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The latter end of the foregoing chapter gave us a sad account of a dissension and difference arising between Paul and Barnabas, upon which they parted; Barnabas sails for Cyprus, but what success he had there the scripture says not. St. Paul goes through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches, and doing good service for God in his peregrinations and travels.
Here observe, That St. Paul and Silas, before they set forth to their work, were in a solemn manner (by prayer) recommended by the brethern to the grace of God, Acts 15:40.
And accordingly their labours are succeeded and blessed. Barnabas and Mark set forth Cyprus; but we read not of any solemn recommendation of them by the brethern to the grace of God; nor a word of any success they had in their work: teaching us the great necessity of fervent prayer to precede, accompany, and follow the preaching of the gospel. Let ministers pray, and people pray, and engage all the prayers they can for the success of their ministry.
Lord, let me steep that seed I sow amongst the people in tears and prayers before I scatter it! O pour out thy Spirit with thy word, that it may be mighty through God for pulling down the strong holds! Verily there is so little efficacy in ordinances, for want of fervent wrestlings with God in prayer.
Observe next, The places which Paul and Silas in their travels first came unto; namely, Derbe and Lystra, where he finds young Timothy, whom he takes along with him, and breeds him up for a gospel-minister, calls him his fellow-worker and companion in his travels.
Note farther, The account here given of Timothy's birth and parentage; his mother Eunice was a believing Jewess; his father was a Greek, a Gentile; for which reason Timothy was not circumcised, because it was not lawful for the mother to have her child circumcised against her husband's consent.
Now St. Paul, intending to take Timothy along with him as his companion in preaching the gospel, that his ministry might be the more acceptable to the Jews, who knew him to be uncircumcised, because the son of an uncircumcised father, he takes him and circumcises him; but at the same time Titus, who was a Gentile, both by father and mother, him he would not circumcise; neither suffering the yoke of circumcision to be laid on the Gentiles, which God had never imposed, nor would be seen to countenance those who held circumcision necessary to salvation.
O what an admirable pattern has this great and humble apostle left to posterity! he became all things to all men, and either used or refused indifferent things, according as the use or disuse of them tended to the church's education, and men's salvation.
From whence learn, That in things not absolutely necessary to salvation, Christians ought to act prudentially, and either do, or not do, some things of lesser moment, according as it may promote, and best conduce to the church's peace and edification.
The sense is this, That as Paul and Silas passed through the cities in Syria and Cilicia, they delivered to the several churches, as they passed along, the decrees to observe, which were ordained by the apostles and elders met in council at Jerusalem, whereby those churches were established in the faith, and many more every day converted unto Christ.
Here note, 1. The messengers which delivered these decrees, Paul and Silas, with a special regard unto the church's unity and peace. Behold here an excellent pattern for Christians in general, and the ministers of the gospel in particular; as to maintain truth, so to procure, promote, and preserve the church's peace. Truth and peace, which God hath joined together, Zechariah 8:19 let none dare to put asunder.
Note, 2. What it was that St. Paul here made the delivery of: the decrees made by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem; not the decrees made by the whole church, but by the ministers of the church only: none so fit to determine church-differences as church-officers.
Note, 3. To whom these decrees were delivered; namely, to the churches, as they passed along through the several cities; so many cities, so many churches: the whole company of Christians within a city and the adjacent territory, where wont to be framed into a Christian society or church, and several congregations made but one church. To set up churches in churches, and to gather churches out of churches, has no precedent, no warrant, no countenance from any phrase of scripture, or practice of the apostles' times.
Note, 4. The end for which these decrees were delivered; namely, to bring all the churches to unity and uniformity; to unity in judgment, and uniformity in practice, that they might be all of one heart, and one way.
Learn hence, That unity and uniformity among the churches of Christ is a thing to be earnestly desired and endeavoured; their unity is their strength and beauty both.
Note, lastly, The success and fruit of the delivery of these decrees to the churches, ver. 5. So were the churches established in the faith, and increasing in number daily.
Where observe, A double blessing accruing to the churches: the one of confirmation, So were the churches established: the other of augmentation. They increased in number daily.
Learn, 1. That as divisions do shake and unsettle, so unity and uniformity do establish, and confirm, the church of Christ: So were the churches established.
2. That it is a blessed thing to hear of the churches multiplying, by the number of converts increasing, is happy; but to multiply churches by breaking churches in pieces, is a sad multiplication.
The Lord keep his churches from such increases! and the Lord pardon those who for private interest have so increased churches by gathering churches out of churches, pretendedly for greater purity-sake, but really for advantage-sake!
Doctrines crying up purity to the ruin of unity, reject; for the gospel calls for unity as well as for purity.
Observe here, How the apostle and his companions had a desire and design to propagate the gospel in several provinces, but were forbidden by a secret impulse of the Holy Spirit.
Learn thence, That the frustrating our attempts, and disappointing our designs to preach the gospel to particular places, which we were purposed to go unto, doth sometimes arise from the Holy Ghost: the apostle intended to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit suffered him not. The very journeyings of the apostles, and first preachers of the gospel, as well as their divine exercises, were all ordered by the wisdom and will of God; they might neither speak, nor act, nor walk, but according to divine directions: They were forbidden by the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia. Thus Almighty God at pleasure orders the candle of the gospel to be removed out of one room into another, sends it from one place and people to another, and accordingly ought all places and persons to prize it highly, and improve it faithfully.
These words are a relation of a message from heaven unto St. Paul, to direct him in his preaching and publishing of the gospel, both as to the place where, and as to the persons to whom, he was to deliver it.
Where note, The manner of it: it was by a vision, A vision appeared. The time of it, it was in the night, the bringer of it, a man of Macedonia: the matter of it, help for the Macedonians, interpreted (ver. 10) to be by the preaching of the gospel. Of all distresses, want of the gospel cries loudest for relief and help; for by want of the gospel, they want everything that is worth having; they want Jesus Christ, who is revealed only by the gospel; they want communion with God, they want the comforts and refreshments of ordinances, and they will at last want heaven and salvation. But that which is most deplorable is this: Those that want the gospel, though they want all these things, yet are they not sensible that they want anything.
Learn, 2. That the sending of the gospel to one nation, place, or people, and not to another, proceeds from the determinate will and pleasure; Stay not in Asia, go not into Bithynis, but come over into Macedonia; Even so, Father, for thus it seemed good in thy sight.
A farther account is here given of St. Paul's travels to preach the gospel; he departs from Troas to Samothracia, from thence to Neapolis, and thence to Philippi, the chief city of Macedonia. Here on the sabbath-day he went out of the city to the river's side, where a meeting place for prayer, say some, was built, and made use of, as being remote from the noise and observation of the multitude.
In this oratory, St. Paul preached to the women, they being both most numerous and most zealous; and God gives him the seal of his ministry in the conversion of Lydia.
In which famous conversion observe how particularly the Holy Ghost is in relating the several circumstances belonging to it; she is described by her person and sex, a certain woman; by her name Lydia; by her calling and employment, a seller of purple; by her city, Thyatira; by her pious disposition, she worshipped God.
Her conversion is described,
1. By the efficient cause of it; the Lord opened her heart.
2. By the instrumental cause of it; her attending to the things that were spoken of Paul.
Learn, 1. That the hearts of persons are naturally shut up and fast barred against Jesus Christ.
2. That the opening of the heart to receive Jesus Christ, is the peculiar effect of the sovereign power and omnipotent grace of God.
3. That till God opens the heart of a sinner, the preaching of the gospel little affecteth, though never so plainly and persuasuvely preached. That when once the heart is opened, the ear will not be shut, the person is truly attentive to the preaching of the gospel: The Lord opened Lydia's heart, and she attended.
Observe, next, The seal of her conversion and salvation received by her: She was baptized, and her whole house. It was the ordinary way of the apostles to baptize households; not that they were sure that they were all believers, or that the family governors could make them so; but it was their duty to devote all their power to God, and to do their utmost to persuade; and God usually succeeded their endeavours.
Note here, That the church of God for near seventeen hundred years, never refused the baptizing of infants of believing parents, as being taken into covenant with themselves. Having then for so many ages been in the possession of this privilege, we may more reasonably require the Anabaptists to prove by express scripture, that the children were not baptized by the apostles, (when they baptized whole families, yea, whole nations, according to their commission, Matthew 28:19) than they can require us to prove that they were.
Lydia and her house were baptized, says the text; that is, says the Syriac, Lydia and her children. Lydia, by reason of her faith in Christ, having a right to baptism, all her family, upon her undertaking to bring them up in the knowledge of Christ, were admitted to the ordinance with her.
Observe lastly, A special fruit and evidence of Lydia's conversion: she constrained the apostles with an amicable violence, by fervent entreaties and passionate importunities, to receive the civilities of her house. Converted persons have so much love to Christ's ministers, who were the instruments of their conversion, that they greatly desire to express it by all acts of possible kindness. If ye have judged me faithful, come into my house, and abide there; and she constrained us.
As we went to prayer, a damsel possessed met us. That is, As the apostles went towards the forementioned place of prayer, a damsel possessed with the devil, by whose inspiration she foretold future things, and revealed many secrets to them that consulted her, followed them, crying out, These are the servants of the most high God, who declare unto us the way of salvation.
Where observe, 1. That the father of lies sometimes speaks the truth, though, never for truth's sake, but for his own advantage: here what the devil said was truth, but it was for devilish ends; he transforms himself now into an angel of light, to draw men on to believe him the prince of darkness.
Observe, 2. How St. Paul refuses the devil's testimony concerning himself, even when he spake the truth. The testimony of truth from the father of lies, is enough to render truth itself suspected.
Observe, 3.the authority which St. Paul takes upon him in the name of Christ to dispossess the devil, and cast him out of the damsel: Paul said, I command thee in the name of Jesus to come out of her: and he came out the same hour.
These words St. Paul uttered by the motion of the Holy Spirit, and relying by faith on the promise of Christ made by himself to his apostles, That in his name they should cast out devils; Mark 16:17 accordingly he received power from on high to cast out this daring devil.
Observe, 4. How Satan seeks to be revenged on Paul for dispossessing of him: he raises up an hot persecution, and soon casts him into prison, who had cast the devil out of the damsel. If we disturb and trouble Satan, he will be sure to trouble and disturb us. Such ministers as make the greatest opposition against Satan, must expect to meet with the greatest opposition from him.
Observe, 5. Who were the instruments which Satan stirs up to raise this persecution against the apostles: they were the rulers and the rabble: The multitude rose up, and the magistrates rent their clothes, cast them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks. Thus were the holy apostles, and innocent servants of Jesus Christ, imprisoned, and treated as the vilest malefactors, only for opposing Satan, and seeking the welfare of mankind.
Observe, lastly, That love of money was the root of all this persecution. The damsel's masters perceiving that their gain was gone, and that she could help them to no more money by telling people their fortunes, the devil of discontent possessed them. They stir up persecution against the apostles, they cast them into prison, into the inward prison, and to make all sure, set them in the stocks.
The apostles are here, by Satan and his instruments, cast into prison; but observe, they had their prison-comforts.
1. The joy of their hearts runs out at their lips: they sang praises unto God, when their bodies were in prison, and their feet were in the stocks; these holy servants of God were not only meek and patient, but joyous and cheerful under persecution, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for him who had undergone so much indignity and shame for them.
2. They enjoy sweet communion with God in prayer: At midnight they prayed, and the prisoners heard them. No place can be improper, no time unseasonable, for prayer. No prison can bolt out God, nor deprive us of our communion with him: prayer will get up to heaven in spite of all opposition either of hell or earth.
Observe, 3. How sudden the answer, and how sensible the return of prayer was which the Lord graciously gave his suffering servants: Suddenly there was a great earthquake. This earthquake was an infallible sign of God's audience; that he heard them, and would stand by them.
Observe, 4. The powerful efficacy of St. Paul's prayer: his prayer shook the heavens, the heavens shook the earth, the earth shook the prison, even to the very foundations of it. Prayer has a divine kind of omnipotency in it: Vincit invincibilem et light omnipotentem: "It overcomes God with his own strength."
Observe, 5. What influence this earthquake had upon the gaoler: it occcasioned such an heartquake in him, that to give himself ease, silly soul, he resolves to murder himself.
Lord! how miserable are the consolations which the carnal and unregenerate world have recourse and fly unto, when trouble and distress take hold upon them! They run to an halter, to rid them of their trouble, having no God to go unto, and thereby plunge themselves into endless troubles, yea, eternal torments.
Observe, lastly, How kind the apostle was to his cruel keeper: he that hurt the apostles' feet with the stocks, hears the apostles crying unto him in the midst of the earthquake, Do thyself no harm. Good men ever have been, and are, men of tender and compassionate dispositions; not so solicitous for their own liberties, as for others' lives. The apostles might have held their peace, and suffered the gaoler to have slain himself, and thereby made their own escape; but they preferred the gaoler's eternal salvation before their own temporal liberty and happiness: Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, Do thyself no harm.
As if the gaoler had said, "Sirs, now I see and acknowledge that the doctrine taught by you is the truth of the eternal God; and he hath by this miraculous earthquake testified to me, that you are his true and faithful servants: tell me therefore, I beseech you, what I must do to attain salvation?" They answer, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, &c. That is, "If you and your family receive the doctrine of Jesus Christ, and regulate your lives according to it, you shall be saved.
Here note, 1. That scorners and persecutors will become tremblers, when once God hath touched their hearts, and wounded their consciences with remorse for sin. The gaoler here came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas; trembling under a sense of his guiltiness, and falling down upon his knees to ask them forgiveness.
Note, 2. That trembling sinners are always inquisitive, yea, very inquisitive, persons. An awakened conscience will put a man upon enquiry, upon great and much enquiry, what he should do.
Note, 3. That the chief thing which the trembling soul enquires after, is the business of salvation: What shall I do to be saved?
Note, 4. That trembling sinners, and troubled souls, must be directed to Jesus Christ, and to faith in him, as the only way to obtain salvation by him, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.
Behold how sudden and strange a change was wrought in this gaoler. Before his conversion he was cruel, barbarous, and hard-hearted; now he is meek, merciful, and compassionate. He that before had beaten, imprisoned, and hurt the holy apostles' feet in the stocks, now pities them, mourns over them, and washes their stripes.
Learn thence, That religion, and the grace of God, soften and mollify the hardest hearts, sweeten the sourest natures, and change the most barbarous and bloody dispositions. Behold this gaoler, before his conversion, a savage persecutor, a tiger, and a vulture, like the demoniac in the gospel, exceeding fierce: but now dispossessed of his fury, and by grace turned into a lamb for meekness, and a dove for innocency.
Observe, 2. How the gaoler believing, he and all his house were baptized. The apostle denied not baptism to the gaoler's household, upon the gaoler's sincere profession of the Christian faith; yet no doubt he promised to use his utmost endeavours to bring them to the knowledge and obedience of Jesus Christ.
Observe, lastly, How improbable it is that the gaoler and his household were baptized by dipping. We do not deny the lawfulness of baptizing by immersion; but we cannot assert the absolute and indispensable necessity of it. St. Paul, who was newly washed, and his sores dress, occasioned by stripes, cannot be supposed either to go out himself, or to carry the gaoler and all his family, in the dead of the night, to the river or a pond to baptize them; neither is it in the least probable, that St. Paul himself was baptized by dipping. He arose, and was baptized; and when he had received meat, he was strengthened. Acts 9:18-19
The context may convince us, that he was baptized in his lodgings, being sick and weak, having fasted three days, and being in a very low condition, partly by his miraculous vision, and partly by his extraordinary fasting: it was no ways probable that Ananias should carry him out to a river in that condition, to plunge him in cold water. Dipping, then surely, cannot be so essential unto baptism, as for want of it to pronounce the baptism of all the reformed churches throughout the world to be null and void, as some amongst us do.
See here a special evidence and sweet fruit of the gaoler's conversion; he brings the apostles, who were the instruments of his conversion, into his house; and having washed their stripes, refreshes their bowels: he set meat before them. The truth of conversion will manifest itself in a thankfulness, and other tokens of respect, towards those whom God has made the instruments of our conversion. True conversion changes men's thoughts of God's ministers, and causes men to love and honour those whom before they did disdain and scorn, persecute and hate.
Observe, 2. How full of joy and spiritual rejoicing this new convert was: he rejoiced. O the sweet fruit of faith in Christ! namely, peace with God, and joy in the Holy Ghost. Conversion always puts men into a joyful state: rejoicing, spiritual rejoicing, is the portion, the proper portion, and the peculiar portion, of converted persons: as it is sometimes their present portion. The gaoler, upon his believing in God, instantly rejoiced.
Observe here, 1. The willingness of the magistrates to release those innocent prisoners, the holy apostles, and what might be the probable occasion of it; namely,
1. The terror of the earthquake, which affected them with fear.
2. The conscienceness of their own guilt, for their injurious dealing with the apostles, scourging them, and casting them into prison, only for casting a devil out of a possessed servant. The consciences of the vilest and worst of men, at one time or other, do make furious reflections upon them for their cruelty and injustice towards the ministers and members of Jesus Christ.
Observe, 2. How the innocent apostles refused to be thus clandestinely released, and privately brought out of prison: they were unjustly laid in prison, and without any legal trial scourged and bound, contrary to the law and privileges of the Romans; and therefore the apostles insist upon their privilege, and would not be content with a sneaking clandestine dismission, after such a public ignominioous punishment, injuriously inflicted on them.
Learn thence, That it is lawful to plead our right by law against unjust magistrates; and though we must not return evil for evil, yet we may use all lawful means for redressing and removing our own grievances. Thus did St. Paul here; yet more for the gospel's sake than his own, lest the word of God should be despised with their persons.
Observe here, 1. What an awe God has over the consciences of men in general, and of magistrates in particular: they stoop to their prisoners, and beseech them to come out of prison, and to depart from the city. The same can God do for all his servants who have been disgracefully and despitefully used. He can make their enemies become their benefactors at his pleasure, and their very persecutors shall be their deliverers.
Observe, 2. That as desirable as liberty was, those honest hearts chose rather to go without it, than to accept it upon dishonourable terms, either to the blemishing of their innocency, or to the aspersion of the gospel. Had they privately released, they might have been public slandered for making their escape by compact with the gaoler, whom they had now made their own; therefore they stay in prison, till publicly discharged, and then they go forth: The magistrates besought them, and brought them forth.
Observe, 3. The holy use which these good men made of their restored liberty: they visit the brethern and comfort them, and confirm them and strengthen them in the faith of Christ.
Thus the chapter concludes with an account of what St. Paul did and suffered at Philippi, where he laid the foundation of that eminent church, to which he wrote his epistle, which bears the title of his Epistle to the Philippians; wherein he mentions many fellow-labourers that he had there, in the work of the gospel, Help those which laboured with me in the gospel, with Clement, and other my fellow-labourers, whose names are in the book of life. Php_4:3
It is a happy encouragement to the ministers of Christ, when they are all found helping, and not hindering one another; strengthening each other's hands, and not saddening one another's hearts; but, by united endeavours, in public preaching, and private inspection, promoting the grand design of the gospel, namely, to fear God, honour their superiors, love one another. So be it.
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Burkitt, William. "Commentary on Acts 16". Burkitt's Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the NT. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany