Almighty God, thou dost keep the soul of them that love thee, and no harm can come nigh unto them because of the defence of thine arm. Thou art round about us as the hills and mountains are round Jerusalem. Thou dost not forget us, because we have set our love upon thee: thou dost answer us with an infinite affection. We live at thy table; we sleep within the curtain of thy darkness and Jay our weary head upon the pillow of thy providence. We are altogether thine; we have nothing that we have not received. Behold, we cannot lay our hand upon anything and say, "This is wholly ours." We are made by the Lord; we occupy at the Lord"s bidding; we are tenants at will. Thou dost bid us quit our earthly house of this tabernacle, and instantly, or lingeringly, we go. Thou changest our countenance and sendest us away. We have no power against thee. Would that our will might be wholly thine, following in daily music all the wondrous way of thy purpose! Then should we live in harmony; in our life there should be no ruffle or discord, but one great melody, one holy peace. This we have come to know through Jesus Christ our Lord: he told us about the Father, about the numbering of the hairs of our head, about our Father"s good pleasure. We know thee in thy Son; we have seen thee in the Gospel of our Saviour. So now we come boldly to the throne of grace that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Every time is a time of need; we are helpless all the while. None may boast of his strength, for it is but a flower; none can say surely that he standeth, for in so saying he falleth. Thou wilt not have boasting: thou wilt have reliance, dependence, trust, love, obedience—not arbitrarily, but rationally, and because thou art the infinite Creator and we the creatures of a day. We bless thee for thine house upon the earth. The tabernacle of God is with men; the walls of thine house adjoin the walls of our dwelling-place. May all the habitations of the city be sanctuaries of the living God, having the upper rooms consecrated to the service of the King. For all times of sweet fellowship and reunion of our best life we thank thee. These cold, grey Sabbaths of time are hints and dim symbols of the one Sabbath that spreads its infinite calm over thine own eternity. May we seize the spirit of the occasion. May we be lifted up, by the power of the Holy Ghost, so as to lay hold upon things far off and make them nigh at hand. May we look with the angels into mysteries Divine; whilst we look may our hearts burn within us, and in that hour may we see the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost—Three in One, One in Three—and without asking explanation, which can but satisfy our vanity, may we fall down in the worship which lifts up the soul, and abase ourselves with the abasement which goes before exaltation. Wherein thou hast showed us trouble, thou hast also showed unto us treasures of joy. Wherein thou hast parted us for a little time, our coming together has been quickened into the greater gladness; and now that we stand close to one another, in the family house, we bless thee with a family song. Goodness and mercy have followed us all the days of our life; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort us. Hear our psalm of thankfulness, and let thine hand be upon us for good evermore. Yet are we not all here. We pray for those whom we have left at home. May the home have a new light within it this day—a resurrection gleam, a hint of better worlds and wider spaces, where the inhabitants shall no more say, "I am sick." And some are in heaven, and we ourselves, because of their ascension, are hardly upon the earth; we are in a great bewilderment—we put out our hands to find what is not to be found in time or space; there is a sounding in our ears as of music from bright places. Surely our loved ones are still loved, and those who made our life double are not quite taken away. We commend one another to thy care. Our life is brief; there is no room in the few days for quarrel and clamour and strife, but only room and time to pray and work and love. Let the Spirit of the blessed Christ be in us; let his Gospel be our assurance for the life that now is ana the life that is to come, and through the mystery of his sacrifice may we find peace with God. Amen.
1. Now when Festus was come into the province, after three days he ascended from Csarea to Jerusalem.
2. Then the high-priest and the chief of the Jews informed him against Paul, and besought him,
3. And desired favour against him, that he would send for him to Jerusalem, laying wait in the way to kill him.
4. But Festus answered, that Paul should be kept at Csarea, and that he himself would depart shortly thither.
5. Let them therefore, said Hebrews, which among you are able, go down with me, and accuse this Prayer of Manasseh, if there be any wickedness in him.
6. And when he had tarried among them more than ten days, he went down unto Csarea; and the next day, sitting on the judgment seat, commanded Paul to be brought.
7. And when he was come, the Jews which came down from Jerusalem stood round about, and laid many and grievous complaints against Paul, which they could not prove.
8. While he answered for himself, Neither against the law of the Jews, neither against the temple, not yet against Csar, have I offended anything at all.
9. But Festus, willing to do the Jews a pleasure, answered Paul, and said, Wilt thou go up to Jerusalem, and there be judged of these things before me?
10. Then said Paul, I stand at Csar"s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged: to the Jews have I done no wrong, as thou very well knowest.
11. For if I be an offender, or have committed anything worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Csar.
12. Then Festus, when he had conferred with the council, answered, Hast thou appealed unto Csar? unto Csar shalt thou go.
13. And after certain days king Agrippa and Bernice came unto Csarea to salute Festus.
14. And when they had been there many days, Festus declared Paul"s cause unto the king, saying, There is a certain man left in bonds by Felix:
15. About whom, when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews informed me, desiring to have judgment against him.
16. To whom I answered, It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man to die, before that he which is accused have the accusers face to face, and have licence to answer for himself concerning the crime laid against him.
17. Therefore, when they were come hither, without any delay on the morrow I sat on the judgment seat, and commanded the man to be brought forth.
18. Against whom when the accusers stood up, they brought none accusation of such things as I supposed:
19. But had certain questions against him of their own superstition, and of one Jesus, which was dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive.
20. And because I doubted of such manner of questions, I asked him whether he would go to Jerusalem, and there be judged of these matters.
21. But when Paul had appealed to be reserved unto the hearing of Augustus, I commanded him to be kept till I might send him to Csar.
22. Then Agrippa said unto Festus, I would also hear the man myself. Tomorrow, said Hebrews, thou shalt hear him.
23. And on the morrow, when Agrippa was come, and Bernice, with great pomp, and was entered into the place of hearing, with the chief captains, and principal men of the city, at Festus" commandment Paul was brought forth.
24. And Festus said, king Agrippa, and all men which are here present with us, ye see this Prayer of Manasseh, about whom all the multitude of the Jews have dealt with me, both at Jerusalem, and also here, crying that he ought not to live any longer.
25. But when I found that he had committed nothing worthy of death, and that he himself hath appealed to Augustus, I have determined to send him.
26. Of whom I have no certain thing to write unto my lord. Wherefore I have brought him forth before you, and specially before thee, O king Agrippa, that, after examination had, I might have somewhat to write.
27. For it seemeth to me unreasonable to send a prisoner, and not withal to signify the crimes laid against him.
We are now in the midst of great historical scenes. The painter cannot let them alone. There are some subjects which will not let man alone until they have been taken up and received into the heart and reproduced either in the imagination or in the life. History is alive. There are some things which men willingly let die; few and short are the prayers they say over them. But there are other things which will not die. They are charged with all the elements of immortality, music, poetry, colour—almost of vitality. They return upon the imagination; they wait patiently, for they know that they must be magnified, illuminated, crowned as the supreme events of history. Paul before the governors and the kings is a subject which men must paint. There is a great deal of suggestion in that "must." God will have his gallery, and you cannot help it. So wondrous are the scenes that the painter must pray before he can paint them. We must be in sympathy with our subject, or we touch it only with the fingers; it is the heart that sees, reproduces, paints, preaches, prays—the wondrous, mysterious Divine heart.
