Book Overview - Acts
by Thomas Coke
THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES.
THIS forms a central, or intermediate book, to connect the Gospels and the Epistles. It is a useful postscript to the former, and a proper introduction to the latter. This divine history is evidently a second part, or continuation, of St. Luke's Gospel, as appears from the very beginning of it and, that both were written by the same Evangelist, is attested by the most antient Christian writers. The subscriptions at the end of some Greek manuscripts, and of the copies of the Syriac version, testify that St. Luke wrote the Acts at Alexandria in Egypt. As the narrative reaches down to the year of Christ 63, the Acts cannot have been completed earlier than that year; and that they were not written much later, may be inferred from the subject being continued no farther, which otherwise it would probably have been; at least St. Luke would have been apt to have given the issue of St. Paul's imprisonment at Rome, as what the Christian reader would have been desirous to know. With respect to the evidences of the facts, the grand point on which the Christian rests, is the infallible inspiration of the Holy Spirit, by whom the whole book was indited. But St. Luke, considered as a mere human witness, was better able to draw up an authentic history of the Apostles as he had accompanied St. Paul in so many of his journeys. As he was a physician by profession, he was able to form a sound judgment of the miracles which St. Paul wrought upon the diseased; and to make a credible report of them. But he seems not to have had the gift of healing himself: at least we have nothing on record concerning it. St. Paul, and not he, healed the sick. His accounts are generally so full and circumstantial, that the reader is perfectly enabled to examine the facts himself, and to judge whether they were attended with any deception or not. St. Luke appears not to have intended to write a complete ecclesiastical history of the whole Christian church, during the first thirty years after Christ's ascension: for he almost wholly omits what passed among the Jews after the conversion of St. Paul; though the labours and sufferings of the other Apostles could not but have afforded interesting materials. If we examine the contents of this book, we may observe two ends pursued in it: 1. To give an authentic relation of the effusion of the Holy Ghost, and the first miracles by which the Christian religion was establish. An authentic account of this was indispensably necessary, since Christ had so often promised the Holy Ghost to his disciples; and if a heathen were to receive the Gospel, he would naturally inquire how it had been first promulgated. 2. To impart those accounts which evince the claim of the Gentiles to the visible as well as spiritual church of God,—a point particularly contested by the Jews about the time of St. Luke's writing the Acts. St. Paul was at that very time a prisoner at Rome, upon the accusation of the Jews, who became his enemies for having admitted the Gentiles into the visible church. Hence it is, that St. Luke relates the conversion of the Samaritans, Acts 8, and the history of Cornelius, Acts 10-11, whom even St. Peter (to whom St. Paul's opponents appealed, Galatians 2:6-21.) had instructed in the Gospel by divine command, though he was not of the circumcision. For the same reason he relates. ch. 15:, what was decreed by the first council at Jerusalem concerning the Levitical law; and treats most fully of the conversion of St. Paul, and of his mission and transactions among the Gentiles.
The Acts of the Apostles may very properly be divided into seven parts; viz. First, The account of the first Pentecost after Christ's death, and of the events preceding it, contained in Acts 1, 2. Secondly, The acts of the Apostles at Jerusalem, and throughout Judea and Samaria, among the Christians of the circumcision, Acts 3:1 to Acts 7:12 : Thirdly, The acts in Caesarea, and the receiving of the Gentiles, Acts 7-10. Fourthly, The first circuit of St. Barnabas and St. Paul among the Gentiles, Acts 13-14. Fifthly, The embassy to Rome, and the first council at Jerusalem, wherein the Jews and Gentiles were admitted to an equality, ch. 15: Sixthly, The second circuit of St. Paul, Acts 16-20. Seventhly, St. Paul's third journey to Rome, ch. xxi-xxviii. The reader, desirous of seeing the authenticity of this book incontestably proved, will find all the satisfaction he desires in the first part of Dr. Benson's Appendix to his History of the Plantation of Christianity; and in Mr. Biscoe's Boyle's Lectures, ch. 14-15.
PROOFS OF THE TRUTH OF CHRISTIANITY, ARISING FROM THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES.
There are many and strong proofs of the truth of our divine religion, arising from this sacred book, which we have now gone through by the assistance of God; and,
1st, "The general doctrine contains nothing but what is obviously most excellent." It teaches us, that there is one only living and true God, who made heaven and earth, and all things that are therein; that we are his offspring; that his providence extends to all ages and nations; for he has never left himself without witness, in that he has given men rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling their hearts with joy and gladness; and, above all, in drawing them by the influences of HIS Spirit, who is the Light and Life of the world;—that this universal Creator, and wise Governor cannot possibly be confined within such narrow limits as temples built by men, nor be represented by any image or picture,—for he is omnipresent, and in him we live, move, and have our beings; that, as he is infinite in wisdom, and abundant in goodness, he loves all his creatures that do not finally reject him, and is no respecter of persons; but, in every nation, he that feareth God, and worketh righteousness, is accepted of him: that he requires of every man only according to his ability, according to the measure of Divine Light bestowed upon him or offered to him, and the opportunities which he enjoys; and therefore, the times of former darkness he winked at, and did not then expect so much spiritual knowledge and divine experience among men, because they were placed in less advantageous circumstances: but that, when the world was over-run with ignorance, idolatry, and the most amazing wickedness, God sent his own eternal Son, to call mankind to repentance, and to assure them of mercy, if they did sincerely repent, and believe in him for pardon, holiness, and glory. That as the eternal Son of God so infinitely condescended as to appear in our nature, and to live among men for a number of years, in order to instruct them both by his doctrine and example, and then to lay down his life for their redemption;—therefore God hath raised him from the dead, and exalted him to his own right hand, and made him the Anointed King, and Lord over all; having also constituted him Judge both of the living and the dead. In consequence of which, men are commanded to invoke his sacred name; to be initiated into his holy religion by the plain and significant rite of baptism, which entitles them to all the privileges, and charges them with all the obligations of the members of his church and kingdom: and after that, they are frequently, and with great thankfulness, to commemorate his dying love, by eating bread, and drinking wine, in remembrance of him; thereby professing themselves his disciples, and repeating their resolutions to love him, imitate him, and obey him, through the influences and inspiration of his Holy Spirit.
This infinitely glorious personage, while upon earth, conversed chiefly in Judea and Galilee, commencing his high dispensation among the Jews, who had then the soundest notions of God and religion; though they also were fallen into an amazing degeneracy. After he had duly prepared those among the Jews who were willing to be saved by grace, he himself returned to heaven, and left the great work to be carried on by persons whom he had instructed, and to whom he had not only given a commission, but communicated a fulness of the Spirit. And when they had reaped the harvest of what he had sown among the Jews and brought many to glory, who yielded to be saved by grace, they, according to his express order, addressed themselves to the Gentiles, teaching them the folly and wickedness both of idolatry and every vice; and recommending it to all men, every where, to repent, and be reconciled to God through the Blood of the great Atonement, and be made meet for heaven, through the alone power and efficacy of divine grace. Towards God, they enforced the great duties of love and fear, adoration, and obedience: towards men, justice and charity, truth and sincerity, love and beneficence; and, as to their own personal conduct, sobriety and temperance, chastity and universal purity; frequently inculcating upon their converts the necessity of patience, and a contented mind; to get above this present world, and to have their affections so fixed on a better state to come, as rather to suffer difficulties, persecutions, and death itself, for the sake of Christ, than betray or give up his sacred cause. And all these excellent rules they enforced by the weighty argument of a righteous judgment to come, when the eternal Son of God shall descend as universal Judge, and raise all mankind out of their graves; and will shew the highest favour to the righteous, but will punish the wicked with a dreadful, exemplary, and eternal destruction. Is there any thing in this doctrine, which is not most highly worthy of God, and admirably suited to the state of men? Such is its intrinsic worth and excellence, that one would be ready to ask, "What need could there be of miracles, to propagate a doctrine, which is in itself so reasonable, so infinitely good? Would it not have been sufficient barely to have proposed it, and then left it to recommend itself by its own worth and beauty?" But, if we take a closer view of the depth of the fall—that man is by nature dead in trespasses and sins,—if we consider the prejudices of mankind, the difficulty of breaking off wicked and inveterate habits, the fondness of men for the religion in which they have been educated, be it ever so bad, the love of pomp and pleasure, and whatever strikes upon the senses, more than of such a simple and spiritual doctrine as that of the gospel, though founded upon the most solid truth, and recommending the purest, noblest virtue, yea, the whole image of God,—we shall no longer wonder, that infinite wisdom should grant the power of working miracles, and the attestation of the gifts of the Spirit, to propagate a doctrine which is in itself so infinitely excellent and good,—we shall see the absolute necessity of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of God for every good thought, word, and work.
