Alexander Maclaren.

Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

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The part here played by the Roman authority is that which it performs
throughout the Acts. It shields infant Christianity from Jewish
assailants, like the wolf which, according to legend, suckled Romulus.
The good and the bad features of Roman rule were both valuable for that
purpose. Its contempt for ideas, and above all for speculative
differences in a religion which it regarded as a hurtful superstition,
its unsympathetic incapacity for understanding its subject nations, its
military discipline, its justice, which though often tainted was yet
better than the partisan violence which it coerced, all helped to make
it the defender of the first Christians. Strange that Rome should
shelter and Jerusalem persecute!

Mark, too, how blindly men fulfil God's purposes. The two bitter
antagonists, Jew and Roman, seem to themselves to be working in direct
opposition; but God is using them both to carry out His design. Paul
has to be got to Rome, and these two forces are combined by a wisdom
beyond their ken, to carry him thither. Two cogged wheels turning in
opposite directions fit into each other, and grind out a resultant
motion, different from either of theirs. These soldiers and that mob
were like pawns on a chessboard, ignorant of the intentions of the hand
which moves them.

IV. Note the calm courage of Paul. He too had kept his head, and though
bruised and hustled, and having but a minute or two beforehand looked
death in the face, he is ready to seize the opportunity to speak a word
for his Master. Observe the quiet courtesy of his address, and his calm
remembrance of the tribune's right to prevent his speaking. There is
nothing more striking in Paul's character than his self-command and
composure in all circumstances. This ship could rise to any wave, and
ride in any storm. It was not by virtue of happy temperament but of a
fixed faith that his heart and mind were kept in perfect peace. It is
not easy to disturb a man who counts not his life dear if only he may
complete his course. So these two men front each other, and it is hard
to tell which has the quieter pulse and the steadier hand. The same
sources of tranquil self-control and calm superiority to fortune which
stood Paul in such good stead are open to us. If God is our rock and
our high tower we shall not be moved.

The tribune had for some unknown reason settled in his mind that the
Apostle was a well-known 'Egyptian,' who had headed a band of 'Sicarii'
or 'dagger-men,' of whose bloody doings Josephus tells us. How the Jews
should have been trying to murder such a man Lysias does not seem to
have considered. But when he heard the courteous, respectful Greek
speech of the Apostle he saw at once that he had got no uncultured
ruffian to deal with, and in answer to Paul's request and explanation
gave him leave to speak. That has been thought an improbability. But
strong men recognise each other, and the brave Roman was struck with
something in the tone and bearing of the brave Jew which made him
instinctively sure that no harm would come of the permission. There
ought to be that in the demeanour of a Christian which is as a
testimonial of character for him, and sways observers to favourable


'And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh
unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great
light round about me. 7. And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice
saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why perseoutest thou Me? 8. And I answered,
Who art Thou, Lord? And He said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom
thou persecutest. 9. And they that were with me saw indeed the light,
and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of Him that spake to me.
10. And I said, What shall I do, Lord? And the Lord said unto me,
Arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all
things which are appointed for thee to do. 11. And when I could not see
for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of them that were
with me, I came into Damascus. 12. And one Ananias, a devout man
according to the law, having a good report of all the Jews which dwelt
there, 13. Came unto me, and stood, and said unto me, Brother Saul,
receive thy sight. And the same hour I looked up upon him. 14. And he
said, The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know
His will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of His
mouth. 15. For thou shalt be His witness unto all men of what thou hast
seen and heard. 16. And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized,
and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.' - ACTS xxii.

We follow Paul's example when we put Jesus' appearance to him from
heaven in a line with His appearances to the disciples on earth. 'Last
of all, He appeared to me also.' But it does not follow that the
appearances are all of the same kind, or that Paul thought that they
were. They were all equally real, equally 'objective,' equally valid
proofs of Jesus' risen life. On two critical occasions Paul told the
story of Jesus' appearance as his best 'Apologia.' 'I saw and heard
Him, and that revolutionised my life, and made me what I am.' The two
accounts are varied, as the hearers were, but the differences are
easily reconciled, and the broad facts are the same in both versions,
and in Luke's rendering in chapter ix.

A favourite theory in some quarters is that Paul's conversion was not
sudden, but that misgivings had been working in him ever since
Stephen's death. Surely that view is clean against facts. Persecuting
its adherents to the death is a strange result of dawning belief in
'this way.' Paul may be supposed to have known his state of mind as
well as a critic nineteen centuries off does, and he had no doubt that
he set out from Jerusalem a bitter hater of the convicted impostor
Jesus, and stumbled into Damascus a convinced disciple because he had
seen and heard Him. That is his account of the matter, which would not
have been meddled with if the meddlers had not taken offence at 'the
supernatural element.' We note the emphasis which Paul puts on the
suddenness of the appearance, implying that the light burst all in a
moment. A little bit of personal reminiscence comes up in his
specifying the time as 'about noon,' the brightest hour. He remembers
how the light outblazed even the blinding brilliance of a Syrian
noontide. He insists too on the fact that his senses were addressed,
both eye and ear. He saw the glory of that light, and heard the voice.
He does not say here that he saw Jesus, but that he did so is clear
from Ananias' words, 'to see the Righteous One' (ver. 14), and from I
Corinthians xv. 8. Further, he makes it very emphatic that the vision
was certified as no morbid fancy of his own, but yet was marked as
meant for him only, by the double fact that his companions did share in
it, but only in part. They did see the light, but not 'the Righteous
One'; they did hear the sound of the voice, but not so as to know what
it said. The difference between merely hearing a noise and discerning
the sense of the words is probably marked by the construction in the
Greek, and is certainly to be understood.

The blaze struck all the company to the ground (Acts xxvi. 14). Prone
on the earth, and probably with closed eyes, their leader heard his own
name twice sounded, with appeal, authority, and love in the tones. The
startling question which followed not only pierced conscience, and
called for a reasonable vindication of his action, but flashed a new
light on it as being persecution which struck at this unknown heavenly
speaker. So the first thought in Saul's mind is not about himself or
his doings but about the identity of that Speaker. Awe, if not actual
worship, is expressed in addressing Him as Lord. Wonder, with perhaps
some foreboding of what the answer would be, is audible in the
question, 'Who art Thou?' Who can imagine the shock of the answer to
Saul's mind? Then the man whom he had thought of as a vile apostate,
justly crucified and not risen as his dupes dreamed, lived in heaven,
knew him, Saul, and all that he had been doing, was 'apparelled in
celestial light,' and yet in heavenly glory was so closely identified
with these poor people whom he had been hunting to death that to strike
them was to hurt Him! A bombshell had burst, shattering the foundation
of his fortifications. A deluge had swept away the ground on which he
had stood. His whole life was revolutionised. Its most solid elements
were dissolved into vapour, and what he had thought misty nonsense was
now the solid thing. To find a 'why' for his persecuting was
impossible, unless he had said (what in effect he did say), 'I did it
ignorantly.' When a man has a glimpse of Jesus exalted to heaven, and
is summoned by Him to give a reason for his life of alienation, that
life looks very different from what it did, when seen by dimmer light.
Clothes are passable by candle-light that look very shabby in sunshine.
When Jesus comes to us, His first work is to set us to judge our past,
and no man can muster up respectable answers to His question, 'Why?'
for all sin is unreasonable, and nothing but obedience to Him can
vindicate itself in His sight.

Saul threw down his arms at once. His characteristic impetuosity and
eagerness to carry out his convictions impelled him to a surrender as
complete as his opposition. The test of true belief in the ascended
Jesus is to submit the will to Him, to be chiefly desirous of knowing
His will, and ready to do it. 'Who art Thou, Lord?' should be followed
by 'What shall I do, Lord?'

Blind Saul, led by the hand into the city which he had expected to
enter so differently, saw better than ever before. 'The glory of that
light' blinds us to things seen, but makes us able to see afar off the
only realities, the things unseen. Speaking to Jews, as here, Paul
described Ananias as a devout adherent of the law, in order to
conciliate them and to suggest his great principle that a Christian was
not an apostate but a complete Jew. To Agrippa he drops all reference
to Ananias as irrelevant, and throws together the words on the road and
the commission received through Ananias as equally Christ's voice. Here
he lays stress on his agency in restoring sight, and on his message as
including two points - that it was 'the God of our fathers' who had
'appointed' the vision, and that the purpose of the vision was to make
Saul a witness to all men. The bearing of this on the conciliatory aim
of the discourse is plain. We note also the precedence given in the
statement of the particulars of the vision to 'knowing his will' - that
was the end for which the light and the voice were given. Observe too
how the twofold evidence of sense is signalised, both in the reference
to seeing the Righteous One and to hearing His voice and in the
commission to witness what Saul had seen and heard. The personal
knowledge of Jesus, however attained, constitutes the qualification and
the obligation to be His witness. And the convincing testimony is when
we can say, as we all can say if we are Christ's, 'That which we have
heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that ... declare we unto


'And it came to pass, that, when I was come again to Jerusalem, even
while I prayed in the Temple, I was in a trance; 18. And saw Him saying
unto me, Make haste, and get thee quickly out of Jerusalem: for they
will not receive thy testimony concerning Me. 19. And I said, Lord,
they know that I imprisoned and beat in every synagogue them that
believed on Thee: 20. And when the blood of Thy martyr Stephen was
shed, I also was standing by, and consenting unto his death, and kept
the raiment of them that slew him. 21. And He said unto me, Depart: for
I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles. 22. And they gave him
audience unto this word, and then lifted up their voices, and said,
Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he
should live. 23. And as they cried out, and cast off their clothes, and
threw dust into the air, 24. The chief captain commanded him to be
brought into the castle, and bade that he should be examined by
scourging; that he might know wherefore they cried so against him. 25.
And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said unto the centurion that
stood by, Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and
uncondemned? 26. When the centurion heard that, he went and told the
chief captain, saying, Take heed what thou doest: for this man is a
Roman. 27. Then the chief captain came, and said, Tell me, art thou a
Roman? He said, Yea. 28. And the chief captain answered, With a great
sum obtained I this freedom. And Paul said, But I was free born. 29.
Then straightway they departed from him which should have examined him:
and the chief captain also was afraid, after he knew that he was a
Roman, and because he had bound him. 30. On the morrow, because he
would have known the certainty wherefore he was accused of the Jews, he
loosed him from his bands, and commanded the chief priests and all
their council to appear, and brought Paul down, and set him before
them.' - ACTS xxii. 17-30.

The threatened storm soon burst on Paul in Jerusalem. On the third day
after his arrival he began the ceremonial recommended by the elders to
prove his adherence to the law. Before the seven days during which it
lasted were over the riot broke out, and he was saved from death only
by the military tribune hurrying down to the Temple and dragging him
from the mob.

The tribune's only care was to stamp out a riot, and whether the victim
was 'that Egyptian' or not, to prevent his being murdered. He knew
nothing, and cared as little, about the grounds of the tumult, but he
was not going to let a crowd of turbulent Jews take the law into their
own hands, and flout the majesty of Roman justice. So he lets the
nearly murdered man say his say and keeps the mob off him. It was a
strange scene - below, the howling zealots; above, on the stairs, the
Christian apologists guarded from his countrymen by a detachment of
legionaries; and the assembly presided over by a Roman tribune.

It is very characteristic of Paul that he thought that his own
conversion was the best argument that he could use with his
fellow-Israelites. So he tells his story, and this section strikes into
his speech at the point where he is coming to very thin ice indeed, and
is about to vindicate his work among the Gentiles by declaring that it
was done in obedience to a command from heaven. We need not discuss the
date of the trance, whether it was in his first visit to Jerusalem
after his conversion or, as Ramsay strongly argues, is to be put at the
visit mentioned in Acts xi. 30 and xii. 25.

We note the delicate, conciliatory skill with which he brings out that
his conversion had not made him less a devout worshipper in the Temple,
by specifying it as the scene of the trance, and prayer as his
occupation then. The mention of the Temple also invested the vision
with sanctity.

Very noticeable too is the avoidance of the name of Jesus, which would
have stirred passion in the crowd. We may also observe that the first
words of our Lord, as given by Paul, did not tell him whither he was to
go, but simply bade him leave Jerusalem. The full announcement of the
mission to the Gentiles was delayed both by Jesus to Paul and by Paul
to his brethren. He was to 'get quickly out of Jerusalem'; that was
tragic enough. He was to give up working for his own people, whom he
loved so well. And the reason was their rooted incredulity and their
hatred of him. Other preachers might do something with them, but Paul
could not. 'They will not receive testimony of _thee_.'

But the Apostle's heart clung to his nation, and not even his Lord's
command was accepted without remonstrance. His patriotism led him to
the verge of disobedience, and encouraged him to put in his 'But,
Lord,' with boldness that was all but presumption. He ventures to
suggest a reason why the Jews _would_, as he thinks, receive his
testimony. They knew what he had been, and they must bethink themselves
that there must be something real and mighty in the power which had
turned his whole way of thinking and living right round, and made him
love all that he had hated, and count all that he had prized 'but
dung.' The remonstrance is like Moses', like Jeremiah's, like that of
many a Christian set to work that goes against the grain, and called to
relinquish what he would fain do, and do what he would rather leave

But Jesus does not take His servants' remonstrances amiss, if only they
will make them frankly to Him, and not keep muttering them under their
breath to themselves. Let us say all that is in our hearts. He will
listen, and clear away hesitations, and show us our path, and make us
willing to walk in it. Jesus did not discuss the matter with Paul, but
reiterated the command, and made it more pointed and clear; and then
Paul stopped objecting and yielded his will, as we should do. 'When he
would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, The will of the Lord be
done.' The Apostle had kept from the obnoxious word as long as he
could, but it had to come, and he tells the enraged listeners at last,
without circumlocution, that he is the Apostle of the Gentiles, that
Jesus has made him so against his will, and that therefore he must do
the work appointed him, though his heart-strings crack with seeming to
be cold to Israel.

The burst of fury, expressed in gestures which anybody who has ever
seen two Easterns quarrelling can understand, looks fitter for a
madhouse than an audience of men in their senses. They yelled and tore
their garments (and their beards, no doubt), and clutched handfuls of
dust and tossed it in the air, like Shimei cursing David. What a
picture of frenzied hate! And what was it all for? Because Gentiles
were to be allowed to share in Israel's privileges. And what were the
privileges which they thus jealously monopolised? The favour and
protection of the God who, as their own prophets had taught them, was
the God of the whole earth, and revealed Him to Israel that Israel
might reveal Him to the world.

The less they entered into the true possession of their heritage, the
more savagely they resented sharing it with the nations. The more their
prerogative became a mere outward thing, the more they snarled at any
one who proposed to participate in it. To seek to keep religious
blessings to one's self is a conclusive proof that they are not really
possessed. If we have them we shall long to impart them. Formal
religionists always dislike missionary enterprise.

The tribune no doubt had been standing silently watching, in his
strong, contemptuous Roman way, the paroxysm of rage sweeping over his
troublesome charge. Of course he did not understand a word that the
culprit had been saying, and could not make out what had produced the
outburst. He felt that there was something here that he had not
fathomed, and that he must get to the bottom of. It was useless to lay
hold of any of these shrieking maniacs and try to get a reasonable word
out of them. So he determined to see what he could make of the orator,
who had already astonished him by traces of superior education, and was
evidently no mere vulgar firebrand or sedition-monger. He might have
tried gentler means of extracting the truth than scourging, but that
process of 'examination,' as it is flatteringly called, was common, and
has not been antiquated for so many centuries that we need wonder at
this Roman officer using it.

