Click here to learn more!
Almighty God, upon our hearts do thou write the word of wisdom, and in our memory do thou put the word of instruction. We forget thy commandments, and thy statutes flee away from our recollection. Oh that we might have an inspired memory, so that no word of thine might ever be lost! How rich we might have been in wise words! Our heart might have been as a store-house laden with treasure from heaven. We would that our memory were written all over with thine own hand with laws of light, with words of truth, with doctrines from heaven. Then surely the Enemy would have no place in us, nor could we admit him to the hospitality spread by thine own hand. Bring us daily closer to the Saviour of men. May we enter into his spirit, having tasted of his grace; having been reconciled unto God by him, may our reconciliation become the beginning of a new ministry of our own! May men take knowledge of us that we are no longer in rebellion against God, but are at one with his righteousness and purity! This is the miracle of God! This is the triumph of Almightiness! This is the sweet conquest of the Cross! We are brought nigh by thy Son; even we that were afar off now stand at thy right hand clothed with the garments of holiness and of praise. We are therefore living miracles! We are wonders unto ourselves, and unto many, and we would that astonishment of a saving kind might strike every one who beholds the wonders of God.
Thou dost not smite to destroy, but to heal. Thy rod is not a weapon of destruction; it is, in reality, though hidden from our poor sight, a sceptre of mercy. May we believe this, and rest in this persuasion, and be strong in this infinite comfort; then our tears shall be precious to us; in shedding of them we should lose something of thy grace; for whilst they are yet in our eyes we see thy providence in its largest and noblest form. Many are thy mercies; and they are all treasured in Christ for us. No good thing wilt thou withhold from them that walk uprightly. Thou delightest to give grace on grace, more grace, a continual increase and accumulation of grace, until grace itself is turned into glory. We would live in God as revealed to us through his Son. We did not make ourselves. We are the work of thine hands. As such we would live in thy presence, and seek to know thy will, and try to do it with both hands earnestly. May ours be a fervent love, a great and noble passion of the soul, an enthusiasm full of the Spirit of the Cross; seeking to redeem men, and bring wanderers back from the wilderness in which there is no way. Thou knowest the way that we take; when thou hast tried us, thou wilt bring us forth as gold. One day we shall emerge from the darkness, and when we stand in the light, we shall see that even in the night-time thou hast been clothing us with garments of beauty. Few and evil are our days at the most; they are dwindling fast; some now in thy presence see the very last milestone on the road, and they know it to be the last; but they are not broken-hearted. They make that stone an altar; they write upon it, "Hitherto hath the Lord helped us;" and in the strength and majesty of that Divine faith they walk the few remaining yards, knowing that they are walking towards victory and home. We bless thee for the inspiration of hope. We thank thee that at night-time we can sing even in the prison. We rejoice that there is no place, however far off and desolate, that may not be turned into a sanctuary because of thy presence. Heal the heart thou hast smitten! Find the link in the chain which thou hast broken! Bring back memories that shall be as presences in the night where thou hast desolated the house, and put out its fire! The Lord send comfort to all our hearts! Where sin abounds, may grace much more abound, and where the presence and sense of sin are intolerable, may there be the shining of the Cross, which shall make the contrite glad with a renewed hope. The Lord hear us, and be mindful of us, and kind to the least thankful of us, and pitiful to the feeblest and weakest, and at the last may we be gathered from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, in the name of Jesus, and in the blood of the everlasting Covenant, may we stand before thee a mighty host, free men, loyal in heart, because washed in the blood of the Lamb! Amen.
1. Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers [the two not necessarily identical, though the higher gift of prophecy commonly included the lower gift of teaching], Barnabas, and Symeon that was called Niger [nothing more is known of him], and Lucius [probably one of the first evangelists of Antioch] of Cyrene, and Manaen, the foster-brother of Herod the tetrarch [Antipas], and Saul [copied from a list made before Saul became famous].
2. And as they ministered [a word commonly used of the service of the priests and Levites in the Temple] to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me [from the construction of the Greek it would appear as if the command had been given in answer to prayer] Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.
3. Then when they had fasted and prayed [the fasting and prayer were continued until the laying on of hands had been completed] and laid their hands on them [the formal act by which the Church testified its acceptance], they sent them away.
4. So they, being sent forth by the Holy Ghost, went down to Seleucia [a town about sixteen miles from Antioch], and from thence they sailed to Cyprus [where the population was largely Greek].
5. And when they were at Salamis [at the east end of Cyprus], they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews; and they had also John as their attendant [not deacon or preacher: he personally served in baptisms: he was the apostolic courier].
6. And when they had gone through the island unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer [same word in Mat 2:1 ], a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Bar-Jesus;
7. Which was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of understanding [intelligent and discerning]. The same called unto him Barnabas and Saul, and sought to hear the word of God.
8. But Elymas the sorcerer (for so is his name by interpretation) withstood them, seeking to turn aside the proconsul from the faith ["the charlatan feared the loss of the influence which he had previously exercised over the mind of the proconsul"].
9. Then Saul, who is also called Paul, filled [the tense implies a sudden access of spiritual power] with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him,
10. and said, O full of all guile and all villany, thou son of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord?
11. And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season. And immediately there fell on him a mist and a darkness; and he went about seeking some to lead him by the hand.
12. Then the proconsul, when he saw what was done, believed, being astonished at the teaching of the Lord.
13. Now Paul and his company set sail from Paphos, and came to Perga [the capital of Pamphylia, about seven miles from the mouth of the river Cestra] in Pamphylia: and John departed from them [for what appeared to Paul as an insufficient reason] and returned to Jerusalem.
Saul's change of name. "It is impossible not to connect the mention, and probably the assumption, of the new name with the conversion of the proconsul. It presented many advantages." Plumptre. "The name was one familiar to the Gentiles, of whom he was presently after the apostle, and agreeable on them rather than to the Hebrew name Saul. It answered also to his stature. Paulus = little. Barnabas gives place to him from this point." Bengel. "Satisfactory reasons are sought for this sudden change of name. There were probably more reasons than one. As a Roman citizen, it would be perfectly likely and natural that he should own a Roman as well as a Jewish name. He was now going forth to the Gentiles, and of the two names the Latin would be much more acceptable to his heathen hearers than the Hebrew... Paulus, though originally meaning small, was a famous name of great dignity, and associated with high rank." Malleson.
The First Missionary Journey
"IN the Church," how much is implied in these three words! How much they assume! From some points of view the whole Christian idea may seem to be involved in the brief expression "in the Church." What is the Church? Is it not part of common human society? Why this separateness of indication? Why treat it as a world within a world? Why not refer to the human family as a whole, on the principle that the greater includes the less? There must be some meaning in this society within society. Are not men continually engaging their invention in such arrangements? Whoever speaks of society as a whole, as a grand sum total of human life? The integer is broken up into innumerable fractions of all values and denominations, but there is ONE fraction, alas! only a fraction just now, which says that it will, and must, by the force of a sweet and Divine compulsion, become itself the whole number, that fraction is the Church. Are they ordinary men who compose the Church? Certainly not. How many men does it take to make a Church? Two! In what name do they meet? In the name of Jesus Christ! Where do they meet? Where they please. What pomp and circumstance are requisite to constitute them into a Church? How much money must they have? None! How much learning of a merely technical and mechanical kind to constitute them into a Church? None! Then they must be very weak? That is impossible. The side on which Omnipotence fights cannot be weak. Then they may be very poor? No! The side that banks in heaven can never be short of treasure- But they must have some place to meet in? Not necessarily. Under a tree will do, or in the middle of a meadow or within some fold of the night's darkness, in the dens and caves of the earth, a Church not made with hands! Why if that idea in all its simplicity, but unfathomable depth of meaning, could seize the Christian mind of to day, a sublime revolution would be the immediate and permanent consequence. But the moment two men come together to constitute a Church they forget that nothing further is requisite but the presence of Christ. They must build! Peter wanted to build on the mountain top. They must create an institution; they must establish an intricate and expensive organization. Kind two godly souls in the poorest village in the land, and they do not ask for our help. Help! What to do? A Church is as complete as a family; a Church is self-bounded, self-contained, self-complete, self-sustaining, so far as all human resources are concerned. It has an open highway to the all-supplying heavens, and when it goes abroad on the earth, it is in the spirit of brotherhood and sympathy and common desire, and neither as a beggar nor a patron. The Church is composed of redeemed and regenerated men. They are one in Christ: diverse in stature, in figure, in colour, in speech; diverse in everything that enters into the composition of humanity; yet they are one in him who breaks down all middle walls of partition, and in him they have their indissoluble and indivisible unity. Why do they not, then, "cleave unto the Lord"? When we pray we are one; when we speak to each other we are divided: in worship one, in opinion countless thousands! Then why do we not pray, and let opinion alone? "What doth the Lord thy God require of thee but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God?" But men will have opinions, and opinions divide men. The whole Christian Church this day throughout the world says to God: "Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forev. Amen." And the moment the Christian Church begins to preach it speaks ten thousand differing and irreconcilable dialects. "Pray without ceasing." Meet for worship, not for the propagation of opinions. One man has as much authority for his opinion as another; opinions are growths, opinions belong to processes of education. There is only one thing true in all the possibilities of its bearing, and that is worship. Could these two ideas recover their place in the Church, I repeat, a most beneficent and profound revolution would be the instant consequence. We have torn the seamless robe of Christ into innumerable rags! Christianity has now become a tissue of opinions; once it was a world-shaking faith; now it is a cage filled with opinions and dogmas and controversies that can never be reconciled. Pray on! Worship is the union of the Church! "Certain prophets and teachers," different gifts, you observe, but the same subject. Take care that we do not exclude the PROPHET from the Church; we are inclined to do so. The prophet had a higher gift than the teacher; the teacher read a book that was written with pen and ink, but the prophet read a book not yet written, but that was going to be written. He forecast the ages, and read the scroll of the future traced by an invisible hand with invisible ink. Have we reached the final point? Do we stop at a flat black line and say Finis? We have excluded the prophet from the Church; we call him "heterodox," fanatical, unsafe, peculiar, not always to be relied upon; men write cautiously to him; men are afraid of him; they speak of him with many parenthetic qualifications; they write about him with so many footnotes that the substantial text is reduced to a minimum. It is the prophet that must lead us; there must always be amongst us some man who has the next word. I cannot see those who are on the mountain top, but I can see the next man on the mountain ridge; that is enough in the meantime, for he, turning to me below, says, "Come up higher, higher still." Where is the prophet today? He is a dead man, and his grave cannot be found!
"The Holy Ghost said." How much is implied in that expression also! The Holy Spirit dwells in the Church. "Know ye not that ye are the temples of the Holy Ghost?" The Spirit finds his abode in the Church; there he can whisper; there he can touch gently the minds which he seeks to affect; there he can tell "the secret things of God." Had we listened more, we should have known more; had we invited fuller confidences from heaven, we should have known the meaning of this sublime word, "The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him." The Holy Spirit must be our genius, our ability, our inspiration, our wealth, and our whole strength. Pray that the Holy Dove may return," sweet Messenger of rest." He will take of the things of Christ and show them unto us. He will not testify of himself, but whatsoever he shall hear the Son say he will whisper to our hearts, and will "show us things to come." Alas, we have no future, because we have no Holy Ghost! It is the function of the Holy Spirit to elect his own ministers: do not let us meddle with God in this matter. God will find his own ministers. A minister is not a manufacture he is an inspiration! "Pray ye the Lord of the harvest that he would send forth labourers into his harvest." There our interest may well cease, for a great prayer will answer itself, and you will be found doing the earthly share of the work with a glad heart and a willing hand. Ministers are not to be made by us. Young men are not to be driven into the ministry they are to be "called" to it. Put all the emphasis you can upon the word which the Holy Ghost himself used:" The work whereunto I have CALLED them." The ministry is a calling; men are called to particular work; they are called to particular countries, places, and surroundings; the Lord hath a candlestick for every candle; the Lord allots the place as well as calls the man.
A singular combination of the human and the Divine you will find in the third and fourth verses. Barnabas and Saul were chosen and separated, and we read in the third verse that when the Church "had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away." That is the human side. Now read the beginning of the fourth verse and see the Divine aspect. "So they being sent forth by the Holy Ghost." We are "fellow-workers with God." Who sent forth Barnabas and Saul? The Church did. The Church alone? No, the Holy Ghost sent them forth. Then this was a joint work? It was, certainly. The united work of the Spirit and of the Church. This is the solution of the whole controversy about the Divineness of our salvation and our share in it. "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God that worketh in you." So then we are fellow-workers with God. We are called into this high partnership it has pleased God so to address us as to give us the comfort of having done somewhat in our own case, for said Jesus to those who believed on him and received his healing: " Thy faith hath made thee whole." The two men then were sent forth both by the Holy Ghost and by the Church, and we find that their way was marked out and made clear for them. God will take care of his own ministers. No minister of Christ in all this world but has friends: opponents he may have, but they will, as the clouds in the air, set out in sharper accent and more glorified expression the light that is above. Do not tell me that you can go forth at God's bidding without having friends, and men's respect and confidence and love. You may meet an Elymas, but you will first meet a Sergius Paulus. God himself will open a man's way, and the wonder of the man will be, not that Elymas should have opposed him, but that Sergius Paulus, the proconsul, should have taken any notice of him. We are surprised by love, not by hate: the marvel is that we should have bread, not that we should sometimes be an hungered. But the true ministry develops the evil-spirit of the times. Elymas, the Sorcerer, withstood Barnabas and Saul, seeking to turn away the viceroy from the faith. So we sometimes hear timid people saying that whether this or that movement be good or not they will not say, but certainly since it took place there has been a great deal of rioting and tumult in the neighborhood; and such poor philosophers are allowed to be counted as one each in a vote by hand! How pitiable, how heart-discouraging! Do let us have to do with men who see that wherever the good is the evil will be developed. Wherever Barnabas and Saul are, Elymas will put in his claim, and there will be controversy in any town whose possession by the sorcerer is disputed by those who claim it in the name of Christ. Wherever there is a movement in the direction of sobriety on a larger scale, there will be corresponding opposition to it. Wherever there is Gospel preaching of a right sort, not tepid, uncertain, halfhearted, but the mighty yearning preaching of the heart in the tongue and accent of the people, the devil will leap up from his darkness and dispute the field. We are disabled by timidity. Did Barnabas and Saul write home to Antioch that opposition having arisen, they would return by the next boat? They were not given to returning except with victory, or to equip themselves for further Christian assault!
It is beautiful to mark how Saul takes his right position by a most natural process. They went out Barnabas and Saul, but when we hear of them again they will be Saul and Barnabas. This inversion took place providentially. Men are tested by their work. Nothing can keep down a man whom God has appointed to the throne. There will be no controversy between Barnabas and Saul, for Barnabas was a good man, and he instantly knew where the power was, and he stood aside with the graceful courtesy which is taught and acquired only in the school of heaven.
"Then Saul" wrought his first miracle. In many chapters in the Bible you find beginnings. In this chapter Paul worked his first miracle. He fixed his eyes on the Sorcerer, and said: "O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord?" Truly his speech was then not "contemptible"! Stung by fire, he turned into a mighty and thrilling speaker. Never could he have prepared those words in any mechanical sense: they are the words which follow the touch of fire! That fire we have lost. We talk to Elymas in syllables of ice; we look at him with vacant eyes, he returns our unmeaning stare. This first miracle seemed to bring back Saul's own experience on the way to Damascus. It seems as though he knew only one kind of miracles, and that was making opponents blind. He began with Elymas where the Lord began with himself. He had not yet seen the range of the Divine movement. Many a time he had thought of the blind days, and mayhap he said to his soul, This is how Christ afflicts men who oppose him! so when he comes to work his own first miracle he begins with the Sorcerer where Christ began with himself; he struck the Sorcerer blind! Yet he remembered the mercy as well as the wrath, adding "not seeing the sun for a season." Just his own experience! His was not a lifelong blindness, but a temporary suspension of the visual power. How we repeat our experience in others! How the father lives again his own childhood in his son! How the instructor takes his pupils just as he himself was taken some thirty years before!
In this chapter we shall presently hear Paul's first speech. Truly he begins in this chapter! He has been at home waiting, wondering, reading, thinking much and praying ever day, and now his turn has come, and in this chapter we shall see his first miracle, and hear his first thunder, and shall know that the king of men has arisen in the Church!
That great preacher is now about to begin! Let us look and listen well!
Almighty God, there are sounds of joy in thy house today. Surely the marriage feast of the Lamb is ready! Thou hast taken us up to the top of a mountain, and has shown unto us in the vision of faith the cloudless land. Thou dost surprise us oftentimes with a sight of the beautiful country. Suddenly the night shineth as the day, and the day is made sevenfold in brightness. Sometimes thou dost make us tread upon the grave with holy scorn, taunting it because its victory is lost. These things thou causest to pass before us in Christ Jesus, the Child of Bethlehem, the Man of the Cross. In him we see all things; he is the open door into heaven. He is the revelation of thy person, and brightness and glory. In him is the fulness of the Godhead. His look is light. If we may but touch the hem of his garment, we shall be made whole. If he will but breathe upon us, this breathing shall be the gift of peace. Lord Jesus, make thy Church glad! Come to her in any form she can bear to look upon, either in great degradation, or in might and glory; in mortal agony, or in great strength and pomp. Come as thou wilt, and as we are able to bear the sight, and make thy Church this day glad with infinite joy. Thou knowest how long we have trembled in the dark cloud. Thou hast numbered the days of the bitter wind that has blown around our shrinking life. Thou knowest how often we have found the garden to be a wilderness; now come with the angels, and with the heavens of light, and let thy Church this day sit down at her Lord's banquet and feel that his banner over her is love. We are weary of the world, we have drunk its cup, and found it shallow and bitter; we are now stirred by new inspirations which would lay hold of the heavens, and apply to the wounds of time the balm of immortality. Still we would be patient, though the road is full of sharp stones and turns that make us dizzy by their suddenness and violence. Still we would say now at the cradle, now at the grave The Lord's will be done, for it alone is good. Give us such a hold of thyself in Christ, such a grip of essential truth and everlasting reality as shall make us strong, solid, noble in character, beneficent and redeeming in spirit and in action. May we separate ourselves from the world by distances that shall amaze ourselves. May we know the meaning of the contradictions which we find in Christ, who, though on earth, was in heaven; who, having no food, had bread enough and to spare; who, being a root out of a dry ground, was the flower of Jesse and the plant of renown. Lead us away from the narrow and the small and the contemptible, and may we count as our riches the gold of heaven, and our inheritance the very breadth of thine own infinity. We come in the name of Jesus, the name to sinners dear! He makes our life a beginning, our death a transient shadow, our heaven sympathy with God. Into this heaven we would now pass by the sacred way of the Cross. We will say, "Not our will, but thine be done." Lord, do we say it well, with the lips of the heart, and with the accent of all-believing love? or, is it some letter we have learned, and which we utter with the mouth only? Write it in our hearts; make it part of our very life; may it be to our thirst the wine of heaven, and to our hunger the bread of life. Give us triumph as well as peace, joy that sings and shouts, and calls for organ and trumpet and mighty power of utterance to give it expression. We could not live alway in this high rapture, but if now we could but feel its inspiration, in one moment we should forget the sorrow of a lifetime, and anticipate the heaven beyond the riv. The Lord give us bread to eat. Lead us to living fountains of water, wipe away all tears from our eyes. Make us wise to redeem the time and do the work of life, and at the last may we meet those who have gone before, and those who are coming after, and the whole host of the Lamb in the Chamber where the feast is spread and where the gladness never ends. Amen.
14. But they, passing through from Perga, came to Antioch of Pisidia [one of the many cities built by Seleucus Nicanor, and named after his father Antiochus], and they went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and sat down. [The act implied that they were not listeners only, but teachers. They sat in the seat of the Rabbi, and thus showed that they asked for permission to address the congregation.]
15. And after the reading of the law and the prophets [the order of the lessons was fixed by a kind of calendar] the rulers of the synagogue sent unto them [it was part of the duty of the elders to offer persons in such a position the opportunity of addressing the assembly], saying, Brethren, if ye have any word of exhortation for the people, say on.
16. And Paul stood up, and beckoning with the hand [a gesture of waving rather than of beckoning, as if requesting silence], said [almost certainly in Greek], Men of Israel, and ye that fear God [the latter being those who, though in the synagogue, were of heathen origin], hearken.
17. The God of this people Israel [a speech, as we formerly hinted, modelled upon the plan of Stephen's great apology] chose our fathers, and exalted the people when they sojourned in the land of Egypt [they were exalted in the sense of being innumerably multiplied], and with a high arm led them forth out of it.
18. And for about the time of forty years suffered he their manners in the wilderness [the Greek word translated "suffered" differs by a single letter only from one which signifies to carry as a father carries his child, and that word is used in many of the better MSS. versions.]
19. And when he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land for an inheritance,
20. for about four hundred and fifty years: and after these things he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet.
21. And afterward they asked for a king: and God gave unto them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin [the very tribe to which Paul himself belonged], for the space of forty years [the duration of the reign is not given in the Old Testament],
22. And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king; to whom also he bare witness, and said, I have found David the son of Jesse [the words that follow are a composite quotation, after the manner of the Rabbis, made up of Psalms 89:20 , and 1Sa 13:14 ], a man after my heart, who shall do all my will.
23. Of this man's seed hath God according to promise brought unto Israel a Saviour, Jesus [even in those remote regions of Pisidia there was some vague knowledge of the life and death of Christ];
24. When John had first preached before his coming the baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel.
25. And as John was fulfilling his course [the tense implies continuous action], he said, What suppose ye that I am [the question is inferred from the substance of the answer, Matthew 3:10 ; Joh 1:20-21 ]? I am not he. But behold, there cometh one after me, the shoes of whose feet I am not worthy to unloose.
26. Brethren, children of the stock of Abraham, and those among you that fear God [the two classes, as before, are pointedly contrasted], to us is the word of this salvation sent forth [the demonstrative pronoun connects the salvation with the Jesus just named: the expression "this salvation" recalls the corresponding terms, "this life," Act 5:20 ].
27. For they that dwell in Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they knew him not, nor the voices of the prophets which are read every Sabbath [the Apostle appeals to the synagogue ritual itself, which had just been read, in proof of what he was stating], fulfilled them by condemning him.
28. And though they found no cause of death in him [he had been technically condemned on the charge of blasphemy], yet asked they of Pilate that he should be slain [seeking to terrify him by the suggestion that acquittal would mean treason to Cæsar].
29. And when they had fulfilled all things that were written of him [unconsciously to themselves], they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a tomb.
30. But God raised him from the dead:
31. And he was seen for many days [he speaks as one who had personally conversed with the eye-witnesses] of them that came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are [now] his witnesses unto the people [literally, the people of God].
32. And we bring you good tidings of the promise made unto the fathers,
33. how that God hath fulfilled the same unto our children, in that he raised up Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm [in some copies of the Old Testament what is now the first psalm was treated as a kind of prelude to the whole book, the enumeration beginning with what is now the second ], Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee [the first fulfilment was in a victorious king the final and complete fulfilment in Christ].
34. And as concerning that he raised him up from the dead, now no more to return to corruption [ Psa 16:10 ], he has spoken on this wise, I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.
35. Because he saith also in another psalm, Thou wilt not give thy Holy One to see corruption.
36. For David, after he had in his own generation served [ministered to] the counsel of God, fell on sleep, and was laid unto his fathers, and saw corruption:
37. But he whom God raised up saw no corruption.
38. Be it known unto you therefore, brethren, that through this man is proclaimed unto you remission of sins:
39. And by him every one that believeth is justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.
40. Beware therefore, lest that come upon you which is spoken in the prophets;
41. Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish; for I work a work in your days, a work which ye shall in no wise believe, if one declare it unto you.
Paul's First Recorded Speech
"PAUL and Barnabas went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and sat down." They did not violently separate themselves from old traditions and religious companionships. Christianity has no battle with Judaism. Surely the Christian is not the enemy of the Jew; he owes everything precious in his civilization, and precious in his hope, to the Jew, and therefore to hold angry controversy with him would be to display an unappreciative and an unjust disposition of spirit. There was a custom in the synagogue which we have not in the Christian Church. The rulers of the synagogue, noticing distinguished persons in the audience, would almost invariably send to them or speak to them, saying If you wish to address the assembly, we shall be glad to hear you. The lessons of the day were read, the grand lessons from the Old Testament, for then there was no other covenant, and then the rulers of the synagogue would say to distinguished-looking men in the assembly If you have anything to say to the people, say on. There is singular dignity and nobleness in that arrangement; a fearlessness which does not seem to characterize the spirit of the Church in which we live. Who dares now throw the meeting open to any stranger who may have come within its four corners? In the olden time they seemed to believe that the Word was its own defence, that the fire of the Lord would disinfect whatever it touched, and that to be in the synagogue was to be reverent, deeply religious, and loyal to the spirit of the house. These things have all changed. Men can be in the Christian Church in an un-Christian spirit. The mere verbalist; yes, and even the mocker, may find his way into the church, and might be only too glad to have an opportunity impertinently and rudely to contradict what he did not understand. The usual challenge having been given, PAUL stood up. That was an event in history. No other standing up was equal to it. In that brief sentence you have the beginning of a battle which was concluded with these words "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course; henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness!" Paul did not stand up by himself. Men are lifted up. Every action of the loyal life is an action of inspiration. The good man lays no plans, and makes no arrangements which can exclude the sudden and incalculable inspiration of God. Having written his outline of purpose and thought, he says "I hold this merely as a trustee, it is not mine, it is God's, I may never look at it more. I will cry mightily and lovingly to Heaven and ask for direction, and according to the word of the Lord I will do." You cannot plan an outline that will exactly, hold God's inspiration. You cannot outline what you will finally do. Let the publicans, the pagans, forecast and determine and draw the geometrical figures within which their movements may be described, but the Christian always goes out without knowing whither he is going, except that he is going with God! To that high faith not many souls have come; we are still in the infant school of prudence and calculation; not in the high school of inspiration and madness.
