Click to donate today!
by John McGarvey
It is necessary to the successful study of any literary production, that the exact design of the author should be known and kept constantly in view. It would be doing great injustice to the author of Acts, to suppose that he undertook this work without having before him some one leading object, which should serve as the connecting thread of the narrative, and according to which all the historic details should take place and form.
The conjecture of commentators as to what this leading object is are various and somewhat conflicting. “The writer’s object,” says Dr. Hackett, “if we are to judge of it from what he has performed, must have been to furnish a summary of history of the origin, gradual increase, and extension of the Christian Church, through the instrumentality, chiefly of the Apostles Peter and Paul.” This is rather a statement of what he has performed than of the object for which he performed it. The same defect attaches to Dr. Alexander’s conjecture. He says: “The book before is a special history of the planting and extension of the Church, both among Jews and Gentiles, by the gradual establishment of radiating centers, as sources of influence, at certain salient points throughout a large part of the empire, beginning at Jerusalem and ending at Rome.” That the history does exhibit these facts is certainly true, but that there is behind this a design for the accomplishment of which these facts are stated, must be equally true.
The author’s design is equally misunderstood by Bloomfield, and others with him, who say that it was “to give an authentic account of the communication of the Holy Spirit, and of the miraculous powers and supernatural gifts bestowed by the Spirit,” and “to establish the full claim of the Gentiles to be admitted into the Church of Christ.” It is true that the history establishes the claim of the Gentiles to admission into the Church, and also contains an account of the descent and work of the Holy Spirit, yet neither of these can be regarded as the leading thought around which the contents of the volume adjust themselves.
Mr. Barnes, in the midst of some detached statements upon this subject, has approached the true idea in the following characteristic remark: “This book is an inspired account of the character of true revivals of religion.” But the true idea is still more nearly approached by a writer in Kitto’s Encyclopedia who says: “Perhaps we should come still closer to the truth if we were to say that the design of Luke, in writing Acts, was to supply, by select and suitable instances, an illustration of the power and working of that religion which Jesus had died to establish.”
It is correctly assumed by Dr. Hackett, in the words above quoted, that we are to judge of a writer’s design by what he has performed. Bearing in mind the distinction between the work done and the design for which it is done, a slight glance at the contents of this book will reveal to us a design which has escaped the notice of all the above-named writers.
Much the greater part of Acts may be resolved into a detailed history of cases of conversion, and of unsuccessful attempts at the conversion of sinners. If we extract from it all cases of this kind, with the facts and incidents preparatory to each and immediately consequent upon it, we will have exhausted almost the entire contents of the narrative. All other matters are merely incidental. The events of the first chapter were designed to prepare the apostles for the work of converting men; the gift of the Holy Spirit to them and to others was to qualify them for it; the admission of the Gentiles was an incident connected with the conversion of Cornelius, and others after him; the conference, in the fifteenth chapter, grew out of these conversions; and the long account of Paul’s imprisonment in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Rome, with his sea-voyage and shipwreck, constitute but the connected history of his preaching to the mob in Jerusalem, to the Sanhedrim, to Felix, to Festus, to Agrippa, and to the Jews and Gentiles in Rome. The episode in the twelfth chapter, concerning the persecutions by Herod, and his death, is designed to show that, even under such circumstances, “the word of God grew and multiplied.” All the remainder of the history consists, unmistakably, in detailed accounts of conversions.
Such being the work performed by the author, we may readily determine his design by inquiring, Why should any cases of conversion be put upon the record? Evidently, it was that men might know how conversions were effected, and in what they consisted. The cases which are recorded represent all the different grades of human society; all the different degrees of intellectual and religious culture; all the common occupations in life, and all the different countries and languages of the then known world. The design of this variety is to show the adaptation of the one gospel scheme to the conversion of all classes of men.
The history of a case of conversion, necessarily embraces two distinct classes of facts: First, the agencies and instrumentalities employed in effecting it; second, the changes effected in the individual who is the subject of it. In the pursuit of his main design, therefore, the author was led to designate specifically all these agencies, instrumentalities, and changes. He does so in order that his readers may know what agents are employed, and how they work; what instrumentalities must be used, and how they are applied; and what changes must take place, in order to the Scriptural conversions of a sinner.
The chief agent employed in the conversion of men is the Holy Spirit. It is this fact which led the author to detail so minutely the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the various gifts and influences by which his work was accomplished. He thus teaches the reader what part this divine agent performed in the conversion of sinners, and how he performed it.
Another important agency employed was the personal labor of the apostles and inspired evangelists. The manner in which their part of the work was performed is carefully described, in order that men of every age and country, whose business it is to perform the part corresponding to theirs, may learn, from their example, how to perform it Scripturally. But Peter and Paul were the chief laborers of that generation, and for this reason their names occupy the prominent position assigned them.
It is well known that the recital by men of the process of their conversion is well calculated both to teach sinners the process through which they must struggle in order to conversion, and to stimulate them to undertake it. Men are taught more successfully and influenced more powerfully by example than by precept. Many religious teachers of the present day, having discovered the practical workings of this principle in human nature, depend much more, in their efforts to convert sinners, upon well-told experiences than upon the direct preaching of the Word. The success which has attended this policy should admonish us that these experiences of conversion recorded in Acts are by no means to be lightly esteemed as instrumentalities for the conversion of the world. They possess, indeed, this advantage: that, in contrast with all the conversions of the present day, they were guided by infallible teaching, and were selected by infallible wisdom from among thousands of others which had occurred, because of their peculiar fitness for a place in the inspired record. They have, we may say, twice passed the scrutiny of infinite wisdom; for, first all the conversions which occurred under the preaching of inspired men were directed by the Holy Spirit; and, second, if any difference existed between those put on record and the others, the Holy Spirit, by selecting these few, decided in their favor as the best models for subsequent generations. If a sinner seek salvation according to the model of modern conversions, he may be misled; for his model is fallible at best, and may be erroneous; but if he imitate these inspired models, it is impossible for him to be misled, unless the Holy Spirit itself can mislead him. Moreover, in so far as any man’s supposed conversion does not accord with these, it must be wrong; in so far as it does accord with them, it must be right.
If it be asked why we may not as well take for our model the cases of conversion which occurred under the former dispensation, or during the life of Jesus, the answer is obvious. We do not live under the law of Moses, or the personal ministry of Jesus, but under the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Jesus, just previous to his ascension, committed the affairs of his kingdom on earth into the hands of twelve men, to be guided by the Holy Spirit, who descended shortly after he ascended; and now all that we can know of present terms of pardon must be learned through the teaching and example of these men. If, then, the conditions of pardon under any preceding dispensation be found to differ from those propounded in Acts, in all the points of difference the latter, and not the former, must be our guide. These are the last, and certainly the most elaborately detailed communications of the Divine will upon the subject, and belong peculiarly to the new covenant under which we live. If God has made them to differ, in any respect, from those under the old covenant, he teaches us, by this very difference, that he has thus far set aside the old through preference for the new. In the following pages it is made a leading object to ascertain the exact terms of pardon as taught by the apostles, and the precise elements which constitute real conversion to Christ.
The present is pre-eminently a missionary period of the Church. None has been more so, except the age of the apostles. Especially is it distinguished by success in the conversion of sinners in professedly Christian lands. Hence, it is a demand of the age that the true method of evangelizing the world should be known and read of all men. But the true method can be found only in the labors of inspired apostles and evangelists, and the record of these labors is found only in the book of Acts. A failure to understand and to appreciate this book has been, and still is, a most prolific source of confusion and error in the popular presentation of the gospel. But failing to discover its chief design, sinners are far more frequently directed to the Psalms of David for instruction upon the subject of conversion than to this book, which was written for this express purpose. There is, therefore, no one book in all the Bible to which the present generation of Bible readers so much need to have their attention specially directed. We have endeavored, in this volume, to set forth the labors of these inspired preachers as the true and infallible guide of the modern evangelist.
Another peculiarity of the present age is, the unlimited range given to speculations concerning the agency of the Holy Spirit in human redemption. A subject into which investigation should never have been pushed beyond the simple facts and statements of revelation, has thus become a most fruitful source of philosophical vagaries and of unbridled fanaticism. Whatever differences may appear among the many erroneous theories upon the subject, they all agree in the conception of a direct impact of the Spirit of God upon the spirit of man, by which the latter is enlightened and sanctified. This conception is not only common to them all, but it is the fundamental conception in each one of them. Under the influence of it, the more contemplative theorist receives new revelations, or “speaks as he is moved by the Holy Ghost;” the more enthusiastic calls for outpourings of the “Holy Spirit and of fire,” dances, shouts, and falls in spasms; while the transcendentalist, receiving still further measures of the Spirit, points out mistakes made by the inspired apostles, and exposes defects in the character of Jesus.
Among the prevailing Protestant sects, a common theory of spiritual influence serves almost as a bond of union. It sometimes makes them almost forget the conflicts of past ages, melts down the cold barrier of separating creeds, and brings hereditary enemies together, to worship, for a time, at a common shrine. It is made the standard of orthodoxy; and to him who devoutly swears by it, it serves, like charity, to cover a multitude of sins, while to him who calls it in question, and contents himself with the very words of Scripture, it is a ban of excommunication. A difference on all other subjects is tolerated, if there is agreement on this; an agreement on all other subjects can be no bond of union, if there is a difference on this. In public discourse all other topics are made subordinate, and even the preaching of Christ, which was the work of the apostles, has been supplanted by preaching the Holy Spirit.
Various as are the conclusions of these theorists, they all have a common tendency to disparage the Word of God. Precisely as a man learns to depend upon internal admonitions for his religious guidance will he feel less dependence upon the written Word. Hence it is that the masses of the people, who are under the influence of these teachings, are so deplorably ignorant of the Bible. To call back the mind of the reader from all such vagaries to the revealed facts and simple apostolic statements upon this important subject, is another leading object of the following work. We will find that the book of Acts presents, in living form and unmistakable simplicity, the work of the Holy Spirit.
Some sixteen of the twenty-eight chapters of Acts are devoted almost exclusively to the labors of the Apostle Paul. Whatever can be known of this most heroic and successful of all the apostles must not only be interesting to every reader, but also highly instructive, as an example of faith in Christ in its higher development. Some of the most interesting facts in his history, and those which throw the greatest light upon his inner life, are not recorded by Luke, but may be gathered from incidental remarks in his own epistles. In this obscure position, they must ever escape the notice of ordinary readers. It is proposed, in this volume, to give them their chronological place in the narrative, thus filling up the blanks which Luke’s design caused him to leave, and rounding out to some fullness and symmetry the portraiture of this noblest of all human subjects of Scripture biography.
We have already assumed, in accordance with the universal judgment of competent critics, that Luke is the author of Acts. For the evidences on which this judgment is based, I refer the reader to works devoted to this department of Scripture study. It appears, from his being distinguished by Paul, in
The book of Acts embraces a period of about thirty years—from the ascension of Christ, a.d. 33, to the end of the second year of Paul’s imprisonment at Rome, a.d. 63. In the latter part of the year 63, or the beginning of 64, while Luke was still with Paul in Rome, it is most likely that the work was published. For the historical connection and chronology of particular events described in the work, the reader is referred to the body of the Commentary.
It was no part of my original design to undertake a revision of the English text of Acts, but I hoped that, ere this time, an improved version of the whole New Testament would be put into the hands of the public by the American Bible Union. No final revision of Acts, however, having appeared from that Society, or from any other source, up to this writing, I am constrained to content myself with such a revision of the text as I have been able to prepare during the progress of the work. I have aimed to preserve, in general, the language of the common version. Where the propriety of a change would be obvious to the reader of the Greek, or depends merely upon taste, no notes are given to justify it. In cases where a defense seemed to be needed, the reader will find it, either in the body of the work or in foot-notes. I beg the critical reader, however, to remember that the revision is designed not for general adoption, but simply for the purpose to which it is applied in this Commentary, and that, even here, it is a secondary part of the undertaking.
In the execution of the work, I have aimed to make not merely a book of reference, but a volume to be read consecutively through, with the interest which belongs to the narrative. In order to this end, I have aimed to make a prominent the author’s connection of thought throughout; and, in order to render it the more instructive, wherever the text presents important issues connected with the great religious questions of the day, I have taken time to elaborate the argument as freely as the space which I had allotted myself would admit. 
the Fifth Week after Easter