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Bible Commentaries

MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

Acts 5

Verse 11

Acts

THE WHEAT AND THE TARES

Act_4:32 . - Act_5:11 .

Once more Luke pauses and gives a general survey of the Church’s condition. It comes in appropriately at the end of the account of the triumph over the first assault of civil authority, which assault was itself not only baffled, but turned to good. Just because persecution had driven them closer to God and to one another, were the disciples so full of brotherly love and of grace as Luke delights to paint them.

I. We note the fair picture of what the Church once was.

The recent large accessions to it might have weakened the first feelings of brotherhood, so that it is by no means superfluous to repeat substantially the features of the earlier description Act_2:44 - Act_2:45. ‘The multitude’ is used with great meaning, for it was a triumph of the Spirit’s influence that the warm stream of brotherly love ran through so many hearts, knit together only by common submission to Jesus. That oneness of thought and feeling was the direct issue of the influx of the Spirit mentioned as the blessed result of the disciples’ dauntless devotion Act_4:31. If our Churches were ‘filled with the Holy Ghost,’ we too should be fused into oneness of heart and mind, though our organisations as separate communities continued, just as all the little pools below high-water mark are made one when the tide comes up.

The first result and marvellous proof of that oneness was the so-called ‘community of goods,’ the account of which is remarkable both because it all but fills this picture, and because it is broken into two by Act_4:33 , rapidly summarising other characteristics. The two halves may be considered together, and it may be noted that the former presents the sharing of property as the result of brotherly unity, while the latter traces it ‘for,’ Act_4:34 to the abundant divine grace resting on the whole community. The terms of the description should be noted, as completely negativing the notion that the fact in question was anything like compulsory abolition of the right of individual ownership. ‘Not one of them said that aught of the things which he possessed was his own.’ That implies that the right of possession was not abolished. It implies, too, that the common feeling of brotherhood was stronger than the self-centred regard which looks on possessions as to be used for self. Thus they possessed as though they possessed not, and each held his property as a trust from God for his brethren.

We must observe, further, that the act of selling was the owners’, as was the act of handing the proceeds to the Apostles. The community had nothing to do with the money till it had been given to them. Further, the distribution was not determined by the rule of equality, but by the ‘need’ of the recipients; and its result was not that all had share and share alike, but that ‘none lacked.’

There is nothing of modern communism in all this, but there is a lesson to the modern Church as to the obligations of wealth and the claims of brotherhood, which is all but universally disregarded. The spectre of communism is troubling every nation, and it will become more and more formidable, unless the Church learns that the only way to lay it is to live by the precepts of Jesus and to repeat in new forms the spirit of the primitive Church. The Christian sense of stewardship, not the abolition of the right of property, is the cure for the hideous facts which drive men to shriek ‘Property is theft.’

Luke adds two more points to his survey,-the power of the Apostolic testimony, and the great grace which lay like a bright cloud on the whole Church. The Apostles’ special office was to bear witness to the Resurrection. They held a position of prominence in the Church by virtue of having been chosen by Jesus and having been His companions, but the Book of Acts is silent about any of the other mysterious powers which later ages have ascribed to them. The only Apostles who appear in it are Peter, John, and James, the last only in a parenthesis recording His martyrdom. Their peculiar work was to say, ‘Behold! we saw, and know that He died and rose again.’

II. The general description is followed by one example of the surrender of wealth, which is noteworthy as being done by one afterwards to play a great part in the book, and also as leading on to an example of hypocritical pretence. Side by side stand Barnabas and the wretched couple, Ananias and Sapphira.

Luke introduces the new personage with some particularity, and, as He does not go into detail without good reason, we must note his description. First, the man’s character is given, as expressed in the name bestowed by the Apostles, in imitation of Christ’s frequent custom. He must have been for some time a disciple, in order that his special gift should have been recognised. He was a ‘son of exhortation’; that is, he had the power of rousing and encouraging the faith and stirring the believing energy of the brethren. An example of this was given in Antioch, where he ‘exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.’ So much the more beautiful was his self-effacement when with Paul, for it was the latter who was ‘the chief speaker.’ Barnabas felt that his gift was less than his brother’s, and so, without jealousy, took the second place. He, being silent, yet speaketh, and bids us learn our limits, and be content to be surpassed.

We are next told his rank. He was a Levite. The tribe to which a disciple belongs is seldom mentioned, but probably the reason for specifying Barnabas’ was the same as led Luke, in another place, to record that ‘a great company of the priests was obedient to the faith.’ The connection of the tribe of Levi with the Temple worship made accessions from it significant, as showing how surely the new faith was creeping into the very heart of the old system, and winning converts from the very classes most interested in opposing it. Barnabas’ significance is further indicated by the notice that he was ‘a man of Cyprus,’ and as such, the earliest mentioned of the Hellenists or foreign-born and Greek-speaking Jews, who were to play so important a part in the expansion of the Church.

His first appearance witnessed to the depth and simple genuineness of his character and faith. The old law forbidding Levites to hold land had gradually become inoperative, and perhaps Barnabas’ estate was in Cyprus, though more probably it was, like that of his relative Mary, the mother of Mark, in Jerusalem. He did as many others were doing, and brought the proceeds to the assembly of the brethren, and there publicly laid them at the Apostles’ feet, in token of their authority to administer them as they thought well.

III. Why was Barnabas’ act singled out for mention, since there was nothing peculiar about it?

Most likely because it stimulated Ananias and his wife to imitation. Wherever there are signal instances of Christian self-sacrifice, there will spring up a crop of base copies. Ananias follows Barnabas as surely as the shadow the substance. It was very likely a pure impulse which led him and his wife to agree to sell their land; and it was only when they had the money in their hands, and had to take the decisive step of parting with it, and reducing themselves to pennilessness, that they found the surrender harder than they could carry out. Satan spoils many a well-begun work, and we often break down half-way through a piece of Christian unselfishness. Well begun is half-but only half-ended.

Be that as it may, Peter’s stern words to Ananias put all the stress of the sin on its being an acted lie. The motives of the trick are not disclosed. They may have been avarice, want of faith, greed of applause, reluctance to hang back when others were doing like Barnabas. It is hard to read the mingled motives which lead ourselves wrong, and harder to separate them in the case of another. How much Ananias kept back is of no moment; indeed, the less he retained the greater the sin; for it is baser, as well as more foolish, to do wrong for a little advantage than for a great one.

