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Bible Commentaries

Benson's Commentary of the Old and New TestamentsBenson's Commentary

- Acts

by Joseph Benson



THIS book, containing a history of Christ’s infant church, and connecting the gospels and the epistles, according to the testimony of the most ancient Christian writers, was composed by the Evangelist Luke: indeed, it is a second part of, or supplement to, his gospel, as appears from the beginning of it, being addressed to his friend Theophilus, as his former work had been. The exact time when it was written cannot be fully ascertained: but, as the narrative is continued to the end of the second year of Paul’s imprisonment at Rome, at whatever time it was begun, it could not have been finished earlier than A.D. 63; and, if it had been written much later, it is probable it would have carried the story further, and have recorded events subsequent to that period, and in particular would have informed us of the issue of Paul’s imprisonment, a subject in which every Christian reader cannot but find himself greatly interested. But though this history comprehends only a period of about thirty years, it contains satisfactory information concerning a variety of most important matters. After a brief recapitulation of the evangelical history, and a continuation of the history of Christ, it shows us the event of his predictions, and gives us a kind of supplement to what he had before spoken to his disciples. We here see the accomplishment of several of the promises which he had made them; his ascension; the descent of the Holy Ghost in his miraculous gifts; the first preaching of the apostles, and the miracles whereby their doctrines were confirmed; an admirable picture of the manners of the primitive Christians; and, in short, every thing that passed in the church till the dispersion of the apostles, who separated themselves in order to propagate the gospel throughout the world. It contains also the seeds and first stamina of all those things which are enlarged upon in the epistles. The gospels treat of Christ the Head; and delineate his doctrine and example, attest his miracles, and describe his labours and sufferings: this book exhibits the faith and practice, the labours and sufferings, of the members of his mystical body, animated by his Spirit, persecuted by the world, as he was, but defended and exalted by God. It must not be supposed, however, that Luke intended this to be a complete history of the Christian Church, even during that short period of time comprehended in his narrative. For, though it is entitled THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES, it gives no further account of the acts of most of them than what preceded or immediately followed the day of pentecost. It is almost wholly confined to the acts, or rather the labours and sufferings, of two of them, namely, of Peter and Paul. And the history of the former, even of these, is pursued no further than the time of his imprisonment by Herod, his miraculous deliverance out of prison, and the death of that monarch. The apostles having about that time departed from Judea, and gone forth to carry the gospel into different countries, Luke quits their history, even that of Peter, who was then at too great a distance from him, and confines himself more particularly to that of Paul, of the extraordinary circumstances attending whose conversion he has given a most striking and interesting account. He records, however, some particulars of the history of Stephen, the first martyr, of Philip, Barnabas, Silas, and some other apostolic men, who, though not of the twelve, yet were endued with the same spirit, and successfully employed in the same work, of evangelizing the world. But the history of Paul is pursued at a much greater length than that of any other servant of Christ mentioned in this narrative; the author being his fellow-traveller and attendant in most of his missions, journeys, and voyages, having even accompanied him when he carried the collections, made in various places, to the saints in Judea, where he abode during the apostle’s two years’ imprisonment at Jerusalem and Cesarea, and no doubt was present at his trials before Felix and Festus, and heard the speeches which he has recorded in this history. And when the apostle was sent a prisoner to Italy, Luke accompanied him in the voyage, and remained with him in Rome till he was released. Lastly, he was with the apostle also during his second imprisonment in the same city; and, when his other assistants deserted him through fear, this excellent person abode with him and ministered to him, 2 Timothy 4:11; during which time it is probable he composed this narrative. See the preface to Luke’s gospel. As a further proof that Luke did not intend this to be a complete history of the Christian Church, we may observe, that he is silent concerning all the transactions of the church at Jerusalem, after the dispersion of the apostles and the conversion of St. Paul; that he omits to record some of that apostle’s journeys, as for instance that into Arabia, mentioned Galatians 1:17; several of his voyages; his suffering shipwreck thrice, as mentioned in the second epistle to the Corinthians; and many of his other sufferings, spoken of in his epistles. Nor does he give us any account of the propagation of the gospel and establishment of Christianity in Egypt, Babylonia, Parthia, or in any other country where the Greek or Latin language was not spoken.

In this invaluable book, however, the gospel is fully confirmed, the true Christian doctrine set forth, and the proper method of applying it to Jews, heathen, and believers, that is, to those who are to be converted, and those who are converted, is shown: the hinderances of it in particular men, in several kinds of men, in different ranks and nations, are manifested: the propagation of the gospel, and the grand revolution consequent thereon, among both Jews and heathen, are attested and displayed; as also the victory thereof, in spite of all opposition from all the power, malice, and wisdom of the whole world; spreading from one chamber into temples, houses, streets, markets, fields, inns, prisons, camps, courts, chariots, ships, villages, cities, islands; to Jews, heathen, magistrates, generals, soldiers, eunuchs, captives, slaves, women, children, sailors; to Athens, and at length to Rome.

It appears from all this, that, setting aside the consideration of its divine inspiration, this history of the Acts of the Apostles, as a history of the first planting of the Christian religion in the world, is a most valuable work, were it only on account of the variety and importance of the transactions recorded in it, and its certain authenticity; the effect of the perfect integrity of the author, and the thorough knowledge which he had of the facts that he relates, as being an eye-witness of at least the greater part of them. But it is valuable, also, on account of the manner in which they are related: “For the circumstances of each transaction are selected with judgment, and told in a simplicity and elegance of language truly admirable. And the whole is comprised in a short, but perspicuous narration, which cannot fail to give pleasure to every reader who is a judge of elegant writing. Further, the Acts being a history of persons who travelled through the most civilized and best-known provinces of the Roman empire, for the purpose of preaching the gospel, the historian was naturally led to mention a variety of particulars relating to the geography of those countries, to their political state at that time, to the persons who governed them, and to the manners of their inhabitants. The learned, therefore, from the time of the publication of this history, have had an opportunity of examining all these particulars; and, on the most accurate investigation, they have found them confirmed by the contemporary heathen writers of the best credit, whose writings still remain. Nor is this all. In the Acts there are speeches recorded, said to have been pronounced by persons of the highest character and rank; which are not, like the speeches in most other ancient histories, the production of the historian’s own imagination, but the real speeches of the persons to whom they are attributed; such as the speeches delivered by the Apostle Peter on different occasions; by Gamaliel, an eminent Jewish doctor; by the protomartyr, Stephen, when arraigned before the sanhedrim; by the Apostle Paul, in the synagogue of Antioch, and to the Lystrians, and to the senate of the Areopagus at Athens, and to the sanhedrim: also, a letter of Claudius Lysias to the governor Felix, and a speech of the orator Tertullus, in accusation of Paul before the same Felix; Paul’s answer to that accusation; Festus the governor’s speech to King Agrippa, the chief captains, and the principal men of Cesarea, assembled to hear Paul; Paul’s defence, pronounced in the hearing of that august assembly: in all which, the characters, and sentiments, and style of the different speakers are so distinctly marked, that no one who reads them, and is capable to judge of such matters, can doubt of their being genuine. These circumstances united form a convincing proof that the history of the Acts was written, as it professeth to be, by a person who was present at most of the transactions which he hath recorded. And with respect to such of the speeches as he had not an opportunity of hearing, they may have been made known to him by those who heard them, or by inspiration. However, not to insist on this, Luke’s history of the Acts of the Apostles contains more internal marks of authenticity than any ancient heathen history extant. So that, considering it merely as a human composition, it is by far the most valuable ancient monument of the kind which the world is at present in possession of.” Macknight.

As to the style of this work, which was originally composed in Greek, it is much purer than that of the other canonical writers; and it is observable that Luke, who was much better acquainted with the Greek than the Hebrew language, always, in his quotations from the Old Testament, makes use of the Septuagint version. “Luke,” says Mr. Blackwall, in his Sacred Classics, “is pure, copious, and flowing in his language, and has a wonderful and most entertaining variety of select circumstances in his narration. Both in his gospel and apostolical acts he is accurate and neat, clear and flowing, with a natural and easy grace; his style is admirably accommodated to the design of history. The narrative of the Acts is perspicuous and noble; the discourses inserted emphatical, eloquent, and sublime. He is justly applauded for his politeness and elegance by some critics, who seem to magnify him in order to depreciate the rest of the evangelists, when yet it is plain he has as many Hebraisms and peculiarities as any one of them.”

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