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Here begins the apostle's apology, or defensative plea, which he makes for himself before the people at Jerusalem, who, in the foregoing chapter, had so injuriously treated him: In which apologetical narration, we have these particulars observable.
First observe, With what lenity and mildness he bespeaks his cruel and pestilent persecutors, the people of the Jews; he accosts them with titles of respect and honour; Men, brethern, and fathers; not with opprobrious invectives; he doth not render evil for evil, or railing for reviling; he had not so learned Christ, he know how to suffer reproach for the gospel; but to persecute his persecutors with hard names and characters of reproach, was a piece of zeal which St. Paul and the holy sufferers of those times were little acquainted with.
Observe, 2. How the apostle insinuates himself into his auditors, that so he might gain their attention to what was spoken; Men, brethern, and fathers, hear ye, I pray, my defence which I make unto you. There is a lawful and pious insinuation for gaining the attention of our auditors, which the ministers of Christ may and ought to make use of; as the workman that would drive his nail, dips it in oil. We gain our auditors' attention by courteous and loving compellations: Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken.
Observe, 3. The apology or plea itself, in which he sets before them,
1. His extraction, I am a Jew, born in Tarsus.
2. His education, brought up at the feet of Gamaliel.
3. His profession, he was zealous towards God; that is, he was one of the sect among the Jews which were called Zealots, and was very strict and exact in the observation of the law,
Our apostle having related what he was before his conversion in the foregoing verses, in these and the following verses he declares the manner of his conversion, namely, That when he was travelling to Damascus to pursue his persecuting design, a great light shines round about him, upon which he fell to the ground, and heard these words articulately spoken to him: Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
Where observe, That Christ takes the opposition made against his gospel, and the persecution carried on against his members, as done unto himself; it being against his friends, his cause, and interest: as the honour done unto the Head redounds unto the members, so the wrongs and injuries offered to the members, are resented by the Head. Christ said not thus (when upon earth) unto his murderers, Why bind ye me? Why buffet ye me? Why scourge ye me, and crucify me? But now, when his members suffered, he cries out from heaven, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? Lord, thou art more tender of thy body mystical, than thou wast of thy body natural; more sensible of thy members' sufferings, than of thine own!
Observe next, How ready the apostle was to understand and know, and how desirous to execute and do, the will of God: Who art thou, Lord? and what wilt thou have me to do? We may sooner find fire without heat, than a true convert without operative grace.
Observe farther, Christ's answer to Paul's enquiry: Who art thou, Lord; says Paul; I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest, saith Christ.
Where note, That contemned, though not contemptible, name, Jesus of Nazareth, is owned by Christ from heaven.
Mark, he said not, I am Jesus the Son of God, I am Jesus the heir of the world, and Lord of all; but, I am Jesus of Nazareth. He glorieth in that reproach which his enemies cast upon him, Jesus of Nazareth; he owned his name from heaven, to teach his members not to be ashamed of it when reproached by it here on earth.
Observe lastly, The witnesses of Paul's conversion: The men that were with him, who saw the light but heard not the voice. It is very probable that he had a considerable number of officers with him, to bring both men and women that professed Christianity bound to Jerusalem. These saw the light shining, and heard a confused noise like thunder, but they heard not the articulate, much less the efficacious, voice of Christ, which spake so convincingly to his soul.
Lord, how many are there who come under the preaching of the gospel, that, with Paul's companions, hear only a confused noise, and empty sound! They do not hear the efficacious voice of Christ, speaking to their hearts with a strong hand, and so remain shut up under the power of unbelief.
Here observe, 1. That although Christ converted Paul himself, yet Ananias, as his minister, must instruct him: by Christ is grace infused, but by his ministers increased. Such an honour doth Christ put upon the ministers of the gospel, that he makes use of their endeavours, ordinarily, both for the protection and augmentation of grace in the hearts of his people.
O the necessity and usefulness of a standing ministry! It is a singular favour to have the mind of God made known to us by men like unto ourselves. And behold the honour which God puts upon his ministers, in using them as conduit-pipes for conveying the water of life unto us, which is not ordinarily communicated immediately from himself, nor immediately received by us!
Observe, 2. The title given by Ananias to Saul, Brother Saul. They were now brethern by faith and profession, owning the same God, united to the same Saviour, animated by the same Spirit, encouraged by the same promises, partakers of the same hope, and heirs of the same glory.
As the scripture speaks of a brotherhood betwixt Christ and believers, He is not ashamed to call them brethren; so it speaks of a brotherhood betwixt believers themselves, Love the brotherhood; that is, the whole fraternity and society of Christians, who are Sanguine Christi conglutinati; cemented by the blood of Christ, and united by the bond of love.
Observe, 3. Ananias acquaints Saul with the special favours which God intended for him: The God of our Fathers hath chosen thee, or taken thee by the hand, as the word signifies, that thou shouldst know his will, and see that just one. So he calls the blessed Jesus, to convince them of their sin in putting him to death; And be a witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard.
The work of the ministers of the gospel is now to witness for, hereafter to witness against: now they witness for God and his truth, and persuade sinners to believe it; hereafter they will witness against sinners for not believing and obeying the truth of God.
Lord, what a sad consideration is this, that the ministers of Christ must be brought in as witnesses against the souls of their neighbours and friends, and be forced to testify to their faces for their condemnation! Ah, Lord, with what an heart must a poor minister study when he considereth, that every sermon that he preaches must be brought in for a witness against many, if not most, of his hearers! Doubtless this sad reflection makes every faithful minister of Christ study hard, pray hard, entreat hard, be earnest and instant in season and out of season, that they may not be the condemners of their people's souls.
Observe, 4. The advice which Ananias gives to this new convert, to take upon him the badge of Christianity, to wit, Baptism: Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins.
Here note, That sacraments are not empty insignificant signs; but God, by his grace and blessing, renders his own ordinances effectual for these great ends for which his wisdom has appointed them: Be baptized, and wash away thy sins. As water cleanseth the body, so the blood of Christ, signified by water, washes away the guilt of the soul. Where true faith is, together with the profession of it by baptism, there is salvation promised, He that believeth, and is baptized, shall be saved. Mark 16:16
St. Paul, having thus declared to the Jews his wonderful manner of conversion, proceeds next to acquaint them how desirous he was to have preached to the Jews rather than to the Gentiles, if the will of God had seen fit: but it proved otherwise; for, as he was praying in the temple, he had a vision, in which he was commanded to hasten out of the city, because his former zeal in opposing the gospel would hinder his present preaching of it from being successful. Against this he humbly argued, that his former zeal against Christianity might he hoped, be an argument to persuade the Jews, his countrymen, to embrace Christianity. But this argument did not prevail for his staying at Jerusalem; but he was commanded to depart from thence, to preach the gospel to the despised Gentiles, who had not such strong expectations against him, but would with more readiness embrace his doctrine.
Learn hence, 1. That carnal reasonings are very apt to arise in the hearts of God's own servants, and cause them to object something against their obedience to the divine commands. Here the apostle objects, that according to his reason he saw greater probability of doing good by his ministry among the Jews than he could hope for among the Gentiles, who would be afraid of him, as Ananias was; but Christ repeats his command, Depart, and get thee hence, for I will send thee to the Gentiles. And now the apostle doth no longer dispute, but dispatch.
This teaches us, 2. To lay by all our carnal reasonings and vain pretences, when once the call and command of God is clear, and no longer cavil, but comply; no longer object, but instantly obey. We may safely follow God blindfold, when once we have assurance that he goes before us, and obey every command without hesitation or limitation.
Observe here, 1. With what patience the Jews heard the apostle's discourse until he made mention to preach to them. Upon which they brake forth into fury and passion, and expressed their fury by throwing dust into the air, and casting off their clothes, as if they would presently stone him, whom they looked upon as the worst of villains, and unworthy to live: where we may remark at once both what a vile opinion the Jews had of the Gentiles, whom they called and accounted dogs, and what an high esteem they had of themselves, and a proud conceit of their own deservings, as if the favours of heaven belonged to none but themselves, who yet trampled upon them, when they were tendered to them.
Observe, 2. What a vile esteem these wicked Jews had of the holy and innocent apostle, who desired above all things to preach the glad tidings of the gospel to them, and longed most affectionately for the conversion and salvation of them. They account him the greatest villain upon earth, and unworthy to live upon it; but the good man had learnt (and let all the faithful ministers of Christ learn it after him) to take pleasure in reproaches, in persecutions, in necessities and distresses, for Christ's sake. Away with such a fellow from the earth, it is not meet that he should live.
Observe, 3. The pious prudence and innocent policy which the apostle uses for his own preservation: when they were about to bind him to a post, in order to the scourging of him, the apostle declares himself a free denizen of Rome, by being born in one of the cities which the Roman emperor had made free; accordingly St. Paul pleads for himself the privilege of a Roman citizen, who neither ought to be bound or beaten. Though we may not render evil for evil, yet we may right ourselves by all lawful means. Christ allows as much of the serpent as the dove in his servants, provided the subtilty of the one doth not destroy the simplicity of the other. The head of the serpent and the heart of the dove do best together; for as policy without piety is too subtle to be good, so piety without policy is too simple to be safe.
Observe, 4. How the chief captain, fearing that he had done more than he could answer, because it was death for any one in authority to violate the Roman privileges; therefore more out of fear than love, or more out of love to himself than the apostle, he looses St. Paul's bonds.
Thence note, That when at any time the persecutors of the saints do desist from their bloody purposes, it is not out of love to them, but love to themselves.
Observe, lastly, The saints' deliverances from affliction and persecution, whilst on this side heaven, are not total or final, but momentary and partial. The apostle was delivered from his chains, not from his confinement; though unbound, not set at liberty. Next day we find him before the great council, or Sanhedrin, and fresh bonds and afflictions abide him.
Little rest is to be expected by the members, and less rest by the faithful ministers, of Jesus Christ in this world: blessed be God, for the believing hopes of an eternal rest! where the fury of the persecutor, the injuries of the oppressor, shall cease for ever; where no sin shall affect us, no sorrow afflict us, no danger affright us; but we shall be perfectly like unto God, as well in purity an immortality.
In the mean time, may we, the ministers of God who are set for the defence of the gospel, bear the burden and heat of the day with patience and courage, resolution and constancy; may we gird up the loins of our minds, not accounting either our labours or our lives dear unto us, so that we finish our course with joy, and fulfil the ministry which we have received of the Lord, glorying in our reproaches for well-doing; yea, though we be accounted the filth of the world, and the offscouring of all things: for when the chief shepherd shall appear, we shall receive a crown of glory which fadeth not away.
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Burkitt, William. "Commentary on Acts 22". Burkitt's Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the NT. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday after Epiphany