This is Paul's first recorded speech. He has been talking before; yes, and he has been mightily persuading the Jews that the Man whom he preaches is Christ, but this is his first recorded statement of Jewish history and Christian faith. I like to be present at beginnings. There is a subtle, tender, mysterious joy about planting roots and sowing seed, covering it up and leaving it in the darkness; then what a surprise it is to come back in due time and find the green lancet puncturing the soil and coming up to look at the light it has been groping for all the while! Sometimes our first speeches were very poor because they were our own. We made them, we wrote them out, graved them upon the unwilling memory, and they were like something put on, not growing out; and so we begged our friends who were unhappy enough to be able to quote some portions of them to forget them if they could! But the first speeches of the Christian defender were incapable of improvement. They were as complete as the fiat of God which said "Let there be light: and there was light." There was no emendation, no correction of words, no reconstruction of phrases, no mechanical tinkering of the grand utterance. When Stephen opened his mouth and spoke to the wondering assembly, he himself was more surprised by the eloquence than any man that heard it. Surely Paul will grow in speaking power? No! Surely he will at first be timid and stumbling and incorrect, and people will say It is a maiden effort, but by-and-by he may become a tolerable speaker? No! How do you account for that?
Paul based his apology on the model of Stephen. When he performed his first miracle, which we saw in our last reading, it was a miracle modelled on Christ's transaction with himself on the way to Damascus. As we said before, he probably thought that there was only one miracle that could be done, and that was to smite the offending man with temporary blindness. And now perhaps he thinks there is but one speech to be made! Is not this speech modelled on the lines of Stephen's, which great speech Saul heard? We cannot tell of what elements our life is made up. It is no one shower of rain that makes the summer green. We are gathering from every point all day long; we are daily at school, and every providence that passes before us leaves some impress on our life. Paul was no student of rhetoric when he listened to Stephen; but Stephen's speech, like all vital speech, got into the man, and became part of his intellectual and spiritual life. He never forgot that speech! When he wanted to put his fingers in his ears and shut out the thundering eloquence, he could not exclude the resounding tone! Paul began as Stephen did, with a narrative of Jewish history. To their credit be it spoken, the Jews were never tired of hearing their own history. Whenever a speaker arose in Jewish society determined to carry a specific point, he came with all the background of Jewish history, and under the influence of recollections heroic and thrilling, he endeavored to carry the immediate point of the occasion. One might have expected that the Jews would have become weary of hearing their history time after time, but historians record it to their credit that they were always ready to hear the living story again. Are we patient under the citation of the facts which make up our history? We cannot live in sentiment. You cannot build a castle in the air that you can live in; it must be founded upon rock, however high up into the air you may carry it. This was the great law of Jewish eloquence and Jewish appeal; basing the whole argument upon the rock of undisputed history. Do not some of us occasionally say, "Tell me the old, old story of Jesus and his love"? therein we are partly Jewish that is our story! As the Jews began from the formation of themselves as a people, we begin at Bethlehem, and in proportion as we are in the right spirit and temper, we are never tired of hearing the old, old story; it brings its own dew with it, like every morning in the year. When we are tired of hearing that story the kingdom of heaven amongst men will come to a standstill in its halting progress.
Notice in this speech what we may call Paul's grip of GOD. I know not any speech of the same length in which the sacred word occurs so frequently. Gather the phrases together, and see if this be not so: God chose our fathers; God destroyed seven nations; God gave them judges; God gave them Saul; God raised unto Israel a Saviour; God raised him from the dead; God , God, GOD! That man can never be put down! When he dies he will die a victor, and in his last speech will he make mention of a crown of glory. The factor we have omitted from our sermons is only GOD! We are afraid or ashamed of his name; we pronounce it hesitatingly, mincingly, timidly. Paul did not use it so; he hurled it like a thunderbolt; he measured everything by that grand standard. All through history he saw a Figure after the similitude of God. You can dislodge a man from any position but that, but once in the munitions of rocks, once really hidden in the very centre of the sanctuary of the Divine presence and providence, a man treats so-called "great questions" as a drop of a bucket, he takes up the isles as a very little thing, he sits with God on the circle of the earth and all things pompous and great, and in figure dominating and forceful, he stands back in the shadow of a sublime contempt! We lose hold of history when we lose hold of God.
As we find Stephen's character in Stephen's apology, so we may find Paul's character in Paul's exposition. Mark his courtesy " Paul stood up, and, beckoning with his hand, said, Men of Israel, and ye that fear God, give audience." He was no rough intruder; no rude annotator had found his way to the synagogue that day, but a gentleman born, and indestructible, all through and through, polite, refined, courteous, gentlemanly. His tact is most wonderful; he notices how the assembly is made up he is a poor speaker who takes no note of his hearers; he must, without staring, take in the whole company; he must take the census, intellectual and moral, and know who is before him. Paul saw not only the Jews, but the Greeks and proselytes, who, wearied with the absurdities of polytheism, had come to believe there was One God, a spiritual, invisible, eternal God! So Paul accosted both classes, "Men of Israel" always distinguishable, never to be confounded with others "and ye that fear God" converted from mythology to true spirituality of thought "give audience." How delicately he puts the case in the twenty-seventh verse; speaking of the dwellers at Jerusalem and their rulers, he said, "Because they knew him not, nor yet the voices of the prophets which are read every Sabbath day, they have fulfilled them in condemning him." They knew not the voice of the prophets; they heard the letter, they did not know the inner and spiritual meaning. We do not read a book when we peruse its pages as to its mere lines and letters. Sometimes we read a book by reading only one page of it; we know we have the soul of it in our soul, and all the gamut of its music repeats itself in our sympathetic ear. Sometimes we read a book right through and know nothing about it. Pre-eminently is this so with the Bible. It is possible to read the Bible through from Genesis to Revelation and to know nothing about its secret soul, for it is a book of analogue and parable and suggestion, and not literal meaning, having about it a mystery greater than itself; not a fact, but a truth; not a point, but a circle.
How wondrously Paul introduced the right way of quoting Scripture. There is hardly a quotation which he makes here which is not a double or treble quotation turned into one. For example, in referring to David, Paul says that God gave testimony and said, "I have found David, the son of Jesse, a man after my own heart, which shall fulfil all my will." That passage cannot be found in the Old Testament; it is at least three passages made into one. It is all in the Bible, but is in no one place in the Scripture. He does not quote the Bible who quotes mere texts. Those texts in their isolation may or may not be in the Bible; the Bible is larger than any one text that is in it. There is a spirit of collocation and a spirit of quotation, a Bible- spirit that can bring from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south lines that shall focalize in one intense and dazzling glory. Away, literalists and word-mongers, and text-quoters, unless they have in them the spirit which sees how lines converge and focalize, and how scattered parts sum themselves up into one massive doctrine. Paul's voice surely had a quiver in it which no reporter could catch for in reports we do not get the tonic colour and force of speech when he said "God gave unto them SAUL, a man of the tribe of BENJAMIN." There he repeated his own name; his name was Saul, and his tribe was Benjamin, and as he himself had changed the Saul into Paul, and gone over to the Christian host, he would call others to a new name and a new fellowship, the name of Christ and the fellowship of the whole world. Now, at the very beginning Paul is himself "Be it known unto you, men and brethren, that through this Man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins, and by him all that believe are justified from all things from which he could not be justified by the law of Moses." That is a new voice in the Church; that is a doctrinal teacher; justified, justified by the law: this is a new intellect, no other man has ever fought with these weapons. From this moment Christian speech acquires a new accent; new words are minted, new values are attached to old expressions. Here we have the logician, the philosopher, the theologian. This man will one day write an epistle "hard to be understood."
