Part 1 of An Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles newly translated from an amended text.
Prefaces to the First Edition
[Acts 1 - 14]
The interesting and instructive nature of this inspired book, the complement of the Gospel by the same writer, has drawn out special commentaries not a few in ancient as well as modern times. Nevertheless it seems desirable that it should be set out in the light of the Holy Spirit's presence and action, as well as of our Lord's return: truths by no means adequately represented in any such work known to the author, conscious as he is of his own manifold shortcomings. He trusts, however, that the reader may be helped by such suggestions as are here brought together in His grace Who alone can bless, but Who loves to bless the feeblest through the name of the Lord Jesus which shines in the Acts from the beginning of the book to the end.
[Acts 15 - 28]
The reader has now before him the second volume of this exposition which completes the work. He who has devoted time and labour to this end, as he sought the gracious direction of our God, can but pray for His abundant blessing on His word where His children seek to grow in spiritual understanding and enjoyment of what is alike reliable and precious. The book is rich none the less because we have not much of the Twelve (notwithstanding its traditional title), though a great deal of Peter first, and of Paul last, and truly the last becomes first, whatever man might wish. But everywhere it is the Lord Jesus exalted on high, yet actively working by the Holy Spirit below, whether in the service of individuals in no way confined to apostles, or in the assembly as well as the kingdom of God. May grace recall believers to imperishable truth from the ever-swelling desire for development or invention, from confidence in human tradition or in the progress of the age: soon to be judged by Him Who is coming.
Originally published in two volumes, crown 8vo, the work is here reissued in one volume, demy.
London, May, 1914 [Editor]
EDITOR'S NOTE TO THE THIRD EDITION
The Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles by W. Kelly is a series of articles in The Bible Treasury (Vols. xiv-xviii; 1882-9). They were issued as two volumes in 1890, and again as a bulky single volume in 1914.
As these editions are now out of print and inaccessible, a new edition has been prepared for the use and profit of present-day readers and searchers of the Holy Scriptures, and particularly of the Book of the Acts.
The changes and corrections are few, relating mainly to some orthographical and similar details.
Mr. Kelly's translation of his amended text of the Acts which appeared separately in the preface to the second edition (1914) has in this third edition been attached to his comments on the verses as they occur.
The inspired history of the foundation of the church of God on earth at the descent of the Holy Spirit, along with its earliest institutions and practice affords invaluable guidance to those who desire in ecclesiastical matters to be ruled by the will of God rather than by the councils and organizations of fallible men. With this end in view, the new edition of W.K's commentary on that history has been prepared for reissue.
W. J. Hocking
As Luke's narrative of our Lord Jesus was addressed to a Christian convert, so was its sequel which recounts the gift of the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven, His presence and His operation, more especially in the leading apostles, first of the circumcision, then of the uncircumcision. But we have the ways and working of the Holy Spirit, not only with many others, but also in and with the assembly also: a truth of capital moment, though lost sight of practically to the deep dishonour of God, and to the irreparable injury of the church itself.
It would seem that Theophilus had either ceased to hold a governorship (or whatever other public position of a magisterial kind the inspired historian implies by the title 'most excellent'; cf. Acts 23:26; Acts 24:3; Acts 26:25, with Luke 1:3), or had become so matured in faith and spirituality as to value title as little as position, though one could scarce conceive a faithful man abiding in it. Further, they are not to be heard of in old or modern times, who imagine the name to be a fictitious designation of any one who loves God. Not only does the comparison of the Gospel with the Acts point to a living Christian to whom the writer inscribes both, but the form of the word would in that case have been φιλόθεος, (as in Timotheus or the like), and not θεόφιλος.
'The first account I composed, O Theophilus, concerning all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which, having by [the] Holy Spirit charged the apostles whom He had chosen, He was received up, to whom He also presented Himself alive after He had suffered, by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking the things concerning the kingdom of God. And being assembled with [them], He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to await the promise of the Father, which [said He] ye heard of Me. For John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized in [the] Holy Spirit after not many days hence' (vers. 1-5).
Such is the simple opening of this Book, treating of the wonderful works of God in the new creation, which He would have to be testified in the old by a witness no less competent than His own Spirit. In the cross of the Son of man sin was judged by God, not yet on sinners, but in the one perfect Sacrifice, that God might righteously send forth good tidings of saving mercy to Jew and to Greek, alike ruined, that they through faith might be alike saved. And now the Saviour stood in resurrection-life and power, first-fruits of them that are asleep, a life-giving Spirit to all that believe. As He had walked according to the Spirit of holiness in a world of sin during the days of His flesh, so now was He marked out Son of God in power according to that Spirit by resurrection, conqueror over Satan in death as in life, having also exhausted God's judgment in suffering for sin that He might be the righteous Head of a new family who live of His life as He died for their sins. Thus does the Gospel of Luke lead into what is commonly, though not correctly, called 'The Acts of the Apostles'; for it is rather the inspired narrative of the risen Lord working in the energy of the Holy Ghost sent down from on high witnessing to Him there both in the assembly and in His servants, some of the apostles above all.
Even the Lord risen from the dead, though not yet 'received up', is seen here enjoining the apostles through the Holy Spirit (ver. 2). It was not merely before He died, in the new estate of man beyond the grave we have the evidence of the same blessed power. The Holy Spirit acts in man risen. In Jesus we see this truth, as every other. It will be so with us when we are raised from the dead, we shall not lose that divine spring of power and joy when, or because, we enter the final state of man according to the counsels of God. It will be that which is perfect come, but the Holy Spirit will not therefore cease to act in us, rather will He form us for all the worship and service suitable to those glorified with Christ.
That Christ presented Himself alive after He had suffered was the great fact established 'by many proofs' (ver. 3), and so it is the subject-matter of testimony throughout the Book, as it is the foundation truth of the gospel. The God of grace is the God of resurrection in Christ Who suffered for sins once, Just for unjust. The apostles are false witnesses of God if He did not raise Him up, and He raised Him not up if no dead are raised; and if He has not been raised, our faith is in vain: we are yet in our sins. But He has been raised from the dead, as surely as God is true and His word faithful; His grace and power are alike manifested not more in His chosen witnesses, than in the transforming effects of His testimony on others who believe, once sons of disobedience and children of wrath, His enemies. The charge was to the apostles from Him risen.
Nor was it only that He was seen by them, or appeared to them, by the space of forty days; He spoke also the things concerning the kingdom of God, as His servants preached afterwards. This was no less true of the apostle to the Gentiles, as we may learn distinctly and to the end from Acts 20:25; Acts 28:31.
His command, when assembled with them, was not to depart from Jerusalem, but to await the promise of the Father, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, not many days after then (vers. 4, 5). It is of the deepest moment that this be understood: for many misapply the Spirit's baptism either to miraculous displays or to the new birth; and the more so, as without doubt He wrought largely in both these ways at Pentecost. But the reader has only to consider John 14-16 in order to learn from God's word that it is not a question here of the great primary need of sinful man at all times to be born of the Spirit, still less of those gifts or 'charisma' which were so abundantly distributed amongst those who confessed the Lord at that time, but of the immense and standing privilege of the church in the presence of the Holy Ghost sent down in person to abide with the saints and be in them. Him the Father gave to be with them for ever; Him the Son sent to them from the Father. For this was contingent on the Son's going away: if He went not away, that other Advocate, the Spirit of truth, would not come. But, the work of reconciliation wrought, Jesus went on high and sent here below the Spirit. This would be the accomplishment of the Father's promise. The saints were then to be baptized in the Holy Spirit.
For the believer it is impossible to conceive anything of more commanding importance, whether in itself, for God's glory, for doctrinal truth, or for practical value. Yet what was so soon or so generally forgotten? Without it Christ's place as Head of the church is unknown, and consequently the true relationship of the church as His body. Redemption is enfeebled, the new and heavenly place of the Christian is neither understood nor enjoyed, and the proper hope is levelled down to a Jewish expectation with its signs and dates, its troubles and fears. Still more directly does lack of faith as to the baptism of the Holy Ghost affect the walk and service of the individual, the joint worship and public action of the assembly. There is no surer sign, no more fatal means, of the ruin of the entire testimony to Christ than the blank ignorance, the utter exclusion of this incomparable power and privilege for the Christian and the church, which now pervades Christendom, as it has done since apostolic times. Oh, what a mercy on God's part, what love on His own, what honour to Christ and His cross, that the Holy Spirit has deigned to abide in all certainty to the church. if the church proved thus false to Him! The gift or baptism of the Holy Ghost was the promise of the Father, and the disciples heard it from the Son. John, the greatest of the merely woman-born, baptized with water, the baptism of repentance, the Son of God, but risen and ascended Man, the same is He that baptizeth in (or with) the Holy Spirit. None indeed could but a divine person; yet is it the One Who, become man to accomplish redemption, was received up in glory whence He sent the Spirit down.
'They therefore being come together asked Him, saying, Lord, dost Thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel? And He said unto them, It is not yours to know times or seasons which the Father set in His own authority. But ye shall receive power at the coming of the Holy Spirit upon you, and ye shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and unto the end of the earth. And having said these things, as they were looking, He was taken up, and a cloud withdrew Him from their eyes. And while they were gazing into heaven as He went on behold, two men stood by them in white garments who also said, Men of Galilee, why stand ye looking into heaven? This Jesus that was received up from you into heaven shall so come in the manner in which ye beheld Him going into heaven' (vers. 6-11).
As in the Gospel (Luke 19:11, et al.), the Lord corrects the hasty expectations of the disciples: the kingdom was not immediately to appear. The passover was to be fulfilled in it when it would assume a different shape (Luke 22:16). The Christian form of the kingdom however is not here spoken of, because the question was about restoring it at that time to Israel. Now the Lord does not at all contradict such a restoration in its season, but the salvation of Israel and the restoration of the kingdom to the chosen people clearly belonged to the ways of God of which prophecy treats; and He lets them know that times and seasons the Father placed in His own authority. Another vista He opens out to them as that immediately before them: 'But ye shall receive power at the coming of the Holy Spirit upon you; and ye shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and unto the end of the earth.'
These words explain the situation with divine precision and unspeakable grace. It is not yet to be the displayed kingdom which belongs to the age and world to come. Now it is a question of testimony in the power of the Holy Ghost, with Whose mission and presence it is bound up. They were to be witnesses of Christ, not yet reigning with Him, but His witnesses, as rejected yet risen, despised of men, especially of the Jews and Jerusalem, but on the point of being exalted of God in heaven, and witnesses of Him — for all is of grace — both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and unto the end of the earth. Compare with this beginning of the Acts the end of Luke's Gospel, where the risen Saviour commands that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations beginning at Jerusalem: 'And ye are witnesses of these things. And behold, I send the promise of My Father upon you; but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem until ye be endued with power from on high.' It is not baptism here, but vital blessing, repentance unto life and remission of sins sealed with the Holy Ghost. All has its place and propriety, but the better thing it was the lot of the beloved physician to indite under the inspiring energy of God, Who was (in honour of His Son's person and work) giving life and liberty with the Spirit's seal to all that believe the gospel: its source the grace of God, its righteous foundation the cross of Christ, its character of life His resurrection; its formative object His heavenly glory; and its power the Holy Ghost sent from above.
But the true outlook of hope is wanted to complete the circle of blessing. And this, at least as far as it is connected with the scope of this Book (for there is a divinely perfect system in all scripture and in every distinct part) now follows, the hope of our Lord's return. 'And having said these things, as they looked, he was taken up, and a cloud withdrew Him from their eyes. And while they were gazing into heaven as He went on, behold, two men stood by them in white garments who also said, Men of Galilee, why stand ye looking into heaven? This Jesus Who was received up from you into heaven shall so come in the manner in which ye beheld Him going into heaven.' Doubtless it is His return for the kingdom to be established over all nations and tongues, for the times of the restitution of all things and not specially for Him to receive His own to Himself and present them in the Father's house. It is the more general aspect of His coming, and not the heavenly side. Still it is the personal object for the saints, the Lord coming again in person as surely as the chosen witnesses saw Him taken up from them into heaven. This the disciples have let slip as a real living hope, not more to His dishonour and the grief of the Spirit, than to their own immeasurable loss. For if faith be the more essential as men say, the true hope cannot be obscured, weakened, or destroyed, without proportionate injury, if we judge by the only full measure of God's glory in Christ. We fall into misleading hopes as soon as the truth ceases to be before the heart; and none is so false as to look for the gradual amelioration of the world or even of Christendom which must be judged in the day of the Lord, instead of our waiting as pilgrims and strangers, the bride separate from the world for Christ to come and fetch us to heaven for the marriage-supper of the Lamb. This is gracious and heavenly separateness to God, above the world's attractions and honours, outside its evils, and unmoved by its enmity. May it be more and more true of us in His grace!
Thus we have clearly set before us the position and expectation of the disciples in these early days. They knew, on the word of the Lord, that the promise of the Father was shortly to be fulfilled in the gift of the Holy Spirit. Instead of the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, they were to be witnesses of Christ everywhere to the uttermost part of the earth; and they were assured that the Lord Jesus, Who had just ascended, would so come in the manner in which they beheld Him going to heaven.
'Then they returned unto Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day's journey off. And when they entered they went up into the upper room where they were abiding; both Peter and John, and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James [son] of Alphaeus, (and Simon the Zealot, and Judas [brother] of James. These all with one accord continued steadfastly in prayer, with [certain] women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brethren' (vers. 12-14).
Thus did these saints spend their time in the exercise of continual dependence on God. They had been the chosen witnesses of the Word of life, as He had manifested Himself here below, and in Himself the Son had shown them the Father. And now they were waiting for that divine person Who was to be in as well as with them, as the Lord had prepared them for it: 'I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter.' So now they all give themselves up with one mind to persevering prayer.
Believing women were with them. How different their place from that which Jews or afterwards Mohammedans accorded them, and from that of mediaeval flattery or superstition, even when nominal Christianity pervaded the West! There were others beside wives, and hence the general form of the phrase; and one was among them, specifically named, to whom sinful folly was afterwards to bow down in worship, professedly subordinate to, practically more absorbing than, that paid to the Son or to the Father.
It is the first mention of Mary, in this the only sure and divinely inspired history, that follows our Lord's departure to heaven. Highly favoured she had been, blessed among women, all generations thenceforth calling her blessed; yet was she found in all lowliness of mind with other women, as the apostles were with them all, waiting on God for the gift of the Holy Ghost. From the cross she had been taken to the home of the beloved disciple. After the resurrection not a word implies an appearance to the mother of our Lord. Another Mary saw Him, she of Magdala, first of all, other women shortly afterwards, of any special appearance to His mother scripture is profoundly silent. She may have seen Him risen, as five hundred did at one time, but scripture intimates not a word about it. So absolutely was Christ to be known no more after the flesh. He was dead and risen, and the glory of the Messiah born of the Virgin faded away in the brighter glory of the Beginning, the First-born from the dead.
It is the last mention of Mary. Chrysostom may well suppose Joseph to have died, the truth is that he had long disappeared. Of both we heard for the last time in the beauteous scene of the Lord at twelve years of age (Luke 2:42-51). He too was not yet anointed by the Holy Ghost; yet was He perfect man and true God, the child of Mary, and subject not to her only but to her husband — legally His father. But the incident brings out clearly His perfection as a child feeding on the word of God; but no less His consciousness of being the Son of God (far beyond the thoughts of Joseph or Mary), and withal His subjection to them, 'His parents', in that human place to which He had come down from divine glory in a love no less divine. When in due time, anointed by the Holy Spirit, He enters on His service and His presentation as the Messiah Joseph is gone. This was as it should be. It was through Joseph He had direct claim as the royal Son of David; for Joseph came down from Solomon, and therein lay the true line of promise to the throne. Mary too sprang from David, but through Nathan, who could give no such title. Legally and naturally He was descended from the king beloved of God, as He had a title in His own person above David as surely as above Joseph and Mary, He was God, Jehovah, the Lord God of Israel. Still the word of God must be honoured and verified in every human particular which divine grace had given and made known, for the exercise and the reward, the trial and the joy of faith.
Now Mary, according to scripture, appears for the last time in the holy band of prayer with others, men and women, not prayed to but praying. That the upper room was in the temple is the dream of Dr. Hammond. How strange that grave theologians should conceive such crudities, and that they seem so destitute of kind and faithful friends to efface them lest they should turn to shame or hurt! The last place where the disciples could have had such a place was the temple. It was no doubt in a private house where they then sojourned; whether it was that large upper room furnished where the Lord sat down to eat the last passover, we know not; nor is it of divine moment either, else it had been told us. But such rooms were common among the Jews, and, we may be assured, in Jerusalem especially, where God had His plans for blessing through His Son and to His honour.
'And in these days Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren, and said (and there was a crowd of names [or persons] together, about a hundred and twenty), Brethren [lit. Men brethren1] it was needful that the scripture ,should be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spake before by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became guide to those that took Jesus. For he had been numbered among us, and received the allotment of this service. (This [man] then obtained a field from wages of [his] iniquity; and, falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the dwellers at Jerusalem, so that in their own language that field was called Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood). For it is written in the Book of Psalms, Let his homestead be made desolate, and let there be no dweller in it, and, His overseership let another take. Of the men therefore who went with us at every time that the Lord Jesus went in and went out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day in which He was received up from us, must one of these become2 a witness with us of His resurrection.
1 So also in Acts 2:29, 37; Acts 7:2; Acts 13:15, 26; Acts 15:7,13; Acts 22:1; Acts 23:1, 6; Acts 28:17.
2 'Be ordained to be' is the unfounded rendering of the A.V.
'And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, Thou, Lord, knower of the hearts of all, show of these two which one Thou hast chosen, to take the place of this service and apostleship from which Judas fell away to go unto his own place. And they gave lots for them; and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles' (vers. 15-26).
The hundred and twenty did not comprehend all the faithful in the land, but all in Jerusalem probably. To these Peter speaks with decision, but in the light and authority of scripture. Power from on high had not yet come on him, but there was evidently an intelligence never experienced by him before the Lord died and rose. These two things may co-exist now; or spiritual intelligence may be found where special power may not be given, though the Holy Ghost is, and this to abide for ever. But there we learn the important fact of their distinctness, and so much the more plainly, because the Holy Ghost had not yet been poured out. But Peter applies scripture with clearness. It shone in the light of the Lord's death and resurrection. It must needs be fulfilled, not in Christ only, but in antichrist; and such was Judas, who became guide to those that took Jesus. The Holy Spirit had deigned to speak of evil as well as good, and all must be fulfilled, though spoken by human lips. The unbelief of man may ruin him, but cannot make the written word of none effect; any more than the lot Judas received in the ministry of Christ exempted him from his awful sin and punishment. And the field got from wages of iniquity bore witness in characters of blood, after Judas passed away from his forfeited place in service and apostleship to go to his own place of torment. No wonder then that, as God so solemnly marked His resentment now before all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, He should speak before by the mouth of David of such a sinner against His own Son as well as against his own soul. Psalm 69:25 pronounced his curse, Psalm 109:8 called for a successor to his vacated office, and Peter lays down, for such as had gone with the apostles from the baptism of John till the ascension, the essential condition of becoming with them a witness of His resurrection.
Here once more we see what an immensely important place the resurrection was to hold in the testimony of Christ and the gospel, and how it is interwoven with this Book of the Acts in particular. Nor can there be strength or clearness in preaching and teaching without it. In presence of it vain man is annulled; by it Christ is vindicated, God is glorified, and the believer is justified. But even in this Book we may learn more of its power and value in the hands of the Holy Spirit, if we return to the practical use Peter made of the Psalms he had cited.
Two then were put forward, Joseph Barsabbas Justus, and Matthias, who, as far as man could see, possessed equal qualification. Hence appeal was made to the Lord in prayer. It was His work that was in question and it is His to choose the workman. So, in Matt. 9:38, He told His disciples to supplicate the Lord of the harvest to send forth labourers into His harvest; and then, in Matthew 10, He called unto Him His twelve disciples, and gave them authority, and sent them forth. It is the same principle here. Elsewhere, in what concerns the assembly of God, His God and Father may be sought most appropriately, but the Lord none the less in what concerns His service and the instruments He may choose for it.
But there is a peculiarity to be noticed, the using of lots. It was in no way the will of man choosing whom he would, as some learned men have erroneously supposed, not without bias from their peculiar habits, nor unwillingness to justify them from scripture. Nor does the last term, translated 'numbered' (ver. 26), warrant here the notion of popular election which is in principle foreign to scripture for the choice of servants in the word. The lot was, as it will be in the latter day, a distinctly Jewish mode of seeking divine direction, and so, in the choice of the twelfth apostle (Matt. 19:28), it was fittingly resorted to here. For the Spirit's presence the new power, in which Jews and Gentiles are alike unknown, was not yet enjoyed. The Lord therefore was looked to thus, but lots were never cast after the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Nor is there just ground for Stier, as cited by Alford, to question the step of choosing a twelfth apostle, which seems to be thoroughly in keeping with the waiting posture of the disciples. Besides, Acts 2:14, Acts 6:2, would to most minds imply the contrary, and show that Luke does afterwards speak of the Twelve. To suppose that Paul was the intended twelfth is rather to lower his truly peculiar position and extraordinary call.
The death of Christ, as the paschal lamb, took place punctually to the day; so did His resurrection as the wave-sheaf; yet no saint knew the significance of either till they were accomplished facts. Nor have we proof, notwithstanding the marked intelligence displayed in the use of scripture since the resurrection (Acts 1, cf. Luke 24:45), that any entered into the meaning of the feast of weeks with its wave loaves, till it was fulfilled. The disciples were together, however, in their true place of dependence and expectation. 'And when the day of Pentecost was in course of fulfilment they were all together1 in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound as of a mighty blast rushing, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues parting asunder as of fire, and it2 sat upon each one of them. And they were all filled with [the] Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them to utter' (vers. 1-4).
1 Text. Rec., followed by the Authorized Version 'with one accord', has ὁμοθυμαδὸν with one or two uncials and most cursives; but omou, 'together', is the reading of ABC, et al.
2 Some read with p.m. Dgr, some ancient versions and fathers 'they', but ABCE, the cursives, and other ancient versions support the singular. The plural is probably to suit the tongues' just before.
This was the baptism of the Spirit, though neither the mighty cause is here unfolded, nor are the effects as yet traced out. But the promise of the Father was now accomplished. The Holy Spirit was sent down from heaven according to the word of the Lord to abide with His own for ever, that other Advocate Who answers on earth to Christ in heaven, the Divine manager of all our affairs according to the will of God. As being a wholly new thing, there were accompanying signs, and these of a twofold character; not only the violent blowing which filled all the house, but the disparted tongues as of fire which sat upon each. Thus was manifested the presence of the Spirit in a general way for all the house, in a special way as power of testimony for each: a distinction of importance also found in other forms elsewhere.
But testimony is the predominant point here, for if they were all filled with the Spirit, they also began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Hence the aptness of the form in which the Spirit manifested His action: not a dove as with the Lord when sealed on earth emblem of One holy, harmless, and undefiled, but tongues wherewith now to make known the wonderful works of God in the new creation, every way far beyond the wonders of the old. But the tongues were not one, but parting asunder. The Gentile must hear, no less than the once favoured Jew. Now the mission of grace was to go forth indiscriminately as became a dead and risen Saviour, Whom God exalted on high, after man, especially Israel, had rejected Him as their own Messiah on earth. Further, the tongues were as of fire, that set forth divine judgment intolerant of evil, as just now demonstrated in grace to man in the cross of Christ.
But the languages were as real as they were different from their mother tongue or any naturally acquired one. This fact is as clearly stated as the gift itself was eminently significant and seasonable. What could be so clear a testimony that, if God gave His law to Israel, though in itself the expression of man's moral duty, He was now about to make known His grace in the gospel to every race and tongue? His grace not only forgives all offences, but quickens together with Christ, so as to be a new and everlasting ground for the energy of the Spirit to produce in a new life the fruit of righteousness which is by Jesus Christ to God's glory and praise. This witness of divine love, efficacious through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, acts in direction toward all, in effect upon all those that believe. It was not the extirpation of difference in language, nor yet the power which will make once more the whole earth of one lip and the same speech, but grace lifting its objects and instruments above the effects of that judgment at Babel, which by diversity of language confounded the pride of the race, when it sought to combine and exalt itself in a union of human will which forgot God altogether. But God remembered guilty and miserable man, and in His wisdom and mercy availed Himself of the chosen people's hatred of Himself and of His Son (John 15:24) to go out in the power of the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven; and to mark this in a way most touching to every nation under heaven.
'Now there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, pious men, from every nation under heaven; and when this report [or sound] was made, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because they each one heard them speaking in his own dialect. And they were all amazed and wondering, saying1 Behold, are not all these that speak Galileans? And how hear we each in our own dialect in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and those that dwell in Mesopotamia, in Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, in Phrygia and Pamphylia, in Egypt and the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and the Roman sojourners, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them speaking in our tongues the mighty things of God' (vers. 5-11).
1 Text. Rec., with the Authorized Version, adds πρὸς ἀλλήλοῦσυ, 'one to another', with pretty good authority, but not the best.
If any words were needed to make the nature of the wonder plain and precise, it might have been supposed that these could not fail. But men of this world's science and learning, though bearing the name of Christian, manifest no less incredulity now than the Jews did of old, who foolishly sought to treat it as mere excitement. Some have tried to find in the account the same sort of senseless jargon, or (as Meyer) an entirely new language as its favourers allege,2 which was revived [more than] a half-century ago among the Irvingites; others (as Bleek, et al.) contend for a highly excited or ecstatic style of speech suitable to the communication of the marvels of grace, or (Olshausen) for so low a thought as a magnetic relation between speakers and hearers, or (Wieseler, et al.) for mere inarticulate ejaculations of praise! The older rationalists, as Paulus, et al., supposed no other than their native tongue; others, from Gregory of Nyssa and Cyprian to Erasmus and men of our own day, had grafted on this the strange idea that the multitude of foreigners was caused by the Spirit to hear each his own tongue! But Gregory of Nazianzus rejects the notion as making the marvel lie with the hearers rather than the speakers, contrary to the clear statement of scripture, as indeed are all these vain hypotheses.
2 There can be but little doubt that the interpolation of the word unknown in the Authorized Version of 1 Cor. 14:2, 4, 13, 19, 27, gave occasion to, and helped to consecrate, the delusion of the enemy. It is no small proof of the evils of these unwarranted additions, but I find another has anticipated me in remarking what occurred independently to my mind.
The truth is that all these ideas, though maintained not only by preachers, but by theologians of the highest rank, are swept away at the first touch of the written word, ever the standard of truth and never more needed than in this day of active and daring intellect. The disciples were enabled in the power of the Spirit to speak the various languages of the earth; but it would seem that there were measures in this gift as in others. The apostle thanks God that he speaks with tongues more than all the Corinthians, so ostentatious of these sign-gifts; but he also insists on the subordination of them all to prophecy, as a gift characteristically for edification, encouragement, and consolation. The great end in the assembly is building up, to which a tongue without interpretation contributed nothing, as their frequency, if not simultaneous also, was an evident offence against order, both of which he corrects as the commandment of the Lord (1 Cor. 14).
Tongues therefore played a very inferior part in the assembly. That they were conferred for the dissemination of the gospel is the supposition of many in ancient and modern times. They were certainly used to arrest the Jews from foreign countries, who flocked to Jerusalem for this feast, or were otherwise staying there. What confounded these strangers from so many lands was, that they each one heard the disciples speaking in their own language, and whatever may have been the prevalency of Aramaic, or of Greek and Latin over the then known world, it is idle to tell one who believes this careful and varied enumeration from the N.E. to the W. and S. (which seems to be the reason why Judea comes between Mesopotamia and Cappadocia), that the inspired writer does not mean to convey more than a few distinct tongues. Not so judged the residents and sojourners in Jerusalem, whose piety gave them weight, yet who least of all were disposed to religious innovation. To them the evidence was irresistible, an impossibility if the variety of languages had not been a plain and sure reality of which they are competent judges. 'Behold, are not all these that speak Galileans? And how hear we each in our own dialect in which we were born? Parthians, and Medes and Elamites . . . we hear them speaking in our tongues the mighty things of God.'
Still those that heard and believed the gospel that day were Jews and proselytes only. But the wondrous form of testimony prepared the way for those who glean the mind of God from the mighty workings of His gracious power, as well as from the words of the Lord in His varied commissions to the disciples, the wide-reaching activity in witnessing His love to which they were called. His hands which had been stretched out in vain to a disobedient and contradictory people were already pointing to all the nations, who also would hear. But the Lord had to use, as we shall see in due time, fresh means to reach the ears and quicken the hesitating feet of His own in the grace that tarrieth not for man and waiteth not for the sons of men.
The tongues were, as the apostle explains elsewhere, a sign to the unbelievers. They were intended to arrest and produce inquiry. The presence of the promised Holy Spirit was an incomparably deeper and more fruitful fact. He was sent down from heaven to form the assembly, the new dwelling place of God, the body of Christ. He was to be the power of testimony, of God's good news for the world. He was to be in the believers and with them for ever, that Paraclete Whom Christ after going on high was to send, not only to bring demonstration to the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment, but to guide the saints into all the truth announcing what is coming, and glorifying Christ as He too had the Father. Whatever might be the marvel and the gracious suitability of the tongues, the gift of the Spirit Himself immensely transcends them, but His presence and the all-important results of it are beyond the ken of the world which neither sees nor knows Him. The signs and wonders occupy men.
'And they were all amazed and perplexed] saying one to another, What meaneth1 this? But others mocking1 said, They are filled with sweet wine. But Peter,2 standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice and spoke forth unto them, Men of Judea and all1 ye that dwell in Jerusalem, be this known to you, and give ear to my words. For these are not drunken as ye suppose, for it is [the] third hour of the day; but this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel: And it shall be in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of My Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your elders shall dream with dreams1; yea and on my bondmen and on my bondwomen in those days will I pour out of My Spirit, and they shall prophesy. And I will give wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below blood and fire and vapour of smoke. The sun shall be changed into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and manifest3 day of [the] Lord come. And it shall be, whosoever shall call on the name of [the] Lord shall be saved' (vers. 12-21).
1 The critics depart from the Text. Rec. chiefly in forms which affect the sense so little that we need not notice them.
2 See note on previous page.
3 Tischendorf omits καὶ ἑπιφανῆ ('and manifest') on the authority of D.
As usual, men arrange themselves in more than one class, some astonished, others hostile and scornful. Peter takes the lead in explaining with gravity and distinctness. He explicitly denies the unworthy thought of intoxication, which the early hour itself should have silenced as against God-fearing souls. It was really what Joel spoke of: not of course the fulfilment as it is to be in the last days, but an effusion of that nature. Indeed, the words of the prophet went in this beyond what that day saw accomplished; for 'all flesh' cannot fairly be limited to Israel, and God, Who was soon about to bring in Gentiles to the name of Christ, will bless the nations in the future kingdom, when all the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the Lord, and all the kindred of the nations shall worship before Him. The gospel now makes good the indiscriminate grace of God even more profoundly than will be under His future government, when He will show that the kingdom is Jehovah's, and that He is the governor among the nations.
In the latter day, when Joel's words will be fulfilled as a whole, the Spirit will be poured out, and if Israel enjoy the blessing freely, it will flow far beyond their narrow limits. God's ways will then be known upon earth, His saving health among all nations. Temporal blessing is then to be vouchsafed to Israel (Joel 2:19-27), and their great northern enemy is to be for ever disposed of, for Jehovah will do great things for His people and land, whatever the enemy may have prepared to do. 'My people', He says emphatically, 'shall never be ashamed.' Then as a distinct intimation the prophet presents two announcements: the first, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (vers. 28, 29); the second, external signs of judgment ushering in the days of Jehovah, the circumstances of which are detailed in Acts 3, till we come down to the closing account of their blessings once more. As the wonders above and below precede that day, so does the repentance of Israel prepare for their deliverance and blessing, and especially for the gift of the Spirit. We see the same principle here also.
For God, in pouring out of His Spirit now, does thereby associate believers with Christ exalted on high. Given in virtue of redemption the Holy Spirit sheds the love of God in their hearts, seals them for the day of redemption, and is the earnest of their inheritance. He dwells in them now, and will quicken their mortal bodies soon at Christ's coming. Besides, He is the blessed and divine bond, constituting them Christ's body and God's house. And here it may be of interest to not a few if I set before them the judgment formed by the celebrated ecclesiastical historian, Neander, who of course from his Lutheran views had no bias toward the truth of the church. It is not cited as invariably sound or as in any respect authoritative, but as a grave testimony from an able and well-informed Christian in direct opposition to the present state of the church, whether Protestant or Romanist, Oriental or Greek. It is, therefore, as far as it goes, a strong involuntary homage to the revealed truth on this subject.
'What Moses expressed as a wish (Num. 11:29) that the Spirit of God might rest upon all and all might be prophets, seems to me a prediction of that which was to be realized through Christ. By Him was to be instituted a fellowship of Divine life, which, proceeding from the equal and equally immediate relation of all to the One God, as the divine source of life to all, should remove these boundaries, within which, as the Old Testament position, the development of the higher life was still confined, and hence the fellowship thus derived would essentially distinguish itself from the constitution of all previously existing religious societies. There could, in such a society, be no longer a priestly or prophetic office, constituted to serve as a medium for the propagation and development of the kingdom of God, on which office the religious consciousness of the community was to be dependent. Such a guild of priests as existed in the previous systems of religion, empowered to guide other men, who remained, as it were, in a state of religious pupilage; having the exclusive care of providing for their religious wants, and serving as mediators by whom all other men must first be placed in connection with God and divine things — such a priestly caste could find no place within Christianity. In removing that which separated men from God, in communicating to all the same fellowship with God, Christ also removed the barrier which had hitherto divided men from one another. Christ, the Prophet and High Priest for entire humanity, was the end of the prophetic office and of the priesthood. There was now the same High Priest and Mediator for all, through Whom all men 1 being reconciled and united with God,1 are themselves made a priestly and spiritual race; one heavenly King, Guide, and Teacher, through Whom all are taught of God; one faith, one hope, one Spirit which should quicken all, one oracle in the hearts of all, the voice of the Spirit proceeding from the Father, all were to be citizens of one heavenly kingdom, with whose heavenly powers, even while strangers in the world, they would be already furnished. When the apostles applied the Old Testament idea of the priesthood to Christianity, this seems to me to have been invariably for the simple purpose of showing that no such visible particular priesthood could find place in the new community; that since free access to God and to heaven had by the one High Priest, even Christ, been opened once for all to believers, they had, by virtue of their union to Him, become themselves a spiritual people, consecrated to God, their calling being none other than to dedicate their entire life to God as a thank-offering for the grace of redemption, to publish abroad the power and grace of Him Who had called them out of the kingdom of darkness into His marvellous light, to make their life one continual priesthood, one spiritual worship springing from the temper of faith working by love; one continuous testimony for their Saviour. (Compare 1 Peter 2:9; Rom. 12:1; and the spirit and whole train of thought running through the Epistle to the Hebrews.) So too, the advancement of God's kingdom in general and particular, the diffusion of Christianity among the heathens and the good of each particular community, was now to be the duty not of one select class of Christians alone, but the immediate concern of each individual.'2
1 [It should be 'believers', not 'men'; united with 'Christ', not with 'God'.]
2 (Neander's General History of the Christian Religion and Church i. �§2, pp. 248-250, Bohn's edition.)
We need not do more than notice the vague inaccuracy of 'entire humanity' on the one hand and of the 'King' on the other, for we must never expect a Lutheran to know the total ruin of man or the new relations of Christ. That He tasted death for every man is true; but He is King of Israel and of nations, also Head of the church, not of humanity as such. He has authority over all flesh to give eternal life to as many as the Father hath given Him. But this and other passages show that, notwithstanding grave drawbacks, this modern historian understood better than most the peculiar character of that new thing which God had formed for His glory on the day of Pentecost; a character in no wise accidental or temporary, but essentially distinguishing it from first to last, and as distinct from that which God had set up in Israel as from the inventions of Satan among the Gentiles. The new thing was God's habitation in the Spirit.
Such was the preface of the apostle's discourse, a denial of the carnal not to say immoral, excitement imputed, and an affirmation of the power of the Spirit then manifested in the gift of tongues, and in prophesying according to the prophet Joel.
Now Peter enters on the foundation of their hopes as God's chosen people, and sets forth the facts just accomplished in the light of His word, mainly as we shall see in Psalms 16, 110, and 132.
'Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man shown forth from God to you by mighty works, and wonders, and signs, which God wrought by Him in your midst, as yourselves know — Him, given up by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye by hand of lawless [men] did crucify and slay; Whom God raised up, having loosed the pangs of death, inasmuch as it was not possible that He should be held fast by it. For David saith as to Him, I kept the Lord in view always before me, because He is on my right hand that I may not be shaken. On this account my heart was cheered and my tongue was exceeding glad; yea more, my flesh also shall dwell in hope [that, or] because Thou wilt not leave my soul to1 Hades nor give thy Holy [or Gracious] One to see corruption. Thou didst make known to me ways of life, Thou wilt make me full of joy with Thy countenance. Brethren, [lit. men brethren] one may speak with freedom unto you about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is amongst us unto this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God swore with an oath to him of the fruit of his loins to seat upon his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that neither was He left to1 Hades nor did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus did God raise up, whereof all we are witnesses. Having therefore been exalted by the right hand of God and received of the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured forth this which ye see and hear. For David ascended not into the heavens, but saith himself The LORD said to my Lord, Sit on My right hand till I make Thine enemies [the] footstool of Thy feet. Let all [the] house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God made Him both Lord and Christ — this Jesus Whom ye crucified' (vers. 22-36).
1 [For the Author's criticism of the text, and his reasons for the rendering here given see his The Preaching to the Spirits in Prison, 1900, p. 133. Editor.]
The apostle addresses them according to their due national title as the chosen theocracy; and, while he in no way hides his Master's name of humiliation, he claims for Him the indubitably proved character of Messiah. It was God, he affirms, Who had shown Him forth to them by mighty works and wonders and signs; it was God Who by Him thus wrought in their midst. They could deny neither the actual display of divine power in every form of goodness and mercy, nor that Israel had so expected the Anointed of God according to the living oracles. The eyes of the blind were opened, the ears of the deaf were unstopped, the lame leaped as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sang. Had all this come without the person to whom Scripture attaches it all? If not yet with vengeance, surely it was in mercy unequivocally divine? Granted that the parched ground has not become a pool, nor the thirsty lands springs of water, and that the way of holiness is invisible save to faith, granted that the unclean abound and are bold as the lion, and the ravenous beasts are still objects of terror, because the people are apostate from their King when He came, as they once gave up Jehovah for every vain idol of the nations (cf. Ps. 35). But God had failed in no attestation that could commend His Servant Whom He upheld, His elect in Whom His soul delighted; and they themselves knew it, though tempted by Satan to impute it to the enemy in order to escape the submission of their conscience to the truth. To the enemy! when Christ's every word and every work directly tend to destroy Satan's evil power and wiles. But what will not the deluded mind of man think or at least say to avoid the grace that pities and would save him if he bowed to God and His Christ?
Did any Israelite stumble at the cross as invalidating His claims? Yet on the cross, man — the Jew — being what he is, God had ordered it all marvellously to His own glory. Unbelief and rebellion and blasphemy on the one hand were allowed to work their unimpeded way, when the fit moment arrived; and Jesus was rejected ignominiously by His own people and the Gentiles were urged by them to crucify Him, that on the other hand He might become a propitiation for the sins of His own that believed yea, for the whole world. If that was man's inexcusable iniquity, this was God's sovereign grace. If they were the instruments of their own spite, He gave One Who had been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. Thus in the same cross met creature-will of man and of Satan in deadly enmity to God, divine love turning the otherwise hopeless sin to the shedding of that precious blood which cleanseth from all sin, impossible without the glorious person Who is God no less than man, impossible save by His once in atonement suffering for our sins, Just for unjust. 'Him given up by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye by hand of lawless men did crucify and slay.'
The cross therefore, dreadful as it is as the proof of man's blind guilt and of Satan's power, now that it is seen not only to be necessary that scripture be fulfilled, but also to be the indispensable and only possible door of deliverance for the sinner in God's grace, is owned as an essential and morally the deepest part of God's ways, as it is the highest moral glory of the Lord Jesus. As Himself said on the eve of it, 'Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in Him. If God be glorified in Him, God shall also glorify Him in Himself, and shall straightway glorify Him' (John 13:31, 32).
But the resurrection! — what did God say therein? In vain the lie that the disciples came by night and stole Jesus away, while the soldiers slept. Peter does not even notice such an unworthy subterfuge, but simply asserts the grand truth on which the gospel rests: 'Whom God raised up, having loosed the pangs of death, inasmuch as it was not possible that He should be held fast by it. For David saith as to Him, I kept the Lord in view always before me....' The word of God by David pointed to the resurrection of the Messiah, and God showed Him openly when risen to witnesses chosen of Him beforehand. But indeed it was not possible that He should be held fast by death to which He, the Holy One, had submitted for sin to God's glory. Nor was it possible that the scripture could be broken which said, 'Thou wilt not leave My soul to Hades, nor give [i.e. suffer] Thy Holy One to see corruption.' Even according to the ancient Jewish interpretation these words of Ps. 16 can only apply to the Messiah (Sch�¶ttgen, 564-8). Here Peter and in Acts 13:33-37 Paul, declare that it was fulfilled in God's raising Jesus from the dead, not in David, still less in any other. Thus was He shown the path of life through death with fulness of joy in the presence of God His Father.
The apostle in his reasoning on the text cites Ps. 132, the great psalm of the kingdom settled for ever in the son of David. 'Brethren, one may speak freely [with freedom] unto you about the patriarch David, that he both died and was buried and his tomb is amongst us unto this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God swore with an oath to him of the fruit of his loins to seat upon his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ that neither was He left to Hades nor did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus did God raise up, whereof all we are witnesses.' This, and this alone, explains the peculiarly glorious character of the kingdom even in its earthly relations. Even now the King is risen from the dead. This stamps perpetuity as nothing else could: yet is it the kingdom of a man. Only it is man risen from the dead, for in all things He must have the pre-eminence (Col. 1:18).
But in fact resurrection was the immediate stepping stone, not to the kingdom which still awaits His appearing in glory, but to His going up into the presence of God on high; and this for reasons most nearly affecting God's glory now as well as those who enjoy His favour, as we shall hear presently. 'Having therefore been exalted by the right hand of God and received of the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured forth this which ye see and hear. For David ascended not into the heavens but saith himself, The LORD said to my Lord, Sit on My right hand till I make Thine enemies [the] footstool of Thy feet. Let all [the] house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God made Him both Lord and Christ — this Jesus whom ye crucified.'
Again from that most fruitful treasury of God's words is a sentence drawn to prove the bearing of Christ's life, including His resurrection and ascension, where were not only facts of the deepest import, the grounds of truth needed for every day and for eternity, but parts of God's infinite scheme for manifesting His own glory and giving effect to His goodness toward us. If Ps. 132 secures the risen Son of David for the everlasting King on His throne in Zion, with the abundant and suited privileges peculiar to His kingdom on earth and in Israel, the citation from Ps. 110 testifies to His present exaltation in heaven. Of this there was the most conclusive proof in the now accomplished promise of the Father, the gift of the Holy Spirit, of Whose outpouring there was indubitable evidence to their eyes and ears. That gift Christ had received for the second time. Once a man on earth He was sealed, the holy and acceptable One of God's delight: now a man in heaven a second time did He receive the same Spirit as the One Who, having finished the work of redemption, had gone on high, the guarantee and glorious witness of the acceptance of all who believing in His name, are justified and delivered, that they might be united in one, the body of the ascended Head. And on this rests the perpetuity of that gift, the presence of the Holy Ghost, so essential to the church of God. Not only is the outpoured Spirit the fruit of His accepted work in all its unchanging and everlasting love, but He is therefore given again to Christ, though for us. If Christ received of the Father the promised Spirit and poured forth what was seen and heard at Pentecost, how could the Holy Spirit but abide in honour of Him and of His work? No wonder whatever be the humiliating and deplorable provocations on our part whatever the deep griefs on His part as feeling for Christ's injured name, that He abides in us and with us for ever. He is come to testify to God's exalting Jesus, made both Lord and Christ, Whom men, yea Jews, crucified.
The effect of this solemn appeal to conscience, grounded on testimonies of scripture undeniably direct, was both immediate and permanent. The truth of God searched His people unsparingly: His grace met them in sovereign goodness, and established them in the Christ Whom they had so blindly and wickedly rejected.
'And when they heard, they were pricked in heart and said unto Peter and the rest of the apostles, What shall we do, brethren? And Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized each of you in the name of Jesus Christ for remission of sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For to you is the promise, and to your children, and to all that are afar off as many as [the] Lord our God shall call to [Him]. And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, Be saved from this perverse generation. Those then that accepted his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they persevered [continued steadfastly] in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers. And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles.1 And all that believed were together, and had all things common, and sold their possessions and substance, and distributed them to all according as anyone had need. And day by day, continuing with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they did take their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord was adding day by day together those that were to be saved' (vers. 37-47).
1 Some ancient authorities add 'in Jerusalem; and great fear was upon all': apparently a gloss. Cf. Acts 5:5.
It was a real work of God in the conscience. They were not persuaded only, but pricked in heart. There was submission to His person Whom they had just crucified, and this through faith in God's word. It was not mere remorse, still less a change of mind only, but real judgment of self before God (Whose part they now took against themselves and their unbelieving evil in the past), and a distinct casting themselves on Him Whom they had so bitterly despised to their own ruin. Now they repented, and were baptized each of them in the name of Jesus for remission of sins. Through His name the believer receives remission of sins; in none other is there salvation. He is exalted to give repentance and remission of sins. As they repented, so also were they baptized in His name, according to the charge laid on His servants. They took the place of death with Him: I say not that they then understood its meaning, as they doubtless entered into it more or less afterwards. The Lord directed His servants to baptize; and the new converts simply and without question submitted. It was His way, nor is any other so good, though many a servant of His diverged from His orders, and many a convert seems in effect to think himself, in this as in other things, wiser than his Master. It was a clean final break with sins and sin, with man and religious man, with Judaism. Little or nothing could any one of these confessors be supposed at this solemn epoch of new birth to apprehend with intelligence; but they did feel before God their own nothingness, and the all-sufficiency of His name Who had died on the cross. And they were welcome to the precious privilege conferred on them, as they could in no way have been recognized as disciples of His had they refused baptism in His name. It was the mark of His confession, the sign of salvation; and woe to him that spurns the authority and grace of Him Who instituted it!
But there is another matter of new and immense import that follows. These repentant Jews who submitted to baptism in the name of Jesus Christ for remission of sins are assured of the subsequent gift of the Spirit: 'And ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.' They were already born of God: without which there could be no repentance nor faith. They were to be baptized with water in the name of Jesus for remission. Not till then was the believing Jew to receive the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven; for this is in question here, 'the gift' (ἡ δωρεά), not merely the gifts (τὰ χαρσὶματα) or powers which accompanied and attested His divine presence now on earth. It is the more necessary to insist on the specific character of the truth, because of the widespread confusion in Christendom as to all this. The gift of the Spirit here spoken of, the peculiar and abiding privilege of the Christian and the church, is as distinct from new birth by the Spirit as from the gifts of which we read not a little in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles. But there is to be noticed circumstantial difference in the manner. For while the favoured Jew in Acts ii. had to be baptized before he receives this wondrous gift, the hitherto despised Gentile receives the Holy Ghost before being baptized in the name of the Lord: a difference in my judgment worthy of God, and instructive in His ways for His children.
The inestimable gift was not overlooked in Old Testament scripture: not only the new blessings of redemption in general, but that of the Spirit particularly. And Peter could here say that the promise was to them and to their children, yea, to all that were afar off, as many as the Lord their God should call to Him. Now that the time was come for displaying, not law nor government, but grace God would call to Himself the most distant, and bless the needy to the full. It is now no question of a mere external sign, but of the power of God in grace according to His promise.
This was not by any means all the apostle urged on that memorable day but from among more and different words it sufficed the Holy Ghost to recall the exhortation, 'Be saved from this perverse generation'. For now God was about to separate as well as to forgive and deliver, at least, the salvation goes beyond guilt and sin. He would set apart from the perverse generation hurrying on to its speedy ruin, which was rejecting the gospel as it had the Messiah Himself. From the separate people, now proved utterly crooked and rebellious, He would have His own to be saved, for His own glory and after a new way. This the rest of the Book we have entered upon opens out to us; nor can anything of the sort be to us of deeper interest or of more practical value. For we too, though Gentiles naturally, belong to this new family of God and new testimony of Christ.
'Those then that accepted his word were baptized: and there were added that day about three thousand souls' (ver. 41). 'Gladly,' the reading of the Received Text, is rejected on ample evidence by the critics as not found in the oldest and best authorities. It seems to be a perhaps unconscious importation from, or effect of, Acts 21:17, where it is in perfect keeping. Here it is not. For, precious and comforting as the gospel may be, deep seriousness would characterize those souls so newly repentant, and on grounds suited to sound them thoroughly. A 'glad' reception would better harmonize with a revival movement and its generally superficial results. The Pentecostal work was both profound and extensive: three thousand souls that day were no slight haul, but in every way suited to prove that a Divine person was just come in grace no less than power, both to save and to gather. So it is the Lord's will that we should ever remember and heed His presence from first to last. The Holy Spirit works by the gospel and forms the church here below for heaven.
Further, the Spirit abides evermore, so as to cut off all excuse for not going on with God according to His word and will. So here it is noted that 'they persevered in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers' (ver. 42). Such was the course on which entered the souls just born to God and blessed of Him in Christ. The teaching of the apostles supplied the needed instruction, fitted perfectly as they were not only by the Spirit's recalling to their remembrance all the words of the Lord Jesus, but by His own communication, according to the Saviour's promise, of all that they themselves could not then bear (John 14:26; John 16:12, 13). Never was there such teaching for souls whose very recent introduction into divine relationships made them hunger and thirst for all that would satisfy the new spiritual wants and affections of their souls. And they had it not orally alone, but after a while also in forms written by inspiration, that we too might have 'fellowship' with them, taking in now not the 'twelve' only but the great apostle of the Gentiles yet to be called. For 'teaching', however valuable, is not enough without 'fellowship', and few weigh how much they owe to the presence and living commentary on the truth which sharing it all together in practice furnishes.1 Then 'the breaking of bread' has a most influential place, both by keeping the Lord continually before the saints in His unspeakable grace and suffering, and in drawing out the deepest feeling of the heart, where the exercise or display of power might be otherwise a danger, as we see at Corinth, where the true character of the Eucharist was lost, and the assembly became a scene of ostentation (1 Cor. 11:20-34). Nor are 'prayers', meaning a suppose) the united or common prayers of the saints, left out of this weighty record; for none can neglect 'the prayers' without loss otherwise irreparable, and so much the more of moment were they then as the saints rose to the joy of their new and everlasting blessedness. For power and privilege would be of all things the most fatal if the saints slipped out of the sense of needed and constant dependence on God.
1 Canon W. G. Humphry would, with others, apply κοινωνία here to 'the communication of worldly goods', but this does not suit the immediate connection, and is given in another form subsequently. Besides κοίνωνὶα requires to be modified as in Rom. 15:26; 2 Cor. 8:4; and Heb. 13:16, to mean other than 'communion', as here.
On the one hand, the moral impression was great and immediate (ver. 43): 'fear came upon every soul', and not the less, but the more, because it was the effect of God's presence in grace, not in judgments which alarm for a moment but soon yield to a fatal reaction. 'And many wonders and signs were done through the apostles.' The manifestations of power were not only marvellous, but significant, so as to reveal Him Who wrought by means of His servants in His own character and ways, alas! among a people manifestly treated as unbelieving and apostate: else His word had sufficed and made them out of place.
On the other hand, how lovely the picture the faithful present for a brief moment! 'And all that believed were together, and had all things common, and sold their possessions and substance, and distributed them to all according as any one had need. And day by day, continuing with one accord in the temple and breaking bread at home, they did take their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord was adding day by day together those that were to be saved' (vers. 44-47). Never before was such a sight among men on earth; never such love rising above the selfishness of nature, not merely in that land and race, but in any other, and all through the power of divine grace in the name of the Crucified now seen by faith on high. It was sweet fruit of the Spirit, as far as possible from a claim or a command, however right be the voice of divine authority in its place. But here was the flow, mighty yet unbidden, of divine love that embraced every one begotten of God, without reserve or stint in hearts which answered in their measure to His Who with His Son vouchsafes us all things.
It was, no doubt, a peculiar hour of transitional character, exactly suited to a state which beheld all the faithful within one city; what, in fact, we never do find when grace called and gathered elsewhere, and especially from among the Gentiles. There love surely was not wanting in the power of God; yet it never did take this shape, but one more adapted to the one body, wherever found on earth. So, too, we may observe the continuing in the temple as yet steadfastly, perhaps more so than ever, whilst they celebrated 'at home' (not 'from house to house') the Lord's Supper: deep and solemn joy in the remembrance of the Saviour, but unabated attachment as yet to the temple and its hours of prayer. Even ordinary meals were lit up with the happiness of His presence: how much more where all His self-sacrifice was before their eyes! Thus did they praise God, and all the people regarded them with the favour with which they viewed Christ Himself in His earlier day (Luke 2:52). In the last verse, 'to the assembly' appears to be a gloss. 'Together', from Acts 3:1, should come in here: 'and the Lord was adding day by day together those that were to be saved.'1 It was the church, but described, not yet so designated till Acts 5:11, where the saints there called out together are styled 'the assembly' or church.
1 It appears to me that σώθητε, in ver. 40. refutes the prevalent mistake that τοὺς σωζομένους means 'those in process of salvation' though this be grammatically possible and easy. But see Luke 13:23. So Heb. 10:10 shows that robs ἁγιαζομένους in ver. 14 cannot refer to present process. Not time, but character, is in question.
Thus did God gather to the name of the Lord Jesus, His church began to be built. But He did not therefore forget His ancient people. In word and deed He appealed to their conscience, if haply they might repent, and He bring in the predicted times of blessing.
'Now Peter and John were going up into the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth. And a certain man being lame from his mother's womb was carried, whom they laid every day at the gate of the temple called Beautiful, to ask alms of those that entered into the temple; who, seeing Peter and John about to enter into the temple, asked to receive alms. And Peter gazing on him with John said, Look on us. And he gave heed to them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, Silver and gold have I none, but what I have, this I give thee: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth walk. And grasping him by the right hand he raised [him] up; and immediately his feet and ankle-bones were made strong. And leaping up he stood and walked, and entered with them into the temple, walking, and leaping, and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God; and they recognized him that he it was that sat for alms at the Beautiful gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at that which had happened to him' (vers. 1-10).
The actual circumstances here recounted agree singularly with the special form the truth assumes. God is showing His long-suffering grace toward Israel though He has commenced an entirely distinct testimony and work in the gospel and in the church. So Peter and John, who were certainly behind none in the new position and testimony, are seen going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth. For the time at any rate they seem the better Jews for being so blessed as Christians. Not even their apostolic dignity, nor the power with which they were just clothed, detached them. There at the Beautiful gate when about to enter the temple, a man lame from his birth (often seen, being habitually laid there) asked of them alms, and got a better blessing. For Peter, gazing on him with John, arrested his attention who expected to receive some little boon. But if discouraged by 'Silver and gold have I none,' he hears of something more indeed: 'What I have, this I give thee: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth walk.' And if the apostle promptly grasped his right hand and raised him up, immediately his feet and ankle-bones received strength, so that leaping up he stood, walked, and entered with them into the temple, praising God. It was not done in a corner. All the people saw and heard, recognizing him to be the same that used to sit there begging; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had befallen him.
It was indeed a sign admirably calculated to awaken the Jews, to attest the grace of God towards their utter weakness, to manifest the power of the risen and glorified Messiah, and so much the more as it was not His presence but His answer from on high to the power of His name appealed to by His servant on earth. If such was the instant virtue of the name of
Jesus for the lame man, what would not follow faith in that name if Israel believed?
'And as he held Peter and John, all the people ran together unto them in the portico that is called Solomon's, greatly wondering. And Peter seeing [it] answered unto the people, Men of Israel, why marvel ye at this [man]? or why gaze ye at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him to walk? The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, did glorify His Servant Jesus; Whom ye delivered up and denied before Pilate's face when he decided [lit. judged] to release [Him]' (vers. 11-13). This was no uncertain sound. But all is in keeping. It is the God of our fathers Who glorified the Messiah, His Servant Jesus. 'Son' is not the thought, but Jehovah's 'Servant' as in Isa. 42, 49, 50, 52, 53, Whom the Jews had denied before the Roman judge when disposed, yea determined, to let Him go.
