Copyright
Alexander Maclaren.

Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

. (page 41 of 57)
Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 41 of 57)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


seems to me to be, in its very nature, inseparable from earnest
Christian faith. All emotion demands expression; and if a man has never
felt that he must let his Christian faith have vent, it is a very bad
sign. As certainly as fermentation or effervescence demands outgush, so
certainly does emotion demand expression. We all know that. The same
impulse that makes a mother bend over her babe with unmeaning words and
tokens that seem to unsympathetic onlookers foolish, ought to influence
all Christians to speak the Name they love. All conviction demands
expression. There may be truths which have so little bearing upon human
life that he who perceives them feels little obligation to say anything
about them. But these are the exceptions; and the more weighty and the
more closely affecting human interests anything that we have learned to
believe as truth is, the more do we feel in our hearts that, in making
us its believers, it has made us its apostles. Christ's saying, 'What
ye hear in the ear, that preach ye on the housetops,' expresses a
universal truth which is realised in many regions, and ought to be most
emphatically realised in the Christian. For surely of all the truths
that men can catch a glimpse of, or grapple to their hearts, or store
in their understandings, there are none which bring with them such
tremendous consequences, and therefore are of so solemn import to
proclaim to all the children of men, as the truth, which we profess we
have received, of personal salvation through Jesus Christ.

If there never had been a single commandment to that effect, I know not
how the Christian Church or the Christian individual could have
abstained from declaring the great and sweet Name to which it and he
owe so much. I do not care to present this matter as a commandment, nor
to speak now of obligation or responsibility. The _impulse_ is what I
would fix your attention upon. It is inseparable from the Christian
life. It may vary in force, as we see in the incident before us. It
will vary in grip, according as other circumstances and duties insist
upon being attended to. The form in which it is yielded to will vary
indefinitely in individuals. But if they are Christian people it is
always there.

Well then, what about the masses of so-called Christians who feel
nothing of any such constraining force? And what about the many who
feel enough of it to make them also feel that they are wrong in not
yielding to it, but not enough to make their conduct be influenced by
it? Brethren, I venture to believe that the measure in which this
impulse to speak the word and use direct efforts for somebody's
conversion is felt by Christians, is a very fair test of the depth of
their own religion. If a vessel is half empty it will not run over. If
it is full to the brim, the sparkling treasure will fall on all sides.
A weak plant may never push its green leaves above the ground, but a
strong one will rise into the light. A spark may be smothered in a heap
of brushwood, but a steady flame will burn its way out. If this word
has not a grip of you, impelling you to its utterance, I would have you
not to be too sure that you have a grip of it.

III. Lastly, we have here the witness to the word.

'He was constrained by the word, _testifying_.' Now I do not know
whether it is imposing too much meaning upon a non-significant
difference of expression, if I ask you to note the difference between
that phrase and the one which describes his previous activity: 'He
_reasoned_ in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade' the
Jews and the Greeks, but when the old impulse came back in new force,
_reasoning_ was far too cold a method, and Paul took to _testifying_.
Whether that be so or no, mark that the witness of one's own personal
conviction and experience is the strongest weapon that a Christian can
use. I do not despise the place of reasoning, but arguments do not
often change opinions; they never change hearts. Logic and
controversial discoursing may 'prepare the way of the Lord,' but it is
'in the wilderness.' But when a man calls aloud, 'Come and hear all ye,
and I will declare what God hath done for my soul'; or when he tells
his brother, 'We have found the Messias'; or when he sticks to 'One
thing I know, that whereas I was blind, now I see,' it is difficult for
any one to resist, and impossible for any one to answer, that way of
testifying,

It is a way that we can all adopt if we will. Christian men and women
can all say such things. I do not forget that there are indirect ways
of spreading the Gospel. Some of you think that you do enough when you
give your money and your interest in order to diffuse it. You can buy a
substitute in the militia, but you cannot buy a substitute in Christ's
service. You have each some congregation to which you can speak, if it
is no larger than Paul's - namely, two people, Aquila and Priscilla.
What talks they would have in their lodging, as they plaited the wisps
of black hair into rough cloth, and stitched the strips into tents!
Aquila was not a Christian when Paul picked him up, but he became one
very soon; and it was the preaching in the workshop, amidst the dust,
that made him one. If we long to speak about Christ we shall find
plenty of people to speak to. 'Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord.'