2nd, "The particular doctrines taught by the apostles were, with infinite propriety and wisdom, suited to the state of the persons to whom they preached." The Jews did already speculatively believe in the one true God, and therefore they proceeded directly to prove to them that Jesus was the great Messiah, that they might believe in him for the forgiveness of their sins, and love him, and obey him. The proselytes of the gate had forsaken idolatry, and believed in the one true God; and therefore they likewise were exhorted to believe in Christ with the heart unto righteousness, as necessary for the complete enjoyment and service of God here, and to their being meet for the happiness of the world to come, in that triumphant church of God which he hath purchased with his own Blood. But as the idolatrous Gentiles trusted in false gods, and did not acknowledge the one only living and true God, they began with persuading them to forsake their idolatry, and believe in him who is God alone; and then they enforced on them the necessity of believing in Jesus his eternal Son, through whose death and intercession only they could draw near to God with acceptance, and find through him who is over all, God blessed for ever, pardon, holiness, and heaven.
The apostles never attempted to set men free from social duties, or to abridge them of any of their civil rights and privileges. No; though they brought them over to a new, even to the true religion, yet they often intimated that Christianity alters nothing in men's civil affairs. The Christian converts therefore continued under the same obligations as formerly, to obey the laws of the several countries where they lived, and had as good a claim as ever to all the privileges and advantages of civil society. The moral law is of everlasting obligation, and cannot possibly be abolished; but Christians are required to obey the moral law, not only from the fitness of things, which would prove only vain philosophy unaccompanied with the grace and Spirit of God, but from gospel motives, and with the freest offer of power and grace to all those who will accept of it. The ceremonial law of the Jews was abolished or vacated by the death of Christ, and the setting up of his kingdom in the world. However, such of the Jewish Christians as could not shake off their fondness for it, were indulged in the observation of it; though they who understood and were convinced of their Christian liberty, were no longer in subjection to it. But the Gentile converts were warned not to submit to that yoke of bondage; for they could plead no prejudice in favour of it: they therefore were assured, that if they added the observation of the law of Moses to that of the gospel as necessary to salvation, they would cast the highest contempt on the gospel, and render it to them of none effect.
3rdly, "The proofs and evidences which the apostles gave of their mission and doctrine were abundantly sufficient, both as to their strength and number." Besides the reasonableness of what they advanced, they appealed to prophesies and miracles, and the various gifts of the Spirit. They did indeed always found their doctrine upon facts; but prophesy was a confirming evidence, both among the Jews and the proselytes of the gate.
As to the argument drawn from ancient prophesy, I would observe, that some of the prophesies mentioned in the Acts, and other books of the New Testament, were express predictions, and have been shewn by many writers to have been literally accomplished. See Dr. Sykes, Dr. Chandler, Bishop Chandler, Mr. Jefferys, Dr. Bullock, and several others of modern date. As therefore the Jews and proselytes of the gate were acquainted with the scriptures of the Old Testament, and acknowledged their authority, when the apostles preached among them, they of course argued from those ancient prophesies, shewing their accomplishment in the adorable Jesus.
Let us now, in the 4th and last place, sum up the whole argument. As both the general and particular doctrines contained in the Acts of the Apostles are so perfectly reasonable, and the proofs and evidences were so many and strong, as well as wisely suited to all sorts of persons, certainly Christianity, pure, primitive, original Christianity, was true, and sufficiently attested to have come from God. And, "if it was once true, what pretence can any man now have for rejecting it?" Will he allege, "that he cannot believe the history?" But, for what reason will he allege such a thing? It is mere perverseness to reject any history without some sufficient objections against its truth and validity. Are all histories to be rejected? and no facts credited but what we ourselves have seen, and been personally acquainted with? I never knew any man so hardy as to assert this, and stand to it. Will it be objected, that "this history was written by a friend to Christianity, and one that was himself a party concerned?" To this I would reply, that it is hardly possible (nay, morally speaking, it is not possible) that any man should write such a history fairly and honestly but a friend to Christianity. Can it be thought that an enemy to Christianity would have given us a faithful history of such remarkable and uncommon things, and yet continue an enemy? Would not the whole thread of such a history condemn such a man? and would not all the world be ready to say, "Do you know this doctrine to be so excellent, and that so many, and such great and surprising miracles were wrought in confirmation of it? And yet do you yourself disbelieve this doctrine, and deny the truth of this religion?" Surely no man that had any value for his reputation, would have written such a history, to condemn himself of the greatest perverseness; and one who had no value for his reputation, would certainly deserve no credit or regard: but supposing that a man, upon considering Christianity, together with its evidences, had turned Christian, and after that wrote such a history,—why then he was a friend, and in some measure a party concerned, as well as St. Luke. And if a friend to Christianity be the only person than can be reasonably supposed to give a fair and full account of the doctrine, together with its grand attestations, "who could be more proper than a companion of the apostles? who not only conversed with those that were eye and ear-witnesses of the facts, but was personally concerned in many of the things which he relates?" There are few historians so immediately acquainted with the facts about which they write; and yet we generally give credit to their accounts, unless we have some reasons to the contrary.
Shew the marks of forgery, or the ancient and credible history which contradicts what is said in the Acts of the Apostles, and then you may, with some reason, talk of rejecting this book. There are no inconsistencies nor contradictions in the history itself. Even the miraculous and extraordinary facts there related, were not impossible to the divine power, to which they are constantly and uniformly ascribed; neither are they improbable, considering the grand design and occasion of them. For, planting a new religion among men, in a time of such universal darkness and degeneracy, must have required an extraordinary divine interposition; and great and striking evidences were in a manner necessary to conquer men's great prejudices, and make them attentive. The plainness and simplicity of the narration are strong circumstances in its favour; the writer appears to have been most honest and impartial, and to have set down fairly the objections which were made to Christianity both by Jews and heathens, and the reflections which enemies cast upon it, and upon the first preachers of it. He has likewise, with a just and honest freedom, mentioned the weaknesses, faults, and prejudices both of the apostles and their converts. There is a great and remarkable harmony between the occasional hints dispersed up and down in St. Paul's epistles, and the facts recorded in this history; insomuch that it is generally acknowledged, that the history of the Acts is the best clue to guide us in studying of the epistles written by that apostle. The other parts of the New Testament do likewise exactly harmonize with this history, and give great confirmation to it; for the doctrines and principles are every where uniformly the same; the conclusions of the gospels contain a brief account of those things which are more particularly related in the beginning of the Acts. And there are frequent declarations and intimations in other parts of the gospels, that such an effusion of the Spirit was to be granted to the church; and that with a view to the very design which the apostles and primitive Christians carried on, (as related in the Acts,) by virtue of that extraordinary effusion which Christ poured out upon his disciples after his ascension: and finally, the epistles of the other Apostles, as well as those of St. Paul, plainly suppose such things to have happened as are related in the Acts of the Apostles; so that the history of the Acts is one of the most important parts of the sacred History; for neither the gospels nor the epistles could have been so clearly understood without it; but by the help of it the whole scheme of the Christian revelation is set before us in an easy and manifest view.
Even the incidental things mentioned by St. Luke, are so exactly agreeable to all the accounts which remain of the best ancient historians among the Jews and heathens, that no person who had forged such a history, in later ages, could have had that external confirmation, but would have betrayed himself by alluding to some customs or opinions since sprung up; or by misrepresenting some circumstance, or using some phrase or expression not then in use. The plea of forgery therefore, in later ages, cannot be allowed; and for a man to have published a history of such things so early as St. Luke wrote, (that is, while some of the apostles, and many other persons were alive, who were concerned in the transactions which he has recorded,) if his account had not been punctually true, could have been only to have exposed himself to an easy confutation and certain infamy.
As therefore the Acts of the Apostles are in themselves consistent and uniform, the incidental things agreeable to the best ancient histories which have come down to us, and the main facts supported and confirmed by the other books of the New Testament, and by the unanimous testimony of so many of the ancient Fathers,—we may with the utmost justness conclude, that if any history of former times deserves credit, the Acts of the Apostles ought to be received and credited; and, if the history of the Acts of the Apostles be true, Christianity cannot be false: for a doctrine, so perfectly good in itself, and attended with so many miraculous and divine testimonies, has all the possible marks of a true revelation.
I will therefore conclude with most earnestly praying that Christianity may be embraced by all mankind, according to its intrinsic worth, abundant evidence, and spiritual power and efficacy! that the purity and simplicity of the original institution, as it was left by Christ and his apostles in the scriptures, may be more attended to!—and that all who believe Christianity to be true, may manifest it, through grace, by such a holy life as this most excellent religion does every where recommend, And it will be so. The word of prophesy cannot fail. The Lord Jesus is riding on prosperously, because of truth, and meekness, and righteousness; and his right hand teaches him terrible things. He has drawn his glittering sword. He is pouring the vials of his wrath upon the earth; and he is also pouring out his Spirit. Soon will the beast and the false prophet be cast into the lake of fire and brimstone. Great have been the events which but a few years have produced; and greater still are approaching. The souls under the altar are crying out with a loud voice, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?" And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth, say, Come. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus, and establish thy great millennial reign all over the world.*
* A list of the writers and books referred to or quoted in the commentary on the Acts of the Apostles: Ablancourt, Adams, Addison, Aratus, Bishop Atterbury, Barclay, Lord Barrington, Bengelius, Benson, Bentley, Beza, Biscoe, Bishop Blackwall, Bochart, Boyce, Brekell, Brennius, Sir Thomas Browne, Bishop Burnett, Calmet, Casauban, Chishul, Clarius, Clarke, Craddock, Cudworth, De Dieu, D'Herbelot, Dio, Ditton, Dodd, Doddridge, Drake, Drusius, Elsner, Erasmus, Eusebius, Fleming, Grotius, Gualtperius, Hallet, Hammond, Heinsius, Herodotus, Heylin, Hyde, Jefferys, Jenkins, Jortin, Josephus, Sir Norton Knatchbull, The knowledge of divine things from revelation, Lampe, Lardner, Le Clerc, L'Enfant, Lightfoot, Limborch, Lipsius, Locke, Lord Lyttelton, Macknight, Maundrell, Mede, Mill, Mintert, Miscellanea Sacra, More, Moyle, Nature displayed, Bishop Newton, Owen, Paillairet, Bishop Patrick, Pearce, Pearson, Philo, Plutarch, Poole, Potter, Pricaeus, Prideaux, Pyle, Quesnelle, Raphelius, Reading, Revius, Ridley, Sanderson, Scaliger, Servius, Archbishop Sharpe, Shaw, Bishop Sherlock, Spanheim, Spencer, Bishop Stillingfleet, Stockius, Suetonius, Superville, Swift, Sykes, Tacitus, Tillemont, Archbishop Tillotson, Tremellius, Vertot, Universal History, Archbishop Usher, Bishop Warburton, Ward, Waterland, Watts, Wells, Wetstein, Whitby, Witsius, and Wolfius.
REFLECTIONS.—1st, The isle of Melita, or Malta, since so famed for the noble stand that its knights made against all the power of the Ottoman empire, was the place where the apostle and ship's company found themselves on shore.
1. They received great courtesy from the people of the island, who are called barbarous, not as being savage in their manners, the very contrary of which appeared; but as unpolished islanders, and unacquainted with Grecian literature. They were so far from being engaged in plundering the wreck, that their attention was taken up about the poor people who had escaped, wet and cold as they were: they therefore kindled a fire to dry them, and took them under shelter from the rain which fell heavily, and from the cold. Note; (1.) Shipwrecked mariners are entitled to the greater humanity. It is a pitch of savage brutality beyond what heathens shewed, to plunder the little remains of their misfortune; yet, shocking to tell, even in a Christian land there are wretches found so destitute of every feeling of humanity, as to be more intent on the wreck, than solicitous about the lives of the people; yea, to strip and rob them, even when cast on shore, instead of helping and assisting them. Surely they will receive judgment without mercy, who have thus shewed no mercy. (2.) Fuel is as needful a charity for the poor, as food or raiment. When we hear the wintry winds blow, and feel the cold even in our warm rooms, we should remember those who shiver over the scarce-smoaking embers, and through whose miserable cottages the wind and rain find a free passage.
2. St. Paul, ever active and ready to serve his fellow-creatures in the lowest offices of kindness, had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire; when a viper, which had been unobserved in the faggot, perceiving the heat, leaped out and fastened on his hand; which when these unlettered islanders beheld, they concluded this must be some notorious murderer, whom, though he had escaped shipwreck, the divine vengeance thus signally overtook, and would not suffer to live; and they expected each moment to see him swell, and drop down dead. Note; (1.) Though this is not the regular place of retribution, yet God is frequently pleased to make signal monuments of his vengeance even here. (2.) We must not interpret every stroke of God, or remarkable affliction, as a divine judgment: the best of men have been often most severely exercised.
3. The apostle, with perfect composure of mind, and trust on Christ's promise (Mark 16:18.), shook off the venomous animal into the fire; and remaining to their astonishment unhurt, they after a while changed their opinion of him, and fancied he must be more than human, even one of their immortal gods, who could thus defy the viper's venom. So changeable are the sentiments of the populace: he that is run down as a murderer to-day, is sometimes cried up as a god to-morrow.
4. The possessions of the chief man of the island, whose name was Publius, lay near the place where the ship had been cast away, and he most hospitably entertained the apostle and his companions three days, till they could be otherwise provided for: and in return for his civility, God so ordered it in his providence, that he should not lose his reward. Publius's father now lay dangerously ill of a fever and the bloody flux; St. Paul therefore went in, and praying over him, laid his hands on him, and in the name of his Master healed him instantaneously; the fame of which miracle soon spread, and others who were diseased made their application to the apostle, and freely received the cure of all their several maladies. Note; (1.) They who have large possessions, should exercise proportionable hospitality, and be generous stewards of these temporal gifts of God. (2.) Kindness shewn to God's ministers, their Master somehow or other will take care to repay.
5. This grateful people, during their stay, failed not to pay them the highest veneration and respect. The apostle, doubtless, not only healed their bodily diseases, but with his companions preached to them the gospel of Jesus for the healing of their souls; and therefore the Maltese at their departure liberally furnished them with all necessaries for the voyage. Having shared their spiritual things, they gladly in return communicated of their worldly things.
2nd, After three months' stay on the island, when the spring returned, they once more pursued their voyage, and met with no more difficulties.
1. They embarked in another ship of Alexandria, which had wintered in Malta, and bore the images of Castor and Pollux, under whose protection the wretched idolaters expected safety.
2. After a prosperous voyage, they landed at Syracuse in the isle of Sicily, where they stayed three days. Thence they fetched a compass round, and arrived at Rhegium, the first port they made in Italy. The next day, taking advantage of the south wind, they proceeded to Puteoli, near Naples, whence they were to travel by land to Rome. At Puteoli, St. Paul and his companions, to their great comfort, found some Christian brethren, who requested them to stay a week with them, that they might spend one Lord's day together, which the centurion kindly permitted them to do; and thence they set forward for the great metropolis of the world, the place of their destination.
3. The Christians who were at Rome no sooner heard of his coming from Puteoli, than they set forward to meet him on the road, to shew respect to one who had so eminently distinguished himself in the cause, and was particularly endeared to them by the affectionate epistle which they had received from him. Some of them went as far as the town called Appii-Forum, above fifty miles; and others as far as The Three Taverns (Triae Tabernae), a place about thirty miles from Rome, to receive him, not ashamed of his bonds. Their presence much refreshed his heart: when he saw them, he thanked God for the grace which appeared in these faithful brethren, and took courage; his drooping spirits revived, and now he can boldly face the bloody Nero. Nothing so encourages the hearts of ministers, amid the greatest opposition of enemies, as the company and countenance of some faithful friends, who dare own and stand by them in defiance of reproach or danger.
4. On their arrival at Rome, the centurion delivered up St. Paul and his other prisoners to the captain of the guard. The latter probably were committed to close custody: but St. Paul, either through the letter of Festus, or the request of Julius, or the interest of the Christians, was left in some measure a prisoner at large, being permitted to dwell in lodgings, with a soldier chained to him as his guard.
3rdly, Though by the edict of Claudius all the Jews had been banished from Rome, they returned on the accession of Nero; and many were now settled there, opulent and men of distinction. To them, after three days' rest from his journey, St. Paul addressed himself; and, since he could not wait on them, begged the favour of their company at his lodgings; and, when they were assembled there, being desirous to stand right in their opinion, he,
1. Relates his case to them, as to men of humanity, his brethren after the flesh, and worshippers of the true God, from whom he might expect friendship and affection. Though he appeared in bonds, it was not for any crime that he had committed, nor for any violation of the sacred rites and institutions delivered by Moses to their fathers, that he had been sent a prisoner to Rome. The Roman governors, both Felix and Festus before whom he had been examined, were sensible of his innocence, and would have discharged him; but some violent persons of his own countrymen, filled with prejudices against him, objected to his release, and urged the governor Festus to bring him back to Jerusalem; so that he was obliged to appeal to Caesar, merely for his own preservation; not that he meant any accusation of his countrymen before the emperor, but only to defend himself, and obtain his liberty. He therefore called them together to assure them, that the chain he wore, was purely for preaching the hope of every Israelite, even the coming of the divine Messiah, who had appeared according to the prophesies; and for declaring the resurrection to eternal life and glory, as the privilege of all who believed in him. Note; Christ is the only hope of the Israel of God. A sinner who knows his real state, sees nothing out of Jesus but black despair and wrath to the uttermost, but in him there appears grace abounding to the miserable and the desperate.
2. In reply, the Jews said to him, We neither received letters out of Judea concerning thee, neither any of the brethren that came shewed or spake any harm of thee; so that they own they had no crime to charge him with. Probably his accusers dared not appear before the emperor, conscious of the danger to which they might expose themselves. But we desire to hear of thee what thou thinkest, and would impartially examine into the new opinions that you hold forth; and are willing to know how you can prove, that Jesus of Nazareth is that hope of Israel, of whom the prophets have spoken: for this seems to us highly improbable; and as concerning this sect, which he has founded, we know that every where it is spoken against, as maintaining heretical opinions, and disturbing the peace of mankind. Note; (1.) Christianity is no sect, built on narrow opinions, aiming at secular advantages, or tending to sow division in the world: no: just the very contrary: it embraces all mankind who acknowledge Jesus as the Saviour, directs us to seek our happiness and true interests in another world, and breathes nothing but peace and love. (2.) We must not wonder if the true gospel of the grace of God be still every where spoken against: it must be so, while the generality rest in the form, and deny the power, of godliness.
4thly, Though naturally prejudiced, as Jews, against the doctrines of Jesus, they consented to appoint a day, and met at the apostle's lodgings in great numbers, to hear what he had to say on the subject. Hereupon,
1. St. Paul expounded to them the nature, doctrines, and privileges of that kingdom of God which he preached, and explained to them all the prophesies and types of the Old Testament, shewing how they centred in Jesus of Nazareth, and received their full accomplishment in his life, death, and resurrection; testifying from his own and others experience the power of this divine Saviour's grace upon the heart; and persuading them, with the warmest affection and zeal, to submit to this Redeemer, and embrace this divine Messiah, to whom both the law and the prophets bore witness, that they might partake of that spiritual salvation which he had obtained for all who perseveringly believe in him. As the matter was of such vast importance, he reasoned with them from morning until evening, answering probably all their objections, and proving at large, by the most convincing arguments, that Jesus is the Christ.
2. His discourse produced different effects on his hearers. Some believed the truths that he preached, and others remained hardened in their prejudices, and believed not; which occasioned a disagreement in their sentiments, the infidel party being incensed against the gospel word.
3. Before they parted, the apostle gave them one faithful warning. Well spake the Holy Ghost by Esaias the prophet, even that glorious Jehovah who inspired the sacred penmen, saying, Go unto this people, and say, Hearing, ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing, ye shall see, and not perceive; amid the clearest preaching of the gospel-word, and the fullest discoveries of gospel-grace, they were abandoned of God for their obstinacy to judicial blindness and obduracy. For the heart of this people is waxed gross; stupid, senseless, and obstinate, through pride, prejudice, and passion: and their ears are dull of hearing, inattentive to the preaching of the truth: and their eyes have they closed; wilfully blind against the evidence of miracles performed, of prophesies fulfilled, and the divine attestation given to the character of Jesus as the Messiah; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. Be it known therefore unto you, that, since ye thus with determined obstinacy reject the counsel of God against your own souls, and exactly fulfil this prophesy in your present rejection of Christ and his gospel; the salvation of God, which you neglect and despise, is sent unto the Gentiles, and they will hear it, and partake of the invaluable blessings and privileges of the Messiah's kingdom. Note; They who refuse to hearken to God's word, and wilfully harden their hearts against his warnings, are justly given up to a reprobate mind, and left to the ruin which they have chosen.
4. The assembly hereupon broke up, and warm debates ensued on the subjects concerning which he had spoken; some vindicating what they had heard, as righteous, just, and good; others exasperated against the preacher and his doctrine, and unable to think of the Gentiles being admitted into the Messiah's kingdom without the utmost indignation.
5thly, The apostle had already been near three years a prisoner, and still longer is permitted to wear the honourable bonds of Christ. It was, however, a consolation to him at Rome, that he was so much his own master, as to be able to dwell in his own hired house, and to have all the company whom he chose admitted: the years, therefore, during which he abode at Rome, we are told, were profitably spent.
1. He received all that came in unto him; his doors were ever open; and whosoever would, might hear him. Note; (1.) Every minister's house should be readily accessible to all who seek instruction for their souls. (2.) Our houses, by godly conversation and discourse, by prayer and praise, should be consecrated to God's service; and where two or three are met in his name, he will be in the midst of them.
2. The subject of his preaching to those who came to hear, was concerning the kingdom of God, and the things which related to the Lord Jesus Christ, the alpha and omega of all his discourses. His person, offices, character; his incarnation, sufferings and glory; with all the great and inestimable blessings and privileges derived thence, were the delightful themes on which he insisted. Happy were it, if all who call themselves Christ's ministers followed so bright an example. How dry and unaffecting is that discourse where Jesus is not exalted as all and in all!
3. He preached with all confidence; with the greatest liberty and freedom in his own spirit; most fully assured of the doctrines which he taught; using all plainness of speech with the most undaunted courage; no man forbidding him; neither the Roman emperor restrained him, nor could the Jews hinder him: so that, though a prisoner, God made him eminently useful in his bonds; and there were saints converted by his ministry even in Caesar's household. (Philippians 4:22.) Here also he wrote those epistles to the Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, and the Philippians, wherein, though dead, he yet speaketh, and we in them enjoy the most blessed fruits of his prison labours.
The historian leaves him in this confinement. After two years he regained his liberty. Concerning his future labours we have nothing absolutely certain: the received tradition is, that after visiting Spain and other parts of the world, he came to Rome the second time, where he suffered martyrdom, and went to receive the crown of glory which fadeth not away.
the Second Week after Epiphany