J. N. Darby.
An important fact, which renders the signification of our narrative still clearer, is here presented to us. Here we find Saul taking part in the death of Stephen. We have seen that the death of Stephen was the end of the history of the enmity of the human heart against God, when God had done everything to try it, and also to restore it; its incurable enmity was manifested, and the end of man before God. There was no longer hope of finding any good since God Himself has made use of everything - judgment in the deluge, the law, the prophets, His own Son, and the testimony of the Holy Ghost. All was in vain. The more God worked, the more man's enmity manifested itself.
Here for the first time we find Saul. Not content with taking part in the death of Stephen, he goes into distant cities in search of Christians to bring them bound to Jerusalem. He is the apostle of man's enmity against Christ. If the history of man was finished, that of the sovereign grace of God was beginning. The spirit of the first martyr takes its place in the presence of Jesus. But the entire number must be completed before Jesus can come and re-unite them with their bodies.
Here we find the first general persecution, which, however, in the hands of God, served to scatter the seed of the gospel. This also is a proof of the free activity of the Holy Ghost to make use of whomsoever He sees fit to select. Still another important fact: while all the Christians are scattered by the persecution, the apostles remain at Jerusalem. The special mission of Matthew 10:23 was not accomplished. It will be by the power of God hereafter, I doubt not; but not at the moment of which we read here. It is the multitude of Christians scattered by the persecution who preach the gospel in Palestine, and afterwards among the Gentiles. Saul persecutes the assembly with cruel zeal; and the Christians leave the city. It was neither the settled design of man, nor the spiritual zeal of the apostles, but the fury of the enemy, which according to the wisdom of God first disseminated the gospel outside the gates of Jerusalem. The spirit of Stephen gone up to heaven, the gospel of grace is carried into the surrounding districts by means of the enmity of man, and the providence of God who makes use of it leads the scattered ones to communicate in love the gifts they possess. What is man? and what the wisdom and grace of God?
348 Another example of the free activity of the Spirit is found in the person of Philip, chosen to take care of the widows. His service is finished with regard to the widows; but he has acquired a good degree, and great liberty in the faith in Christ Jesus. Setting out from Jerusalem, he goes down to Samaria; and there by the power of his word, and by the miracles given him to do, the people are liberated from the influence of a notorious instrument of Satan - Simon, who exercised the arts of sorcery and had been held to be the great power of God. "Then Simon himself believed also; and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done."
It was the miracles which had exercised this influence over his spirit, not the seed of God, the divine word which had entered into his heart. To believe by means of miracles alone is not the faith which operates by the Holy Ghost, although God may work miracles and signs in order to confirm His word. The end of John 2 shews that Jesus did not trust those who had believed in this way. When the Spirit of God works, requirements are produced in the soul which Jesus alone can satisfy. Thus Nicodemus was under the influence of the miracles when he went to Jesus. To the others reasonable conviction sufficed, and they remained where they were.
The sole desire of Simon is to possess the power of conferring on others by the imposition of his hands the ability to work miracles and signs. He wished to buy it with money, thereby shewing that there was no work of God in his soul. He had "neither part nor lot in this matter." He was in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity; his heart was not right before God. His sin excited the indignation, not the compassion, of Peter. "Thy money perish with thee," said he. But still his heart is not touched with compunction. He asks only that what had been said might not come upon him; not that his thought might be forgiven, or that the state of his heart might be changed.
Here we find still other things which we shall do well to consider. The difference between the operation and the sealing of the Spirit is very clear. The Samaritans had believed and had been baptized, but had not received the Holy Ghost; for He had not yet descended upon them. He had worked by the word in their hearts; men and women were converted, born again, had confessed the name of Jesus; but they were not yet sealed. Then it belonged in a special manner to the apostles to impose hands, and confer the gift of the Spirit. In Acts 19 we see that Paul conferred it; he was a true apostle. Ananias was sent that Saul might receive it; this was a special mission of the Lord Himself. The Spirit might also come without the laying on of hands, as on the hundred and twenty, and on Cornelius; but not one had the power of conferring it save the apostles. It is said, "of the apostles' hand" (v. 18).
349 It is possible, too, that the Spirit might come on a man in this way without an internal work giving life. The Lord does not habitually work thus; but cases of it are not wanting in the Old Testament, such as Balaam, king Saul, and others, where the question of conversion is not raised, shewing that that is another thing altogether. In the New Testament we do not find a case of it, but the thing is supposed (1 Cor. 12; Heb. 6), and the power to do miracles with the aid of the Holy Ghost and without conversion and life, is clearly presented by the Lord Himself (Matt. 12:26-27); the Lord does not deny the fact, but declares that He knows not those who have done them; Matt. 7. See Deut. 13. Judas at least was sent to do such.
We see then a new character of the apostolic authority; then the free activity of the Spirit clearly displayed in Philip. By his means the gospel is communicated to a distant country through a proselyte come to Jerusalem to worship the true God; a man in whose heart the word of God possessed full power. It is beautiful to remark in Philip the readiness of his obedience - how he allowed himself to be led by the will of God. He is the object of all attention in the city of Samaria: a notable work had been done by means of him. "Arise," said the angel of the Lord, "and go unto Gaza, which is desert"; but he was not told what he was to do there. And he goes there immediately. There he finds the treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia. The Spirit says to him, "Go near and join thyself to this chariot"; and he runs immediately to it. The treasurer was reading the word of God, but the key of faith in Jesus was wanting. Philip mounts the chariot, and preaches faith in Jesus to him. All was ordered by God. He was reading what was immediately connected with the sufferings of the Lord; and by the power of the Spirit the explanation of the passage is sent him by the mouth of Philip. The eunuch, with the heart prepared by grace, and already having faith in the word, becomes a Christian. He is baptized by Philip, and goes on his way rejoicing. It is remarkable that the name of Christianity remains to this day in that country, much corrupted (it is true), but in the form which this man implanted. They believe as to the profession of Christ, but practise circumcision - (verse 37 is not authentic).
350 The Spirit of the Lord catches away Philip, and by the miraculous power of God he is found at Azotus. Time and space are nothing to God. From Azotus he evangelises in all the cities till he comes to Caesarea. Further on we find him stationed with his family at this city. He had by this time obtained the fair name of Evangelist.
We have glanced at the history of the free activity of the Spirit in those who were dispersed by the persecution, in Stephen, and in Philip. Then follows the deeply interesting narrative of Saul and of his conversion. In that of Stephen we saw that man had reached the extreme end of his iniquity, not only in crucifying the Lord, but in refusing the offer of grace, and of His return in virtue of the Saviour's intercession on the cross. There, for the first time, we find Saul; but he is not content with this quiet hatred. "And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, and desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that, if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem."
He is the apostle, of his own will, of hatred against Christ, and of the persecution of God's children. Now the Lord allowed this, in order to make him the witness and apostle of the sovereign grace which opened his eyes, converted and pardoned him. Here it is evidently sovereign grace meeting the fury of the ardent enemy of truth and grace, who sought, as he himself says, to destroy Christianity, and banish the name of Christ from the face of the earth. While occupied in this very purpose, the Lord stops him on his way, and reveals Himself to his soul, and also to his eyes, so that he might be an eye-witness of His glory. A light from heaven shone round about him - "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?"
351 But two very important truths are contained in this remarkable scene. The Lord's glory is revealed. Saul had not seen the Lord - had not followed Him when present in the flesh. The twelve apostles had known Him in the days of His flesh, and had seen Him disappear in the cloud; they knew by faith that He was seated at the right hand of God, but they could not be eye-witnesses of His glory. It is then that Paul begins. He saw the Lord's glory, but knew not who He was. One thing he was certain of - the glory and the voice of the Lord Himself had appeared to him. He asks therefore, "Who art thou, Lord?" Then the Lord replies, "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest." He was not a man of the earth, nor the Messiah gone up to heaven, but the Lord of glory recognising Himself still as Jesus, and also Jesus of Nazareth.
The starting-point of the doctrine is different: the same redemption, the same Saviour; but the revelation given to the twelve is that the man Jesus is gone up to heaven; God has exalted Him. The revelation given to Saul is that the Lord of glory is Jesus of Nazareth. It begins with heavenly glory; then, in the second place, that all Christians are united with Himself, members of His body. This doctrine is not unfolded but it is not said, "Why persecutest thou My disciples?" as a doctor or a rabbi, but "Why persecutest thou me?" And this is the Lord of glory. "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest."
Such are the fundamental points in the history of Paul, the enemy of the Lord of glory, converted, pardoned, justified, necessary witness of sovereign grace. The gospel of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, of the glory of the Lord, is confided to him; then the truth of the union, of the unity of Christians with Christ, glorious Head in heaven. Peter preached that God had glorified Him whom the Jews had crucified, and invited the rebels to come to God by the sacrifice which he had perfected; and to those who repented Jesus would return. Saul preached that this salvation was for all men; and that God, as Saviour, could not limit Himself to the narrow bounds of Israel, but that He announced Himself to the whole creation under heaven; then, that the assembly of God was united to Jesus, His body.
We shall see that God did not permit disunion, but desired that there should be a single assembly. But it is not the less true that Paul was a witness that there was no difference, that all men were lost, all children of wrath, one just as another; and that Jesus, by the gift of the Holy Ghost, had united all in one body - a truth which the Jews (and also the Christian Jews) always resisted, tormenting the apostle in his work. Peter himself dissimulated, so that all the Christian Jews, led by his authority, which was only the fear of man, sided with him. Not one of the apostles speaks in his epistles of the assembly, the body of Christ on earth, save only Paul. The glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; sovereign grace, by which he was the example to all those who should afterwards believe in Christ Jesus; and the whole in virtue of the cross - such was the gospel confided to Paul.
352 His travelling companions were witnesses to the truth of the vision, but did not know of the revelation confided to Paul. The bright light shone around them, but they did not see the Lord. They heard a voice, but not the words of Him who spoke. Paul was a witness of that which he had seen and heard. Paul's companions were able to testify to the vision, which was a real thing, and not an invention of Paul for his own glory. The whole was confirmed by the mission of Ananias, to whom the Lord revealed what had happened, sending him to Saul to open his eyes, and receive him into the Christian assembly by baptism, and by the gift of the Holy Ghost; for the sudden light had blinded Saul.
God had drawn him away from all communication with the outside world, in order that he might be entirely occupied with his soul, and with the state in which he found himself. In fact his situation was without a parallel. Externally he was a man without spot, of irreproachable reputation according to the law; he had a good conscience. He believed it his duty to do much against the name of Jesus, and he did it. The authorities of the religion of the fathers encouraged and sent him, in every way supporting him in what he did with such zeal; conscience, legal justice, religion, all that formed his moral life, had made him the fierce enemy of the Lord of glory. But at one blow all the foundations of his moral life were ruined. It was by these very foundations that he became the enemy of the Lord, and resisted the Spirit who called men to repentance by the testimony rendered to His glory. Saul had assisted in an active way in this opposition, when the Jews stoned Stephen. But this did not satisfy him. His zeal required that he should persecute also those who believed in distant parts. Thus occupied he meets with the Lord, whose name he was seeking to extirpate. He was therefore the head, the chief, of sinners; in ignorance it is true, but nevertheless willingly. Where was his good conscience according to man? Where his legal justice? Where his religion, of which the priests and religious authorities had for him been supreme before? All had led him to discover himself an enemy of fiery zeal to the Lord, face to face with whom he found himself now, but still the object of His grace, at the very moment when he was occupied so thoroughly in destroying His glory. What a revulsion! What an overturning in his heart! Who can tell what passed in him during those three days?
353 And yet the Lord does not send Ananias to him till this internal moral work was completed. Old things have passed away, and now all things have become new in his soul, in the bottom of his thoughts; all is of God who has revealed Himself in the glory of the face of Jesus Christ. He is no longer a Jew, although he may be one externally: but he has not become a Gentile; joined to the Lord of glory, Jesus Christ, he knows henceforth no man any more after the flesh. He knows the Lord, he knows His people as united with Him, Gentiles and Jews alike lost sinners, children of wrath; but he knows the sovereign grace towards himself which has called him, has revealed the Son of God to him, and has given him eternal life, even while engaged in destroying His name. All was grace, pure and sovereign grace, grace which went so far as to make of Christians one body with Christ in heaven, and to give them to know it. How marvellous the revelations we find unfolded in the epistles of the apostle! The gospel of the glory of Christ is easily understood when we realise how and when the apostle was converted.
But it is worth while considering some of the circumstances which accompanied the conversion of the apostle. The Lord made use of a converted Jew, hated by his countrymen, to convey to Paul the formal testimony of His grace, and receive him into the bosom of the assembly, in order that, as we before said, he might never more fear, the vision having passed away that might be mistaken. Here is a quiet man who had received a communication from the Lord, fully confirming what had happened to Saul. Moreover, Saul is made by another revelation to expect Ananias so that he may receive his sight by the laying on of his hands.
354 But I should like to call attention to still other circumstances - the full liberty, and, one may say, the familiarity with which Ananias speaks to the Lord (with reverence and submission, of course); and, in the same way, the Lord with him. When the Lord calls him, he replies immediately, "Here am I." Nevertheless the Lord, the Man who interests Himself in His own as friends whom He loves, speaks with an open heart to Ananias; shewing him not only the way, the house where Saul was to be found, but that which was necessary to identify him, namely, that Saul prayed and that he had seen Ananias coming to him to lay hands on him and restore his sight - just as one tells a servant what to say, or to a friend what is in the heart.
Thus the Lord took knowledge of what Paul was doing, and speaks of it to Ananias. And we see in the answer of Ananias a perfect trust in this goodness of the Lord. He begins to reason with the Lord. He had heard that this man was come to bind those who called upon the name of the Lord. And the Lord does not reprove him. Of course he had to go and do what the Lord desired; but He explains the matter to him, and communicates to him His thoughts concerning Saul, that he was a chosen vessel to bear His name, and that He would shew him what things he should suffer for His name's sake. In a word the Lord opens His heart to Ananias, as a to friend whom He treats with full confidence, speaks naturally, but confidingly tells all He feels to Ananias.
It is very important to remember that Jesus is always man. If He were not God, His humanity would have no value; but, being God, the fact that He interests Himself in us as a man, as men whom He is not ashamed to call His brethren, is infinitely precious. He can feel with us, take part in all our circumstances, trials, difficulties, and troubles. He loves us as the Father loved Him, a man and Son on the earth. His love has divine perfection, but He feels as a man, as a man on the earth, tempted in like manner as we are apart from sin. He is ever a man; He thinks of us as One who has passed through all these things with divine love and human sympathy. Not only does He know everything as God, but He has had the experience of a man. Precious truth, unfathomable grace!
We have no need of saints - if they could hear us - to move His heart to favour us, to render His love warmer, His interest more profound, or His knowledge of our condition more intimate. But He has had the experience on purpose to be able to understand and sympathise with His own in every circumstance of the life of God in man on the earth. How great is the intensity of the Saviour's love! How near to us! How intelligent and intimate is His heart in the conflict of faith! He knows all, feels all, and is with us in everything to help us. Blessed be His love!
355 It is possible that He may not reveal Himself to us in visions, but His heart is not colder to us than to Ananias; His wisdom is not diminished; His willingness is not weakened to help us, neither is His arm shortened. The intimacy and the confidence of our hearts ought to be the same to tell Him everything; certain it is that His ear is open to listen to us.
Thus sent and encouraged, Ananias obeys, goes in perfect confidence towards him who not long before breathed out threatenings and slaughter against the Christians; and lays his hands on him, saying, "Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost." Saul immediately receives his sight, and rises, is baptized, eats, and walks with the disciples at Damascus. Without delay he preaches Christ in the synagogues, declaring Him to be the Son of God. Although the lion had become a lamb, yet he had not lost his energy; but his object is different; now he preaches what he had formerly sought to destroy. The subject of his preaching differs a little from that of Peter, and responds to the revelation of Christ, which was made to him. Peter preached that God had exalted the Jesus whom they had rejected; Saul, that Christ was the Son of God.
But the pungency of Saul's preaching stirs up the animosity of the Jews. It is always the religious who oppose the truth, because their own importance and traditions are compromised. The rancour of the flesh, particularly in religious things, knows of no giving way. They seek to stone Saul, making conscience and religion their plea. But God watches over His servant; their plot is made known to Paul; and, while they wait day and night for him at the gates, the disciples take him by night, and let him down over the wall in a basket. Thus he escapes out of men's hands.
356 The following verse (26), does not, I think, apply to an immediately succeeding period. When, however, he arrives at Jerusalem, they are still afraid of him, not yet knowing all that has happened to him; but the good Barnabas introduces him to the apostles, and makes known to them the whole truth of his conversion. Here again the apostle bears faithful witness, and again religious men seek to put him to death. But the time had not yet arrived for his own special mission. The brethren bring him down to Caesarea, and he sets out for Tarsus, his native city.
The narrative now returns to the work of Peter. Although Saul was called to preach the gospel to the nations, and was set apart to this mission by a special dispensation of God founded on a more perfect revelation; which left the Jews behind as sinners by nature as well as the Gentiles, and taught that there was no difference, since all had sinned, bringing in the new creation, and knowing Christ no more after the flesh; yet there were not to be two assemblies; the oneness of the church was to be maintained.
Peter is employed, after the conversion of Saul, to bring the first Gentile to the knowledge of Christ. But he never taught what the church was as the body of Christ: this is not revealed in the case of Cornelius. That the Gentiles should take their place among the Christians without becoming Jews, or being circumcised, was something that Peter and the other Jews had great difficulty in believing.
As to the progress of the gospel, let us see what is taught us in the sequel. We shall find that those who had been scattered, being Hellenists, or Jews who had lived in foreign countries, and were accustomed to maintain daily intercourse with the Gentiles, spoke with these: so that the free action of the Spirit also communicated by this means the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul had a new formal mission to every creature under heaven, and then he taught what the assembly was - a truth set forth by no other. See Colossians 1. And he himself was to be a member of the assembly, already founded and established on Christ, which was His body, the habitation of God through the Spirit, though he alone taught this doctrine.
It is not without importance to remark that the Romish system is founded on the authority of Peter, and draws all its pretensions from him; but the doctrine of the church was never confided to Peter. Peter was not the apostle of the uncircumcision, but of the circumcision (Gal. 2); full of power for the work among the Jews, he left that among the Gentiles entirely in the hands of Paul. Peter does not speak of the body of Christ, we who are Gentiles; and the instrument whom God adopted to establish the church among the Gentiles was Paul; 1 Cor. 3.
357 The foundation is one, that is, Christ; the gospel of salvation, one (1 Cor. 15:2). Moreover, God Himself founded the assembly on the day of Pentecost by the gift of the Holy Ghost; but, as a human builder, Paul it was whom God employed to establish the church among the Gentiles, and unfold what it was. The other apostles never speak of the body of Christ, nor of the presence of the Holy Ghost on the earth. Peter then goes about continually, and the power of God manifests itself in him. Aeneas is healed; Tabitha is restored to life. The effect, however, of the first miracle is greater than that of the second. All that dwell at Lydda and Saron, rich countries on the sea-shore, turn to the Lord. At Joppa many believe on Him; and there Peter tarries many days.
While Peter remains in Simon's house, God is occupied with the Gentiles, of whom Peter was not thinking and, even when he did think of them, not at all disposed to admit them among the believing Jews. The angel of God appears to Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band, a devout man, faithful according to the knowledge he possessed, fearing God, and praying continually. He was then converted, but did not know that salvation which had been announced by grace in Jesus, obtained for us on the cross. There are many people who, though they may have learned more than Cornelius, and who bear the name of Christians, have not got beyond this state. These are like the prodigal son (Luke 15), when he repents and arises to go to his father. He was on the right way, but he did not know how he would be received by his father. Such people possess perhaps more light, but as to their relation with God, they are in the same state.
But the conversion of Cornelius, and his introduction to the Christian assembly, was evidently of great importance. The Gentiles were to participate in the grace and blessing of the gospel. The promises had been given to the Jews - none of them to the Gentiles; but the revelation of the grace of God could not be limited to one people. In His government of the world God could choose a people for Himself, when mankind had abandoned Him and had altogether fallen into idolatry, in order to maintain on the earth the knowledge of the one true God, and to put the heart of man to the test, shew what it was, and unfold His ways in the midst of mankind. But God, revealed in grace according to His nature, could not in any way be the God of a single nation.
358 Hidden behind the veil, He could give a perfect law, promises, and prophecies; but at the death of Christ the veil is rent in twain, God is fully revealed in grace and justice, and could no longer be the God of the Jews only. Moreover, at the death of Christ, the Jews as a nation were set aside till they should repent. Yes, it was God's will that the Gentiles should take part in the new blessings of grace. All were sinners; but God purified by faith one as freely as another.
Independently of the Jews, He sends His angel to Cornelius. His prayers and alms are recognised as being acceptable to God. He is told to send men to Joppa to call for Simon, who, the angel tells him, lodged with one Simon, a tanner. He would tell him what he ought to do. Here is a new and important fact. God was thinking about the Gentiles, and desired to admit them to the assembly without their becoming Jews or submitting to the law. Cornelius, a truly devout man, humble, and fearing God, acts immediately according to the word of the angel, and calls two of his servants and a devout soldier, and, having declared to them all that had happened, sends them to call for Peter.
As they travel, God prepares Peter's heart for a mission, to accomplish which he, till then, had been by no means ready. But God desired to have the Gentiles. Peter was praying on the roof of the house where he lodged, and becoming very hungry, he would have eaten; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance and saw as it were a great sheet let down from heaven to earth, full of all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air, which it was not lawful for the Jews to eat. And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Rise, Peter, kill, and eat. Peter, faithful to Judaism, refuses to do so; he had never eaten anything common or unclean. Then the voice said to him, What God hath cleansed, that call thou not unclean.
359 As Peter seeks for the interpretation of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius come to the door and ask for him; and the Spirit tells Peter to go with them, doubting nothing; for, said the Spirit, I have sent them. Peter, therefore, brings them in and lodges them, and on the morrow goes away with them, only taking the precaution of getting certain brethren to accompany him. Arrived at Caesarea, Cornelius throws himself at his feet as the messenger of God. Peter lifts him up, and asks for what reason he had sent for him.
Many relations and intimate friends of Cornelius were gathered together. All doubt as to the meaning of the vision was now removed. By the authority of God Himself, Peter found himself in the society of the Gentiles, which was unlawful for the Jews. He acknowledges God's willingness to receive those that feared Him and worked righteousness among all nations, not only among the Jews. While Cornelius and his friends listen with godly faith, he recounts the mission of Jesus, how the Jews had crucified Him, and God had raised Him up, of which thing the apostles were the witnesses, having eaten and drunk with Him after His resurrection; the proof that He was still a true man, though He possessed then a spiritual body, and that He was the same Jesus whom they had known alive on the earth. At the end of the Gospel of Luke, the basis of every record of the Acts, it is remarkable how Jesus in perfect grace, takes pains to make the disciples certain that He was the same Jesus whom they had known. There we are told, that He ate and drank in order to demonstrate it (Luke 24:36, etc.). "And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet. And while they yet believed not for joy and wondered he said unto them, Have ye here any meat? And they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and of an honeycomb; and he took it, and did eat before them," Luke 24:40-43.
Still the principal thing remained. Cornelius was already converted, devout, faithful, and full of the fear of God, according to the light he possessed. But he did not know salvation, the work of the Saviour, and its efficacy. Led only by the grace of God, he received with faith what Peter told him. Now it was declared to him that, according to the testimony of all the prophets, he who believed in Jesus received the remission of his sins. The Holy Ghost seals by His coming this truth received with simple faith into the hearts of Cornelius and his friends. The Holy Ghost is given then to the Gentiles, without their becoming Jews or being circumcised. Henceforth it was impossible not to receive them into the Christian assembly. God had received them, and had put His seal on them. Peter commands them to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
360 We have here four distinct points: the conversion of the soul by grace (Cornelius was already converted, and his prayers and alms accepted by God); then the testimony of the remission of his sins by faith in Jesus, the victim by whom propitiation was made for us on the cross; then the seal of God in the gift of the Holy Ghost; and, finally, the formal reception among the Christians. This order is not that which is found elsewhere; because God was here shewing that it was His will that the Gentiles should be received. But it is important to distinguish the four things, and to observe the true force of each of them.
The difficulty to the Jews of receiving the Gentiles was a great one. To do so was to give up all their privileges, all that remained of the ancient glory of Israel. Peter therefore, on his return to Jerusalem, is reproved; he had eaten with the Gentiles. Peter narrates all that had happened, and how God had given them the gift just as to believing Jews; how then could he hinder God? The Spirit had sent him to the Gentiles; the Spirit had been given to them. It was the accomplishment of the words of John the Baptist; and other brethren were witnesses to the gift of the Holy Ghost. The Jews could no longer resist the clear evidence of the will of God. Grace overcoming in their hearts, they exclaim, "Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life."
It is important to ponder deeply the difference between conversion and salvation. I have already spoken on this subject, but it is one that is so much neglected, and Christians are so accustomed to be content with a low state of soul, and are so uncertain with regard to salvation, that I shall take the opportunity of adding a few more words. Cornelius was already converted; his prayers and alms were acceptable to God. He was to call for Peter, who would tell him words whereby he might be saved. God had been working in his soul, but he did not yet know the value of the work accomplished by the Saviour. It is the same in the case of the woman in Luke 7; she loved the Lord deeply, had felt the height of His grace and the depth of her sins; but knew not that all was pardoned. The Lord tells her so. The prodigal son was converted, confessed his sins, and turned towards his father, but he was not yet clothed with the best garment. His father had not yet fallen on his neck, he knew not his love; he hardly hoped to be admitted as a servant, and was not in a fit state to enter into the house. Every privilege awaited him, but he did not possess them.
361 I doubt not that He who has begun the good work will continue it till the day of Christ Jesus. As long as a soul reasons about its state, seeks to know whether it is saved or converted, and judges by its own heart of what is in the heart of God, it is under law; salvation for such an one depends on his own state, not on the love of God and the efficacy of the work of Christ. He may perhaps say he is truly converted; he feels the need of salvation, and believes that others have found it; but he does not himself possess it; just as Israel was not out of the land of Egypt till the sea was crossed. Two things, which cannot be separated, are necessary; faith in the work of Christ, and the knowledge that it is finished. I say they cannot be separated, because, when we believe in the work of Christ, and by faith trust in it, we are sealed by the Holy Ghost; we enjoy peace (the love of God being shed abroad in our hearts), we are reconciled to God, and in Christ are made meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; and we know it by the Holy Ghost given to us. In spirit we are in the Father's house, partaking of the food with which He nourishes His beloved children. Not only has the heart turned towards God, but Christ is our righteousness, who also appears for us continually before the face of God.
Before the narrative of the mission of the apostle Paul, we find once more the free activity of the Holy Ghost in all the members of the body of Christ. Those who had been dispersed by the persecution raised against the Christians on the death of Stephen were preaching everywhere, but for the most part to the Jew only. It never occurred to them that the grace and the thoughts of God could overstep the limits of His people after the flesh. A few of them, however, who, living in Gentile districts (especially at Antioch), daily came in contact with the Gentiles and desired their salvation also, preached the Lord Jesus to them. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number, having believed, were converted to the Lord.
362 Thus we find that no sooner is the unity of the assembly secured by the admission of Cornelius to it by means of Peter - he first making use of the keys of the kingdom to admit, according to the Lord's promise, the Gentiles also - than the free action of the Spirit is reproduced. The gospel is spread among the nations, not by means of Peter, nor of Paul, who afterwards became the great minister of God towards the Gentiles, but by means of the faithful, stirred up by the love of Christ reigning in their hearts, and giving them the desire that His name should be glorified. It was not a question of ordination, nor of human consecration. All, except the apostles, had been scattered, and all were preaching. That there are especial gifts is evident in the word, but it was love to Christ and souls that opened their mouths.
And observe, the fact is not merely recorded in the word, but their activity is approved by the Lord. "The hand of the Lord was with them." The gospel was first preached to the Gentiles by private Christians, moved by the grace of God to communicate to others the blessing which they themselves enjoyed; and they sought to establish the authority of Christ over mankind, and glorify His name - an important principle clearly demonstrated in this narrative.
Let us bear in mind that the first dissemination of the gospel among the nations was effected, not by means of official preachers, but by ordinary Christians, not sent out by men; but moved by love to Christ. Subsequently Paul was sent expressly by the Holy Ghost, and received apostolic gifts; but he was not sent by the other apostles but directly by God and by Jesus Christ, by means of the Holy Ghost. Moreover, in the providence of God, the free activity of Christians became the occasion of his mission. "Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem; and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch: who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord. For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith; and much people was added unto the Lord." Then Barnabas goes to seek for Paul, whom the brethren had brought to Caesarea, from whence he had gone to his native city, Tarsus. We have seen that Barnabas was a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, but he was not a man capable of taking the initiative, of starting and maintaining such a work as that of the conversion of the Gentiles. Thus, though blessed by God, he is not His instrument for this work. He was himself conscious of this, and so, with kindness and simplicity of heart, and doubtless led of God, seeks the instrument chosen and called by God. He had already introduced him to the Jews at Jerusalem, who were afraid of their late persecutor.
363 The power of Saul's call had separated him from everything to be for Christ alone. He awaited only the formal message from the Lord, a new source of courage and the effect of the spirit of humility and obedience. In our times, it is a difficulty that there is no clear and open call like that of Saul, but we have seen that all were free to evangelise; and moreover that they were bound to accomplish the work according to the strength of the love of Christ working in their hearts. And if there is a special gift, this gift is unfolded in the exercise of it. Besides, we have the promise and the precept, "If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth liberally, and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him." Such were the first disseminators of the gospel among the Gentiles. Apostolical gifts are indeed wanting, and that is a great loss; but it is an honour to be thus dependent on God, and that activity should be the fruit of the spiritual state. We shall experience our own weakness, but also the unwavering faithfulness of God. We have also the warning of the same James, "Be not many masters." The word of God is enough for all times; if it is not enough for us, it will be for our condemnation. The grace of God must work in us. Let us bear it in mind.
We see, however, the greatest liberty in the exercise of the ministry. Barnabas seeks Saul; Paul takes Silas, Timothy, and others; he wished Apollos to go to Corinth, but Apollos did not wish to go there. Saul then, and Barnabas, exercise their ministry together; they assemble themselves with the church, and teach much people. It was thus that a Christian assembly was founded at Antioch, the capital of the Gentile world in that quarter, and the point from which the Grecian world was evangelised.
364 But it was important that this assembly should not be separated from that of Jerusalem, and so we are suddenly taken back to that city. It is still lovingly recognised; and we shall see that God makes use of the very strength that sought to bring the Gentiles under subjection to the law, to set them free, maintain unity, and preserve liberty. Now the union is strengthened by the fruits of love. A prophet (and there were such in the new assembly) announces that there should be a great dearth throughout all the world; and the disciples determine to send aid to the brethren in Judaea; which is done by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.
The Spirit now takes us back to Jerusalem. He was willing to forget neither it nor the testimony of God found there. The Spirit here records an event which sets forth the care that God, in His providence, had of His own (and especially, by means of the angels, for Peter), working in them by His Spirit. He permits that James, the brother of John, should succumb to the malice of Herod, the enemy of the gospel. That this was pleasing to the Jews gave the king a further pretext for continuing in the path of his opposition. Little mattered the death of a few Christians, if their death gave him popularity with the Jews. He therefore seized Peter and put him in prison, purposing after the feast of the passover to give him up to the people.
But the thoughts of God were otherwise. The night before he was to be led out to the people, Peter slept in perfect peace under the protection of God, although, so that the hand of God might be shewn in his liberation, he was strongly guarded by men. He slept between two soldiers, bound with two chains. Sentinels before the door guarded the prison likewise. But we are more secure in the hands of God than when exposed to the violence of men, even though they may seem to have us firmly enough in their grasp.
The angel awakens Peter, and at the sound of his voice the chains fall from his hands. Every detail is minutely recorded. At the word of the angel Peter binds on his sandals and girds himself. The care of the angel is most minute. And when, after having passed the two guards, they reached the outer gate, it opens to them of itself. The angel accompanies Peter through one street, and then disappears. Peter, who till this moment imagined he saw a vision, now becomes conscious that God has delivered him from the hands of Herod and from the expectation of the Jews. Observe here how visions resembled the reality, since Peter believed the reality to be a vision. Thus, considering the things, he comes to the house of Mary, the mother of Mark, a place probably often the scene of the meetings of the Christians. It was the home of the sister of Barnabas. Mark had gone with Barnabas on his separation from Paul: but Mark is again found in Colossians; and in 2 Timothy 4:11 his service is recognised as profitable for the ministry. Sweet it is to see how grace, shut out for a while by failure, hastens to recognise the brother brought back to the path of devotedness, and to renewed usefulness in the work of the Lord.
365 Peter does not remain there, but, telling them to make known to James what has occurred, departs and goes to another place. But here we shall do well to remark a few particulars. The refuge of the faithful is in prayer. They had come together to ask God for the preservation of Peter, and God had heard their prayer. They did not know how, but they had put trust in God. It seemed to be the natural resource of the hearts of these believers; and the feeling was a common one. In the difficulty which had occurred, the danger of the beloved apostle, they meet together to look to God. Prayer was given to their hearts by the Holy Ghost as a refuge in adversity; and though they might not know how God would respond, yet they were always answered according to His own counsels. Peter is set free according to their desire; but we see how little the heart, though by grace it may have confidence in God and turns to Him in its need, believes that its supplications will be granted. Here their need had been expressed to God, but when the answer came, they could not believe it was possible.
Peter is set free by the intervention of the angel, and Herod is struck by the judgment of God when he sets himself up against Him. Can we expect similar intervention now? I do not believe that miracles are performed to-day; angels no longer appear; it was not a gift that could continue. In Ephesians 4 no miraculous gifts are to be found. But I fully believe, according to the Lord's promise, that prayer is heard, and that the angels work in favour of the children of God as much now as in those early times. As to prayer, the word of God is clear. The condition is made, however, that what we ask be according to the will of God, and that prayer be made in faith; and we are told that, if the words of Christ abide in us, we shall ask what we will.
366 The Lord and the apostles exhort us to prayer without ceasing, in confidence, never letting our faith fail. We do well if we make known our requests to God in every case; but it does not follow that we shall always receive what we ask - as, for example, it happened to Paul with regard to the thorn in his flesh. For him it would not have been good for God to have answered him. But the result of our prayers is that the peace of God which passes knowledge shall keep our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus (Phil. 4). His throne is not disturbed, neither is His heart burdened by our solicitations; and the peace in which He dwells continually shall, when we have placed these requests on His throne, work effectually in our hearts. The outward manifestation of the power of God, the testimony rendered at the beginning to the word of God, does not repeat itself; but God's care, His answers to prayer, and the blessed service of angels, still remain to the children of God. (For the angels, see Heb. 1:14.)
Here we find then God's care for the assembly at Jerusalem; but we shall not again see any activity on the part of Peter. That such was to be the case is demonstrated by the fact of this intervention. We know that he went to Antioch, probably for the work of the Lord, but this is not stated. There he was unfaithful to the Lord, and is reproved by Paul. He wrote to the Jews in the provinces of Asia Minor, but it is not known whether he went there. It is possible that he lived in Babylon, but it is uncertain; many Jews lived there. In his epistle he salutes on the part of the saints there; but we possess no account of any of his doings. He was the first to introduce the Gentiles to the public Christian assembly, in order to preserve unity.
At this period ordinary Christians, in their dispersion, disseminated the truth among the Gentiles. Unity was still preserved; and the wisdom of God declared, by means of the assembly at Jerusalem, that the Gentiles were not under the subjection of the law. But as for Peter no more is heard regarding his activity; for the divine work was now to leave Jerusalem. He is fully recognised here by the care of the angels, but the power of the Holy Ghost is only found in Paul and in his companions. Antioch is the starting-point, and not Jerusalem; as for Rome, it is the last place where the church is established, and it was not founded there by the apostles. Before the arrival of Paul Christians, who, like many others, had gone to the capital of the world, met together there; and Paul wrote to them before going. What became of Peter is not recorded, and, save in chapter 15, where what he had previously done is mentioned, he now entirely disappears from the narrative. Paul, sent from Antioch by the Holy Ghost, is the instrument of God for the preaching of the gospel among the Gentiles, and to teach what the church was, the mystery which had been hid from ages and generations. See Colossians 1:23-27. It is his history which follows in chapter 13.
367 Acts 13.
Barnabas and Saul, having accomplished their mission, return to Antioch, from whence they had gone to Jerusalem with the contribution for the poor. Now in the assembly at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers. These ministered to the Lord and fasted. While thus engaged, with hearts consecrated to the Lord, the Holy Ghost said - "Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them." Doubtless the command was given by the mouth of one of these prophets, for this reason called such; but the important fact to remark is that these two apostles were called by the Spirit Himself.
Then, under the impression of the seriousness of the call, having again fasted and prayed, they laid their hands on them and sent them away. And it was on a mission of the greatest importance. The gospel, and the revelation of the assembly, is now formally given to the Gentiles, they and the Jews, as believers, being united in one body on the earth and for the heavens. Let us consider a few particulars.
Already Paul had been called by the revelation and the authority of Christ, and more precisely by the revelation of a glorified Christ. Saul had not known Christ on the earth. Of this we have spoken. He had been separated both from the Jews and from the Gentiles. As regards religion, he did not belong to the one class any more than to the other, but was united to a risen and glorified Christ. Henceforth he knew no man after the flesh, not even Christ - that is, as a Jew who awaited a Christ on the earth, according to the promises given to the nation. As a witness called by God his starting-point was the glory - Christ in heavenly glory, the same who had suffered by the hands of those who were still persecuting His members on the earth. For him the cross was the end of his Adamic and Judaic life. He was dead to the world, to the flesh, to the law. He laboured as an apostle of, and one who belonged to, a new creation.
368 Moreover, he drew neither his authority nor his mission from the apostles who preceded him; his mission did not even originate at Jerusalem, and was not dependent on the sanction of the apostles there, nor of the church at that place. His mission was given directly from God and from Christ. Personally called by Christ three years before, he is now sent by the Holy Ghost, and departs from Antioch, a Gentile city, from the bosom of an assembly where the Gentiles had first gathered together. He did not go to or from another assembly. The superstition and legality of the Jews very nearly did so, but God did not permit it, as we shall see. His mission was nevertheless entirely independent; it was dependent on the authority of Christ alone, and on the power of the Holy Ghost. The apostle insists much on this point in the first two chapters of the epistle to the Galatians.
He desired to be absolutely independent of Peter and the others; and not only did he assert his having been sent from God Himself, but he was obliged to rebuke Peter, who, for fear of those who came from Jerusalem, had been unfaithful to the truth and to his own convictions. Paul was free from all men, subject to Christ, and in love the servant of all; a model and example for all Christians, as indeed he himself tells us. He fully recognised the mission of Peter to the Jews, as well as that of the other apostles; but though he preached the same gospel as they, his mission was directly from God Himself.
Barnabas and Saul are not only called, but sent by the Holy Ghost. They depart therefore to Seleucia, and from thence sail to Cyprus. But here the state of the work is manifested - a new aspect of affairs. The Gentiles are disposed to listen. Judgment falls on the Jews for a time, on account of their opposition to the gospel, especially on its proclamation to the Gentiles. See 1 Thessalonians 2:16. Till now all the light that was in the world the Jews possessed; but, having rejected the true and perfect Light of the world, they had fallen into darkness, and hated the light, and all the more because jealousy filled their hearts. The apostle never denied their privileges. In Salamis he began by preaching in their synagogues. He did not give up the Jews till the Jews rejected the gospel.
369 Now John Mark, the son of her in whose house the disciples had met together to pray for Peter, was with them. The relationships of the apostle were still Judaic, for, though himself free, Paul profoundly loved his nation as the people of God. Having gone through the island, they find with the governor a certain Jew, a false prophet. The governor, a prudent man, desires to hear the word of God. The sorcerer Elymas, however, withstands the apostles, seeking to turn the deputy away from the faith. But if the hurtful power of the enemy was with the sorcerer, the power of God was with the apostles. They strike the false prophet with blindness. Such is a remarkable picture of the state of the Jews, and of the power of God shewn in the propagation of the gospel. The deputy, astonished at the doctrine of the Lord, believes.
Saul now assumes the name of Paul, having (we are not told how) changed his Jewish name for a Roman one. The moment was a convenient one. The word literally signifies "to work"; but I do not think this is either the source or the intention of it.
After crossing the sea, John Mark leaves them. His relationship with Jerusalem was too strong for him, and the difficulties and dangers of the work of the apostles too great for his faith. Barnabas was his uncle; Cyprus, the country of Barnabas. Alas! how many there are whose faith depends on circumstances! They go on steadily while surrounded by these circumstances; but when the path leads to simple dependence on the faithfulness of God, their steps at once begin to flag.
The power of the Spirit of God creates His instruments, and adapts each for His work; and, set forth by the energy of the Spirit, they are sustained by His power in the midst of all circumstances, whatever they may be. We shall see that even Barnabas could not continue always with Paul, nor consent to know no longer any man after the flesh. But it is sweet to see how, as I have already said, Paul in the end recognises Mark as profitable for the ministry (2 Tim. 4:11). So Mark goes away, and Barnabas and Paul continue their journeying in strange lands, where the gospel is unknown.
370 Leaving Perga, they come to another Antioch, in Pisidia, where they enter into the synagogue of the Jews. Called on by the rulers of the synagogue to exhort the congregation (for the ministry was freer among the Jews than in modern Christian churches), they announce Jesus and the resurrection. Let us notice certain points in this address. As was generally the case, it was composed of facts. The apostle briefly relates the history of Israel till the time of David; and then lays down the two fundamental parts of the gospel - namely, the fulfilment of the promises, and the powerful intervention of God in the resurrection of Christ, by which He was shewn to be the Son of God. In this way also he begins the Epistle to the Romans. All the narratives of the Acts depend on the mission given at the end of Luke. The subjects are repentance and remission of sins. For Israel the way had been prepared by John the Baptist. Then God, according to His promise, raised up (not raised from among the dead) a Saviour.
But they of Jerusalem had accomplished all that the prophets had spoken, knowing neither the Saviour nor the voice of the prophets, which, in crucifying Jesus, they had fulfilled. But God had raised Him from the dead, and He had been seen for many days by those who had accompanied Him from Galilee. Thus was the promise in Psalm 2 of the coming of the Son of God, the King of Israel, accomplished. But, we would add, as to the responsibility of Israel, it is lost on account of the rejection of Christ; yet on the part of God all the promises were firmly established in His resurrection according to Isaiah 55:3, and as to His person, the prophecy of Psalm 16 is accomplished. All that the Jews were now to receive was to be given in pure grace. On this foundation the doctrine of the gospel is established. The remission of sins is announced, and justification from all things, from which the law of Moses could not justify. The basis of the new covenant has been laid, and the blood of that covenant shed, though the covenant itself be not yet established. It will be with Judah and with Israel in the last days, but founded on what has been already accomplished.
The apostles then exhort their hearers not to neglect the salvation which had been announced to them. The fundamental truths of the gospel ever remain the same; the remission of all sins to believers; the person of Christ proved to be the Son of God by His resurrection; and the fulfilment of the promises made to Israel, though that people be for a time set aside. But this justification being for believers, it was for the Gentiles also.
371 The Gentiles then ask that these words may be preached to them on the next sabbath. The fame of this new doctrine quickly spreads, and nearly the whole city comes together to hear it. But the poor Jews, moved with jealousy, cannot bear to be surpassed in religious influence, and that another religion than theirs should work on the Gentiles. Oh, poor human heart, always stronger in religious people! The truth it has already believed in (and believed in because received by many, themselves unconverted; and because, besides being the truth, it does them honour to profess it) does not put the heart to the test. But truth is always truth, even though it be not received by the many; it does put the heart to the test, and must be received only because God gives it.
The Jews now begin to contradict and to blaspheme. Paul at once takes his stand, and acknowledging that the gospel ought first to be preached to the Jews, as heirs of the promises, openly declares that he turns to the Gentiles, taking the remarkable prophecy in Isaiah 49 as the commandment of the Lord. There the Spirit presents Israel as the nation in which God should be glorified. But then the Messiah had laboured in vain, for Israel was not gathered in. Still it was but a small thing to bring back the tribes of Israel; the Messiah should be a light to the Gentiles, and the salvation of God to the ends of the earth. On the ground of this declaration of the will of God, the apostles turn to the Gentiles.
Such was free grace, poured out on all, leaving the strict confines of Judaism, and directing itself to the whole world. But still the grace of God, mingled with faith, was necessary to make the truth enter the heart, so that it might be born of God. This is what happens here. The power of God accompanied the word and "as many as were ordained to eternal life believed." The result is this: - opposition on the part of the Jews, testimony throughout all the earth (except at Jerusalem, chap. 15), and the operation of grace in the heart, whereby it is led to the acceptance of the gospel.
372 Already, on the first sabbath day, many Gentiles and proselytes had followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God. The Jews, however, on account of their failure, are put aside. The spiritual energy of Paul now places him at the head of the work. Till this moment it has been Barnabas and Paul; henceforth we shall find Paul and Barnabas.
The gospel is shed abroad in all these regions; but the opposition of the Jews increases. They "stirred up the devout and honourable women, and the chief men of the city, and raised persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them out of their coasts." Similar scenes are enacted everywhere. By the permission of God (He, however, still holding the reins in His own hand) the devotees of the old religion, and the devout women, with the chief men under their influence, seek to cast out the gospel. The apostles shake off the dust from their feet, in testimony of the justice awaiting those who rejected the grace and salvation of God. "And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Ghost."
Such is the varied picture of the work of the gospel in the world, and the first public exhibition of its result, when announced in the face of the opposition of the old religion, which still exercised its power over unconverted hearts, in presence of the need and unbelief of mankind. And such, in spite of conflicts and difficulties, is the power of the gospel under the influence of the Holy Ghost. It is first preached to the Jews, because they had the promises; then it is given to the Gentiles, because all believers are justified by faith in Christ. A dead and risen Christ is for all. Opposition springs up from the hatred of the Jews, of the devout women according to the old religion, and of the principal men of the city. Judgment, though not executed, is pronounced; and then grace, working in the hearts of the believers, leads them to faith and joy in the presence of the Spirit, those who do not believe being left under judgment. Expelled from Antioch, the apostles prosecute their labours elsewhere