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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Acts 21

 

 

Verses 1-14

Chapter81

Prayer

Almighty God, do thou show light unto them that are groping in darkness. If any know not which way to turn, send thou the beam of light which will show the way thou thyself hast worked out. If any are cold of heart, and are filled only with the wonder of ignorance, do thou send the ardent heat from on high that shall warm the cold life and fill it with the surprise of new revelations. Thou art a continual surprise; we cannot find thee out unto perfection, saying, This is the beginning and this is the end. God is great, and we know him not. No man can see God and live. There is no searching of thine understanding. Thy way is infinite, and the clouds are the dust of thy feet. The light is thy robe, and thou dost leave our imagination behind thee, unable to follow in the wondrous pursuit. Yet dost thou tarry for us; thou dost wait until our weakness can overtake thee, and then in long speech of love thou dost reveal thy purpose to us, and show that the darkness is thine as well as the light; that thou didst make the rough hills as well as the smooth plains. Then thou dost pass on, and we lose thee, and again dost thou return and wait for us. Thus are we brought on our way—stopping, wondering, praying with great agony and heart-fear, and then praising thee with loud rapture and cloudless hope. This is thy way with us; the meaning is love. We would see thee more clearly; but this is our impatience, not our Wisdom of Solomon , that thus speaks. So we will have no way of our own; we will not venture to take counsel as upon equal terms with God; we will say alway, "The will of the Lord be done." This we have learned of Jesus Christ, thy Son; out of him we cannot learn this greatest lesson; it is the meaning of his Cross; it is the expression of his priesthood; it is the mystery of his sacrifice. At the Cross we learn this lesson; whilst the Victim dies we hear its music and we learn its meaning. Lord, evermore teach us to speak those words with our hearts. Then we shall have no pain, no loss, no fear; we shall be lifted above the clouds, and stand in the eternal brightness. We would be hidden in the sanctuary of thy Son; our Saviour; Rock of Ages, cleft for men. We would stand in the cleft of that Rock until all danger be over-past, and whilst we are there we shall hear the still small voice, the subdued eternity, the condescending Infinite, the whisper of the thunder of God. Lord, show us how little we are, and how great; how abject, how august. Teach us that in ourselves we have lost all things; that in Christ we have found more than we have lost—yea, unsearchable riches, wealth upon wealth, beyond all counting, treasures infinite. Wherein we have complained of thy way, take it as the ungrateful reproach of our ignorance. Thou knowest how shut in we are by yesterday and to-morrow—two high stone walls that make a prison for our little life. Thou knowest that we cannot tell the meaning of our own words; have pity upon us, and forgive the iniquity of our prayers. The Lord accept us in the Beloved; the Lord interpret us at the Cross; the Lord answer our necessity and not our language; the Lord read the pain of our heart and the cry of our inmost soul, and listen not to the words which cannot tell the tale they mean to relate. Thou knowest us altogether: our beginning; our course; our advantages and disadvantages; our physical peculiarities; our social surroundings; the circumstances over which we have no control; the battles fought in secret; the prayers we dare not speak. Blessed be thy name, thou wilt judge with righteous judgment; thou dost not take man"s view of our life, but thine own. Thou knowest us altogether, in word and thought and innermost motive. Judge us of thy great mercy; pity us in the Cross of thy Song of Solomon , Christ Jesus. Thou knowest what we most need just now: some are here in great fear, and others in great hope of joy; some are just returned from the open grave, and others are just returned from the wedding altar; some are in the midst of perilous journeys and adventures; others are in darkness and in doubt, whose life is groping for results, rather than moving straight towards them; some want to turn, and feel as if they could not; some would pray, but their lips cannot speak; some are purposing goodness, and some evil. But thou understandest every one of us; thou canst come to each as if an only child. Song of Solomon , in Christ Jesus, Son of God, Lamb of God, bleeding Sacrifice, we put ourselves into thy hands and say, "The will of the Lord be done." Amen.

Acts 21:1-14

1. And when it came to pass that we were parted [same word in Luke 22:41] from them, and had set sail [better, "had put to sea again after having torn ourselves away from them"], we came with a straight course unto Cos, and the next day unto Rhodes, and from thence unto Patara:

2. And having found a ship crossing over unto Phoenicia, we went abroad, and set sail ["put to sea"].

3. And when we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left hand, we sailed unto Syria, and landed at Tyre [the whole district from Cilicia to Egypt was called Syria. On Tyre, cf. Joshua 19:29; Ezekiel 26 and Ezekiel 27; Isaiah 23Hiram was Solomon"s ally, and Ethbaal, father of Jezebel, is called by Josephus, king of Tyre. After its conquest by Alexander, Tyre was made a free city by the Romans , and was still a large commercial centre when visited by Paul, and perhaps also by Christ. Tyre Isaiah 30 miles N. W. from Nazareth]: for there the ship was to unlade her burden.

4. And having found the disciples [ Acts 11:19; Acts 15:3. Note that the little church in the great city had to be sought out], we tarried there seven days: and these said to Paul through the Spirit [ Acts 20:22], that he should not set foot in Jerusalem.