Almighty God, we are spared by thy mercy, and to thy mercy we now come as to a river that is full of water; for thy compassions fail not: to thy love there is no end. Thou dost give unto us bread every day, and every day thou dost draw for us water from the well. Thou art round about us as the light that is everywhere like a healing breath from Heaven, renewing our youth and making our life strong. Thou dost set in the clouds lights of hope, yea, thou dost make the storm supply a rainbow, that we may be reminded of thy goodness and thine oath, and that we may be established in faith that cannot decline. We have seen thee in all the way of our life, and thy touch has been a touch of kindness. Thy presence has been unto us as a daily redemption; thy breath has been a blessing, and all thy care has been assured by the measure of thine almightiness. Thou art as a shepherd amongst us, as a father, as a nurse, as a hen that gathereth her brood under her wings, yea, by many and strange and beautiful figures hast thou revealed thyself unto us, all showing thee to be full of tenderness and solicitude and love, anxious for our life and for our happiness, as if we were the only creatures in thy great creation.
Thou dost come to us night and day; thou hast made the sun to give us day and the moon to rule over our night, and thou hast brought us through all the blackness and through all the mystery of night into returning morning, which has rekindled hope, and with new strength hast thou called us to new duties. We love to think of thee; the thought of God makes us more Divine. We are lifted up when we think of God making all and ruling all, and of his tender mercies being over all his works. Then do we escape the littleness of our selfhood and rise into the largeness and the liberty of thine immeasurable being. Save us from the distress of those who see themselves alone. Help us to see God. Looking upon God, we shall be affrighted indeed, but when thou dost speak unto us from the flaming bush, thou wilt quiet our fear and thou wilt cause us to enjoy a new and tender hope. Enable us to regard all life as under thy rule. Save us from the imagination that we can do anything of our own wit or strength that is good, stable, and worthy. Teach us that in God alone is there strength, in Christ only is there peace, and in the Holy Spirit of God alone is there regeneration and wisdom and holiness. Deliver us from all the terror of unbelief, from all the crime of disbelief. May we rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him, and give up unto him our heart's desire, to be accomplished by his omnipotence.
We now put ourselves into thine hands they are well kept whom thou dost keep. We give up keeping ourselves any more; we would be cared for, watched, led, guided, and in all things directed and established by the Lord of Hosts. Thou dost stoop far to stoop to us; we ask thee now in Christ's name and at Christ's cross to renew thy condescension and lift us up, even us, from the deep pit of our folly and crime. We look upon the world, and our heart is sad. How great must be the grief of thy spirit! We are impatient because of the triumphs of vice we call them triumphs, not knowing that they are the utterest and completest failures. Yet our piety exclaims, "Lord, how long?" We would see thee reigning over human hearts; we would see the heavens gather blackness as of a great storm, yet all the clouds should prove themselves to be laden, not with tempests, but with blessings, so that there may be a great baptism of the earth, even the baptism of the Holy Ghost, refreshing, fertilizing, and blessing the whole human family.
Yet if thou canst wait, why should we be impatient? Our impatience comes out of our littleness: with less ignorance, we should have less fear. Teach us that thou are doing all things right and well; that we cannot see the whole circuit of thy movement or understand the entire purpose thou hast in view. We are of yesterday, and know nothing; we are struggling, praying, triumphing, and failing today in one little hurried tumult, and to-morrow we are laid in the grave. Pardon our blasphemy in asking thee to move more quickly in the reclamation of thy prodigals and in the establishment of thy Holy Kingdom. Thou knowest our littleness, the meanness to which we have brought ourselves by long-continued sin; and it is this which makes itself felt as a stain and a taint even in our prayers. God be merciful unto us, and therein show still more the fulness of his pardoning grace.
We bless thee for this Whittide memory, this Pentecostal recollection, when thou didst come in sounds from heaven, with fire from the upper altar, with baptism from the secret sanctuary. Renew the baptism of fire to-day teach us that religion is enthusiasm, or it is not religion show us that if piety be not passion, it is what thou canst not accept. Oh, reveal unto us the true nature of thy kingdom; show us that it moves men to great ecstasies and solemn raptures, and fills them with ineffable joys, and that if it make them not burn, as did the bush near Horeb, and yet not be consumed, they know not the true nature of thy kingdom and service. We are dull, we are slow, the fire is not in our hearts; we use great words and dwarf them into small meanings; we do not rise to the passion of utter, joyous, self-crucifixion; we say Christ's name, but hell trembles not at our poor utterance. To-day, then, on this Pentecostal festival, this time of the outpouring of the Holy Ghost, we ask that we may enter into new moods, into higher feelings, into nobler conceptions of thy truth and thy demands, and from this day we would live more nobly, constantly, tenderly, usefully, in the house of our blessed Father, God.
Thou wilt surely come and make all things thine own. We know this, and it is our deepest joy. Thou wilt make all things new the lame shall leap as a hart, the blind shall see, the leper shall no more be found in city or wilderness, graves shall be depopulated, death shall be dismissed, and time shall be no more. Oh, sweet, tender word promise of music and light and rest. It is the word of the Lord, and it abideth; may it be realized quickly. Oh, that thou wouldst put on the breastplate that never was smitten, and take the sword that never was turned back, and that thou wouldst go forth, thou Prince of Kingdoms, and Lord of Mighties and Dominions, and conquer all things for thyself. Behold, this we say whilst the blood of the Cross falls upon us, the eternal revelation of the eternal love. Amen.
The Forgiveness of Sins
HOW can it be true that through Jesus Christ is preached the forgiveness of sins, when, as a matter of fact, the forgiveness of sins is an Old Testament doctrine? If nothing had been known about forgiveness until the appearance of Jesus Christ, he would have been justly entitled to identify his name with the doctrine; but seeing that it is historically earlier than his birth, how is it that the act of forgiveness is now inseparably associated with his priesthood?
The solution of the apparent difficulty turns wholly upon the right principle of interpretation, which I can conceive to be that the Old Testament: Jewish or Pagan written or unwritten is as full of Christ as the New; that, in fact, the Old Testament is an anonymous book until Christ attaches his signature to it. "Search the Scriptures, for they are they which testify of me." In my opinion we not only lose nothing, we gain much by tracing the best elements and aspirations of every paganism to a Divine source and treating them as an Old Testament full of types and shadows, yearnings and symbols, which find their meaning and their abrogation in the truth and love of Jesus Christ. Hence the wise missionary (Paul at Athens, for example) has ever found it best fully to acknowledge all that is good in heathenism and to carry it forward to its highest meaning. The application of this principle to the Old Testament of Judaism puts an end to the historical difficulty respecting the forgiveness of sins, by showing that what was once anonymous has been at length identified as the anticipatory action of Christ the more clearly so because nowhere in the New Testament is the basis of forgiveness changed; it is still, as ever, a basis of mediation, sacrifice, priesthood.
But there is another difficulty less easy of solution by the mere intellect, the difficulty that the sinner should be forgiven for the sake of Christ and not for his own sake. It is clearly for Christ's sake that sin is forgiven; thus: "Forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you." This difficulty has expressed itself in various sophisms, some of them obviously puerile, some of them disingenuous, but most of them likely to arrest and captivate the popular mind. For example: If sin is a debt, why should Christ have paid it? If Christ has paid it, why should men be called upon, in suffering and sorrow here, and in perdition hereafter, to pay it over again? How could Christ's Cross pay debts that were not contracted; that is to say, pay in advance the debts of men who were not born and who would not be born until many centuries after the transaction? Puerile and uncandid as these questions, and the group to which they belong, undoubtedly are, perhaps they only imperfectly express the agony of many honest minds in wrestling with this stupendous difficulty of forgiveness for the sake of another. In offering some suggestions upon this difficulty, let us, if possible, lay hold of some principles that will carry with them all outposts and casualties, otherwise we shall be fretted by merely formal variations of one and the same difficulty. Let the question stand thus: Why should a man be divinely forgiven not for his own sake but for Christ's? And let that inquiry support itself by the further question, If one man can forgive another without the intervention of a third party, why cannot the Almighty do the same thing as between himself and the sinner?
These questions, simple as they seem, touch nearly every point of the whole argument of this book; it might be permitted for that reason to refer the inquirer to all that has gone before, but we will summarize for him that he may the more easily come to a right conclusion. First of all, he must say distinctly where he learned that word "forgive," which he now uses without apparently suspecting his claim to it. He evidently thinks that he coined the word, that he fixed its proper meaning and scope, and that therefore it is his own property. This is exactly what is utterly denied. We hold as Christian teachers, that forgiveness is an idea which never occurred to the uninspired mind; that it is a revelation; and that to the man who exercises it may be said, "Flesh and blood hath not revealed that unto thee, but the Father who is in heaven." Even if it could be shown that men who never heard of Christ forgave one another, we should require to know precisely what they meant by forgiveness. Was it a compromise? Was it a purchase? Was it a snare? Was it a fear? Possibly if we knew the exact answer, it might be found that the so-called forgiveness was itself an offence against morals, and needed itself to be forgiven. Where, then, did the inquirer learn the word "forgiveness," and now that he has learned it, does he know its vital and complete meaning? That resentment is natural or spontaneous is known to every man; but that forgiveness is natural has never yet been proved: something else has, however, been proved which makes this argument invincible, and that is, that to forgive from the heart has never been done even by the best men without the influence of the most forcible considerations that can move the human will. Resentment comes easily; forgiveness has to be explained. inculcated, and commended by the most pathetic reasons. In a sense, easily-apprehended forgiveness is unnatural, that is to say, it does not spontaneously occur to the mind; and even when it is suggested it is instantly encountered by a resentment which the sufferer vindicates as reasonable and just. You may see, then, that even as between man and man, when forgiveness is really exercised, it may explain itself by the very words "for the sake of ;" and the offended man may be entitled to say, "This offence ought to be punished; it is cruel; it is horrible; and justice itself demands vengeance; but ," and then may be added reasons which if not immoral must be sublime with the sublimity of the Gospel itself. Was there not a creditor who having two debtors who had nothing to pay frankly forgave them both? There was, but where? In the conception of Christ, and yet the fact has been feloniously appropriated as quite a common human idea! Thus men do steal the stars, and show them as fires of their own kindling.
Having thus demanded of the inquirer where he learned the word "forgiveness," we must in the next place call upon him for a distinct explanation of its meaning. Is it something done in himself, or merely something done for another? Does it arise from moral indifference, a temper so easy as to let moral distinctions pass without criticism? Is it an act affected by time, as, for example, by decline of mere memory, the resentment being determined by the vividness or incertitude of the recollection? Does he make forgiveness turn in any sense or degree upon mere time, saying, "It is yet too soon to forgive; I may forgive in a year or two, but not now that the wound is so new"? If so, it may not be magnanimity that is rising, it may be only recollection that is fading. But with God there is no change of memory; there is no succession called time; he lives in a perpetual present; if he forgives, he forgives when the wound is new; he receives no alleviation from the lapse of days; whilst the dagger is yet in the wound he proclaims the conditions and opportunities of pardon. Not only so, when we have forgiven our enemies they have still to be forgiven by God; this must be so, if we consider that we can do no more than forgive offences or crimes (and even these under limited conditions), we cannot enter the inner region of spiritual transgression. We forgive the blow, but we cannot forgive the motive which dealt it; as between two men the offence and the release may have been completed, but there remains a farther settlement in which the offended party may have no voice: that settlement may be social; as, for example, in the case of felony, the man who has been robbed may forgive the thief, but society takes the case from individual judgment, and determines it by an impartial and general law; and even society can only kill the body, and after that it has no more that it can do; the offender has still to answer the law of which other laws were but broken and ill-assorted parts. So, in view of these considerations, it would appear that forgiveness is not the easy, simple, superficial act that long familiarity with its name would seem to suggest. It is an agony. It is a cross. It is a shedding of blood!
If the inquirer has been proceeding upon the idea that forgiveness is merely a courteous answer to a personal apology, there need be no wonder as to his embarrassment on reading an account of what is required to secure the Divine pardon of human sin. But it is his conception or definition that is at fault, and not the New Testament law. It would indeed be only modest on the part of the inquirer to say, that seeing God requires such and such conditions before he can pardon the sinner, it is evident that the whole question of sin is larger than man is able fully to comprehend, having relationships and effects which transcend the circle of human intelligence. But if the inquirer is yet unprepared for this admission, we must bind him to a severe scrutiny of the things which he does suppose himself to know. Unfortunately he already knows the word "forgive," and it is hard for him to believe that it is one of the words which have been revealed plucked for him from the tree of life but in the face of this misfortune we must ply him with this question: Why should there be such an act as the forgiveness of offence as between man and man, and of sin as between God and man? Take the former branch of the inquiry first. Why should man forgive man? Will you thereby gain the man? But is any man worth gaining who can offend, annoy, and injure another? If you say, First punish the man and then forgive him, you must remember that if the punishment is just, he has by the very fact of its endurance so far paid off his obligation; if the punishment was not sufficient to cover the whole ground of the offence, that is your blame, not his, for you yourself, without any interference on his part, fixed the measure of the punishment, and finally, if by the endurance of punishment a man can honourably though painfully discharge his obligations, why should you torment him with a needless charity (a form, indeed, of malignity), for whose exercise you may be tempted to glorify yourself, when the man was able and willing to meet you upon independent terms? If he did so meet you, there would be no act of forgiveness; it would be simply the case of a man paying his debts to the uttermost farthing. But there is another question deeper still, which the inquirer is bound to consider: Is it possible for forgiveness to be a one-sided act? This is an answer to the suggestion that God should forgive the sinner without terms and without mediation. If it turn out that the most magnanimous man cannot by any act of his own complete all that is meant by forgiveness, that fact may change the scope of the whole argument. He may have the disposition to forgive; he-may declare his willingness to forgive; he may go so far as actually to say that he has forgiven; and yet nothing farther than a one-sided act has taken place. There must be a corresponding movement on the other side, or nothing effectual can be done. And this is exactly what God requires. He proclaims himself a God delighting in forgiveness and mercy, but beyond that he cannot go; but if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness; the penitent thief he will save; the impenitent thief damns himself. If a man sins against you and expresses sorrow, you can forgive and restore the offender; but if he deny his offence, or glory in it, any forgiveness you may exercise can be one-sided only, and may even tend towards self-demoralization and social disorder. Thus God represents himself as jealous, severe, by no means pardoning the guilty, or allowing the sinner to go free; and this rigour is the security and defence of the universe. Even God, then, cannot forgive without confession on the part of man; and whether a sinner can confess without Christ is a question which the inquirer should deeply consider.
Let us include that question in one still larger: Is forgiveness possible? If by forgiveness we are to understand that a thing once done can be undone, then we are confronted with something like a miracle, and we are entitled to ask, Is it possible? Let us grant that a thing done may be treated as if it had never been done; that it may be relegated to oblivion and silence by a determination of the will on both sides; but something more than this is meant by forgiveness, or if it mean this only, we may well say of the Atonement, Why was this waste made? The Christian idea of forgiveness includes cleansing, purification, justification, the utter destruction of the sin or sins to which it is extended; it means birth, sonship, inheritance. "How can these things be?" We nowhere find the solution of a miracle in the miracle itself; we look beyond, we look above: so we must do in this case; intellectually, as we understand the term, this thing viz., the obliteration of moral history is impossible; but in many things we have to take our idea of possibility not from ourselves but from God, saying, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." So we return to the point from which there is no escape, the doctrine that all vital truth is revealed to the mind of man, and consequently that we walk by faith and not by sight.
Now as to the difficulty supposed to inhere in the words "for Christ's sake." If man can forgive man, why cannot God forgive the sinner, without the intervention of a third person? But it has already been pointed out that man cannot forgive man in the sense implied in the objection, and therefore the inquiry based upon it loses its application and point. Man can forgive offences, he cannot forgive the sin which they represent; herein the old inquiry is for ever pertinent, Who can forgive sins but God only? But it is not enough to destroy the validity of the objection; we must, if possible, get at the positive truth, and I believe you will find it in the direction of the suggestion, perhaps in the suggestion itself, that there is no forgiveness between man and man except in Christ or for Christ's sake; overlooking there may be, and palliation, and acceptance of apologies, but it can only be in Christ that deep, true, cordial, everlasting forgiveness can transpire between man and man. It is far from certain, however, that the name of Christ may be present in the consciousness of the man who exercises this forgiveness; he may not be able to give a name or a definition to the motive by which he is impelled; and yet not the less certainly may he be acting in the Christly spirit. We do not always know what we do or why we do it, but Christ himself will surprise us with unexpected and gracious interpretations when he "comes in his glory." The righteous will be told to their amazement that they have ministered to Christ in ministering to the least of his brethren; and to them also will be revealed the fact that in making their most strenuous advances in the direction of cordial and absolute forgiveness, they were moving in his strength, and more or less unconsciously accepting and honouring his inspiration. So true is it that our consciousness has actually to be interpreted to itself, and that Christ will reveal his presence and power in the least suspected circumstances. Now in so far as the doctrine is true that the exercise of forgiveness, whether between man and man, or God and the sinner, is really and necessarily, however imperfectly recognized in the former case, something done for the sake of Christ, it would seem to follow that the basis of true forgiveness is not a matter for metaphysical investigation and debate, but is revealed to us, and therefore is ours not as a mere spoil won by force of intellect, but a holy and gracious truth which we hold in childlike and grateful faith. This is the only satisfactory answer we can return to the difficulty supposed to be found in the necessary presence of Christ in the act of forgiveness as between God and the sinner; an answer which may be thus summed up: (1) Forgiveness is not the easy and simple act which it is supposed to be; (2) analogies founded upon human forgiveness are incomplete, because they relate only to offences and not to spiritual corruption; (3) forgiveness itself is not the spontaneous outgrowth of human feeling, it comes from Divine inspiration; (4) human forgiveness, in the sense in which it approaches Divine pardon, is really, though perhaps unconsciously, done in Christ's name or for Christ's sake; and (5) forgiveness is not a question within the province of intellectual speculation; it is revealed to us as a possibility; the questions upon which its possibility is founded are also revealed to us; and those conditions are, primarily, the priesthood of Christ, and secondarily, the penitent and utterly unreserved confession of sin by the transgressor.
Almighty God, thou knowest what is best for us, and we want nothing that thou thyself wilt not supply. We come to thee for everything. No good thing wilt thou withhold from them that walk uprightly. By thy Holy Spirit alone can we who have found out many inventions return to the uprightness of our creation. But thy Spirit is freely and largely promised; he is not given to us in small measure, but in double portions; yea, thou hast said thou wilt open the windows of heaven, and pour out a blessing, until there shall not be room to contain it. Where sin abounds, grace shall much more abound. The blackness of our guilt shall be driven away by the light of the grace of Christ. There is no guilt which thy grace cannot conquer; there is no darkness which thou canst not dissolve and dispel, and in its place set the infinite glory of thy presence. This is our joy in Christ; we are no more afraid; even we who have lived long in bondage are now in Christ Jesu, the risen One, singing songs of liberty. The bitterness of death is past. The victory has been plucked from the grave, so that there is no more boasting in its cold, dumb mouth. We are now on the immortal side where there is no winter, no pain, no death; we walk in green pastures, and by still waters, and at noon we lie down in the shadow, comforted by the Shepherd's care. We are, in our highest and purest moods, even now in heaven. This is heaven to love thee as thou art revealed in thy Son; no higher heaven is possible to our imagination. We are at rest in Christ; we are at peace with God; we inherit the whole estate of the promises, and there is nothing held back from us that can make our souls strong. We do indeed in our sinfulness fall back from these heights; the animal triumphs over the angel for a moment; the man is sunk in the beast, than which there is no deeper fall; but thou dost recover us with daily redemption, and at night, enfolded within the arms of thine almightiness, we feel and know that the darkness cannot put out the stars, that the cloud is not near the sun, and that thy love towards us abideth for ever.
Help us to read thy Word wisely; not for our gratification only, but for our instruction, and even for our reproof. May we come to thy Word with unbiassed mind; may our one question be, What saith the testimony? Enlightened by thy Holy Spirit, softened and ennobled in every thought and affection by thy grace, may we hear the Word, and know it and answer it in an obedient life. May nothing stand between our conviction and our obedience. Though it be a cross, may we carry it boldly and hopefully in strength Divine; yea, though we have to pass through hell itself in all its agony and shame, may we not fear the fire because of the One who is with us like unto the Son of man! Enable us also to read the larger book of thy providence, the leaves of which thou dost turn every day in our very sight and hearing. If we read the daily event, the continual occurrence, may we have understanding oftentimes, and know what the Christian Church ought to do. Lift up the level of our thinking; inspire and attune all our feeling; destroy the altar of self-idolatry, and bring us without vanity, or self-trust, or false hope, to renew by the mighty energy of the Holy Ghost our noblest vows at the altar of the Cross. Feed us with bread sent down from heaven; find water for us in the wilderness, and honey in the barest rocks; in our dreams may we see ladders connecting the worlds, and making the universe one temple of God.
Heal our sicknesses, and through them may we pass to youth and life and immortality. Let the life-day now declining, now rising, now in old age, now in childhood be a day full of the presence of the Lord's light; then, whether it be morning, or midday, or eventide, the heart shall know that in Christ its strength is assured, and its peace can never be destroyed. Amen.
42. And as they went out [the participle implies that they stopped as they went out], they besought that these words might be spoken to them the next Sabbath.
43. Now when the synagogue broke up, many of the Jews and of the devout proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas: who, speaking to them, urged them to continue in the grace of God.
44. And the next Sabbath [probably in the interval Paul and Barnabas worked at their trade as tent-makers] almost the whole city was gathered together [thronging the portals and windows, or gathered in some open piazza] to hear the word of God.
45. But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with jealousy, and contradicted the things which were spoken by Paul, and blasphemed.
46. And Paul and Barnabas spake out boldly, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first be spoken to you. Seeing ye thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy [probably a touch of irony in the tone] of eternal life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles.
47. For so hath the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set thee for a light of the Gentiles, That thou shouldst be for salvation unto the uttermost part of the earth [the germ of the argument, afterwards more fully developed in Romans 9:25 ; Rom 10:12 ].
48. And as the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of God: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.
49. And the word of the Lord was spread abroad throughout all the region [the border district of the provinces of Cappadocia and Galatia].
50. But the Jews urged on the devout women of honourable estate, and the chief men of the city [they compassed sea and land to make one proselyte], and stirred up a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and cast them out of their borders.
51. But they shook off the dust of their feet against them, and came unto Iconium.
52. And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Ghost.
Growth of Apostolic Power
THERE are always unexpected hearers arising to give encouragement to the doubting and often disheartened preacher. He thinks he foreknows who will be delighted with his testimony and thankful for his service; but in most of his forecasts he is wrong, yet is he not left without encouragement: strangers are there who spring up, and say, "This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." The Gentiles hailed the Word as strangers might hail tidings of home. We know some things not by direct intellectual instruction, but by subtle and inexpressible sympathy. We feel that certain words are true. Were we invited to hold controversy about them on general grounds, we might decline the discussion, saying, "Whatever may be stated on the other side, there is something in this doctrine that touches my necessity, and offers a balm to my wound and pain." We may not know music technically, but surely the dullest man knows it sympathetically, and feels when the right tune is being sung. He has no explanation in words; he cannot conduct a controversy upon the matter, but his soul says, "This wind cometh from heaven; this sound is an inspired utterance; these are the tones that will find their way back again to the heaven whence they came." So we sometimes sing, not with the voice we sing with the understanding, with sympathy of the heart, with appreciation, with answering love. Some persons imagine they are not singing unless they are uttering tones with their own voice, whereas sometimes the best singing is that which is done silently in the heart, the heart giving out in great Amens as the thunder rolls, or the tender whisper expresses the inmost desire and rapture of the hidden life. The Gentiles heard a strange speech that day, yet they knew it. Sometimes we say, "Where did I see that man before? You tell me I have never seen him, but I feel that I have seen him somewhere. "No, you never did in the flesh; but you know him; he is a revelation to you his presence, his voice, the touch of his hand; all things conspire to confirm the impression that you must surely have seen that man somewhere before. So when we hear great gospels, sweet promises, and tender invitations, we say, "When did these things come under our attention before?" From before the foundations of the world! This is the meaning of the compass and the pomp of God's eternity! The tiny little dewdrop moments shall throw back the sun that fills infinity. Surely we have an identifying faculty; most truly there is something within us which says, "This is none other than the house of God; surely this is music fit for angels. Where did we hear this before? All this is like a dream." So it is; because the universe is the expression of an eternal thought. The Lamb was slain before the universe was built; the Atonement was completed before black Sin struck God in the face. It is we who are late; we are behind the ages; eternity has breathed its infinite speech across our little time-planet, and we think in our delirious imagining that we were first, and that all things came after us! Know of a very truth, time is younger than eternity; that time is, so to say, part of eternity, and that the Gospel, wherever it comes, comes to a measure of preparation not of a technical kind, but somehow in the most barbaric and savage breast there rises up an answering voice, saying, "This is what I have been waiting for; this is the piece, one of ten,. that I had lost." Herein is the whole mystery of preordination, election, predestination namely, the heart throwing itself back upon the Eternities, and finding that things are not broken up into little fragments, but that "one increasing purpose runs through all the process of the suns"; the purpose of God, the thought of heaven, the election of omniscient love.
But preachers have to find out their hearers. Paul and Barnabas were no doubt amazed that "the Gentiles besought that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath." The invitation would have come naturally from the Jews. It would be a pleasant thing if our neighbors, friends, comrades, would invite us to this or that renewal of service, but they go away and leave us. But we are not alone; for God, who is able to raise up out of the stones children unto Abraham, raises up strange hearers, unknown hearts, and from them comes the cry which we cannot refuse to answer. Every preacher has his own set of hearers, and they who hear him can hear nobody else with the same breadth of advantage, and with the same conscious masonry of love and sympathy. "My sheep know my voice" is a doctrine which has its human applications as well as its Divine meanings. There are some men without whom, speaking in human ignorance, we could not live happily; there are some voices which if we do not hear we are conscious of a great vacancy; yet the same words may be pronounced, but not with the same tone. It is the heart that accentuates the speech, and carries the eloquence, however broken and swift, straight home.
We think we have expressed the very last formula of science when we say the same causes produce the same effects. There is something of the conciseness of Euclid himself in that neat sentence; it reads like one of the old geometrician's axioms; yet it is not true. If I may so put it, the so-called axiom is a fact, but not a truth. The truth is larger than any fact. In mathematics, or in physical science, the same causes may produce the same effects, but in all moral questions the axiom is not only doubtful, out untrue. The Jews and the Gentiles represented this solemn doctrine in the various ways in which they received the Divine communication. The Jews were" filled with envy," the Jews contradicted and blasphemed; the Gentiles were "filled with joy." How do you account for that? It was the same Sabbath, the same climate, the same preacher, the same doctrine, the same congregation, but the Jews were filled with envy, and spake against those tilings which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming; but the Gentiles were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord. There the same cause did not produce the same effect. You are not dealing with cause and effect only in a case of this kind; you are dealing with the middle quantity, human nature. Like goes to like. "Like priest like people"; the preacher incarnates himself in his audience in the degree in which that audience is sympathetic and appreciative; the pulpit and the pew in such circumstances are occupied by the same man. Find a congregation knit together in the bonds of sympathy in reference to the Paul, or the Barnabas, or the preacher of their choice, and you find a marked intellectual and moral likeness between the preacher and the people. Like to like; hatred may be as sincere as love. The same preacher cannot minister to all people. A man may dislike this ministry or that ministry solely because he may not understand it or be in sympathy with it, but to another man it is the very breath of heaven. So, then, let us have the larger outlook, the nobler charity, that says God's chariots are twenty thousand in number, and you cannot tell in which one of them the king will ride forth; it is the King; never mind the particular chariot in which he goes abroad. The Gentiles understood Paul and Barnabas: the Gentiles said, "This is a true word; oh, that there were seven Sabbaths in the week, and that we could stay and hear this wondrous sound, this music of the heavens." Thanks be unto God, every true Paul, every true Barnabas, has at least some few Gentiles who understand and love him.
The forty-third verse reads, "Now when the congregation was broken up." Was it then all over? Congregations should never break up in the sense of terminating the spiritual ministry which they were organized to foster and sustain. There were after-meetings. Beza says that herein is a justification for mid-week meetings and lectures. "Now when the congregation was broken up the people dispersed, and referred no more to the matter." Does the text read so? It would read so if it had been written today. I never hear any one make a moment's reference to the solemn engagements of the sanctuary after they are ov. Who would not be positively astounded to hear one of his fellow-hearers refer to the service? It is nothing, it is a decency observed, a ceremony passed through, a fact accomplished. In the olden time Christian service used to be the be-all and the end-all of the life of those who engaged in it. They were never late, they were never reluctant; what was said was meant to be done in the obedience of a noble life. This was the ancient Christianity. We have gone down in these latter ages. Were Paul amongst us now, he would be the first man who would be turned out of the Church, unless indeed Christ himself were to come, and he would not be allowed to live one day. We use a name without knowing any tittle of its meaning! Here is life in the olden time. There is a savour of antiquity about it; it is like something very old "And the next Sabbath came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God. But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against these things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming." That was life! A. man could preach then! Sermons were thunderbolts! Religious services were religious battles; they were not opportunities for sanctified slumber; they were calls, as with the blast of a thousand trumpets, to the standard and to the sword of the Lord. Nothing now is so easily forgotten as a sermon simply because nobody ever listens to one; they endure it, they sit it out, but as to listening to it, in the sense of opening the heart and letting every word go right in as a guest from heaven, who listens? We could not be so dumb if we did it. This is the old familiar scene which has passed before us so often in the Scriptures. The preacher preaching, the hearer contradicting, the Apostle declaring the counsel of God, the angry Jew blaspheming. What a medley it made! What a tumult! What vexation of mind and distraction of thought! That was living! We have fallen on cold times. Christianity has had its heroic time even in Western lands, but the heroic days are dead.
In the forty-sixth verse the ministers spring to their feet. They have felt, as it were, the sting of fire. In this verse they become, so to say, new men. "Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold." There is history in these words; it was a critical moment; it was one of two things the Jews by their blasphemy prevailing, or the Apostles of Christ starting up and saying, "The day shall be ours." Some men are so easily put down; if they think there is going to be an extra crowd, they remain at home and sigh; if they see a man a little rougher than another coming to church, they go out by the back door lest something should happen. Paul and Barnabas were not made of such material; history is not made of such stuff! Herein do I approve of the badges which some men wear, proclaiming thereby that they belong to this or that party, and are not ashamed of their colours; there are others whose boldness is in their spoken testimony. Somewhere, in symbol or in speech, you must find the heroic element in every true man. I know nothing of that marvellous love of Christ that never mentions his name, that never touches his memorial bread or memorial wine; that ineffable love of Christ that never gives him a cup of cold water. Be ours the Christianity that is bold, open, candid, and, if need be, heroic and self-sacrificing. Let the world know that we are followers of the Cross. "When I read that Paul "waxed bold," I am not surprised; but when I read that Barnabas waxed bold, I wonder if he would have done so if Paul had not been there. We cannot decide that interesting question, but Barnabas ought to take care that Paul is always there! Paul will lead, Barnabas will follow. Barnabas! take care that your strong brother is always nigh at hand when you go out to do Christian work, for in his strength you may be strong.
"As many as were ordained to eternal life believed." How many poor souls have stumbled there, as if a door had been shut in their faces, whereas there is no door but an open one to the heart of God! Never found what you call good theology upon bad grammar. Always, first and foremost, be right in your grammar, and then build your theology, because if you build a theological system upon a sandy foundation, the rains will fall, and the floods come, and beat upon it, and your theological house will fall down because it is founded upon the sand of bad grammar. Happily these words, which have frightened so many, need not frighten any more, for the most learned men tell us that they might be read "and so many as set themselves in order" were saved; as many as took up this matter; as many as accepted the Word; as many as disposed themselves in soldierly order and array went on to victory and honour. There can be no more terrible blasphemy than for any man to think that God has a spite against him, and will not let him be saved. Beware what you say! It is a fearful thing to stand up and say magnifying yourselves so as to be of importance to the universe "God has a feeling against us which prevents us accepting the Gospel of Salvation." From end to end, from top to bottom, in every point of it, that is a lie! God would have ALL men to come unto him and be saved. Jesus Christ came "to seek and to save that which was lost." If you are "lost," he came for you; if you are not lost, he did not come for you; for "the Son of man is not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."
Notice one extraordinary expression. In the forty-sixth verse "the Jews were filled with envy"; in the fifty-second verse we read "the disciples were filled with joy." It is always so with the Gospel; it is a savour of life unto life, or of death unto death; it makes a man a worse man, or a better man. The Gospel will not let a man remain just as he is; coming to a man, pleading with the man, asking for his confidence and love, and the man saying NO from that moment the man is a worse man than he ever was before. Or the man saying "YES; come in, thou blessed of the Lord, and take every inch of my heart" then the man is what the Lord would have him be noble, pure, upright, a creature in the image and likeness of the Creator. But "my Spirit shall not always strive with man." The Apostles said "It was necessary that the Word of God should first be spoken to you"; but after that comes the withdrawal of the opportunity, the taking away of the light, the shutting of the hospitable door. This may be our last chance! We cannot tell what a day may bring forth. "He that being often reproved, hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy." As a matter of fact solemn, interesting, and thrilling the great Gospel of Christ is now amongst us in this synagogue or congregation; it is offering itself to every heart, and it is for us to say whether this Sabbath shall be the most memorable in our history by our acceptance of the Divine Guest, or whether it shall be the most memorable in our history in that we said, "We will not have this man to reign over us." But know that whether we accept or reject, God's house shall be full. He is able of these stones to raise up children unto Israel! Out of the dust of the earth he will make himself an exceeding great army. What say you? Unto us the opportunity is now given. Christ will not be disappointed; in the long run he shall see of the travail of his soul and shall be satisfied, and at his great banquet board there shall not be one vacant seat. "Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near." "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters." "The Spirit and the bride say, Come; let him that heareth say, Come. Whosoever will, let him come." Shall so fair a chance be answered with a mean reply?
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Acts 13". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany