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Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

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bookseller's shop years and years ago. You will never be strong
Christians, you will never be happy ones, until you make conscience of
the study of God's Word and 'continue steadfastly in the Apostles'
teaching.' You may produce plenty of emotional Christianity, and of
busy and sometimes fussy work without it, but you will not get depth. I
sometimes think that the complaint of the writer of the Epistle to the
Hebrews might be turned upside down nowadays. He says: 'When for the
time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again
which be the first principles.' Nowadays we might say in Sunday-schools
and other places of church work: 'When for the time ye ought to be
_learners_, you have taken to teaching before you know what you are
teaching, and so neither you nor your scholars will profit much.' The
vase should be full before you begin to empty it.

Again, there ought to be, and we ought to aim after, an equable temper
of mutual brotherhood conquering selfishness.

'They continued in the Apostles' doctrine and in fellowship.'
'Fellowship' here, as I take it, applies to community of feeling. A
verse or two afterwards it is applied to community of goods, but we
have nothing to do with that subject at present. What is meant is that
these three thousand, as was most natural, cut off altogether from
their ancient associations, finding themselves at once separated by a
great gulf from their nation and its hopes and its religion, were
driven together as sheep are when wolves are prowling around. And,
being individually weak, they held on by one another, so that many
weaknesses might make a strength, and glimmering embers raked together
might break into a flame.

Now, all these circumstances, or almost all of them, that drove the
primitive believers together, are at an end, and the tendencies of this
day are rather to drive Christian people apart than to draw them
together. Differences of position, occupation, culture, ways of looking
at things, views of Christian truth and the like, all come powerfully
in to the reinforcement of the natural selfishness which tempts us all,
unless the grace of God overcomes it. Although we do not want any
hysterical or histrionic presentation of Christian sympathy and
brotherhood, we do need - far more than any of us have awakened to the
consciousness of the need - for the health of our own souls we need to
make definite efforts to cultivate more of that sense of Christian
brotherhood with all that hold the same Lord Christ, and to realise
this truth: that they and we, however separate, are nearer one another
than are we and those nearest to us who do not share in our Christian
faith.

I do not dwell upon this point. It is one on which it is easy to gush,
and it has got a bad name because there has been so much unreal and
sickly talk about it. But if any Christian man will honestly try to
cultivate the brotherly feeling which my text suggests, and to which
our common relation to Jesus Christ binds us, and will try it in
reference to _A_, _B_, or _C_, whom he does not much like, with whose
ways he has no kind of sympathy, whom he believes to be a heretic, and
who perhaps returns the belief about him with interest, he will find it
is a pretty sharp test of his Christian principle. Let us be real, at
any rate, and not pretend to have more love than we really have in our
hearts. And let us remember that 'he that loveth Him that begat, loveth
Him also that is begotten of Him.'

II. Another characteristic which comes out in the words before us is
the blending of worship with life.

'They continued steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine ... and in
breaking of bread.' Commentators who can only see one thing at a
time - and there are a good many of that species - have got up great
discussions as to whether this phrase means eating ordinary meals or
partaking of the Lord's Supper. I venture to say it means both,
because, clearly enough, in the beginning, the common meal was hallowed
by what we now call the Lord's Supper being associated with it, and
every day's evening repast was eaten 'in remembrance of Him.'

So, naturally, and without an idea of anything awful or sacred about
the rite, the first Christians, when they went home after a hard day's
work and sat down to take their own suppers, blessed the bread and the
wine, and whether they ate or drank, did the one and the other 'in
remembrance of Him.'

The gradual growth of the sentiment attaching to the Lord's Supper,
until it reached the portentous height of regarding it as a 'tremendous
sacrifice' which could only be administered by priests with ordained
hands in Apostolic succession, can be partly traced even in New
Testament times. The Lord's Supper began as an appendage to, or rather
as a heightening of, the evening meal, and at first, as this chapter
tells us in a subsequent verse, was observed day by day. Then, before
the epoch of the Acts of the Apostles is ended, we find it has become a
weekly celebration, and forms part of the service on the first day of
the week. But even when the observance had ceased to be daily, the
association with an ordinary meal continued, and that led to the
disorders at Corinth which Paul rebuked, and which would have been
impossible if later ideas of the Lord's Supper had existed then.

The history of the transformation of that simple Supper into 'the
bloodless sacrifice' of the Mass, and all the mischief consequent
thereon, does not concern us now. But it does concern us to note that
these first believers hallowed common things by doing them, and common
food by partaking of it, with the memory of His great sacrifice in
their minds. The poorest fare, the coarsest bread, the sourest wine, on
the humblest table, became a memorial of that dear Lord. Religion and
life, the domestic and the devout, were so closely braided together
that when a household sat at table it was both a family and a church;
and while they were eating their meat for the strength of their body,
they were partaking of the memorial of their dying Lord.

Is your house like that? Is your daily life like that? Do you bring the
sacred and the secular as close together as that? Are the dying words
of your Master, 'This do in remembrance of Me,' written by you over
everything you do? And so is all life worship, and all worship hope?

III. The last thing here is habitual devotion.

I suppose the disciples had no forms of set Christian prayers. They
still used the Jewish liturgy, for we read that 'they continued daily
with one accord in the Temple.' I am sure that no two things can be
less like one another than the worship of the primitive Church and the
worship, say, of one of our congregations. Did you ever try to paint
for yourselves, for instance, the scene described in the First Epistle
to the Corinthians? When they came together in their meetings for
worship, 'every one had a psalm, a doctrine, an interpretation.' 'Let
the prophets speak, by ones, or at most by twos'; and if another gets
up to interrupt, let the first speaker sit down. Paul goes on to say,
'Let all things be done decently and in order.' So there must have been
tendencies to disorder, and much at which some of our modern
ecclesiastical martinets would have been very much scandalised as
'unbecoming.' Wise men are in no haste to change forms. Forms change of
themselves when their users change; but it would be a good day for
Christendom if the faith and devoutness of a community of believers
such as we, for instance, profess to be, were so strong and so
demanding expression as that, instead of my poor voice continually
sounding here, every one of you had a psalm or a doctrine, and every
one of you were able and impelled to speak out of the fulness of the
Spirit which God poured into you. It will come some day; it must come
if Christendom is not to die of its own dignity. But we do not need to
hurry matters, only let us remember that unless a Church continues
steadfast in prayer it is worth very little.

Now, dear brethren, it is said about us Free Churchmen that we think a
great deal too much of preaching and a great deal too little of the
prayers of the congregation. That is a stock criticism. I am bound to
say that there is a grain of truth in it, and that there is not, with
too many of our congregations, as lofty a conception of the power and
blessedness of the united prayers of the congregation as there ought to
be, or else you would not hear about 'introductory services.'
Introductory to what? Do we speak to God merely by way of preface to
one of us talking to his brethren? Is that the proper order? 'They
continued steadfastly in the Apostles' teaching,' no doubt; but also
'steadfastly in prayer.' I pray you to try to make this picture of the
Pentecostal converts the ideal of your own lives, and to do your best
to help forward the time when it shall be the reality in this church,
and in every other society of professing Christians.



A PURE CHURCH AN INCREASING CHURCH

'And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.' - ACTS
ii. 47.

'And the Lord added to them day by day those that were being
saved.' - (R. V.)

You observe that the principal alterations of these words in the
Revised Version are two: the one the omission of 'the church,' the
other the substitution of 'were being saved' for 'such as should be
saved.' The former of these changes has an interest as suggesting that
at the early period referred to the name of 'the church' had not yet
been definitely attached to the infant community, and that the word
afterwards crept into the text at a time when ecclesiasticism had
become a great deal stronger than it was at the date of the writing of
the Acts of the Apostles. The second of the changes is of more
importance. The Authorised Version's rendering suggests that salvation
is a future thing, which in one aspect is partially true. The Revised
Version, which is also by far the more literally accurate, suggests the
other idea, that salvation is a process going on all through the course
of a Christian man's life. And that carries very large and important
lessons.

I. I ask you to notice here, first, the profound conception which the
writer had of the present action of the ascended Christ. 'The Lord
added to them day by day those that were being saved.'

Then Christ (for it is He that is here spoken of as the Lord), the
living, ascended Christ, was present in, and working with, that little
community of believing souls. You will find that the thought of a
present Saviour, who is the life-blood of the Church on earth, and the
spring of action for all good that is done in it and by it, runs
through the whole of this Book of the Acts of the Apostles. The keynote
is struck in its first verses: 'The former treatise have I made, O
Theophilus, of all that Jesus began to do and to teach, until the day
in which He was taken up.' That is the description of Luke's Gospel,
and it implies that the Acts of the Apostles is the _second_ treatise,
which tells all that Jesus continued to do and teach _after_ that He
was taken up. So the Lord, the ascended Christ, is the true theme and
hero of this book. It is He, for instance, who sends down the Spirit on
the Day of Pentecost. It is He whom the dying martyr sees 'standing at
the right hand of God,' ready to help. It is He who appears to the
persecutor on the road to Damascus. It is He who sends Paul and his
company to preach in Europe. It is He who opens hearts for the
reception of their message. It is He who stands by the Apostle in a
vision, and bids him 'be of good cheer,' and go forth upon his work.
Thus, at every crisis in the history of the Church, it is the
Lord - that is to say, Christ Himself - who is revealed as working in
them and for them, the ascended but yet ever-present Guide, Counsellor,
Inspirer, Protector, and Rewarder of them that put their trust in Him.
So here it is He that 'adds to the Church daily them that were being
saved.'

I believe, dear brethren, that modern Christianity has far too much
lost the vivid impression of this present Christ as actually dwelling
and working among us. What is good in us and what is bad in us conspire
to make us think more of the past work of an ascended Christ than of
the present work of an indwelling Christ. We cannot think too much of
that Cross by which He has laid the foundation for the salvation and
reconciliation of all the world; but we may easily think too
exclusively of it, and so fix our thoughts upon that work which He
completed when on Calvary He said, 'It is finished!' as to forget the
continual work which will never be finished until His Church is
perfected, and the world is redeemed. If we are a Church of Christ at
all, we have Christ in very deed among us, and working through us and
on us. And unless we have, in no mystical and unreal and metaphorical
sense, but in the simplest and yet grandest prose reality, that living
Saviour here in our hearts and in our fellowship, better that these
walls were levelled with the ground, and this congregation scattered to
the four winds of heaven. The present Christ is the life of His Church.

Notice, and that but for a moment, for I shall have to deal with it
more especially at another part of this discourse, - the specific action
which is here ascribed to Him. _He_ adds to the Church, not _we_, not
our preaching, not our eloquence, our fervour, our efforts. These may
be the weapons in His hands, but the hand that wields the weapon gives
it all its power to wound and to heal, and it is Christ Himself who, by
His present energy, is here represented as being the Agent of all the
good that is done by any Christian community, and the Builder-up of His
Churches, in numbers and in power.

It is His will for, His ideal of, a Christian Church, that continuously
it should be gathering into its fellowship those that are being saved.
That is His meaning in the establishment of His Church upon earth, and
that is His will concerning it and concerning us, and the question
should press on every society of Christians: Does our reality
correspond to Christ's ideal? Are we, as a portion of His great
heritage, being continually replenished by souls that come to tell what
God has done for them? Is there an unbroken flow of such into what we
call our communion? I speak to you members of this church, and I ask
you to ponder the question, - Is it so? and the other question, If it is
not so, wherefore? 'The Lord added daily,' - why does not the Lord add
daily to us?

II. Let us go to the second part of this text, and see if we can find
an answer. Notice how emphatically there is brought out here the
attractive power of an earnest and pure Church.

My text is the end of a sentence. What is the beginning of the
sentence? Listen, - 'All that believed were together, and had all things
common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all
men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord
in the Temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their
meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having
favour with all the people. And the Lord added.' Yes; of course.
Suppose you were like these people. Suppose this church and
congregation bore stamped upon it, plain and deep as the broad arrow of
the king, these characteristics - manifest fraternal unity, plain
unselfish unworldliness, habitual unbroken devotion, gladness which had
in it the solemnity of Heaven, and a transparent simplicity of life and
heart, which knew nothing of by-ends and shabby, personal motives or
distracting duplicity of purpose - do you not think that the Lord would
add to you daily such as should be saved? Or, to put it into other
words, wherever there is a little knot of men obviously held together
by a living Christ, and obviously manifesting in their lives and
characters the likeness of that Christ transforming and glorifying
them, there will be drawn to them - by natural gravitation, I was going
to say, but we may more correctly say, by the gravitation which is
natural in the supernatural realm - souls that have been touched by the
grace of the Lord, and souls to whom that grace has been brought the
nearer by looking upon _them_. Wherever there is inward vigour of life
there will be outward growth; and the Church which is pure, earnest,
living will be a Church which spreads and increases.

Historically, it has always been the case that in God's Church seasons
of expansion have followed upon seasons of deepened spiritual life on
the part of His people. And the only kind of growth which is wholesome,
and to be desired in a Christian community, is growth as a consequence
of the revived religiousness of the individuals who make up the
community.

And just in like manner as such a community will draw to it men who are
like-minded, so it will repel from it all the formalist people. There
are congregations that have the stamp of worldliness so deep upon them
that any persons who want to be burdened with as little religion as may
be respectable will find themselves at home there. And I come to you
Christian people here, for whose Christian character I am in some sense
and to some degree responsible, with this appeal: Do you see to it
that, so far as your influence extends, this community of ours be such
as that half-dead Christians will never think of coming near us, and
those whose religion is tepid will be repelled from us, but that they
who love the Lord Jesus Christ with earnest devotion and lofty
consecration, and seek to live unworldly and saint-like lives, shall
recognise in us men like-minded, and from whom they may draw help. I
beseech you - if you will not misunderstand the expression - make your
communion such that it will repel as well as attract; and that people
will find nothing here to draw them to an easy religion of words and
formalism, beneath which all vermin of worldliness and selfishness may
lurk, but will recognise in us a church of men and women who are bent
upon holiness, and longing for more and more conformity to the divine
Master.

Now, if all this be true, it is possible for worldly and stagnant
communities calling themselves 'Churches' to thwart Christ's purpose,
and to make it both impossible and undesirable that He should add to
them souls for whom He has died. It is a solemn thing to feel that we
may clog Christ's chariot-wheels, that there may be so little spiritual
life in us, as a congregation, that, if I may so say, He dare not
intrust us with the responsibility of guarding and keeping the young
converts whom He loves and tends. We may not be fit to be trusted with
them, and that may be why we do not get them. It may not be good for
them that they should be dropped into the refrigerating atmosphere of
such a church, and that may be why they do not come.

Depend upon it, brethren, that, far more than my preaching, your lives
will determine the expansion of this church of ours. And if my
preaching is pulling one way and your lives the other, and I have half
an hour a week for talk and you have seven days for contradictory life,
which of the two do you think is likely to win in the tug? I beseech
you, take the words that I am now trying to speak, to yourselves. Do
not pass them to the man in the next pew and think how well they fit
him, but accept them as needed by you. And remember, that just as a bit
of sealing-wax, if you rub it on your sleeve and so warm it, develops
an attractive power, the Church which is warmed will draw many to
itself. If the earlier words of this context apply to any Christian
community, then certainly its blessed promise too will apply to it, and
to such a church the Lord will 'add day by day them that are being
saved.'

III. And now, lastly, observe the definition given here of the class of
persons gathered into the community.

I have already observed, in the earlier portion of this discourse, that
here we have salvation represented as a process, a progressive thing
which runs on all through life. In the New Testament there are various
points of view from which that great idea of salvation is represented.
It is sometimes spoken of as past, in so far as in the definite act of
conversion and the first exercise of faith in Jesus Christ the whole
subsequent evolution and development are involved, and the process of
salvation has its beginning then, when a man turns to God. It is
sometimes spoken of as present, in so far as the joy of deliverance
from evil and possession of good, which is God, is realised day by day.
It is sometimes spoken of as future, in so far as all the imperfect
possession and pre-libations of salvation which we taste here on earth
prophesy and point onwards to their own perfecting in the climax of
heaven. But all these three points of view, past, present, and future,
may be merged into this one of my text, which speaks of every saint on
earth, from the infantile to the most mature, as standing in the same
row, though at different points; walking on the same road, though
advanced different distances; all participant of the same process of
'being saved.'

Through all life the deliverance goes on, the deliverance from sin, the
deliverance from wrath. The Christian salvation, then, according to the
teaching of this emphatic phrase, is a process begun at conversion,
carried on progressively through the life, and reaching its climax in
another state. Day by day, through the spring and the early summer, the
sun shines longer in the sky, and rises higher in the heavens; and the
path of the Christian is as the shining light. Last year's greenwood is
this year's hardwood; and the Christian, in like manner, has to 'grow
in the grace and knowledge of the Lord and Saviour.' So these
progressively, and, therefore, as yet imperfectly, saved people, were
gathered into the Church.

Now I have but two things to say about that. If that be the description
of the kind of folk that come into a Christian Church, the duties of
that Church are very plainly marked. And the first great one is to see
to it that the community help the growth of its members. There are
Christian Churches - I do not say whether ours is one of them or
not - into which, if a young plant is brought, it is pretty sure to be
killed. The temperature is so low that the tender shoots are nipped as
with frost, and die. I have seen people, coming all full of fervour and
of faith, into Christian congregations, and finding that the average
round them was so much lower than their own, that they have cooled down
after a time to the fashionable temperature, and grown indifferent like
their brethren. Let us, dear friends, remember that a Christian Church
is a nursery of imperfect Christians, and, for ourselves and for one
another, try to make our communion such as shall help shy and tender
graces to unfold themselves, and woo out, by the encouragement of
example, the lowest and the least perfect to lofty holiness and
consecration like the Master's.

And if I am speaking to any in this congregation who hold aloof from
Christian fellowship for more or less sufficient reasons, let me press
upon them, in one word, that if they are conscious of a possession,
however imperfect, of that incipient salvation, their place is thereby
determined, and they are doing wrong if they do not connect themselves
with some Christian Communion, and stand forth as members of Christ's
Church.

And now one last word. I have tried to show you that salvation, in the
New Testament, is regarded as a process. The opposite thing is a
process too. There is a very awful contrast in one of Paul's Epistles.
'The preaching of the Cross is to them _who are in the act of
perishing_ foolishness; unto us who are _being saved_, it is the power
of God.' These two processes start, as it were, from the same point,
one by slow degrees and almost imperceptible motion, rising higher and
higher, the other, by slow degrees and almost unconscious descent,
sliding steadily and fatally downward ever further and further. And my
point now is that in each of us one or other of these processes is
going on. Either you are slowly rising or you are slipping down. Either
a larger measure of the life of Christ, which is salvation, is passing
into your hearts, or bit by bit you are dying like some man with
creeping paralysis that begins at the extremities, and with fell,
silent, inexorable footstep, advances further and further towards the
citadel of the heart, where it lays its icy hand at last, and the man
is dead. You are either 'being saved' or you are 'perishing.' No man



Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 7 of 57)