But the great disqualification is the absence of all consciousness of sin. This is the very deepest reason which keeps men away from Christ.
How solemn a thing the preaching and hearing of this word is!
How possible for you to make yourselves fit!
How simple the qualification! We have but to know ourselves sinners and to trust Jesus and then we 'shall be counted worthy to obtain that world and the resurrection from the dead.' Then we shall be 'worthy to escape and to stand before the Son of Man.' Then shall we be 'worthy of this calling,' and the Judge himself shall say: 'They shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy.'
'FULL OF THE HOLY GHOST'
'And the disciples were filled with joy, and with the Holy Ghost.'—Acts xiii. 52.
That joy was as strange as a garden full of flowers would be in bitter winter weather. For everything in the circumstances of these disciples tended to make them sad. They had been but just won from heathenism, and they were raw, ignorant, unfit to stand alone. Paul and Barnabas, their only guides, had been hunted out of Antioch by a mob, and it would have been no wonder if these disciples had felt as if they had been taken on to the ice and then left, when they most needed a hand to steady them. Luke emphasises the contrast between what might have been expected, and what was actually the case, by that eloquent 'and' at the beginning of our verse, which links together the departure of the Apostles and the joy of the disciples. But the next words explain the paradox. These new converts, left in a great heathen city, with no helpers, no guides, to work out as best they might a faith of which they had but newly received the barest rudiments, were 'full of joy' because they were 'full of the Holy Ghost.'
Now that latter phrase, so striking here, is characteristic of this book of the Acts, and especially of its earlier chapters, which are all, as it were, throbbing with wonder at the new gift which Pentecost had brought. Let me for a moment, in the briefest possible fashion, try to recall to you the instances of its occurrence, for they are very significant and very important.
You remember how at Pentecost 'all' the disciples were 'filled with the Holy Ghost.' Then when the first persecution broke over the Church, Peter before the Council is 'filled with the Holy Spirit,' and therefore he beards them, and 'speaks with all boldness.' When he goes back to the Church and tells them of the threatening cloud that was hanging over them, they too are filled with the Holy Spirit, and therefore rise buoyantly upon the tossing wave, as a ship might do when it passes the bar and meets the heaving sea. Then again the Apostles lay down the qualifications for election to the so-called office of deacon as being that the men should be 'full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom'; and in accordance therewith, we read of the first of the seven, Stephen, that he was 'full of faith and of the Holy Ghost,' and therefore 'full of grace and power.' When he stood before the Council he was 'full of the Holy Ghost,' and therefore looked up into heaven and saw it opened, and the Christ standing ready to help him. In like manner we read of Barnabas that he 'was a good man, full of the Holy Ghost and of faith.' And finally we read in our text that these new converts, left alone in Antioch of Pisidia, were 'full of joy and of the Holy Ghost.'
Now these are the principal instances, and my purpose now is rather to deal with the whole of these instances of the occurrence of this remarkable expression than with the one which I have selected as a text, because I think that they teach us great truths bearing very closely on the strength and joyfulness of the Christian life which are far too much neglected, obscured, and forgotten by us to-day.
I wish then to point you, first, to the solemn thought that is here, as to what should be—
I. The experience of every Christian,
Note the two things, the universality and the abundance of this divine gift. I have often had occasion to say to you, and so I merely repeat it again in the briefest fashion, that we do not grasp the central blessedness of the Christian faith unless, beyond forgiveness and acceptance, beyond the mere putting away of the dread of punishment either here or hereafter, we see that the gift of God in Jesus Christ is the communication to every believing soul of that divine life which is bestowed by the Spirit of Christ granted to every believing heart. But I would have you notice how the universality of the gift is unmistakably taught us by the instances which I have briefly gathered together in my previous remarks. It was no official class on which, on the day of Pentecost, the tongues of fire fluttered down. It was to the whole Church that courage to front the persecutor was imparted. When in Samaria the preaching of Philip brought about the result of the communication of the Holy Spirit, it was to all the believers that it was granted, and when, in the Roman barracks at Caesarea, Cornelius and his companion listened to Peter, it was upon them all that that Divine Spirit descended.
I suppose I need not remind you of how, if we pass beyond this book of the Acts into the Epistles of Paul, his affirmations do most emphatically insist upon the fact that 'we are all made to drink into one Spirit'; and so convinced is he of the universality of the possession of that divine life by every Christian, that he does not hesitate to say that 'if any man have not the Spirit of Christ he is none of His,' and to clear away all possibility of misunderstanding the depth and wonderfulness of the gift, he further adds in another place, 'Know ye not that the Spirit is in you, except ye be reprobates?' Similarly another of the New Testament writers declares, in the broadest terms, that 'this spake he of the Holy Spirit, which'—Apostles? no; office-bearers? no; ordained men? no; distinguished and leading men? No—'they that believe on Him should receive.' Christianity is the true democracy, because it declares that upon all, handmaidens and servants, young men and old men, there comes the divine gift. The world thinks of a divine inspiration in a more or less superficial fashion, as touching only the lofty summits, the great thinkers and teachers and artists and mighty men of light and leading of the race. The Old Testament regarded prophets and kings, and those who were designated to important offices, as the possessors of the Divine Spirit. But Christianity has seen the sun rising so high in the heavens that the humblest floweret, in the deepest valley, basks in its beams and opens to its light. 'We have all been made to drink into the one Spirit.'
Let me remind you too of how, from the usage of this book, as well as from the rest of the New Testament teaching, there rises the other thought of the abundance of the gift. 'Full of the Holy Spirit'—the cup is brimming with generous wine. Not that that fulness is such as to make inconsistencies impossible, as, alas, the best of us know. The highest condition for us is laid down in the sad words which yet have triumph in their sadness—'The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.' But whilst the fulness is not such as to exclude the need of conflict, it is such as to bring the certainty of victory.
Again if we turn to the instances to which I have already referred, we shall find that they fall into two classes, which are distinguished in the original by a slight variation in the form of the words employed. Some instances refer to a habitual possession of an abundant spiritual life moulding the character constantly, as in the cases of Stephen and Barnabas. Others refer rather to occasional and special influxes of special power on account of special circumstances, and drawn forth by special exigencies, as when there poured into Peter's heart the Divine Spirit that made him bold before the Council; or as when the dying martyr's spirit was flooded with a new clearness of vision that pierced the heavens and beheld the Christ. So then there may be and ought to be, in each of us, a fulness of the Spirit, up to the edge of our capacity, and yet of such a kind as that it may be reinforced and increased when special needs arise.
Not only so, but that which fills me to-day should not fill me to- morrow, because, as in earthly love, so in heavenly, no man can tell to what this thing shall grow. The more of fruition the more there will be of expansion, and the more of expansion the more of desire, and the more of desire the more of capacity, and the more of capacity the more of possession. So, brethren, the man who receives a spark of the divine life, through his most rudimentary and tremulous faith, if he is a faithful steward of the gift that is given to him, will find that it grows and grows, and that there is no limit to its growth, and that in its limitless growth there lies the surest prophecy of an eternal growth in the heavens.
A universal gift, that is to say, a gift to each of us if we are Christians, an abundant gift that fills the whole nature of a man, according to the measure of his present power to receive—that is the ideal, that is what God means, that is what these first believers had. It did not make them perfect, it did not save them from faults or from errors, but it was real, it was influential, it was moulding their characters, it was progressive. And that is the ideal for all Christians. Is it our actual? We are meant to be full of the Holy Ghost. Ah! how many of us have never realised that there is such a thing as being thus possessed with a divine life, partly because we do not understand that such a fulness will not be distinguishable from our own self, except by bettering of the works of self, and partly because of other reasons which I shall have to touch upon presently! Brethren, we may, every one of us, be filled with the Spirit. Let each of us ask, 'Am I? and if I am not, why this emptiness in the presence of such abundance?'
And now let me ask you to look, in the second place, at what we gather from these instances as to—
II. The results of that universal, abundant life.
Do not let us run away with the idea that the New Testament, or any part of it, regards miracles and tongues and the like as being the normal and chiefest gifts of that Divine Spirit. People read this book of the Acts of the Apostles and, averse from the supernatural, exaggerate the extent to which the primitive gift of the Holy Spirit was manifested by signs and wonders, tongues of fire, and so on. We have only to look at the instances to which I have already referred to see that far more lofty and far more conspicuous than any such external and transient manifestations, which yet have their place, are the permanent and inward results, moulding character, and making men. And Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians goes as far in the way of setting the moral and spiritual effects of the divine influence above the merely miraculous and external ones, as the most advanced opponent of the supernatural could desire.
Let us look, and it can only be briefly, at the various results which are presented in the instances to which I have referred. The most general expression for all, which is the result of the Divine Spirit dwelling in a man, is that it makes him good. Look at one of the instances to which we have referred. 'Barnabas was a good man'—was he? How came he to be so? Because he was 'full of the Holy Ghost.' And how came he to be 'full of the Holy Ghost'? Because he was 'full of faith.' Get the divine life into you, and that will make you good; and, brethren, nothing else will. It is like the bottom heat in a green-house, which makes all the plants that are there, whatever their orders, grow and blossom and be healthy and strong. Therein is the difference between Christian morality and the world's ethics. They may not differ much, they do in some respects, in their ideal of what constitutes goodness, but they differ in this, that the one says, 'Be good, be good, be good!' but, like the Pharisees of old, puts out not a finger to help a man to bear the burdens that it lays upon him. The other says, 'Be good,' but it also says, 'take this and it will make you good.' And so the one is Gospel and the other is talk, the one is a word of good tidings, and the other is a beautiful speculation, or a crushing commandment that brings death rather than life. 'If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness had been by the law.' But since the clearest laying down of duty brings us no nearer to the performance of duty, we need and, thank God! we have, a gift bestowed which invests with power. He in whom the 'Spirit of Holiness' dwells, and he alone, will be holy. The result of the life of God in the heart is a life growingly like God's, manifested in the world.
Then again let me remind you of how, from another of our instances, there comes another thought. The result of this majestic, supernatural, universal, abundant, divine life is practical sagacity in the commonest affairs of life. 'Look ye out from among you seven men, full of the Holy Ghost and of wisdom.' What to do? To meet wisely the claims of suspicious and jealous poverty, and to distribute fairly a little money. That was all. And are you going to invoke such a lofty gift as this, to do nothing grander than that? Yes. Gravitation holds planets in their orbits, and keeps grains of dust in their places. And one result of the inspiration of the Almighty, which is granted to Christian people, is that they will be wise for the little affairs of life. But Stephen was also 'full of grace and power,' two things that do not often go together—grace, gentleness, loveliness, graciousness, on the one side, and strength on the other, which divorced, make wild work of character, and which united, make men like God. So if we desire our lives to be full of sweetness and light and beauty, the best way is to get the life of Christ into them; and if we desire our lives not to be made placid and effeminate by our cult of graciousness and gracefulness, but to have their beauty stiffened and strengthened by manly energy, then the best way is to get the life of the 'strong Son of God, immortal love,' into our lives.
The same Stephen, 'full of the Holy Ghost,' looked up into heaven and saw the Christ. So one result of that abundant life, if we have it, will be that even though as with him, when he saw the heavens opened, there may be some smoke-darkened roof above our heads, we can look through all the shows of this vain world, and our purged eyes can behold the Christ. Again the disciples in our text 'were full of joy,' because 'they were full of the Holy Spirit,' and we, if we have that abundant life within us, shall not be dependent for our gladness on the outer world, but like explorers in the Arctic regions, even if we have to build a hut of snow, shall be warm within it when the thermometer is far below zero; and there will be light there when the long midnight is spread around the dwelling. So, dear friends, let us understand what is the main thing for a Christian to endeavour after,—not so much the cultivation of special graces as the deepening of the life of Christ in the spirit.
We gather from some of these instances—
III. The way by which we may be thus filled.
We read that Stephen was 'full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,' and that Barnabas was 'full of the Holy Ghost and of faith,' and it is quite clear from the respective contexts that, though the order in which these fulnesses are placed is different in the two clauses, their relation to each other is the same. Faith is the condition of possessing the Spirit. And what do we mean in this connection by faith? I mean, first, a belief in the truth of the possible abiding of the divine Spirit in our spirits, a truth which the superficial Christianity of this generation sorely needs to have forced upon its consciousness far more than it has it. I mean aspiration and desire after; I mean confident expectation of. Your wish measures your possession. You have as much of God as you desire. If you have no more, it is because you do not desire any more. The Christian people of to-day, many of whom are so empty of God, are in a very tragic sense, 'full,' because they have as much as they can take in. If you bring a tiny cup, and do not much care whether anything pours into it or not, you will get it filled, but you might have had a gallon vessel filled if you had chosen to bring it. Of course there are other conditions too. We have to use the life that is given us. We have to see that we do not quench it by sin, which drives the dove of God from a man's heart. But the great truth is that if I open the door of my heart by faith, Christ will come in, in His Spirit. If I take away the blinds the light will shine into the chamber. If I lift the sluice the water will pour in to drive my mill. If I deepen the channels, more of the water of life can flow into them, and the deeper I make them the fuller they will be.
Brethren, we have wasted much time and effort in trying to mend our characters. Let us try to get that into them which will mend them. And let us remember that, if we are full of faith, we shall be full of the Holy Spirit, and therefore full of wisdom, full of grace and power, full of goodness, full of joy, whatever our circumstances. And when death comes, though it may be in some cruel form, we shall be able to look up and see the opened heavens and the welcoming Christ.
DEIFIED AND STONED
'And when the people saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in the speech of Lycaonia, The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men. 12. And they called Barnabas, Jupiter; and Paul, Mercurius, because he was the chief speaker. 13. Then the priest of Jupiter, which was before their city, brought oxen and garlands unto the gates, and would have done sacrifice with the people. 14. Which when the apostles, Barnabas and Paul, heard of, they rent their clothes, and ran in among the people, crying out. 15. And saying, Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you, and preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein: 16. Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways. 17. Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness. 18. And with these sayings scarce restrained they the people, that they had not done sacrifice unto them. 19. And there came thither certain Jews from Antioch and Iconium, who persuaded the people, and, having stoned Paul, drew him out of the city, supposing he had been dead. 20. Howbeit, as the disciples stood round about him, he rose up, and came into the city: and the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe. 21. And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch. 22. Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.'—ACTS xiv. 11-22.
The scene at Lystra offers a striking instance of the impossibility of eliminating the miraculous element from this book. The cure of a lame man is the starting-point of the whole story. Without it the rest is motiveless and inexplicable. There can be no explosion without a train and a fuse. The miracle, and the miracle only, supplies these. We may choose between believing and disbelieving it, but the rejection of the supernatural does not make this book easier to accept, but utterly chaotic.
I. We have, first, the burst of excited wonder which floods the crowd with the conviction that the two Apostles are incarnations of deities. It is difficult to grasp the indications of locality in the story, but probably the miracle was wrought in some crowded place, perhaps the forum. At all events, it was in full view of 'the multitudes,' and they were mostly of the lower orders, as their speaking in 'the speech of Lycaonia' suggests.
This half-barbarous crowd had the ancient faith in the gods unweakened, and the legends, which had become dim to pure Greek and Roman, some of which had originated in their immediate neighbourhood, still found full credence among them. A Jew's first thought on seeing a miracle was, 'by the prince of the devils'; an average Greek's or Roman's was 'sorcery'; these simple people's, like many barbarous tribes to which white men have gone with the marvels of modern science, was 'the gods have come down'; our modern superior person's, on reading of one, is 'hallucination,' or 'a mistake of an excited imagination.' Perhaps the cry of the multitudes at Lystra gets nearer the heart of the thing than those others. For the miracle is a witness of present divine power, and though the worker of it is not an incarnation of divinity, 'God is with him.'
But that joyful conviction, which shot through the crowd, reveals how deep lies the longing for the manifestation of divinity in the form of humanity, and how natural it is to believe that, if there is a divine being, he is sure to draw near to us poor men, and that in our own likeness. Then is the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation but one more of the many reachings out of the heart to paint a fair picture of the fulfilment of its longings? Well, since it is the only such that is alleged to have taken place in historic times, and the only one that comes with any body of historic evidence, and the only one that brings with it transforming power, and since to believe in a God, and also to believe that He has never broken the awful silence, nor done anything to fulfil a craving which He has set in men's hearts, is absurd, it is reasonable to answer, No. 'The gods are come down in the likeness of men' is a wistful confession of need, and a dim hope of its supply. 'The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us' is the supply.
Barnabas was the older man, and his very silence suggested his superior dignity. So he was taken for Jupiter (Zeus in the Greek), and the younger man for his inferior, Mercury (Hermes in the Greek), 'the messenger of the gods.' Clearly the two missionaries did not understand what the multitudes were shouting in their 'barbarous' language, or they would have intervened. Perhaps they had left the spot before the excitement rose to its height, for they knew nothing of the preparations for the sacrifice till they 'heard of it, and then they 'sprang forth,' which implies that they were within some place, possibly their lodging.
If we could be sure what 'gates' are meant in verse 13, the course of events would be plainer. Were they those of the city, in which case the priest and procession would be coming from the temple outside the walls? or those of the temple itself? or those of the Apostles' lodging? Opinions differ, and the material for deciding is lacking. At all events, whether from sharing in the crowd's enthusiasm, or with an eye to the reputation of his shrine, the priest hurriedly procured oxen for a sacrifice, which one reading of the text specifies as an 'additional' offering—that is, over and above the statutory sacrifices. Is it a sign of haste that the 'garlands,' which should have been twined round the oxen's horns, are mentioned separately? If so, we get a lively picture of the exultant hurry of the crowd.
II. The Apostles are as deeply moved as the multitude is, but by what different emotions! The horror of idolatry, which was their inheritance from a hundred generations, flamed up at the thought of themselves being made objects of worship. They had met many different sorts of receptions on this journey, but never before anything like this. Opposition and threats left them calm, but this stirred them to the depths. 'Scoff at us, fight with us, maltreat us, and we will endure; but do not make gods of us.' I do not know that their 'successors' have always felt exactly so.
In verse 14 Barnabas is named first, contrary to the order prevailing since Paphos, the reason being that the crowd thought him the superior. The remonstrance ascribed to both, but no doubt spoken by Paul, contains nothing that any earnest monotheist, Jew or Gentile philosopher, might not have said. The purpose of it was not to preach Christ, but to stop the sacrifice. It is simply a vehemently earnest protest against idolatry, and a proclamation of one living God. The comparison with the speech in Athens is interesting, as showing Paul's exquisite felicity in adapting his style to his audience. There is nothing to the peasants of Lycaonia about poets, no argumentation about the degradation of the idea of divinity by taking images as its likeness, no wide view of the course of history, no glimpse of the mystic thought that all creatures live and move in Him. All that might suit the delicate ears of Athenians, but would have been wasted in Lystra amidst the tumultuous crowd. But we have instead of these the fearless assertion, flung in the face of the priest of Jupiter, that idols are 'vanities,' as Paul had learned from Isaiah and Jeremiah; the plain declaration of the one God, 'living,' and not like these inanimate images; of His universal creative power; and the earnest exhortation to turn to Him.
In verse 16 Paul meets an objection which rises in his mind as likely to be springing in his hearers: 'If there is such a God, why have we never heard of Him till now?' That is quite in Paul's manner. The answer is undeveloped, as compared with the Athenian address or with Romans i. But there is couched in verse 16 a tacit contrast between 'the generations gone by' and the present, which is drawn out in the speech on Mars Hill: 'but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent,' and also a contrast between the 'nations' left to walk in their own ways, and Israel to whom revelation had been made. The place and the temper of the listeners did not admit of enlarging on such matters.
But there was a plain fact, which was level to every peasant's apprehension, and might strike home to the rustic crowd. God had left 'the nations to walk in their own ways,' and yet not altogether. That thought is wrought out in Romans i., and the difference between its development there and here is instructive. Beneficence is the sign-manual of heaven. The orderly sequence of the seasons, the rain from heaven, the seat of the gods from which the two Apostles were thought to have come down, the yearly miracle of harvest, and the gladness that it brings—all these are witnesses to a living Person moving the processes of the universe towards a beneficent end for man.
In spite of all modern impugners, it still remains true that the phenomena of 'nature,' their continuity, their co-operation, and their beneficent issues, demand the recognition of a Person with a loving purpose moving them all. 'Thou crownest the year with Thy goodness; and Thy paths drop fatness.'
III. The malice of the Jews of Antioch is remarkable. Not content with hounding the Apostles from that city, they came raging after them to Lystra, where there does not appear to have been a synagogue, since we hear only of their stirring up the 'multitudes.' The mantle of Saul had fallen on them, and they were now 'persecuting' him 'even unto strange cities.'
No note is given of the time between the attempted sacrifice and the accomplished stoning, but probably some space intervened. Persuading the multitudes, however fickle they were, would take some time; and indeed one ancient text of Acts has an expansion of the verse: 'They persuaded the multitudes to depart from them [the Apostles], saying that they spake nothing true, but lied in everything.'
No doubt some time elapsed, but few emotions are more transient than such impure religious excitement as the crowd had felt, and the ebb is as great as the flood, and the oozy bottom laid bare is foul. Popular favourites in other departments have to experience the same fate—one day, 'roses, roses, all the way'; the next, rotten eggs and curses. Other folks than the ignorant peasants at Lystra have had devout emotion surging over them and leaving them dry.
Who are 'they' who stoned Paul? Grammatically, the Jews, and probably it was so. They hated him so much that they themselves began the stoning; but no doubt the mob, which is always cruel, because it needs strong excitement, lent willing hands. Did Paul remember Stephen, as the stones came whizzing on him? It is an added touch of brutality that they dragged the supposed corpse out of the city, with no gentle hands, we may be sure. Perhaps it was flung down near the very temple 'before the city,' where the priest that wanted to sacrifice was on duty.
The crowd, having wreaked their vengeance, melted away, but a handful of brave disciples remained, standing round the bruised, unconscious form, ready to lay it tenderly in some hastily dug grave. No previous mention of disciples has been made. The narrative of Acts does not profess to be complete, and the argument from its silence is precarious.
Luke shows no disposition to easy belief in miracles. He does not know that Paul was dead; his medical skill familiarised him with protracted states of unconsciousness; so all he vouches for is that Paul lay as if dead on some rubbish heap 'without the camp,' and that, with courage and persistence which were supernatural, whether his reviving was so or not, the man thus sorely battered went back to the city, and next day went on with his work, as if stoning was a trifle not to be taken account of.
The Apostles turned at Derbe, and coming back on their outward route, reached Antioch, encouraging the new disciples, who had now to be left truly like shepherdless sheep among wolves. They did not encourage them by making light of the dangers waiting them, but they plainly set before them the law of the Kingdom, which they had seen exemplified in Paul, that we must suffer if we would reign with the King. That 'we' in verse 22 is evidently quoted from Paul, and touchingly shows how he pointed to his own stoning as what they too must be prepared to suffer. It is a thought frequently recurring in his letters. It remains true in all ages, though the manner of suffering varies.
DREAM AND REALITY
'The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men.' —ACTS xiv. 11.
This was the spontaneous instinctive utterance of simple villagers when they saw a deed of power and kindness. Many an English traveller and settler among rude people has been similarly honoured. And in Lycaonia the Apostles were close upon places that were celebrated in Greek mythology as having witnessed the very two gods, here spoken of, wandering among the shepherds and entertained with modest hospitality in their huts.
The incident is a very striking and picturesque one. The shepherd people standing round, the sudden flash of awe and yet of gladness which ran through them, the tumultuous outcry, which, being in their rude dialect, was unintelligible to the Apostles till it was interpreted by the appearance of the priest of Jupiter with oxen and garlands for offerings, the glimpse of the two Apostles—the older, graver, venerable Barnabas, the younger, more active, ready-tongued Paul, whom their imaginations converted into the Father of gods and men, and the herald Mercury, who were already associated in local legends; the priest, eager to gain credit for his temple 'before the city,' the lowing oxen, and the vehement appeal of the Apostles, make a picture which is more vividly presented in the simple narrative than even in the cartoon of the great painter whom the narrative has inspired.
But we have not to deal with the picturesque element alone. The narratives of Scripture are representative because they are so penetrating and true. They go to the very heart of the men and things which they describe: and hence the words and acts which they record are found to contain the essential characteristics of whole classes of men, and the portrait of an individual becomes that of a class. This joyful outburst of the people of Lycaonia gives utterance to one of the most striking and universal convictions of heathenism, and stands in very close and intimate relations with that greatest of all facts in the history of the world, the Incarnation of the Eternal Word. That the gods come down in the likeness of men is the dream of heathenism. 'The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,' is the sober, waking truth which meets and vindicates and transcends that cry.
I. The heathen dream of incarnation.
In all lands we find this belief in the appearance of the gods in human form. It inspired the art and poetry of Greece. Rome believed that gods had charged in front of their armies and given their laws. The solemn, gloomy religion of Egypt, though it worshipped animal forms, yet told of incarnate and suffering gods. The labyrinthine mythologies of the East have their long-drawn stories of the avatars of their gods floating many a rood on the weltering ocean of their legends. Tibet cherishes each living sovereign as a real embodiment of the divine. And the lowest tribes, in their degraded worship, have not departed so far from the common type but that they too have some faint echoes of the universal faith.
Do these facts import anything at all to us? Are we to dismiss them as simply the products of a stage which we have left far behind, and to plume ourselves that we have passed out of the twilight?
Even if we listen to what comparative mythology has to say, it still remains to account for the tendency to shape legends of the earthly appearance of the gods; and we shall have to admit that, while they belong to an early stage of the world's progress, the feelings which they express belong to all stages of it.
Now I think we may note these thoughts as contained in this universal belief:
The consciousness of the need of divine help.
The certainty of a fellowship between heaven and earth.
The high ideal of the capacities and affinities of man.
We may note further what were the general characteristics of these incarnations. They were transient, they were 'docetic,' as they are called—that is, they were merely apparent assumptions of human form which brought the god into no nearer or truer kindred with humanity, and they were, for the most part, for very self-regarding and often most immoral ends, the god's personal gratification of very ungodlike passions and lust, or his winning victories for his favourites, or satisfying his anger by trampling on those who had incurred his very human wrath.
II. The divine answer which transcends the human dream.
We have to insist that the truth of the Incarnation is the corner- stone of Christianity. If that is struck out the whole fabric falls. Without it there may be a Christ who is the loftiest and greatest of men, but not the Christ who 'saves His people from their sins.'