What a long life hatred has! Two years had elapsed, but the elapse of the two years had not cooled the fury of the persecuting Jews. We leave some things to time, calling it "all-healing Time." Time cannot put hell out! What can live so long as hatred? Well might the Apostle warn the churches against "bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour." He was not talking then against time, or inventing some theory of human depravity; he had felt the hatred which he deprecated. Religious hatred is the worst. Cain"s was a religious murder; it was manslaughter at the altar. Nothing can strike so desperately as the religious knife. The Church has herself to blame for the little progress Christianity has made in the world. She has been too fond of hatred, persecution, cruelty; she has thought to scourge men into the Church. What wonder if the God she professes to serve has blocked up her wicked way? Religious hatred thought less of murder than of ceremonial pollution. The Jews desired favour against Paul that Festus would send for him to Jerusalem; and they would take care to have their assassins on the road to kill the hatred Christian. Yet these men would not eat until they had washed their hands! Such piety always has its counterpart in equivalent villainy. The more you attend to mere ceremony the more you fritter away the substance of your character. If it is a point with you to be baptized in this way or in that way, you cannot understand the infinite love of the God who baptizes in every way. If you can only worship according to one form, you cannot worship at all; you have not entered into the mystery of the infinite Presence that will receive you anywhere, and the bent knee shall be as a prayer, and the uplifted eye as an intercession, and the sighing of the heart as a violent assault of violent love upon the kingdom that wants to be taken. The ceremonialist is at least a contribution towards a murderer. All this goes together; it is part and parcel of the same thing. He who is inhumanly pious about things of no importance Isaiah, in his heart, a child of Cain.
In the next place, how wondrously opportunities are created by human mistakes! If we knew it, we are always creating opportunities for the revelation of the larger Providence. When we "think we are blocking up gates, we are really opening them"; when we dig a pit for another Prayer of Manasseh, we are certain to be buried in it before the sun goes down. That is right. Paul went to Jerusalem, and the elders—who are always juniors if they are only ceremonialists and technicalists—the very feeblest men in the Church—thought that Paul had better make a compromise: in order to do away with a suspicion, it might be well for him to purify himself in the temple. Weak-minded men! If inspired, never was inspiration so misapplied.
If they had been out doing Paul"s kind of work, they would have left compromise millions of miles behind them; but they had been in the metropolis studying—always a very perilous and risky business. Better be out somewhere working, facing practical difficulties, tackling the realities of life, looking at its awful tragedies and binding up its gaping wounds. So all this trouble came upon Paul through the weak-minded advice to compromise matters. Was it then a mistake? Clearly so. Did the Lord leave it as a human mistake? No; he turned it into a Divine opportunity. That mistake gave Paul his highest audiences. He was talking to rabbles before—just an open-air preacher, a man taking opportunities as they occurred—but now he was a preacher to procurators, rulers, kings, mighty men. Churches without a name were built for this greatest of the preachers. We know not what we do. Could we stand back in the eternity of God and watch men, we should not be troubled by their doings. When they are making weapons against us, we should say, "No weapon that is formed against me shall prosper." We should have no fear; we should live in eternal Sabbath. "Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?" Men can do nothing against you. There is only one man can do you any injury of a permanent kind, and that man is yourself. If you are right, you cannot be injured. I do not mean if you are holy—perfectly, ineffably, and infinitely holy—I mean if the set of your life is right, if your main purpose is right, if your dominating thought is right. Then your enemies will only be creating opportunities for you; the raging heathen and the people of the vain imagination are doing your pioneer work. Have no fear, true soul; thine inheritance is fixed by the Lord. He maketh the wrath of man to praise him; the remainder of that wrath he doth restrain. Thank God for enemies; they have made us what we are; they have been schoolmasters, disciplinarians. But for them we should not be half grown today: we should be mere babies still; but they forced us to read and think and pray, they drove us to it, they shut us up with the Eternal. Thank God for bitterest foes, and even for those weak-minded men who have advised us to make compromises. They were people of a nice heart, a quiet disposition, who had divided the days into four periods and had otherwise neatly arranged a little Providence of their own. They meant it well—may the Lord have mercy upon their souls!
In the third place, long-continued hardship had not soured the mind of Paul. That is the test of his quality. I know not of any other man that would not have gone mad. After two years he is as sweet as ever. When he appears before Festus we mark in him the same quietness, the same dignity, the same defence—that Isaiah, Christianity. If it were a fight in words, the battle might go wrong for our cause sometimes, because there are worthy men against us, skilled much in the utterance of phrases, and sentences, and arguments: but it is an affair of the sweetness of the soul. O that eternal patience!—who can answer? Long-suffering is eloquence. To be found at the last just as snow-white in motive, just as pure and simple in purpose, just as sweet and loving in heart, as at the first—never tell me that some vain superstition wrought that miracle in the human mind. The miracle I cannot explain; there are its evidences and proofs. Does Paul speak of throwing up the Christian cause, abandoning the Cross? When Festus calls his Master "one Jesus" does Paul say, "I know not the man"? For two years he has been chained, taken out of his usual missionary work, withdrawn from the thick of the fight in which he delighted, and yet, at the end of the two years, he is as woman-like and child-like and Divine in spirit as if all the time he had been in a garden of delights, on the mountains of myrrh and on the hills of frankincense. What did it? Never has a Pharisee done this; this is a Christian miracle. Controversy never degenerated into mere quarrelling with the Apostle Paul. There never has been so great a debater, so tremendous an antagonist, and yet he always lived in the higher reaches of controversy. It was debate, not fret, and chafe, and resentment, and bitterness; it was noble speculation, not petty retaliation; it was the life of the revealer, not of the mere pedant; it was the ministry of a prophet, not the impetuous attempt of a man who was anxious to snatch a transient victory. Let the speaker interpret the speech; let the man be the noblest comment on the doctrine. If you will accept that challenge, the whole history of the New Testament will claim the supreme place in the critical estimation of mankind.
There are three remarkable things about Paul in this connection. (1) He represents spiritual influence. He cannot be let alone. Though he is in prison, he is out of jail; chained at Cæsarea, he is still an active presence in Jerusalem. You cannot get rid of some men. If you kill them, they will come up in some other personages, and haunt you as Herod was haunted by the new man whom he suspected to be the beheaded John, though he himself was in theory a Sadducee, and did not believe in spiritual presences. But in the panic of the soul our theories go down. The Agnostic prays. This double life does not belong to the Christian thinker alone. If the Christian thinker be accused of sometimes acting unworthily of his prayers, many a man who professes to live under a sky of lead, prays, perhaps, when he does not know it. Prayer is not an affair of words, but of heart-ache and heart-wonder and mute desire, and the look that has the soul in it. Paul represented the kind of influence which follows society in a ghostly way, colouring its questions, lifting up its wonder into a kind of religion, troubling its conscience as if by a new standard of righteousness. (2) Paul represents also spiritual confidence. He would rather be fighting, but the Lord has appointed him to waiting. "It will all be well," says Paul. The old war-horse stirred in him—pawed, and longed for the fierce fray. But the Apostle says, "This is waiting time, halting time; God will see his child defended. The battle is not mine, but God"s. It is better that I should be shut up in Cæsarea, that I may see how God can—at least, in the most energetic ways—do without me." Presently, he will see the meaning of it all, and write to his friends a letter in which he will say, "The things which have happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the Gospel. Mistakes have been turned into helps, and blunders of mine have been turned into the opportunities of God." (3) Paul also represents the highest aspect of spiritual culture. He is being trained now; he is reading the smaller print in God"s endless book; he is being mellowed. Some education in that direction of his character will do him no harm. All the land is better for the rain which softens it—aye, for the frost which reduces it to powder. From the human side, Paul was being punished; from the Divine side, he was being rested and trained. There are two sides in all human events. If we take the lower aspect of our life, we shall groan, fret, and chafe; we shall wonder why there were not more than twenty-four hours in the day, and why the year should not be stretched out into double lengths, and why there should not be two harvests within the extended circle; our hand can never have enough, and our imagination can only be tempted, not to satisfaction, but to new ambition or despair. But if we take the upper view of life—that is to say, look down upon it from God"s point—we shall see all things work together for good—see how the elements combine one with the other; how marvellously the lines run, cross, and return, and complete striking figures—figures that are almost living presences; see how mistakes are made account of, and how disappointments become the beginnings of prayer, and how the things that crushed us most at the time were amongst the greatest blessings of life. See, the garden blooms, but how more brightly here, and there, and yonder! Why? Under those bright places are the deep graves. Oh, rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him, and he will give thee thine heart"s desire; and, at the last—accosted by the voices of solicitous love and interest, "Is it well with thee?" "Is it well with thy husband?" "Is it well with the child?"—thou shalt answer, "It is well."
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Acts 25". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany