, natural as is the supposition that they were, it is to
be remembered that 'tongues of fire' is a usual expression, and may
mean nothing more than the flickering shoots of flame into which a fire
necessarily parts.

But these two symbols are only symbols. The true fulfilment of the
great promise follows. Mark the brief simplicity of the quiet words in
which the greatest bestowment ever made on humanity, the beginning of
an altogether new era, the equipment of the Church for her age-long
conflict, is told. There was an actual impartation to men of a divine
life, to dwell in them and actuate them; to bring all good to victory
in them; to illuminate, sustain, direct, and elevate; to cleanse and
quicken. The gift was complete. They were 'filled.' No doubt they had
much more to receive, and they received it, as their natures became, by
faithful obedience to the indwelling Spirit, capable of more. But up to
the measure of their then capacities they were filled; and, since their
spirits were expansible, and the gift was infinite, they were in a
position to grow steadily in possession of it, till they were 'filled
with all the fulness of God.'

Further, 'they were _all_ filled,' - not the Apostles only, but the
whole hundred and twenty. Peter's quotation from Joel distinctly
implies the universality of the gift, which the 'servants and
handmaidens,' the brethren and the women, now received. Herein is the
true democracy of Christianity. There are still diversities of
operations and degrees of possession, but all Christians have the
Spirit. All 'they that believe on Him,' and only they, have received
it. Of old the light shone only on the highest peaks, - prophets, and
kings, and psalmists; now the lowest depths of the valleys are flooded
with it. Would that Christians generally believed more fully in, and
set more store by, that great gift!

As symbols preceded, tokens followed. The essential fact of Pentecost
is neither the sound and fire, nor the speaking with other tongues, but
the communication of the Holy Spirit. The sign and result of that was
the gift of utterance in various languages, not their own, nor learned
by ordinary ways. No twisting of the narrative can weaken the plain
meaning of it, that these unlearned Galileans spake in tongues which
their users recognised to be their own. The significance of the fact
will appear presently, but first note the attestation of it by the

Of course, the foreign-born Jews, who, from motives of piety, however
mistaken, had come to dwell in Jerusalem, are said to have been 'from
every nation under heaven,' by an obvious and ordinary license. It is
enough that, as the subsequent catalogue shows, they came from all
corners of the then known world, though the extremes of territory
mentioned cover but a small space on a terrestrial globe.

The 'sound' of the rushing wind had been heard hurtling through the
city in the early morning hours, and had served as guide to the spot. A
curious crowd came hurrying to ascertain what this noise of tempest in
a calm meant, and they were met by something more extraordinary still.
Try to imagine the spectacle. As would appear from verse 33, the
tongues of fire remained lambently glowing on each head ('which ye
see'), and the whole hundred and twenty, thus strangely crowned, were
pouring out rapturous praises, each in some strange tongue. When the
astonished ears had become accustomed to the apparent tumult, every man
in the crowd heard some one or more speaking in his own tongue,
language, or dialect, and all were declaring the mighty works of God;
that is, probably, the story of the crucified, ascended Jesus.

We need not dwell on subordinate questions, as to the number of
languages represented there, or as to the catalogue in verses 9 and 10.
But we would emphasise two thoughts. First, the natural result of being
filled with God's Spirit is utterance of the great truths of Christ's
Gospel. As surely as light radiates, as surely as any deep emotion
demands expression, so certainly will a soul filled with the Spirit be
forced to break into speech. If professing Christians have never known
the impulse to tell of the Christ whom they have found, their religion
must be very shallow and imperfect. If their spirits are full, they
will overflow in speech.

Second, Pentecost is a prophecy of the universal proclamation of the
Gospel, and of the universal praise which shall one day rise to Him
that was slain. 'This company of brethren praising God in the tongues
of the whole world represented the whole world which shall one day
praise God in its various tongues' (Bengel). Pentecost reversed Babel,
not by bringing about a featureless monopoly, but by consecrating
diversity, and showing that each language could be hallowed, and that
each lent some new strain of music to the chorus.

It prophesied of the time when 'men of every tribe, and tongue, and
people, and nation' should lift up their voices to Him who has
purchased them unto God with His blood. It began a communication of the
Spirit to all believers which is never to cease while the world stands.
The mighty rushing sound has died into silence, the fiery tongues rest
on no heads now, the miraculous results of the gifts of the Spirit have
passed away also, but the gift remains, and the Spirit of God abides
for ever with the Church of Christ.


'A rushing mighty wind.' ... 'Cloven tongues like as of fire.' ... 'I
will pour out of My Spirit upon all flesh.' - ACTS ii. 2, 3, 17.

'Ye have an unction from the Holy One.' - 1 JOHN ii. 20.

Wind, fire, water, oil, - these four are constant Scriptural symbols for
the Spirit of God. We have them all in these fragments of verses which
I have taken for my text now, and which I have isolated from their
context for the purpose of bringing out simply these symbolical
references. I think that perhaps we may get some force and freshness to
the thoughts proper to this day [Footnote: Whit Sunday.] by looking at
these rather than by treating the subject in some more abstract form.
We have then the Breath of the Spirit, the Fire of the Spirit, the
Water of the Spirit, and the Anointing Oil of the Spirit. And the
consideration of these four will bring out a great many of the
principal Scriptural ideas about the gift of the Spirit of God which
belongs to all Christian souls.

I. First, 'a rushing mighty wind.'

Of course, the symbol is but the putting into picturesque form of the
idea that lies in the name. 'Spirit' is 'breath.' Wind is but air in
motion. Breath is the synonym for life. 'Spirit' and 'life' are two
words for one thing. So then, in the symbol, the 'rushing mighty wind,'
we have set forth the highest work of the Spirit - the communication of
a new and supernatural life.

We are carried hack to that grand vision of the prophet who saw the
bones lying, very many and very dry, sapless and disintegrated, a heap
dead and ready to rot. The question comes to him: 'Son of man! Can
these bones live?' The only possible answer, if he consult experience,
is, 'O Lord God! Thou knowest.' Then follows the great invocation:
'Come from the four winds, O Breath! and breathe upon these slain that
they may live.' And the Breath comes and 'they stand up, an exceeding
great army.' 'It is the Spirit that quickeneth.' The Scripture treats
us all as dead, being separated from God, unless we are united to Him
by faith in Jesus Christ. According to the saying of the Evangelist,
'They which believe on Him receive' the Spirit, and thereby receive the
life which He gives, or, as our Lord Himself speaks, are 'born of the
Spirit.' The highest and most characteristic office of the Spirit of
God is to enkindle this new life, and hence His noblest name, among the
many by which He is called, is the Spirit of life.

Again, remember, 'that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.' If there
be life given it must be kindred with the life which is its source.
Reflect upon those profound words of our Lord: 'The wind bloweth where
it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell
whence it cometh nor whither it goeth. So is every one that is born of
the Spirit.' They describe first the operation of the life-giving
Spirit, but they describe also the characteristics of the resulting

'The wind bloweth where it listeth.' That spiritual life, both in the
divine source and in the human recipient, is its own law. Of course the
wind has its laws, as every physical agent has; but these are so
complicated and undiscovered that it has always been the very symbol of
freedom, and poets have spoken of these 'chartered libertines,' the
winds, and 'free as the air' has become a proverb. So that Divine
Spirit is limited by no human conditions or laws, but dispenses His
gifts in superb disregard of conventionalities and externalisms. Just
as the lower gift of what we call 'genius' is above all limits of
culture or education or position, and falls on a wool-stapler in
Stratford-on-Avon, or on a ploughman in Ayrshire, so, in a similar
manner, the altogether different gift of the divine, life-giving Spirit
follows no lines that Churches or institutions draw. It falls upon an
Augustinian monk in a convent, and he shakes Europe. It falls upon a
tinker in Bedford gaol, and he writes _Pilgrim's Progress_. It falls
upon a cobbler in Kettering, and he founds modern Christian missions.
It blows 'where it listeth,' sovereignly indifferent to the
expectations and limitations and the externalisms, even of organised
Christianity, and touching this man and that man, not arbitrarily but
according to 'the good pleasure' that is a law to itself, because it is
perfect in wisdom and in goodness.

And as thus the life-giving Spirit imparts Himself according to higher
laws than we can grasp, so in like manner the life that is derived from
it is a life which is its own law. The Christian conscience, touched by
the Spirit of God, owes allegiance to no regulations or external
commandments laid down by man. The Christian conscience, enlightened by
the Spirit of God, at its peril will take its beliefs from any other
than from that Divine Spirit. All authority over conduct, all authority
over belief is burnt up and disappears in the presence of the grand
democracy of the true Christian principle: 'Ye are all the children of
God by faith in Jesus Christ'; and every one of you possesses the
Spirit which teaches, the Spirit which inspires, the Spirit which
enlightens, the Spirit which is the guide to all truth. So 'the wind
bloweth where it listeth,' and the voice of that Divine Quickener is,

'Myself shall to My darling be
Both law and impulse.'

Under the impulse derived from the Divine Spirit, the human spirit
'listeth' what is right, and is bound to follow the promptings of its
highest desires. Those men only are free as the air we breathe, who are
vitalised by the Spirit of the Lord, for 'where the Spirit of the Lord
is, there,' and there alone, 'is liberty.'

In this symbol there lies not only the thought of a life derived,
kindred with the life bestowed, and free like the life which is given,
but there lies also the idea of power. The wind which filled the house
was not only mighty but 'borne onward' - fitting type of the strong
impulse by which in olden times 'holy men spake as they were "borne
onward"' (the word is the same) 'by the Holy Ghost.' There are
diversities of operations, but it is the same breath of God, which
sometimes blows in the softest _pianissimo_ that scarcely rustles the
summer woods in the leafy month of June, and sometimes storms in wild
tempest that dashes the seas against the rocks. So this mighty
life-giving Agent moves in gentleness and yet in power, and sometimes
swells and rises almost to tempest, but is ever the impelling force of
all that is strong and true and fair in Christian hearts and lives.

The history of the world, since that day of Pentecost, has been a
commentary upon the words of my text. With viewless, impalpable energy,
the mighty breath of God swept across the ancient world and 'laid the
lofty city' of paganism 'low; even to the ground, and brought it even
to the dust.' A breath passed over the whole civilised world, like the
breath of the west wind upon the glaciers in the spring, melting the
thick-ribbed ice, and wooing forth the flowers, and the world was made
over again. In our own hearts and lives this is the one Power that will
make us strong and good. The question is all-important for each of us,
'Have I this life, and does it move me, as the ships are borne along by
the wind?' 'As many as are impelled by the Spirit of God,
they' - _they_ - 'are the sons of God.' Is that the breath that swells
all the sails of your lives, and drives you upon your course? If it be,
you are Christians; if it be not, you are not.

II. And now a word as to the second of these symbols - 'Cloven tongues
as of fire' - the fire of the Spirit.

I need not do more than remind you how frequently that emblem is
employed both in the Old and in the New Testament. John the Baptist
contrasted the cold negative efficiency of his baptism, which at its
best, was but a baptism of repentance, with the quickening power of the
baptism of Him who was to follow him; when he said, 'I indeed baptise
you with water, but He that cometh after me is mightier than I. He
shall baptise you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.' The two words
mean but one thing, the fire being the emblem of the Spirit.

You will remember, too, how our Lord Himself employs the same metaphor
when He speaks about His coming to bring fire on the earth, and His
longing to see it kindled into a beneficent blaze. In this connection
the fire is a symbol of a quick, triumphant energy, which will
transform us into its own likeness. There are two sides to that emblem:
one destructive, one creative; one wrathful, one loving. There are the
fire of love, and the fire of anger. There is the fire of the sunshine
which is the condition of life, as well as the fire of the lightning
which burns and consumes. The emblem of fire is selected to express the
work of the Spirit of God, by reason of its leaping, triumphant,
transforming energy. See, for instance, how, when you kindle a pile of
dead green-wood, the tongues of fire spring from point to point until
they have conquered the whole mass, and turned it all into a ruddy
likeness of the parent flame. And so here, this fire of God, if it fall
upon you, will burn up all your coldness, and will make you glow with
enthusiasm, working your intellectual convictions in fire not in frost,
making your creed a living power in your lives, and kindling you into a
flame of earnest consecration.

The same idea is expressed by the common phrases of every language. We
speak of the fervour of love, the warmth of affection, the blaze of
enthusiasm, the fire of emotion, the coldness of indifference.
Christians are to be set on fire of God. If the Spirit dwell in us, He
will make us fiery like Himself, even as fire turns the wettest
green-wood into fire. We have more than enough of cold Christians who
are afraid of nothing so much as of being betrayed into warm emotion.

I believe, dear brethren, and I am bound to express the belief, that
one of the chief wants of the Christian Church of this generation, the
Christian Church of this city, the Christian Church of this chapel, is
more of the fire of God! We are all icebergs compared with what we
ought to be. Look at yourselves; never mind about your brethren. Let
each of us look at his own heart, and say whether there is any trace in
his Christianity of the power of that Spirit who is fire. Is our
religion flame or ice? Where among us are to be found lives blazing
with enthusiastic devotion and earnest love? Do not such words sound
like mockery when applied to us? Have we not to listen to that solemn
old warning that never loses its power, and, alas! seems never to lose
its appropriateness: 'Because thou art neither cold nor hot, I will
spue thee out of My mouth.' We ought to be like the burning beings
before God's throne, the seraphim, the spirits that blaze and serve. We
ought to be like God Himself, all aflame with love. Let us seek
penitently for that Spirit of fire who will dwell in us all if we will.

The metaphor of fire suggests also - purifying. 'The Spirit of burning'
will burn the filth out of us. That is the only way by which a man can
ever be made clean. You may wash and wash and wash with the cold water
of moral reformation, you will never get the dirt out with it. No
washing and no rubbing will ever cleanse sin. The way to purge a soul
is to do with it as they do with foul clay - thrust it into the fire and
that will burn all the blackness out of it. Get the love of God into
your hearts, and the fire of His Divine Spirit into your spirits to
melt you down, as it were, and then the scum and the dross will come to
the top, and you can skim them off. Two powers conquer my sin: the one
is the blood of Jesus Christ, which washes me from all the guilt of the
past; the other is the fiery influence of that Divine Spirit which
makes me pure and clean for all the time to come. Pray to be kindled
with the fire of God.

III. Then once more, take that other metaphor, 'I will pour out of My

That implies an emblem which is very frequently used, both in the Old
and in the New Testament, viz., the Spirit as water. As our Lord said
to Nicodemus: 'Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he
cannot enter into the kingdom of God.' The 'water' stands in the same
relation to the 'Spirit' as the 'fire' does in the saying of John the
Baptist already referred to - that is to say, it is simply a symbol or
material emblem of the Spirit. I suppose nobody would say that there
were two baptisms spoken of by John, one of the Holy Ghost and one of
fire, - and I suppose that just in the same way, there are not two
agents of regeneration pointed at in our Lord's words, nor even two
conditions, but that the Spirit is the sole agent, and 'water' is but a
figure to express some aspect of His operations. So that there is no
reference to the water of baptism in the words, and to see such a
reference is to be led astray by sound, and out of a metaphor to
manufacture a miracle.

There are other passages where, in like manner, the Spirit is compared

Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 4 of 57)