That being so, and Christianity having this feature in common with all the religions of men, how are we to account for the resemblance? Are we to listen to the rude solution which says, 'All lies alike'? Are we to see in it nothing but the operation of like tendencies, or rather illusions, of human thought—man's own shadow projected on an illuminated mist? Are we to let the resemblance discredit the Christian message? Or are we to say that all these others are unconscious prophecies—man's half-instinctive expression of his deep need and much misunderstood longing, and that the Christian proclamation that Jesus is 'God manifest in the flesh' is the trumpet-toned announcement of Heaven's answer to earth's cry?
Fairly to face that question is to go far towards answering it. For as soon as we begin to look steadily at the facts, we find that the differences between all these other appearances and the Incarnation are so great as to raise the presumption that their origins are different. The 'gods' slipped on the appearance of humanity over their garment of deity in appearance only, and that for a moment. Jesus is 'bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh,' and is not merely 'found in fashion as a man,' but is 'in all points like as we are.' And that garb of manhood He wears for ever, and in His heavenly glory is 'the Man Christ Jesus.'
But the difference between all these other appearances of gods and the Incarnation lies in the acts to which they and it respectively led, and the purposes for which they and it respectively took place. A god who came down to suffer, a god who came to die, a god who came to be the supreme example of all fair humanities, a god who came to suffer and to die that men might have life and be victors over sin— where is he in all the religions of the world? And does not the fact that Christianity alone sets before men such a God, such an Incarnation, for such ends, make the assertion a reasonable one, that the sources of the universal belief in gods who come down among men and of the Christian proclamation that the Eternal Word became flesh are not the same, but that these are men's half-understood cries, and this is Heaven's answer?
'THE DOOR OF FAITH'
'And when they were come, and had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles.'—ACTS xiv. 27.
There are many instances of the occurrence of this metaphor in the New Testament, but none is exactly like this. We read, for example, of 'a great door and effectual' being opened to Paul for the free ministry of the word; and to the angel of the Church in Philadelphia, 'He that openeth and none shall shut' graciously says, 'I have set before thee a door opened, which none can shut.' But here the door is faith, that is to say faith is conceived of as the means of entrance for the Gentiles into the Kingdom, which, till then, Jews had supposed to be entered by hereditary rite.
I. Faith is the means of our entrance into the Kingdom.
The Jew thought that birth and the rite of circumcision were the door, but the 'rehearsing' of the experiences of Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary tour shattered that notion by the logic of facts. Instead of that narrow postern another doorway had been broken in the wall of the heavenly city, and it was wide enough to admit of multitudes entering. Gentiles had plainly come in. How had they come in? By believing in Jesus. Whatever became of previous exclusive theories, there was a fact that had to be taken into account. It distinctly proved that faith was 'the gate of the Lord into which,' not the circumcised but the 'righteous,' who were righteous because believing, 'should enter.'
We must not forget the other use of the metaphor, by our Lord Himself, in which. He declares that He is the Door. The two representations are varying but entirely harmonious, for the one refers to the objective fact of Christ's work as making it possible that we should draw near to and dwell with God, and the other to our subjective appropriation of that possibility, and making it a reality in our own blessed experience.
II. Faith is the means of God's entrance into our hearts.
We possess the mysterious and awful power of shutting God out of these hearts. And faith, which in one aspect is our means of entrance into the Kingdom of God, is, in another, the means of God's entrance into us. The Psalm, which invokes the divine presence in the Temple, calls on the 'everlasting doors' to be 'lifted up,' and promises that then 'the King of Glory will come in.' And the voice of the ascended Christ, the King of Glory, knocking at the closed door, calls on us with our own hands to open the door, and promises that He 'will come in.'
Paul prayed for the Ephesian Christians 'that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith,' and there is no other way by which His indwelling is possible. Faith is not constituted the condition of that divine indwelling by any arbitrary appointment, as a sovereign might determine that he would enter a city by a certain route, chosen without any special reason from amongst many, but in the nature of things it is necessary that trust, and love which follows trust, and longing which follows love should be active in a soul if Christ is to enter in and abide there.
III. Faith is the means of the entrance of the Kingdom into us.
If Christ comes in He comes with His pierced hands full of gifts. Through our faith we receive all spiritual blessings. But we must ever remember, what this metaphor most forcibly sets forth, that faith is but the means of entrance. It has no worth in itself, but is precious only because it admits the true wealth. The door is nothing. It is only an opening. Faith is the pipe that brings the water, the flinging wide the shutters that the light may flood the dark room, the putting oneself into the path of the electric circuit. Salvation is not arbitrarily connected with faith. It is not the reward of faith but the possession of what comes through faith, and cannot come in any other way. Our 'hearts' are 'purified by faith,' because faith admits into our hearts the life, and instals as dominant in them the powers, the motives, the Spirit, which purify. We are 'saved by faith,' for faith brings into our spirits the Christ who saves His people from their sins, when He abides in them and they abide in Him through their faith.
THE BREAKING OUT OF DISCORD
'And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. 2. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. 3. And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. 4. And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. 5. But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. 6. And the apostles and elders came together 'for to consider of this matter.'—ACTS xv. 1-6.
The question as to the conditions on which Gentiles could be received into Christian communion had already been raised by the case of Cornelius, but it became more acute after Paul's missionary journey. The struggle between the narrower and broader views was bound to come to a head. Traces of the cleft between Palestinian and Hellenist believers had appeared as far back as the 'murmuring' about the unfair neglect of the Hellenist widows in the distribution of relief, and the whole drift of things since had been to widen the gap.
Whether the 'certain men' had a mission to the Church in Antioch or not, they had no mandate to lay down the law as they did. Luke delicately suggests this by saying that they 'came down from Judaea,' rather than from Jerusalem. We should be fair to these men, and remember how much they had to say in defence of their position. They did not question that Gentiles could be received into the Church, but 'kept on teaching' (as the word in the Greek implies) that the divinely appointed ordinance of circumcision was the 'door' of entrance. God had prescribed it, and through all the centuries since Moses, all who came into the fold of Israel had gone in by that gate. Where was the commandment to set it aside? Was not Paul teaching men to climb up some other way, and so blasphemously abrogating a divine law?
No wonder that honest believers in Jesus as Messiah shrank with horror from such a revolutionary procedure. The fact that they were Palestinian Jews, who had never had their exclusiveness rubbed off, as Hellenists like Paul and Barnabas had had, explains, and to some extent excuses, their position. And yet their contention struck a fatal blow at the faith, little as they meant it. Paul saw what they did not see—that if anything else than faith was brought in as necessary to knit men to Christ, and make them partakers of salvation, faith was deposed from its place, and Christianity sank back to be a religion of 'works.' Experience has proved that anything whatever introduced as associated with faith ejects faith from its place, and comes to be recognised as the means of salvation. It must be faith or circumcision, it cannot be faith and circumcision. The lesson is needed to-day as much as in Antioch. The controversy started then is a perennial one, and the Church of the present needs Paul's exhortation, 'Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.'
The obvious course of appealing to Jerusalem was taken, and it is noteworthy that in verse 2 the verb 'appointed' has no specified subject. Plainly, however, it was the Church which acted, and so natural did that seem to Luke that he felt it unnecessary to say so. No doubt Paul concurred, but the suggestion is not said to have come from him. He and Barnabas might have asserted their authority, and declined to submit what they had done by the Spirit's guidance to the decision of the Apostles, but they seek the things that make for peace.
No doubt the other side was represented in the deputation. Jerusalem was the centre of unity, and remained so till its fall. The Apostles and elders were the recognised leaders of the Church. Elders here appear as holding a position of authority; the only previous mention of them is in Acts xi. 30, where they receive the alms sent from Antioch. It is significant that we do not hear of their first appointment. The organisation of the Church took shape as exigencies prescribed.
The deputation left Antioch, escorted lovingly for a little way by the Church, and, journeying by land, gladdened the groups of believers in 'Phenicia and Samaria' with the news that the Gentiles were turning to God. We note that they are not said to have spoken of the thorny question in these countries, and that it is not said that there was joy in Judaea. Perhaps the Christians in it were in sympathy with the narrower view.
The first step taken in Jerusalem was to call a meeting of the Church to welcome the deputation. It is significant that the latter did not broach the question in debate, but told the story of the success of their mission. That was the best argument for receiving Gentile converts without circumcision. God had received them; should not the Church do so? Facts are stronger than theories. It was Peter's argument in the case of Cornelius: they 'have received the Holy Ghost as well as we,' 'who was I, that I could withstand God?' It is the argument which shatters all analogous narrowing of the conditions of Christian life. If men say, 'Except ye be' this or that 'ye cannot be saved,' it is enough to point to the fruits of Christian character, and say, 'These show that the souls which bring them forth are saved, and you must widen your conceptions of the possibilities to include these actualities.' It is vain to say 'Ye cannot be' when manifestly they are.
But the logic of facts does not convince obstinate theorists, and so the Judaising party persisted in their 'It is needful to circumcise them.' None are so blind as those to whom religion is mainly a matter of ritual. You may display the fairest graces of Christian character before them, and you get no answer but the reiteration of 'It is needful to circumcise you.' But on their own ground, in Jerusalem, the spokesmen of that party enlarged their demands. In Antioch they had insisted on circumcision, in Jerusalem they added the demand for entire conformity to the Mosaic law. They were quite logical; their principle demanded that extension of the requirement, and was thereby condemned as utterly unworkable. Now that the whole battery was unmasked the issue was clear—Is Christianity to be a Jewish sect or the universal religion? Clear as it was, few in that assembly saw it. But the parting of the ways had been reached.
THE CHARTER OF GENTILE LIBERTY
'Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. 13. And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: 14. Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for His name. 15. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, 16. After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: 17. That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom My name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. 18. Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world. 19. Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: 20. But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. 21. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach Him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day. 22. Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren: 23. And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia: 24. Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: 25. It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26. Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth. 28. For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; 29. That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.'—ACTS xv. 12-29.
Much was at stake in the decision of this gathering of the Church. If the Jewish party triumphed, Christianity sank to the level of a Jewish sect. The question brought up for decision was difficult, and there was much to be said for the view that the Mosaic law was binding on Gentile converts. It must have been an uprooting of deepest beliefs for a Jewish Christian to contemplate the abrogation of that law, venerable by its divine origin, by its hoary antiquity, by its national associations. We must not be hard upon men who clung to it; but we should learn from their final complete drifting away from Christianity how perilous is the position which insists on the necessity to true discipleship of any outward observance.
Our passage begins in the middle of the conference. Peter has, with characteristic vehemence, dwelt upon the divine attestation of the genuine equality of the uncircumcised converts with the Jewish, given by their possession of the same divine Spirit, and has flung fiery questions at the Judaisers, which silenced them. Then, after the impressive hush following his eager words, Barnabas and Paul tell their story once more, and clinch the nail driven by Peter by asserting that God had already by 'signs and wonders' given His sanction to the admission of Gentiles without circumcision. Characteristically, in Jerusalem Barnabas is restored to his place above Paul, and is named first as speaking first, and regarded by the Jerusalem Church as the superior of the missionary pair.
The next speaker is James, not an Apostle, but the bishop of the Church in Jerusalem, of whom tradition tells that he was a zealous adherent to the Mosaic law in his own person, and that his knees were as hard as a camel's through continual prayer. It is singular that this meeting should be so often called 'the Apostolic council,' when, as a fact, only one Apostle said a word, and he not as an Apostle, but as the chosen instrument to preach to the Gentiles. 'The elders,' of whose existence we now hear for the first time in this wholly incidental manner, were associated with the Apostles (ver. 6), and the 'multitude' (ver. 12) is most naturally taken to be 'the whole Church' (ver. 22). James represents the eldership, and as bishop in Jerusalem and an eager observer of legal prescriptions, fittingly speaks. His words practically determined the question. Like a wise man, he begins with facts. His use of the intensely Jewish form of the name Simeon is an interesting reminiscence of old days. So he had been accustomed to call Peter when they were all young together, and so he calls him still, though everybody else named him by his new name. What God had done by him seems to James to settle the whole question; for it was nothing else than to put the Gentile converts without circumcision on an equality with the Jewish part of the Church.
Note the significant juxtaposition of the words 'Gentiles' and 'people'—the former the name for heathen, the latter the sacred designation of the chosen nation. The great paradox which, through Peter's preaching at Caesarea, had become a fact was that the 'people of God' were made up of Gentiles as well as Jews—that His name was equally imparted to both. If God had made Gentiles His people, had He not thereby shown that the special observances of Israel were put aside, and that, in particular, circumcision was no longer the condition of entrance? The end of national distinction and the opening of a new way of incorporation among the people of God were clearly contained in the facts. How much Christian narrowness would be blown to atoms if its advocates would do as James did, and let God's facts teach them the width of God's purposes and the comprehensiveness of Christ's Church! We do wisely when we square our theories with facts; but many of us go to work in the opposite way, and snip down facts to the dimension of our theories.
James's next step is marked equally by calm wisdom and open- mindedness. He looks to God's word, as interpreted by God's deeds, to throw light in turn on the deeds and to confirm the interpretation of these. Two things are to be noted in considering his quotation from Amos—its bearing on the question in hand, and its divergence from the existing Hebrew text. As to the former, there seems at first sight nothing relevant to James's purpose in the quotation, which simply declares that the Gentiles will seek the Lord when the fallen tabernacle of David is rebuilt. That period of time has at least begun, thinks James, in the work of Jesus, in whom the decayed dominion of David is again in higher form established. The return of the Gentiles does not merely synchronise with, but is the intended issue of, Christ's reign. Lifted from the earth, He will draw all men unto Him, and they shall 'seek the Lord,' and on them His name will be called.
Now the force of this quotation lies, as it seems, first in the fact that Peter's experience at Caesarea is to be taken as an indication of how God means the prophecy to be fulfilled, namely, without circumcision; and secondly, in the argumentum a silentio, since the prophet says nothing about ritual or the like, but declares that moral and spiritual qualifications—on the one hand a true desire after God, and on the other receiving the proclamation of His name and calling themselves by it—are all that are needed to make Gentiles God's people. Just because there is nothing in the prophecy about observing Jewish ceremonies, and something about longing and faith, James thinks that these are the essentials, and that the others may be dropped by the Church, as God had dropped them in the case of Cornelius, and as Amos had dropped them in his vision of the future kingdom. God knew what He meant to do when He spoke through the prophet, and what He has done has explained the words, as James says in verse 18.
The variation from the Hebrew text requires a word of comment. The quotation is substantially from the Septuagint, with a slight alteration. Probably James quoted the version familiar to many of his hearers. It seems to have been made from a somewhat different Hebrew text in verse 17, but the difference is very much slighter than an English reader would suppose. Our text has 'Edom' where the Septuagint has 'men'; but the Hebrew words without vowels are identical but for the addition of one letter in the former. Our text has 'inherit' where the Septuagint has 'seek after'; but there again the difference in the two Hebrew words would be one letter only, so that there may well have been a various reading as preserved in the Septuagint and Acts. James adds to the Septuagint 'seek' the evidently correct completion 'the Lord.'
Now it is obvious that, even if we suppose his rendering of the whole verse to be a paraphrase of the same Hebrew text as we have, it is a correct representation of the meaning; for the 'inheriting of Edom' is no mere external victory, and Edom is always in the Old Testament the type of the godless man. The conquest of the Gentiles by the restorer of David's tabernacle is really the seeking after the Lord, and the calling of His name upon the Gentiles.
The conclusion drawn by James is full of practical wisdom, and would have saved the Church from many a sad page in its history, if its spirit had been prevalent in later 'councils.' Note how the very designation given to the Gentile converts in verse 19 carries argumentative force. 'They turn to God from among the Gentiles'—if they have done that, surely their new separation and new attachment are enough, and make insistence on circumcision infinitely ridiculous. They have the thing signified; what does it matter about the sign, which is good for us Jews, but needless for them? If Church rulers had always been as open-eyed as this bishop in Jerusalem, and had been content if people were joined to God and parted from the world, what torrents of blood, what frowning walls of division, what scandals and partings of brethren would have been spared!
The observances suggested are a portion of the precepts enjoined by Judaism on proselytes. The two former were necessary to the Christian life; the two latter were not, but were concessions to the Jewish feelings of the stricter party. The conclusion may be called a compromise, but it was one dictated by the desire for unity, and had nothing unworthy in it. There should be giving and taking on both sides. If the Jewish Christians made the, to them, immense concession of waiving the necessity of circumcision, the Gentile section might surely make the small one of abstinence from things strangled and from blood. Similarities in diet would daily assimilate the lives of the two parties, and would be a more visible and continuous token of their oneness than the single act of circumcision.
But what does the reason in verse 21 mean? Why should the reading of Moses every Sabbath be a reason for these concessions? Various answers are given: but the most natural is that the constant promulgation of the law made respect for the feelings (even if mistaken) of Jewish Christians advisable, and the course suggested the most likely to win Jews who were not yet Christians. Both classes would be flung farther apart if there were not some yielding. The general principle involved is that one cannot be too tender with old and deeply rooted convictions even if they be prejudices, and that Christian charity, which is truest wisdom, will consent to limitations of Christian liberty, if thereby any little one who believes in Him shall be saved from being offended, or any unbeliever from being repelled.
The letter embodying James's wise suggestion needs little further notice. We may observe that there was no imposing and authoritative decision of the Ecclesia, but that the whole thing was threshed out in free talk, and then the unanimous judgment of the community, 'Apostles, elders and the whole Church,' was embodied in the epistle. Observe the accurate rendering of verse 25 (R.V.), 'having come to one accord,' which gives a lively picture of the process. Note too that James's proposal of a letter was mended by the addition of a deputation, consisting of an unknown 'Judas called Barsabas' (perhaps a relative of 'Joseph called Barsabas,' the unsuccessful nominee for Apostleship in chap. i.), and the well-known Silas or Silvanus, of whom we hear so much in Paul's letters. That journey was the turning- point in his life, and he henceforward, attracted by the mass and magnetism of Paul's great personality, revolved round him, and forsook Jerusalem.
Probably James drew up the document, which has the same somewhat unusual 'greeting' as his Epistle. The sharp reference to the Judaising teachers would be difficult for their sympathisers to swallow, but charity is not broken by plain repudiation of error and its teachers. 'Subverting your souls' is a heavy charge. The word is only here found in the New Testament, and means to unsettle, the image in it being that of packing up baggage for removal. The disavowal of these men is more complete if we follow the Revised Version in reading (ver. 24) 'no commandment' instead of 'no such commandment.'
These unauthorised teachers 'went'; but, in strong contrast with them, Judas and Silas are chosen out and sent. Another thrust at the Judaising teachers is in the affectionate eulogy of Paul and Barnabas as 'beloved,' whatever disparaging things had been said about them, and as having 'hazarded their lives,' while these others had taken very good care of themselves, and had only gone to disturb converts whom Paul and Barnabas had won at the peril of their lives.
The calm matter-of-course assertion that the decision which commended itself to 'us' is the decision of 'the Holy Ghost' was warranted by Christ's promises, and came from the consciousness that they had observed the conditions which He had laid down. They had brought their minds to bear upon the question, with the light of facts and of Scripture, and had come to a unanimous conclusion. If they believed their Lord's parting words, they could not doubt that His Spirit had guided them. If we lived more fully in that Spirit, we should know more of the same peaceful assurance, which is far removed from the delusion of our own infallibility, and is the simple expression of trust in the veracious promises of our Lord.
The closing words of the letter are beautifully brotherly, sinking authority, and putting in the foreground the advantage to the Gentile converts of compliance with the injunctions. 'Ye shall do well,' rightly and conformably with the requirements of brotherly love to weaker brethren. And thus doing well, they will 'fare well,' and be strong. That is not the way in which 'lords over God's heritage' are accustomed to end their decrees. Brotherly affection, rather than authority imposing its will, breathes here. Would that all succeeding 'Councils' had imitated this as well as 'it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us'!
A GOOD MAN'S FAULTS
'And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark. 38. But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.'—ACTS xv. 37, 38.
Scripture narratives are remarkable for the frankness with which they tell the faults of the best men. It has nothing in common with the cynical spirit in historians, of which this age has seen eminent examples, which fastens upon the weak places in the noblest natures, like a wasp on bruises in the ripest fruit, and delights in showing how all goodness is imperfect, that it may suggest that none is genuine. Nor has it anything in common with that dreary melancholy which also has its representatives among us, that sees everywhere only failures and fragments of men, and has no hope of ever attaining anything beyond the common average of excellence. But Scripture frankly confesses that all its noblest characters have fallen short of unstained purity, and with boldness of hope as great as its frankness teaches the weakest to aspire, and the most sinful to expect perfect likeness to a perfect Lord, It is a plane mirror, giving back all images without distortion.
We recall how emphatically and absolutely it eulogised Barnabas as 'a good man, full of the Holy Ghost and of faith'—and now we have to notice how this man, thus full of the seminal principle of all goodness, derived into his soul by deep and constant communion through faith, and showing in his life practical righteousness and holiness, yet goes sadly astray, tarnishes his character, and mars his whole future.
The two specific faults recorded of him are his over-indulgence in the case of Mark, and his want of firmness in opposition to the Judaising teachers who came down to Antioch. They were neither of them grave faults, but they were real. In the one he was too facile in overlooking a defect which showed unfitness for the work, and seems to have yielded to family affection and to have sacrificed the efficiency of a mission to it. Not only was he wrong in proposing to condone Mark's desertion, but he was still more wrong in his reception of the opposition to his proposal. With the firmness which weak characters so often display at the wrong time, he was resolved, come what would, to have his own way. Temper rather than principle made him obstinate where he should have been yielding, as it had made him in Antioch yielding, where he should have been firm. Paul's remonstrances have no effect. He will rather have his own way than the companionship of his old friend, and so there come alienation and separation. The Church at Antioch takes Paul's view—all the brethren are unanimous in disapproval. But Barnabas will not move. He sets up his own feeling in opposition to them all. The sympathy of his brethren, the work of his life, the extension of Christ's kingdom, are all tossed aside. His own foolish purpose is more to him in that moment of irritation than all these. So he snaps the tie, abandons his work, and goes away without a kindly word, without a blessing, without the Church's prayers—but with his nephew for whom he had given up all these. Paul sails away to do God's work, and the Church 'recommends him to the grace of God,' but Barnabas steals away home to Cyprus, and his name is no more heard in the story of the planting of the kingdom of Christ.
One hopes that his work did not stop thus, but his recorded work does, and in the band of friends who surrounded the great Apostle, the name of his earliest friend appears no more. Other companions and associates in labour take his place; he, as it appears, is gone for ever. One reference (1 Cor. ix. 6) at a later date seems most naturally to suggest that he still continued in the work of an evangelist, and still practised the principle to which he and Paul had adhered when together, of supporting himself by manual labour. The tone of the reference implies that there were relations of mutual respect. But the most we can believe is that probably the two men still thought kindly of each other and honoured each other for their work's sake, but found it better to labour apart, and not to seek to renew the old companionship which had been so violently torn asunder.
The other instance of weakness was in some respects of a still graver kind. The cause of it was the old controversy about the obligations of Jewish law on Gentile Christians. Paul, Peter, and Barnabas all concurred in neglecting the restrictions imposed by Judaism, and in living on terms of equality and association in eating and drinking with the heathen converts at Antioch. A principle was involved, to which Barnabas had bean the first to give in his adhesion, in the frank recognition of the Antioch Church. But as soon as emissaries from the other party came down, Peter and he abandoned their association with Gentile converts, not changing their convictions but suppressing the action to which their convictions should have led. They pretended to be of the same mind with these narrow Jews from Jerusalem. They insulted their brethren, they deserted Paul, they belied their convictions, they imperilled the cause of Christian liberty, they flew in the face of what Peter had said that God Himself had showed him, they did their utmost to degrade Christianity into a form of Judaism—all for the sake of keeping on good terms with the narrow bigotry of these Judaising teachers.
Now if we take these two facts together, and set them side by side with the eulogy pronounced on Barnabas as 'a good man, full of the Holy Ghost and of faith,' we have brought before us in a striking form some important considerations.
I. The imperfect goodness of good men.
A good man does not mean a faultless man. Of course the power which works on a believing soul is always tending to produce goodness and only goodness. But its operation is not such that we are always equally, uniformly, perfectly under its influence. Power in germ is one thing, in actual operation another. There may be but a little ragged patch of green in the garden, and yet it may be on its way to become a flower-bed. A king may not have established dominion over all his land. The actual operation of that transforming Spirit at any given moment is limited, and we can withdraw ourselves from it. It does not begin by leavening all our nature.
So we have to note—
The root of goodness.
The main direction of a life.
The progressive character of goodness.
The highest style of Christian life is a struggle. So we draw practical inferences as to the conduct of life.
This thought of imperfection does not diminish the criminality of individual acts.
It does not weaken aspiration and effort towards higher life.
It does alleviate our doubts and fears when we find evil in ourselves.
II. The possible evil lurking in our best qualities.
In Barnabas, his amiability and openness of nature, the very characteristics that had made him strong, now make him weak and wrong.
How clearly then there is brought out here the danger that lurks even in our good! I need not remind you how every virtue may be run to an extreme and become a vice. Liberality is exaggerated into prodigality; firmness, into obstinacy; mercy, into weakness; gravity, into severity; tolerance, into feeble conviction; humility, into abjectness.
And these extremes are reached when these graces are developed at the expense of the symmetry of the character.
We are not simple but complex, and what we need to aim at is a character, not an excrescence. Some people's goodness is like a wart or a wen. Their virtues are cases of what medical technicality calls hypertrophy. But our goodness should be like harmonious Indian patterns, where all colours blend in a balanced whole.
Such considerations enforce the necessity for rigid self-control. And that in two directions.
(a) Beware of your excellences, your strong points.
(b) Cultivate sedulously the virtues to which you are not inclined.
The special form of error into which Barnabas fell is worth notice. It was over-indulgence, tolerance of evil in a person; feebleness of grasp, a deficiency of boldness in carrying out his witness to a disputed truth. In this day liberality, catholicity, are pushed so far that there is danger of our losing the firmness of our grasp of principles, and indulgence for faults goes so far that we are apt to lose the habit of unsparing, though unangry, condemnation of unworthy characters. This generation is like Barnabas; very quick in sympathy, generous in action, ready to recognise goodness where-ever it is beheld. But Barnabas may be a beacon, warning us of the possible evils that dog these excellences like their shadows.
