The Universality and Power of the Gospel

The Gospel of Mark closes with these words: "So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, [His disciples] He was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God; and they went forth and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word with signs following." The record of this mighty working of the grace of God is given in the Acts of the Apostles. It was carried out under the administration of the ascended Lord and in the fullness of the power of the Holy Ghost come down from Him. It is a record that grows in interest as it is studied. The Lord had commanded His disciples to preach repentance and remission of sins among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem (Luke 24). We may well marvel at this for Jerusalem was the most desperately wicked city on earth; its history was one of blood-guiltiness; it had not only slain the prophets but crowned its crimes by crucifying Him who was its Messiah and God. But where sin abounds, grace does much more abound.

The Lord had answered their bitter and murderous hatred by His never-to-be-forgotten prayer upon the cross: "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." That prayer was heard and answered, and instead of judgment, the remission of sins was freely offered to the house of Israel through Peter on the day of Pentecost. It was national forgiveness that was preached to them, national salvation; and had they embraced this great grace in repentance and faith, "times of refreshing" would have come from the presence of the Lord — "the times of restitution of all things which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began." Some of them, a small remnant, did believe the message and saved themselves from that untoward generation. But the nation, as such, continued in unbelief and unrepentant; and Stephen, full of the Holy Ghost, launched his overwhelming indictment against them: "Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost; as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which showed before of the coming of the Just One, of whom ye have now been the betrayers and murderers." The truth of Stephen's charge cut them to the heart and they gnashed on him with their teeth, and cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears, "and ran upon him with one accord and cast him out of the city and stoned him to death" (chap. 7). Then they fulfilled the Lord's prophetic parable, "His citizens hated Him and sent a message after Him, saying, We will not have this Man to reign over us" (Luke 19). The rejected Man of the parable was the Lord Jesus, their Messiah: the message they sent after Him was the murdered Stephen.

From that time the gospel went out, not to the Jew only, but to all men, and the Spirit of God in moving Luke to write the Acts chose three cases of this work of God's grace: the Ethiopian Eunuch (chap. 8); Saul of Tarsus (chap. 9); Cornelius, the centurion (chap. 10). The Ethiopian was a son of Ham; Saul, the Jew, a son of Shem; Cornelius, the Roman, a son of Japheth; one of each of the three families into which mankind was formed after the flood, clearly showing the universal reach of the gospel of the grace of God and its power. We should have put the centurion first and the man of colour last; but God's ways are not as our ways; He knows how to rebuke our pride, and with Him the last shall be first.

These men were prominent and important in their own spheres; the Eunuch was of great authority under the Queen of the Ethiopians; he was the chancellor of her exchequer; Saul had advanced far in the Jew's religion, and was a recognised leader in his nation; and Cornelius belonged to a noble family of Rome, he was a distinguished soldier, a centurion of the Italian band. It seems as though the Spirit of God would show us, by recording the salvation of these great men, that no worldly honour of greatness can satisfy the hearts of men. But what they had failed to find in the world by honour or wealth they found in the Lord Jesus Christ, and they proved that He is brighter and better than the very best and brightest that the world has to offer.

That which shed light upon the dark souls of these men is of supreme interest. The Eunuch was reading the 53rd chapter of Isaiah when Philip the evangelist joined himself to him. The place of the Scripture he had reached was, "He was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened He not His mouth; in His humiliation His judgment was taken away, and who shall declare His generation? for His life is taken from the earth." Then Philip began at that same Scripture and preached to him, JESUS. It was the meekness and gentleness of the Lord, His humiliation and suffering and death that won the heart of the Eunuch, and bound him with everlasting bonds to our great Saviour. He did not delay, he must become His disciple at once and be identified with Him in His death; so he said, "Here is water, what doth hinder me to be baptised?"

The Ethiopian was a seeker after light; his journey to Jerusalem and his earnest reading of the Scriptures were a proof of this. But Paul the Jew was not seeking light — he was resisting it, like an unbroken and restive ox he was kicking against the goads. He was not at the crucifixion of the Lord, but he took a willing and prominent part in the murder of Stephen and in the persecution of the saints. He confessed before King Agrippa, "I verily thought with myself that I ought to do many things contrary to the Name of Jesus of Nazareth… and many of the saints did I shut up in prison… and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them … I persecuted them even to strange cities." He was the chief of sinners, the spearhead of the devil's war against Christ. His zeal against the Name burned like an oven, and "breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord" he was journeying to Damascus to hale them to prison in Jerusalem. Then it was that the Lord arrested him; suddenly there shined about him a light from heaven, and he fell to the earth and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?" The proud Jew was shaken out of his pride and cried out "Who art Thou Lord?" Then came the answer, "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest." What a revelation that was to Saul; the One whose name he loathed, and against whom he was so bitterly though ignorantly fighting, was enthroned in highest glory at God's right hand! The discovery revolutionized his whole being, and trembling and astonished he made an immediate, complete and unconditional surrender, saying "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?"

Cornelius was a man with a remarkable record; he was "a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people and prayed to God alway." The messengers that he sent to Simon Peter said that he was, "a just man and one that feareth God and of good report among all the nation of the Jews." Evidently God had begun a good work in him; there was life in his soul, for not otherwise could his works have been acceptable to God. He had some light and he lived up to the light that he had, and God sent him more. Simon Peter was instructed of the Lord to carry the full light of the gospel to him. It is the entrance of God's word that gives light, and Cornelius had to hear words whereby he and all his house should be saved (chap. 11). The hearing of words is stressed in his case (vv. 32-33) and faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

Cornelius knew already the word which God had sent to the children of Israel, "preaching peace by Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)." He knew that He had been slain and hanged on a tree; he may have heard of His resurrection, but he needed to know the force and meaning of these great facts. What he could not have known was what Peter seemed to have declared for the first time, that the Lord had commanded His disciples "to preach to the people and to testify that it is He which was ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead." Not only was the Lord enthroned in glory, as Saul saw Him, but He was coming again to judge the world in righteousness, all men being accountable to Him. "For the Father judgeth no man, but has committed all judgment to the Son, that all men should honour the Son even as they honour the Father" (John 5:22-23).

In view of that coming judgment Peter made a most blessed proclamation, which was in fact the summing up of the witness of all the prophets: "to Him give all the prophets witness that through His Name whosoever believes in Him shall receive remission of sins." Peter's "whosoever" is universal: it goes out to men without distinction of class or colour, and those whose sins are remitted by Him, who is ordained as the universal Judge, are clear of condemnation for ever; for if the Judge justifies, who is he that condemns? He must have the last word about every man. Cornelius and his household heard the words of Peter with the hearing of faith, and the Holy Ghost fell on them while Peter was yet speaking, sealing their faith and taking possession of them for the Lord, whom they now confessed, being baptised in His Name.

It is deeply interesting to see and to put together the great facts of the gospel that impressed and blessed these three outstanding men. In the case of the Eunuch it was the humiliation, the suffering and death of the Lord; with Saul it was the fact that He was enthroned at the right hand of God; with Cornelius that He was ordained to come in glory as the Judge. These three lines of truth complete for us the gospel of God concerning His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. It is all Christ: Christ as He was, Christ as He is, and Christ as He will be. In the past, the present and the future, perfect in all His ways and works, and God is glorified in Him.

The Eunuch went on his way rejoicing, and Cornelius and his household magnified God, and that is the last we hear of them. Saul of Tarsus, afterwards Paul the Apostle, is the only one of the three whose post-conversion life is recorded, and this is given in greater detail than that of any other apostle. The Holy Ghost had a purpose in this, for he tells us it was "that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all long-suffering for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting" (1 Tim. 1). In him we see the power of the gospel and what it can make of a man who is wholly surrendered to the Lord: the greatest sinner became the pattern saint.

We marvel as we see Paul laying all his glory in the dust as dross and dung, and counting all that in which he might have boasted as a burden of which he was well rid that he might have Christ for his gain; but why should we wonder? With the same breath in which he tells us of his own renunciation he tells us of the surpassing excellence of Christ Jesus his Lord (Phil. 3). We sometimes marvel that Paul rejoiced that he had gone from his own thoughts, that he was crucified with Christ, so that he no longer lived for Paul, but for Christ; but why should we marvel at this? — when he tells us that the One who enthralled him and controlled him was the Son of God "who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Gal. 2). Paul laboured more than any other servant of the Lord; his great ambition was to be agreeable to Him; but he tells us the secret of this — it is the love of Christ that constrains us — the love that surpasses all knowledge. It would seem as though it appeared to him a marvel that it could be a marvel to any that he should labour so, for he adds, we thus judge that if one died for all then were all dead; and that He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live to themselves but to Him who died for them and rose again" (2 Cor. 5).

In these passages in which Paul speaks of his devotion to Christ it is as though he stretched out his hands to the saints to whom he wrote, and to us also, and cried, Do not marvel that I wholly love my Lord; if you had heard and seen Him as I have heard and seen Him you would love Him wholly too; if He had come to you as He came to me as I lay stricken at His feet, the chief of sinners in my hatred of Him, and forgave me, and blessed me, and gave me His Spirit, and folded me to His heart, you could not forget Him. If you knew His mighty embrace as I do, and if your life bathed itself in His love that is too vast to comprehend, you would cease to marvel at me. Instead you would marvel that any heart on earth could hold back from Him and any lip remain silent before Him; and you would marvel the more that any having known Him and His unsearchable riches, should have another thought of self or turn again from Him to the base and beggarly world.