And who is this that so boldly charged the Jews with denying their own Messiah? The very man who not many weeks before had denied Him with oaths. But Peter immediately broke down in a sorrow which wrought repentance according to God, as he judged not only the ripe fruit but the root of his sin. Now restored, his feet washed, he is so completely cleansed from the defilement that he can without a blush or waver tax the men of Israel with the very sin from which he had been so lately freed himself. For redemption by the blood of Jesus had meanwhile come in, and its enjoyment is so much the greater as the believer judges himself before God. 'But ye denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you; but the Author [lit. Chief] of life ye killed, Whom God raised from among [the] dead, of which (or, Whom) we are witnesses, and on the faith of His name did His name make this man strong whom ye behold and know; and the faith that is by Him gave him this entireness before you all' (vers. 14-16). None can preach, any more than worship, dike a soul once cleansed, having no more conscience of sins. How desperate their position! The Holy and Righteous One (Isa. 53:11) they denied; a murderer they desired as a favour: God was distinctly against them in raising up from the dead the Author of life Whom they slew; and the apostles were witnesses of this; as His name through faith in it made the lame man strong whom they looked on and knew. What and where were they in gainsaying unbelief of Him Who responded to the faith by Him and in Him, that gave such a cripple this entireness in presence of them all?
Then does the apostle explain how so dreadful a deed could be on their part. 'And now, brethren, I know that ye acted in ignorance, as also your rulers, but God thus fulfilled what He announced before by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ should suffer' (vers. 17, 18). In one way this might aggravate the degraded condition of God's ancient people; for how came they and their rulers to be so ignorant? They knew neither the scripture nor the power of God. They valued neither grace nor truth. They saw works, they heard words, such as man never experienced before; yet were they more besotted than heathen, duller than their own beasts of burden. But He Who suffered for them on the cross prayed to His Father to forgive them, for they knew not what they did; and now the Holy Spirit through the apostle assures them that so it was, as a plea for divine compassion. That His Christ should suffer was no afterthought of God Who predicted it by all the prophets, and thus fulfilled it. So must the people learn their blind iniquity; so would God manifest His mercy Who gave Christ as a propitiation for their offences.
'Repent, therefore, and be converted for the blotting out of your sins, so that seasons of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and He may send forth Him that hath been foreappointed for you, Jesus Christ, Whom heaven indeed must receive till times of restoring all things, whereof God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets since time began' (vers. 19-21).
Here we have the condition of blessing to the Jews. Seasons of refreshing from the presence of the Lord are vainly sought for them as a people, till they repent and turn again for the blotting out of their sins. So the Lord had intimated when He bowed to their rejection of Him, and declared their house left to them desolate: 'Ye shall not see Me henceforth till ye shall say, Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord' — of Jehovah. Whensoever their heart shall turn to the Lord, the veil is taken away. They will be converted for the blotting out of their sins. They will in heart welcome their long-despised Messiah, and Jehovah will send Him. There will be at least a remnant converted and awaiting His advent, and He will appear to their deliverance and the discomfiture of their enemies, as many scriptures bear witness. Of that godly remnant not a few will be put to death, and these, whether earlier or later sufferers, shall be raised in time to join the saints already glorified, so that they all may reign with Christ during the thousand years according to Rev. 20:4. Those who escape and survive will become the first and most honoured nucleus for the kingdom on earth, when heaven no longer has within it the Christ foreappointed for them, Jesus, and times for restoring all things dawn on earth.
For God does mean to bless this long-groaning creation, and He inspired the mouth of His holy prophets to speak of it since time began. They therefore do greatly err who deny the immense and universal blessing in store for Israel, the nations, the earth, yea, even the lower creation. They do not know how God intends to crown men here below with loving-kindness and tender mercies, when He shall open His hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing. Judgment, undoubtedly, must fall previously; and Jehovah shall punish the host of the high ones on high, and the kings of the earth on the earth. Then the moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed, when Jehovah of hosts shall reign in Mount Zion and Jerusalem, and before His ancients gloriously. For the great distinctive feature is to be, along with the exclusion of Satan and his power, the mighty and beneficent presence and reign of Jehovah-Jesus, Who with righteousness shall judge the poor and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth, after He shall smite the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips shall slay the wicked. 'And righteousness shall be the girdle of His loins, and faithfulness the girdle of His reins. The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice's den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of Jehovah as the waters cover the sea. And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse which shall stand for an ensign of the peoples: to it shall the Gentiles seek and His rest shall be glorious' (Isa. 11:5-10).
What a gap in the thoughts and desires of saints who expect none of these great and glorious changes in honour of Jesus! How defective the outlook where the grand purposes of God for the reversal of the world's ruin and misery since sin entered it are unknown! It will be noticed that here nothing is said of the still more magnificent circle of blessing revealed in Eph. 1:10, when God will place under the headship of Christ all things that are in heaven and all things that are on earth. In our text we have only the earthly things in relation to Messiah and Israel, not the whole universe put under Christ and the heavenly saints.
Meanwhile the Jews refused to repent, and the kingdom, instead of being brought in, is postponed till they are converted for the blotting out of their sins at a future day, so that seasons of refreshing may come from Jehovah's presence, and Messiah be sent from heaven, according to the prophetic word.
'Moses indeed said, A prophet shall [the] Lord our God raise up from among your brethren as [He did] me; Him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever He shall speak unto you. And it shall be that every soul which shall not hear that prophet shall be destroyed from among the people. Yea, and all the prophets from Samuel, and those in succession, as many as spoke did also announce these days. Ye are the sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God covenanted with our fathers, saying unto Abraham And in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. To you first, God, having raised up His Servant, sent Him to bless you in turning away each from your iniquities' (vers. 22-26).
During the interval God turns the time of Jewish unbelief to the gospel call of the Gentiles, as well as to the formation of the body, the church one with Christ, wherein is neither Jew nor Greek. Here Peter is still exhorting them to repent, and in case of it pledging the return of Christ to establish the time of predicted peace and blessing. For Jesus was clearly the Prophet raised up, like Moses, but incomparably greater, as Moses himself bore witness in Deut. 18:15: none could refuse His words with impunity, but to his own destruction. 'And all the prophets from Samuel, and those in succession, as many as spoke, did also announce these days.' As the Jews were sons of the prophets and of God's covenant with their fathers, according to the promised blessing in the seed of Abraham, so was Jesus, His anointed Servant, sent to them first to bless them in turning away each from their iniquities.
It is not yet the heavenly testimony of Paul, nor even what Peter preached to those converted and believing in Christ, as in Acts 2, but his call to the Jew responsible to hear the final appeal to that nation.
The discourse of the apostle was interrupted at this point, but this is lost to many a reader by the division of the chapters.
'Now as they were speaking unto the people, the priests and the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came upon them, being distressed because of their teaching the people, and announcing in Jesus the resurrection from [the] dead, and they laid hands on them and put them in ward unto the morrow, for it was already evening. But many of those that heard the word believed, and the number of the men became about five thousand' (vers. 1-4).
Religious authority took umbrage. Who were these men to speak within the precincts of the temple? It is true that a mighty miracle had been wrought publicly and undeniably; but officials are sensitive to any invasion of their rights, and are apt to leave God out of the account, speaking as of the world and knowing none else than the world to hear them. But a class came forward now, which had been comparatively in the background whilst the Lord lived and laboured. Then were the Pharisees His active adversaries, the advocates of defective and spurious righteousness, opposing the Righteous One. Now the enemy had ready another and very different body among the Jews, the Sadducees, roused from their habitual calm by a truth which convicted them of utter infidelity and of consequent antagonism to God and His word. Miracles were bad enough in the eyes of the free-thinkers, they brought the power of God too near, they were a sign to unbelievers that they might hear the truth. But the resurrection, exemplified in the person of Jesus, was intolerable; and none so intolerant as those who boast of tolerating every shade, when the truth confronts them. The mild Sadducee outdoes the previously fierce Pharisee, none so disturbed by the announcement of Jesus risen from the dead.
And no wonder. The resurrection of Him Whom man had just slain is the plain, conclusive, and irrefragable proof of God's power according to His word, the most complete refutation of those who admit nothing beyond the natural course of things in this world. Laws which govern that course none dispute, nor the knowledge of such laws as men call science. But the resurrection proves One above those laws, which in no way control or limit His power, as He will demonstrate in the day in which He makes all things new. Meanwhile the raising of Jesus from the dead, while the ordinary course goes on, is the sufficient and striking witness to the power which will destroy the world that now is, and create a new one, wholly different, to His own glory.
Hence the sceptical school took fire at the apostles for proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead; for it laid bare their evil unbelief and convicted them of being enemies of the truth. fighting against God Himself. Otherwise they would have inquired into the facts; and, comparing them with the scriptures, they must have rejoiced that He had done so blessed and glorious a thing according to His word. For the resurrection of Christ is the pledge that those who are Christ's shall rise as He rose: He is avowedly the firstfruits of those fallen asleep by Him. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. They are the heads of the two families, the Adam family, and the Christ family, death having come in by the one head, as now resurrection by the other. Those that are Christ's rise at His coming. It is a resurrection from among the dead, as His was, and they reign with Him for a thousand years. The rest of the dead do not live till the thousand years have been completed. Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection: on such the second death has no power; but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years. No one doubts that in another sense they will reign for ever, to the ages of ages, as will all the godly who are to be born of God during the millennial reign. But this period of special reigning over the earth ought not to be ignored because of the eternal blessedness of the glorified after the kingdom is over and the new heaven and earth are come in the absolute sense, the wicked having been raised, judged, and cast into the lake of fire. Theirs is not a resurrection from the dead, for there are no more dead left in the grave, they themselves being the last remainder after the righteous are raised.
Thus it was not merely the truth of resurrection which roused Sadducean spite, but that of the resurrection from the dead. The resurrection of the unjust, of the mass of mankind, is not 'from among' the dead like the resurrection of the just; it is the effect of the power of Christ, the Son of God, when He summons the wicked from their graves to judgment. The righteous have life In the Son now, and rise to a resurrection of life; as the unjust to a resurrection of judgment a thousand years after, when they must honour Him Whom they now despise. So perfectly does John 5 agree with Rev. 20. There is no discrepancy; but there are two resurrections according to Scripture, not one only. 'The general' indiscriminate resurrection of the creeds is according to tradition, but is a fable. There will be a resurrection of both just and unjust, of the just to reign with Christ at His coming, of the unjust to be judged by Him before He delivers up the kingdom to Him Who is God and Father, when He shall have abolished all rule and all authority and power. Men, and even believers, whose mind is on the things of men, are offended at the grace which discriminates now, as it will yet more manifestly by the resurrection from the dead. They prefer a 'dim religious light', with its vagueness and uncertainty; they shrink from that blessed hope — at least in any definite shape — which is the fruit of sovereign grace for the believer, involving as it does the solemn and dark background of judgment for all who despise both grace and truth in Christ.
But if the apostles were put in ward that evening till the morrow, the word was not bound, the true light was already shining. Many of those that heard believed. The number of men rose to about five thousand. This would suppose not a few women and children. Compare Matt. 14:21; Luke 9:14; John 6:10. No sufficient reason appears for taking 'men' (ἀνδρῶν) otherwise than with its usual precision.
'And it came to pass on the morrow that their rulers and elders and scribes were gathered together at Jerusalem, and Annas, the high priest and Caiaphas, and John, and Alexander, and as many as were of high-priestly lineage. And having set them in the midst they inquired, By what power, or in what name, did ye this? Then Peter, filled with [the] Holy Spirit, said unto them, Rulers of the people and elders [of Israel], if we this day are examined as to a good deed done to an infirm man, whereby he hath been cured, be it known to you all and to all the people of Israel that in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, Whom ye crucified, Whom God raised from [the] dead, in [or, by] Him [or, in this (name)] he standeth before you whole. He is the Stone that was set at naught by you the builders, that was made head of [the] corner. And in none other is there salvation, for neither is there a different name under heaven that is given among men by which we must be saved' (vers. 5-12).
On the morrow flocked together the religious authorities from the highest, including all grades, and the two apostles were challenged. Peter answered in the power of the Spirit Who filled him, that the good deed was done in His name Whom they had crucified, and God had raised from the dead, Whom His word characterizes as the Stone, set at naught by the builders, yet become the head of the corner, the rejected but exalted Messiah. What a situation for the rulers and people of Israel! And what a light on all that had befallen 'Jesus Christ of Nazareth' was afforded by the testimony of scripture to the Stone, the unquestionable figure used of old about the Messiah!
Consider ever so briefly Gen. 49:22-24; Ps. 118:22 (the very passage referred to), Isa. 28:16, Dan. 2:34, 44, 45, specially with the use made of it by our Lord Himself in Matt. 21:42-44; to which we may add Eph. 2:20, and 1 Peter 2:7, 8. There is first His relation to Israel; then His rejection by the chiefs, but His exaltation notwithstanding; next, Jehovah's commendation of Him to the believer in the face of divine judgment, and, lastly, His establishment of God's kingdom here below, to the destruction of the Gentile powers which had displaced Israel. The New Testament while it of course confirms, supplements all this by connecting the Stone with the two advents of the Messiah, rendered necessary alike by God's grace and His judgment, and by Israel's unbelief now and future repentance in view of His coming again, crowned by Christ's place as chief cornerstone, Who brings even now those of the Jews who believe in Him into better blessings than the nation will by and by receive at His appearing, that is, to be now a holy and a royal priesthood with all that is suited to each of these blessed relationships.
Into this Peter does not enter here; for he was addressing not the believing remnant of Christian Jews, but the proud and bitter enemies of both Christ and the Christian. But he does set forth, to Christ's honour, and in love even to those who had so guiltily cast Him out, the plain and exclusive assurance of salvation in Christ. 'In none other is there salvation, for neither is there another — a different — name under heaven that is given among men whereby we must be saved.' How blessed that, though God has set Him up at His own right hand in heaven, His name is given under heaven among men on earth, by which we must be saved if saved at all! It is here and now that we must be saved; for it is of grace and by faith. There is no other name — our own least of all; and no other way, for He is the way. Faith exalts the Saviour and the God Who gave Him, and leaves no room for works of righteousness of our doing, even were we capable of them, which in our unbelieving state we certainly were not. All is of grace; but grace reigning through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord. How awful that men should neglect so great a salvation — yea, though, on behalf of Christ, His servants beseech them to be reconciled to God!
For the servants of Christ the conflict was now beginning. On the one side worldly power and religion, position and numbers; on the other, faith in His name Whom their adversaries had crucified. What could have seemed more unequal? Yes, to those who leave out God, and His Son, and the Spirit sent down from heaven. But in the believer is not this inexcusable unbelief? Why do we not always reckon on divine intervention, till He is judicially giving up people to their own delusions?
'Now beholding the boldness of Peter and John, and aware that they were unlettered and simple men, they wondered, and recognized them that they were with Jesus' (ver. 13). In none does the Spirit's power shine more conspicuously than in such as can boast nothing of this world's advantages. For high and low cry up the learning of the schools: the high, as making the most of what they themselves have enjoyed; the low, in general as excusing their own deficiency and overvaluing what they have not. But in the things of God nothing has power like faith in the God Who is glorifying Christ. And learning, whenever leaned on as an object, so far from being a help, is apt to become a positive hindrance and a real snare. Man as such is capable of attaining it in the highest degree; and pride generally follows, as well as the applause of men. But the ways of God are not as ours, and He was pleased to humble man, not only by Christ crucified, but by choosing the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise. In the front rank of those stand the apostles who, speaking broadly, had not one distinction in the eyes of the world, not one trait of which flesh could vaunt.
Such certainly were Peter and John now in presence of Jewish rulers who, having rejected Jesus, had lost God, and were putting forth nothing but an arm of flesh against His purposes and His servants. The rulers saw their bold bearing on the one hand, and on the other their lack of polite letters or of any public position which could whet their powers or impart experience and presence of mind. If they could not but wonder, they did also recognize their having been with Jesus. This could only aggravate their uneasiness, especially as an unanswerable witness was present.
'And seeing the man that was healed standing with them, they had nothing to say in reply' (ver. 14). How solemn the position of men who, bearing the name of God's people, are so entangled by the enemy that they cannot deny the truth to which they are at the same time determined not to bow! To own it would be, they think, their ruin. Not so in truth, but their salvation! It would have been the humbling discovery of their sin, and of God's unspeakable grace, of a rejected but exalted Messiah, Whose name by faith in it brings life and remission of sins. But no: they will not come to Him that they may have life. They love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil. They value the glory of men and not the glory of God, Who is in none of their thoughts. It is not only the unbelieving who perish, but the fearful, the cowardly, bent on present interests according to their own reckoning, and for their own pleasure, in contempt of evidence to their consciences adequate, yea overwhelming, that they are fighting against God. Did there not stand before all with the apostles a man who notoriously had never before stood?
Their guilty dilemma they did not disguise from themselves, nor one from another when they got rid of the presence of those who morally condemned them. 'But, having commanded them to go aside out of the council, they were conferring among themselves, saying, What shall we do to these men? for that indeed a notable sign hath been done through them [is] manifest to all that inhabit Jerusalem; and we cannot deny it. But that it be not spread farther among the people, let us threaten them severely [lit. with threat] to speak to no man longer in [lit. on] this name' [vers. 15-17]. Here the unerring word of God lays bare the workings of hardened feeling without conscience among His enemies; and none are so bitter, none so obdurate, as those who, responsible as His people to do His will have made up their mind to do the* own. They fully knew the remarkable deed just wrought by the apostle; they recognized it as not merely a miracle but 'a sign', yet did they strengthen themselves against the Almighty, running on the thick bosses of His buckler. In the face of the evident finger and instructive lesson of God, they deliberately strive together to extinguish its effects. They are well aware that 'these men' claim nothing for themselves, assert nothing but the name of Jesus. But this is the very name they themselves most fear and would banish for ever if they could. How vainly! It is the day pre-eminently for bearing witness to Jesus. This is the true and great business of the believer; this his one unfailing joy and duty: in the gospel, in the church, with friend or with foe, with few or with many, habitually in word, often in deed, sometimes in silence, but always, are we called to be His witnesses. Had not He Himself said to these very men with others, as His last charge, 'Ye shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit is come upon you, and ye shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth'? Could those blind, plotting, self-condemned Jewish rulers stifle that testimony? So they hoped in the infatuation of unbelief which hid their own exceeding iniquity as well as God's will and glory from their eyes. But faith vanquishes the world.
The charge not to speak at all nor teach in reference to (or resting on) the name of Jesus, which the council laid on Peter and John, was therefore as bold as it was wicked, and the more so as emanating from rulers claiming the highest authority in religion (ver. 18). How solemn to think that unwittingly they so treated their own Messiah! And why was it unwitting? Had God given them ineffectual light by the prophets? They own at that moment a manifest sign in the man that was healed. This they could not deny, that they would not believe. And so abiding in darkness they knew not the impiety of their enforcing silence about the Messiah Whose loving-kindness was better than life to His servants.
'But Peter and John answering said unto them, Whether it be right before God to hear you rather than God, judge ye: for we cannot but speak the things which we saw and heard' (vers. 19, 20). This reply put the case with unanswerable plainness and moral power. A ruler, especially a religious one, is bound to uphold what is righteous before God, and their charge simply amounted to heeding themselves in preference to God, for they demanded not a word more in the name of Jesus, though God had openly and just now honoured it unmistakably.
As for the apostles, faith in Christ, love to souls, special call, divine authority, and devotedness to His glory, all wrought to open their lips in His testimony and praise. The things they had seen and heard were so bound up with what was due to Jehovah and His Anointed, as well as with the believer's blessedness and the unbeliever's misery, that, woe be to them if they held their peace! A necessity was laid on them no less than on Paul at a later day (1 Cor. 9:16). They had received a personal command from Him by Whom kings rule in divine providence; only theirs was on the ground of grace and truth unknown to earthly governors as such, and for ends immeasurably higher and more enduring. Were those who claimed His sanction in a lower sphere authorized to set it aside in a higher? They might attempt it, but as surely would it be to their own irremediable destruction, as it would be in vain for those who heard the voice of One on high mightier than the noise of many waters, let the floods lift up their voice never so loftily.
'And they having further threatened them let them go, finding nothing how they might punish them on account of the people; because all were glorifying God for what had been done. For the man on whom this sign of healing was wrought was more than forty years old' (vers. 21, 22).
Threatening, and further threatening, are tokens of weakness and ill-will, not of power which knows how to forbear till the critical moment come. It is the natural resource of such as have not the truth, and can find no plea of unrighteousness in those they would punish. In this case too, as often, the people were feared, not God. Not that they loved but rather despised the people; but they were necessary as an instrument of influence and the loss of this they dreaded above all. What a contrast with that Ruler, Who is just, ruling in the fear of God! Their character is as darkness, and the end death: He, as the light of the morning when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain.
Government, poor as it may be now, is right and needful; but it is never right when those who should exercise it shrink from fear of the people, instead of acting before God Who authorized them. Alas! it was the religious council that was without God and opposed to Him; and the poor and simple, ignorant as they might be, in this case did all glorify God for that which was done. They were familiar for many years with the sufferer who by divine power was healed; and they had no class interest which was wounded by owning the good hand of God. The Jewish rulers feared not God but the people, and would have punished the holy servants of Christ if they could only have found an excuse plausible before men. They were in the darkness of nature, with the pride of possessing the law of God, and under the direction of Satan. The wisdom of their wise was perishing, and the understanding of their prudent hid. Learned or unlearned were obliged alike to own in the presence of His revealed mind that they could not read it.
Henceforth His word was with the servants and confessors of the Lord Jesus, the Spirit given them was self-evidently not of cowardly fear, but of power and love and a sober mind. The truth of Christ too nearly concerns God and man to be shelved. If truly received, it commands conscience and heart, mind and soul. If the rulers could not deny the sign before their eyes, still less could the apostles refrain from confessing the name of Jesus, the Saviour in heaven for man on earth. For them to withhold God's glad tidings in Christ would have been treason spiritually. Indifference to Christ or the gospel is cousin-germane to infidelity.
Undeniably there was now a power on earth intrinsically superior to that of man beyond all comparison, but not yet at work so as to preclude shame and suffering, above all for Christ's sake. Nor was it merely with dark heathenism that it clashed, but with the highest authority of the Jewish people, now proving themselves as opposed at least as the heathen to the light and truth and power of God manifested by the presence of the Holy Spirit here below. The wonders and signs done by the apostles, the tongues of the Gentiles spoken in a moment by Jewish Christians who had never learnt them, the mighty works of God in redemption set forth, and unselfish grace raising the believers above what not only their own habits craved, but the nature of man universally, did not, rich as they are, constitute the entire testimony for the name of the Lord Jesus.
A particular sign before the temple, done in His name, had roused not more the amazement of the multitude than the jealous fears of the religious chiefs, sore troubled because they proclaimed in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. How blinding is the influence of unbelief! They could not deny the reality of the miracle; they would not believe the gospel. They put in ward and further threatened the instruments of divine power. They have not a word to say about their own Scriptures bearing witness to their rejection and God's exaltation of the Messiah; yet they charged the apostles not to speak at all, nor teach in the name of Jesus, desirous of punishing them, but finding as yet no means how to do so, because of the people whose favour they dreaded to lose, without the fear of God. A truly lamentable picture of those who claimed to be exclusively His people on the earth!
Little did they know that God had begun to call a new corps of witnesses from His ancient people, and that He would gather in more from the Gentiles. And so the Spirit is intimating in this very Book as a fact, the ground of which is explained in the Epistles.
'But being let go they came unto their own [company], and reported all that [or, whatsoever] the chief priests and the elders said unto them. And they on hearing [it] with one accord lifted up [their] voice unto God and said, Master, Thou [art] He that made the heaven, and the earth, and the sea, and all that in them [is]; Who1 by [the] Holy Spirit, [by the] mouth of our father David Thy servant, didst say, Why did Gentiles rage and peoples meditate vain things? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against His Anointed [or, Christ]. For of a truth in this city against Thy holy Servant Jesus Whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate with Gentiles and peoples of Israel were gathered to do whatsoever Thy hand and Thy counsel foreordained to come to pass. And now, Lord, look upon their threatenings, and give to Thy bondmen with all boldness to speak Thy word, while [lit., in that] Thou stretchest forth Thy hand for healing and that signs and wonders be done by the name of Thy holy Servant Jesus' (vers. 23-30).
1 The most ancient reading, here followed, seems difficult or at least confused.
What made these believers 'their own company'? What drew the two apostles to them instinctively and immediately on their dismissal from the council? It was the Spirit of God Who had gathered them to the name of the risen Christ. The people of Israel, their leaders at least, were now becoming their enemies as His, a new people was being formed with a High Priest sat down on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle which the Lord pitched, not man. For He has obtained a ministry the more excellent, by how much also He is the Mediator of a better covenant which has been enacted upon better promises [Heb. 8:1, 2, 6]. It is not that they then understood their own privileges as they are here put, nor that the statement here cited covers their best and highest blessings; but they knew the One on high Who was the accomplishment and securer of all, and hence they were more and more attracted to the circle of those who confessed Him and detached in principle, as gradually more in heart, from their old belongings and their old boast.
And 'their own company' responded with one accord on hearing their report of all that the religious chiefs of the nation had said. Their utterance is a remarkable outpouring to God, and proves how deeply they err who fancy that there can be no agreement in prayer save through a previously composed and commonly possessed form: a grave interference with, and practical denial of, the power of the Holy Spirit, the only right and adequate spring of all that should characterize the assembly of God. For He it was Who guided in this spontaneous spreading out before God of their then passing circumstances, according to the written word and in striking identification with the Lord Jesus. 'Master,' said they, in the sense of Sovereign owner and disposer of all, 'Thou art He that made the heavens and the earth, and the sea, and all that in them is.' They acknowledge His glory in creation, but turn at once to His prophetic word through David in the beginning of Psalm 2. This they distinctly apply to that unnatural combination, which Jerusalem had just beheld, between Gentiles and Jews, between Herod and Pontius Pilate, against Jesus the Messiah. He Who at first created all, governed all, and He had revealed His will in His word though not yet was it all fulfilled.
For beyond a doubt it was of the Holy Ghost that David so spoke. To no event since the Psalm was written can the opening words apply save to the one just before them, of that strange union and daring guilt they do speak with precision, where Jew and Gentile set themselves with their rulers in array against Jehovah and His Anointed as never before or since. There are great principles in Scripture, but also exclusively personal prophecies. But though the disciples discern in it a Satan-directed conspiracy, in which evil seemed to have all its way without check even to the crucifying of the Lord of glory, they are clear that the enemy with all his hosts has in reality gained nothing but defeat. The others thought it not at all when they held their council and adjudged Jesus to the death of the cross; but they were gathered by Him Who is higher than the highest, to do whatsoever His hand and His counsel predetermined to be done.
And so it ever is, even in this world lying in the wicked one though it be, but not always so conspicuously as the written word made it in that which was and is so infinitely momentous to God and man. But how solemn to see 'in this city', as everywhere, that men who are the nearest concerned, the perpetrators of these horrors against God and His Christ, are the last to perceive the import of their own acts, still less God's gracious and worthy purposes by them! In truth, not one sparrow falls on the ground without Him; and the very hairs of our head are all numbered.
Futile and wicked effort! The murderous violence of man but rivets the bands and cords he would burst asunder. He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall have them in derision. But this is far from all in the second Psalm. Then shall He speak to them in His wrath and vex them in His sore displeasure. This, however, is not yet, for, instead of judgments to punish their evil and overwhelm their pride, His grace is meanwhile sending out the gospel — repentance and remission of sins preached in the name of Jesus to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. The promise of His Father is sent forth on the disciples, the Holy Ghost as power from on high to associate those who believe with Himself in heaven. When this work of heavenly grace is done, God will take His place for the earth and in Israel especially. He has in no way forgotten or repented of His promise to Abraham or David. 'Yet have I set My King upon My holy hill of Zion. I will declare the decree: Jehovah hath said unto Me, Thou art My Son; this day have I begotten Thee. Ask of Me, and I shall give Thee the heathen for Thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for Thy possession.'
Do any contend that this latter part of the Psalm is now accomplished, 'spiritually' as they call it, under the gospel? It is perfectly demonstrable that such a straining of Scripture is precluded by the context. For it is therein declared that Messiah shall [not save, nor unite to Himself as members of His body but] break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel. So Rev. 2:27 shows that the faithful who are now being called will share in this with Christ at His coming, instead of its being fulfilled in some allegorical way at the present — a sense unworthy of all just interpretation. Hence the final appeal is to the kings and judges of the earth to pay homage to Jehovah and the Son, lest He be angry, and they perish under ever so little a kindling of His wrath. It is not a call to the poor and heavy-laden to believe the gospel; it is a question of the future and manifest kingdom of God when the Son of man comes in power and glory. Compare Psalm 8: and Daniel 2; Dan. 7. Still, whether it be then or now, blessed are all they that put their trust in Him.
In vain do some, following a few Rabbis, limit or even apply such words to the reign of David or Solomon, for the words go beyond their glory, and still more of their successors. Neither attempted to reign to the ends of the earth, or required the homage of its kings as such; nor was any man called to trust in either; nor was lack of reverence visited with such perdition. That Christ has not yet executed the judgment of verse 9 is no proof that He will not, but is rather the solemn assurance that He will.
In connection with our Scripture it is noticeable that those who so definitely use the Psalm for its accomplishment in the uprising against the Messiah stop short there. Not a thought is expressed by them of His asking for Jehovah's giving the heathen for His inheritance and the uttermost parts of the earth for His possession (ver. 8). Christ is occupied with His heavenly relations and offices now. He will ask for the earth when He is about to come and execute judgment on the living and the dead. Then will be His appearing and His kingdom. Now He is hid in God, the source of gifts for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ, till we all come unto the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God (Eph. 4:11-13).
Hence the praying saints do not now ask for such vengeance from God on their adversaries, as we find in the Old Testament, and emphatically in the Psalms which reflect the inmost feeling of the godly concerned, whether in their past preparatory accomplishment or in their complete fulfilment at the end of the age. It is not, as many in ignorant presumption dare to think, that these intercessions against the wicked, as in Psalms 6, 10, 54, 59, 83, and the like, are vindictive; they are solemnly judicial when the time and instruments are there to pour out God's wrath on all who despise Him. But now it is the day of grace and salvation, the accepted time: while Christ sits on the right hand of God; and the Holy Ghost is uniting to Him the one body, the church; and sovereign grace in the gospel flows out, overflowing for the time all difference between Jew and Gentile who are called to heavenly glory. In a spirit suitable to this do they pray, 'And now, Lord, look upon their threatenings, and give to Thy bondmen with all boldness to speak Thy word, while Thou stretchest forth Thy hand for healing, and that signs and wonders be done by the name of Thy Servant Jesus' (vers. 29, 30).
It was enough for their hearts that the Lord should look upon the threats of those that sought their injury: He knew best what to permit and what to restrain; and He could deliver. For themselves they besought grace to speak His word with all boldness or liberty. Is this what we are doing or seeking? Do we prize it as our chief joy and duty and business on the earth? Is it merely with Christian companions of like mind, spending an hour or two in the morning with people of leisure, and in the evening with those who have closed their earthly toils? This may be all well; but in such circumstances it is apt to be sitting over the word rather than the word over them, admiring the things which they know, and criticizing those who do not know the wondrous counsels and ways of grace. Far different was the heart of these early saints who had so much to learn; but in their faith they supplied, or added, that moral courage and zeal for Christ and divine love which drew them out to speak His word 'wish all boldness'.
The Lord granted their desire, not merely in setting at naught when He saw fit for His glory the threatenings of His and their enemies, but in rendering free and bold witness to Himself. His word ran and was glorified, as we shall see; and believers were the more added to the Lord multitudes of both men and women. They spoke of Him devotedly, and abundantly did He bless them. It never occurred to their simple minds that they should preach for preaching's sake, with the inevitable and deserved result of absolutely no fruit. Speaking His word, they looked to Him that it would issue to His glory in bringing souls to God and filling them with divine joy in His grace.
It is true that their faith, according to the word of the Lord (Mark 16:17, 18), counted on more than spiritual blessing. The healing of the sick or infirm, in His name, they desired, as a precious and significant token to unbelievers. So had the Master wrought when here; so would they His bondmen do in witness of His gracious power, as He was risen and in heaven Who had vanquished Satan, the Lord working with them and confirming the word by the signs that followed. In the confidence of this guarantee on His part they ask Him to grant them with all boldness to speak His word, whilst He stretches forth His hand for healing, and that signs and wonders be done in the name of the holy Servant Jesus.
This power was seasonable where God was inaugurating the infinite fact of the Holy Spirit sent down in person from heaven and now permanently making the assembly to be His habitation, His temple or house on earth What honour too for Him Whom the Jews had crucified by the hand of lawless men, that these signs and wonders were done 'through the name of His Servant Jesus'! When the name of the Lord was professed throughout Christendom, there would have been no adequate object, or even propriety, in the continuance of such signs, the Scriptures being then accepted in that sphere as the true and full revelation of God. And inasmuch as that profession of acceptance for the most was unreal and superficial and increasingly to the denial by their works of the Lord Whom they professed how morally incongruous would have been the continuance of these external tokens of honour and power!
The more one weighs the matter, the more fitting does it seem that He Who vouchsafed miracles at the beginning should not have bound them as an inalienable heirloom to the church or to His servants. He promised that they would follow 'those that believe'; and so they did. He never intimated that they were to follow perpetually or absolutely. And they then ceased in His wisdom, as they really could not be now without the danger, yea certainty, of ill results to His dishonour; for they must tend to gloss over the present ruin-state of the assembly, to blunt the conscience of all, if all had them, or to inflate a few if only exercised by a few.
The testimony, the word of God, was then the prime desire which they spread before Him, for they sought mercy and blessing for their adversaries, not vengeance; and the seals of power they asked at His hand did not consist of consuming fire from above, or of the earth opening to devour the foe, but rather of 'healing', and, if 'signs and wonders', they besought them 'through the name of His holy Servant Jesus', because their hearts were set on the honour of the Son, even as they honoured the Father. The power prayed for was not for apostolic influence or authority, but for His glory Who made Himself a bondman, and to commend the word that reveals Him. It was the Creator, Who, after predicting through His servant David, had now accomplished His work, even by means of His enemies.
It will be noticed that the critical text differs not a little from the Received, not merely in omitting 'God' in ver. 24, and giving 'in this city' in ver. 27, but yet more in the singular addition 'by [the] Holy Spirit' in ver. 25, given by ABE and other authorities. It is difficult to conceive the ordinary text deliberately changed into that ancient form with its unusual apparent harshness; it is easy to understand that later copyists might soften the phrase. It is not often that the older witnesses give us greater copiousness; but here we have distinct instances of it. Further, in vers. 27 and 30, as in Acts 3:13, 26, the true counterpart is 'Servant', and not 'Son', nor even 'Child' here, answering to Isaiah 13:1; Isaiah 52:13; as indeed the Authorized Version rightly translates in ver. 25. Only in the prayer Jesus is here carefully distinguished from David as His 'holy' One.
A distinct and immediate answer to united prayer was now given, faith as ever, receiving more than it asked. 'And when they prayed, the place wherein they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the1 Holy Spirit, and spoke the word of God with boldness. And the heart and soul of the multitude of those that believed were one; and not one said that aught of his possessions was his own; but they had all things common. And with great power did the apostles render the witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus; and great grace was upon them all. For neither was there anyone in want among them; for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold [them] and brought the prices of the things that were being sold, and laid [them] at the feet of the apostles, and distribution was made to each according as anyone had need. And Joseph that by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas (which is, being interpreted, Son of exhortation), a Levite a Cyprian by birth, having a field, sold [it] and brought the money and laid [it] at the feet of the apostles' (vers. 31-37).
1 The article is required by the best authorities: a plain proof, if needed, that the Holy Spirit personally is in question, not a mere influence. Bishop Middleton is also mistaken about the converse, or absence of the article, which is quite independent of personality, and simply characterizes.
The voice of Jehovah shakes the wilderness. He looks on the earth, and it trembles. So when He comes to reign, the earth will see and tremble. Here it was not in judgment, but in grace that He gave this outward token of His intervention, not conveying as in an earthquake the idea of some universal and unlimited danger, but by its peculiar form, limited to the place wherein they were assembled, giving the conviction that He heard and watched over them for His own glory.
But there was more and better than any external sign. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke (not now, as far as we are told, with other tongues, but) the word of God with boldness. It was the presence of God manifested most suitably in power but grace withal. It was wholly distinct from that operation of the Spirit where a soul is born anew. It was the energy of the Holy Spirit, shown outwardly as well as in believers: the Spirit not only given, but excluding the action of flesh so that, for the time at least, nothing wrought which was not of Himself. It was spiritual power but in the dependence of faith, uttering not merely strong and original ideas but the word of God with boldness, as became His servants, confiding in His perfect grace, and feeling the ruin of man without Christ. Before this, two of the apostles, when forbidden by the high authorities of Israel, pleaded, 'We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard' (Acts 4:20). They were all now animated with like faith and fervour in the Holy Ghost. It was no small thing for any to be thus strengthened; how much more to see an entire company of such confessors!
How are they characterized? 'And the heart and soul of the multitude of those that believed were one.' Never before Pentecost had such a time appeared on earth. What is described is, if possible, more vividly spiritual now that opposition came out distinctly against them. All savours of His presence Who deigned to come down from heaven and make the saints the dwelling-place of God. The Holy Spirit it is Whose energy works all that is acceptable to God, all that is edifying for man. Without Him there had been only so many individuals. The Spirit unites to Christ, He also and thereby gives practical unity as here. The heart and soul of those that believed, though a multitude, was one. Undoubtedly such unity could not have been without one supreme and absorbing object, even Christ, but there was also needed the power of the Spirit to exclude the activity of each several will. For flesh loves to differ, and seeks its own things. Next, they all sought the things of Jesus Christ, though without intelligence of union with Christ or heavenly relationships. Yet never before nor since has there been in any communion on earth an equal testimony to deliverance through His name from the selfishness of nature and the pride of the world, never more sustained joy in God or more mutual love through our Lord Jesus. It was the accomplishment of the prayer in John 17:20, 21, 'that they all may be one, as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me.' Their heart and soul were one. The expression of the inspired historian is more energetic, as the practical unity in grace was realized with singular brightness before the world. No sign of greater weakness in the church than division of way, feeling, or thought; no more evident mark of the Spirit's power than unity of which Christ is the spring and character.
Next follows, as fresh as ever, that unexampled token of superiority to personal interests which Pentecost first beheld. 'And not one said that aught of his possessions was his own; but they had all things common.' Certainty this was in no sense law but grace; but is it not surprising that any believing the scriptures should elude the plain and blessed fact? It was a state of things beautifully suited to the church when it was all in Jerusalem, and in the full early bloom created by the ungrieved Holy Spirit: when saints were gathered to the Lord elsewhere, we find it no more. Communion of goods, so far as it was carried out in grace, in the nature of things could only be rightly whilst all the members were in one place. When the Lord wrought in other places, the saints were as near in divine relationship as those that dwelt in the same city. That which was peculiar to the assembly in Jerusalem then merged into more ordinary and comprehensive forms of love toward all the saints wherever found, for the church on earth is one, and we are members one of another, even if in the most distant quarter of the globe. We have then instruction and exhortation of the most precious kind about giving, as in Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 16; 2 Cor. 8, 9, Gal. 6; Eph.4; Phil. 4; 1 Tim. 6; Heb. 13, et al., clearly supposing no such state as all things common, but rather rich and poor who were appealed to accordingly. The word of the Lord, though to us always true, was receiving its most marked application: 'Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel's, but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world (age) to come, eternal life' (Mark. 10:29, 30).
Here too we are told of the prominent place Christ's resurrection held in apostolic teaching. 'And with great power did the apostles render the witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.' Need it be urged that the apostles were right, not the moderns who preach the Lord in His service, or in His death, and there practically stop? For thus do these curtail the true witness of its blessed fulness; and all their preaching, not to say their faith, suffers. For why sever the resurrection from the death of Christ? If He 'be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain: ye are yet in your sins'. Without His resurrection there is no proof that our sins are gone, ourselves justified, and God glorified. Where resurrection is not held fast in power, the door is ever open both to ignore man's total ruin, and the full deliverance God has wrought in Christ and is now giving freely in His grace. Some may reason, others may hope; but the resurrection is the grand fact that He Who suffered for our sins is no longer in the grave where man laid His body, but is raised of God, Whose glad tidings concerning His Son are that He is thus proclaimed victorious over sin and death to the salvation of every believer.
And this witness is of all efficacy for the faithful, for 'great grace was upon them all'. It is of all moment to arrest and win unbelievers to God; but faith sees in the resurrection of the Lord the pledge of its own justification no less than of the judgment of all who oppose or neglect so great salvation. The God Who raised from the dead Him Who made Himself responsible for our sins, and went down into death under divine judgment for our sakes, is the Saviour God; and His great grace reproduces itself in those who know Him thus. Love is not the fruit of a command or of an effort to love. His grace has creative power of graciousness in such as know themselves loved of Him.
It is painful that any one should, from Acts 2:47, reduce this 'great grace' to 'popular favour'. The next verse (Acts 4:34) does nor give the reason why the people looked favourably upon them ('because they suffered none of their number to be in need', as if the church were a good benefit club!). Verse 34 merely exemplifies a special way in which the great grace upon them wrought; especially as it was no longer the simple immediateness of giving which was originally seen in Acts 2:44, 45. Now, when lands or houses were sold, the prices were laid at the feet of the apostles, and distribution was made to each according as anyone had need. What a contrast between the spontaneous unselfishness here manifest and the formal rigour of monastic rule — Mendicant Friars and the like!
Among those distinguished by their self-stripping love for the brotherhood stands specially recorded the afterwards eminent name of Joseph, surnamed Barnabas (vers. 36, 37), Son of exhortation, or perhaps of consolation. Later on (Acts 11:24) he is characterized as 'a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith'. Here, a Cyprian, he is said to have been a Levite, yet possessed of a field, which he sold and laid the money at the feet of the apostles. The express mention of the circumstance here proves how little the practice had become compulsory; for why name Barnabas in particular, if it were a rule absolute and universal? Where men imitate in the world or even in the church, law-work supersedes grace, and the community swamps the individual to the destruction of love on one side and of conscience on the other. The grace and truth which came by Jesus Christ alone puts and keeps both in their true place, whether the individual or the body, because thus only God is God before man believingly. Popery and communism alike strive in vain to realize the unselfish grace of these early days in the church; for they are, neither of them, likenesses but caricatures, and are as far as possible from having the same source, character, or issue.
Grace is inimitable; only the Holy Spirit can produce it in reality. He it is Who wrought in so rich a measure then; and He abides to work whatsoever is in keeping with Christ at all times, with full consideration of what is due to God's actual ways, and to man's state also. But the interests and activity of the Holy Ghost are no longer in the fold of Israel. He is present, in the fullness of grace and power withal, in a new and different sphere outside Israel no less than the nations, He is there bearing witness of the risen Jesus Whom men crucified and slew, and of the boundless blessing conferred on those that confess Him. He is producing new and suited fruit in those that are His, united as one soul, whatever their old habits or once clashing interests: such now is the sweet effect of their oneness in the Father and the Son, that the world might believe that the Father sent the Son.
Manifestation of grace provokes the adversary, and the flesh would gladly gain the highest credit to itself at the least possible cost. It was early to forget that God had just made the assembly His dwelling-place; and certainly the witnesses to His presence therein were many and plain. But the enemy knows how to lure the soul by degrees into fatal evil; and spiritual pretension is a direct road and a slippery as well as rapid descent.
Barnabas had been singled out for special mention as he was afterwards to be used and honoured of God in the front rank of His servants. Ananias follows, but his heart was not right with God: that moment of 'great grace upon all' was seized for his great deceit, with the aggravation of his wife knowing and taking part in it. How many a Christian woman has been the true helpmeet of her husband in timely warning and instant appeal, condemning any and every evil at the first buddings! How dreadful when the man and the woman aid one another to forget God and His gracious but holy presence! when they agree to dishonour the name of the Lord by lying pretensions to self-sacrificing devotedness!
'But a certain man, Ananias by name, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession and reserved [part] of the price, his wife also being privy: and brought and laid a certain part at the feet of the apostles. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thy heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to reserve for thee of the price of the land? When it remained, did it not remain to thee; and when sold, was it not in thy power? How [is it] that thou conceivedst this thing in thy heart? Thou didst lie not to men but to God. And Ananias hearing these words fell down and expired, and great fear came upon all the hearers, and the younger [men] arose, swathed him, and carrying [him] out buried [him]' (vers. 1 6).
Sin is aggravated by the position of the guilty, as is carefully shown in Lev. iv. The ruler is distinguished from one of the people, and the anointed priest involved far more serious consequences than both.
But there is another and yet more solemn criterion, the presence of God, and this according to His nature now fully revealed. In Israel it was Jehovah dwelling in the thick darkness, Who governed His people, around Him yet unable to draw near, the Holy Ghost thus signifying that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest. Now it is, by virtue of the blood of Christ, Who has therefore entered once for all into the holies, having found eternal redemption. Therefore also is the Holy Ghost come down to constitute us God's dwelling-place, His holy temple. If sin became exceeding sinful through the commandment, how abominable in the light of the cross! But therein God condemned sin, not only in its fruits but in its root, and this in Him Who became an offering for sin. Such was God's work in sending His own Son, the Holy One yet made sin that we might become God's righteousness in Him. The sins of the believer are blotted out and forgiven the evil nature which could not he forgiven is already condemned in His cross Who died for it; and He is risen, and we are in Him, freed from all condemnation, and living of His life Who is alive again for evermore. The Holy Ghost also is not only witness to us but power in us, and personally here to make good God's presence.
Then, again, the dwelling of God is the true and full ground of the call to holiness. Even in Israel it was so: 'Holiness becometh Thine house, O Jehovah, for ever' (Ps. 93:5). So shall they hereafter sing in truth of heart when the kingdom comes and Jehovah reigns. And thus, looking back not forward only, it had been when Israel had no more than a temporal redemption by divine power from Egypt, a type of the incomparably more blessed and permanent, yea eternal, redemption, which the Lord Jesus acquired by His blood. Even then, when the redemption was but the shadow of better things to come, the God of Israel manifested His presence on behalf, and in the midst, of His people. Now all is real; because Christ Who is the truth, came to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. The full result does not yet appear for the universe till He comes to reign in righteousness, after which shall be the new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. But meanwhile the mighty work of propitiation is not only accomplished but accepted, and the Spirit of truth is come down in person to effectuate the presence and dwelling of God here below in the assembly of the saints as His house.
Hence if the Book of Exodus, above all Books of the Bible, is in its first half the figure of redemption, its last half shows us the consequent dwelling, the tabernacle, of God in the midst of His people; and the ways of the people are regulated accordingly. 'There I will meet with the children of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by My glory. And I will sanctify the tabernacle of the congregation and the altar. I will sanctify also both Aaron and his sons to minister to Me in the priest's office. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will be their God; and they shall know that I am Jehovah their God That brought them forth out of the land of Egypt that I may dwell among them: I am Jehovah their God' (Ex. 29:43-46).
So it is in the church now. Holiness is imperative individually, for the Spirit of God dwells in each of us as saints purged by the blood of Jesus, alive from the dead, freed from sin and become bondmen to God, that we may have fruit unto holiness, and the end eternal life. 'What! know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost that is in you, Whom ye have of God? and ye are not your own, for ye were bought with a price: glorify God therefore with your body' (1 Cor. 6:19, 20). But He dwells in the assembly also (1 Cor. 3:16, 17), and makes us collectively the living God's temple, responsible as come out from unbelievers to be separate, and to touch not what is unclean. There God dwells; to such He is a Father. 'Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every pollution of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God' (2 Cor. 6:16-18; 2 Cor. 7:1). Thus in every way, individual and corporate, holiness is grounded, not on law, but on what grace has wrought and given us through our Lord Jesus; and the Holy Spirit is present abidingly to make it good, or, if there be evil, to raise up a suited testimony against that which the cross has proved to be absolutely intolerable. In His children, in the church least of all, will God make allowance for iniquity. God is there in the power of the Holy Spirit to avenge the wrong done to His grace as being there and to His nature of which the Christian is made a partaker.
Ananias, then, comes forward seeking credit for a display of faith working by love, which the flesh, set on by Satan, sought to emulate without trust in God, nay, seeking to deceive Him too, as if He had no house on earth in which to dwell and manifest His power as well as grace. Part of the proceeds of his sold possessions he kept for himself, part he laid as the whole at the feet of the apostles. The Lord by His servant resents the sin and insult. 'Ananias,' said Peter, 'why hath Satan filled thy heart to lie to (deceive) the Holy Spirit and to reserve for thee of the price of the land? . . . Thou didst lie not to men but to God.' What can more simply and withal more powerfully let us know their sense of God's presence? Sin then blinded the eyes of the guilty disciple; in days not so far off unbelief stole the truth away from the church, which thereon set up its own bulwarks, rules, and functionaries, works of its own hands, its calves of gold, in forgetfulness both of Him Who is coming back from on high and of Him Who meanwhile is here to glorify the Son as the Father. There is no ground to suppose that the motive of Ananias was the hoped-for possession of spiritual gifts like Barnabas, or the coveted power to impart them as in Simon's case (8:19). It is an error to infer that thus his sin was indeed against the Holy Ghost. The truth of God is deeper than any mere product of human reasoning. It is the same verb (ψεύδομαι) in verses 3 and 4, but with a different construction: with an accusative (3) in the sense of imposing on any by falsehood, with a dative (4) as addressing a lie to a person, here to God Himself in the person of the Spirit sent down from heaven.
God was in His holy temple (the old temple being now by the rejection of the Messiah no more than 'their house', the house of unbelieving Jews) and there one bearing the name of the Lord dared to lie to His face. It was no mistake of haste, but deceit with a selfish and hypocritical aim purposed in the heart, and it was so much the more heinous in presence of fresh and boundless grace on God's part, and of its fruit in the unexampled self-abandonment of many saints before all. God of old sternly judged an Achan who coveted the accursed thing, and a Gehazi who enriched himself by a shameless prostitution of the prophet's name. 'Is it a time,' said the indignant man of God, 'to receive money, and to receive garments, and oliveyards, and vineyards, and sheep, and oxen, and men-servants, and maid-servants?' (2 Kings 5:26). So, though it be the day of grace, it is on this account all the more solemn in God's eyes that one professedly a believer in Christ should expect his iniquity to pass muster in the house of His holiness.
On hearing the apostolic words Ananias fell down and expired; so that all that heard were overawed. The younger men that swathed and carried out his body to burial had not returned when, about three hours after, his wife entered, not knowing what was done, and Peter, drawing out from her the distinct evidence that she was privy to the imposture, said, 'How [is it] that ye agreed together to tempt the Spirit of [the] Lord?' (ver. 9).
This is just what Satan desires and prompts, that those who are, or at least profess to be, the Lord's should not believe that He is among them. To tempt Him is to doubt this in word or deed — to say in heart, Is He among us or not? How unworthy of those who ought best to know His presence, secured at infinite cost as the Christian at least should also know! How awful to think of the prevalence of this sin now, little felt or judged even by true children of God! So completely, in fact, have the saints in general lost sight of the presence and action of the Spirit in the assembly that they notoriously and periodically pray that He may be poured out afresh. They, of course, mean thereby little if anything more than an accession of comfort for believers, and a great increase in the conversion of sinners. But all the while they ignore His actual presence on earth, and seem quite unconscious of the deep slight put upon Him by shutting out His revealed and sovereign working for the glory of Christ in the midst of the gathered saints. They may be waking up to allow more of His free action in gospel work outside for man's salvation; but as for His energy in the church for God's glory and in subjection to His word, they will not hear of it, whatever it may have been, it is out of date and disorderly now! Alas I this is to make the church of man and not of God, though what is of His purpose of grace will last for ever.
But Peter added, to the convicted widow, 'Behold, the feet of those that buried thy husband [are] at the door and shall carry thee out. Then she fell immediately at his feet and expired, and the young men coming in found her dead, and carrying [her] forth buried [her] by her husband' (vers. 9, 10). An infliction from its repetition so unmistakably divine could not but make an immediate and still deeper impression; and we read that 'great fear fell [came] upon all the assembly, and upon as many as heard these things' (ver. 11). It was meant for warning to all within as well as without
This is me first distinct mention of the church or assembly. It is spoken of, not as if just inaugurated, but as a known and already existing body. The church began as a fact on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit (the promise of the Father, Whom Christ sent from the Father as the Father sent Him in the Son's name) baptized all the saints into one body. There had been saints from Abel; now they in the Holy Spirit became one. In Acts 2:47 it is well-nigh certain that the true words run that 'the Lord was day by day adding together those that should be saved', without calling them as yet the church, though of course such they were. The thing was there, not yet so named. Now, according to the words of the Lord in Matt. 16:18; Matt. 18:17, they are thus entitled, when God was establishing in the gravest way the reality of His presence by the action of the Spirit Who dwells there, and had all power and promptness to avenge deliberate wrong to His nature and majesty done within; unless He would be a party consenting to His own dishonour.
The Lord seized the critical moment when Ananias and Sapphira thus sinned unto death, and a death so awe-inspiring, to put fresh and gracious honour on the Twelve. One of their number had just stood prominently before all as the vessel of divine power in judging deliberate and hypocritical iniquity, in which the offending pair had been consenting partners. Now it was according to His wisdom to manifest the normal flow of His goodness and compassion in honour of the Lord Jesus, and in a world ruined through sin and wretched under its dismal effects.
'And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people; and they were all of one accord in the porch of Solomon. And of the rest durst no man join them, but the people magnified them; and believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women; insomuch as even to carry out the sick into the streets and put [them] on beds and couches, that, as Peter came, at least his shadow might overshadow some one of them. And there also came together the multitude from the cities round about [?unto] Jerusalem bringing sick [persons] and [persons] troubled by unclean spirits; and they were healed every one' (vers. 12-16).
This witness to the supremacy of the rejected Messiah now exalted to the right hand of God we are apt to forget, being so long accustomed to its absence, and, it may be, thinking too exclusively of His grace to us and too little of His glory. What mercy it is that keeps up that which is yet more precious, and even more profoundly wonderful, the unchanged efficacy of His blood, the new creation, union with Him, and the ever-abiding presence of the Holy Ghost in and with us on earth! But we ought not to be insensible to the blessed, even if partial, display of the testimony to His power over all the groaning creation, and those evil spirits who seduced man to his ruin into their own rebelliousness against God, nor should we ignore the humbling fact that such a display so soon faded away, as doubtless it was meet that it should. The God of all grace (and so now pre-eminently is God revealing Himself) would not stay such an answer on earth to Christ's exaltation to the seat of divine power, were there not the wisest and most adequate reasons, not only on the side of His own moral glory, but because the continuance of signs and wonders would be an anomaly in His ways, and an injury rather than a blessing to the saints when the assembly fell more and more from the grace and truth which came by our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is evident that here as on other occasions the apostles were those above all distinguished by doing many signs and wonders. But plainly from Acts 6:8; Acts 8:6, 7, 13, the power was in no way confined to those whom God set first in the church, for the martyr Stephen and the evangelist Philip were both remarkable in that way. Nor can there be an intelligent doubt, for the believer who reads 1 Cor. 12, that such sign-gifts might be distributed widely and apart from all public office; even as our Lord intimated in Mark 16:17, 18, 20, for 'those that believed', not merely for certain prominent functionaries. Here, however, the mighty works were done by those in the front rank, nor were they done in a corner, but in all publicity, for they were all with one accord in Solomon's porch, of the rest no man daring to join them. And the moral effect was immense. On the one hand, the people magnified them; on the other, believers were more than ever added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women. 'Women' had been emphatically mentioned in Acts 1:14, when the disciples, however closely found together, were only so many individuals cleaving to the Lord in faith, and giving themselves up with one accord to continual prayer, before the uniting power of the one Spirit sent down from heaven baptized all into one body. The prophecy of Joel applied to the Pentecostal gift supposes the common share women were to have in the promise of the Father, and its mighty consequence (Acts 2:17, 18); and now we hear 'women' again named explicitly among the multitudes of believers added to the Lord.
Among the signs and wonders a very special feature is pointed out in ver. 15; their bringing out the sick into the streets and putting them on beds and couches that the mere shadow of Peter as he came along might overshadow some one of them. So did the abundant goodness of God by man in honour of Jesus fill men's hearts with confident expectation. Nor do we hear of disappointment. On the contrary we are told that the multitude also of the cities round about Jerusalem flocked thither, bringing sick people and those troubled by unclean spirits; and healing was vouchsafed to them all. How wondrous the virtue of that Name which thus unfailingly invested His servants with power superior to every demand over evil seen or unseen!
Again come forward the Sadducean party. For liberalism is no more friendly to the truth than traditionalism. And who can wonder? Their citadel had been stormed by the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. They felt themselves assailed and pursued in the open field by the proclamation of the gospel, and by the miraculous powers which magnified the Name of the crucified but now risen Messiah.
'And the high priest rising up, and all those that were with him, which is [the] sect of the Sadducees, were filled with wrath, and laid their hands on the apostles, and put them in public ward. But an angel of [the] Lord by night opened the doors of the prison, and leading them out, said, Go and stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this Life' (vers. 17-20).
During the ministry of the Lord Jesus here below the Pharisees had been His chief adversaries: their self-righteousness, unrighteousness, zealously held fast tradition; and, veiled by religious forms, waged constant warfare against the Righteous One; and the more, as He was ever the expression of God's grace and truth to those who owned their true condition of guilt and ruin before God. When He presented Himself as Messiah for the last time to the unbelieving people, and was going, as He well knew, to death, not in rejection only but for atonement, all came out in unambiguous opposition, whatever the pretence, chief priests and elders, Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, coming to judge Him, but in result to be themselves judged by the word. Now after He rose from the dead those who said there is no resurrection nor angel nor spirit were naturally the most embittered, notwithstanding their usual self-complacency and wish to pose as the mildest of the people.
But man never knows himself apart from Christ, any more than he thinks or feels rightly about God. The revealed truth detects and lays him bare in his departure from God; and this is so much the more intolerable as he has a religious position to maintain. Hence the excessive anger of the Sadducean high priest and his party at this time. Their boasted liberty of conscience is only for the different forms of error. The truth of God is ever unwelcome, and those who preach it are mere troublers to be punished without hesitation. They 'laid their hands on the apostles, and put them in public ward.'
But the God Who had acted in the assembly with a stroke which slew the guilty husband and wife was not wanting now, and a providential messenger of His power was sent to deliver His faithful servants. 'An angel of [the] Lord by night opened the doors of the prison, and leading them out, said, Go and stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this Life.'
The intervention then was as sensible as it was striking. God is marking in this chapter the reality and the varied forms of His action for His assembly and those members of it in particular who are charged with His word and who rouse most the animosity of the foe. Angelic care has in no wise disappeared for His servants, though there is no such display of power as of old, any more than the presence and energy of the Spirit within the assembly. It is our fleshly activity, and our lack of spirituality, which hinder. We grieve the Spirit by our self-confidence and worldly wisdom, and we fail to discern the wonderful ways in which God delivers. Were our eyes more truly opened of the Lord we should see that, when beset with seemingly countless and overwhelming adversaries, they that be with us, if really with and for Christ, are more than they that be with them. Are they not all ministering spirits sent out for service on account of those that shall inherit salvation?
Here no doubt there could be no mistake about the matter; for it was no question of men escaping by strength and skill or any earthly means, but of an angel opening the doors of the prison by night, leading them out, and commanding them to speak in the temple to the people all the words of this Life. The source of the deliverance was as plain as the commission to speak. The religious chiefs were in flat opposition to the God of all grace Who would have men that believed through grace to be His chosen vessels in proclaiming all the words of this Life in Christ the Lord. For there is no other Name of salvation given among men, nor any other way than the Son to the Father. Life in Him, remission of sins through His blood, the gift of the Holy Spirit, such are the first blessings which the gospel announces to every soul that believes in Jesus. And God will have it go forth freely and fully, let men say or do as they may. But who shall measure the guilt of thus rejecting every testimony from God, not only despising the message of grace, but forbidding and imprisoning the messengers, that the mercy and truth of God in so speaking to man may never reach his ears? Who can wonder that their judgment slumbereth not? The higher the estate, the deeper the fall.
But God, Who knows best that His words are the seed of everlasting life, will not have the proud and evil will of man to intercept His message of good. He therefore, as in a day of wonders, interfered by an angel to do extraordinarily that which He could have accomplished by more ordinary means, if so it had pleased Him. But the occasion itself then was beyond all that is usual; and it was according to His wisdom that, as His power had been shown judicially within the assembly, and in healing grace by the special envoys of the Lord Jesus, so also with marked superiority over the hostile will of man and authority of the world by the angelic deliverance from the prison. The words of this Life must be spoken at His command that souls might hear and live. One can understand how the courage of faith would be confirmed and increased in His servants by an act so signal; and what a testimony it ought to have been to the consciences of all, especially to the sect of the Sadducees! But unbelief is as hard and as blind towards God, as it is credulous of its own vagaries, and bent on its own will, even with the knell of perdition sounding in its ears.
The apostles, thus miraculously brought out of prison, acted forthwith on the message to the confusion of the enemy.
'And when they heard, they entered about dawn into the temple and were teaching. And when the high priest arrived and those with him, they called together the council and all the senate of the sons of Israel, and sent unto the jail to have them brought. But the officers that arrived did not find them in the prison; and they returned and reported, saying, We found the jail shut in all security and the keepers standing at the doors, but on opening we found no one within. And when both [the priest and]1 the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were utterly perplexed about them whereto this would come. And there arrived one and reported to them, Behold, the men whom ye put in the prison are in the temple standing and teaching the people. Then the captain went away with the officers, and brought them, not with violence, for they feared the people, lest they should be stoned. And having brought they set them in the council, and the high priest asked them saying, We strictly charged you not to teach on [in] this name; and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and purpose to bring upon us the blood of this man. And in answer Peter and the apostles said, Obedience must be to God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus Whom ye slew by hanging on a tree: Him God exalted with His right hand as Leader and Saviour, to give repentance to Israel and remission of sins. And we are [His]2 witnesses of these things [lit. words], and the Holy Spirit Whom God gave to those that obey Him' (vers. 21-32).
1 The more ancient MSS. and versions reject 'the priest and' as in the Received Text. But while one can readily understand the omission from ignorance of the phrase, it is hard to see how some good copies, as well as a great many, accepted it unless genuine. 'Proclivi lectioni praestat ardua' is an acknowledged maxim in such matters. The fact is however, that in the Old Testament the use of 'the priest' for 'the high priest' is common. See Ex. 29:30; Ex. 35:19, Ex. 38:21 Lev. 4:5, 6, 7, 10, 16; Lev. 6:22; Lev. 13:2; Lev. 16:32; Lev. 21:21, Num. 3:6, 32; Num. 4:16, 28, 33; Num. 7:8, Num. 16:37, 39, Num. 18:28; Num. 25:7, 11; Num. 26:1, 3, 63; Num. 27:2, 19, 21, 22, Num. 31:6, 12, 13, 21, 26, 29, 31, 41, 51, 54; Num. 32:2, 28; Num. 33:38; Num. 34:17. Nor is it only in the books of Moses that we find the use of 'priest thus frequently for 'high priest', for so it is in Joshua 14, 17, 19, 21, 22; so in 1 & 2 Sam.; 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chr. So the Lord is predicted in Ps. 110.; Zech. 6. We are not driven, as Krebs would seem to have supposed, to the Apocrypha (1 Macc. 15:1, 2), though the usage is there, and in Josephus (A. vi. 12, 1), to whom he refers. In the New Testament itself compare Heb. 5:6, and (not to speak of Heb. 7:5) Heb. 7:3, 11, 15, 17, 21; Heb. 8:4; Heb. 10:21.
2 The greater copies exclude 'His'; but the strange reading of B rather strengthens EHP and the mass in holding to it.
In the temple there was no hindrance to instruction in the word of God, the Old Testament scriptures; and as yet none others were written. The apostles therefore used their liberty to teach, as their Master had done before (Matt. 21:23 - 28; Mark 11:27 - 12; Luke 20; Luke 21:37, 38; John 7:14, 28, 37; John 8:2-59; John 10:23-39). So it was too in the synagogues; and the apostles were in no way disposed to forego the opportunity of expounding the scriptures to the people, as we see in the history of Paul especially. There they were teaching at break of day; they were obedient, and their hearts in the work.
But the adversaries were not slack on their side. 'And when the high priest arrived and those with him, they called together the council and all the senate of the sons of Israel, and sent unto the jail to have them brought But the officers that arrived did not find them in the prison; and they returned and reported, saying, We found the jail shut in all security, and the keepers standing at the doors, but on opening we found no one within.' Thus the Sanhedrim met in due form, and in all the confidence of the highest religious authority. But the prisoners were no longer in custody; and, what was the most surprising news of all, without violence from within or from without. The building was found by the officials in all security, the keepers on guard at the doors, but not a prisoner was there.
'And when both the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were utterly perplexed about them whereto this would come.' Conscience could not but whisper, the more inexplicable to them it might seem. Strange things had Jerusalem seen and heard: not only when the Christ was here, but more widely and wonderfully since He died, and, as the disciples affirmed, rose and went to heaven. That God had somehow brought out of prison the apostles, whom Jewish authority had put in, was rather in keeping with all that had been of late transpiring in their midst in Solomon's porch and elsewhere. But unbelief is the rebellion of the heart and may work most proudly in the face of the fullest testimony, without one solid ground of objection or a reasonable excuse. And as it is the heart that is in question, neither age nor sex, neither knowledge nor ignorance, exempts a single person from its poisonous activity. Indeed an active or subtle mind, however much furnished and exercised only gives the larger means and scope for its evil opposition to God. 'Ye will not come to Me that ye might have life.' 'For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.' 'He that hath received His testimony hath set to his seal that God is true.' Men dread consequences. Faith is subject to God's word, and seeks to please Him. The Jewish rulers were afraid of the issues now. They had no thought of God in the unseen light of eternity.
'And there arrived one and reported, Behold, the men whom ye put in prison are in the temple standing and teaching the people.' God took care to give publicity to the defeat of the guilty people in the hour of their seeming power over His servants. Had the council before charged and threatened them strictly not to speak at all nor teach on (in) the name of Jesus? Had they now, filled with envy, put them in the public prison? God had by an angel brought them out from doors ever so secured and guards vigilant as they might be; and there they were in the temple standing and teaching the people. 'Then the captain went away with the officers and brought them, not with violence, for they feared the people lest they should be stoned.' How comforting to faith the witness of the weak strong, and of the strong weak! Hardened as the captain and the officers might be, they were overawed, so that they abstained from violence even to the escaped prisoners; and not these but those feared lest they should be stoned. But it was man they dreaded, not God. The apostles had God before their eyes, the only true deliverance from the fear of man.
'And having brought they set them in the council; and the high priest asked them, saying, We strictly charged you not to teach on [in] this name, and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and purpose to bring upon us the blood of this man.' They assuredly had no wish for or thought of accentuating their own powerlessness in presence of a few poor and weak and ignorant Galileans. Yet they could not conceal from themselves any more than from others that their stern commands were impotent, and that the teaching of the apostles was everywhere prevalent in the city, with the blood of Him Whom they dreaded to name weighing heavily and increasingly on their consciences. But a little while ago Pilate had vainly washed his hands before the multitude, as if he could thus rid himself of his dark blot in delivering Jesus to their will; and then answered all the people, His blood be on us and on our children; and the priests, yea the chief priests, pleaded against the Holy Sufferer, instead of interceding for the Guiltless. Now are they the first to deprecate and feel the guilt of that blood on their own heads, and to shrink from its intolerable burden, and (save to faith) its irrevocable curse. There was, however, no uprightness of conscience: had there been, they would have found a sure and immediate and everlasting resource in the purging efficacy of that blood.
What had the boldest of the apostles proved? Were they ignorant of his denying his Master? Yet was he soon after restored in soul so completely as to be able calmly and earnestly without a blush to tax the people with denying the Holy One and the Just and desiring a murderer to be granted to them! Such is the virtue of Him Who came by water and blood: life is in Him only. So testifies the Holy Spirit, and He is the truth. But what did the Sanhedrim care for the truth, especially from the lips of unlearned and ignorant men in reproof of all the erudition and dignified office in Israel?
Peter and John had before this asked, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken to you rather than to God, judge ye (Acts 4:19, 20). Now they all join Peter in his still firmer reply, 'Obedience must be to God rather than men.' This is the great practical principle of faith, as it was the uniform characteristic of Christ in all perfection here below. 'Lo, I come to do Thy will, O God': not miracles, not doing good, not teaching, not zeal, so much as unqualified and unfailing obedience rendered to God. Yet was Jesus a man approved of God unto them by powers and wonders and signs, which God did by Him in their midst beyond past example no less than present doubt. Yet was He anointed with the Holy Spirit and went about doing good, and healing all oppressed with the devil. The people too were astonished at His teaching, and all bare Him witness and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth, and the very officers sent to apprehend Him declared with truth, Never man spake like this man. And for burning jealousy for the Father's glory His disciples could not but be reminded that it was written, 'The zeal of Thine house hath eaten Me up.' But all these instances had their fit seasons. Obedience was always there, as unfaltering as constant, as lowly as perfect.
Nor is there any principle so essential for the Christian. He is sanctified of the Spirit unto Christ's obedience as well as to the sprinkling of His blood (as the gospel is for faith-obedience, in contrast with enforcement of law), and his soul is purified by obeying the truth to unfeigned brotherly love, for God chose him to salvation in sanctification of the Spirit and faith of the truth. Hence, though he may have sometimes to wait on God for light, obedience is the invariable place and duty of the believer. It is never a question of his rights; he is called to obey. He is to be subject to every human institution for the Lord's sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to rulers as sent by him, free though not having his freedom for a cloak of malice but as God's bondman.
Hence, if collision come between God's word and the ruler's requirement, the believer's path is clear: God must be obeyed, but in suffering perhaps, not resistance to authority. He is always to obey, though in some cases it may be God rather than men. Nothing is so humble, nothing so firm. Naturally the believer might be feeble and timid; obedience by grace gives strength and courage. He might be self-confident and unyielding; obedience gives distrust in self and meekness in doing God's will. 'He that doeth the will of God abideth for ever'; even as sin is self-will or lawlessness, and its end judgment and perdition. Therefore is obedience not only an inalienable duty, but the true pathway of power, and the sure means of extrication from every snare of the enemy. So the blessed Lord defeated Satan, and so the apostles now lay bare the tremendous fact that the Jewish heads and people were as wholly beguiled by Satan, as they themselves were wholly in simple-hearted subjection to God. Once the elect nation had God in the world, as they had the Messiah in hope. Now that they had rejected their Messiah, they were not only without God like the Gentiles but the proved adversaries of God. They were only 'men' like others, and 'obedience must be to God rather than men.'
This Peter proceeds to demonstrate in a few plain, pointed, irrefragable words. 'The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, Whom ye slew by hanging on a tree: Him God exalted with His right hand as Leader and Saviour, to give repentance to Israel and remission of sins. And we are [His] witnesses of these things, and the Holy Ghost Whom God gave to those that obey Him.' Here the proof is short and unanswerable, the antagonism to the God of Israel in chiefs and people beyond question. The God of their fathers (how unlike them the children!) raised up Jesus Whom ye slew (and with the deepest ignominy too) by hanging on a tree. Here, it is no longer the ambiguous word ἀνέστησεν, but the more determinate ἤγειρεν, not merely raising Him up as a living Messiah on earth, as in Acts 3:22, 26; Acts 7: (18), 37; Acts 13:33, but waking Him up after death. Nor was resurrection all: for God exalted Him (not 'to' as in Webster and Wilkinson, but) by His right hand (as Peter had preached, Acts 2:33, in fulfilment of the undeniably Messianic Psalm 110.). For in what relation to them did He take His place in heaven? As Leader and Saviour, to give repentance to Israel and remission of sins. The door of grace was still open. God was waiting to be gracious to His people though guilty of the great transgression; and He could afford by that blood to free them even from their guilt in shedding it. Surely Christ will appear in judgment one day. Meanwhile He is announced as Leader and Saviour to give Israel just what they wanted — repentance and remission of sins.
There was testimony more than adequate — abundant: 'And we are [His] witnesses of these things [or, words], and the Holy Spirit Whom God gave to those that obey Him.' Compare the Lord's own words in John 15:26, 27. 'But when the Comforter is come Whom I will send unto you from the Father, the Spirit of truth Which proceedeth from the Father, He shall testify of Me, and ye also bear witness, because ye are with Me from the beginning.'
The Holy Spirit is not only their power of duly remembering the past, but is Himself the Witness of the glory of Christ in heaven. And this blessed Spirit, Who wrought mightily in the apostles and others set high in the assembly, is given of God to those who submit to the authority of the heavenly Leader. Such is the full force of the peculiar word 'obey' (peiqarcevw) employed in verse 32. The distinct personality of the divine Spirit is as carefully guarded here as in ver. 3, though in a different way.
One can hardly conceive an answer more direct than this of the apostles. Israelitish authority was for them a judged system, for were the chiefs not convicted of deadly opposition to the God of their fathers? They might again and again command the apostles to be silent about Him Whom they had hanged, though God had sent Him as Leader and Saviour; nor was it their testimony only, but that of the Holy Spirit also, Whom the Jews could not pretend to have. How awful and terrible their position!
'And when they heard, they were cut to the heart [lit., sawn asunder] and took counsel1 to slay them' (ver. 33). It is always dangerous to oppose the truth, and the more so in proportion to the importance of that in question. Here it was the foundation of all, and so estimated by those whom the Lord called to proclaim it, and as the adversaries were resolved to reject the testimony, they all naturally betook themselves to designs of blood. Convicted yet rebellious, and abhorring the witnesses whom they could not gainsay, they were chagrined to the utmost, and consulted to slay those before them. No compunction, still less self-judgment, as in Acts 2, but they were torn with rage.
1 ἐβουλεύοντο DHP and the bulk of cursives, the Vulgate, Syriac Versions, et al., Lachmann, Tregelles, et al., prefer ἐβούλοντο ('were minded') with ABC, et al. (the addition or omission of a syllable in the middle, easily made, is all the difference between the readings).
Then the God, Who by His angel had just brought His exposed servants out of prison, was pleased to shield them from these more and more guilty murderers, and wrought after another sort of providential interference not now angelic but human. The hearts of all are in His keeping.
'But there stood up one in the council, a Pharisee, by name Gamaliel, a law-teacher, in honour with all the people, and commanded to put the men [or, apostles] out a little while, and said unto them, Ye men of Israel [or, Israelites], take heed to yourselves as to these men what ye are about to do. For before these days rose up Theudas, saying that he himself was somebody, with whom a number of men, about four hundred, took sides; who was slain, and all as many as obeyed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him (this one) rose up Judas the Galilean, in the days of the census, and drew into revolt people after him, and he perished and all as many as obeyed him were scattered abroad. And now I say to you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone; for if this counsel or if this work be of men, it will be overthrown, but if it is of God, ye will not be [or are not] able to overthrow them2 lest ye be found [even] fighting against God' (vers. 34-39).
2 αὐτούς ABCcorr. DE, at least a dozen cursives, the later Syriac et al., as against αὐτό ('it') C p.m. HP, most cursives, versions, et al.
From such a quarter these words of sobriety, as opposed to Sadducean violence, were irresistible. There seems no just reason to doubt that Gamaliel is the same celebrated man, son of Rabbi Simeon, grandson of the once famous Hillel; he presided over the Sanhedrim during the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius; his son succeeded to the same chief place, and perished during the siege of Jerusalem. Under Gamaliel, we are told in Acts 22:3, Paul studied the law, of which he was styled 'the glory', as he was the first to bear the title of Rabban. That he was a Christian publicly, or even secretly, is only the assertion of unscrupulous legendmongers. Scripture gives us not only a perfectly reliable but a most graphic account of the man and of his character, as well as of the way in which he was providentially used at this critical moment.
For his intervention entirely fits in with the entire context, where God is tracing for our instruction how He watches over His own on earth for His glory. There was the manifestation of the Spirit's presence where they were all assembled and all filled with Him (Acts 4:31), lights in the world, holding forth the word of life, living to the forgetfulness of all selfish interests, whilst the apostles with great power testified of the Lord's resurrection (Acts 4:32-37). Then follows the display of the energy of the Holy Ghost in judgment of hypocritical deception and covetousness within (Acts 5:1-11), but along with it the renewed activity of miraculous power through the apostles in grace (vers. 12-16). Next, the Jews growingly oppose themselves to the testimony of Christ, but their measures are manifestly frustrated by divine power through the angel which set free the prisoners on their mission of grace and truth (vers. 17-25). Lastly, when the exasperated will of men would proceed to deeds of blood, God interferes in the ordinary way of His providence to protect His faithful servants by a grave and wise man even in the enemy's camp. The voice of moderation and wisdom, though only natural, prevailed over the rash impulses of pride and passion intermingled with fear. God would still provide a further space for truth to awaken consciences and win hearts among His ancient people, guilty though they were. It was the day of grace, when He would save to the praise of the Lord Jesus. 'Ye Israelites take heed to yourselves as to these men what things ye are about to do' (ver. 35)
Of Theudas, who is in the first instance named by Gamaliel, we know no more than Luke records. 'For before these days rose up Theudas, saying that he himself was somebody, with whom a number of men, about four hundred took sides, who was slain, and all as many as obeyed him were scattered and brought to nothing' (ver. 36). What less likely than that the Theudas, who, according to Josephus, appeared at least a dozen years after Gamaliel's speech in the fourth year of Claudius (A.D. 44), can have been so seriously misplaced even by an historian abounding in inaccuracies, as all competent men acknowledge? If Luke had been only an ordinary godly Christian, is it conceivable that he would put into the mouth of a prominent and respected Jew like Gamaliel a falsehood so egregious as antedating the story of Theudas? If he be an inspired writer, it is needless to assert his immaculate exactness. God Who knows all and cannot lie is the true source of inspiration, whoever may be the instrument. The fact is that, on the one hand, the historical accuracy, as tested by the minutest shades of knowledge in the varying conditions and circumstances of which Luke writes freely in his Gospel, and even more amply in this Book of the Acts, is too well known generally by the most competent to need proof here; and, on the other, the name of Theudas1 was too common (cf. Cicero Ad Fam. vi. 10, ed. Orell. iii. 41; Galeni Opp. xiii. 925, ed. K�¼hn) to provoke the least well-grounded surprise that more than one so called could rise up among the many insurgent chiefs who agitated the Jews either before or since the death of Herod the Great. Josephus himself alludes to many, of whom he names but three, the Theudas, whose defeat by Fadus he places a dozen years later, seems to have had a far larger following than the 400 men of whom our evangelist writes.
1 Abp. Ussher (Works x. 484) identifies the Theudas of Acts 5:36 with one of those called Judas in the days of Archelaus. 'Cum vero Hebraeorum Yehudah fuerit Syrorum Thudah. indeque Judas et Thaddaeus, multoque magis Theudas idem plane nomen extiterit: non alius videtur fuisse Judas hic quam Theudas ille de quo Gamaliel dixit . . .'
To the believer it is certain that the revolt of Judas the Galilean was subsequent to that of the Theudas of whom Gamaliel spoke. Josephus entirely agrees with the Acts that it was in the time of the census under Quirinus, A.D. 6 (Antt. xviii. sub. init.). And it is remarkable that the Jewish historian, though describing him there as a Gaulonite of the city of Gamala, subsequently (6) speaks of him, just as Gamaliel does in our chapter, as 'the Galilean Judas'. Had this later mention been withheld, the impugners of revelation would have become loud in decrying Luke as they are absurd in their disposition to treat Josephus as infallible. But short as is the inspired report of Gamaliel's speech, we have strikingly accurate information of Judas perishing, as to which the historian is silent, and of the mere but thorough scattering of his most numerous supporters, who did not come to naught like Theudas, but again and again reappeared till the last and for a time successful effort terminated in the death of his younger son, Menahem, A.D. 66. 'After him rose up Judas the Galilean in the days of the census, and drew into revolt people after him, and he perished, and all as many as obeyed him were scattered abroad' (ver. 37). Whether Origen (Homil. in Luc. xxv.) had authority to say that this Judas really pretended to be Messiah may be doubtful; but he drew his vast crowds with the cry, 'We have God as our only Leader and Lord.' The uprising was fanatical as well as revolutionary. But how did it end? pleaded Gamaliel: a question unanswerable.
Then follows his advice of patient waiting for results. 'And now I say to you, Refrain from those men, and let them alone; for if this counsel or if this work be of men, it will be overthrown, but if it is of God, ye will not be able to overthrow them, lest ye be found also For, even] fighting against God' (vers. 38, 39). It was the form of toleration which a grave Jew might feel, impressed with recent facts, the character of the accused, and the state of public opinion. But there is far more reference to the issue under God than in the modern doctrine of toleration, which is in general a mere homage to the rights of man, ignoring God and the truth. He may have felt that persecution is a sorry means of subverting error or maintaining truth. Whatever the value or the motives of his judgment, it commended itself to the council, and saved the apostles from a death that seemed imminent.
Perhaps it may not be amiss here to give a specimen of the famous John Calvin's skill in handling the word of God. In his comment on the passage he first of all shows little favour to the sober speech with which Gamaliel swayed the council and extinguished the fiery zeal of those inclined to extremities. 'But if any one weigh all duly, his opinion is unworthy of a prudent man. I know indeed that by many it is held as an oracle; but that they judge badly appears with sufficient clearness even from this, because in such a way one must abstain from all punishments, neither were any wickedness to be corrected longer: yea, one must refuse all helps of life, which not even for one moment is it in our disposal to prolong. Both things indeed are said truly: what is of God cannot be destroyed by any efforts of men; what is of men is too weak to stand. But it is a bad inference that meanwhile we must do nothing. Rather should we see what God enjoins: and His will is that wickedness be restrained by us' (I. Calvani Opp. vi. in loc. Amstel. 1667).
Here breaks out the inflexible rigour which insisted on the burning of the unhappy Servetus, and the excessive punishment of others. Their evil doctrines are not questioned; but what have servants of Christ to do with measures of the kind? We have not so learned Him. The church has no doubt its own responsibility in the spiritual domain; as the world in what pertains to this life. Calvin has confounded all this in the opinion which censures Gamaliel, who meant nothing less than to deny the duty of the powers that be, but rightly urged that men should await the manifestation of that which was doubtful, instead of yielding to the hasty measures of passion and prejudice. To dissuade from extreme violence where the work might prove to be of God was certainly wiser than punishing to the utmost where they knew of no adequate reason. Calvin's logic seems as precarious as his confusion is evident of things spiritual and worldly. But this is not so extraordinary as his judgment that when Luke says, 'After him [Theudas] rose up Judas', he does not mark the order of time, as if Judas were the latter, that Gamaliel brought in his two examples promiscuously 'in disregard to time', and that 'after' means no more than 'besides' or 'moreover'!1 He had said before, 'If we credit Josephus, Gamaliel here inverts the true series of history.' Not so; unless we assume there could be only one insurrectionary Theudas. Now Josephus tells us of four men named Judas in ten years, who broke out in rebellion, and of three named Simon in forty years, and he in no way professes to name all, but on the contrary implies many more as unnamed. The assumption of Calvin is anything but rational and certainly fails in reverence.
1 It is true that Calvin might have pleaded the example of Eusebius (H.E. i. 5; ii. 11) for the same bad preference of a worldly to an inspired historian: so early, so inveterate, is the working of the evil heart of unbelief, and this in men of reputation. Even Th. de B�¨ze seems to be ashamed of all this, and certainly scouts the view of his predecessor as unfounded, though he speaks of Eusebius rather than of Calvin.
As usual, one wrong step leads to many. For Calvin is led thereby into the truly absurd consequence that, if we reckon the time, we shall find that it was at least twelve years since the death of Christ before the apostles were beaten! This blundering computation is founded entirely on confounding the Theudas of Gamaliel's speech with him who, as Josephus tells us, was dealt with by Cuspius Fadus in the reign of Claudius. 'Therefore that space of time of which I spoke is complete, and so the more excellent the constancy of the apostles, who, though ill-requited for the long pains they endured, are in no way discouraged, nor cease to hold the even tenor of their way.' Calvin was a great and good man, I doubt not; but the more striking and instructive is the lesson of boldness and folly when a man, no matter who, abandons the sure meaning of the written word for his own reasoning, which in such a case will ever betray its weak and worthless, not to say presumptuous, character. For what is man when he lifts up his voice against God? We need not dwell on other remarks of the commentator, which let out singular unfairness towards Gamaliel, as there is no desire to defend the latter nor expose the former beyond that measure which seems to be profitable for the reader. But I give his actual words: — 'Ergo conficitur illud quod dixi temporis spatium. Quo praestantior fuit Apostolorum constantia, qui quum post diuturnos labores obitos tam indignam mercedem reportent, non tamen franguntur, neque desinunt cursum suum persequi.'
'And to him they yielded, and, having called the apostles, they beat and charged [them] not to speak in [lit. on] the name of Jesus, and let them go. They therefore went their way from [the] presence of the council, rejoicing that they were accounted worthy to be dishonoured for the Name.1 And every day in the temple and at home they ceased not to teach and preach that the Christ [is] Jesus'2 (vers. 40 42).
1 E and many other copies add 'of the Lord Jesus', as others simply 'of Jesus', or 'of Christ', or 'of Him', which last is in the Received Text.
2 The Received Text has 'Jesus the Christ', Ἰησοῦν τὸν Χριστυόν, HP, et al., not τόν Χριόστον Ἰησοῦν as in AB and very many more.
Thus, though plucked from death, the apostles suffered the indignity of stripes at the hands of Jews, as Paul was afterwards to experience at least five times. 'The unjust man knoweth no shame.' If the Roman judge scourged the Lord of glory, the disciples were not above their Master, and must bear from Jew or Gentile to be treated as wicked men worthy to be beaten, Deut. 25:2. Doubtless it was for their alleged disobedience; and they are dismissed with a fresh command not to speak in the name of Jesus. How senseless is the will of unbelief! Impossible for one who knew His glory and His grace to be silent! God is concerned in such testimony supremely, and not man only or chiefly because he is otherwise lost for ever. And what is due to Him Who so humbled Himself, and suffered for our sins, and glorified God as nothing else could? 'They therefore went their way from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were accounted worthy to be dishonoured for the Name.' Who can doubt the deep and divinely-sprung joy of hearts that answered in their little measure to Him Whose delight is in His Son above all? What an impulse, not discouragement, to their testimony 'in the temple' to all comers (for of course, no proper assemblies would have been permitted there), 'and at home' where the saints broke bread, prayed, edified one another, and the like! But everywhere and every day there was but one theme: teaching or evangelizing, it was Jesus as the Christ.
If the chosen people were blind to the Messiah, if they despised Jehovah the Saviour when here, and crucified Him according to the prophets and His own word, it was the more incumbent on those who believed the report of divine grace to bear witness persistently, in love to their unbelieving persecutors, and in care for such of the lost sheep of Israel as were now saved by faith. And this the apostles did with a zeal not to be put down by prison, scourge, or death itself, as we shall see in due time. And God would in honour of His Son awaken others to imitate them as they imitated Christ.
Persecution of the Christian for Christ's sake is an honour from God (Phil. 1:29), as grace makes it a blessing to the church and a testimony to the world. The real danger is from within, and this yet more when the confidence of love yields at all largely to an evil eye and a discontented tongue. And so it was now. After God had so signally judged the deception of Ananias and Sapphira, fleshly and selfish complaint broke out among the Hellenistic or Greek-speaking Jews apparently against those of Jerusalem and Judea. It was not the Jews of pure descent jealous of those from elsewhere who profited by the self-sacrificing love which sold houses and lands that none might want. Still less was it the germ of those Judaizing divisions which were to be a source of not only deep, wide, and long-lasting disquiet, but of the utmost danger in denying the grace and corrupting the truth of which the church and the Christian are the responsible depositories.
'Now in those days when the disciples were multiplying, there arose a murmuring of the Hellenists against the Hebrews that [or, because] their widows were overlooked in the daily ministration' (ver. 1).
The murmuring came from those who had more or less of foreign admixture: whereas ill-feeling usually and naturally characterized those who boasted of associations wholly Israelitish. It was the Greek-speaking Jews who murmured against the Hebrews. That the mistake and indeed wrong was with the complainers seems clear, if from nothing else, from the grace evinced by all those who were the object of their murmuring, as the sequel shows. It is habitually the wrong-doer who denounces men better than himself. 'Their widows', they alleged, were being overlooked in the daily supply of wants. We are not told that so it really was, but so they complained. The poor 'widows' are ever remembered of God. The mouth of murmurers should be stopped, if the allegation were false.
'And the twelve, having called the multitude of the disciples unto [them] said, It is not seemly that we, leaving the word of God, should serve tables. Look out then, brethren, from among you seven men of good report, full of [the] Spirit and wisdom, whom we will appoint over this business; but we for our part will give ourselves closely to prayer and the ministry of the word' (vers. 2-4).
Up to this time the administration was in the hands of the apostles, as we see in Acts 4:35, though probably they may have employed many brethren in the actual distribution to each needy individual. But that there were already officers whose province it was, is not only without, but against the evidence of Scripture. I am aware that Mosheim tries to prove such a class of functionaries from 'the young men' (οἱ νεώτεροι) in Acts 5:6 which he will have rather fancifully to be the counterpart of the 'elder' (οἱ πρεσβύτεροι) who do not appear till the end of Acts 11, K�¼hn�¶l and Olshausen accepting his thought. But the usage of Scripture nowhere countenances any such official 'younger men', as it does often in the use of 'elders'. On the contrary in the same context, on their return from burying Ananias, they are called 'the young men', (οἱ νεανίσκοι) which cannot be conceived to have such a force and therefore ought to refute it for the previous and corresponding term. They were simply the younger brethren, on whom would naturally devolve any prompt call for a laborious and sorrowful duty of a physical nature. Compare 1 Tim. 5:1, 2, Titus 2:6; and 1 Peter 5:5. That not the Hellenists but the Hebrews had deacons already is the unfounded idea of the same writer, whose history would have small value as to later times if not far better than his use of the inspired source. It would be hard to say where Mosheim is right in his review of the apostolic church.
The fit moment was come for the apostles to be relieved from outer [temporal] work and thus free for what was spiritual. They direct therefore the establishment of responsible men for the daily ministrations in Jerusalem. This service was diaconal, yet peculiar (as Chrysostom long ago remarked) because of the actual circumstances there. Hence it may be that the term 'deacons' is not here or elsewhere given to 'the seven', but this number of theirs even more than 'the twelve' becomes a sort of distinctive badge. As the money came from the disciples in general, on them do the apostles call to look out from among them brethren in whom they could happily confide; yet the apostles, acting for the Lord in order, established them over the business. It was not seemly or proper (for ἀρεστὸν admits of a wider sense than the very narrow one of 'pleasing', or 'our pleasure') that they should forsake the word of God, and serve tables. To this their continuance in that work would otherwise have come. Loving wisdom thus turns ungrateful complaints for good. That it is in this a principle of moment is rendered evident. Where the Lord gives, He chooses, as for all ministry in the word; where the assembly gives, they choose, as in this case.
We see the same thing in 2 Cor. 8:18, 19, where a brother was chosen by the assemblies as fellow-traveller with Paul and Titus, thus providing for things honest not only before the Lord but also before men. This is the meaning of the phrase 'messengers of churches'. They were selected by the assemblies which sent help to the poor saints elsewhere, as the apostle would not take charge of the collection otherwise. Compare also 1 Cor 16:3, 4. In the case of 'elders' we find the apostles choosing, and not the disciples (Acts 14:23), and so Titus is told to do (Titus 1:5).
The three principles are quite distinct: (1) the Lord choosing and sending those whom He gives as gifts to the church, (2) the apostle, or an apostolic man by express commission, choosing or establishing elders; and (3) the assembly choosing the administrators of its funds, whom the apostles set solemnly over this business.
That 'the seven' were deacons (in the traditional sense of a brief noviciate or apprenticeship to the priesthood) is as unscriptural as that they had previously been of the 'seventy' whom the Lord sent out 'two and two' with a final message through Judea. Their work was not to preach and baptize but the dispensing of help to the temporal need of every day. Philip no doubt did preach, but he, we are expressly told, was 'an evangelist'. It was therefore in virtue of this gift, not of that appointment to care for the poor in Jerusalem, that we find him, in the dispersion of the assembly, preaching in Samaria and beyond (Acts 8). Just as evidently had Stephen the gift of a teacher if not of a prophet, which he exercised in a most solemn testimony before the council. But neither the multitude chose, nor yet did the apostles appoint, a single man to preach or teach. Evangelists and teachers were given by Christ the Head; and so they are still. The church is neither the source nor the channel of ministry: which is the exercise of a gift flowing from Christ at the right hand of God. So it was at the beginning, and so it remains de jure till He comes again.
Here it was but a local charge, however important and honourable, to which, as the multitude chose, the apostles appointed. The distinction is as plain as it is complete, but men are apt to view matters of the kind through the medium of habit and prejudice. Their duty was to carry out the distribution of the means for relieving the wants of the Christian community; which would leave the apostles free for the service of the word of God. Their number was doubtless suitable to the requirements of their work. Their qualifications were that they should have a good report, and be full of the Spirit and wisdom. To make their establishment more or other is as common as it is baseless. It would be unaccountable, if men had not objects foreign to Christ, and so to God's word.
'But we,' say the apostles emphatically, 'will give ourselves closely to prayer and to the ministry of the word.' This is much to be weighed. For that service of the word prayer should take the first place. So it was with the apostles, but not so with the Corinthian saints, who forgot not only that power is to be subordinated to order (1 Cor. 14) but that life according to Christ has to be exercised now in holy and constant self-denial, as the prime duty of him who names the Lord (1 Cor. 9). Prayer is the outgoing and expression of dependence, and is so much the more requisite, that the ministry of the word be not in the will or resources of man, but in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, yet in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that the faith of the saints stand not in men's wisdom but in God's power. In the order of the soul's blessing from God the word takes precedence, as we may see in comparing the end of Luke 10 with the beginning of Luke 11, where we have the moral sequence of these two means of grace. Receiving from God goes before drawing near to our Father. But for the due ministry of the word prayer is the great pre-requisite that flesh may afford no occasion to the enemy, and the individual may be a vessel to honour, sanctified, meet for the Master's use, prepared unto every good work.
'And the saying pleased [lit. before] all the multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of [the] Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch, whom they set before the apostles; and having prayed they laid their hands on them' (vers. 5, 6).
The grace shown by the apostles had a remarkable answer to it in the multitude, for that all the names are Greek indicates a Hellenistic connection. Persons seem to have been chosen without exception from the ranks of the Greek-speaking believers, the very class which had murmured against the Hebrews. Was not this grace enough to make the suspicious ashamed? There was no human provision of a balance or of a fair representation, as habits of business or the spirit of a law-court would suggest. God was looked to in faith, and the most marked conciliation prevailed. The supposition that there had been already Hebrew caretakers, and that Hellenists were now added to look after Hellenistic interests, is ;to miss and mar this beautiful account of divine love in full activity, by supposing the infusion of a mere worldly prudence.
It is also to be observed that 'the seven' when chosen were presented to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them in token of fellowship with their appointment. Imposition of hands was an ancient sign of blessing, Gen. 48:14, especially of official recognition, Num. 27:23, or of commendation to God's grace, Acts 13:3, Acts 14:26 (Acts 15:40). The impartation of the Spirit by that act in Acts 8:17; Acts 19:6, or again in 1 Tim. 4:14, 2 Tim. 1:6, is distinct, as will be shown in their places. Probably in the establishment of elders there may have been a similar laying on of hands, as some have gathered from 1 Tim. 5:22. But as Scripture is silent as to the fact, it would seem in order to guard believers from that fatal routine of superstitious form which has overlaid Christendom to the dishonour of the Lord and the hurt of rule. Even if apostolic hands were laid on presbyters, we are not told it; but where the duty was of an outward character, and godly men were chosen by the multitude, the apostles (we are expressly told) did lay hands on them. Not the multitude, but, as we have seen, the apostles chose elders for the disciples (Acts 14:23), and Scripture does not tell us of their laying hands on them, even if the fact were so. How infirm is the ground-work of ecclesiastical pride! How perfect is the word of God both in what it says and in its reticence!
The measure taken by the apostles in appointing servants for the exterior duties of the assembly, leaving themselves free for prayer and the ministry of the word, was owned by the signal blessing of God. Administration of money is a delicate and difficult task, especially if it be undertaken by such as serve in the word. In a low condition it gives influence of the basest kind to those who otherwise could have little or none. But here we are in presence of the Holy Ghost working in energy, holiness, and love, and in raising souls above the fleshly feelings that threatened danger to the church. None would be more struck by the unselfish wisdom of the apostles than the sacerdotal class, ordinarily apt to be greedy of power and influence, if not of worse still.
'And the word of God increased, and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem multiplied exceedingly; and a great crowd of the priests1 were obedient to the faith' (ver. 7).
1 It is painful to note how prone men of learning are to parry and pare down the marvels of God's grace. Thus Beza, Casaubon, and Valckenaer would change the text — Elsner, Heinsius, K�¼hnol, and Wolf, the only legitimate use of the last clause — to get rid of this great work among the priests. Is aught too hard for the Lord? Were priests alone a hopeless class? The Peschito (not the Philoxenian) Syriac had already yielded to similar unbelief, and the Arabic also, both omitting all notice of the priests.
It looked most promising surely, when the word of God grew as an object of faith and a distinct power among men, when the disciples so greatly multiplied in the city of solemnities itself, when the very priests were now flocking in, unwonted sight as this was, what could most think but that the scattered and peeled nation were at length learning divine wisdom? Would they not soon repent and be converted for the blotting out of their sins, so that seasons of refreshing might come from the presence of the Lord and He might send the Christ Who had been fore-appointed for them, Jesus? Appearances gave a colour, if not currency, to this thought such as never after that could be claimed for it. The truth was that God was but severing unto the name of Jesus from His ancient people such as should be saved, before He sent His armies, destroyed the murderers of His servants (yea, we can add, of His Son), and burned up their city according to the word of the Lord.
And so, if I err not, God is now doing in the active work of salvation which He is carrying on throughout the earth, in Christendom especially. It is the sure sign, not of the world's surrender to Christ and the cross, but that the Lord is separating His own from the world which is hastening to inevitable, unsparing, and condign judgment. Never till then can there be universal or stable blessing for the earth as a whole, such as we are entitled to expect according to Psalms. 65 - 68; 72; 92 - 107; and to the Prophets generally. The heavens must receive Jesus till the times of the restoring (not the destruction) of all things of which God has spoken by the mouth of His holy prophets since time began. It is the corrupt harlot, not the true bride, that wants to reign in the absence of the Bridegroom. If grace convert ever so many or ever so extraordinarily, as with the priests, they were but saving themselves from that crooked generation. Judgment personally inflicted by the Lord must precede His introduction of God's kingdom in power and glory; but this does not hinder the action of sovereign grace in changing His own and translating them to be with Himself on high before the day of His judgment dawns on the earth. For when His day comes they are already with Him, and hence they follow Him out of heaven, and appear with Him for the execution of that judgment.
Another element of moment is now introduced — the free action of God's Spirit even in Jerusalem, where all the twelve apostles were.
The ordination, if we call it ordination, of 'the seven' was for a temporal service, expressly not for spiritual ministry by the word, but on the contrary, by handing over to them the exterior duty, to let the apostles be undistracted in their blessed work. Assuredly, if it be a ridiculous perversion in one part of Christendom to devise a modern answer in the charge of the paten and chalice, it is only a shade better to make it a sort of probationership to the office of a presbyter. Scripture is overlaid and ignored by human tradition. 'The seven' were stewards for the poor, and not a formal noviciate for a full-blown minister. It was reserved for dissent to find a still lower deep, through money to constitute (what one of their own best men called) 'the lords deacons', with power to conciliate or coerce, to pamper or starve out, the minister. How unlike are all these to the holy ways of God and His word!
Yet one of 'the seven' is brought before us as used and honoured of God in a way quite outside the work for which they were appointed. 'And Stephen, full of grace1 and power, wrought great wonders and signs among the people. And there arose certain of those that were of the synagogue called2 [that] of the freedmen [Libertines], and of Cyrenians, and of Alexandrians, and of those of Cilicia and Asia,3 disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. Then they suborned men, saying, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God. And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes; and coming upon (him) they seized and brought him into the council, and set false witnesses, saying, This man ceaseth not speaking words against the4 holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and change the customs which Moses handed down to us. And all that sat in the council, gazing fixedly on him, saw his face as it were an angel's face' (vers. 8-15).
1 Such is the reading of ABD, of more than twenty cursives, and of the best ancient versions.
2 If we might safely adopt the reading of Tischendorf's last edition (τῶν λεγομένων with A, eight cursives, Sah. Memph. et al), the construction would be easier, 'of those called L'. But the mass of uncials, cursives, versions, et al, is adverse.
3 Lachmann was bold enough to omit 'and of Asia', because of its absence in
4 The best authorities omit 'blasphemous', which the Received Text adds with 'this' against the mass.
Beyond a doubt the levelling spirit of democracy, the unwillingness to recognize those who are over us in the Lord, is very far from the word of God. But even in those days when the church shone in order and beauty as never since, when the highest authorities that ever God set in the church were all there, we behold His sovereign grace acting in a man with no other title than what grace gave him. He was not even a bishop or presbyter; he had been set apart with others to a grave but lowly service. Yet we find him soon after described as full of 'grace' (not 'faith' merely) and power, working great marvels and signs among the people. There was no jealousy in that day of grace and power: for all who could and did glorify the Lord there was room and welcome. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of liberty. Even law, as well as the world and the flesh, gender bondage, and pride, and sin, man being what he is.
The fact is that Scripture knows nothing of ordaining a man to preach or to teach, still less if possible for the administration, so-called, of baptism and the Lord's supper. Superstition has entered, and the power of religious habits of thought founded on everyday routine; so that even pious men fail to see in the Bible what contradicts their theory and practice, and they attach to scriptural acts or words in defence of their own thoughts a meaning which is quite foreign to the truth.
According to Scripture, if a man has a spiritual gift from the Lord, he is not only free as regards others but bound before the Lord to use it. Otherwise let him beware of the condemnation in the parable of the unprofitable servant, who counted his lord hard and was afraid and went away and hid his talent in the earth. It is no question of a Christian's rights but of the grace of Christ, as well as of the obligation on him who has received the gift to use it according to His will to Whom the church belongs and for His glory. So says the apostle Peter, and it were well that men who misuse should hear and weigh his words: — 'According as each hath received a gift, ministering it among yourselves, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God: if any man speak, as oracles of God, if any man minister, as of strength which God supplieth, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, Whose is the glory and the dominion for ever and ever. Amen' (1 Peter 4:10, 11).
I purposely press this scripture which is in perfect keeping with all others that treat on the same subject. It seems the more apposite as Peter was there with the eleven when God put forward Stephen to act on it. The free energy of the Holy Spirit in gift is therefore in no way a Pauline peculiarity as some affect to believe. In the Epistles of the great apostle of the Gentiles, no doubt, we have the truth on this head, as on so many others dependent on Christ's headship of the church, developed more profoundly and comprehensively than the Lord was pleased to do by any others. But the principle is the same in a]l. Thus we find James warning the brethren not to be many teachers, knowing that we shall receive greater judgment, not because they were not ordained. And as the Second Epistle of John thunders against receiving a man (ordained or not), who did not bring the doctrine of Christ, so does the Third encourage Gaius (however Diotrephes might oppose) in all loving reception of such as went about preaching the truth. John had authority, if anyone on earth then had, to act for Christ; but he takes no other ground than the character of the doctrine they preached, for rejecting or receiving them. It was a question for him (is it for us?) simply of Christ, of the truth. This we must have if we are to love in truth. Love is of God, and God is love, but we must have the truth in order to love the truth. Otherwise it is the most illusive and fatal of snares.
Nor can one hesitate to say, that whatever might be the great marvels and signs that Stephen was doing (ver. 8) to the glory of the rejected but exalted Christ, the Second Man in heaven, the wisdom and the Spirit by which he was enabled to speak (ver. 10) were a reality yet deeper and more blessed. The one might arrest anyone, but no adversary could withstand the other. And there were many adversaries, here of course all of the circumcision.
Who were the Libertines? It would seem, according to the oldest interpretation on record, Jewish freedmen banished in A.D. 19 from Rome, whither Pompey had carried many prisoners taken in war, but afterwards emancipated by their masters and allowed to adhere to their religion. It is natural, as another has suggested, that men such as these should show strong feeling if they conceive that the religion for which they had suffered abroad was insulted or endangered at home. They are at any rate put into the foremost rank of Stephen's adversaries by the inspired historian. If it be so, it is a Grecized Latin word. This too would account for the expression 'called' as due to the connected 'Libertines'. Some have tried to make out a city Libertum in Africa, and it is known that there was a bishop of Libertum at the synod of Carthage in A.D. 411. But if such a town existed in the days of Stephen, and it was not too small to be noticed, it could never take precedence of Cyrene and Alexandria.
Doubt has been felt whether two synagogues were meant, or five. It appears to me that Winer is not justified in the former supposition, that the τῶν first used would have sufficed to have united the five classes, and that the second is not to indicate only two parties, each possessing a common synagogue, but the difference of such as came out of cities like Cyrene and Alexandria with the freedmen first named from those of provinces like Cilicia and Asia. When we are told that there were then some 480 synagogues in Jerusalem, it seems very unlikely that there should not be a separate place for each, as the Jews were notoriously numerous in most if not in all.
It is of solemn interest to observe how unbelieving men can find a show of reason to fasten the most odious charges on the truth which they hate and on those who proclaim it. Yet why suborn men to inform, if they honestly felt indignation at alleged wickedness? One can understand that to claim for Jesus the title of the Christ, the Anointed, was to imply His superiority to Moses; also to hint at the transitory nature of the temple, which the Lord had said was to have not a stone left on another, might be regarded as blaspheming the God Whose house it was.
However this may have been, they thereby roused the people and the elders and the scribes. Here the Pharisees would be as furious as the Sadducees or more so. It was a general outburst of proper Jewish resentment; and so Stephen was seized and brought into the council. If the words had been said, the witnesses were none the less false. Nothing could be more wickedly untrue than that he said anything disrespectful to God or Moses, to the law or the temple. But wicked men hear with a wicked feeling, and the Spirit pronounces them false witnesses, though Stephen's words might sound as they reported. 'For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and change the customs which Moses handed down to us.'
I know not why commentators should question the singular mark of divine favour vouchsafed to Stephen's person, unless they abjure faith and deny the yet more wondrous privilege at the close of his discourse. It is striking that he who was accused of reviling Moses and God should receive from God a sign like that which His servant Moses enjoyed. The Jews at any rate ought to have felt it to be a solemn appeal to them above all mankind. The occasion was worthy of divine intervention whether in the case of him who received the commandments of Jehovah for Israel, or in his case who bore witness to the rejected but glorified Son of man, and that 'better thing' to which His atoning death was to give birth according to the law and the prophets. The supernatural attestation singularly suited both. But there is no evidence possible which wilful unbelief cannot evade, not even if one rose from the dead, as our Lord warned (Luke 16:31).
The remarkable testimony of Stephen now comes before us. It was fitting that the devoted Hellenist, rather than any of the twelve, should break fresh ground and pave the way for the wider outgoing of the truth, just after the mention of so striking a witness to its attractive power from the bosom of Judaism in the faith of a crowd of priests (Acts 6:7).
Stephen was accused of disparaging what was most sacred in Hebrew eyes — the sanctuary and the law. He was charged with attributing to the Nazarene a purpose of destroying 'that place', and of changing the customs delivered to them by Moses. What can be of deeper interest and instruction than his way of meeting so malignant a perversion of his meaning? Grace is never the enemy of law, though incomparably higher, it rather establishes law. The prophetic word did not conceal that of the stately buildings of the temple not one stone should be left on another; but was Jesus a destroyer, because He was a prophet and far more than a prophet? Under His reign the law shall go forth out of Zion, and even in humiliation He came not to destroy but to fulfil it. But unbelief is deaf and blind, and is apt to impute its own evils to those who love the truth. Certainly Stephen said nothing but what the prophets and Moses had declared should come.
'And the high priest said, Are these things so? And he said, Brethren [lit. Men brethren] and fathers, hear. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said unto him, Go out of thy land and out of thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall shew thee' (vers. 1-3).
'The God of glory' is no mere Hebraism for 'glorious God', but directs the heart from the beginning to One altogether above the world not only in Himself but in His purposes, whatever His ways meanwhile on the earth. 'Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the flood [river] in old time, even Terah the father of Abraham, and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods' (Joshua 24:2). It was in sovereign grace that God thus appeared. Even the line of Shem, the father and kindred of Abraham, were idolaters. Grace gives, not finds, what is good. Not only did the God of glory appear: it was to Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia and thus when he was at the farthest point of his distance from 'the land', as well as in idolatrous associations. How little the Jews understood the God of glory or His servant Moses! Stephen, full of grace and power, did. Nothing was more foreign to him than 'speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.'
Even Abraham, blessed as he was, moved slowly in the path of faith at first. He did not quit Mesopotamia to dwell in Canaan all at once. Before this he dwelt in Haran. He got out of his land, but not so quickly 'out of his kindred', so that there was a remarkable delay in coming into the land which God was to show him. 'Then came he out of [the] land of the Chaldeans, and dwelt in Haran; and thence, after his father died, He removed him into this land in which ye now dwell' (ver. 4).
It is rather a daring comment to say (Alford, Greek Testament in loco) that 'the Jewish chronology which Stephen follows was at fault here, owing to the circumstance of Terah's death being mentioned, Gen. 11:32, before the command to Abram to leave Haran, it not having been observed that the mention is anticipatory. And this is confirmed by Philo having fallen into the same mistake . . .' The truth is that the favourite Jewish hypothesis (Aben Ezra, Rashi) is that Terah did not die till sixty years after Abraham had left Haran. And in all probability the Samaritan Pentateuch has changed 205 into 145 (Gen. 11:32), in order to meet the supposed difficulty. The source of the error among ancients or moderns is the assumption that Abraham was Terah's eldest son, for which there is no more ground in the order of the names than in the case of Noah's sons, where we know that not Shem but Japheth was the eldest. But, for an adequate divine reason, not the elder but the younger is repeatedly named first. To Terah at 70 years Haran was born, Abraham at 130, who therefore could be married to Haran's daughter, Sarai or Iscah, ten years younger than himself. See Ussher's Works, viii. 21-23; Clinton's Fasti Hellen. i. 289 et seqq.
One may not agree with Bengel's suggestion which Alford quotes, but an upright help towards understanding the word which is held fast as perfect is to be respected: 'truly lamentable' is the pandering to the enemy on the plea of the spirit, not the letter, of God's word. That Terah who had Haran at 70 might have begotten Abraham at 130 is simple enough, dying at 205; that Abraham should at 99 regard it as beyond nature to have by Sarah a son is no less simple. Hagar had borne him a son at 86; and the natural interpretation of Gen. 25:1-6 is that after Sarah's death Abraham had by Keturah, his wife or concubine, six sons sent away from Isaac while he lived, that Isaac only should be his heir without dispute. There is no handling of the word of God so deceitful as the unbelief which treats it as if it were not His, or as if He could lie.
Terah, as long as he lived, was a dead weight on Abraham's obedience. As we are told, 'Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran his son's son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan' (Gen. 11:31). But the land, in these circumstances, they never reached. God told Abraham to quit his kindred as well as his country, and till this was done, he failed to reach Canaan.1 It would have scarcely been proper for Abram as the son to take Terah his father. So 'Terah took Abram . . .' This, however, was not at all according to the call of God to Abram. Hence, we read, 'they came unto Haran, and dwelt there.' But when Terah died, 'Abram departed as the Lord had spoken unto him' (Gen. xii. 4). Then the language is pointedly different: — 'And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran, and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan, and into the land of Canaan they came' (Gen. 12:5). There was no failure now that his faith was not hampered by the encumbrance of nature which almost necessarily took the upper hand; therefore the movement had lacked the power of God to give it effect. That gone, the blessing immediately followed.
1 Philo (Ed. Richter, iv. 20) is all wrong in denying that God appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia, confining the vision to Gen. 12:7 just like the Jews who assailed Stephen. Dean Alford's remarks are worse than 'inaccurate'.
There is a question in verse 4 whether the subject be Abram or God understood. If verse 43 points to the latter, the construction of 1 Chr. 8:6 (in the LXX.) favours the former: so that some may and do abide with the Authorized Version, instead of following the Revisers, and the Vulgate, Syrr., Ar., Cop., if not Aeth. The connection with verse 5 would lead one to prefer God: 'And He gave him none inheritance in it, not so much as a foot's tread, and promised to give it to him for a possession, and to his seed after him, when he had no child.'
It is wholly incorrect to say that God did afterwards give him a possession in Canaan, namely, the piece of land which he purchased of Ephron as a burial-place, Gen. 23:17; for the gift of God is absolute and future, and that it is so is confirmed, not weakened or trenched on, by the purchase of a burial-place from the Hittite. For who that possessed this land or any other would think of buying his own possession? There he lays his dead in land so evidently not his own that he has to buy it for the purpose, the pledge to faith that he will have it another day. So far from occasion to wrest our text here or anywhere in order to produce accordance with the history, the language is as plain and perfect as possible. The fact is stated to show how truly the patriarch was a pilgrim in the very land whose present possession had, to say the least, such exaggerated moment in the eyes of his seed, because they walked not in the faith of their father. God will surely give 'this land' to Abram's seed. They will buy it of no stranger in that day. No intermediate confusion can touch His promise. 'By faith he (Abraham) sojourned in the land of promise as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise' (Heb. 11:9).
Abram and his seed will have the promise in the day when glory is to dwell in that land (Ps. 85.), a truth which Gentile theology makes even believers forget. Indeed all the earth shall then be filled with the glory of Jehovah, but pre-eminently is the glory to rest on Zion, a defence on all, when God shall have accomplished the cleansing of Jerusalem: not by the gospel simply as now, but by the spirit of judgment and of burning. Then shall the children of Abraham, not by nature only but by grace also, enter on the promised inheritance, he himself being in resurrection-glory, when Jesus is revealed from heaven and there come the times of restoration of all things, whereof God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, which have been since time began.
There is no ground for regarding 'not', as 'not yet' nor 'gave' and 'promised' as pluperfect in sense, nor 'and' as 'yet', with learned men who did not understand nor believe the scripture before them.
Further, Stephen draws attention to the fact that 'God thus spoke, that his seed [Abraham's] should be a sojourner in a land not theirs, and that they should enslave and ill-treat them, four hundred years. And the nation, to whom they shall be in slavery, will I judge, said God; and after these things shall they come out and serve Me in this place' (vers. 6, 7). It is a free citation of Gen. 15:13, 14, with a few words, more or less from Ex 3:12, instead of the closing phrase. The God of glory thought of His people in Egypt and in the wilderness, before the holy place or even the law, and will never give Israel up till He has made good His promise, guaranteed when Abraham had no child. God called Abraham alone, and blessed and increased him. How wrong then they all were in making so much of themselves, and of their privileges, to the slight of His grace and of Himself, the God of glory, Who appeared to Abraham alone when there was absolutely nothing to boast, nothing but sin and shame in man, and Israel as yet unborn! For as with the father, so with his seed. As he went about a stranger in Palestine, so they were first seen in bondage in an alien land; and this for no brief moment — for in round numbers 400 (strictly 405) years intervened from the birth of the child of promise till God judged the nation that had them in slavery.1 When his descendants did come out, it was not even into the land, but into the desert, where they wandered forty years. He had indeed delivered them to His own glory, but His dealings were not according to their thoughts and prejudices. Were they the people to claim indefeasible and even exclusive rights? To do so, they must disbelieve their own history, yea, God's word.
1 It was as exactly as possible 400 years from the dismissal of the Egyptian bondwoman and her child Ishmael, the beginning of that 'persecution of the line of promise which culminated in Egypt and closed in the Exodus of Israel when divine judgments had broken the power and pride of their oppressors.
At first sight it may appear to some singular that Stephen should introduce circumcision. But he, in fact, simply follows the divine record, so that there is not only instruction conveyed, but it is increased by paying heed to the order impressed on the facts, and so on the history, by the wisdom of God.
'And he gave him a covenant of circumcision, and thus he begat Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac, Jacob; and Jacob, the twelve patriarchs' (ver. 8).
Thus does Stephen draw marked attention to the covenant of circumcision given of God to Abraham, instead of slighting the institution incorporated in the law. It was thus Isaac was begotten, and those who followed; all submitting to a rite which indicated the corruption of the flesh, and put death on it as the only deliverance from it. But the promise was already long before the law; and the father of the faithful had enjoyed the election and call of God anterior even to circumcision. The truth is a whole, and only suffers from the misuse of one part to enfeeble or destroy another. The Spirit, using the word in view of Christ's glory, puts all in its place, as He alone can. Hence the speaker, being a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, saw and presented things according to God, whereas the unbelieving Jews understood in no wise the true bearing of their own institutions, misusing them for self-righteousness and pride, and hence blindly rejecting the Light of God to Whom all pointed.
Alas! it is an old story. Their fathers were not really better than they; and God has not told us of their doings in vain, if we have but an ear to hear. For how does Stephen sum up the history of that early twelve? 'And the patriarchs through jealousy sold Joseph into Egypt: and God was with him, and delivered him out of all his afflictions, and gave him favour and wisdom in the sight of Pharaoh, king of Egypt; and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house' (vers. 9, 10). A beloved son, or a God-fearing slave, a guiltless prisoner or a wise vicegerent, Joseph had God with him everywhere and in all circumstances. Yet who of the twelve was so tried of his brethren? who so plotted against as he? Who seemed to fare worse in spite — yea because — of his unsullied purity? Nevertheless, even in prison, 'Jehovah was with him, and that which he did Jehovah made it to prosper.'
Was there no voice, from Joseph and his brethren, to the Jews who surrounded Stephen? 'Joseph brought unto their father their evil report. . . . And when his brethren saw that his father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.... And his brethren said, Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us? And they hated him yet the more for his dreams and for his words.... And when they saw him afar off, even before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him. . . . And they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver; and they brought Joseph into Egypt' (Gen. 37:2-28). If so the fathers dealt with the type, who that believes could wonder that they should deal worse with the great Antitype? For it was what was of Christ in Joseph, what the Spirit wrought in and by him, which irritated the fathers of the nation against him. Was it so wonderful, then, that 'this generation' had rejected a greater than Joseph; Who being come convicted them of enmity against God, drawn out by hatred of divine goodness in His own person, ways, and words? Let them not forget that the rejected of his brethren was exalted to the right hand of power for the blessing of others, and even (specially at the end) of his brethren, to whom he was only thus made known after his long separation from them. Thus did he prefigure Christ in His sufferings, as well as in the glories that should follow them.
'Now there came a famine over all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction; and our fathers found no sustenance. But Jacob, having heard that there was corn in Egypt, sent forth our fathers first and at the second [time] Joseph was made known to his brethren, and his [or, Joseph's] race became manifest unto Pharaoh. And Joseph sent and called to him Jacob his father, and all his kindred, seventy-five souls' (vers. 11-14).
It was a pathway of righteous suffering which led to glory; and when exalted, Joseph administers in the wisdom of God what the same wisdom exalted him to provide in days of plenty for those of dearth. Under the mighty hand of God, the dearth pressed not only over all Egypt but over Canaan, where the heads of Israel tasted of that cruel affliction, for they found no sustenance, and in divine providence sought corn in Egypt. This, 'at the second time', gave occasion for their great discovery, not without self-judgment when Joseph was made known to his brethren, and the line of promise became no longer a secret to Pharaoh. And the fathers, with Israel their father, went down into Egypt, where they in lengthened and retributive sorrow were to pay the penalty for their heartless wrong to their brother, who was exalted of God where Jew and Gentile had both put him to shame, which he repaid in nothing but grace to all, but especially to Israel.
The bearing of all this on Christ is unmistakable; but Stephen does not apply — he only states — facts, so much the more striking because they were familiar, and now set in a light which shone on Messiah as well as the Jews, that the people might thereby know God and themselves. How little they knew anything as they ought was plain from this, that they had hitherto never thought of seeing in Joseph the Christ, nor in the guilty fathers themselves, the still guiltier murderers of the Lord of glory. Their ignorant boast was their shame. And He that was sold no less than Joseph, and lifted up on high from a worse pit and a deeper dungeon, was waiting to bless them, as they themselves were to taste the bitter fruits of their sin in a dispersion worse than a captivity, whatever the mercy that awaits them in the latter end, when they bow repentant before Him in glory.
It will be noticed that Stephen speaks of seventy-five souls, where the Hebrew has seventy; he cites here, as elsewhere, the Septuagint. Calvin (in loco) considers that this discrepancy came not from the Greek translators themselves, but crept in through the fault of copyists, and that Stephen did not say so; but that seventy-five was foisted in here to make the speech agree with the Greek version of Gen. 46:27. But this appears to be an unreasonable way of accounting for what is simple enough, and that the apostle's caution against endless genealogies (1 Tim. 1:4) has nothing to do with the matter. The fact is, that both the original and the Greek version might both be true, the latter reckoning in five sons of Manasseh and Ephraim born in Egypt (1 Chr. 7:14-27), according to a latitude of various forms, by no means uncommon in such lists.
There is more difficulty in explaining the next verse but one. 'And Jacob went down into Egypt and died, he and our fathers; and they were carried over unto Shechem and laid in the tomb which Abraham bought for a sum of money from the sons of Hamor in [son, or father of1] Shechem' (vers. 15, 16).
1 The chief various reading in this verse is a question between ἐν and τοῦ : the former supported by p.m. BC, several cursives and ancient versions (and with τοῦ before ἐν corr. AE and three cursives, et al.), the latter (which is the commonly received text) by inferior authorities. The whole phrase is omitted by the Pesh. Syr. and Erp. Arabic.
The late Dean of Canterbury had no hesitation in pronouncing him who spoke, full of the Holy Ghost, as guilty of 'at least two demonstrable historical inaccuracies', which, he is pleased to assure his readers, do not affect the inspiration or the veracity of the writer! On the other hand Bengel, following Fl. Illyricus, et al., seeks to clear the passage up by the supposition that a double purchase and a double burial were intended with intentional omissions on either side. He therefore maintains the integrity of the reading 'Abraham', and declares the conjectural 'Jacob' unnecessary, compendious brevity, when the particulars were all known, accounting for a method which to us seems surprising. The facts are that Abraham bought a burial-place of Ephron the Hittite at Machpelah or Hebron, where the three patriarchs were buried as well as Sarah, and that Jacob bought a field of the sons of Hamor in Shechem, where Joseph was buried. Where the rest of Jacob's sons were laid does not appear in the Old Testament: Josephus says in Hebron; the Rabbis, in Shechem, as Jerome also reports. Moderns argue for some here and some there; and one at least maintains a transfer from Shechem to Hebron.
I prefer to leave the passage; but in the circumstances the least worthy hypothesis is that this blessed and mighty witness of Christ fell into a confusion of Hebron with Shechem, and of Abraham with Jacob, beneath an ordinary Sunday-scholar. Is it not a safer conclusion that we may be ignorant of facts which, better known, would dispel this mist, or of some peculiarity in the mode of reference, as in Matt. 27:9, Mark 1:2, to which Westerns are not used, but which is understood without cavil among Jews? One is disposed (when surveying from first to last a speech of surpassing scope, and power of insight into principles of Jewish history) to doubt that the speaker was ignorant of circumstances lying on the surface of the earliest book of Scripture, and familiarly known to every Jew; or that the inspired writer of the Book did not see the discrepancy which must strike the most careless reader. And one may question whether it would not be better, these things being so, to amend our manners instead of assuming to amend the text.
'But as the time of the promise was drawing nigh which God vouchsafed2 to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt till there arose another king over Egypt who knew not Joseph. He dealt craftily with our race and evil-entreated our fathers that they should expose their babes to the end they might not be preserved alive' (vers. 17-19).
2 There can be scarce a question that ὠμόλογησεν is the right reading, as in ABC, et al., with most of the old versions; and not the vulgar reading w]mosen 'swore', as in HP, most cursives, the Pesh. Syr., Cop., et al.
It is always thus. There is ever war between God and the enemy, and nowhere does it rage so hotly as where His people are concerned, and when a distinct manifestation of divine mercy is imminent. God's approaching favour to Israel drew out the enmity of Satan, who stirred up a suited instrument for his malice in the prince of the world of that day, 'another king who knew not Joseph'. The verses are a pithy summary of Ex. 1:7-20, which gives the details of Pharaoh's wily, aggressive, and unscrupulously cruel efforts to depress, yet just as signally to be defeated of God, for, say or do what he might, 'the people multiplied and waxed very mighty'. The edict to destroy the males failed, not only through human pity, but through the fear of God, Who honoured those who honoured Him, and brought to naught His adversaries.
But now Moses is dwelt on at great length by Stephen as before Joseph more briefly. Thus he brought before their minds another and most salient personal type of the Messiah, besides the general testimony to the truth for their consciences.
'At which season Moses was born, and was exceedingly [lit. to God] fair, who was nourished three months in his father's house; and when he was cast out, Pharaoh's daughter took him up and nourished him for her own son. And Moses was instructed in all [the] wisdom of [the] Egyptians; and he was mighty in his words and works. But when he was about forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren the sons of Israel; and seeing one wronged, he defended [him], and avenged him that was oppressed, smiting the Egyptian. For he thought that his brethren understood that God by his hand was giving them deliverance; but they understood not. And on the day following he appeared to them as they were striving, and compelled them to peace, saying, Sirs, ye are brethren: why do ye wrong one to another? But he that was wronging his neighbour thrust him away, saying, Who established thee ruler and judge over us? Dost thou wish to kill me as thou killedst the Egyptian yesterday? And Moses fled at this saying, and became a sojourner in the land of Midian where he begat two sons' (vers. 20-29).
The enemy had raised up a suited instrument, another king over Egypt which knew not Joseph. Suffering became the portion of Israel and a deadly stroke was aimed at the promise in the person of their babes. For the commandment of the king was to expose them that they might not be preserved alive. At that critical moment Moses was born, fair unto God, with a glorious career before him, however dark its beginnings. He, too, came under the sentence of death, and, after being nourished three months in his father's house, was cast out like the rest. But we have the highest authority for affirming that it was 'by faith', whatever the natural affection of his parents, that he was hid by them these three months (Heb. 11:23). 'They were not afraid of the king's commandment.' God interfered for him providentially; and' the least likely of all in Egypt, Pharaoh's daughter, took him up and nourished him for her own son. It was manifestly an intervention of God.
But divine providence is no guide for faith, nothing but the word. Providence brought him in, whence faith led him out. 'By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter choosing rather to be evil-entreated with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; accounting the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt, for he looked unto the recompense of reward' (Heb. 11:24-26).
None can deny that Moses was capable of justly estimating the situation. He was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and works. He looked, however, not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. His eye was on the kingdom of God, he awaited the Messiah, he knew that the purposes of God, as they centre in Christ, had Israel as their inner circle on earth. His affections therefore, were not with the court of Egypt, nor upon the most brilliant vista it could open for a man of his energy. Poor degraded Israel he loved, and loved, not so much because they were his people, but as the people of God, yet reserved for Christ, Whose reproach meanwhile their degradation was.
So when Moses was about forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren, the sons of Israel. Alas! they were fallen, not in their circumstances only, but in their souls. Faith wrought in but few of them to expect a deliverer or to appreciate such as had faith in God. In such circumstances the worst moral condition is apt to be found. An unfaithful Israelite sinks below an Egyptian; and Moses must learn this, as Joseph had learned it before; as One infinitely greater than Joseph or Moses proved it even before the death of the cross. 'And seeing one suffer wrong, he defended him and avenged him that was oppressed, smiting the Egyptian; and he supposed that his brethren understood how that God by his hand was giving them salvation, but they understood not.' They were dark and dead God-ward. The hardness of man they felt. The hope God had given to Israel had almost vanished from their souls. There was certainly no expectation of a deliverance at hand; yet surely they ought to have looked for it. The fourth generation was proceeding, in which, according to the word of Jehovah, they, so long afflicted, were to quit a judged Egypt, and to come into the promised land again (Gen. 15:13-16).
But God was not in their thoughts, and Moses was misunderstood. Nay, worse than this; 'And the day following he appeared unto them as they strove, and would have set them at one again, saying, Sirs, ye are brethren, why do ye wrong one to another? But he that did his neighbour wrong thrust him away, saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us? Wouldest thou kill me as thou killedst the Egyptian yesterday?' The keenest wound, as the basest blow, comes from God's people: when man rules therein and not God, Satan works underneath it all and at his worst.
Yet was it all profitable discipline for Moses, who 'fled at this saying and became a sojourner in the land of Midian, where he begat two sons.' He must learn of God alone in the wilderness. The wisdom of Egypt must be, as it were, unlearned: God deigns not to honour it for His deliverances. The wisdom that He uses must come down from above. We shall see how God wrought when the due moment arrives. Meanwhile Moses is the rejected of Israel, as Joseph before of his brethren. Only as Joseph shows us exaltation over the Gentiles when separated from his brethren, so Moses gives us, in another direction, the complication from the offended power and anger of the Gentiles.
But it is during this compulsory exile from Israel that Moses has a family given to him. So the virgin's Son, Emmanuel, speaks in Isaiah 8:5-18. There too Israel are unbelieving; there too is a hostile confederacy of the nations; but, 'Behold, I and the children whom Jehovah has given me are for signs and for wonders in Israel, from Jehovah of hosts which dwelleth in mount Zion.' Faith waits upon Jehovah that hides His face from the house of Jacob, and it looks for Him. At the worst of times He is for a sanctuary, at the right moment He works out unmistakable deliverance. How solemnly all this bore on the actual circumstances of the Jew! They did not understand that Jesus was their Deliverer. They gradually grew to hate His words, because His words judged them in the secret of their souls, and His parables portended sure destruction for their pride and unbelief. Hence they cast Him out even unto death, but God raised Him up and was now manifesting the children He had given Him, as yet from Israel only, but soon to be from Gentiles also. The hour of Messiah's rejection is but the occasion for a higher glory and a more intimate relationship with those who meanwhile believe, just as the stranger in the land of Midian becomes the father of two sons which he had not when in Egypt with the sons of Israel around him.
Had Stephen invented these remarkable facts and yet more remarkable foreshadowings? No Jew, however prejudiced, could deny them to be the brief, true, and bright reflection of God's word in their own hands. The undeniable truth inspired by the Holy Ghost shone solemnly on that which they had done to One attested by God to them by works of power and wonders and signs which God wrought by Him in their midst, as they themselves too well knew. Such is man on the one hand, and such God on the other: so surprising as to provoke the unbelief and ill-will of all who do not bow to His revelation as well as to the bitter conviction of their own evil. To the believer it is the old but ever new lesson of learning the first man and the Second: where this is learnt, the heart seeks and owns it could not be otherwise, man being what he is, as also God what He is for He cannot deny Himself, though man in his blindness constantly denies both himself and God.
But the correction comes when Christ is brought home to the soul by the Holy Ghost in the gospel: one repents, and believes. Such an one reads his own evil in what man did and is: anything of iniquity in a Jew or a Gentile is not overmuch marvellous, he can find a match for Pharaoh or for Israel in his own breast if not in his own life, or in both. But greater grace assuredly than was ever shown by a Joseph or a Moses, he knows in the Son of God Who came down from heaven not to do His own will, but His Who sent Him — in the Son of man Who came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many. So does faith turn all things past or future to present account; as a man's unbelief loses all blessing from every quarter, and will rather destroy his own soul than give honour really to God and His Son.
Thus was Moses an outcast for many long years, not more from the incensed king of Egypt than from his own unworthy brethren, who loved him the less, the more abundantly he loved them, and who were as unmindful of the promised deliverance as unappreciative of him who forfeited all on their account. Israel denied him who was in that day the type of the Holy and the Righteous One. It was no new thing.
'And when forty years were fulfilled, an angel [of the Lord]1 appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire of [in] a bush. And Moses, on seeing, wondered at the sight; and as he went up to observe, there came a voice of [the] Lord [unto him]2: I [am] the God of thy fathers, the God of Abraham, and3 Isaac, and3 Jacob. And Moses trembled, and durst not observe. And the Lord said to him, Loose the sandal of thy feet, for the place whereon4 thou standest is holy ground. I have surely [lit. seeing I have] seen the ill-treatment of My people which is in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and am come down to take them out for Myself. And now come, I send [or, will send] thee into Egypt. This Moses whom they denied, saying, Who established thee ruler and judge? him hath5 God sent [both] ruler and deliverer, with an angel's hand that appeared to him in the bush. This [man] led them out, having wrought wonders and signs in the land of6 Egypt and in the Red Sea, and in the wilderness forty years. This is the Moses that said to the sons of Israel, A prophet will God7 raise up to you out of your brethren, like me' (vers. 30-37).
1 DEHP, almost all cursives and many ancient versions.
2 Most authorities but not the best.
3 'The God of' in the Authorized Version and Received Text on ample, but not the highest, authority.
4 'Wherein' is the more common reading.
5 The perfect has best, not most, support.
6 Probably Lachmann's choice of ἐν τῃ Αἰγύπτω is right (BC et al.), which may next easily have lapsed into ἐν γῃ Αἰγύπτου or ῳ both being well supported but not the oldest.
7 The Received Text adds, 'The Lord your', as in the Authorized Version, and 'him shall ye hear', but not so the oldest.
God ordered the trials for Moses as none else would. For him, at the vigorous age of forty years, spent with every natural advantage possible in that day, who would have planned an equal period in the comparative solitude of Midian, without a project or even a known communication with his race, in patient waiting on God? Yet what wiser, if God were acting in wisdom and power by Moses to His own glory?
Then came a most singular but suited manifestation: an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire of a bush. It was no less significant than that vouchsafed to Joshua at a later day (Joshua 5:13-15). When conquest of Canaan was in question, what more encouraging than a man seen with his sword drawn, captain of Jehovah's host? When the work was to bring the people through a waste howling wilderness, what more appropriate sign than a bush blazing yet unconsumed, and yet more, 'the good-will of Him that dwelt in the bush'? Moses himself, 'separated from his brethren', could well appreciate its significance, when wonder and fear had yielded to reflection in the light of the divine communications he had received.
'And as he went up to observe, there came a voice of [the] Lord, I [am] the God of thy fathers, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. And Moses trembled, and durst not observe.' Before redemption, even a saint trembled when brought into God's presence. Be it that His voice declares Him the God of promise, of the fathers Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, 'Moses trembled, and durst not observe.' Till redemption peace is impossible. 'And the Lord said to him, Loose the sandal of thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.' Before the exodus of Israel from Egypt there was a manifestation of divine righteousness in delivering them and judging their oppressors. And holiness is proclaimed inviolable from the outset, not less is it so when Israel are called under Joshua to uncompromising conflict with the Canaanite dwelling in the land. 'Holiness', it was sung at a latter day for an epoch not yet fulfilled, 'becometh Thine house, O Jehovah, for ever' (Ps. 93:5). The same prefatory admonition precedes alike the types of redemption accomplished for His people, and of warring in their midst with Satan that they may enjoy their proper privileges. God will be sanctified, whatever His grace in redeeming His own from the house of bondage, or in leading them to victory over the powers which usurp their heritage. Let us not forget it. How often irreverence has crept in, both in learning divine righteousness and in conflict with the enemy! 'These things ought not so to be.'
But redemption was in His heart; and of this He forthwith speaks to Moses, now weaned from self-confidence as much as from worldly association. 'I have surely seen the ill-treatment of My people which is in Egypt and have heard their groaning, and am come down to take them out for Myself.' Who but God would have thus undisguisedly spoken of a poor set of slaves as 'My people'? Others would have delivered and bedecked them first. It is the same God Who as a father falls on the neck of the returning prodigal in his rags and kisses him, before the honours afterwards lavished upon him. But let it be the foreshadowing or the antitypical reality, it is of the utmost moment to apprehend that redemption is the work of God present in some sort, and delivering, not merely from the enemy, but for Himself. His people's ill-treatment must be avenged, their groaning be heard and answered with His consolation"; but, better still, He comes down to take them out for Himself.
'To deliver' was of course verified also but the literal rendering is much more expressive, and gives not mere relief from the usurper's hand, but the positive object, and what can surpass it? If it be often overlooked, both in doctrine and in practice, it is of the more consequence to insist on it. Elsewhere may be put forward liberation, of which it is, of course, right in its place to point out the nature and effects; but here it is God taking Israel out for Himself, as said also of Joseph in verse 10, and not infrequently elsewhere in Scripture, though the emphatic force only comes out fully in redemption. For Christ suffered once for sins, Just for unjust, that He might bring us to God. It will be manifest when we ate in glory; it is no less true now to faith while we are here on earth. Nor can any truth bound up with redemption be of deeper moment for the soul. True spiritual experience rests on and springs out of it.
'And now come, I will send thee into Egypt.' But how different now the feelings of Moses! When in Egypt, he had gone forward in his own energy, and now, when sent of God, he makes objections and difficulties. How instructive the twofold lesson for us! So it is ever. The man who was not called readily proffered to follow the Lord wheresoever He might go; as ignorant of himself and of the world and of the enemy, as of Christ. The disciple who was called begs leave first to go away and bury his father, but learns from the Lord that there must be no object before Himself. 'Follow Me' (Luke 9:57-62).
'This Moses whom they denied, saying, Who established thee ruler and judge? him hath God sent both ruler and deliverer [or, redeemer! with an angel's hand that appeared to him in the bush.' The language is framed so as to maintain the parallel between Moses, as before of Joseph, with Jesus the despised and denied Messiah, Whom God is to send from the heavens, not only to bring in generally the predicted times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord, but to redeem Israel from the hand of the enemy, and to gather them out of the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. This is found in not only the New Testament but the Old, as the Lord expounded to the sorrowing disciples on the day of His resurrection, both which teach the sufferings of Christ and the glories which should follow them (Luke 24). 'Ought not Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?' Indeed, He had taught the same before His death. There will be the bright and judicial manifestation in its due season, for as the lightning, when it lighteneth out of the one part under the heaven, shineth unto the other part under heaven, even so shall the Son of man be in His day. But first must He suffer many things and be rejected of this generation. Then indeed will He bless Israel, in turning every one of them away from his iniquities.
Of Him Moses was but a shadow, however honoured of God as both ruler and deliverer, with an angel's hand that appeared to him in the bush. Jesus the Son of man will Himself appear on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory; and He shall send forth His angels with a great sound of trumpet, and they shall gather together His elect from the four winds from one end of the heavens to the other. A greater than Moses shall be displayed in that day; but in this day a far greater humiliation was His than that of Moses. Still in both respects the analogy was close, evident, and intentional, for the Holy Spirit in the word was providing for the help of man in warning or in blessing, and the clear intimations of scripture left the Jew especially without excuse, as Stephen demonstrates.
'This [man] led them out, having wrought wonders and signs in the land of Egypt and in the Red Sea, and in the wilderness forty years.' None denies that Moses stands in the front rank of great as well as good men; but it is God Who made His presence signally known and respected in what He did by him chiefly, though sometimes without him, in that long succession of wilderness patience, and of power, fruitful in wonders, abundant in instruction. Stephen's aim is, however, to give scope to an undercurrent of analogy to Christ, and hence the man Moses comes into prominence, the better to furnish it as his solemn appeal to a people who never forgot their oldest folly and never truly learnt from God when again putting them to the test. What could Moses have done in the desert without God for one day, not to speak of forty years? What wonders and signs could he otherwise have wrought in the land of Egypt and in the Red Sea, before Meribah on the day of Massah in the wilderness, when the Jewish fathers tried Jehovah, proved Him, and saw His work?
There was intrinsic power in the person of the Son, Who from everlasting to everlasting is God. Only, subsisting in the form of God, He counted it not a thing to be grasped to be on an equality with God (in blessed contrast with the first man, who sought to be what he was not, to God's dishonour and in disobedience), but emptied Himself, taking a bondman's form, coming in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, yea, death of the cross. All between His birth and death was alike moral perfection; a Man Who never did, never sought, His own will, nothing but the will of God, till all closed in the yet deeper doing it by suffering for sin in death of atonement, that God might be glorified even as to sin, and we righteously delivered. But in His service, of Him pre-eminently it could be said that God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, Who went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed of the devil: for God was with Him. And if that generation denied Him, saying, Who established thee ruler and judge? none the less did God raise Him to be a more blessed Redeemer, a more glorious Ruler of the kings of the earth, as He is ordained of God to be Judge of living and dead, whilst He will also fulfil every hope of Israel according to the prophets.
No wonder therefore it is added by Stephen, 'This is the Moses that said to the sons of Israel, A prophet will God raise up to you out of your brethren, like me.' The difficulties and differences of the most celebrated Rabbis prove what a stone of stumbling is the true Christ, the Lord Jesus, to unbelieving Israel. How otherwise could we account for such a man as Abarbanel perverting the words of Deut. 18:18 here cited, to Jeremiah? If there be among the prophets, yea, in all the people, a marked contrast with the honoured deliverer from Egypt and the law-giver in the wilderness, it is the mourning man of Anathoth, whose testimony and life show a continuous struggle of grief and shame between his burning sense of God's ignored rights and his love for the people of God who most of all ignored them, as well as himself. Utterly untenable is the theory of Aben Ezra and others, that Joshua is meant, who but supplemented, and in little more than one direction, Moses' work, but in no adequate way stands out as the prophet raised up from his brethren like Moses. Hence the effort of some most distinguished among the Jewish teachers to interpret as a succession this singular prophet! which is as contrary to usage in the language as to the fact in their history. Compare Num. 12:6-8 and Deut. 34:10-12. The position of mediator, whose words must be heard on pain of death, points to Moses' peculiarity, only in the highest degree true of none but Messiah. And if the Jews did not then realize the consequence of refusing to hearken to Him, soon did the threat begin to fall on their guilty heads. 'The wrath', says the apostle Paul, 'is come upon them to the uttermost' (1 Thess. 2:16). And not yet have they paid the last farthing. The unequalled tribulation is still before them, though a believing remnant will be delivered out of it, hearkening to Him Whom the nation opposed to their own ruin.
The parallel is yet further pursued in what follows. 'This is he that was in the assembly in the wilderness with the angel that spoke to him in the mount Sinai, and with our fathers; who received living oracles to give us: to whom our fathers would not be subject, but thrust [him] away and turned in their hearts into Egypt, saying to Aaron, Make us gods who shall go before us, for this Moses, who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him' (vers. 38-40).
Moses is presented in his mediatorial position, between the angel of Jehovah on the one hand, and 'our fathers' on the other. In the 'church' is suggestive of thoughts and associations altogether misleading. The children of Israel are meant in their collective capacity. It has not the smallest bearing on what in the New Testament is called the church of God, the body of Christ, indeed this is only noticed here in order to guard souls from an error so grave. The church is part of that 'great mystery' or secret which the apostle was given to reveal, the mystery hidden from ages and generations but now made manifest to the saints. What God was then doing by Moses was part of His ordinary dealings, when Israel so readily overlooked the promises to the fathers and took their stand, to their speedy sorrow and inevitable ruin, on their own obedience as the tenure of their blessings.
Immense indeed was the privilege vouchsafed, not only then in works, but in words of God henceforth given to man in permanence. It was not merely that the angel spake to Moses, but he 'received living oracles to give us' — an unspeakable boon, yet more characteristic of the greater than Moses, Whose coming was followed by a fresh, complete, and final revelation of divine grace and truth. Indeed the citation of Moses' own prophecy in ver. 37 prepared the way for new communications with a yet higher sanction. In vain then would Jewish unbelief idolize the servant in sight of his Master.
But on the one hand 'lively' is too slight here, as also in 1 Peter 1:3 and 2:5, on the other 'life-giving' goes too far, and at any rate is not the epithet intended; for this is to characterize the oracles themselves, not their effect on others. I know not why Mr. Humphry should have endorsed the error which K�¼hnol adopted from Grotius. And why 'saving'? This is but to change, not to translate or to expound, any more than the opposite lowering of the sense by J. Piscator and J. Alberti as if received viva voce! 'Living' alone is right and sufficient. And how did the children of Israel treat one thus signally honoured in that day? 'They would not be subject' to him. If the fathers so treated Moses, was it surprising that their children did not receive the Messiah of Whom he prophesied, and was besides so striking a type? Thus the simple recall of scripture history vividly presents the actual guilt of the Jews where any had ears to hear. If their fathers of old thrust Moses from them, what of that incomparably more honoured Prophet, mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, so recently delivered up to be condemned and crucified? That their hearts were gone from God and turned to Egypt was plain enough then from their appeal to Aaron and from his shameless compliance. But was it less true now when a robber was preferred to 'the Anointed of the Lord'? 'Then cried they all again, saying, Not this man, but Barabbas. Now Barabbas was a robber' (John 18:40). 'Ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you.' The difference between the fathers and the children was not in favour of those then alive, ever dull to estimate the present race, and self above all, which it most concerns men to judge aright. Yet is it exactly what the Spirit of God effects in every soul that comes to God: if there is living faith, there is true repentance.
But unbelief craves a present and visible guide. 'Make us gods who shall go before us. For this Moses, who brought us forth out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.' Israel was rebellious, when Moses was on high; and so is the Jew now that Christ is gone to heaven. But is it only the Jew? Does the Gentile stand in the truth? Only by his faith can it be, as the apostle declares. Is not Christendom high-minded, instead of humbly and heartily hearing? Is it not lifted up with pride, instead of abiding in goodness? And what must be its end? 'Thou also shalt be cut off.' Christendom, little thinking it, is doomed. If God spared not the natural branches, the Jews. He will certainly not spare the presumptuous wild-olive graft; and Israel as such shall be saved (Rom. 11).
Alas! the baptized soon forsook their own mercies and denied the special testimony for which they were responsible to God's glory before the world. They got weary of dependence on an exalted but absent Lord; they ceased to wait for His return from heaven; they practically superseded the presence and free action of the Holy Spirit in the assembly, they gave up their bridal separateness for worldly influence and favour, and they swamped grace under a system of law and ordinances: so that the word of God became of little or no effect through tradition, as departure from the truth became more and more the state of those who professed the name of the Lord. Insubjection to Him speedily bred alienation, and the heart soon turned toward that world out of which grace calls and severs to God. Men are even more naturally idolatrous than sceptical, unbelief being the mother of both these enemies to God and His truth. Men love to have gods to go before them. The true Deliverer being irksome passes readily out of mind: 'we know not what is become of him.' Is not the wilderness history prophetic? Did not these things happen as types of us that we should not be lusting after evil things, as they also lusted, nor be idolaters, as some of them? Indeed all the things recorded happened to them as types, and were written for our admonition upon whom the ends of the ages are come.
'And they made a calf in those days, and offered sacrifice to the idol and rejoiced in the works of their own hands. But God turned and delivered them up to serve the host of heaven; as it is written in [the] book of the prophets, Did ye offer Me victims and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? Yea, ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of your [or, the] god Remphan, the forms which ye made to worship them; and I will transport you beyond Babylon' (vers. 41 43). So prone is man, incredulous man, to abandon the living God, in spite of daily standing witness of His power and grace, as well as of His solemn occasional judgments before all eyes; so readily does he take up that idolatry which he had but lately known to dominate the high and mighty the refined and learned — the world, in short, where he himself had been enslaved. So powerful an adversary is 'public opinion' to the will and glory of God, even in the face of the grandest exhibitions of His favour to His people, and of stern unmistakable punishment on their enemies, and, not least, of shame on their gods who could neither help their votaries nor screen themselves. Nor did the 'calf', the abomination of Egypt, satisfy Israel; they craved after objects higher than the works of their own hands whatever the charm of this to man's vain heart. Once yielding to the snare Israel must outdo Egypt. So 'God turned and delivered them up to serve the host of heaven.' Grovelling idolatry aspires to higher things and inflates itself with its heavenly imaginations. Not Stephen is the authority for so withering a charge, but Amos (Amos 5:25-27). In the prophets' Book it is written: would an Israelite gainsay them too? or tax scripture itself with saying blasphemous things against Israel? The forms of Moloch, 'horrid king', and of Remphan, they made to worship, and they did worship them.
And not the least repulsive feature of this early corruption among the chosen people was that they offered all the while victims and sacrifices in the wilderness to Jehovah. To be lavish in honour of false gods the poorest can afford, who complain of what is due to the true God, as if He were a rigid exactor and not the Giver of every good and every perfect gift.
But divine judgment is sure if it seem to slumber, and the prophet Amos at a far later day pronounces the sentence for the sin perpetrated in the desert. Whatever may have been the aggravation afterwards, it is the firs. sin which decides. Evil never gets better, never works itself out, though it may easily, and always does, wax worse. The evil heart of unbelief departs more and more from the living God. Patience may go on for ages in ways admirable to the eye of faith; but judgment, however deferred is certain, and in due time is revealed though it may be long before it is executed.
Neither Damascus, the head of Syria (Amos 5:27), nor Babylon, the golden city, is the limit of Israel's deportation from the land they had defiled. 'I will transport you beyond' — saith the Lord. To say that 'Babylon', true in fact was an error in quotation is a statement Mr. Humphry should have left to sceptics.
'Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as He that spake to Moses commanded to make it according to the model which he had seen, which also our fathers having in succession received brought [it] in with Joshua. in their taking possession of the Gentiles whom God drove out from [the] face of our fathers, until the days of David; who found favour before God and asked to find a habitation for the God1 of Jacob, but Solomon built Him a house' (vers. 44-47).
1 p.m. BDH join against all other witnesses in reading τῳ ὀίκω 'the house', instead of τῳ θεῳ 'the God', and Tischendorf actually accepts it! — 'a habitation for the house of Jacob'!
Yet all this while of idolatrous iniquity 'our fathers of Israel' had the tabernacle of testimony in the wilderness, made as they were assured according to the model Moses had seen and God commanded. That the heathen who know not God could serve idols is not surprising, however sad their sin and inexcusable; seeing that their fathers once knew God, but glorifying Him not as God, nor thankful, they became vain in their imaginations and with darkened heart in their folly changed His glory into an image of the creature which they worshipped and served rather than the Creator Who is blessed for ever. Amen. And for this cause God delivered them up to vile affections and the most unnatural evil, as well as to a mind void of judgment, so that knowing the judgment of God against all who do such things worthy of death, they not only practise the same but have pleasure in those that do them (Rom. 1:20-32).
How much more guilty were those who knew far better, who stood in national relationship with God as His own peculiar and favoured people, and had the very tent of the testimony for Him and against their ways! They bore it not only in the wilderness from father to son, but into the goodly land whence God by Joshua drove out the old heathen inhabitants that Israel might be in the possession of it, adding thus gross hypocrisy to their greedy idolatry. There is no corruption so grievous as that of God's people; and therefore His proportionate chastenings 'You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities' (Amos 3:2).
In the days of David (2 Sam. 7:1-17), the favour which God showed him wrought in the heart of the king, who asked to build a house for Jehovah, but had as his answer that Jehovah would make him a house, and that his son Solomon should build a house for His name, as Stephen here recounts.
Here then, thought the Jew, must Jehovah restrict Himself to that 'magnifical' palace of His holiness. For unbelieving man must have an idol somewhere. 'But the Highest dwelleth not in [places]1 made with hands; even as the prophet saith, The heaven [is] My throne, and the earth a footstool of My feet: what sort of house will ye build Me, saith [the] Lord, or what [is] My place of rest? Did not My hand make all these things?' (vers. 48-50). Superstitious exaltation of the temple detracts from His glory Who gives it all its distinctive grandeur. Jehovah did deign to hallow and glorify it, so that the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud; for the glory of Jehovah had filled the house of God. But Solomon himself at that august consecration had owned that heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Him, much less the house he had just built! And so afterward spoke the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 66:1), long before Babylon was allowed to burn and destroy the object of Israel's pride. It was no afterthought to console the Jew in his subjection to Gentile masters: so had Israel's king spoken to God; and so had God spoken to Israel long before the Chaldeans had become an adversary commissioned to chastise their idolatry.
It was right and pious to own the condescending grace of Jehovah, it was presumptuous to limit His glory to the temple He was pleased to make His dwelling. The Creator had created all and was immeasurably above the universe. From such a point of view what was Jerusalem or the temple? Who was now in accord with the testimony of Solomon and of Isaiah? The accusers, or Stephen? The answer is beyond controversy, and their enmity without excuse.
In these verses we have the conclusion of the address, a most grave and pointed appeal to the consciences of the Jews who, under the form of a most instructive and wonderfully compressed summary of their national sins from first to last, heard of God's unparalleled dealings with Israel. The facts were beyond question, the language (even when most unsparing) that of their own confessedly inspired writers, the accusation therefore as unutterably solemn as it was impossible either to rebut or to evade.
1 The best authorities ABCDE, some cursives, and all the ancient versions save the Armenian, et al., have no such addition as 'temples' in the Received Text and most junior MSS., et al.
'Stiff-necked and uncircumcised in hearts1 and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers, so ye. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they slew those that announced beforehand of the coming of the Righteous One, of Whom now ye became2 betrayers and murderers, ye which received the law as ordinances of angels and kept [it] not' (vers. 51-53).
1 There is a question of reading between καρδίαις (with, or without, ταῖς), and τῃ καρδία. A few of the oldest, ACD, with some cursives, support the plural but EHP with the mass of cursives, ancient versions, et al., give the singular. The reading of the Vatican is a clerical error of καρδίας, for καρδίαις probably. Some, as the Sinaitic, add ὑμῶν.
2 The chief uncials ( ABCDE), well supported by cursives, present ἐγένεσθε 'became'; the majority of cursives, with HP, have γεγένησθε 'ye have been' which seems to have slipped, or been put, in to add force to the simple fact.
'I have seen this people' said Jehovah to Moses at the Mount Sinai 'and, behold, it is a stiff-necked people' (Ex. 32:9), again (Ex. 33:3), 'I will not go up in the midst of thee: for thou art a stiff-necked people, lest I consume thee in the way.' 'For Jehovah had said unto Moses, Say unto the children of Israel Ye are a stiff-necked people' (ver. 5). But this very fact is turned into a pica by the skilful advocacy of the mediator: 'If now I have found grace in Thy sight, O Lord, let my Lord, I pray Thee, go among us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Thine inheritance' (Ex. 34:9). If Stephen repeated the word at the end of their history, it was fully borne out from the beginning. 'How much more after my death?' said Moses (Deut. 31:27). 'For I know that after my death ye will utterly corrupt yourselves and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you; and evil will befall you in the latter days' (ver. 29). The predicted evil was about to be, as it had been already, fulfilled to the letter, and as the latter days are not yet run out, so neither is this evil exhausted: 'this generation' still repeats the same sad tale of unbelief and departure from the living God.
It is Moses again (Lev. 26) who lets Israel know how Jehovah will avenge the breach of His covenant. And yet if thus their 'uncircumcised hearts' be humbled, and they truly accept the punishment of their iniquity, then will He remember His covenant with Jacob and with Isaac and with Abraham, and will remember the land.
But there was another, and the main, fatal charge made by Stephen: 'Ye do always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers, ye also.' Before the deluge He strove with man, though Jehovah said it should not be so always, and thus set a term to His patient testimony of a hundred and twenty years (Gen. 6:3). After that judgment of the whole race, Israel was the theatre of His operations, according to the word that Jehovah covenanted with them when they came out of Egypt. But they rebelled, and vexed His Holy Spirit: therefore He was turned to be their enemy, He fought against them (Isa. 63:10). Here again Stephen had the surest warrant for vindicating Jehovah and His Anointed, and for convicting the proud stubborn Jews of their old iniquity and opposition to every dealing of His grace. Alas! they were, as Moses told them at the outset, a very forward generation, children in whom is no faith; and without faith there is no life, nor is it possible to please God. Faith working by love seeks His glory and is subject to His word, the expression of His mind and will. Israel without faith was the sad and constant witness of a people outwardly and in profession near to God, their heart ever far from Him and pertinacious in antagonism to Him. Their rejection of the Messiah, their indifference to, or malignant contempt of, the Pentecostal Spirit, were only of a piece with their history throughout. Far yet from being the light of the blind heathen, the instructor of the benighted nations, they are the ringleader of the world's rebellion against God, uniform only in this from father to son throughout their generations.
'Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute?' The prophets dealt with the people's sin, exposing it fearlessly in the light of truth righteousness, and God's judgment, while looking onward to the kingdom of God which should set aside all evil, and the suffering Messiah should be exalted and extolled and very high. It was this confronting the wicked will of man with the light of God that condemned it, which drew out the enmity of Israel, and made the prophet an object of dishonour and hostility nowhere so much as in his own country. God was brought near; and guilty man will not have God at any price. Had Stephen gone outside the record, or misinterpreted its spirit? Jeremiah (who was not a whit behind the rest in the bitter contempt and positive persecution he had to bear from priests, prophets, and princes) bears a plain testimony to God's sending on the one hand, and to Israel's rebellion on the other. So in 2 Chr. 36:15, 16, we read, 'Jehovah God of their fathers sent to them by His messengers, rising up betimes and sending; because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place; but they mocked the messengers of God, and despised His words, and misused His prophets, until the wrath of Jehovah arose against His people, till there was no remedy.' Was not Stephen then right in asking, 'Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute?'
But did not the Jews delight in the promised Messiah? Did they not eagerly anticipate His kingdom, when they will be delivered out of the hand of their enemies, and all that hate them be covered with shame and dismay, and glory dwell in their land, and blessing chase away the gross darkness of the earth? Whatever their thoughts afterwards, their bitterest rancour broke out against those that announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One. If there was any difference, such 'they slew'. It was a kingdom they wanted with ease and honour for themselves; not a King to reign in righteousness, and princes to rule in judgment. No care had they for the inalienable principles of His kingdom; no love, but heart-hatred, for every quality of the divine nature, and for God's rights, which, if in abeyance, can never be abdicated. He was in none of their thoughts, nor His Anointed; and those who held Him before them were most obnoxious to the nation, so that the occasion failed not to work their violent death. And if their children built the tombs of the prophets, and flattered themselves that they were of wholly different temper and condition, the farthest removed from participation in the guilt of the prophets' blood, they only proved thereby that they were blinded by the enemy, and they witnessed to themselves that they were sons of those that slew them.
For faith does not act in garnishing sepulchres, or in monumental tablets to the holy sufferers of days gone by; faith walks and suffers reproach, if not worse persecution, in the days that are, looking for heaven and glory only when Christ appears. Unbelief, on the contrary, seeks present satisfaction and credit in the honouring of those who render no more a living testimony to their consciences, and it falls under the cheat of the enemy who builds up the higher that hypocritical temple of worldly religion where those once despised and slain as martyrs now fill a niche as idols.
And the Lord tested, as He always does, delusion and falsehood. He sends fresh testimony, and will do so till judgment. He sent His servants when on earth; He sent them from on high, as He continues to send. And the world hates the true and faithful, as it loves its own. But He Himself is ever the most searching of all tests, and how did He fare at their hands? 'Of Whom now ye became betrayers and murderers.'
It was possible to complain of others. No saint, no prophet. was immaculate or infallible. 'In many things we all stumble' — I say not must, but do (James 3:2). And if it be so now, since redemption and the gift of the Holy Spirit, it was assuredly so in the less privileged times that preceded. The unfriendly eye of man could descry even in the most blessed of God's servants words and ways which were sadly short of Christ and which might be perverted into an excuse for slighting their testimony. But what could they say or think of the Righteous One Who appeals to them, 'Which of you convinceth Me of sin?' 'If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil, but if well, why smitest thou Me?' He was indeed the Holy One of God, Who did no sin, neither was guilt found in His mouth, yet was He treated with altogether unprecedented and most aggravated scorn; and though lawless men had their hand in the cross, the heart and the will of the Jews were engaged in an incomparably deeper way (John 19:11). They were betrayers and murderers of their Messiah, God's Messiah; and Stephen only applies to the living Jews around him what the prophets had declared fully of old, what David had written in the Spirit long before Isaiah and Micah, and Zechariah afterwards, to speak only of the plainest.
By one more characteristic does this most resolute witness of the Lord further explain to the Jews their position and their guilt, 'Which received the law as ordinances of angels and kept it not.' That law in which they boasted was their shame, certainly from no fault in itself, for all the evil was in them. But so it is with man, and most of all with man professing to have a religion from God. His boast is his most manifest condemnation. It matters little what he boasts in; it is at best worthless. There is indeed a resource given in God's infinite grace, where he may and ought to boast; but it is in the Lord, not truly in the law which he fondly flattered himself he was keeping, when in fact he had utterly and miserably failed, and in all its parts, Godward and manward, in himself and toward others. The Lord he had definitively disdained; nor in truth does any soul receive Him till sense of sin before God breaks him down overwhelmingly, whilst notwithstanding he casts himself on God's mercy, till he sees the rich and perfect provision made for such as he is in the offering of the body of Christ once for all. Then he does truly boast in the Lord, as it is meet he should.
The apostle's language in Gal. 3:19 by its similarity materially helps to clear up the words of Stephen here, though it is painful to observe how few seem to have profited thereby. Each word of the phrase (εἰς διαταγὰς ἀγγέλων) has been the occasion of strange perplexity and dispute among the learned to the depravation of the sense. Winer (N. T. Gr. xxxii. 4, 6) refers to Matt. 12:41 as illustrative of the force here too of the preposition, but the difference of the phrases seems to render the desired sameness impossible. 'Repenting at' the preaching of Jonah is very intelligible and clearly meant; not so 'receiving' at ordinances of angels.
Hence Alford, who follows this later suggestion of the German grammarian, understands it as 'at the injunction' of angels. But this departs from the sense we had got for διαταγὰς from Gal. 3:19, which signifies, beyond just doubt, 'ordained' or administered through angels, not 'enjoined' by them, a very different idea, as also is 'promulgated'.
Now what is the meaning of receiving the law as ordinances of angels? Those who take εἰς here as 'at' are obliged therefore, in order to make sense, to interpret διαταγὰς as 'injunctions', swerving in this from the true force of the participle in Gal. 3:19. It appears to me accordingly, that, if it be 'ordinances' here in keeping with 'ordained' there, we must understand eij" in the very common Hellenistic sense of 'as' rather than 'at', the accusative of the predicate, to which Winer had inclined in earlier editions, and, as I believe, more rightly. Israel received the law, not as a code drawn up by human wisdom, but as administered by angels, and so through their intervention, from God. Hence the solemnity of their failure to keep what was divine. The allusion seems to be to Deut. 33:2. Jehovah came from Sinai, rose up from Seir unto them, He shone forth from Mount Paran, and He came from the myriads of holiness (or, holy myriads) — from His right hand a law of fire (or, fiery law) for them. Compare Psalm 68:17. It is needless to cite Josephus, Philo, or the Rabbis What is of more moment, Heb. 2:2 quite falls in with the Galatians and with our text. In the Septuagint we find singular confusion; for, first instead of 'holiness' they seem to have understood 'Kadesh'; and yet, secondly, they bring 'His angels' into the last clause, instead of 'a law of fire'; so that their version errs greatly from the text.
The discourse is thus brought to a due conclusion; and this terse and pointed application does not sustain the notion of an abrupt stop which shut out words needful to complete Stephen's answer to the accusation. The facts adduced throughout, and now condensed in the final and most cutting appeal, which laid bare their pride not more than their persistent rebellion and extreme rum, appear to my mind singularly effective and complete. He begins with their habitual antagonism, fathers and sons alike, to the Holy Spirit, so that their prime religious badge had lost all meaning — their circumcision was become uncircumcision. They had persecuted the prophets, they had slain those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One, they had now actually betrayed and murdered Himself; and of course the law (received so solemnly through angels)1 they kept not, notwithstanding all their self-righteous pretensions, as if to have the law were to do it.
1 There is not the least ground to take angels here as human messengers: the corresponding scriptures refute the idea; and the meaning which would thus result is as unworthy of the context as it is illegitimate. Again, 'by troops of angels' is not more opposed to grammar than to philology; as also 'by' (A.V.) the disposition of angels is clearly untenable.
It was man, not left to himself like the nations who were suffered to walk in their own ways, but governed as Israel was by God's law, enlightened by prophets, blessed with the coming of the Messiah, and according to the word that Jehovah covenanted when they came out of Egypt, so His Spirit stood among them: no people till then so privileged, none so guilty, and, we may add, none so convicted; for they had broken the law, persecuted the prophets, slain the Messiah, and had always resisted the Holy Ghost (cp. Haggai 2:5).
The closing scene of Stephen, and a very momentous turning-point in God's ways, are both brought before us vividly in the verses that follow.
'Now hearing these things they were deeply cut to their hearts and were gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, looking fixedly into heaven, he saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, Lo, I behold the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God. But they crying with a loud voice held their ears and rushed upon him with one accord, and cast out of the city and stoned [him]. And the witnesses laid aside their clothes at the feet of a young man called Saul, and stoned Stephen, invoking and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And kneeling down he cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And having said this he fell asleep. And Saul was consenting to the making him away' (Acts 7:54-60; Acts 8:1).
It is for the truth told in love that those who are Christ's should suffer, for this only; and so it was now. For Stephen's love and faithfulness there was hatred, as with the Master.
But a more blessed picture nowhere appears of the Christian. The Jews resisted — he was full of — the Holy Spirit; his gaze was fixed on heaven, as ours should be, and he was given to see actually, as we only by faith can see, the glory of God and Jesus at His right hand.
It is true, there is a difference. It was as yet a transitional time and Jesus he saw 'standing' there: He had not taken definitely His seat, but was still giving the Jews a final opportunity. Would they reject the testimony to Him gone on high indeed, but as a sign waiting if peradventure they might repent and He might be sent to bring in the times of refreshing here below? Stephen in these last words accentuated the call, as he said, 'Lo, I behold the heavens opened, and the Son of man' (for so He is attested, the rejected Messiah exalted in heaven for a far larger glory) 'standing at the right hand of God'. Thus not only does he look up, as the characteristic outlook of the Christian, but the heavens he sees to be opened (another fact full of blessing to us), and Jesus is beheld as Son of man in the glory of God. He Who came down Son of God in supreme love to die for us is gone up in righteousness, raised from the dead and glorified in heaven, and the believer filled with the Spirit and suffering for His sake sees Him there. Once the heavens opened on Him here as He received the Holy Spirit and 'was acknowledged Son of God. By and by from the opened heaven He will come forth King of kings and Lord of lords to execute judgment on the quick. The place and privilege of the Christian is between these two, and Stephen here sets it forth in its fullest light.
'But they crying with a loud voice held their ears and rushed upon him with one accord, and cast out of the city and stoned [him]: and the witnesses laid aside their clothes at the feet of a young man called Saul, and stoned Stephen invoking and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit' (vers. 57-59). Such was religious man, not secular nor heavenly, but now filled with murderous wrath, because he stands convicted of opposition to the present and full truth of God, utterly blind alike to His grace and His glory. And in that guilty scene was one not less dark and infuriated than the rest, Saul of Tarsus, afterward to be the witness of the very Jesus Whom he was then persecuting in Stephen's person, for he not only beheld, but took the part here assigned to him with those that stoned Stephen invoking and saying, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.'
There is no ground for the addition in the Authorized Version of 'God', and a questionable need for that in the Revised Version of 'the Lord'. It was on the Lord that His dying servant called, as the blessed Lord dying commended His spirit to His Father's hands.
Each is exquisitely in place, which here is somewhat rudely disturbed by the common version. No one doubts that the usual address is to God to the Father; but as little should it be forgotten that there are special circumstances where we not only may but ought to call on 'the Lord', as we see in Acts 1:24, and also in 2 Cor. 12:8. But in no case is it sweeter than when the servant dies for his Master as here, though he rightly puts it as a prayer to the Lord to receive his spirit; not as the Lord Jesus so appropriately, and according to scripture, commended His spirit into His Father's hands.
But this is far from all, blessed as it is. For 'kneeling down he cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.' — There was nothing of consequence in calling with a loud voice on the Lord; for well he knew that He would hear and answer a whispered petition — that He would receive his spirit — as readily as in the loudest tones. His importunate earnestness was for others, divine love for his enemies then murdering him. It was also the reproduction of the spirit of Christ, the practical anticipation of what Peter exhorted later the saints to do: If ye do well suffer for it, and take it patiently, this is acceptable [this is grace] with God (1 Peter 2:20). It is more than taking patiently, as it was then simple suffering for well-doing and Christ. But it is set before us as the pattern for a believer now; practical grace rising above all injury and malice; present and perfect rest in the Saviour, as became a heavenly man full of the Holy Spirit.
'And having said this, he fell asleep.' Well he might: his work was done and well done; and his cup of suffering filled to the brim, but only so as to bring out his last and fervent cry, the intercession of love to the Lord on behalf of those who were slaying His servant.
'And Saul', it is added quietly, 'was consenting to the making him away' (Acts 8:1). He was not there accidentally, nor without full participation in the bloody business of that never-to-be-forgotten day. It is not so that man would have chosen him who was to be the most self-denying, laborious, and effective workman the Lord ever raised up in the gospel; the most comprehensive, profound, and elevated of apostles in leading the church into the hitherto unrevealed mystery of its union with Christ the Head over all things. A darker page, we know, has yet to be traced, and never more than the day which dawned on his conversion. But how often it is so in the ways of sovereign grace! 'For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts' (Isaiah. 55:8, 9). It is ordered thus that no flesh should glory before God; but he that glorieth let him glory in the Lord. So it is written (1 Cor. 1 29, 31).
LONDON C. A. HAMMOND 11 LITTLE BRITAIN, E.C.1 1952