Now, dear friends, I have only one word more. I have no doubt there are
some among us who have been saying, 'This sermon does not apply to me
at all.' Does it not? If it does not, what does that mean? It means
that you have not the first requisite for spreading the word - viz.
personal faith in the word. It means that you have put away, or at
least neglected to take in, the word and the Saviour of whom it speaks,
into your own lives. But it does _not_ mean that you have got rid of
the word thereby. It will not in that case lay the grip of which I have
been speaking upon you, but it will not let you go. It will lay on you
a far more solemn and awful clutch, and like a jailer with his hand on
the culprit's shoulder, will 'constrain' you into the presence of the
Judge. You can make it a savour of life unto life, or of death unto
death. And though you do not grasp it, it grasps and holds you. 'The
word that I speak unto him, the same shall judge him at the last day.'



GALLIO

'And when Paul was now about to open his mouth, Gallio said unto the
Jews, If it were a matter of wrong: or wicked lewdness, O ye Jews,
reason would that I should bear with you: 15. But if it be a question
of words and names, and of your law, look ye to it; for I will be no
judge of such matters.' - ACTS xviii. 14, 15.

There is something very touching in the immortality of fame which comes
to the men who for a moment pass across the Gospel story, like shooting
stars kindled for an instant as they enter our atmosphere. How little
Gallio dreamed that he would live for ever in men's mouths by reason of
this one judicial dictum! He was Seneca's brother, and was possibly
leavened by his philosophy and indisposed to severity. He has been
unjustly condemned. There are some striking lessons from the story.

I. The remarkable anticipation of the true doctrine as to the functions
of civil magistrates.

Gallio draws a clear distinction between conduct and opinion, and
excepts the whole of the latter region from his sway. It is the first
case in which the civil authorities refused to take cognisance of a
charge against a man on account of his opinions. Nineteen hundred years
have not brought all tribunals up to that point yet. Gallio indeed was
influenced mainly by philosophic contempt for the trivialities of what
he thought a superstition. We are influenced by our recognition of the
sanctity of individual conviction, and still more by reverence for
truth and by the belief that it should depend only on its own power for
progress and on itself for the defeat of its enemies.

II. The tragic mistake about the nature of the Gospel which men make.

There is something very pathetic in the erroneous estimates made by
those persons mentioned in Acts who some once or twice come in contact
with the preachers of Christ. How little they recognise what was before
them! Their responsibility is in better hands than ours. But in Gallio
there is a trace of tendencies always in operation.

We see in him the practical man's contempt for mere ideas. The man of
affairs, be he statesman or worker, is always apt to think that things
are more than thoughts. Gallio, proconsul in Corinth, and his brother
official, Pilate, in Jerusalem, both believed in powers that they could
see. The question of the one, for an answer to which he did not wait,
was not the inquiry of a searcher after truth, but the exclamation of a
sceptic who thought all the contradictory answers that rang through the
world to be demonstrations that the question had no answer. The
impatient refusal of the other to have any concern in settling 'such
matters' was steeped in the same characteristically Roman spirit of
impatient distrust and suspicion of mere ideas. He believed in Roman
force and authority, and thought that such harmless visionaries as Paul
and his company might be allowed to go their own way, and he did not
know that they carried with them a solvent and constructive power
before which the solid-seeming structure of the Empire was destined to
crumble, as surely as thick-ribbed ice before the sirocco.

And how many of us believe in wealth and material progress, and regard
the region of truth as very shadowy and remote! This is a danger
besetting us all. The true forces that sway the world are ideas.