5. And when it came to pass that we had accomplished the days, we departed and went on our journey; and they all, with wives and children [this little fellowship of disciples expressly associated wives and even children with the men in church action], brought us on our way, till we were out of the city: and kneeling down on the beach, we prayed, and bade each other farewell [same word as "parted" in Acts 21:1];

6. And we went on board the ship, but they returned home again.

7. And when we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais [Accho of Judges 1:31; our Acre. An older city than Tyre and Csarea, it has outlived them both]; and we saluted the brethren, and abode with them one day.

8. And on the morrow we departed, and came unto Csarea [see Acts 8:40]: and entering into the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven [Meyer, following Tisch. Born, puts the comma after " Philippians ," and takes the meaning to be that Paul"s company entered into Philip"s house, and even went to Csarea because "he (Philip) was the Evangelist of the seven," i.e, "it was not his former position as overseer of the poor, but his present position as evangelist that made him so important to the travellers"], we abode with him.

9. Now this man had four daughters, virgins [G, "virgin (or, unmarried) daughters"], which did prophesy ["preach"; only since the seventeenth century has the English word "prophesy" been limited to the sense of prediction. R. V. ought not to have retained it in this, its obsolete, sense].

10. And as we tarried there many days, there came down from Juda a certain prophet, named Agabus [probably the same mentioned in Acts 11:28].

11. And coming to us, and taking Paul"s girdle, he bound his own feet and hands [cf. Jeremiah 13:5, and John 21:18], and said, Thus saith the Holy Ghost, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle [the company may have laid aside their girdles, one of which Agabus "took"], and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.

12. And when we heard these things, both we and they of that place besought him not to go up to Jerusalem.

13. Then Paul answered, What do ye, weeping and breaking [G, "What are you doing that you commence weeping and (so) are breaking the heart of me?" [my heart? for I am ["I" emphatic, i.e, "my heart is"] ready, not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus. [The unselfish grief of his friends touched Paul after he had conquered his own natural feelings; but loyalty to the Lord Jesus overrules all.]

14. And when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying; The will of the Lord be done.

The Quiet Interval

There are some endings which seem to be final. Such an ending we found in the last words of the interview between the Apostle Paul and the elders of the Church of Ephesus. It seemed as if after that ending there could be no resumption. Anything that could be said after such a communion of heart with heart that was not bathed with tears would be of the nature of an anticlimax. After such agony there is only one natural and gracious possibility, and that is—silence. Silence is as eloquent as speech; in its right place it is even more eloquent. But after the interview at Miletus with the elders of the Church of Ephesus nothing was possible but—silence. The night had come; the agony could not be increased; the senses reeled; all life seemed to be a mocking dream; whether things will ever come into natural course and shape again gracious time will reveal. Blessed silence! blessed time! We so often ignore those teachers, and go out in quest of noisy speakers. What can teach like time, or heal, or lift up again, or take away the very burden which at first it seems to impose? If we grow towards old age, it is only that we may grow towards youthhood again: old age being the gate that opens upon Christian immortality. Have periods of silence in your life; remit many of the controversies and difficulties to the adjustment and healing of silent, gracious, patient time. At the end of the days you will see the meaning of it all; and you, who entered into the first gate wearily, saying you could carry no more burdens and speak no more words, will pass through the second gate strong to carry, eloquent to speak, heroic to dare. But let solid, even slow, impartial time have its own way. You will only spoil its purpose by your impatience. You cannot hasten the old charioteer; he drives at a certain pace, and he will not be mocked or importuned into any increase of speed. Thank God for breaks that give us release from old cares and heavy burdens, and give us opportunity of gathering ourselves together again into still better condition and still augmented strength. Let Paul alone for a time; let him have his sail out. Thank God he has gone upon the water, that will do him good. Bless God for the alternative of the water for the land, of the land for the water; of the day for the night, and the night for the day. By these alternatives we are rested and quieted and made young again. Let us be glad that he will spend all the day on the water, and all the night, and to the lullaby of its plash may yield himself to sleep. After such communion he needs sleep; only such sleep as man can realise—not animal sleep only, but that deeper, more mysterious, and gracious sleep into which the Lord alone can throw Prayer of Manasseh , and out of which he comes with poignant wishes, and new impulses and new relationships, which make him forget yesterday"s burden and yesterday"s travail. Let him alone; he has passed through a hot fever; give him time.

In the third verse we read: "We landed at Tyre: for there the ship was to unlade her burden." Poor ship! she must have rest, too, in a way. We must have landing places, and unlading times, and standing-still periods in life. Whilst the ship stands still Paul is on the alert. Business arrangements are turned into spiritual opportunities. The moment the ship stopped Paul became his old apostolic self again. "Whilst you stop," said Hebrews , "I must be up and doing. What is this place? Who lives here? What is the religious condition of the locality?" How the war-horse stirs in him! Again and again we have thought, "He is now done, and we shall hear no more of him," when suddenly he sprang up again from the dust and was red with holy fire, palpitating with added life, quivering with holy excitement. The sail has done him good. He has opened his eyes and seen land, and now he turns a necessity of the ship into an opportunity for preaching the Gospel, or making Christian aggression. Is there not a lesson here for us—the sailors of today? The place of business is closed—why not inquire for an opportunity of doing religious good? Holiday to-morrow—why not have a feast for the poor, and the halt, and the blind? A man has lost his train—why not try to save his soul? A crisis has occurred in the business—why not make it an opportunity for enlarging prayer and bringing up intercession to its agonizing and prevailing tone? The stop of one course should be the beginning of another. He never lacks opportunity who looks for it.

What was done at Tyre? We read, "And finding disciples." That is not right reading; stumbling over those words; we might imagine that the disciples were found haphazard, were come upon quite casually and unexpectedly. The real reading Isaiah , "And seeking out disciples." Why not seek out beautiful scenery? Why not discover the features of the new geography? Because Paul"s promised and unchangeable purpose was to advance the kingdom of Christ. There was no scenery to Paul; there was no geography; there was nothing but lost humanity and the redeeming Cross of Christ. So may men be lifted above the very system of worlds in which they live, and count that system nothing except in its relation to the men who inhabit it, and to the opportunities it may afford for their spiritual redemption and education. Men who have not this Divine purpose in their hearts are overcome by their circumstances; a fine mountainous country would detain them a week longer on the journey; a new river would send them into ecstasies; a new specimen in botany would fill them with rapture. To Paul there was nothing in the world but two things: lost man and redeeming Christ; and he counted all things but loss that he might serve the Christ who had saved him. Paul and his company sought out the disciples—not an easy thing then and there; not always an easy thing here and now. Some of you would blush if you had to ask if there were any Christians in your neighbourhood. You could not ask the question. You wait for them to turn up, but you do not give them any encouragement to disclose themselves. You, who could ask if there were artists in the neighbourhood—authors, poets, great men of business, dare not ask if there were any praying people in the locality; dare not ask if any wooden shed has been put up by the hedge side, or at the street corner, or in the back places of the town in which you could meet others for prayer. Paul never asked any other questions; what wonder that he found disciples when he sought for them? "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." The man sitting next you at this moment would thank God if he could have an opportunity to speak concerning spiritual things. If Paul were here now, he would remain here all day; having delivered his sermon, he would ask the people to speak to him. He would make a business of it; nothing would turn him aside. Now and again he did disclose the one purpose of his life, and it was always in this tone: "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of Jesus Christ." He was never weary of his work, though often weary in it.

Leaving Tyre, they "came to Ptolemais, and saluted the brethren, and abode with them one day." Make the most of religious opportunities. A whole day together well spent may be more than a week together with neglected opportunities and uncultivated spaces. What a day it was! Only one; but so crowded, so many questions to ask. What eager listening! "The Apostle will be gone tomorrow; now is our opportunity; let him speak and pray and bless and comfort." That is the case always; we have never more than one day together with any certainty; we should look upon every opportunity as the last: when the man who prays for us says "Amen," we should feel as if the last knock had been delivered on heaven"s door by his trembling and pious hand; and thus we would give accent to every occasion, immediate and poignant meaning to things which might otherwise be regarded as amongst the etceteras of life, crowded into some indicative term, rather than made the special and penetrating emphasis of life. Could we have Paul with us one day! We would appoint the meeting to take place very early in the morning, and some of us, looking at the dial, would say, "There are still five minutes to run before the day is quite out;" some of us would, with a kind of pardonable stealthiness, almost wish as if we could put the finger back on the dial-plate. But we allow our opportunities to pass; when the man is gone, then we begin to whine about his greatness, and the opportunities we had of praying with him in his mighty intercession. So the hearts of men are broken every day. We cannot make up anything to the absent Apostle; he was in the town; he spent a year there, or two, or five; we never knew him till the closing weeks of his ministry; the man that might have prayed lo heaven"s shaking was unknown until the week before he left the village. Then the blank-eyed villagers whined about him, and said what they would have done had they known who had been amongst them. It is a whining lie! One day with the Apostle Paul!—a man who never wasted a word; a man whose every look was a picture, every tone a Revelation , every touch a benediction. He is still here; his great epistles are with us; his written soul lies in our houses neglected. Let us not add to our lies by whining over his personal absence!

"And the next day—" Oh that there should be any next day to festivals of the soul! Mocking word! "Next" day—why, that day can have no "next." To speak of it as "next" day seems to drag it down to an equality with vulgar time; speak of it as some other day, a million centuries off. Yet not Song of Solomon , because other people must have the festival as well as we. Paul is advancing in his course and scattering blessings as he goes. "The next day we that were of Paul"s company departed, and came unto Cæsarea: and we entered into the house of Philip the evangelist, which was one of the seven; and abode with him." If we had our choice of any one day which we might spend with the Apostle Paul, I think some of us would choose this particular day. What a meeting that was! We have to meet our old selves sometimes. Do not make any mystery of the bodily resurrection until you have settled the mystery of those personal social resurrections which are taking place every day in the week. "One of the seven." So was Stephen. Paul "entered into the house of Philip." Why, this is the young man whose name was Saul, at whose feet the men who stoned Stephen laid down their clothes! What a meeting was that; what silence; what suppressed tears; what crowded memories; what self-lacerations! Philip might not have been there at all but for the very man who was now visiting him; it was owing to the persecution that Philip fled away. Day by day we have seen in our reading how Paul came upon the work of Philippians , in this town and in that town, and now he is Philip"s guest. May our meetings with old enemies be as sweet and gracious! You cannot escape from your old self. Tomorrow you will meet a man upon whose face your whole life will be written, and you will read it in every line. The day after, as you are lifting the wine to your lips, you will see a man the sight of whom will make you set it down again, and wish that the earth would open and let you through into darkness. Tomorrow you will see a signature every stroke of which will be like a sword-stroke on your heart. Tomorrow you will see a crushed rose-leaf, a faded photograph, a sere and yellow book which will bring up all your life. Sometimes our reminiscences are of the most joyful kind, and we bury twenty years in one grip of the hand. Sometimes those reminiscences are of the other sort, and a look doubles our age. The solemn fact to remember is that we meet men again. Lite is not closed with today. Our words have gone out from us, rolling over the waves of the wind, but we shall hear them again. Let us take care how we live. "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." If you have lost money, depend upon it it belonged to some other man. If you have suffered pain, God has weighed the measure of it in his golden scales, and you have had not one pang too many. "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." There is comfort in this as well as sadness. If men have spoken ill of me, depend upon it I have spoken ill of them first in some way, and in some mysterious economy God is visiting upon me my own iniquities. Do not let me stand up as the righteous and perfect man who never did anything, but who is suffering unjustly. "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" in some way at some time. The sovereign you lost was not your own; you cannot trace its owner, you cannot tell why you, poor innocent creature, should suffer so. But it is quite right. As I have done unto others, so hath God requited me. The law is equally true on the other side. If you do things good, then things good you will reap. Make a feast for those who cannot make a feast for themselves, and you shall have bread at the last; make other lives glad, and you shall have light at eventide. It is a solemn economy under which we live. If we look at the special aspect only, we tremble and complain, but if we look at the other aspect as well, we are constrained to say "The ways of the Lord are equal."

Now Paul will be besought not to go forward; his own company will say, "Perhaps you had better not." In this case Paul said nothing to the four daughters of Philippians , nothing to the prophet Agabus. But in the12th verse we read, "And when we heard these things, both we—" That was the sting. When a man"s nearest comrades fail him, when the people he brought with him to cheer his way stand in front of him and say, "Turn back," then, poor soul, what can he do but break right down? So did Paul. When they that were of his company besought him not to go up to Jerusalem, Paul was forced into speech, and answering, said, "What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus." There the Roman spoke; there the Christian Roman spoke. We are told that for a Roman to fear danger was treason, but for a Lacedæmonian to hesitate was treason. Here is a man in whose tone you can find no hesitancy. Having consecrated the life first, all the details of suffering which led up to the last oblation were mere trifles. He himself—body, soul, spirit—was on the altar; to dwell, therefore, upon the items of martyrdom was to trifle with the sublimity of the occasion. We have given nothing whilst anything has been withheld; but having given ourselves, all other gifts are nothing.

Where is the Apostle Paul today? Where the man that speaks thus, and so? Could he live now? Would he have any following now? Would he not now be called fanatic, emotionalist, enthusiast? Would common-sensed and real-hearted men respect him now? Would not there be teachers of what is falsely called prudence who would ask him to stop and think and weigh well his course? Again and again would I teach, as for these several years I have endeavoured to teach, that there are two prudences—the little prudence, that would gain its life and therefore loses it; the great prudence, that loses its life and in the losing finds it. The little prudence is the more popular; you can get at it more easily, may stroke its little sleek head more comfortably; it lies quiet under your pat, and you can make something of it. The great prudence, the sublime dash, the sacred fury will not accept any patronage; lives beyond the cloudy region of compliment and congratulation, and goes on to Golgotha, to Olivet, to heaven.


Verses 15-40

Chapter82

Prayer

Almighty God, thou hast called us to thyself in Christ Jesus thy Son. We belong to thee; thou hast made us, and not we ourselves; we are the work of thine hands; we represent thine own wonderful thought. Thou didst make man in thine own image and likeness, and to that great image thou art drawing him every day by gracious providence, by manifold service, by heavenly inspiration. Thou hast charged us with a great responsibility; thou hast made us stewards; thou hast put us in trust of great things, and from us thou dost expect great replies. Thou dost search our hearts as with a lighted candle; thou dost try our motives, and there is no escape from the burning of thy judgment. Help us to know where our resources are, and to avail ourselves of their plentifulness, so that we may never know the pain of poverty, but may always know the security of the unsearchable riches of Christ. Thou hast enabled us to say, under difficult circumstances, "The will of the Lord be done." This is thy miracle in our hearts. Thou hast broken down our will and put in its place thine own. It is well; it is best; it is right. Thy will be done on earth, as it is done in heaven; not our will, but thine be done. Thy will is full of wisdom and goodness; it is founded upon thy righteousness and charged with all the wisdom of omniscience. We are of yesterday, and know nothing, so how can we trust our own wisdom or will? Look upon us as little children; take hold of our hands; lead us on every day, and comfort us with such whispered love and such surprises of grace as shall fit our necessity and be the healing of our agony. Oh the pain—the bliss of living! Surely this is sweet torment! Thou dost lift us up, and we cast ourselves down; thou dost show us a great light, but we must climb up to it through thick clouds; all thy way is a wonder; thy purpose is a hidden love. We cannot walk round it, or lay a line upon it, or put it into words, and carry it like a discovery of our own. Thou dost forbid our words and accept only the worship of our silence in the higher moods and most marvellous display of power. Thou wilt not let us boast. Sometimes we would open our mouth in vanity, but then dost thou take our word away, and we are as dumb things before thee. This is the Lord"s rebuke, often sore, always good. Thou dost call us to read more deeply the inner meanings of things. Thou dost show us the kingdom through the parable. Thou wilt not let us rest finally anywhere. Thou hast only stopping-places where we may sit down awhile, and then soon be up again to pursue life"s unwinding and immeasurable road. Help us to rest in the Lord and wait patiently for him. May our heart have no desire but his will. Then shall it be granted in many answers—yea, in redundance of love, in miracles of grace. Thou art showing us the end upon the earth that we may know the beginning of better things in heaven. Thou dost dig the grave quite closely to our houses, lest we be fascinated by the garden and forget the tomb. One dieth in his full strength, being wholly at ease and quiet; another dieth in the bitterness of his soul, and never eateth with pleasure. We cannot tell how thou wilt finish our lesson here; we cannot count the number of the pages and say "This is the end." Thou dost break off our speech in the middle of a sentence, and when we are about to speak the word that would reveal everything, thou dost fasten our lips as with a seal. This is thy way; it is in the clouds; it is on the deep waters; it is in the wilderness; we cannot follow it, and when mockers ask us to explain, we can but fall to pray. We put one another into thy kind hands, thou Disposer of the lot. Thou knowest what each most needs, what some dare not ask for, and what all require; so what can we say to thee but "The will of the Lord be done"? We have prayers with which we could torment thee, desires we could urge upon thy throne, but we should be before thee like talking fools and men that know not the weight of their own words. So we will only pray to be taught to pray. We will not speak our own prayers, but the prayer of thy Song of Solomon , our Priest. "Not my will, but thine be done." On another day, unbeclouded and infinite in light, thou wilt show the answer to the riddle; thou wilt give the solution to the problem; thou wilt explain the mystery. We want that day to be now, but thou wilt not allow our impatience to speak; we will wait for it. This is the triumph of thine own faith wrought in our souls. Pity us as we pity blind men. Have compassion upon us as we have compassion upon dying children who cannot tell where the pain is. The Lord look upon us through his own tears, and see in us, not sinners, but his own image and likeness, spoiled by us, but redeemed and reclaimed by the mystery of the Cross. Comfort us day by day; deliver us from the demon of despair; give us hope again—sweet hope, singing hope, bright hope. May there come upon our way such cloudless light as shall make us dance before the Lord for very joy of heart. Make the house a home; the home a church; the church the lower heaven. As for those who are not with us, we would they were; and this will of ours was first thine. But Jesus failed; when he would have gathered the cities as a hen gather-eth a brood under her wings, they would not; and he cried over them a great rain of tears. It is so with us. The prodigal will not come to the feast; the far-away wanderer will wander farther; we see the vacant place, and it makes havoc in our heart. As for those who are dying—going up like dew exhaling in the sun—the Lord bless us, for he has blessed them, and when we weep, may it be for ourselves. The Lord be our Father, Mother, Nurse; the Lord wait upon us like a servant; the Lord keep us as in a rock; the Lord look upon us as a sun; the Lord defend us like a shield. Amen.

Acts 21:15-40

15. And after these days we took up our baggage [G, "packed up." Got our things ready, or, equipped ourselves for the visit to Jerusalem at the feast. The marginal reading of the R. V. is the correct one], and went up to Jerusalem.

16. And there went with us also certain of the disciples from Csarea, bringing with them one Mnason [perhaps Greek form of Manasseh] of Cyprus, a Cypriote Jew or proselyte who had his home at Jerusalem, as had also Barnabas and his sister Mary, mother of John Mark , who were also Cypriotes, an early disciple, with whom we should lodge [arrangements for lodging were usually made beforehand on these visits to the feasts].

17. And when we were come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly.

18. And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present.

19. And when we had saluted them, he rehearsed one by one the things which God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry.

20. And they, when they heard it, glorified God; and they said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands [G, "myriads," a word used indefinitely of large numbers] there are among the Jews of them which have believed; and [here we come again upon one of the greatest difficulties of early church life] they are all zealous for the law.

21. [ Galatians 1:14]: and they have been informed ["instructed" as in Luke 1:4] concerning thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs.

22. What is it therefore [G, What then is there? i.e, How lies the case]? they will certainly hear that thou art come.

23. Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men with a vow on them [ Luke 18:18. This vow differed from that of Aquila, being the regular vow of a Nazarite of days, Numbers 6:1-21. The usual time was thirty days, at the end of which the Nazarite shaved off and turned the "hair of his separation," offering the prescribed sacrifices in the temple. Wealthy and pious friends often undertook this expense for poor Nazarites]; these take and purify [same word as in LXX. Numbers 6:3, Numbers 6:8; not therefore purify, but "become with them a Nazarite," or, be consecrated with them: share with them their vow] thyself with them, and be at charges for them,

24. That they may shave their heads: and all shall know that there is no truth in the things whereof they have been informed [instructed] concerning thee; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, keeping the law.

25. But as touching the Gentiles which have believed [ Numbers 15:5-31], we wrote [B, D, 40 , and many vss. have "sent." which is preferable. "Wrote" is supplied from Numbers 15:20, and erroneously retained by R. V.] giving judgment [G, "sent after we had judged that." It is to be borne in mind that the "sent" refers to the Gentile brethren of Syria and Cilicia who had requested these elders of Jerusalem to resolve questions raised abroad by unauthorised critics from Jerusalem] that they should keep themselves from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what is strangled, and from fornication.

26. Then Paul took the men, and the next day ["and" should follow "them"] purifying himself with them [G, "having consecrated," i.e, having entered into participation of their Nazarite state] went into the temple, declaring [lit. "giving common notice of"] the [prospective] fulfilment of the days of purification, until [duration of the notice] the offering was offered for every one of them.

27. And when the seven days [the usual notice] were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, when they saw him in the temple, stirred up all the multitude, and laid hands on him [so the precaution taken to satisfy the prejudices of weak brethren brought upon Paul the deadly enemies of the faith], crying out, Men of Israel, help:

28. This is the man that teacheth all men everywhere against the people, and the law, and this place: and moreover he brought Greeks also into the temple, and hath defiled this holy place.

29. For they had [G, "there were who had"] before seen [cf. the "saw" of Numbers 15:27] with him in the city [cf. "in the temple" of Numbers 15:27, and "into the temple" of Numbers 15:28] Trophimus the Ephesian, whom they supposed [and then asserted as a fact, and then multiplied into the "Greeks" of Numbers 15:28] that Paul had brought into the temple.

30. And all the city was moved, and the people ran together: and they laid hold of Paul, and dragged him out of the temple: and straightway the doors were shut [that the temple might not be defiled with Paul"s blood],

31. And as they were seeking to [trying to (by beating)] kill him, tidings came [to the castle of Antonia, bordering on the N. W. side of the temple] up to the chief captain of the band ["tribune of the cohort"], that all Jerusalem was in confusion.

32. And forthwith he took soldiers and centurions, and ran down upon them, and they, when they saw the chief captain and the soldiers, left off beating Paul.

33. Then the chief captain came near, and laid hold on him, and commanded him to be bound with two chains [measure necessary for immediate security of Paul and appeasement of the multitude]; and inquired who he was, and what he had done.

34. And some shouted [word only used besides in reference to Christ, Luke 23:21, and Herod, ch. Luke 12:22] one thing, some another, among the crowd: and when he could not know the certainty for the uproar, he commanded him to be brought into the castle.

35. And when he came upon the stairs, so it was, that he was borne of the soldiers for the violence of the crowd:

36. For the multitude of the people followed after crying out, Away with him [same word Luke 23:18].

37. And as Paul was about to be brought into the castle, he saith [in Greek] unto the chief captain, May I say something unto thee? And he said, Dost thou know Greek?

38. Art thou not then [G, "Not then thou art," i.e, Thou art not. Paul"s Greek disabused the tribune of the idea that he was] the Egyptian, which before these days stirred up to sedition and led out into the wilderness the four thousand men of the Assassins ["banditti," lit. daggermen. This "Mahdi" of Nero"s reign led his followers to the Mount of Olives, where they were to have seen the walls of Jerusalem fall down. He was defeated by Felix, the worthless procurator in whose lime barditti, "the Assassins," became a recognized profession]?

39. But Paul said, I am a Jew, of Tarsus, in Cilicia [a Greek colony], a citizen of no mean city; and I beseech thee give me leave to speak unto the people.

40. And when he had given him leave, Paul, standing on the stairs, beckoned with the hand unto the people; and when there was made a great silence, he spake unto them in the Hebrew [the Syro-Chaldaic dialect, 1 , 19] language, saying.

