Book Overview - Acts
by Joseph Exell
I. The Title of the Book.--The title “Acts of the Apostles,” although not given to it by its author, is of high antiquity, being found in the oldest MSS. and versions either as it stands, or with the articles omitted (“Acts of Apostles”). The book is often quoted by Early Fathers as “Acts”; but apparently as a compendious form for a well-known title. The propriety of the designation has been often questioned. The book does not profess to record the acts of all the apostles, nor all the acts of those most prominent in the narrative, St. Peter and St. Paul. On the other hand, it gives full notices of disciples, who were not apostles. But, taking the title in its earliest form, we find in it a certain fitness. As the Gospel records acts and words of our Lord, so this book records acts of the apostles by which His last injunction and promise were fulfilled. But the Gospel is one of four, whereas this work stands alone, and is the only source from which we derive knowledge of the most momentous facts which belong to the foundations of the Christian faith. Without it the first twenty years would be a blank as regards the history of the first Christians--a blank with some rays of scattered light from the Epistles, of which the earliest was written a.d. 52. Of the events on which two great Christian festivals--Easter and Pentecost--are based, we have the record of the latter in this book alone. (Canon Cook.)
II. Its Authorship.--
1. Its author was the same who wrote the Gospel according to St. Luke., and the latter distinctly refers to the former.
2. Its author was “the beloved physician,” the companion of St. Paul.
3. Other notices of St. Luke. Though the name ( λουκᾶς, the contracted form of ̀λουκανός) is not a sufficient indication that he was of Greek parentage, since it was not unusual for Jews to bear Greek and Roman names, yet he is enumerated by St. Paul among those who were not of the circumcision (Colossians 4:14). Many circumstances, each small in itself, but the whole weighty, as accumulative proof, add support to this. He was evidently acquainted with classical literature. Both his books, written as they were for a Roman of distinction, commence, in accordance with classical models, with a Proemium, and not after the manner of Hebrew writers. Again, in calling the Maltese “barbarians,” he does not mean uncivilised, but makes use of a term which the Greeks used of all who did not speak the Greek language, and one which the Romans applied to all who were not citizens of Rome, and even to the Greeks themselves. Thus Juvenal calls even Herod Agrippa a barbarian. The Greek of the Gospel and the Acts is comparatively pure, and Davidson considers the former to be the work of “a critical historian.” This is an indication of the superior education and position of St. Luke, or, according to some, betrays his connection with a place in which the written Greek was purer than in some parts of Asia. To this we must add the tradition that he was a proselyte. Another tradition tells us that Luke was one of the Seventy disciples, which receives some support from the circumstance that he alone has preserved an account of their mission, as though he had a personal interest in it. Nor is this invalidated by the manner in which (Luke 1:2) he seems to distinguish between himself and eyewitnesses. For the emphasis there is on “from the beginning”--i.e., witnesses of the marvels which attended His birth, etc. As to the birthplace of St. Luke, Scripture says nothing. Ecclesiastical writers tell us that he was a native of Antioch in Syria; modern writers, however, assign to Philippi the honour of being his birthplace, and others the Alexandrian Troas. Hug notes that “he could not want opportunities to perfect himself in a knowledge of medicine in a scientific city like Antioch; and Renan, that he might have acquired his nautical knowledge at Philippi, or its port Neapolis. If, however, Antioch was really his birthplace, it seems likely that Philippi was his home; for the companion of Paul, who writes in Acts 16:1-40. in the first person, must have parted from the apostle at the latter place inasmuch as in Acts 16:19 the “we” ceases, and the names of Paul and Silas are introduced; and it is not until Paul reaches Philippi again (Acts 20:5-6) that Luke reappears. (W. Denton, M. A.)
After the death of St. Paul the acts of his faithful companion are hopelessly obscure to us. It is, as perhaps the Evangelist wishes it to be: we only know him whilst he stands by the side of his beloved Paul: when the master departs the history of the follower becomes confusion and fable. As to his age and death there is the utmost uncertainty. It seems probable that he died in advanced life, but whether naturally or by martyrdom; whether in Bithynia or Achaia, or some other country, it is impossible to determine. That he died a martyr between a.d. 75 and a.d. 100 would seem to have the balance of suffrages in its favour. (Abp. Thomson.)
III. To whom it was written.--To a certain Theophilus, of whom, beyond his name, we know nothing certainly. Internal evidence, however, supports the truth of the tradition that he was a Roman resident in Italy. For Luke, whilst careful in referring to the geography of countries which would be but little known to a native of Italy, and, as to the customs of Palestine, hastens over, as though details were unnecessary, points of Italian geography. Thus he adds that the hour of prayer was” the ninth hour”; that the party of the High Priest was of “the sect of the Sadducees.” A Jew would not have needed to be told that Gamaliel was “a doctor of the law” etc., nor would he have been interested in knowing that Cornelius was “a centurion of the Italian band.” Theophilus was evidently no native of Palestine, or he would not have been informed with such particularity the locality of certain cities and places, and the number of stadia between Emmaus and Jerusalem. He was certainly no Cretan (Acts 27:8; Acts 27:12), nor was he a resident in Greece, otherwise he would not have required the information given in Acts 16:17. A native of Antioch, too, could hardly be so ignorant of the geography of Palestine, which was so near that city. That he was not an Alexandrian is clear, otherwise the Alexandrian teachers would have appropriated his reputation to their Church. The testimony of the Alexandrian patriarch, Eutychicus, which decides in favour of an illustrious person in Rome or Italy, was something to be said for it. For as soon as Luke approaches Italy he puts down all the places as though they were known to Theophilus,--e.g., Syracuse, Rhegium, Pozzuoli (on the name of which Josephus was obliged to make comments for Greek or Oriental readers), and even still less things, such as Tres Tabernae, Via Appla, etc. (W. Denton, M. A.)
