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Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

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that blocks the way with some of you for anything more real and more
operative? There is nothing more impotent than a firmly believed and
utterly neglected truth. And that is what the Christianity of some of
you is when it is analysed.

II. Now, secondly, notice how we have here the example of a proud man
indignantly recoiling from submission,

There is a world of contempt in Agrippa's words, in the very putting
side by side of the two things. 'Me! _Me_,' with a very large capital
M - 'Me a Christian?' He thinks of his dignity, poor creature. It was
not such a very tremendous dignity after all. He was a petty kinglet,
permitted by the grace of Rome to live and to pose as if he were the
real thing, and yet he struts and claps his wings and crows on his
little hillock as if it were a mountain. '_Me_ a Christian?' 'The great
Agrippa a _Christian_!' And he uses that word 'Christian' with the
intense contempt which coined it and adhered to it, until the men to
whom it was applied were wise enough to take it and bind it as a crown
of honour upon their head. The wits at Antioch first of all hit upon
the designation. They meant a very exquisite piece of sarcasm by their
nickname. These people were 'Christians,' just as some other people
were Herodians - Christ's men, the men of this impostor who pretended to
be a Messiah. That seemed such an intensely ludicrous thing to the wise
people in Antioch that they coined the name; and no doubt thought they
had done a very clever thing. It is only used in the Bible in tike
notice of its origin; here, with a very evident connotation of
contempt; and once more when Peter in his letter refers to it as being
the indictment on which certain disciples suffered. So when Agrippa
says, 'Me a Christian,' he puts all the bitterness that he can into
that last word. As if he said, 'Do you really think that I - I - am going
to bow myself down to be a follower and adherent of that Christ of
yours? The thing is too ridiculous! With but little persuasion you
would fain make me a Christian. But you will find it a harder task than
you fancy.'

Now, my dear friends, the shape of this unwillingness is changed but
the fact of it remains. There are two or three features of what I take
to be the plain Gospel of Jesus Christ which grate very much against
all self-importance and self-complacency, and operate very largely,
though not always consciously, upon very many amongst us. I just run
them over, very briefly.

The Gospel insists on dealing with everybody in the same fashion, and
on regarding all as standing on the same level. Many of us do not like
that. Translate Agrippa's scorn into words that fit ourselves: 'I am a
well-to-do Manchester man. Am I to stand on the same level as my
office-boy?' Yes! the very same. 'I, a student, perhaps a teacher of
science, or a cultivated man, a scholar, a lawyer, a professional
man - am I to stand on the same level as people that scarcely know how
to read and write?' Yes, exactly. So, like the man in the Old
Testament, 'he turned and went away in a rage.' Many of us would like
that there should be a little private door for us in consideration of
our position or acquirements or respectability, or this, that, or the
other thing. At any rate we are not to be classed in the same category
with the poor and the ignorant and the sinful and the savage all over
the world. But we are so classed. Do not you and the men in Patagonia
breathe the same air? Are not your bodies subject to the same laws?
Have you not to be contented to be fed in the same fashion, and to
sleep and eat and drink in the same way? 'We have all of us one human
heart'; and 'there is no difference, for all have sinned and come short
of the glory of God.' The identities of humanity, in all its examples,
are deeper than the differences in any. We have all the one Saviour and
are to be saved in the same fashion. That is a humbling thing for those
of us who stand upon some little elevation, real or fancied, but it is
only the other side of the great truth that God's love is world-wide,
and that Christ's Gospel is meant for humanity. Naaman, to whom I have
already referred in passing, wanted to be treated as a great man who
happened to be a leper; Elisha insisted on treating him as a leper who
happened to be a great man. And that makes all the difference. I
remember seeing somewhere that a great surgeon had said that the late
Emperor of Germany would have had a far better chance of being cured if
he had gone _incognito_ to the hospital for throat diseases. We all
need the same surgery, and we must be contented to take it in the same
fashion. So, some of us recoil from humbling equality with the lowest
and worst.

Then again, another thing that sometimes makes people shrink back from
the Gospel is that it insists upon every one being saved solely by
dependence on Another. We would like to have a part in our salvation,
and many of us had rather do anything in the way of sacrifice or
suffering or penance than take this position:

'Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy Cross I cling.'

Corrupt forms of Christianity have taken an acute measure of the worst
parts of human nature, when they have taught men that they can eke out
Christ's work by their own, and have some kind of share in their own
salvation. Dear brethren, I have to bring to you another Gospel than
that, and to say, All is done for us, and all will be done in us, and
nothing has to be done by us. Some of you do not like that. Just as a
man drowning is almost sure to try to help himself, and get his limbs
inextricably twisted round his would-be rescuer and drown them both, so
men will not, without a struggle, consent to owe everything to Jesus
Christ, and to let Him draw them out of many waters and set them on the
safe shore. But unless we do so, we have little share in His Gospel.

And another thing stands in the way - namely, that the Gospel insists
upon absolute obedience to Jesus Christ. Agrippa fancied that it was an
utterly preposterous idea that he should lower his flag, and doff his
crown, and become the servant of a Jewish peasant. A great many of us,
though we have a higher idea of our Lord than his, do yet find it quite
as hard to submit our wills to His, and to accept the condition of
absolute obedience, utter resignation to Him, and entire subjection to
His commandment. We say, 'Let my own will have a little bit of play in
a corner.' Some of us find it very hard to believe that we are to bring
all our thinking upon religious and moral subjects to Him, and to
accept His word as conclusive, settling all controversies. 'I, with my
culture; am I to accept what Christ says as the end of strife?' Yes,
absolute submission is the plainest condition of real Christianity. The
very name tells us that. We are Christians, _i.e._ Christ's men; and
unless we are, we have no right to the name. But some of us had rather
be our own masters and enjoy the miseries of independence and
self-will, and so be the slaves of our worse selves, than bow ourselves
utterly before that dear Lord, and so pass into the freedom of a
service love-inspired, and by love accepted, 'Thou wouldst fain
persuade _me_ to be a _Christian_,' is the recoil of a proud heart from
submission. Brethren, let me beseech you that it may not be yours.

III. Again, we have here an example of instinctive shrinking from the
personal application of broad truths.

Agrippa listened, half-amused and a good deal interested, to Paul as
long as he talked generalities and described his own experience. But
when he came to point the generalities and to drive them home to the
hearer's heart it was time to stop him. That question of the Apostle's,
keen and sudden as the flash of a dagger, went straight home, and the
king at once gathered himself together into an attitude of resistance.
Ah, that is what hundreds of people do! You will let me preach as long
as I like - only you will get a little weary sometimes - you will let me
preach generalities _ad libitum_. But when I come to 'And thou?' then I
am 'rude' and 'inquisitorial' and 'personal' and 'trespassing on a
region where I have no business,' and so on and so on. And so you shut
up your heart if not your ears.

And yet, brethren, what is the use of toothless generalities? What am I
here for if I am not here to take these broad, blunt truths and sharpen
them to a point, and try to get them in between the joints of your
armour? Can any man faithfully preach the Gospel who is always flying
over the heads of his hearers with universalities, and never goes
straight to their hearts with 'Thou - thou art the man!' 'Believest
_thou_?'

And so, dear friends, let me press that question upon you. Never mind
about other people. Suppose you and I were alone together and my words
were coming straight _to thee_. Would they not have more power than
they have now? They are so coming. Think away all these other people,
and this place, ay, and me too, and let the word of Christ, which deals
with no crowds but with single souls, come to you in its
individualising force: 'Believest _thou_?' You will have to answer that
question one day. Better to face it now and try to answer it than to
leave it all vague until you get yonder, where 'each one of us shall
give account of _himself_ to God.

IV. Lastly, we have here an example of a soul close to the light, but
passing into the dark.

Agrippa listens to Paul; Bernice listens; Festus listens. And what
comes of it? Only this, 'And when they were gone aside, they talked
between themselves, saying, This man hath done nothing worthy of death
or of bonds.' May I translate into a modern equivalent: And when they
were gone aside, they talked between themselves, saying, 'This man
preached a very impressive sermon,' or, 'This man preached a very
wearisome sermon,' and there an end.

Agrippa and Bernice went their wicked way, and Festus went his, and
none of them knew what a fateful moment they had passed through. Ah,
brethren! there are many such in our lives when we make decisions that
influence our whole future, and no sign shows that the moment is any
way different from millions of its undistinguished fellows. It is
eminently so in regard to our relation to Jesus Christ and His Gospel.
These three had been in the light; they were never so near it again.
Probably they never heard the Gospel preached any more, and they went
away, not knowing what they had done when they silenced Paul and left
him. Now you will probably hear plenty of sermons in future. You may or
you may not. But be sure of this, that if you go away from this one,
unmelted and unbelieving, you have not done a trivial thing. You have
added one more stone to the barrier that you yourself build to shut you
out from holiness and happiness, from hope and heaven. It is not I that
ask you the question, it is not Paul that asks it, Jesus Christ Himself
says to you, as He said to the blind man, 'Dost thou believe on the Son
of God?' or as He said to the weeping sister of Lazarus, 'Believest
thou this?' O dear friends, do not answer like this arrogant bit of a
king, but cry with tears, 'Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief!'



TEMPEST AND TRUST

And when the south wind blew softly, supposing that they had obtained
their purpose, loosing thence, they sailed close by Crete. 14. But not
long after there arose against it a tempestuous wind, called
Euroclydon. 15. And when the ship was caught, and could not bear up
into the wind, we let her drive. 16. And running under a certain island
which is called Clauda, we had much work to come by the boat: 17. Which
when they had taken up, they used helps, undergirding the ship; and,
fearing lest they should fall into the quicksands, strake sail, and so
were driven. 18. And we being exceedingly tossed with a tempest, the
next day they lightened the ship; 19. And the third day we cast out
with our own hands the tackling of the ship. 20. And when neither sun
nor stars in many days appeared, and no small tempest lay on us, all
hope that we should be saved was then taken away. 21. But after long
abstinence Paul stood forth in the midst of them, and said, Sirs, ye
should have hearkened unto me, and not have loosed from Crete, and to
have gained this harm and loss. 22. And now I exhort you to be of good
cheer: for there shall be no loss of any man's life among you, but of
the ship. 23. For there stood by me this night the angel of God, whose
I am, and whom I serve, 24. Saying, Fear not, Paul; thou must be
brought before Caesar: and, lo, God hath given thee all them that sail
with thee. 25. Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer: for I believe God,
that it shall be even as it was told me. 26. Howbeit we must be cast
upon a certain island.' - ACTS xxvii. 13-26.

Luke's minute account of the shipwreck implies that he was not a Jew.
His interest in the sea and familiarity with sailors' terms are quite
unlike a persistent Jewish characteristic which still continues. We
have a Jew's description of a storm at sea in the Book of Jonah, which
is as evidently the work of a landsman as Luke's is of one who, though
not a sailor, was well up in maritime matters. His narrative lays hold
of the essential points, and is as accurate as it is vivid. This
section has two parts: the account of the storm, and the grand example
of calm trust and cheery encouragement given in Paul's words.

I. The consultation between the captain of the vessel and the
centurion, at which Paul assisted, strikes us, with our modern notions
of a captain's despotic power on his own deck, and single
responsibility, as unnatural. But the centurion, as a military officer,
was superior to the captain of an Alexandrian corn-ship, and Paul had
already made his force of character so felt that it is not wonderful
that he took part in the discussion. Naturally the centurion was guided
by the professional rather than by the amateur member of the council,
and the decision was come to to push on as far and fast as possible.

The ship was lying in a port which gave scanty protection against the
winter weather, and it was clearly wise to reach a more secure harbour
if possible. So when a gentle southerly breeze sprang up, which would
enable them to make such a port, westward from their then position,
they made the attempt. For a time it looked as if they would succeed,
but they had a great headland jutting out in front which they must get
round, and their ability to do this was doubtful. So they kept close in
shore and weathered the point. But before they had made their harbour
the wind suddenly chopped round, as is frequent of that coast, and the
gentle southerly breeze turned into a fierce squall from the north-east
or thereabouts, sweeping down from the Cretan mountains. That began
their troubles. To make the port was impossible. The unwieldy vessel
could not 'face the wind,' and so they had to run before it. It would
carry them in a south-westerly direction, and towards a small island,
under the lee of which they might hope for some shelter. Here they had
a little breathing time, and could make things rather more ship-shape
than they had been able to do when suddenly caught by the squall. Their
boat had been towing behind them, and had to be hoisted on deck somehow.

A more important, and probably more difficult, task was to get strong
hawsers under the keel and round the sides, so as to help to hold the
timbers together. The third thing was the most important of all, and
has been misunderstood by commentators who knew more about Greek
lexicons than ships. The most likely explanation of 'lowering the gear'
(Rev. Ver.) is that it means 'leaving up just enough of sail to keep
the ship's head to the wind, and bringing down everything else that
could be got down' (Ramsay, _St. Paul_, p. 329).

Note that Luke says 'we' about hauling in the boat, and 'they' about
the other tasks. He and the other passengers could lend a hand in the
former, but not in the latter, which required more skilled labour. The
reason for bringing down all needless top-hamper, and leaving up a
little sail, was to keep the vessel from driving on to the great
quicksands off the African coast, to which they would certainly have
been carried if the wind held.

As soon as they had drifted out from the lee of the friendly little
island they were caught again in the storm. They were in danger of
going down. As they drifted they had their 'starboard' broadside to the
force of the wild sea, and it was a question how long the vessel's
sides would last before they were stove in by the hammering of the
waves, or how long she would be buoyant enough to ship seas without
foundering. The only chance was to lighten her, so first the crew
'jettisoned' the cargo, and next day, as that did not give relief
enough,'they,' or, according to some authorities, 'we' - that is
passengers and all - threw everything possible overboard.

That was the last attempt to save themselves, and after it there was
nothing to do but to wait the apparently inevitable hour when they
would all go down together. Idleness feeds despair, and despair
nourishes idleness. Food was scarce, cooking it was impossible,
appetite there was none. The doomed men spent the long idle days - which
were scarcely day, so thick was the air with mist and foam and
tempest - crouching anywhere for shelter, wet, tired, hungry, and
hopeless. So they drifted 'for many days,' almost losing count of the
length of time they had been thus. It was a gloomy company, but there
was one man there in whom the lamp of hope burned when it had gone out
in all others. Sun and stars were hidden, but Paul saw a better light,
and his sky was clear and calm.

II. A common danger makes short work of distinctions of rank. In such a
time some hitherto unnoticed man of prompt decision, resource, and
confidence, will take the command, whatever his position. Hope, as well
as timidity and fear, is infectious, and one cheery voice will revive
the drooping spirits of a multitude. Paul had already established his
personal ascendency in that motley company of Roman soldiers,
prisoners, sailors, and disciples. Now he stands forward with calm
confidence, and infuses new hope into them all. What a miraculous
change passes on externals when faith looks at them! The circumstances
were the same as they had been for many days. The wind was howling and
the waves pounding as before, the sky was black with tempest, and no
sign of help was in sight, but Paul spoke, and all was changed, and a
ray of sunshine fell on the wild waters that beat on the doomed vessel.

Three points are conspicuous in his strong tonic words. First, there is
the confident assurance of safety. A less noble nature would have said
more in vindication of the wisdom of his former advice. It is very
pleasant to small minds to say, 'Did I not tell you so? You see how
right I was.' But the Apostle did not care for petty triumphs of that
sort. A smaller man might have sulked because his advice had not been
taken, and have said to himself, 'They would not listen to me before, I
will hold my tongue now.' But the Apostle only refers to his former
counsel and its confirmation in order to induce acceptance of his
present words.

It is easy to 'bid' men 'be of good cheer,' but futile unless some
reason for good cheer is given. Paul gave good reason. No man's life
was to be lost though the ship was to go. He had previously predicted
that life, as well as ship and lading, would be lost if they put to
sea. That opinion was the result of his own calculation of
probabilities, as he lets us understand by saying that he 'perceived'
it (ver. 10). Now he speaks with authority, not from his perception,
but from God's assurance. The bold words might well seem folly to the
despairing crew as they caught them amidst the roar of tempest and
looked at their battered hulk. So Paul goes at once to tell the ground
of his confidence - the assurance of the angel of God.

What a contrast between the furious gale, the almost foundering ship,
the despair in the hearts of the sleeping company, and the bright
vision that came to Paul! Peter in prison, Paul in Caesarea and now in
the storm, see the angel form calm and radiant. God's messengers are
wont to come into the darkest of our hours and the wildest of our
tempests.

Paul's designation of the heavenly messenger as 'an angel of the God
whose I am, whom also I serve,' recalls Jonah's confession of faith,
but far surpasses it, in the sense of belonging to God, and in the
ardour of submission and of active obedience, expressed in it. What
Paul said to the Corinthians (1 Cor. vi. 19) he realised for himself:
'Ye are not your own; for ye were bought with a price.' To recognise
that we are God's, joyfully to yield ourselves to Him, and with all the
forces of our natures to serve Him, is to bring His angel to our sides
in every hour of tempest and peril, and to receive assurance that
nothing shall by any means harm us. To yield ourselves to be God's is
to make God ours. It was because Paul owned that he belonged to God,
and served Him, that the angel came to him, and he explains the vision
to his hearers by his relation to God. Anything was possible rather
than that his God should leave him unhelped at such an hour of need.

The angel's message must have included particulars unnoticed in Luke's
summary; as, for instance, the wreck on 'a certain island.' But the two
salient points in it are the certainty of Paul's own preservation, that
the divine purpose of his appearing before Caesar might be fulfilled,
and the escape of all the ship's company. As to the former, we may
learn how Paul's life, like every man's, is shaped according to a
divine plan, and how we are 'immortal till our work is done,' and till
God has done His work in and on and by us. As to the latter point, we
may gather from the word 'has _given_' the certainty that Paul had been
praying for the lives of all that sailed with him, and may learn, not
only that the prayers of God's servants are a real element in
determining God's dealings with men, but that a true servant of God's
will ever reach out his desires and widen his prayers to embrace those
with whom he is brought into contact, be they heathens, persecutors,
rough and careless, or fellow-believers. If Christian people more
faithfully discharged the duty of intercession, they would more
frequently receive in answer the lives of 'all them that sail with'
them over the stormy ocean of life.

The third point in the Apostle's encouraging speech is the example of
his own faith, which is likewise an exhortation to the hearers to
exercise the same. If God speaks by His angel with such firm promises,
man's plain wisdom is to grasp the divine assurance with a firm hand.
We must build rock upon rock. 'I believe God,' that surely is a
credence demanded by common sense and warranted by the sanest reason.
If we do so believe, and take His word as the infallible authority
revealing present duty and future blessings, then, however lowering the
sky, and wild the water, and battered the vessel, and empty of earthly
succour the gloomy horizon, and heavy our hearts, we shall 'be of good
cheer,' and in due time the event will warrant our faith in God and His
promise, even though all around us seems to make our faith folly and
our hope a mockery.



A SHORT CONFESSION OF FAITH

'...There stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and whom
I serve.' - ACTS xxvii. 23.

I turn especially to those last words, 'Whose I am and whom I serve.'

A great calamity, borne by a crowd of men in common, has a wonderful
power of dethroning officials and bringing the strong man to the front.
So it is extremely natural, though it has been thought to be very
unhistorical, that in this story of Paul's shipwreck he should become
guide, counsellor, inspirer, and a tower of strength; and that
centurions and captains and all the rest of those who held official
positions should shrink into the background. The natural force of his
character, the calmness and serenity that came from his faith - these
things made him the leader of the bewildered crowd. One can scarcely
help contrasting this shipwreck - the only one in the New
Testament - with that in the Old Testament. Contrast Jonah with Paul,
the guilty stupor of the one, down 'in the sides of the ship' cowering
before the storm, with the calm behaviour and collected courage of the
other.

The vision of which the Apostle speaks does not concern us here, but in
the words which I have read there are several noteworthy points. They
bring vividly before us the essence of true religion, the bold



Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 54 of 57)