The Beginning of the End

Very tender are these words, "an old disciple," which you find in the16th verse. What is the meaning of the expression? Had Mnason been a long time in the Church, or was he an old man who, late in life, had embraced the Christian faith? Let us take it that he had been a believer for a long time. You do not find such men giving up the faith. It is very seldom that an old Christian takes off his Christianity, lays if down like an outworn garment and says, "That is of no further use." I have never known any such case. Christianity grows in its hold upon the human heart as the years run away. It is dearer to the old disciple than it can be to the young scholar; he has seen more of it, enjoyed its sweetness more, felt the need of it more, seen its power to sustain and help all human life more. Very seldom—I could use a more emphatic term—does the old believer turn away from the Cross and say he has believed a lie. That circumstance ought to have its weight as a matter of evidence. Whatever will bear well the wear and tear of human life ought to be spoken of respectfully. You speak well of a wall that stands against all weathers year after year—a wall which the wind has not blown down, which the floods have not washed away. Laying your hand upon it with somewhat of affection, you say, "This is the right sort of building; this is the kind of building they used to put up in olden times." Surely you might say as much about the Christian faith, which never fails; always most when we need it most, whispering when we cannot bear loud speaking; speaking loudly when our attention has wandered far; finding us water in the wilderness and food in stony places. We ought to be able to speak as affectionately about that as about a wall that has stood through wind and rain, and laying our hand upon it, we should say with tender affection, "This is the thought that has comforted me night and day—the eternal, the unchangeable thought—the friend that sticketh closer than a brother." Decency ought to have some claim upon civilized men.

Take it that he was an old man when he embraced the Christian faith. Then there is hope for some who have not yet laid hold upon it. "How long halt ye between two opinions?" If you were enemies, we could deal with you as such; but you are not enemies; you hover, merely falter; you cannot leave us, you look in again. What is the meaning of that? Let the heart answer. The enemy will whisper to you, "It is too late now; you are too old; keep away." But all that is sweetest in human history and in the experience of living Christians would say, "On the contrary; make the most of your time; the day is far spent, the door is still open, go in now." Here is a faith that will condescend to the weakest, accept no patronage from the strongest, tarry for the old cripple that wants to catch the king"s chariot. Now is the day of salvation!

When Paul and his friends went up to Jerusalem "the brethren received them gladly." I am not sure about that; they never have been received gladly up to this moment. The gladness admitted of being stated in one half-line—"the brethren received us gladly." A kind of sentence put in to help a sentence; a few words added to help the rhythm of the expression; a scattering of syllables to help the scanning of the blank verse—I have no particular faith in that gladness. More would have been said about it; Paul never did content himself with half a line when he was recognizing the kindness of his friends. Read this letter to the Philippians , and tell me if in one half-line he dismisses all the Philippian love. They never liked Paul at Jerusalem. He was too big for any one city; he did not go up to Jerusalem in the sense of approaching some majestic place that common people might hardly touch; he descended upon it, and even the bishop and elders did not understand his humble haughtiness.

Paul saluted James and all the elders, and "declared particularly what things God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry. And when they heard it they glorified the Lord." I feel uncertain about that. There is a piety that disgusts me. Presently we shall know the meaning of their glorification of God. They might have said something to Paul; that battered old warrior was worthy of having a kiss on the right cheek and on the left cheek and on the scarred forehead. There is a way of turning from a man that you may pray, when you ought first to have thrown your arms around him, and said, "God bless thee, old warrior! grand old fighter, soldier of the Cross; come, let us kneel together and together pray." Beware of cold piety, of ceremonial prayer, of turning the happiest incidents of life into state occasions, whereupon you must address the Lord as if he were an ivory deity. A little more humanity at Jerusalem would have done no harm; but Jerusalem is forgotten: Paul remains. James and the elders are little more than names. Paul has a seat in every room in the house, and when the house has most to give him he is most welcome. A little humanity in the Church would do the Church no harm. A little recognition of merit, a kindly reference to loving service done by man to Prayer of Manasseh , friend to friend, helps the wheel of life to run round more smoothly. It would be so at home if you would say how thankful you are, how pleased with what has been done for you, and how kind it was to think about you at all. Your house would become a sweet home, and every busy worker in it would forget weariness in thankfulness for the appreciation shown.

They could not have been so greatly occupied with the glory of God, for they instantly proposed to Paul to do something that was of the nature of a compromise, and they said, with such whining and broken voices, "Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law: and they are informed of thee that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs. What is it therefore? the multitude must needs come together, for they will hear that thou art come. Do therefore this that we say to thee—." Not the language of bishops. There the Church goes down. That spirit is still abroad amongst us; we are bound to the letter, and we are saying of men of free spirit and Pauline heart, "As for us, we are all right with regard to them; but there is a general impression abroad that they are not orthodox." "Be quiet—or say something—make a speech—read a paper—attend a service—nothing, nothing in the report, but do this." Was there ever such a craven-hearted thing as a Church with this note in its throat? The great Apostle had to prove himself to a number of anonymous Jews to be right in spirit! The men who are buried in a crowd, in a grave no man can find, were tacitly if not distinctly to dictate the policy of the world"s greatest Christian prince and hero! But James had lived a long time in the metropolis; he seldom went from home; he was a man that could not bear a noise, and he would offer on the altar of prejudice this oblation. It was not right, but Paul will not hinder the great cause; Paul, who is seventy-fold more of a bishop than James could ever be, was willing to become "all things to all men," that he might by any means save some. We can imagine the smile of the heart as he consented to be "one of five," to go through certain customs and ceremonies in order to prove himself orthodox—a thing which a man can never be by mere observance and outward ceremony. Orthodoxy does not consist in doing certain things, but in doing something in the soul. It is the soul that is orthodox, not the custom that is approved.

But when did Paul ever sacrifice the greater to the less? He seems to have said to himself, "If any good can be done in this way, I am willing to do it. I have made my position distinct in Jerusalem before today, and I have acted upon the whole meaning of that position all this time; but if any real and substantial good can be done by this proposed course, I am willing to undergo it." But course-men were not to be so satisfied. "Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them entered into the temple...". And when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews which were of Asia, when they saw him in the temple, stirred up all the people, and laid hands on him, crying out, Men of Israel, help: This is the man that teacheth all men everywhere against the people, and the law, and this place." In the very act of attempting to prove himself orthodox, to people who had no right to judge his orthodoxy, he was seized as a hypocrite. The temple was no protection. It suits some men to believe others to be hypocrites rather than to give them credit for good intentions, instead of saying, "We have been misinformed about this Prayer of Manasseh , here he is submitting to the law of Moses actually in the temple itself; let us apologize to him: put out our hands to him, and say, "Brother, we have been mistaken."" You cannot satisfy blackmailers; pay them what you like today, they will return tomorrow. There are blackmailers in the Church as well as in the world. You can never live holy enough to put an end to their censure, their malice, their diabolism of spirit; they want more; they demand it in savage tones; they reject all the life that has been lived; and your last prayer on earth—be it the mightiest ever breathed from the lips of man—will be counted nothing by the black-mailer, who would rather you were in hell than in heaven. Never submit to them: never treat with them; never offer to go an inch with them! Resist beginnings; stand upon the eternal right and say, "Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?" What applies to character applies also to argument. There are blackmailers in controversy; they want to hear the argument stated again, increased, enhanced, continually enlarged. When you have satisfied Aristotle with your logic, you have not begun to touch the black-mailer; he does not want the logic, he wants to torment the logician.

It will go badly with Paul then but for the State. I thank God for the State as well as for the Church. James and the elders will not do much for Paul now, for, dear old gentlemen! they did not like noise. There is a time when the State must assert its authority. "The chief captain of the band" was told "that all Jerusalem was in an uproar;" so he "immediately took soldiers and centurions" (they were the only arguments he could recognize) "and ran down upon them;" and when the mob "saw the chief captain and the soldiers, they left beating of Paul." Cowards! And these were the men that Paul was asked to conciliate! He had been told respecting them that, if he would only shave his head and go in the temple for a while, all the people would be quiet and respectful and would recognize him. To be recognized by them was an intolerable patronage.

"Then the chief captain came near, and took him, and commanded him to be bound with two chains; and demanded who he was and what he had done." The State knows nothing about Christian ministers. It seems comical—sweetly and piously amusing—to hear the chief captain. I love him already for his innocent ignorance. Said Hebrews , "Art thou not that Egyptian, which before these days madest an uproar, and leddest out into the wilderness four thousand men that were murderers?" You think the State knows you—not a hair of your head; never heard of you. You go forward as a Congregationalist, and what does the State know about a "Congregationalist"? You will be mistaken for an Egyptian that made an uproar once, and went out into the wilderness with four thousand men that were murderers! You don"t suppose the chief captains of the band know anything about Congregationalists, or prayer-meetings, or ministers" meetings, or deacons" meetings? There is no rebuke perhaps more humbling than an inquiry as to your identity by men whom you thought respected you, and knew all about you. Do not make that mistake. A senator of this country asked me, with a verdant innocence, if mine was the only Congregational church in London—a man who voted upon ecclesiastical questions, and was supposed, by virtue of his office and position, to have a good deal to do with the adjustment of ecclesiastical matters. It would be amusing to Paul to be mistaken for an Egyptian; a kind of grim delight would be in his old heart as he was thought to be the leader of a murderous band. Hebrews , who had not been ashamed of the Gospel of Christ; Hebrews , who had held the Cross aloft, until by its lustre it had put out suns and stars; Hebrews , whose life had been a daily sacrifice; Hebrews , who died daily for Christ, coming back from the wars, was mistaken by the State for an Egyptian, which had made an uproar long ago, and led out into the wilderness four thousand men that were murderers. Never mind; Paul owed the State a good deal in this instance. Paul was more indebted to the Romans than to the Jews in this matter. The State will see jus-lice done to us. The State holds the property in which we are now assembled, as certainly as it holds any church that is supposed primarily to belong to it. The State will not allow this property with which we ourselves are associated to be diverted from its proper purpose; to be handed over to people who have no right to it: to whatever may be done inside the walls in the matter of prostituting the property, the State will say, "This must not be done." So with human life. Thank God for civilized States.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Acts 21:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/acts-21.html. 1885-95.

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Thursday, December 12th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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