IV. Its sources.--The principal inquiry relates to the first part (chaps. 1.-13). After that the narrative follows St. Paul, from whom the incidents might be derived when the writer was not present. Here something will depend on the date when Luke was engaged in drawing up the book. I proceed on the hardly deniable inference that of the last voyage a journal was kept, probably set down during the winter months at Malta. It must then be evident that at this time the purpose of writing a second treatise was ripened in his mind. But how long had this purpose been in his mind? Was it not with this purpose, among others, that he became one of Paul’s company on the return to Asia (Acts 20:4-5)? Whether the Gospel was written in the interval or afterwards in Palestine, it is not improbable that the Acts was at this time already designed either as a sequel to the Gospel already finished, or simultaneously as its future sequel. It is very probable that the design may have grown under his hand, suggested little by little by the Holy Spirit of God. He may have intended on leaving Philippi with Paul only to draw up a διήγησις of their travels, to serve as a record of his acts and sayings in founding the Churches of Europe and Asia. So we find him recording minutely every circumstance of this voyage, which was probably the first written portion of the book. At any time during that or subsequent travels, or during the two years at Rome, he may have filled in those portions of the narrative which occurred during his absence from Paul from the apostle’s own lips. Let us now suppose the apostle in custody at Caesarea. The narrative has been brought down to that time. The apprehension Paul’s defence before the Jews; their conspiracy, his rescue and transmission to Felix, have been duly and minutely recorded--even the letter of Claudius Lysias having been obtained, probably by acquaintance with some one about Felix. An intention similar to that announced in Luke 1:3 is here evidently shown. But now Paul is laid aside for two years. What so natural as that Luke should avail himself of this important interval to obtain information that might complete his fragmentary notices. His main source of information would be the Church at Jerusalem. Then from those who had been on the spot from the first he would learn more fully about the Ascension, and the events of the day of Pentecost. In constructing this part of the Acts Luke may have used written documents. Detailed memoirs of some of the most important events may have been drawn up. If so, chap. 2. would in all probability be such a memoir. The letters (Acts 15:23-29; Acts 23:26-30) must have been of this kind; some of the discourses, as that of Peter (Acts 11:5-17), containing expressions unknown to Luke’s style: more or less, the other speeches of Peter, containing many points of similarity to his Epistles. At the same time, from the similarity of ending of the earlier sections (cf., Acts 2:46-47; Acts 3:32; Acts 4:42; Acts 9:31; Acts 11:13), from the occurrence of words and phrases peculiar to St. Luke in the speeches, the inference is that such documents were not adopted until their language had been revised, where necessary, by the author himself. The very careful detail of chap. 12. must have been the result of diligent inquiry on the spot from the parties concerned. But one very important section is concerned with events which happened at Caesarea, and derived from information obtained there. There dwelt Philip the Evangelist (Acts 21:8): a most important authority for the contents of chaps, 6. and 8, if not also for some events previous to chap. 6. There, too, we may well believe, still dwelt, if not Cornelius himself, yet some of those mentioned in chap. 10:27. Connected with this part of the history is one minute touch of accuracy, interesting as pointing to careful research and information of the most trustworthy kind. Of the Sidonian embassy on the occasion of the awful death of Herod Agrippa I. (Acts 12:20), the Jewish historian knows nothing. But Luke, who had made careful inquiries on the spot, who had spent a week at Tyre (Acts 21:4-7), and Paul, who had friends at Sidon (Acts 27:3), were better acquainted with the facts than to overlook, as Josephus did, the minute details in the general character of the festival. One or two sections in the former part of the Acts require separate consideration. Where did Luke get the report of the apology of Stephen from? Doubtless largely from Paul, who was so deeply implicated in the deacon’s martyrdom, and who shows by his own reference (Acts 22:20) to the part taken by him, how indelibly it was fixed in his memory, and who in more than one place reproduces Stephen’s thoughts and expressions. At the same time it is improbable that the Church at Jerusalem should have preserved no memorial of so important a speech as that of her first martyr. The narrative of Saul’s conversion in chap. 9. can hardly fail to have been derived from himself. We now come to the inquiry, How far we have indications of the lacunae in the author’s personal testimony in the latter part having been filled in by that of Paul. Acts 17:16-34; Acts 18:1-5 relate to a time when Paul was left alone, and here we discover traces of an unusual hand, for in Acts 18:16-21 we have no fewer than eleven expressions foreign to Luke’s style, or nowhere else occurring, and no fewer than twenty in the speech. Now of these thirty-one expressions, five are either peculiar to, or employed principally by, Paul; and besides that we find the phrase τὸ πνεῦμα αὐτοῦ, so frequently used by him of his own spirit and feelings. Here we can hardly fail to trace the hand of the apostle. Again at Acts 18:5, Silas and Timotheus joined Paul at Corinth. One at least of these, Timotheus, was afterwards for a considerable time in Luke’s company. But on his arrival at Corinth no alteration in the style is perceptible. It remains the mixed diction of Paul and Luke: the apax-legomena are fewer, while we have some remarkable traces of Paul’s hand. Further, verses 24-28 it would be natural to suppose were furnished by Apollos, or if not by Aquila and Priscilla, to Paul on his return to Ephesus. And so it seems to have been. The general form is Luke’s: the peculiarities are mostly Paul’s. It yet remains to examine the speeches reported in the latter part of the Acts.
(a) The speech is full of Hebraisms, which leads us to infer that Paul was not the translator into Greek, but that it is the work of one who felt himself more strictly bound to a literal rendering than the speaker himself, who would be likely to give his own thoughts a freer and more Grecian dress.
(b) While it contains several expressions occurring nowhere else but in Luke’s writings, not one is found in it peculiar to Paul. Our inference then is that Luke himself has rendered this speech from having heard it delivered; and consequently that he was acquainted with Hebrew.
(a) That in all cases the diction of the speeches was more or less modified by Luke’s hand.
(b) That they are not in any case composed by him for the speaker, but were really in substance, and for the most part in very words, uttered as written.
(c) That the differences apparent in editorial diction remarkably correspond to the alleged occasions and modes of their delivery; where Paul spoke Hebrew, hardly any traces of his own style being discernible, as also where only a short compendium of his speech is given; while on the other hand speeches manifestly reported at length, and which were spoken in Greek originally, are full of the characteristic peculiarities of Paul. (Dean Alford.)
V. The Date and Place of Its Publication.--In one conclusion almost all critics agree, viz., that the Acts and the third Gospel are from the same pen. If then the latter is early quoted, and of this there is no doubt, this is proof also of the early existence of the former. Now from the time of St. Paul, who quotes this Gospel, and calls the quotation Scripture (1 Timothy 5:18), down to recent times, there is hardly a Christian writer who does not make use of it and name it as the source from which he is quoting: and as to the Acts, Polycarp, in his Epistle to Philippi, where Luke long abode, cites it, and it appears in the earliest list of books of acknowledged authority. Then again the number of “Acts” written in imitation of this book early in the second and some even in the first century, must be taken as an additional presumption of its early date, which the best critics fix within the years 58 to 70. Were we discussing the date of an ordinary book no objection would be raised to the earliest date. The abrupt conclusion, whilst Paul is a prisoner at Rome, does not admit of our believing that it was written after many other important events in the life of this apostle had happened. If, as some have suggested, it was written to extend and strengthen the reputation of St. Paul, the book would not have ended without recording his subsequent labours and martyrdom. That; no notice is taken of anything after his arrival in Rome is sufficient indication that it was written during St. Paul’s imprisonment or immediately after its close--i.e., about the year a.d. 63. (W. Denton, M. A.)
VI. Its Genuineness and Authenticity.--This has been ever recognised in the Church. It is mentioned by Eusebius among the generally acknowledged portions of Holy Scripture. It is first directly quoted in the Epistle of Lyons and Vienne to those of Asia and Phrygia (a.d. 177); then repeatedly and expressly by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and so onwards. (Abp. Thomson.)
Its credibility is unquestionably proved by--
1. Many undesigned coincidences between the Acts and Epistles of St. Paul and profane history.
2. Several particular circumstances recorded. Thus--
VII. Its Characteristics.--
1. Its representative character. Looking at it as a whole, what a representative book it is! What varieties of character; what miracles of friendship; what bringing together of things between which cohesion is, from our standpoint, simply impossible! We wonder how the characters ever came together, how any one book can hold them; and yet, as we wonder, we see them complement one another so as to furnish out the whole circle with perfect accuracy of outline. We belong to one another. The hand cannot say to the foot, “I have no need of thee”; nor can the ear say to the eye, or the eye to the ear, “I have no need of thee.” The human race is not one man; one man is not the human race. The difficulty we have with ourselves and with one another is that of not perceiving that every one of us is needful to make up the sum total of God’s meaning. The men in the Acts belong to one another. Think of Peter and Luke: Peter all fire; Luke quiet, thoughtful, contemplative, musing, taking observations and using them for historical purposes. Think of Paul and Barnabas; think of all the names that are within the record and see how wondrous is the mosaic. There are only two great leaders--“Peter and Paul.” They seem to overshadow everybody; their names burn most ardently and lustrously on the whole record. That is quite true; but where would they have been but for those who supported them, held up their arms, made up their following and their companionship? If they are pinnacles, the pinnacle only expresses the solidity and massiveness of the building that is below. You see the pinnacle from afar; but that pinnacle does not exist in itself, by itself, for itself; it is the upgathering of the great thought, and represents to the farthest-off places the sublime fact that the tabernacle of God is with men upon the earth. (J. Parker, D. D.)
2. Its catholic spirit. If the Gospel of Luke is distinguished by its large-hearted and human spirit, its sequel the Acts perfectly corresponds with this characteristic; for what is in the Gospel only prophecy, indication, type and parable, is in the Acts converted into fulfilment, fact and history. If in the Gospel the Saviour recognised the gratitude of a Samaritan, and related the parable of the good Samaritan; in the Acts the apostles witnessed the joy with which the gospel was received by that people. If in the Gospel not a few of the sayings of Jesus point to the conversion of the Gentiles, and their admission into the kingdom of God, the Acts relate how the Word of God gradually reached the Gentiles, and how they became naturalised citizens of the kingdom. If the Gospel is distinguished as the human gospel, the same wide range embracing the human race is also recognised in the Acts; it was composed for a Gentile, and its largest portion is devoted to the history of the apostle of the Gentiles. Nevertheless Gentile history is not the chief object of the book: St. Luke has as much at heart the conversion of the Jews. And it is precisely the union of Jewish and Gentile Christianity, the harmony of Peter and Paul, which is the centre-point of the book. What our Lord says in chap. 1:8 is its peculiar theme. The effective testimony of the apostles anointed by the power of the Holy Ghost, from Jerusalem to the end of the earth, or the progress of the Church of Christ from the Jews to the Gentiles forms its contents. (J. P. Lange, D. D.)
3. Its fearless candour. Nothing is kept back; there is no desire to make men appear better than they really were; all the sin is here, all the shame, all the virtue, all the honour--everything is set down with an impartial and fearless hand. That is one of the strongest incidental proofs of the inspiration of the whole book. This is not a series of artificial curves or carvings; the men we have to deal with are men of flesh and blood like ourselves wholly. Here is a record of selfishness: the story of Ananias and Sapphira is not kept back. “How much better,” some would have said, “to omit it.” As well omit the story of Adam and Eve. In every book there is aa Adam and Eve, if it be a faithful portraiture of human life; in every soul a fall, an expulsion, a day of cherubic fire that asserts the sovereignty of outraged righteousness. These are not inventions, but they are representations of ourselves as we know ourselves, and therefore we can confirm the book. The accident varies, the substance is constant. Dissensions are reported: Paul and Barnabas separated; Paul withstood Peter “to the face, because he was to be blamed.” Peter to be blamed! That was an honest book! There is no man-painting here; there is no attempt to get up a Christian exhibition with the motto, “Behold the perfect men!” There is a stern reality about this that compels the attention which it charms. Christianity is not represented here as to its earthly lot in any very attractive way. Who would say, after reading the Acts of the Apostles, were we to judge by the fate of its apostles and teachers, “Let us also be Christians”? There was hardly a man in the whole brotherhood that could trace his ancestry beyond yesterday. If you wanted to join an unfashionable sect, the Christian sect would have presented to you innumerable and overwhelming advantages; if you wanted to suffer, Christianity would find the opportunity. We thought that towards the last surely we should hear some better account of it; but in the last chapter Christianity is represented as the sect which is everywhere “spoken against.” All of these circumstances and instances illustrate the intense honesty of the record. Human authors study probabilities. It is a canon amongst literary men that even in a romance nothing shall be put down--though it may actually have occurred--which exceeds the bounds of average probability. There is no study of parts, proportions, colours in the Acts of the Apostles; there is no poetry-making, no romance elaboration; things are put down every night as they occurred every day--there stands the record, with all blotches, blemishes, faults, all heroisms and nobilities, all endurances and glorious successes; nothing is extenuated; the whole tale is told exactly and literally as it occurred. (J. Parker, D. D.)
4. It is pre-eminently a Gospel of the Holy Ghost. At every stage His action is emphatically recognised. Jesus, after His resurrection (chap. 5.), had “through the Holy Ghost given commandment to the apostles,” who are to “be baptized with the Holy Ghost” and to “receive power after the Holy Ghost is come upon them.” The Holy Ghost had “spoken through the mouth of David.” Then comes the wonder of Pentecost (chap. 2.), when all the disciples were “filled with the Holy Ghost,” and the prophecy, “I will pour out My Spirit upon all flesh,” brought to the verge of fulfilment. Jesus has “received from the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost.” Once again (chap. 4.) all were “filled with the Holy Ghost.” The sin of Ananias (chap. 5.) is a “lie unto the Holy Ghost,” who has been “tempted” by himself and his wife. The “Holy Ghost whom God hath given to them that obey Him” is a witness that the Christ is exalted at the right hand of God. The seven who are chosen in chap. 6 are “full of the Holy Ghost and of wisdom,” and Stephen is pre-eminently “full of faith and of the Holy Ghost.” His leading charge against priests and Scribes (chap. 7.) is that they “do always resist the Holy Ghost.” Peter and John go down to Samaria (chap. 8.) that those who have been baptized by Philip “might receive the Holy Ghost”; and the sin of Simon is that he thinks this gift of God can be purchased with money. It is the Spirit that impels Philip to join himself to the Ethiopian, and carries him away after his baptism. Ananias is to lay hands on Saul of Tarsus (chap. 9.) that he may be “filled with the Holy Ghost.” The Churches in their interval of rest are “walking … in the comfort of the Holy Ghost.” The admission of the Gentiles (chap. 10.) is attested when the gift of the Holy Ghost is poured out on Cornelius and his friends, and Peter dwells on that in his address (Acts 11:15-17; Acts 15:8). Barnabas when sent to Antioch (chap. 11.) is described as “full of the Holy Ghost and of faith.” It is the Holy Ghost who “separates Barnabas and Saul for the work of the ministry” (chap. 13.), and they are sent forth by Him. Saul, roused to indignation by the subtlety of Elymas, is “filled with the Holy Ghost.” It is He who (chap. 15.) guides the decision of the Council, and directs (chap. 16.) the footsteps of Paul and his companions on their mission journey. The twelve disciples of John (chap. 19.) receive the Holy Ghost when Paul lays his hands on them. He it was who witnessed (chaps. 20.; 21.) in every city that bonds and imprisonment awaited the apostle in Jerusalem, and it was the Holy Ghost who had made the elders of Ephesus overseers of the Church of God. Well nigh the last words of the book are those which “the Holy Ghost had spoken by Esaias,” and which Paul, in the power of the same Spirit, applies to the Jews of his own time (Acts 28:25). (Dean Plumptre.)