Peter’s two questions bring out very strikingly the double source of the sin. ‘Why hath Satan filled thy heart?’-an awful antithesis to being filled with the Spirit. Then there is a real, malign Tempter, who can pour evil affections and purposes into men’s hearts. But he cannot do it unless the man opens his heart, as that ‘why?’ implies. The same thought of our co-operation and concurrence, so that, however Satan suggests, it is we who are guilty, comes out in the second question, ‘How is it that thou hast conceived this thing in thy heart?’ Reverently we may venture to say that not only Christ stands at the door and knocks, but that the enemy of Him and His stands there too, and he too enters ‘if any man opens the door.’ Neither heaven nor hell can come in unless we will.

The death of Ananias was not inflicted by Peter, ‘Hearing these words’ he ‘fell down and’ died. Surely that expression suggests that the stern words had struck at his life, and that his death was the result of the agitation of shame and guilt which they excited. That does not at all conflict with regarding his death as a punitive divine act.

One can fancy the awed silence that fell on the congregation, and the restrained, mournful movement that ran through it when Sapphira entered. Why the two had not come in company can only be conjectured. Perhaps the husband had gone straight to the Apostles after completing the sale, and had left the wife to follow at her convenience. Perhaps she had not intended to come at all, but had grown alarmed at the delay in Ananias’ return. She may have come in fear that something had gone wrong, and that fear would be increased by her not seeing her husband in her quick glance round the company.

If she came expecting to receive applause, the silence and constraint that hung over the assembly must have stirred a fear that something terrible had happened, which would be increased by Peter’s question. It was a merciful opportunity given her to separate herself from the sin and the punishment; but her lie was glib, and indicated determination to stick to the fraud. That moment was heavy with her fate, and she knew it not; but she knew that she had the opportunity of telling the truth, and she did not take it. She had to make the hard choice which we have sometimes to make, to be true to some sinful bargain or be true to God, and she chose the worse part. Which of the two was tempter and which was tempted matters little. Like many a wife, she thought that it was better to be loyal to her husband than to God, and so her honour was ‘rooted in dishonour,’ and she was falsely true and truly false.

The judgment on Sapphira was not inflicted by Peter. He foretold it by his prophetic power, but it was the hand of God which vindicated the purity of the infant Church. The terrible severity of the punishment can only be understood by remembering the importance of preserving the young community from corruption at the very beginning. Unless the vermin are cleared from the springing plant, it will not grow. As Achan’s death warned Israel at the beginning of their entrance into the promised land, so Ananias and Sapphira perished, that all generations of the Church might fear to pretend to self-surrender while cherishing its opposite, and might feel that they have to give account to One who knows the secrets of the heart, and counts nothing as given if anything is surreptitiously kept back.

Verses 17-30

Acts

WHOM TO OBEY,-ANNAS OR ANGEL?

Act_5:17 - Act_5:32 .

The Jewish ecclesiastics had been beaten in the first round of the fight, and their attempt to put out the fire had only stirred the blaze. Popular sympathy is fickle, and if the crowd does not shout with the persecutors, it will make heroes and idols of the persecuted. So the Apostles had gained favour by the attempt to silence them, and that led to the second round, part of which is described in this passage.

The first point to note is the mean motives which influenced the high-priest and his adherents. As before, the Sadducees were at the bottom of the assault; for talk about a resurrection was gall and wormwood to them. But Luke alleges a much more contemptible emotion than zeal for supposed truth as the motive for action. The word rendered in the Authorised Version ‘indignation,’ is indeed literally ‘zeal,’ but it here means, as the Revised Version has it, nothing nobler than ‘jealousy.’ ‘Who are those ignorant Galileans that they should encroach on the office of us dignified teachers? and what fools the populace must be to listen to them! Our prestige is threatened. If we don’t bestir ourselves, our authority will be gone.’ A lofty spirit in which to deal with grave movements of opinion, and likely to lead its possessors to discern truth!

The Sanhedrin, no doubt, talked solemnly about the progress of error, and the duty of firmly putting it down, and, like Jehu, said, ‘Come, and see our zeal for the Lord’; but it was zeal for greetings in the marketplace, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the other advantages of their position. So it has often been since. The instruments which zeal for truth uses are argument, Scripture, and persuasion. That zeal which betakes itself to threats and force is, at the best, much mingled with the wrath and jealousy of man.

The arrest of the Apostles and their committal to prison was simply for detention, not punishment. The rulers cast their net wider this time, and secured all the Apostles, and, having them safe under lock and key, they went home triumphant, and expecting to deal a decisive blow to-morrow. Then comes one of the great ‘buts’ of Scripture. Annas and Caiaphas thought that they had scored a success, but an angel upset their calculations. To try to explain the miracle away is hopeless. It is wiser to try to understand it.

The very fact that it did not lead to the Apostles’ deliverance, but that the trial and scourging followed next day, just as if it had not happened, which has been alleged as a proof of its uselessness, and inferentially of its falsehood, puts us on the right track. It was not meant for their deliverance, but for their heartening, and for the bracing of all generations of Christians, by showing, at the first conflict with the civil power, that the Lord was with His Church. His strengthening power is operative when no miracle is wrought. If His servants are not delivered, it is not that He lacks angels, but that it is better for them and the Church that they should lie in prison or die at the stake.

The miracle was a transient revelation of a perpetual truth, and has shed light on many a dark dungeon where God’s servants have lain rotting. It breathed heroic constancy into the Twelve. How striking and noble was their prompt obedience to the command to resume the perilous work of preaching! As soon as the dawn began to glimmer over Olivet, and the priests were preparing for the morning sacrifice, there were these irrepressible disturbers, whom the officials thought they had shut up safely last night, lifting up their voices again as if nothing had happened. What a picture of dauntless persistence, and what a lesson for us! The moment the pressure is off, we should spring back to our work of witnessing for Christ.

The bewilderment of the Council comes in strong contrast with the unhesitating action of the Apostles. There is a half ludicrous side to it, which Luke does not try to hide. There was the pompous assembling of all the great men at early morning, and their dignified waiting till their underlings brought in the culprits. No doubt, Annas put on his severest air of majesty, and all were prepared to look their sternest for the confusion of the prisoners. The prison, the Temple, and the judgment hall, were all near each other. So there was not long to wait. But, behold! the officers come back alone, and their report shakes the assembly out of its dignity. One sees the astonished underlings coming up to the prison, and finding all in order, the sentries patrolling, the doors fast so the angel had shut them as well as opened them, and then entering ready to drag out the prisoners, and-finding all silent. Such elaborate guard kept over an empty cage!

It was not the officers’ business to offer explanations, and it does not seem that any were asked. One would have thought that the sentries would have been questioned. Herod went the natural way to work, when he had Peter’s guards examined and put to death. But Annas and his fellows do not seem to have cared to inquire how the escape had been made. Possibly they suspected a miracle, or perhaps feared that inquiry might reveal sympathisers with the prisoners among their own officials. At any rate, they were bewildered, and lost their heads, wondering what was to come next, and how this thing was to end.

The further news that these obstinate fanatics were at their old work in the Temple again, must have greatly added to the rulers’ perplexity, and they must have waited the return of the officers sent off for the second time to fetch the prisoners, with somewhat less dignity than before. The officers felt the pulse of the crowd, and did not venture on force, from wholesome fear for their own skins. An excited mob in the Temple court was not to be trifled with, so persuasion was adopted. The brave Twelve went willingly, for the Sanhedrin had no terrors for them, and by going they secured another opportunity of ringing out their Lord’s salvation. Wherever a Christian can witness for Christ, he should be ready to go.

The high-priest discreetly said nothing about the escape. Possibly he had no suspicion of a miracle, but, even if he had, Act_4:16 shows that that would not have led to any modification of his hostility. Persecutors, clothed with a little brief authority, are strangely blind to the plainest indications of the truth spoken by their victims. Annas did not know what a question about the escape might bring out, so he took the safer course of charging the Twelve with disobedience to the Sanhedrin’s prohibition. How characteristic of all his kind that is! Never mind whether what the martyr says is true or not. He has broken our law, and defied our authority; that is enough. Are we to be chopping logic, and arguing with every ignorant upstart who chooses to vent his heresies? Gag him,-that is easier and more dignified.

A world of self-consequence peeps out in that ‘ we straitly charged you,’ and a world of contempt peeps out in the avoidance of naming Jesus. ‘This name’ and ‘this man’ is the nearest that the proud priest will come to soiling his lips by mentioning Him. He bears unconscious testimony to the Apostles’ diligence, and to the popular inclination to them, by charging them with having filled the city with what he contemptuously calls ‘ your teaching,’ as if it had no other source than their own ignorant notions.

Then the deepest reason for the Sanhedrin’s bitterness leaks out in the charge of inciting the mob to take vengeance on them for the death of Jesus. It was true that the Apostles had charged that guilt home on them, but not on them only, but on the whole nation, so that no incitement to revenge lay in the charge. It was true that they had brought ‘this man’s blood’ on the rulers, but only to draw them to repentance, not to hound at them their sharers in the guilt. Had Annas forgot ‘His blood be on us, and on our children’? But, when an evil deed is complete, the doers try to shuffle off the responsibility which they were ready to take in the excitement of hurrying to do it. Annas did not trouble himself about divine vengeance; it was the populace whom he feared.

So, in its attempt to browbeat the accused, in its empty airs of authority, in its utter indifference to the truth involved, in its contempt for the preachers and their message, in its brazen denial of responsibility, its dread of the mob, and its disregard of the far-off divine judgment, his bullying speech is a type of how persecutors, from Roman governors down, have hectored their victims.

And Peter’s brave answer is, thank God! the type of what thousands of trembling women and meek men have answered. His tone is severer now than on his former appearance. Now he has no courteous recognition of the court’s authority. Now he brushes aside all Annas’s attempts to impose on him the sanctity of its decrees, and flatly denies that the Council has any more right to command than any other ‘men.’ They claimed to be depositaries of God’s judgments. This revolutionary fisherman sees nothing in them but ‘men,’ whose commands point one way, while God’s point the other. The angel bade them ‘speak’; the Council had bid them be dumb. To state the opposition was to determine their duty. Formerly Peter had said ‘judge ye’ which command it is right to obey. Now, he wraps his refusal in no folds of courtesy, but thrusts the naked ‘We must obey God’ in the Council’s face. That was a great moment in the history of the world and the Church. How much lay in it, as in a seed,-Luther’s ‘Here I stand, I can do none other. God help me! Amen’; Plymouth Rock, and many a glorious and blood-stained page in the records of martyrdom.

Peter goes on to vindicate his assumption that in disobeying Annas they are obeying God, by reiterating the facts which since Pentecost he had pressed on the national conscience. Israel had slain, and God had exalted, Jesus to His right hand. That was God’s verdict on Israel’s action. But it was also the ground of hope for Israel; for the exaltatior of Jesus was that He might be ‘Prince [or Leader] and Saviour,’ and from His exalted hand were shed the gifts of ‘repentance and remission of sins,’ even of the great sin of slaying Him. These things being so, how could the Apostles be silent? Had not God bid them speak, by their very knowledge of these? They were Christ’s witnesses, constituted as such by their personal acquaintance with Him and their having seen Him raised and ascending, and appointed to be such by His own lips, and inspired for their witnessing by the Holy Spirit shed on them at Pentecost. Peter all but reproduces the never-to-be-forgotten words heard by them all in the upper room, ‘He shall bear witness of Me: and ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with Me from the beginning.’ Silence would be treason. So it is still. What were Annas and his bluster to men whom Christ had bidden to speak, and to whom He had given the Spirit of the Father to speak in them?

Verse 31

Acts

WHOM TO OBEY,-ANNAS OR ANGEL?

OUR CAPTAIN

Act_5:31 .

The word rendered ‘Prince’ is a rather infrequent designation of our Lord in Scripture. It is only employed in all four times-twice in Peter’s earlier sermons recorded in this Book of the Acts; and twice in the Epistle to the Hebrews. In a former discourse of the Apostle’s he had spoken of the crime of the Jews in killing ‘the Prince of life.’ Here he uses the word without any appended epithet. In the Epistle to the Hebrews we read once of the ‘Captain of Salvation,’ and once of the ‘Author of Faith.’

Now these three renderings ‘Prince,’ ‘Captain,’ ‘Author,’ seem singularly unlike. But the explanation of their being all substantially equivalent to the original word is not difficult to find. It seems to mean properly a Beginner, or Originator, who takes the lead in anything, and hence the notions of chieftainship and priority are easily deduced from it. Then, very naturally, it comes to mean something very much like cause ; with only this difference, that it implies that the person who is the Originator is Himself the Possessor of that of which He is the Cause to others. So the two ideas of a Leader, and of a Possessor who imparts, are both included in the word.

My intention in this sermon is to deal with the various forms of this expression, in order to try to bring out the fulness of the notion which Scripture attaches to this leadership of Jesus Christ. He is first of all, generally, as our text sets Him forth, the Leader, absolutely. Then there are the specific aspects, expressed by the other three passages, in which He is set forth as the Leader through death to life; the Leader through suffering to salvation; and the Leader in the path of faith. Let us look, then, at these points in succession.

I. First, we have the general notion of Christ the Leader.

Now I suppose we are all acquainted with the fact that the names ‘Joshua’ and ‘Jesus’ are, in the original, one. It is further to be noticed that, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which was familiar to Peter’s hearers, the word of our text is that employed to describe the office of the military leaders of Israel. It is still further to be observed that, in all the instances in the New Testament, it is employed in immediate connection with the name of Jesus. Now, putting all these things together, remembering to whom Peter was speaking, remembering the familiarity which many of his audience must have had with the Old Testament in its Greek translation, remembering the identity of the two names Joshua and Jesus, it is difficult to avoid the supposition that the expression of our text is coloured by a reference to the bold soldier who successfully led his brethren into the Promised Land. Joshua was the ‘Captain of the Lord’s host’ to lead them to Canaan; the second Joshua is the Captain of the Host of the Lord to lead them to a better rest. Of all the Old Testament heroes perhaps there is none, at first sight, less like the second Joshua than the first was. He is only a rough, plain, prompt, and bold soldier. No prophet was he, no word of wisdom ever fell from his lips, no trace of tenderness was in anything that he did; meekness was alien from his character, he was no sage, he was no saint, but decisive, swift, merciless when necessary, full of resource, sharp and hard as his own sword. And yet a parallel may be drawn.

The second Joshua is the Captain of the Lord’s host, as was typified to the first one, in that strange scene outside the walls of Jericho, where the earthly commander, sunk in thought, was brooding upon the hard nut which he had to crack, when suddenly he lifted up his eyes, and beheld a man with a drawn sword. With the instinctive alertness of his profession and character, his immediate question was, ‘Art thou for us or for our enemies?’ And he got the answer ‘No! I am not on thy side, nor on the other side, but thou art on Mine. As Captain of the Lord’s host am I come up.’

So Jesus Christ, the ‘Strong Son of God,’ is set forth by this military emblem as being Himself the first Soldier in the army of God, and the Leader of all the host. We forget far too much the militant character of Jesus Christ. We think of His meekness, His gentleness, His patience, His tenderness, His humility, and we cannot think of these too much, too lovingly, too wonderingly, too adoringly, but we too often forget the strength which underlay the gentleness, and that His life, all gracious as it was, when looked at from the outside, had beneath it a continual conflict, and was in effect the warfare of God against all the evils and the sorrows of humanity. We forget the courage that went to make the gentleness of Jesus, the daring that underlay His lowliness; and it does us good to remember that all the so-called heroic virtues were set forth in supreme form, not in some vulgar type of excellence, such as a conqueror, whom the world recognises, but in that meek King whose weapon was love, yet was wielded with a soldier’s hand.

This general thought of Jesus Christ as the first Soldier and Captain of the Lord’s army not only opens for us a side of His character which we too often pass by, but it also says something to us as to what our duties ought to be. He stands to us in the relation of General and Commander-in-Chief; then we stand to Him in the relation of private soldiers, whose first duty is unhesitating obedience, and who in doing their Master’s will must put forth a bravery far higher than the vulgar courage that is crowned with wreathed laurels on the bloody battlefield, even the bravery that is caught from Him who ‘set His face as a flint’ to do His work.

Joshua’s career has in it a great stumbling-block to many people, in that merciless destruction of the Canaanite sinners, which can only be vindicated by remembering, first, that it was a divine appointment, and that God has the right to punish; and, second, that those old days were under a different law, or at least a less manifestly developed law of loving-kindness and mercy than, thank God! we live in. But whilst we look with wonder on these awful scenes of destruction, may there not lie in them the lesson for us that antagonism and righteous wrath against evil in all its forms is the duty of the soldiers of Christ? There are many causes to-day which to further and fight for is the bounden duty of every Christian, and to further and fight for which will tax all the courage that any of us can muster. Remember that the leadership of Christ is no mere pretty metaphor, but a solemn fact, which brings with it the soldier’s responsibilities. When our Centurion says to us, ‘Come!’ we must come. When He says to us, ‘Go!’ we must go. When He says to us ‘Do this!’ we must do it, though heart and flesh should shrink and fail. Unhesitating obedience to His authoritative command will deliver us from many of the miseries of self-will; and brave effort at Christ’s side is as much the privilege as the duty of His servants and soldiers.

II. So note, secondly, the Leader through death to life.

Peter, in the sermon which is found in the third chapter of this Book of the Acts, has his mind and heart filled with the astounding fact of the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ, and in the same breath as he gives forth the paradoxical indictment of the Jewish sin, ‘You have killed the Prince of Life’-the Leader of Life-he also says, ‘And God hath raised Him from the dead.’ So that the connection seems to point to the risen and glorified life into which Christ Himself passed, and by passing became capable of imparting it to others. The same idea is here as in Paul’s other metaphor: ‘Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept’-the first sheaf of the harvest, which was carried into the Temple and consecrated to God, and was the pledge and prophecy of the reaping in due season of all the miles of golden grain that waved in the autumn sunshine. ‘So,’ says Peter, ‘He is the Leader of Life, who Himself has passed through the darkness, for “you killed Him”; mystery of mysteries as it is that you should have been able to do it, deeper mystery still that you should have been willing to do it, deepest mystery of all that you did it not when you did it, but that “He became dead and is alive for evermore.” You killed the Prince of Life, and God raised Him from the dead.’

He has gone before us. He is ‘the first that should rise from the dead.’ For, although the partial power of His communicated life did breathe for a moment resuscitation into two dead men and one dead maiden, these shared in no resurrection-life, but only came back again into mortality, and were quickened for a time, but to die at last the common death of all. But Jesus Christ is the first that has gone into the darkness and come back again to live for ever. Across the untrodden wild there is one track marked, and the footprints upon it point both ways-to the darkness and from the darkness. So the dreary waste is not pathless any more. The broad road that all the generations have trodden on their way into the everlasting darkness is left now, and the ‘travellers pass by the byway’ which Jesus Christ has made by the touch of His risen feet.

Thus, not only does this thought teach us the priority of His resurrection-life, but it also declares to us that Jesus Christ, possessing the risen life, possesses it to impart it. For, as I remarked in my introductory observations, the conception of this word includes not only the idea of a Leader, but that of One who, Himself possessing or experiencing something, gives it to others. All men rise again. Yes, ‘but every man in his own order.’ There are two principles at work in the resurrection of all men. They are raised on different grounds, and they are raised to different issues. They that are Christ’s are brought again from the dead, because the life of Christ is in them; and it is as ‘impossible’ that they, as that ‘He, should be holden of it.’ Union with Jesus Christ by simple faith is the means, and the only means revealed to us, whereby men shall be raised from the dead at the last by a resurrection which is anything else than a prolonged death. As for others, ‘some shall rise unto shame and everlasting contempt,’ rising dead, and dead after they are risen-dead as long as they live. There be two resurrections, whether simultaneous in time or not is of no moment, and all of us must have our part in the one or the other; and faith in Jesus Christ is the only means by which we can take a place in the great army and procession that He leads down into the valley and up to the sunny heights.

If He be the Leader through death unto life, then it is certain that all who follow in His train shall attain to His side and shall share in His glory. The General wears no order which the humblest private in the ranks may not receive likewise, and whomsoever He leads, His leading will not end till He has led them close to His side, if they trust Him. So, calmly, confidently, we may each of us look forward to that dark journey waiting for us all. All our friends will leave us at the tunnel’s mouth, but He will go with us through the gloom, and bring us out into the sunny lands on the southern side of the icy white mountains. The Leader of our souls will be our Guide, not only unto death, but far beyond it, into His own life.

III. So, thirdly, note the Leader through suffering to salvation.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews it is written, ‘It became Him for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the Captain’-or the Leader-’of their salvation perfect through sufferings.’ That expression might seem at first to shut Jesus Christ out from any participation in the thing which He gives. For salvation is His gift, but not that which He Himself possesses and enjoys; but it is to be noticed that in the context of the words which I have quoted, ‘glory’ is put as substantially synonymous with salvation, and that the whole is suffused with the idea of a long procession, as shown by the phrase, ‘bringing many sons.’ Of this procession Jesus Christ Himself is the Leader.

So, clearly, the notion in the context now under consideration is that the life of Jesus Christ is the type to which all His servants are to be conformed. He is the Representative Man, who Himself passes through the conditions through which we are to pass, and Himself reaches the glory which, given to us, becomes salvation.

‘Christ is perfected through sufferings.’ So must we be. Perfected through sufferings? you say. Then did His humanity need perfecting? Yes, and No. There needed nothing to be hewn away from that white marble. There was nothing to be purged by fire out of that pure life. But I suppose that Jesus Christ’s human nature needed to be unfolded by life; as the Epistle to the Hebrews says, ‘He learned obedience, though He were a Son, through the things which He suffered.’ And fitness for His office of leading us to glory required to be reached through the sufferings which were the condition of our forgiveness and of our acceptance with God. So, whether we regard the word as expressing the agony of suffering in unfolding His humanity, or in fitting Him for His redeeming work, it remains true that He was perfected by His sufferings.

So must we be. Our characters will never reach the refinement, the delicacy, the unworldliness, the dependence upon God, which they require for their completion, unless we have been passed through many a sorrow. There are plants which require a touch of frost to perfect them, and we all need the discipline of a Father’s hand. The sorrows that come to us all are far more easily borne when we think that Christ bore them all before us. It is but a blunted sword which sorrow wields against any of us; it was blunted on His armour. It is but a spent ball that strikes us; its force was exhausted upon Him. Sorrow, if we keep close to Him, may become solemn joy, and knit us more thoroughly to Himself. Ah, brother! we can better spare our joys than we can spare our sorrows. Only let us cleave to Him when they fall upon us.

Christ’s sufferings led Him to His glory, so will ours if we keep by His side-and only if we do. There is nothing in the mere fact of being tortured and annoyed here on earth, which has in itself any direct and necessary tendency to prepare us for the enjoyment, or to secure to us the possession, of future blessedness. You often hear superficial people saying, ‘Oh! he has been very much troubled here, but there will be amends for it hereafter.’ Yes; God would wish to make amends for it hereafter, but He cannot do so unless we comply with the conditions. And it needs that we should keep close to Jesus Christ in sorrow, in order that it should work for us ‘the peaceable fruit of righteousness.’ The glory will come if the patient endurance has preceded, and has been patience drawn from Jesus.

‘I wondered at the beauteous hours, The slow result of winter showers, You scarce could see the grass for flowers.’

The sorrows that have wounded any man’s head like a crown of thorns will be covered with the diadem of Heaven, if they are sorrows borne with Christ.

IV. Lastly, we have Jesus, the Leader in the path of faith.

‘The Author of faith,’ says the verse in the Epistle to the Hebrews. ‘Author’ does not cover all the ground, though it does part of it. We must include the other ideas which I have been trying to set forth He is ‘Possessor’ first and ‘Giver’ afterwards. For Jesus Christ Himself is both the Pattern and the Inspirer of our faith. It would unduly protract my remarks to dwell adequately upon this; but let me just briefly hint some thoughts connected with it.

Jesus Christ Himself walked by continual faith. His manhood depended upon God, just as ours has to depend upon Jesus. He lived in the continued reception of continual strength from above by reason of His faith, just as our faith is the condition of our reception of His strength. We are sometimes afraid to recognise the fact that the Man Jesus, who is our pattern in all things, is our pattern in this, the most special and peculiarly human aspect of the religious life. But if Christ was not the first of believers, His pattern is wofully defective in its adaptation to our need. Rather let us rejoice in the thought that all that great muster-roll of the heroes of the faith, which the Epistle to the Hebrews has been dealing with, have for their Leader-though, chronologically, He marches in the centre- Jesus Christ, of whose humanity this is the document and proof that He says, in the Prophet’s words: ‘I will put My trust in Him.’

Remember, too, that the same Jesus who is the Pattern is the Object and the Inspirer of our faith; and that if we fulfil the conditions in the text now under consideration, ‘looking off’ from all others, stimulating and beautiful as their example may be, sweet and tender as their love may be, and ‘looking unto Jesus,’ He will be in us, and above us-in us to inspire, and above us to receive and to reward our humble confidence.

So, dear friends, it all comes to this, ‘Follow thou Me!’ In that commandment all duty is summed, and in obeying it all blessedness and peace are ensured. If we will take Christ for our Captain, He will teach our fingers to fight. If we obey Him we shall not want guidance, and be saved from perplexities born of self-will. If we keep close to Him and turn our eyes to Him, away from all the false and fleeting joys and things of earth, we shall not walk in darkness, howsoever earthly lights may be quenched, but the gloomiest path will be illuminated by His presence, and the roughest made smooth by His bleeding feet that passed along it. If we follow Him, He will lead us down into the dark valley, and up into the blessed sunshine, where participation in His own eternal life and glory will be salvation. If we march in His ranks on earth, then shall we

‘With joy upon our heads arise

And meet our Captain in the skies.’

Verse 32

Acts

WHOM TO OBEY,-ANNAS OR ANGEL?

Act_5:17 - Act_5:32 .

The Jewish ecclesiastics had been beaten in the first round of the fight, and their attempt to put out the fire had only stirred the blaze. Popular sympathy is fickle, and if the crowd does not shout with the persecutors, it will make heroes and idols of the persecuted. So the Apostles had gained favour by the attempt to silence them, and that led to the second round, part of which is described in this passage.

The first point to note is the mean motives which influenced the high-priest and his adherents. As before, the Sadducees were at the bottom of the assault; for talk about a resurrection was gall and wormwood to them. But Luke alleges a much more contemptible emotion than zeal for supposed truth as the motive for action. The word rendered in the Authorised Version ‘indignation,’ is indeed literally ‘zeal,’ but it here means, as the Revised Version has it, nothing nobler than ‘jealousy.’ ‘Who are those ignorant Galileans that they should encroach on the office of us dignified teachers? and what fools the populace must be to listen to them! Our prestige is threatened. If we don’t bestir ourselves, our authority will be gone.’ A lofty spirit in which to deal with grave movements of opinion, and likely to lead its possessors to discern truth!

The Sanhedrin, no doubt, talked solemnly about the progress of error, and the duty of firmly putting it down, and, like Jehu, said, ‘Come, and see our zeal for the Lord’; but it was zeal for greetings in the marketplace, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the other advantages of their position. So it has often been since. The instruments which zeal for truth uses are argument, Scripture, and persuasion. That zeal which betakes itself to threats and force is, at the best, much mingled with the wrath and jealousy of man.

The arrest of the Apostles and their committal to prison was simply for detention, not punishment. The rulers cast their net wider this time, and secured all the Apostles, and, having them safe under lock and key, they went home triumphant, and expecting to deal a decisive blow to-morrow. Then comes one of the great ‘buts’ of Scripture. Annas and Caiaphas thought that they had scored a success, but an angel upset their calculations. To try to explain the miracle away is hopeless. It is wiser to try to understand it.

The very fact that it did not lead to the Apostles’ deliverance, but that the trial and scourging followed next day, just as if it had not happened, which has been alleged as a proof of its uselessness, and inferentially of its falsehood, puts us on the right track. It was not meant for their deliverance, but for their heartening, and for the bracing of all generations of Christians, by showing, at the first conflict with the civil power, that the Lord was with His Church. His strengthening power is operative when no miracle is wrought. If His servants are not delivered, it is not that He lacks angels, but that it is better for them and the Church that they should lie in prison or die at the stake.

The miracle was a transient revelation of a perpetual truth, and has shed light on many a dark dungeon where God’s servants have lain rotting. It breathed heroic constancy into the Twelve. How striking and noble was their prompt obedience to the command to resume the perilous work of preaching! As soon as the dawn began to glimmer over Olivet, and the priests were preparing for the morning sacrifice, there were these irrepressible disturbers, whom the officials thought they had shut up safely last night, lifting up their voices again as if nothing had happened. What a picture of dauntless persistence, and what a lesson for us! The moment the pressure is off, we should spring back to our work of witnessing for Christ.

The bewilderment of the Council comes in strong contrast with the unhesitating action of the Apostles. There is a half ludicrous side to it, which Luke does not try to hide. There was the pompous assembling of all the great men at early morning, and their dignified waiting till their underlings brought in the culprits. No doubt, Annas put on his severest air of majesty, and all were prepared to look their sternest for the confusion of the prisoners. The prison, the Temple, and the judgment hall, were all near each other. So there was not long to wait. But, behold! the officers come back alone, and their report shakes the assembly out of its dignity. One sees the astonished underlings coming up to the prison, and finding all in order, the sentries patrolling, the doors fast so the angel had shut them as well as opened them, and then entering ready to drag out the prisoners, and-finding all silent. Such elaborate guard kept over an empty cage!

It was not the officers’ business to offer explanations, and it does not seem that any were asked. One would have thought that the sentries would have been questioned. Herod went the natural way to work, when he had Peter’s guards examined and put to death. But Annas and his fellows do not seem to have cared to inquire how the escape had been made. Possibly they suspected a miracle, or perhaps feared that inquiry might reveal sympathisers with the prisoners among their own officials. At any rate, they were bewildered, and lost their heads, wondering what was to come next, and how this thing was to end.

The further news that these obstinate fanatics were at their old work in the Temple again, must have greatly added to the rulers’ perplexity, and they must have waited the return of the officers sent off for the second time to fetch the prisoners, with somewhat less dignity than before. The officers felt the pulse of the crowd, and did not venture on force, from wholesome fear for their own skins. An excited mob in the Temple court was not to be trifled with, so persuasion was adopted. The brave Twelve went willingly, for the Sanhedrin had no terrors for them, and by going they secured another opportunity of ringing out their Lord’s salvation. Wherever a Christian can witness for Christ, he should be ready to go.

The high-priest discreetly said nothing about the escape. Possibly he had no suspicion of a miracle, but, even if he had, Act_4:16 shows that that would not have led to any modification of his hostility. Persecutors, clothed with a little brief authority, are strangely blind to the plainest indications of the truth spoken by their victims. Annas did not know what a question about the escape might bring out, so he took the safer course of charging the Twelve with disobedience to the Sanhedrin’s prohibition. How characteristic of all his kind that is! Never mind whether what the martyr says is true or not. He has broken our law, and defied our authority; that is enough. Are we to be chopping logic, and arguing with every ignorant upstart who chooses to vent his heresies? Gag him,-that is easier and more dignified.

A world of self-consequence peeps out in that ‘ we straitly charged you,’ and a world of contempt peeps out in the avoidance of naming Jesus. ‘This name’ and ‘this man’ is the nearest that the proud priest will come to soiling his lips by mentioning Him. He bears unconscious testimony to the Apostles’ diligence, and to the popular inclination to them, by charging them with having filled the city with what he contemptuously calls ‘ your teaching,’ as if it had no other source than their own ignorant notions.

Then the deepest reason for the Sanhedrin’s bitterness leaks out in the charge of inciting the mob to take vengeance on them for the death of Jesus. It was true that the Apostles had charged that guilt home on them, but not on them only, but on the whole nation, so that no incitement to revenge lay in the charge. It was true that they had brought ‘this man’s blood’ on the rulers, but only to draw them to repentance, not to hound at them their sharers in the guilt. Had Annas forgot ‘His blood be on us, and on our children’? But, when an evil deed is complete, the doers try to shuffle off the responsibility which they were ready to take in the excitement of hurrying to do it. Annas did not trouble himself about divine vengeance; it was the populace whom he feared.

So, in its attempt to browbeat the accused, in its empty airs of authority, in its utter indifference to the truth involved, in its contempt for the preachers and their message, in its brazen denial of responsibility, its dread of the mob, and its disregard of the far-off divine judgment, his bullying speech is a type of how persecutors, from Roman governors down, have hectored their victims.

And Peter’s brave answer is, thank God! the type of what thousands of trembling women and meek men have answered. His tone is severer now than on his former appearance. Now he has no courteous recognition of the court’s authority. Now he brushes aside all Annas’s attempts to impose on him the sanctity of its decrees, and flatly denies that the Council has any more right to command than any other ‘men.’ They claimed to be depositaries of God’s judgments. This revolutionary fisherman sees nothing in them but ‘men,’ whose commands point one way, while God’s point the other. The angel bade them ‘speak’; the Council had bid them be dumb. To state the opposition was to determine their duty. Formerly Peter had said ‘judge ye’ which command it is right to obey. Now, he wraps his refusal in no folds of courtesy, but thrusts the naked ‘We must obey God’ in the Council’s face. That was a great moment in the history of the world and the Church. How much lay in it, as in a seed,-Luther’s ‘Here I stand, I can do none other. God help me! Amen’; Plymouth Rock, and many a glorious and blood-stained page in the records of martyrdom.

Peter goes on to vindicate his assumption that in disobeying Annas they are obeying God, by reiterating the facts which since Pentecost he had pressed on the national conscience. Israel had slain, and God had exalted, Jesus to His right hand. That was God’s verdict on Israel’s action. But it was also the ground of hope for Israel; for the exaltatior of Jesus was that He might be ‘Prince [or Leader] and Saviour,’ and from His exalted hand were shed the gifts of ‘repentance and remission of sins,’ even of the great sin of slaying Him. These things being so, how could the Apostles be silent? Had not God bid them speak, by their very knowledge of these? They were Christ’s witnesses, constituted as such by their personal acquaintance with Him and their having seen Him raised and ascending, and appointed to be such by His own lips, and inspired for their witnessing by the Holy Spirit shed on them at Pentecost. Peter all but reproduces the never-to-be-forgotten words heard by them all in the upper room, ‘He shall bear witness of Me: and ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with Me from the beginning.’ Silence would be treason. So it is still. What were Annas and his bluster to men whom Christ had bidden to speak, and to whom He had given the Spirit of the Father to speak in them?

Verses 38-39

Acts

GAMALIEL’S COUNSEL

Act_5:38 - Act_5:39 .

The little that is known of Gamaliel seems to indicate just such a man as would be likely to have given the advice in the text. His was a character which, on its good side and by its admirers, would be described as prudent, wise, cautious and calm, tolerant, opposed to fanaticism and violence. His position as president of the Sanhedrin, his long experience, his Rabbinical training, his old age, and his knowledge that the national liberty depended on keeping things quiet, would be very likely to exaggerate such tendencies into what his enemies would describe as worldly shrewdness without a trace of enthusiasm, indifference to truth, and the like.

It is, of course, possible that he bases his counsel of letting the followers of Jesus alone, on the grounds which he adduces, because he knew that reasons more favourable to Christians would have had no weight with the Sanhedrin. Old Church traditions make him out to have been a Christian, and the earliest Christian romance, a very singular book, of which the main object was to blacken the Apostle Paul, roundly asserts that at the date of this advice he was ‘secretly our brother,’ and that he remained in the Sanhedrin to further Christian views. But there seems not the slightest reason to suppose that. He lived and died a Jew, spared the sight of the destruction of Jerusalem which, according to his own canon in the text, would have proved that the system to which he had given his life was not of God; and the only relic of his wisdom is a prayer against Christian heretics.

It is remarkable that he should have given this advice; but two things occur to account for it. Thus far Christianity had been very emphatically the preaching of the Resurrection, a truth which the Pharisees believed and held as especially theirs in opposition to the Sadducees, and Gamaliel was old and worldly-wise enough to count all as his friends who were the enemies of his enemies. He was not very particular where he looked for allies, and rather shrank from helping Sadducees to punish men whose crime was that they ‘preached through Jesus a resurrection from the dead.’

Then the Jewish rulers had a very ticklish part to play. They were afraid of any popular shout which might bring down the avalanche of Roman power on them, and they were nervously anxious to keep things quiet. So Gamaliel did not wish to have any fuss made about ‘these men,’ lest it should be supposed that another popular revolt was on foot; and he thought that to let them alone was the best way to reduce their importance. Perhaps, too, there was a secret hope in the old man’s mind, which he scarcely ventured to look at and dared not speak, that here might be the beginning of a rising which had more promise in it than that abortive one under Theudas. He could not venture to say this, but perhaps it made him chary of voting for repression. He had no objection to let these poor Galileans fling away their lives in storming against the barrier of Rome. If they fail, it is but one more failure. If they succeed, he and his like will say that they have done well. But while the enterprise is too perilous for him to approve or be mixed up in it, he would let it have its chance.

Note that Gamaliel regards the whole movement as the probable germ of an uprising against Rome, as is seen from the parallels that he quotes. It is not as a religious teaching which is true or false, but as a political agitation, that he looks at Christianity.

It is to his credit that he stood calm and curbed the howling of the fanatics round him, and that he was the first and only Jewish authority who counselled abstinence from persecution.

It is interesting to compare him with Gallio, who had a glimpse of the true relation of the civil magistrate to religious opinion. Gamaliel has a glimpse of the truth of the impotence of material force against truth, how it is of a quick and spiritual essence, which cannot be cleaved in pieces with a sword, but lives on in spite of all. But while all this may be true, the advice on the whole is a low and bad one. It rests on false principles; it takes a false view of a man’s duty; it is not wholly sincere; and it is one impossible to be carried out. It is singularly in accordance with many of the tendencies of this age, and with modes of thought and counsels of action which are in active operation amongst us to-day, and we may therefore criticise it now.

I. Here is disbelief professing to be ‘honest doubt.’

Gamaliel professes not to have materials for judging. ‘If-if’; was it a time for ‘ifs’? What was that Sanhedrin there for, but to try precisely such cases as these?

They had had the works of Christ; miracles which they had investigated and could not disprove; a life which was its own witness; prophecies fulfilled; His own presence before their bar; the Resurrection and the Pentecost.

I am not saying whether these facts were enough to have convinced them, nor even whether the alleged miracles were true. All that I am concerned with is that, so far as we know, neither Gamaliel nor any of his tribe had ever made the slightest attempt to inquire into them, but had, without examination, complacently treated them as lies. All that body of evidence had been absolutely ignored. And now he is, with his ‘ifs,’ posing as very calm and dispassionate.

So to-day it is fashionable to doubt, to hang up most of the Christian truths in the category of uncertainties.

a When that is the fashion, we need to be on our guard.

b If you doubt, have you ever taken the pains to examine?

c If you doubt, you are bound to go further, and either reach belief or rejection. Doubt is not the permanent condition for a man. The central truth of Christianity is either to be received or rejected.

II. Here is disbelief masquerading as suspension of judgment.

Gamaliel talked as if he did not know, or had not decided in his own mind, whether the disciples’ claims for their Master were just or not. But the attitude of impartiality and hesitation was the cover of rooted unbelief. He speaks as if the alternative was that either this ‘counsel and work’ was ‘of man’ or ‘of God.’ But he would have been nearer the truth if he had stated the antithesis-God or devil; a glorious truth or a hell-born lie. If Christ’s work was not a revelation from above, it was certainly an emanation from beneath.

We sometimes hear disbelief, in our own days, talking in much the same fashion. Have we never listened to teachers who first of all prove to their own satisfaction that Jesus is a myth, that all the gospel story is unreliable, and all the gospel message a dream, and then turn round and overflow in praise of Him and in admiration of it? Browning’s professor in Christmas Day first of all reduces ‘the pearl of price’ to dust and ashes, and then ‘Bids us, when we least expect it, Take back our faith-if it be not just whole, Yet a pearl indeed, as his tests affect it.’

And that is very much the tone of not a few very superior persons to-day. But let us have one thing or the other-a Christ who was what He claimed to be, the Incarnate Word of God, who died for our sins and rose again for our justification; or a Galilean peasant who was either a visionary or an impostor, like Judas of Galilee and Theudas.

III. Here is success turned into a criterion of truth.

It is such, no doubt, in the long run, but not till then, and so till the end it is utterly false to argue that a thing is true because multitudes think it to be so. The very opposite is more nearly true. It in usually minorities who have been right.

Gamaliel laid down an immoral principle, which is only too popular to-day, in relation to religion and to much else.

IV. Here is a selfish neutrality pretending to be judicial calmness.

Even if it were true that success is a criterion, we have to help God to ensure the success of His truth. No doubt, taking sides is very inconvenient to a cool, tolerant man of the world. And it is difficult to be in a party without becoming a partisan. We know all the beauty of mild, tolerant wisdom, and that truth is usually shared between combatants, but the dangers of extremes and exaggeration must be faced, and perhaps these are better than the cool indifference of the eclectic, sitting apart, holding no form of creed, but contemplating all. It is not good for a man to stand aloof when his brethren are fighting.

In every age some great causes which are God’s are pressing for decision. In many of them we may be disqualified for taking sides. But feel that you are bound to cast your influence on the side which conscience approves, and bound to settle which side that is, Deborah’s fierce curse against Meroz because its people came not up to the help of the Lord against the mighty was deserved.

But the region in which such judicial calmness, which shrinks from taking its side, is most fatal and sadly common, is in regard to our own individual relation to Jesus, and in regard to the establishment of His kingdom among men.

‘He that is not with Me is against Me.’ Neutrality is opposition. Not to gather with Him is to scatter. Not to choose Him is to reject Him.

Gamaliel had a strange notion of what constituted ‘refraining from these men and letting them alone,’ and he betrayed his real position and opposition by his final counsel to scourge them, before letting them go. That is what the world’s neutrality comes to.

How poor a figure this politic ecclesiastic, mostly anxious not to commit himself, ready to let whoever would risk a struggle with Rome, so that he kept out of the fray and survived to profit by it, cuts beside the disciples, who had chosen their side, had done with ‘ifs,’ and went away from the Council rejoicing ‘that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His Name’! Who would not rather be Peter or John with their bleeding backs than Gamaliel, sitting soft in his presidential chair, and too cautious to commit himself to an opinion whether the name of Jesus was that of a prophet or a pretender?

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Bibliographical Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Acts 5". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/mac/acts-5.html.