We see in Gallio supercilious indifference to mere 'theological
subtleties.' To him Paul's preaching and the Jews' passionate denials
of it seemed only a squabble about 'words and names.' Probably he had
gathered his impression from Paul's eager accusers, who would charge
him with giving the name of 'Christ' to Jesus.

Gallio's attitude was partly Stoical contempt for all superstitions,
partly, perhaps, an eclectic belief that all these warring religions
were really saying the same thing and differed only in words and names;
and partly sheer indifference to the whole subject. Thus Christianity
appears to many in this day.

What is it in reality? Not words but power: a Name, indeed, but a Name
which is life. Alas for us, who by our jangling have given colour to
this misconception!

We see in Gallio the mistake that the Gospel has little relation to
conduct. Gallio drew a broad distinction between conduct and opinion,
and there he was right. But he imagined that this opinion had nothing
to do with conduct, and how wrong he was there we need not elaborate.

The Gospel is the mightiest power for shaping conduct.

III. The ignorant levity with which men pass the crisis of their lives.

How little Gallio knew of what a possibility was opened out before him!
Angels were hovering unseen. We seldom recognise the fateful moments of
our lives till they are past.

The offer of salvation in Christ is ever a crisis. It may never be
repeated. Was Gallio ever again brought into contact with Paul or
Paul's Lord? We know not. He passes out of sight, the search-light is
turned in another direction, and we lose him in the darkness. The
extent of his criminality is in better hands than ours, though we
cannot but let our thoughts go forward to the time when he, like us
all, will stand at the judgment bar of Jesus, no longer a judge but
judged. Let us hope that before he passed hence, he learned how full of
spirit and of life the message was, which he once took for a mere
squabble about 'words and names,' and thought too trivial to occupy his
court. And let us remember that the Jesus, whom we are sometimes
tempted to judge as of little importance to us, will one day judge us,
and that His judgment will settle our fate for evermore.



TWO FRUITFUL YEARS

'And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having
passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain
disciples. 2. He said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since
ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard
whether there be any Holy Ghost. 3. And he said unto them, Unto what
then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John's baptism. 4. Then said
Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto
the people, that they should believe on Him which should come after
him, that is, on Christ Jesus. 5. When they heard this, they were
baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6. And when Paul had laid his
hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with
tongues, and prophesied. 7. And all the men were about twelve. 8. And
he went into the synagogue, and spake boldly for the space of three
months, disputing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of
God. 9. But when divers were hardened, and believed not, but spake evil
of that way before the multitude, he departed from them, and separated
the disciples, disputing daily in the school of one Tyrannus. 10. And
this continued by the space of two years; so that all they which dwelt
in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks. 11. And
God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul: 12. So that from his
body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the
diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of
them.' - ACTS xix. 1-12.

This passage finds Paul in Ephesus. In the meantime he had paid that
city a hasty visit on his way back from Greece, had left his friends,
Aquila and Priscilla, in it, and had gone on to Jerusalem, thence
returning to Antioch, and visiting the churches in Asia Minor which he
had planted on his former journeys. From the inland and higher
districts he has come down to the coast, and established himself in the
great city of Ephesus, where the labours of Aquila, and perhaps others,
had gathered a small band of disciples. Two points are especially made
prominent in this passage - the incorporation of John's disciples with
the Church, and the eminent success of Paul's preaching in Ephesus.

The first of these is a very remarkable and, in some respects, puzzling
incident. It is tempting to bring it into connection with the
immediately preceding narrative as to Apollos. The same stage of
spiritual development is presented in these twelve men and in that
eloquent Alexandrian. They and he were alike in knowing only of John's
baptism; but if they had been Apollos' pupils, they would most probably
have been led by him into the fuller light which he received through
Priscilla and Aquila. More probably, therefore, they had been John's
disciples, independently of Apollos. Their being recognised as
'disciples' is singular, when we consider their very small knowledge of
Christian truth; and their not having been previously instructed in its
rudiments, if they were associating with the Church, is not less so.
But improbable things do happen, and part of the reason for an event
being recorded is often its improbability. Luke seems to have been
struck by the singular similarity between Apollos and these men, and to
have told the story, not only because of its importance but because of
its peculiarity.

The first point to note is the fact that these men were disciples. Paul
speaks of their having 'believed,' and they were evidently associated
with the Church. But the connection must have been loose, for they had
not received baptism. Probably there was a fringe of partial converts
hanging round each church, and Paul, knowing nothing of the men beyond
the fact that he found them along with the others, accepted them as
'disciples.' But there must have been some reason for doubt, or his
question would not have been asked. They 'believed' in so far as John
had taught the coming of Messiah. But they did not know that Jesus was
the Messiah whose coming John had taught.

Paul's question is, 'Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you
believed?' Obviously he missed the marks of the Spirit in them, whether
we are to suppose that these were miraculous powers or moral and
religious elevation. Now this question suggests that the possession of
the Holy Spirit is the normal condition of all believers; and that
truth cannot be too plainly stated or urgently pressed to-day. He is
'the Spirit, which they that believe on Him' shall 'receive.' The outer
methods of His bestowment vary: sometimes He is given after baptism,
and sometimes, as to Cornelius, before it; sometimes by laying on of
Apostolic hands, sometimes without it. But one thing constantly
precedes, namely, faith; and one thing constantly follows faith,
namely, the gift of the Holy Spirit. Modern Christianity does not grasp
that truth as firmly or make it as prominent as it ought.

The question suggests, though indirectly, that the signs of the
Spirit's presence are sadly absent in many professing Christians. Paul
asked it in wonder. If he came into modern churches, he would have to
ask it once more. Possibly he looked for the visible tokens in powers
of miracle-working and the like. But these were temporary accidents,
and the permanent manifestations are holiness, consciousness of
sonship, God-directed longings, religious illumination, victory over
the flesh. These things should be obvious in disciples. They will be,
if the Spirit is not quenched. Unless they are, what sign of being
Christians do we present?

The answer startles. They had not heard whether the Holy Ghost had been
_given_; for that is the true meaning of their reply. John had foretold
the coming of One who should baptize with the fire of that divine
Spirit. His disciples, therefore, could not be ignorant of the
existence thereof; but they had never heard whether their Master's
prophecy had been fulfilled. What a glimpse that gives us of the small
publicity attained by the story of Jesus!

Paul's second question betrays even more astonishment than did his
first. He had taken for granted that, as disciples, the men had been
baptized; and his question implies that a pre-requisite of Christian
baptism was the teaching which they said that they had not had, and
that a consequence of it was the gift of the Spirit, which he saw that
they did not possess. Of course Paul's teaching is but summarised here.
Its gist was that Jesus was the Messiah whom John had heralded, that
John had himself taught that his mission was preliminary, and that
therefore his true disciples must advance to faith in Christ.

The teaching was welcomed, for these men were not of the sort who saw
in Jesus a rival to John, as others of his disciples did. They became
'disciples indeed,' and then followed baptism, apparently not
administered by Paul, and imposition of Paul's hands. The Holy Spirit
then came on them, as on the disciples on Pentecost, and 'they spoke
with tongues and prophesied.' It was a repetition of that day, as a
testimony that the gifts were not limited by time or place, but were
the permanent possession of believers, as truly in heathen Ephesus as
in Jerusalem; and we miss the meaning of the event unless we add, as
truly in Britain to-day as in any past. The fire lit on Pentecost has
not died down into grey ashes. If we 'believe,' it will burn on our
heads and, better, in our spirits.

Much ingenuity has been expended in finding profound meanings in the
number of 'twelve' here. The Apostles and their supernatural gifts, the
patriarchs as founders of Israel, have been thought of as explaining
the number, as if these men were founders of a new Israel, or
Apostolate. But all that is trifling with the story, which gives no
hint that the men were of any special importance, and it omits the fact
that they were '_about_ twelve,' not precisely that number. Luke simply
wishes us to learn that there was a group of them, but how many he does
not exactly know. More important is it to notice that this is the last
reference to John or his disciples in the New Testament. The narrator
rejoices to point out that some at least of these were led onwards into
full faith.

The other part of the section presents mainly the familiar features of
Apostolic ministration, the first appeal to the synagogue, the
rejection of the message by it, and then the withdrawal of Paul and the
Jewish disciples. The chief characteristics of the narrative are Paul's
protracted stay in Ephesus, the establishment of a centre of public
evangelising in the lecture hall of a Gentile teacher, the unhindered
preaching of the Gospel, and the special miracles accompanying it. The
importance of Ephesus as the eye and heart of proconsular Asia explains
the lengthened stay. 'A great door and effectual,' said Paul, 'is
opened unto me'; and he was not the man to refrain from pushing in at
it because 'there are many adversaries.' Rather opposition was part of
his reason for persistence, as it should always he.

There comes a point in the most patient labour, however, when it is
best no longer to 'cast pearls' before those who 'trample them under
foot,' and Paul set an example of wise withdrawal as well as of brave
pertinacity, in leaving the synagogue when his remaining there only
hardened disobedient hearts. Note that word _disobedient_. It teaches
that the moral element in unbelief is resistance of the will. The two
words are not synonyms, though they apply to the same state of mind.
Rather the one lays bare the root of the other and declares its guilt.
Unbelief comes from disobedience, and therefore is fit subject for
punishment. Again observe that expression for Christianity, 'the Way,'
which occurs several times in the Acts. The Gospel points the path for
us to tread. It is not a body of truth merely, but it is a guide for
practice. Discipleship is manifested in conduct. This Gospel points the
way through the wilderness to Zion and to rest. It is '_the_ Way,' the
only path, 'the Way everlasting.'

It was a bold step to gather the disciples in 'the school of Tyrannus.'
He was probably a Greek professor of rhetoric or lecturer on
philosophy, and Paul may have hired his hall, to the horror, no doubt,
of the Rabbis. It was a complete breaking with the synagogue and a bold
appeal to the heathen public. Ephesus must have been better governed
than Philippi and Lystra, and the Jewish element must have been
relatively weaker, to allow of Paul's going on preaching with so much
publicity for two years.

Note the flexibility of his methods, his willingness to use even a
heathen teacher's school for his work, and the continuous energy of the
man. Not on Sabbath days only, but daily, he was at his post. The
multitudes of visitors from all parts to the great city supplied a
constant stream of listeners, for Ephesus was a centre for the whole
country. We may learn from Paul to concentrate work in important
centres, not to be squeamish about where we stand to preach the Gospel,
and not to be afraid of making ourselves conspicuous. Paul's message
hallows the school of Tyrannus; and the school of Tyrannus, where men
have been accustomed to go for widely different teaching, is a good
place for Paul to give forth his message in.

The 'special miracles' which were wrought are very remarkable, and
unlike the usual type of miracles. It does not appear that Paul himself
sent the 'handkerchiefs and aprons,' which conveyed healing virtue, but
that he simply permitted their use. The converts had faith to believe
that such miracles would be wrought, and God honoured the faith. But
note how carefully the narrative puts Paul's part in its right place.
God 'wrought'; Paul was only the channel. If the eager people, who
carried away the garments, had superstitiously fancied that there was
virtue in Paul, and had not looked beyond him to God, it is implied
that no miracles would have been wrought. But still the cast of these
healings is anomalous, and only paralleled by the similar instances in
Peter's case.

The principle laid down by Peter (ch. iii. 12) is to be kept in view in
the study of all the miracles in the Acts. It is Jesus Christ who
works, and not His servants who heal by their 'own power or holiness.'
Jesus can heal with or without material channels, but sometimes chooses
to employ such vehicles as these, just as on earth He chose to anoint
blind eyes with clay, and to send the man to wash it off at the pool.
Sense-bound faith is not rejected, but is helped according to its need,
that it may be strengthened and elevated.



WOULD-BE EXORCISTS

'...Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye?' - ACTS xix. 15.

These exorcists had no personal union with Jesus. To them He was only



Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 41 of 57)