5. It is a continuation of the life of Christ. The Acts is but the history of Christ in His disciples. He it is who appoints the twelve witnesses (Acts 1:24), who, after He has received the Spirit, sends Him down on the Church (Acts 2:33), who adds to His Church (Acts 2:47), and is ever near His people, turning them away from their iniquities (Acts 3:26). He it is who works miracles both of healing and destruction in testimony to His apostles’ preaching (Acts 3:6; Acts 3:10; Acts 3:30; Acts 9:34; Acts 13:11; Acts 14:3; Acts 19:13). To Stephen He reveals Himself standing at the right hand of God (7:55, 56). His angel speaks unto Philip (Acts 8:26), and it was His Spirit that caught him away (verse 31). He appears to Saul (Acts 19:5; Acts 19:27; Acts 22:8; Acts 22:26). His hand established the first Church among the Gentiles (Acts 11:27). His angel delivers Peter (Acts 12:7; Acts 12:11; Acts 12:17), and strikes the hostile Herod (Acts 12:23). He it is again who appears to Paul in the temple, and commits to him the conversion of the Gentiles (Acts 22:17; Acts 22:21). To Him the apostles and brethren address themselves on the occasion of the first mission to the Gentiles (Acts 12:2; Acts 5:47). To Him are the infant Churches commended (Acts 14:23). His Spirit prevents the missionaries from preaching in Bithynia (Acts 16:7). He calls them by the voice of the Man of Macedonia into Europe (Acts 16:10). He opens the heart of Lydia (Acts 16:14), comforts and encourages Paul at Corinth (Acts 18:9-10), strengthens him in prison, and informs him of his journey to Rome (Acts 23:11). These interventions of Jesus, so numerous, express, and decisive, are a sufficient warrant for our ascribing all to His influence, even in those instances when His name is not expressly mentioned. (Baumgarten.)
VIII. Its Scope and Objects.--
1. To record the history of the Church. Looking at the contents of the book it would be well described as the “Acts of Peter and Paul,” the former occupying a prominent place in chaps, 1-5; 10-12; 15, the latter being the central figure in Acts 7:58; Acts 7:9; Acts 11:25-30; Acts 13:1-52; Acts 14:1-28; Acts 15:1-41; Acts 16:1-40; Acts 17:1-34; Acts 18:1-28; Acts 19:1-41; Acts 20:1-38; Acts 21:1-40; Acts 22:1-30; Acts 23:1-35; Acts 24:1-27; Acts 25:1-27; Acts 26:1-32; Acts 27:1-44. From another point of view a yet more appropriate title would be that of Origines Ecclesiae--the history of the growth and development of the Church and of its mission work among the Gentiles. The starting-point and close of the book are in this respect significant. It begins at Jerusalem; it ends at Rome. When it opens, circumcision is required, as well as baptism; the Church is outwardly but a Jewish sect of some 120 persons. When it ends every barrier between Jew and Gentile has been broken down, and the Church has become catholic and all-embracing. To trace the stages of that expansion both locally and as affecting the teaching of the Church is the dominant purpose of the book. The “acts” of those who were not concerned in it, or played but a subordinate part, are deliberately passed over. Some paragraph of selection is clearly involved in the structure of such a book as this, and without going beyond its four corners we may safely affirm that the main purpose of the writer was to inform a Gentile convert of Rome how the gospel had been brought to him, and how it had gained the width and freedom with which it was actually presented. (Baumgarten.)
As in the Gospels we see the grain of wheat falling into the earth and dying, in the Acts we have it represented--for the Church is the body of Christ--springing up and bearing fruit abundantly, spreading into all parts of the world, and enriching human nature with the gifts of Divine grace. As in the Gospels the human means are not brought into prominence in order that our attention should not be diverted from the central figure, our Incarnate Lord, so in the Acts it is not man that is foremost, but the work which by man was wrought through the power of the Holy Ghost; the “acts” which He enabled the apostle of Christ to accomplish, and which, though done by man’s instrumentality, was yet done by God, for “neither is he that planteth anything … but God that giveth the increase.” (W. Denton, M. A.)
2. To vindicate and elucidate St. Paul:--We do not dispute that St. Luke’s history may have been written with an irenical purpose. St. Paul, to whom he was strongly attached, had been more perversely misrepresented and assailed than any one of the servants of Christ; and therefore he wrote to exhibit the harmony of St. Paul’s Christianity with that of the earlier apostles, as well as the process by which he had been led to take a wider scope of thought and ministry, and the wise resolution with which he had rescued the Church from the trammels of Jewish restriction. The book of the Acts of the Apostles tells us exactly what it is indispensable for us to know in order to understand and appreciate the epistles which follow. It is a wonderful tale, well told; and all the more satisfactory that it allows the apostles Peter and Paul to speak for themselves, and so allows us to catch their sentiments in their own words, while we seem to see their gestures and hear their tones. (D. Fraser, D. D.)
IX. Its Relations to the Epistles.--
1. The Acts greatly help us in understanding the Epistles; the latter add much important historical information; and the agreement between the two, extending even to many minute details, strongly confirms the truth of both the Epistles and the Acts. Imagine that we had to study the Epistles without the history; it would be extremely difficult to determine anything as to the time and place of their composition, to fix their historical surroundings, and to perceive the precise adaptation. By the help of Acts 17:18, we can readily locate 1 and 2 Thessalonians as having certainly been written at Corinth, and almost certainly in a.d. 52 or 53; and we much better understand those previous relations between the apostle and the persons addressed. We perceive that these were the first writings of the great apostle, and that they contain the germs of that great doctrine of justification by faith which he developed some years later in Galatians and Romans By the help of Acts 20:1-38., we perceive that the second and chief group of Paul’s Epistles (1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans) were all written between a.d. 57 and a.d. 58. It also becomes clear that 1 Corinthians was written before leaving Ephesus, 2 Corinthians in Macedonia, during the summer or fall; and Romans during his three months’ stay in Corinth. As to the third group (Philippians, Philem., Colossians, Ephesians), the Acts give us less assistance, for they were written after its history closes, while the apostle was a prisoner at Rome. Yet even here no little light is thrown on Philippians by the history of Paul’s first labours at Philippi; while the fact that Paul had laboured long and successfully at Ephesus brings into more striking contrast with other Epistles the absence of affectionate salutation to individuals in the Epistle, and concurs with other circumstances to work the conviction that this was designed as a circular letter to the various cities in the district of which Ephesus was the capital.
2. The Epistles afford a valuable supplement to the history contained in the Acts. Thus the brief account of Paul’s labours in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9) may be greatly enlarged by interesting recollections given in 1 Thessalonians; and that of his labours in Corinth (Acts 18:1-17), by similar recollections in 1 Corinthians The bare statement in Acts 16:6 that Paul went through Galatia, turns to a vivid picture of a warm-hearted Celtic reception when we compare Galatians 4:12-15. The priority and prominence of women in the Church at Philippi (Acts 16:12-40) receives further pleasing illustration from the general excellence of that Church and its special generosity in contributions for Paul’s support, of which we read in the Epistle. The barely mentioned three months in Greece (Acts 20:2-3) become warm with activity and zeal as we read the Epistle to the Romans. And so with many other points throughout the history. One exceedingly important part of Paul’s history comes out in the second group of Epistles, to which only a single slight reference is made in the book of Acts (Acts 24:16). This is the great collection which Paul made among his Gentile Churches for the poor Christians at Jerusalem. This occupied much of his thought during two years of his third missionary journey. For this he directed the Galatians and the Corinthians so set apart something on every first day of the week (1 Corinthians 16:1-2), and sent with Titus (2 Corinthians 8:6) the strongest argument and warmest appeal (2 Corinthians 8:9). But he knows that there are those who, if he himself take charge of the money, will delight in saying that nobody knows whether that money ever got to Jerusalem; so he declares (1 Corinthians 16:3-4) that it is to be carried by persons of their own selection. The good name of Christianity, in connection with benevolent funds, much oftener suffers through imprudence or negligence than through honesty. The apostle evidently expected this contribution to open the hearts of the Jewish Christians towards the Gentile Churches, and thus prevent a schism. The Judaisers were doing their utmost to kindle bitter feeling at Jerusalem towards Paul and his Churches. The Jews in foreign countries had long been accustomed (as they are to this day) to send money for the support of their poorer brethren at Jerusalem; and when Gentile Christians gathered this liberal contribution, nothing could be better suited to call forth the affection and confidence of the Jewish Christians. The rapid restoration of good feeling in the Southern States of America towards the North has been not a little promoted by the generosity of Northern Christians towards Southern enterprises. The later Epistles carry on the history after the conclusion of Acts. What an interesting light is thrown upon Paul’s life as a prisoner at Rome, by various allusions in Philippians, Philem., Colossians, and Ephesians We learn something even of his outer life as he goes about in the Praetorian camp, chained to a soldier, and talking upon every occasion concerning Christ, until his bonds in Christ are known in all the Praetorium; or as he searches for souls in the slums of the great city, and a runaway slave from Asia Minor becomes his son in the faith; or as he joyfully receives a fresh contribution from Philippi for his support, or lovingly visits the brother who brought it, in that perilous illness which the sickly climate of Rome has inflicted upon him. Still more is the apostle’s inner life brought before us in these Epistles, until we see right clearly his anxieties, his consolations, his hopes for time and for eternity. The closing group of letters to his two companions for years past reveal anew the most tender aspects of the great apostle’s character, mingled with fearless courage, until at last the curtain slowly descends upon him as he sits thinking of old friends who are absent, and rejoicing in other friends whom the Lord has raised up for him, ready to be offered, and waiting for the crown of righteousness--slowly, slowly the curtain descends, till we see his face no more. (J. A. Broadus, D. D.)
XI. Practical Lessons from Its History.--It is said of Abel that “being dead he yet speaketh,” though no word uttered by him has been recorded. So the early Church speaks to us through its works more than through any message of written language.
1. Its spirit of devotion, and its love of public worship should be to us a holy inspiration. On the evening of the Sabbath of the Resurrection, the disciples met in aa upper room and also on the following Sabbath. After the Ascension “they were daily in the temple praising and blessing God.” Nor did the descent of the Spirit on Pentecost change their habits of public worship. Peter and John still “went up at the ninth hour, being the hour of prayer.” And when the number of the disciples had vastly increased, “they continuing daily with one accord in the temple.” The fact that the descent of the Spirit occurred on the anniversary of the giving of the law seems to indicate the perfect union between the legal and spiritual requirements. The duty of public worship was enjoined by that law, was sanctioned by the baptism of fire, and was voiced in the actions of the early Church, saying with the apostle, “Forsaking not the assembling of yourselves together.” It must not be forgotten also that this attendance on public worship was not free from danger. In their first meetings “the door was shut for fear of the Jews.”
2. In their unity of spirit and close affection for each other, they gave a bright example of Christian duty. This union may have been caused partly through fear of the bigoted Jews, and as being sharers of the common reproach; but the chief tie was love. Their great attachment was to their risen Master. They loved Him, and through Him they loved each other. The test of discipleship was “By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one to another.” This love was manifest, not only in their union in public service, but also in their supplying each other’s needs. A mutual love overcame their selfishness and their love of property. That love is farther evinced by the provision which was early made for the support of widows. This led to the selection of seven laymen to superintend this ministration, which gives us a glimpse of the relative value of the spiritual and the temporal economy of the Church. The serving of tables was necessary, but the preaching of the gospel was more essential. This ever remains God’s order: The preaching of the Cross precedes the humanitarian efforts to elevate man.
