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Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

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the thoughts were busy in his mind, 'Is this for life or for death? Am
I to do any more work for Christ, or am I silenced for ever?' - 'And the
Lord stood by him and said, Be of good cheer, Paul!' The divine message
assured him that he should live; it testified of Christ's approbation
of his past, and promised him that, in recompense for that past, he
should have wider work to do. So he passed to the unknown future
quietly; and went on his way with the Master by his side.

Now, dear friends, it seems to me that in these great words there lie
lessons applying to all Christian people as truly, though in different
fashion, as they did to the Apostle, and having an especial bearing on
that great enterprise of Christian missions, with which I would connect
them in this sermon. I desire, then, to draw out the lessons which seem
to me to lie under the surface of this great promise.

I. To live ought to be, for a Christian, to witness.

The promise in form is a promise of continued testimony-bearing; in its
substance, one might say, it is a promise of continued life. Paul is
cheered, not by being told that the wrath of the enemy will launch
itself at his head in vain, and that he will bear a charmed life
through it all, but by being told that there is work for him to do yet.
That is the shape in which the promise of life is held out to him. So
it always ought to be; a Christian man's life ought to be one
continuous witnessing for that Lord Christ who stood by the Apostle in
the castle at Jerusalem.

Let me just urge this upon you for a few moments. It seems to me that
to raise up witnesses for Himself is, in one aspect, the very purpose
of all Christ's work. You and I, dear brethren, if we have any living
hold of that Lord, have received Him into our hearts, not only in order
that for ourselves we may rejoice in Him, but in order that, for
ourselves rejoicing in Him, we may 'show forth the virtues of Him who
hath called us out of darkness into His marvellous light.' There is no
creature so great as that he is not regarded as a means to a further
end; and there is no creature so small but that he has the right to
claim happiness and blessing from the Hand that made him. Jesus Christ
has drawn us to Himself, that we may know the sweetness of His
presence, the cleansing of His blood, the stirring and impulse of His
indwelling life in us for our own joy and our own completion, but also
that we may be His witnesses and weapons, according to that great word:
'This people have I formed for Myself. They shall shew forth My praise.'

God has 'shined into our hearts in order that we may give,' reflecting
the beams that fall upon them, 'the light of the knowledge of the glory
of God, in the face of Jesus Christ.' Brother and sister, if you have
the Christian life in your souls, one purpose of your possessing it is
that you may bear witness for Him.

Again, such witness-bearing is the result of all true, deep, Christian
life. All life longs to manifest itself in action. Every conviction
that a man has seeks for utterance; especially so do the beliefs that
go deepest and touch the moral and spiritual nature and relationships
of a man. He that perceives them is thereby impelled to desire to utter
them. There can be no real, deep possession of that great truth of the
Gospel which we profess to be the foundation of our personal lives,
unless we have felt the impulse to spread the name and to declare the
sweetness of the Lord. The very same impulse that makes the loving
heart carve the beloved name on the smooth rind of the tree makes it
sweet to one who is in real touch and living fellowship with Jesus
Christ to speak about Him. O brother! _there_ is a very sharp test for
us. I know that there are hundreds of professing Christians - decent,
respectable sort of people, with a tepid, average amount of Christian
faith and principle in them - who never felt that overmastering desire,
'I _must_ let this thing out through my lips.' Why? Why do they not
feel it? Because their own possession of Christ is so superficial and
partial. Jeremiah's experience will be repeated where there is vigorous
Christian life: 'Thy word shut up in my bones was like a fire' - that
burned itself through all the mass that was laid upon it, and ate its
way victoriously into the light - 'and I was weary with forbearing, and
I could not stay.' Christian men and women, do you know anything of
that o'er-mastering impulse? If you do not, look to the depth and
reality of your Christian profession.

Again, this witnessing is the condition of all strong life. If you keep
nipping the buds off a plant you will kill it. If you never say a word
to a human soul about your Christianity, your Christianity will tend to
evaporate. Action confirms and strengthens convictions; speech deepens
conviction; and although it is possible for any one - and some of us
ministers are in great danger of making the possibility a reality - to
talk away his religion, for one of us who loses it by speaking too much
about it, there are twenty that damage it by speaking too little. Shut
it up, and it will be like some wild creature put into a cellar, fast
locked and unventilated; when you open the door it will be dead. Shut
it up, as so many of our average Christian professors and members of
our congregations and churches do, and when you come to take it out, it
will be like some volatile perfume that has been put into a vial and
locked away in a drawer and forgotten; there will be nothing left but
an empty bottle, and a rotten cork. Speak your faith if you would have
your faith strengthened. Muzzle it, and you go a long way to kill it.
You are witnesses, and you cannot blink the obligation nor shirk the
duties without damaging that in yourselves to which you are to witness.

Further, this task of witnessing for Christ can be done by all kinds of
life. I do not need to dwell upon the distinction between the two great
methods which open themselves out before every one of us. They do so;
for direct work in speaking the name of Jesus Christ is possible for
every Christian, whoever he or she is, however weak, ignorant,
uninfluential, with howsoever narrow a circle. There is always somebody
that God means to be the audience of His servant whenever that servant
speaks of Christ. Do you not know that there are people in this world,
as wives, children, parents, friends of different sorts, who would
listen to you more readily than they would listen to any one else
speaking about Jesus Christ? Friend, have you utilised these
relationships in the interests of that great Name, and in the highest
interests of the persons that sustain them to you, and of yourselves
who sustain these to them?

And then there is indirect work that we can all do in various ways, I
do not mean only by giving money, though of course that is important,
but I mean all the manifold ways in which Christian people can show
their sympathy with, and their interest in, the various forms in which
adventurous, chivalrous, enterprising Christian benevolence expresses
itself. It was an old law in Israel that 'as his part was that went
down into the battle, so should his part be that tarried by the stuff.'
When victory was won and the spoil came to be shared, the men who had
stopped behind and looked after the base of operations and kept open
the communications received the same portion as the man that, in the
front rank of the battle, had rushed upon the spears of the Amalekites.
Why? Because from the same motive they had been co-operant to the same
great end. The Master has taken up that very thought, and has applied
it in relation to the indirect work of His people, when He says, 'He
that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a
prophet's reward.' The motive is the same; therefore the essential
character of the act is the same; therefore the recompense is
identical. You can witness for Christ directly, if you can say - and you
can all say if you like - 'We have found the Messias,' and you can
witness for Christ by casting yourselves earnestly into sympathy with
and, so far as possible, help to the work that your brethren are doing.
Dear friends, I beseech you to remember that we are all of us, if we
are His followers, bound in our humble measure and degree, and with a
reverent apprehension of the gulf between us and Him, still to take up
His words and say, 'To this end was I born, and for this cause came I
into the world, that I might bear witness to the truth.'

II. There is a second thought that I would suggest from these words,
and that is that secular events are ordered with a view to this

Take the case before us. Here are two independent and hostile powers;
on the one hand the bigoted Jewish Sanhedrim, hating the Roman yoke;
and on the other hand the haughty and cruel pressure of that yoke on a
recalcitrant and reluctant people: and these two internecine enemies
are working on their own lines, each very willing to thwart the other,
Mechanicians talk of the 'composition of forces,' by which two
pressures acting at right angles to each other on a given object,
impart to it a diagonal motion. The Sanhedrim on the one side,
representing Judaism, and the captain of the castle on the other,
representing the Roman power, work into each other's hands, although
neither of them knows it; and work out the fulfilment of a purpose that
is hidden from them both.

No doubt it would be a miserably inadequate account of things to say
that the Roman Empire came into existence for the sake of propagating
Christianity. No doubt it is always dangerous to account for any
phenomenon by the ends which, to our apprehension, it serves. But at
the same time the study of the purposes which a given thing, being in
existence, serves, and the study of the forces which brought it into
existence, ought to be combined, and when combined, they present a
double reason for adoring that great Providence which 'makes the wrath
of men to praise' it, and uses for moral and spiritual ends the
creatures that exist, the events that emerge, and even the godless
doings of godless men.

So here we have a standing example of the way in which, like silk-worms
that are spinning threads for a web that they have no notion of, the
deeds of men that think not so are yet grasped and twined together by
Jesus Christ, the Lord of providence, so as to bring about the
realisation of His great purposes. And that is always so, more or less

For instance, if we wish to understand our own lives, do not let us
dwell upon the superficialities of joy or sorrow, gain or loss, but let
us get down to the depth, and see that all these externals have two
great purposes in view - first, that we may be made like our Lord, as
the Scripture itself says, 'That we may be partakers of His holiness,'
and then that we may bear our testimony to His grace and love. Oh, if
we would only look at life from that point of view, we should be
brought to a stand less often at what we choose to call the mysteries
of providence! Not enjoyment, not sorrow, but our perfecting in
godliness and of the increase of our power and opportunities to bear
witness to Him, are the intention of all that befalls us.

I need not speak about how this same principle must be applied, by
every man who believes in a divine providence, to the wider events of
the world's history, I need not dwell upon that, nor will your time
allow me to do it, but one word I should like to say, and that is that
surely the two facts that we, as Christians, possess, as we believe,
the pure faith, and that we, as Englishmen, are members of a community
whose influence is world-wide, do not come together for nothing, or
only that some of you might make fortunes out of the East Indian and
China trade, but in order that all we English Christians might feel
that, our speaking as we do the language which is destined, as it would
appear, to run round the whole world, and our having, as we have, the
faith which we believe brings salvation to every man of every race and
tongue who accepts it, and our having this responsible necessary
contact with the heathen races, lay upon us English Christians
obligations the pressure and solemnity of which we have yet failed to

Paul was immortal till his work was done. 'Be of good cheer, Paul; thou
must bear witness at Rome.' And so, for ourselves and for the Gospel
that we profess, the same divine Providence which orders events so that
His servants may have the opportunities of witnessing to it, will take
care that it shall not perish - notwithstanding all the premature
jubilation of anti-Christian literature and thought in this day - until
it has done its work. We need have no fear for ourselves, for though
our blind eyes often fail to see, and our bleeding hearts often fail to
accept, the conviction that there are no unfinished lives for His
servants, yet we may be sure that He will watch over each of His
children till they have finished the work that He gives them to do. And
we may be sure, in regard to His great Gospel, that nothing can sink
the ship that carries Christ and His fortunes. 'Be of good cheer ...
thou hast borne witness ... thou must bear witness.'

III. Lastly, we have here another principle - namely that faithful
witnessing is rewarded by further witnessing.

'Thou hast ... in Jerusalem,' the little city perched upon its crag;
'Thou must ... in Rome,' the great capital seated on its seven hills.
The reward for work is more work. Jesus Christ did not say to the
Apostle, though he was 'wearied with that which came upon him daily,
the care of all the churches,' 'Thou hast borne witness, and now come
apart and rest'; but He said to him, 'Thou hast filled the smaller
sphere; for recompense I put thee into a larger.'

That is the law for life and everywhere, the tools to the hand that can
use them. The man that can do a thing gets it to do in too large a
measure, as he sometimes thinks; but he gets it, and it is all right
that he should. 'To him that hath shall be given.' And it is the law
for heaven. 'Thou hast borne witness down on the little dark earth;
come up higher and witness for Me here, amid the blaze.'

It is the law for this Christian work of ours. If you have shone
faithfully in your 'little corner,' as the child's hymn says, you will
be taken out and set upon the lamp-stand, that you 'may give light to
all that are in the house.' And it is the law for this great enterprise
of Christian missions, as we all know. We are overwhelmed with our
success. Doors are opening around us on every side. There is no limit
to the work that English Churches can do, except their inclination to
do it. But the opportunities open to us require a far deeper
consecration and a far closer dwelling beside our Master than we have
ever realised. We are half asleep yet; we do not know our resources in
men, in money, in activity, in prayer.

Surely there can be no sadder sign of decadence and no surer precursor
of extinction than to fall beneath the demands of our day; to have
doors opening at which we are too lazy or selfish to go in; to be so
sound asleep that we never hear the man of Macedonia when he stands by
us and cries, 'Come over and help us!' We are members of a Church that
God has appointed to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. We are
citizens of a nation whose influence is ubiquitous and felt in every
land. By both characters, God summons us to tasks which will tax all
our resources worthily to do. We inherit a work from our fathers which
God has shown that He owns by giving us these golden opportunities. He
summons us: 'Lengthen thy cords and strengthen thy stakes. Come out of
Jerusalem; come into Rome.' Shall we respond? God give us grace to fill
the sphere in which He has set us, till He lifts us to the wider one,
where the faithfulness of the steward is exchanged for the authority of
the ruler, and the toil of the servant for the joy of the Lord!


'And when it was day, certain of the Jews banded together, and bound
themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink
till they had killed Paul. 13. And they were more than forty which had
made this conspiracy. 14. And they came to the chief priests and
elders, and said, We have bound ourselves under a great curse, that we
will eat nothing until we have slain Paul. 15. Now therefore ye with
the council signify to the chief captain that he bring him down unto
you to-morrow, as though ye would inquire something more perfectly
concerning him: and we, or ever he come near, are ready to kill him.
16. And when Paul's sister's son heard of their lying in wait, he went
and entered into the castle, and told Paul. 17. Then Paul called one of
the centurions unto him, and said, Bring this young man unto the chief
captain: for he hath a certain thing to tell him. 18. So he took him,
and brought him to the chief captain, and said, Paul the prisoner
called me unto him, and prayed me to bring this young man unto thee,
who hath something to say unto thee. 19. Then the chief captain took
him by the hand, and went with him aside privately, and asked him, What
is that thou hast to tell me? 20. And he said, The Jews have agreed to
desire thee that thou wouldest bring down Paul to-morrow into the
council, as though they would enquire somewhat of him more perfectly.
21. But do not thou yield unto them: for there lie in wait for him of
them more than forty men, which have bound themselves with an oath,
that they will neither eat nor drink till they have killed him: and now
are they ready, looking for a promise from thee. 22. So the chief
captain then let the young man depart, and charged him, See thou tell
no man that thou hast shewed these things to me.' - ACTS xxiii. 12-22.

'The wicked plotteth against the just.... The Lord will laugh at him.'
The Psalmist's experience and his faith were both repeated in Paul's
case. His speech before the Council had set Pharisees and Sadducees
squabbling, and the former had swallowed his Christianity for the sake
of his being 'a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee.' Probably,
therefore, the hatchers of this plot were Sadducees, who hated
Pharisees even more than they did Christians. The Apostle himself was
afterwards not quite sure that his skilful throwing of the apple of
discord between the two parties was right (Acts xxiv. 21), and
apparently it was the direct occasion of the conspiracy. A Christian
man's defence of himself and his faith gains nothing by clever tactics.
It is very doubtful whether what Paul spoke 'in that hour' was taught
him by the Spirit.

'The corruption of the best is the worst.' There is a close and strange
alliance between formal religion and murderous hatred and vulpine
craft, as the history of ecclesiastical persecution shows; and though
we have done with fire and faggot now, the same evil passions and
tempers do still in modified form lie very near to a Christianity which
has lost its inward union with Jesus and lives on surface adherence to
forms. In that sense too 'the letter killeth.' We lift up our hands in
horror at these fierce fanatics, 'ready to kill' Paul, because he
believed in resurrection, angel, and spirit. We need to guard ourselves
lest something of their temper should be in us. There is a devilish
ingenuity about the details of the plot, and a truly Oriental mixture
of murderous passion and calculating craft. The serpent's wisdom and
his poison fangs are both apparent. The forty conspirators must have
been 'ready,' not only to kill Paul, but to die in the attempt, for the
distance from the castle to the council-chamber was short, and the
detachment of legionaries escorting the prisoner would have to be
reckoned with.

The pretext of desiring to inquire more fully into Paul's opinions
derived speciousness from his ambiguous declaration, which had set the
Council by the ears and had stopped his examination. Luke does not tell
us what the Council said to the conspirators, but we learn from what
Paul's nephew says in verse 20 that it 'agreed to ask thee to bring
down Paul.' So once more the tail drove on the head, and the Council
became the tool of fierce zealots. No doubt most of its members would
have shrunk from themselves killing Paul, but they did not shrink from
having a hand in his death. They were most religious and respectable
men, and probably soothed their consciences with thinking that, after
all, the responsibility was on the shoulders of the forty conspirators.
How men can cheat themselves for a while as to the criminality of
indirectly contributing to criminal acts, and how rudely the thin veil
will be twitched aside one day!

II. The abrupt introduction of Paul's nephew into the story piques
curiosity, but we cannot say more about him than is told us here. We do
not know whether he was moved by being a fellow-believer in Jesus, or
simply by kindred and natural affection. Possibly he was, as his uncle
had been, a student under some distinguished Rabbi. At all events, he
must have had access to official circles to have come on the track of
the plot, which would, of course, be covered up as much as possible.
The rendering in the margin of the Revised Version gives a possible
explanation of his knowledge of it by suggesting that he had 'come in
upon them'; that is, upon the Council in their deliberations. But
probably the rendering preferred in the text is preferable, and we are
left to conjecture his source of information, as almost everything else
about him. But it is more profitable to note how God works out His
purposes and delivers His servants by 'natural' means, which yet are as
truly divine working as was the sending of the angel to smite off
Peter's chains, or the earthquake at Philippi.

This lad was probably not an inhabitant of Jerusalem, and that he
should have been there then, and come into possession of the carefully
guarded secret, was more than a fortunate coincidence. It was divinely
ordered, and God's finger is as evident in the concatenation of
co-operating natural events as in any 'miracle.' To co-ordinate these
so that they concur to bring about the fulfilment of His will may be a
less conspicuous, but is not a less veritable, token of a sovereign
Will at work in the world than any miracle is. And in this case how
wonderfully separate factors, who think themselves quite independent,
are all handled like pawns on a chessboard by Him who 'makes the wrath
of man to praise Him, and girds Himself with the remainder thereof!'
Little did the fiery zealots who were eager to plunge their daggers
into Paul's heart, or the lad who hastened to tell him the secret he
had discovered, or the Roman officer who equally hastened to get rid of
his troublesome prisoner, dream that they were all partners in bringing
about one God-determined result - the fulfilment of the promise that had
calmed Paul in the preceding night: 'So must thou bear witness also at

III. Paul had been quieted after his exciting day by the vision which
brought that promise, and this new peril did not break his peace. With
characteristic clear-sightedness he saw the right thing to do in the
circumstances, and with characteristic promptitude he did it at once.
Luke wastes no words in telling of the Apostle's emotions when this
formidable danger was sprung on him, and the very reticence deepens the
impression of Paul's equanimity and practical wisdom. A man who had had
such a vision last night might well possess his soul in patience, even
though such a plot was laid bare this morning; and each servant of
Jesus may be as well assured, as was Paul the prisoner, that the Lord
shall 'keep him from all evil,' and that if his life is 'witness' it
will not end till his witness is complete. Our faith should work in us
calmness of spirit, clearness of perception of the right thing to do,
swift seizing of opportunities. Paul trusted Jesus' word that he should
be safe, whatever dangers threatened, but that trust stimulated his own
efforts to provide for his safety.

IV. The behaviour of the captain is noteworthy, as showing that he had
been impressed by Paul's personal magnetism, and that he had in him a
strain of courtesy and kindliness. He takes the lad by the hand to
encourage him, and he leads him aside that he may speak freely, and
thereby shows that he trusted him. No doubt the youth would be somewhat
flustered at being brought into the formidable presence and by the
weight of his tidings, and the great man's gentleness would be a
cordial. A superior's condescension is a wonderful lip-opener. We all

Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 48 of 57)