Paul submitted, and was already tied up to some whipping-post, in an
attitude which would expose his back to the lash, when he quietly
dropped, to the inferior officer detailed to superintend the flogging,
the question which fell like a bombshell. Possibly the Apostle had not
known what the soldiers were ordered to do with him till he was tied
up. We cannot tell why he did not plead his citizenship sooner. But we
may remember that at Philippi he did not plead it at all till after the
scourging. Why he delayed so long in the present instance, and why he
at last spoke the magic words, 'I am a Roman citizen,' we cannot say.
But we may gather the two lessons that Christ's servants are often wise
in submitting silently to wrongs, and that they are within their rights
in availing themselves of legal defences against illegal treatment.
Whether silence or protest is the more expedient must be determined in
each case by conscience, guided by the sought-for guidance of the
enlightening Spirit. The determining consideration should be, Which
course will best glorify my Master?

The information brought the tribune in haste to the place where the
Apostle was still tied up. The tables were turned indeed. His brief
answer, 'Yea,' was accepted at once, for to claim the sacred name of
Roman falsely would have been too dangerous, and no doubt Paul's
bearing impressed the tribune with a conviction of his truthfulness. A
hint of contempt and doubt lies in his remark that he had paid dearly
for the franchise, which remark implies, 'Where did a poor man like you
get the money then?' A shameful trade in selling citizens' rights was
carried on in the degraded days of the Empire by underlings at court,
and no doubt the tribune had procured his citizenship in that way.
Paul's answer explains that he was born free, and so was above his

That discovery put an end to all thought of scourging. Paul was at once
liberated, and the tribune, terrified that he might be reported, seeks
to repair his error and changes his tactics, retaining Paul for safety
in the castle, and summoning the Sanhedrim, to try to find out more of
this strange affair through them. The great council of the nation had
sunk low indeed when it had to obey the call of a Roman soldier.

Thus once more, as so continually in the Acts, Rome is friendly to the
Christian teachers and saves them from Jewish fury. To point out that
early protection and benevolent sufferance is one purpose of the whole
book. The days of Roman persecution had not yet come. The Empire was
favourable to Christianity, not only because its officials were too
proud to take interest in petty squabbles between two sects of Jews
about their absurd superstitions, but reasons of political wisdom
combined with supercilious indifference to bring about this attitude.

The strong hand of Rome, too, if it crushed national independence, also
suppressed violence, kept men from flying at each other's throats,
spread peace over wide lands, and made the journeyings of Paul and the
planting of the early Christian Churches possible. It was a
God-appointed, though an imperfect, and in some aspects, mischievous
unity, and prepared the way for that higher form of unity realised in
the Church which finally shattered the coarser Empire which had at
first sheltered it. The Caesars were doing God's work when they were
following their own lust of empire. They were yoked to Christ's
chariot, though unwitting and unwilling. To them, as truly as to Cyrus,
might the divine voice have said, 'I girded thee, though thou hast not
known Me.'


'And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good
cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of Me in Jerusalem, so must
thou bear witness also at Rome.' - ACTS xxiii. 11.

It had long been Paul's ambition to 'preach the Gospel to you that are
at Rome also.' His settled policy, as shown by this Book of the Acts,
was to fly at the head, to attack the great centres of population. We
trace him from Antioch to Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth,
Ephesus; and of course Rome was the goal, where a blow struck at the
heart might reverberate through the empire. So he had planned for it,
and prayed about it, and thought about it, and spoken about it. But his
wish was accomplished, as our prayers and purposes so often are, in a
manner very strange to him. A popular riot in Jerusalem, a
half-friendly arrest by the contemptuous impartiality of a Roman
officer, a final rejection by the Sanhedrim, a prison in Caesarea, an
appeal to Caesar, a weary voyage, a shipwreck: this was the chain of
circumstances which fulfilled his desire, and brought him to the
imperial city.

My text comes at the crisis of his fate. He has just been rejected by
his people, and for the moment is in safety in the castle under the
charge of the Roman garrison. One can fancy how, as he lay there in the
barrack that night, he felt that he had come to a turning-point; and

Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 47 of 57)