(These comments on the Acts (and those in subsequent issues D.V.) are taken from Notes compiled by the late Mr. J. McBroom. Whilst care has been taken to preserve the thoughts expressed by our dear brother, the Editors are responsible for the articles as now printed.)
(Precious Things Vol. 4, pp. 30-32, 47-50, 81-83)
In general this book is occupied with the first thirty years of the history of the church on earth, and is the bridge between the gospels and the epistles. It has been said that the book of the Revelation is the bridge between the present and the future, but that the book of the Acts is the bridge between the present and the past. It begins with the ascension of our Lord and the coming of the Holy Spirit, and closes with the apostle to the Gentiles in prison at Rome.
In the gospels we have the anti-type of the Ark of the Covenant and the Holiest of all. There all is gold and expressive of the Divine glory. The Holy Place and its furniture speak of what is proper to Israel as connected with Christ. In the court, where the Altar of Burnt-offering stood, we have the cross in relation to the universe. There burned the fire which consumed the victim; and in type we see the cross in relation to the majesty of God and His rights in the whole creation. In the gospels Christ is seen in this world for the glory of God. Though He came into the world, He was not at home there; yet, whilst in it, He ever sustained that which was due to the glory of God. This world is the scene of the first man's activity as having departed from God; the Son of God, the Man Christ Jesus, came into it to glorify God and to make good all the claims of Divine holiness. We read in the gospels of all that the Lord began to do and teach, but in the Acts we see what He continued to do and teach after He had gone on high. In the gospels we have the Second Man here on earth for the glory of God, but in the Acts the Second Man in the glory of God.
Though the church was formed as recorded in Acts 2, God was still dealing with Israel, and during this transitional period both were running on together.
The fact that Jerusalem was still in the thoughts of God, and connected with His testimony, accounted for the disciples being spoken to by the angel as to their "gazing up into heaven". The Jewish nation had rejected the overtures of God and refused Christ as the Vessel of the promises, and now they were to be tested by the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is spoken of in one way or another about seventy times in this book, so that it may be said to be the acts of the Holy Spirit.
In the light of this it behoves us to look carefully into the record of the Acts. With the exception of the Revelation there is no book in the New Testament where the conflict between light and darkness is seen to be raging so furiously. There are imprisonments; chains; stonings; deceptions; delusions; but all were met by a power in the men whom God was using and who were moving in the good of the victory of Christ. Prison doors were thrown open; chains dropped off; the house in which they were was shaken; and the power of Satan was exposed in men like Simon of Acts 8, and the son of the devil in Acts 13.
The Lord had been seen of the disciples during the forty days between His resurrection and His ascension, and it is recorded that in that period He appeared to one or another no less than ten times. The disciples were told to tarry at Jerusalem ten days, the period needed to fill up the time till the feast of weeks. At the end of the forty days a cloud received Him out of their sight. Before He left them they spoke to Him concerning the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, which shews that they were still influenced by Jewish hopes and promises. The answer of our Lord left room for the further testing of the nation by the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Lord Jesus went to heaven on the cloud, symbol of the Divine presence. They had been told by the Lord how His testimony would proceed. Beginning at Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria to the utmost bounds of the earth, which to a Jew may well have been Rome, where at the end of this book Paul is seen in prison.
The next nine chapters may be taken in sections of three. Chapters two, three and four go together; then five, six and seven bring to a close the first period of the history of the church on earth. Chapters eight, nine and ten may be taken together in relation to the wider glory of Christ as confessed by Stephen in his dying moments—the glory of the Son of Man. The first of these sections is mainly occupied with the testimony of God to the favoured nation who were still in covenant relationship with God. There Christ is seen as Prophet, Priest and King, and everything is done to open the eyes of the people as to this, but all is in vain. These three chapters afford a very precious study, filled as they are with testimony to the glory of Christ. Peter is the vessel used by the Holy Spirit, as he it was to whom the Lord had given the keys of the kingdom. In these three chapters they are being used in relation to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It is the last offer by God to that favoured nation.
The coming of the Spirit formed the "kingdom of God", the "house of God", and the "body of Christ" in this world. The King being in heaven the centre of royal power, the kingdom is set up and Psalm 110 is cited to show the King upon His royal throne. The house of God is the "habitation of God through the Spirit". (Eph. 2:22.) The body of Christ is seen in the baptism of the Spirit according to 1 Cor. 12:13. The city was there also, though not so easily seen, but all was set up in relation to the age to come and Heb. 12:22, says we have come to that now. Three of these things are general as applying to the whole scene and scope of the ways of God, but the truth of the "body" stands by itself as applying to the assembly alone. So David was king; Moses built the house, and Abraham looked for a city. These things take us to the day of glory when the blessing of God will fill the whole creation. In the coming of the Spirit from a Saviour exalted in the rights of redemption, this new order had begun and these things are the leading blessings of it. In the kingdom we have the supremacy of God; in the house we have the administration of the Son (Heb. 3:6); in the city we see the consummation of all the ways of God when Christ will be seen with His royal bride in the day of the display of His glory.
It should be noted that all this is set up in the way of testimony. The Spirit came here and formed a new order of things in relation to a glorified Man altogether outside of the present order of things in man's world. The disciples could not understand all this at the moment, for it had not yet been opened out in ministry. All they understood at the moment was a fresh movement of the Spirit in relation to Israel. This was obviously God lingering over the nation as the result of the intercession of the Lord on the cross. This is also seen in the parable in Luke 13:6.
These things are all the result of Christ being glorified. It was the purpose of God to have men in moral suitability to Himself in heavenly blessing. Christ came out from God to make God known as the Blesser and having accomplished that work He has gone back in answer to it all. The One Who came out on behalf of God is the One Who has gone in on behalf of man. In Christ going there we have the pledge that heaven will be filled with His generation. Surely this gives us the thought of finality? No one but God could have conceived such a thing, and not only has He conceived it, He is also carrying it through for His own eternal pleasure.
The prophets had spoken of the sufferings of Christ and the glory that should follow, but their ministry could not take in the ages that roll between the one and the other. According to the prophetic word only a prophetic week comes between them, but we know that a great parenthetic gap has come in between the sufferings and the display of the glory in the world to come. It is the time in which God is forming the assembly as a vessel to be the helpmeet for His Son, according to His eternal purpose. Now all that will be displayed in glory has been made known to faith in the power of the Spirit. If we take in the truth that the Holy Spirit is here in relation to this new order set up in Christ, there is no difficulty in seeing that all belonging to that day of glory is available now to those who have faith. We already enjoy forgiveness, reconciliation, eternal life, as the fruit of Divine purpose; for we are accepted in the Son. Well may God laugh at the puny efforts of His creature to hinder His work (Psalm 2), and well may the apostle break forth with this note of praise, "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God"! (Rom. 11:33.)
In chapter 3 we have the record of the healing of the lame man. In John 5 we read the Lord healed an impotent man, His first sign in Jerusalem; and here Peter heals a lame man at the beginning of this era. In all this we see the fulfilment of Isa. 35:6. "Then shall the lame man leap as an hart". In this way the passage anticipates new covenant blessing. Following this in chapter 4, we get the Stone which the builders rejected. The Lord Jesus Christ is seen here as the Head of the corner. This supposes the Priest, and gives a grand view in these three chapters of the ministry of the Spirit through Peter. In chapter 2 it is the King; in chapter 3 the Prophet, and in chapter 4 the Priest; three official glories of our Lord in relation to the nation. In type these were all seen in one family. Moses was king in Jeshurun; Aaron was the priest and Miriam the prophetess.
Our next section, chapters 5, 6 and 7, need not detain us. Two things are seen here. First, a company living in flesh and blood conditions, yet living completely in the interests one of another and kept apart from the propensities of the flesh in doing so. On the other hand, we have the solemn record of two lying to the Holy Spirit and bringing upon themselves the judgment of God. In chapter 6 the murmuring is seen which shows that the state so wonderfully brought in was already in decay. Discontent had set in, necessitating the appointment of the seven deacons, and gives to us the first account of failure while the work was still going on.
In chapter 7 Stephen, one of the seven deacons, is led into a deeper perception of Divine activities. He was full of the Holy Spirit and spoke of the things which had been made known to him. This soon brought on a crisis and he was brought before the council, giving an occasion for one of the richest discourses in this book. It sealed the doom of that generation, who had now filled up their sins. They had rejected God in the days of Samuel (1 Sam. 8:7); and having rejected Christ (John 19:15), they now reject the Holy Spirit (verse 51 of this chapter).
This chapter gives the link between the ministry of Peter and that of Paul, whose name (as Saul of Tarsus) comes to light at the end. Saul (afterwards Paul) is about to be apprehended to carry the gospel to the Gentiles, but that must follow the complete rejection by Israel of the testimony of the Holy Spirit. The reference by Stephen to the Son of Man shows that all mankind is now coming into favour in having the gospel preached to them. Peter had been using one key to open the door to the Jews, but now the scene is about to widen out for him to use the other key for opening the door to the Gentiles. This, we shall see, begins in the next chapter, although Peter does not formally admit the Gentiles until he is sent to Cornelius in chapter 10. However, following the stoning of Stephen, who saw Jesus as the Son of Man, we see the gospel beginning to widen out to the Gentiles.
Chapter 8 is the great evangelical chapter. Here we get the preaching of Christ by Philip in Samaria, in "the fields . . . white already to harvest". John 4:35. From this busy field he was called away to preach to the Ethiopian. Philip, too, was one of the deacons who earned for himself a good degree. The Ethiopian had been to Jerusalem but had not found blessing there. The death of Stephen had changed the centre of interest from earth to heaven, and now all men were to be included in the harvest field. He is the first case selected to demonstrate this new move, and in the next chapter Paul also is apprehended. Then comes the centurion in chapter 10. Thus in chapter 8 we see a son of Ham brought in; in chapter 9 a son of Shem, and in chapter 10 a son of Japheth. This is the order in Gen. 9:25-27, and it is important to see this. All is the outcome of the fact that, as Stephen saw, the Son of Man is at the right hand of God, and is now putting His hand on the whole world for God. It is coming to light that the church has no centre on earth, its centre is where Christ is at the right hand of God. The death of Stephen formed a landmark in the testimony. He travailed in birth, and another is brought forth to carry on this testimony and take it to the Gentiles, for it is at this point Saul comes to light. If Stephen beheld Christ as the centre of the glory, it was at the moment he himself was to enter that scene. Saul was yet to behold the Lord in that glory and then to come out here to suffer for Him. The beginning of the preaching of Saul (afterwards Paul) testified that Christ was the Son of God. Peter had made Him known as the exalted One, Lord and Christ, Prophet, Priest and King. Stephen went further and proclaimed Him as Son of Man. Paul goes yet further and preaches Him as Son of God in the glory of God.
It is interesting to note some of the events in the conversion of Cornelius. Christ is presented "Lord of all". Note the Lord uses angels in some cases, namely chapter 8 and chapter 10, but in the case of Saul He comes forth Himself in the display of His glory to him. It fits exactly with Gen. 9 and the whole surroundings are so arranged to link up the past with the future. Shem, who is the richest in blessing comes into that place by seeing the glorified One, and if then made the medium of blessing to both Ham and Japheth. It should be seen that the cross is the theme of chapter 8; Philip identified the Lamb there with Jesus. With Saul it was the glory; and this as we know gave character to his ministry. We see the wisdom of God in all this, preparing the way for the carrying out of His wider thoughts to bring all into blessing. Hence Peter is sent to Cornelius to open the kingdom and the way is opened for Paul to go out to the Gentiles. All this is clearly seen in chapter 15 in the discussion which came about by the threatened division. The keys must have been different in character. The testimony to the Jews was that the One they had crucified was exalted to the highest place and made Lord and Christ; the One they had rejected was now made the Head of the corner, Prophet, Priest and King. To the Gentile the testimony is, Jesus of Nazareth is the One Who is Lord of all. For this Peter needed the lesson of the sheet let down from heaven, and which was knit at the four corners.
Chapters 11 and 12 lead to the end of the activities of Peter so far as the record in Acts is concerned. We read now of the church at Antioch, and the chapters we have considered show the testimony travelling from Jerusalem to that city. The apostles did not leave Jerusalem when the persecution arose at the stoning of Stephen, so the planting of the church at Antioch was in the hands of laymen. This became a kind of Gentile centre, and it was from here the Spirit sent Paul and Barnabas to the work of evangelising the Gentiles as we read in chapter 13. We do well to take note of these things. At the beginning when the assembly was formed on earth, the work was in the hands of simple men of no standing as regards this world, but men who had been with Jesus. It is just like that at the end. Has not the Lord turned aside from the official class in these days and brought out the range of truth we are enjoying today? What is needed for the saints has travelled far and wide. On the other hand it is sad to note that the official class, who have taken the place of being ministers of the things of God, are opposing the very things their profession calls them to unfold. What of us who are moving towards the end? Do we seek the mind of the Lord as to these things, and do we seek in our day to treasure the truths graciously recovered for us in the ministry?
May we have grace to acquit ourselves in this day so that when we are called to leave the scene of labour, we may meet with joy those men who laboured at the beginning, and that, with a measure of faithfulness like unto theirs, we may rejoice together in the presence of the Master. As we serve Him today may we remember that our service is developing us for a greater and higher range of service in the day when the Lord of Lords and King of Kings takes His place publicly as the Son of Man at the head of the creation which He will fill with the glory of God.