III. The grave issues of small faults.
Comparatively trivial as was Barnabas's error, it seems to have wrecked his life, at least to have marred it for long years, and to have broken his sweet companionship with Paul. I think we may go further and say, that most good men are in more danger from trivial faults than from great ones. No man reaches the superlative degree of wickedness all at once. Few men spring from the height to the abyss, they usually slip down. The erosive action of the sand of the desert is said to be gradually cutting off the Sphinx's head. The small faults are most numerous. We are least on our guard against them. There is a microscopic weed that chokes canals. Snow-flakes make the sky as dark as an eclipse does. White ants eat a carcase quicker than a lion does.
So we urge the necessity for bringing ordinary deeds and small actions to be ruled and guided by God's Spirit.
How the contemplation of the imperfection, which is the law of life, should lead us to hope for that heaven where perfection is.
How the contemplation of the limits of all human goodness should lead us to exclusive faith in, and imitation of, the one perfect Lord. He stands stainless among the stained. In Him alone is no sin, from Him alone like goodness may be ours.
HOW TO SECURE A PROSPEROUS VOYAGE
'And after [Paul] had seen the vision, immediately we endeavoured to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us for to preach the gospel unto them. 11. Therefore ... we came with a straight course.'—ACTS xvi. 10, 11.
This book of the Acts is careful to point out how each fresh step in the extension of the Church's work was directed and commanded by Jesus Christ Himself. Thus Philip was sent by specific injunction to 'join himself' to the chariot of the Ethiopian statesman. Thus Peter on the house-top at Joppa, looking out over the waters of the western sea, had the vision of the great sheet, knit at the four corners. And thus Paul, in singularly similar circumstances, in the little seaport of Troas, looking out over the narrower sea which there separates Asia from Europe, had the vision of the man of Macedonia, with his cry, 'Come over and help us!' The whole narrative before us bears upon the one point, that Christ Himself directs the expansion of His kingdom. And there never was a more fateful moment than that at which the Gospel, in the person of the Apostle, crossed the sea, and effected a lodgment in the progressive quarter of the world.
Now what I wish to do is to note how Paul and his little company behaved themselves when they had received Christ's commandment. For I think there are lessons worth the gathering to be found there. There was no doubt about the vision; the question was what it meant. So note three stages. First, careful consideration, with one's own common sense, of what God wants us to do—'Assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us.' Then, let no grass grow under our feet— immediate obedience—'Straightway we endeavoured to go into Macedonia.' And then, patient pondering and instantaneous submission get the reward—'We came with a straight course.' He gave the winds and the waves charge concerning them. Now there are three lessons for us. Taken together, they are patterns of what ought to be in our experience, and will be, if the conditions are complied with.
I. First, Careful Consideration.
Paul had no doubt that what he saw was a vision from Christ, and not a mere dream of the night, born of the reverberation of waking thoughts and anxieties, that took the shape of the plaintive cry of the man of Macedonia. But then the next step was to be quite sure of what the vision meant. And so, wisely, he does not make up his mind himself, but calls in the three men who were with him. And what a significant little group it was! There were Timothy, Silas, and Luke —Silas, from Jerusalem; Timothy, half a Gentile; Luke, altogether a Gentile; and Paul himself—and these four shook the world. They come together, and they talk the matter over. The word of my text rendered 'assuredly gathering' is a picturesque one. It literally means 'laying things together.' They set various facts side by side, or as we say in our colloquial idiom, 'They put this and that together,' and so they came to understand what the vision meant.
What had they to help them to understand it? Well, they had this fact, that in all the former part of their journey they had been met by hindrances; that their path had been hedged up here, there, and everywhere. Paul set out from Antioch, meaning a quiet little tour of visitation amongst the churches that had been already established. Jesus Christ meant Philippi and Athens and Corinth and Ephesus, before Paul got back again. So we read in an earlier portion of the chapter that the Spirit of Jesus forbade them to speak the Word in one region, and checked and hindered them when, baffled, they tried to go to another. There then remained only one other road open to them, and that led to the coast. Thus putting together their hindrances and their stimuluses, they came to the conclusion that unitedly the two said plainly, 'Go across the sea, and preach the word there.'
Now it is a very commonplace and homely piece of teaching to remind you that time is not wasted in making quite sure of the meaning of providences which seem to declare the will of God, before we begin to act. But the commonest duties are very often neglected; and we preachers, I think, would very often do more good by hammering at commonplace themes than by bringing out original and fresh ones. And so I venture to say a word about the immense importance to Christian life and Christian service of this preliminary step—'assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us.' What have we to do in order to be quite sure of God's intention for us?
Well, the first thing seems to me to make quite sure that we want to know it, and that we do not want to force our intentions upon Him, and then to plume ourselves upon being obedient to His call, when we are only doing what we like. There is a vast deal of unconscious insincerity in us all; and especially in regard to Christian work there is an enormous amount of it. People will say, 'Oh, I have such a strong impulse in a given direction, to do certain kinds of Christian service, that I am quite sure that it is God's will.' How are you sure? A strong impulse may be a temptation from the devil as well as a call from God. And men who simply act on untested impulses, even the most benevolent which spring directly from large Christian principles, may be making deplorable mistakes. It is not enough to have pure motives. It is useless to say, 'Such and such a course of action is clearly the result of the truths of the Gospel.' That may be all perfectly true, and yet the course may not be the course for you. For there may be practical considerations, which do not come into our view unless we carefully think about them, which forbid us to take such a path. So remember that strong impulses are not guiding lights; nor is it enough to vindicate our pursuing some mode of Christian service that it is in accordance with the principles of the Gospel. 'Circumstances alter cases' is a very homely old saying; but if Christian people would only bring the common sense to bear upon their religious life which they need to bring to bear upon their business life, unless they are going into the Gazette, there would be less waste work in the Christian Church than there is to-day. I do not want less zeal; I want that the reins of the fiery steed shall be kept well in hand. The difference between a fanatic, who is a fool, and an enthusiast, who is a wise man, is that the one brings calm reason to bear, and an open-eyed consideration of circumstances all round; and the other sees but one thing at a time, and shuts his eyes, like a bull in a field, and charges at that. So let us be sure, to begin with, that we want to know what God wants us to do; and that we are not palming our wishes upon Him, and calling them His providences.
Then there is another plain, practical consideration that comes out of this story, and that is, Do not be above being taught by failures and hindrances. You know the old proverb, 'It is waste time to flog a dead horse.' There is not a little well-meant work flung away, because it is expended on obviously hopeless efforts to revivify, perhaps, some moribund thing or to continue, perhaps, in some old, well-worn rut, instead of striking out into a new path. Paul was full of enthusiasm for the evangelisation of Asia Minor, and he might have said a great deal about the importance of going to Ephesus. He tried to do it, but Christ said 'No.' and Paul did not knock his head against the stone wall that lay between him and the accomplishment of his purpose, but he gave it up and tried another tack. He next wished to go up into Bithynia, and he might have said a great deal about the needs of the people by the Euxine; but again down came the barrier, and he had once more to learn the lesson, 'Not as thou wilt, but as I will.' He was not above being taught by his failures. Some of us are; and it is very difficult, and needs a great deal of Christian wisdom and unselfishness, to distinguish between hindrances in the way of work which are meant to evoke larger efforts, and hindrances which are meant to say, 'Try another path, and do not waste time here any longer.'
But if we wish supremely to know God's will, He will help us to distinguish between these two kinds of difficulties. Some one has said, 'Difficulties are things to be overcome.' Yes, but not always. They very often are, and we should thank God for them then; but they sometimes are God's warnings to us to go by another road. So we need discretion, and patience, and suspense of judgment to be brought to bear upon all our purposes and plans.
Then, of course, I need not remind you that the way to get light is to seek it in the Book and in communion with Him whom the Book reveals to us as the true Word of God: 'He that followeth Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.' So careful consideration is a preliminary to all good Christian work. And, if you can, talk to some Timothy and Silas and Luke about your course, and do not be above taking a brother's advice.
II. The next step is Immediate Submission.
When they had assuredly gathered that the Lord had called them, 'immediately'—there is great virtue in that one word—'we endeavoured to go into Macedonia.' Delayed obedience is the brother— and, if I may mingle metaphors, sometimes the father—of disobedience. It sometimes means simple feebleness of conviction, indolence, and a general lack of fervour. It means very often a reluctance to do the duty that lies plainly before us. And, dear brethren, as I have said about the former lesson, so I say about this. The homely virtue, which we all know to be indispensable to success in common daily life and commercial undertakings, is no less indispensable to all vigour of Christian life and to all nobleness of Christian service. We have no hours to waste; the time is short. In the harvest-field, especially when it is getting near the end of the week, and the Sunday is at hand, there are little leisure and little tolerance of slow workers. And for us the fields are white, the labourers are few, the Lord of the harvest is imperative, the sun is hurrying to the west, and the sickles will have to be laid down before long. So, 'immediately we endeavoured.'
Delayed duty is present discomfort. As long as a man has a conscience, so long will he be restless and uneasy until he has, as the Quakers say, 'cleared himself of his burden,' and done what he knows that he ought to do, and got done with it. Delayed obedience means wasted possibilities of service, and so is ever to be avoided. The more disagreeable anything is which is plainly a duty, the more reason there is for doing it right away. 'I made haste, and delayed not, but made haste to keep Thy commandments.'
Did you ever count how many 'straightways' there are in the first chapter of Mark's Gospel? If you have not, will you do it when you go home; and notice how they come in? In the story of Christ's opening ministry every fresh incident is tacked on to the one before it, in that chapter, by that same word 'straightway.' 'Straightway' He does that; 'anon' He does this; 'immediately' He does the other thing. All is one continuous stream of acts of service. The Gospel of Mark is the Gospel of the servant, and it sets forth the pattern to which all Christian service ought to be conformed.
So if we take Jesus Christ for our Example, unhasting and unresting in the work of the Lord, we shall let no moment pass burdened with undischarged duty; and we shall find that all the moments are few enough for the discharge of the duties incumbent upon us.
III. So, lastly, careful consideration and unhesitating obedience lead to a Straight Course.
Well, it is not so always, but it is so generally. There is a wonderful power in diligent doing of God's known will to smooth away difficulties and avoid troubles. I do not, of course, mean that a man who thus lives, patiently ascertaining and then promptly doing what God would have him do, has any miraculous exemption from the ordinary sorrows and trials of life. But sure I am that a very, very large proportion of all the hindrances and disappointments, storms and quicksands, calms which prevent progress and headwinds that beat in our faces, are directly the products of our negligence in one or other of these two respects, and that although by no means absolutely, yet to an extent that we should not believe if we had not the experience of it, the wish to do God's will and the doing of it with our might when we know what it is have a talismanic power in calming the seas and bringing us to the desired haven.
But though this is not always absolutely true in regard of outward things, it is, without exception or limitation, true in regard of the inward life. For if my supreme will is to do God's will then nothing which is His will, and comes to me because it is can be a hindrance in my doing that.
As an old proverb says, 'Travelling merchants can never be out of their road.' And a Christian man whose path is simple obedience to the will of God can never be turned from that path by whatever hindrances may affect his outward life. So, in deepest truth, there is always a calm voyage for the men whose eyes are open to discern, and whose hands are swift to fulfil, the commandments of their Father in heaven. For them all winds blow them to their port; for them 'all things work together for good'; with them God's servants who hearken to the voice of His commandments, and are His ministers to do His pleasure, can never be other than in amity and alliance. He who is God's servant is the world's master. 'All things are yours if ye are Christ's.'
So, brethren, careful study of providences and visions, of hindrances and stimulus, careful setting of our lives side by side with the Master's, and a swift delight in doing the will of the Lord, will secure for us, in inmost truth, a prosperous voyage, till all storms are hushed, 'and they are glad because they be quiet; so He bringeth them to their desired haven.'
PAUL AT PHILIPPI
'And on the sabbath day we went forth without the gate, by a river side, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down, and spake unto the women which were come together.' —ACTS xvi. 13 (R.V.).
This is the first record of the preaching of the Gospel in Europe, and probably the first instance of it. The fact that the vision of the man of Macedonia was needed in order to draw the Apostle across the straits into Macedonia, and the great length at which the incidents at Philippi are recorded, make this probable. If so, we are here standing, as it were, at the wellhead of a mighty river, and the thin stream of water assumes importance when we remember the thousand miles of its course, and the league-broad estuary in which it pours itself into the ocean. Here is the beginning; the Europe of to-day is what came out of it. There is no sign whatever that the Apostle was conscious of an epoch in this transference of the sphere of his operations, but we can scarcely help being conscious of such.
And so, looking at the words of my text, and seeing here how unobtrusively there stole into the progressive part of the world the power which was to shatter and remould all its institutions, to guide and inform the onward march of its peoples, to be the basis of their liberties, and the starting-point of their literature, we can scarcely avoid drawing lessons of importance.
The first point which I would suggest, as picturesquely enforced for us by this incident, is—
I. The apparent insignificance and real greatness of Christian work.
There did not seem in the whole of that great city that morning a more completely insignificant knot of people than the little weather- beaten Jew, travel-stained, of weak bodily presence, and of contemptible speech, with the handful of his attendants, who slipped out in the early morning and wended their way to the quiet little oratory, beneath the blue sky, by the side of the rushing stream, and there talked informally and familiarly to the handful of women. The great men of Philippi would have stared if any one had said to them, 'You will be forgotten, but two of these women will have their names embalmed in the memory of the world for ever. Everybody will know Euodia and Syntyche. Your city will be forgotten, although a battle that settled the fate of the civilised world was fought outside your gates. But that little Jew and the letter that he will write to that handful of believers that are to be gathered by his preaching will last for ever.' The mightiest thing done in Europe that morning was when the Apostle sat down by the riverside, 'and spake to the women which resorted thither.'
The very same vulgar mistake as to what is great and as to what is small is being repeated over and over again; and we are all tempted to it by that which is worldly and vulgar in ourselves, to the enormous detriment of the best part of our natures. So it is worth while to stop for a moment and ask what is the criterion of greatness in our deeds? I answer, three things—their motive, their sphere, their consequences. What is done for God is always great. You take a pebble and drop it into a brook, and immediately the dull colouring upon it flashes up into beauty when the sunlight strikes through the ripples, and the magnitude of the little stone is enlarged. If I may make use of such a violent expression, drop your deeds into God, and they will all be great, however small they are. Keep them apart from Him, and they will be small, though all the drums of the world beat in celebration, and all the vulgar people on the earth extol their magnitude. This altar magnifies and sanctifies the giver and the gift. The great things are the things that are done for God.
A deed is great according to its sphere. What bears on and is confined to material things is smaller than what affects the understanding. The teacher is more than the man who promotes material good. And on the very same principle, above both the one and the other, is the doer of deeds which touch the diviner part of a man's nature, his will, his conscience, his affections, his relations to God. Thus the deeds that impinge upon these are the highest and the greatest; and far above the scientific inventor, and far above the mere teacher, as I believe, and as I hope you believe, stands the humblest work of the poorest Christian who seeks to draw any other soul into the light and liberty which he himself possesses. The greatest thing in the world is charity, and the purest charity in the world is that which helps a man to possess the basis and mother- tincture of all love, the love towards God who has first loved us, in the person and the work of His dear Son.
That which being done has consequences that roll through souls, 'and grow for ever and for ever,' is a greater work than the deed whose issues are more short-lived. And so the man who speaks a word which may deflect a soul into the paths which have no end until they are swallowed up in the light of the God who 'is a Sun,' is a worker whose work is truly great. Brethren, it concerns the nobleness of the life of us Christian people far more closely than we sometimes suppose, that we should purge our souls from the false estimate of magnitudes which prevails so extensively in the world's judgment of men and their doings. And though it is no worthy motive for a man to seek to live so that he may do great things, it is a part of the discipline of the Christian mind, as well as heart, that we should be able to reduce the swollen bladders to their true flaccidity and insignificance, and that we should understand that things done for God, things done on men's souls, things done with consequences which time will not exhaust, nor eternity put a period to, are, after all, the great things of human life.
Ah, there will be a wonderful reversal of judgments one day! Names that now fill the trumpet of fame will fall silent. Pages that now are read as if they were leaves of the 'Book of Life' will be obliterated and unknown, and when all the flashing cressets in Vanity Fair have smoked and stunk themselves out, 'They that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.' The great things are the Christian things, and there was no greater deed done that day, on this round earth, than when that Jewish wayfarer, travel-stained and insignificant, sat himself down in the place of prayer, and 'spake unto the women which resorted thither.' Do not be over-cowed by the loud talk of the world, but understand that Christian work is the mightiest work that a man can do.
Let us take from this incident a hint as to—
II. The law of growth in Christ's Kingdom.
Here, as I have said, is the thin thread of water at the source. We to-day are on the broad bosom of the expanded stream. Here is the little beginning; the world that we see around us has come from this, and there is a great deal more to be done yet before all the power that was transported into Europe, on that Sabbath morning, has wrought its legitimate effects. That is to say, 'the Kingdom of God cometh not by observation.' Let me say a word, and only a word, based on this incident, about the law of small beginnings and the law of slow, inconspicuous development.
We have here an instance of the law of small, silent beginnings. Let us go back to the highest example of everything that is good; the life of Jesus Christ. A cradle at Bethlehem, a carpenter's shop in Nazareth, thirty years buried in a village, two or three years, at most, going up and down quietly in a remote nook of the earth, and then He passed away silently and the world did not know Him. 'He shall not strive nor cry, nor cause His voice to be heard in the streets.' And as the Christ so His Church, and so His Gospel, and so all good movements that begin from Him. Destructive preparations may be noisy; they generally are. Constructive beginnings are silent and small. If a thing is launched with a great beating of drums and blowing of trumpets, you may be pretty sure there is very little in it. Drums are hollow, or they would not make such a noise. Trumpets only catch and give forth wind. They say—I know not whether it is true—that the Wellingtonia gigantea, the greatest of forest trees, has a smaller seed than any of its congeners. It may be so, at any rate it does for an illustration. The germ-cell is always microscopic. A little beginning is a prophecy of a great ending.