3. In the history of the early Church we mark its care in reference to organisation. One of its first acts was to fill the place of the fallen Judas. We have also the institution of the order of deacons for serving tables. What their peculiar organisation was may be a matter of doubt; but all agree that there was an organisation, in which the members were closely united; which received members, administered the ordinances, and expelled the unworthy; which, by proper adjudication, settled difficulties, and selected its officers. To these organised Churches the writings of the apostle were sent. This organisation was not formed to interfere with great national movements; but simply to preserve its own existence, to advance its members in holiness and usefulness, and to extend amongst men the knowledge of the Lord. As, however, this organisation might need to be modified to meet the condition of various lands and coming ages, its special form is not given us in the Holy Scriptures. It has been left to men under the influence of the Holy Spirit to carry out, as seems best to them, the great principles laid down in the Word of God.
4. Notice the example of the Christian Church in exciting, and finding proper objects for, human activity. Duties were enjoined, not upon ministers merely, or on prominent members, but on the entire body. These members differed from each other in office and qualifications, as the head from the hand or the foot. All Christians were urged to be co-workers with God, to have the spirit of Christ, and to labour for their fellow-men. They were described as an army of soldiers fighting against the enemies of Christ. They were enjoined to “work while it is called to-day”; “to be diligent in business, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.” The activity of the early Christians appeared in the midst of their persecutions, and when they were scattered abroad they went everywhere preaching the Word.
5. We have exemplified in the early Church the power of the gospel to triumph over all circumstances. It commenced in the age of universal corruption. Outside of Judaea idolatry reigned supreme; licentiousness prevailed; murder and suicides were frequent; the power and wealth of the State were in a few hands; the mass of the people were without means, learning, protection, and a large part was held in slavery. Yet in the midst of all these vices, without a Bible in the hands of the people, without a Sabbath, and without church edifices, the gospel made wonderful conquests. Nor were these triumphs secured by any external aid; the disciples received no assistance from the governments or established institutions. The literature, the schools, the influence of society, were against them. Yet the power of God made them conquerors, if the gospel had such power then, why not now? (Dr. M. Simpson.)
I. General sketch.--
1. His early life.
2. His conversion.
3. His apostleship.
4. His trials.
(a) At Philippi (chap. 16).
(b) At Ephesus (Acts 19:23-41).
(c) At Jerusalem (Acts 21:27).
(a) Before the people (chap. 22).
(b) Before the council (chap. 23).
(c) Before Felix (chap. 24).
(d) Before Agrippa (chap. 26).
II. His personal appearance.--The nearest approximation to an authentic portrait of Paul is the medal found in the cemetery of Domitilla, one of the Flavian family, and assigned by archaeologists to the close of the first or beginning of the second century. Closely cut hair (comp. chap. 18:18), slightly projecting eyes, a high forehead, a nose and mouth that indicate intellectual vigour, moustache, and a beard full rather than long--this was what the artist gave in his attempt to reproduce a face which he may have seen himself or heard described by others. In stature, it is obvious, he was below the middle height (2 Corinthians 10:1). The suffering which he describes as the “thorn in the flesh” showed itself in weak eyes, probably in the nervous trembling of one who is constantly liable to severe attacks of pain (see 2 Corinthians 12:7). He went about as one who had the sentence of death on him (2 Corinthians 1:9). With this, however, there was great vigour of body. He could travel on foot some thirty miles a day (Acts 17:1), or ride on horseback (Acts 23:24), or swim rivers, or keep himself floating for many hours at sea (Acts 27:43). The indomitable energy of the man sustained him under hardships and privations of all kinds. He spoke, not with the rhetorical cadencies in which Greek rhetoricians delighted, but with words that went home like an arrow to their mark, and pierced men’s hearts (2 Corinthians 11:25). The voice was, perhaps, untunable, but the words were full of life (1 Corinthians 14:25; 2 Corinthians 10:10). As men saw him in his artisan’s dress, living the life of the poor, they might have taken him for what he appeared to be; but when they came to know him they found a culture that surprised them, and a marvellous readiness to adapt himself to different natures. He became “all things to all men”--won the respect of proconsuls, chiliarchs, centurions, of the wild emotional Galatians, of the runaway slave Onesimus. He would listen to any tale of sorrow; and yet a keen sense of humour mingled with his earnestness and tenderness. He did not disdain to mingle an occasional pun (Philippians 4:2; Philippians 4:18; Philemon 1:10-11) with serious counsel, nor to paint the weaknesses of silly women and charlatans with a pen that almost reminds us of the caustic sarcasm of Juvenal (1 Timothy 5:11-13; 2 Timothy 3:6-7). And yet when the hour of prayer came, sometimes when he was alone, sometimes when in company with others, he would be absorbed as in ecstatic adoration (1 Corinthians 14:18). And in his prayers there was an almost terrible earnestness. Groans mingled with words, and name after name of churches and beloved disciples passed from his lips, as he laid his intercessions for them before his Father in heaven (Romans 1:9; Romans 8:26; 1 Thessalonians 3:10). Such are the outlines of the man as he was--very unlike to Raphael’s idealised representation of him--which are given to us indirectly through his own writings, and each reader must fill up those outlines according to his power. To this we may add such fragmentary notices as are found in ancient writers, and which, from their general consistency, may claim something like the character of a tradition. Thus, in the “Philopatris,” ascribed to Lucian (possibly of the second century, but the book is probably spurious and belonging to the fourth), he is described as “bald, and with an aquiline nose”; and in the apocryphal “Acts of Paul and Thecla” (c. 1:7), as “little in stature, bald, crook-legged, vigorous, with knitted brows, slightly aquiline nose, full of grace, appearing now as a man and now as having the face of an angel.” Malala, or John of Antioch “(in the sixth century), describes him (“Chronograph,” c. 10.) as “short, bald, with partly grey hair and beard, a prominent nose, greyish eyes, knitted brows, pale and yet fresh complexion, a well-shaped beard, with a touch of humour, sagacious, self-restrained, pleasant to converse with, gentle, yet filled by the Holy Spirit with an eager enthusiasm.” Nicephorus (in the fifteenth century) reproduces the same general type; but the late date makes it impossible for us to look to his account as more than a second-hand portrait. Such as it is, he too speaks of short stature, somewhat bent and stooping; pale and yet comely; bald, and with bright grey eyes; with long and aquiline nose, and a thick beard more or less grizzled (“Hist.” 2.37). Such in outward form, such in manner and character, was the man to whom the Church of Christ owes so much. We are reminded, as we read his own account of himself, what others said of him in his lifetime, the traditions that survived after his death, of such a one as Socrates, with his Silenus face, his ecstatic trances, his playful irony and humour, his earnest thought, his deep enthusiasm, his warm affection for the young, his indifference to wealth and ease. These were, of course, distinctive features, rising in part out of differences of race and culture--the difference between the Aryan and the Semitic types of character--in part out of the higher truths which had been revealed to the apostle and not to the sage; but there is enough in the general features of the life and character of each to help us to understand the words which tell us that “Wisdom in all ages entering into holy souls maketh them friends of God and prophets.” (Dean Plumptre.)
III. His parentage, early life, and training.--
1. Paul came of a good family. He was “a Hebrew of the Hebrews”--of pure, unmixed Hebrew descent. He was of the tribe of Benjamin, the favourite son of the father of the patriarchs; the tribe from which was taken the first king, whose name, Saul, was given to him at his circumcision. It is well to come of a good stock. Training and culture are of vast advantage; but much depends on the quality of the raw material. You would rather be Normans or Anglo-Saxons than Bosjesmen or Australians. And not only is it well to be born of one of the highest sections of the race, but of good immediate ancestors. There is a great difference between the moral condition in which human beings come into the world. The miserable offspring of ignorance, brutality, and vice come into the world with a deteriorated nature, whereas God-fearing parents, because of their pure and unspotted lives, can give a good physical constitution to their children, and good moral instincts along with it. Paul’s father was not only distinguished as a Jew, but as a man. He was a Roman citizen, though we cannot tell how he acquired the honour. In consequence of his possessing it, however, Paul was free born. Of Paul’s mother we can say nothing, as nothing is recorded. On general principles, however, we have reason to think that she was a woman distinguished by strength of mind and goodness of character. Depend upon it, men like St. Paul are very seldom the offspring of vain, foolish, or weak-minded women. We do not know whether Paul had any brothers, but we know that he had a sister, for a son of hers is mentioned in the Acts. If there is a pure, elevated friendship in the world between man and woman it must be that, I think, which may exist between a brother and sister, virtuous and intelligent. There might have been such between Paul and his sister.
2. He was brought up carefully, being trained according to the straitest sect of his religion. He received also a liberal education in other respects. Tarsus was a place distinguished for its learned university. It is doubtful, however, whether the apostle, as a boy, would be sent to get his Greek learning at a heathen school. The probability is that his education was at first almost exclusively Jewish and religious, conducted at home, or at some seminary connected with a synagogue. According to the habits of the time, he would, at five years of age, be initiated into the Scriptures, at ten into the traditionary law, and at thirteen would be considered as competent to take his place as an instructed member of the Hebrew community. Towards the close of this period, or immediately after, he was taught a trade. It was a saying among the Jews that “he who did not teach his son a trade taught him to be a thief.” In accordance with this, boys whose parents were in good circumstances were instructed in some handicraft, as a resource against possible future vicissitude. Young Saul was taught to be a “tent maker,” as we have it in our version. Thus, then, I think, went on St. Paul’s early culture and training at Tarsus. You can easily imagine how, with that quick sensibility which is the associate of genius, his young heart, his fervent, throbbing soul, would sometimes be excited as he was reading the old stories of the Hebrew nation, and especially those connected with his own tribe; and you can imagine the eagerness with which he would listen to the pilgrims who went from Tarsus to Jerusalem at the great feasts, and came back again with their minds filled with what they had seen in the holy city.
3. At a proper time he was sent to pursue his studies at Jerusalem. He was placed under one of the most accomplished professors of the law--Gamaliel--celebrated among the men of his own nation, and celebrated amongst us, partly from the manner in which he is brought into contact with the Christian faith in the earliest years of the Church, and partly from the reflexed glory of his illustrious pupil. As a student the apostle was diligent, industrious, successful. He profited more than many of his equals. He took his degrees, we may safely affirm, with distinguished honour. While he was a successful student, he was, as a man, pure, truthful, innocent, conscientious. He was never one of your “fast young men.” He was always devout, earnest, upright. He reverenced God, studied His law, and sought to be in practical harmony with it; hence he reverenced himself, respected his own nature, and so watched over “the temple of his body” that the Divine Shechinah might deign to dwell in it.
4. After finishing his studies at Jerusalem he returned home, went back to Tarsus, and probably remained there for some years, where, doubtless, he improved himself in Greek learning. After his established character, after his perfect acquaintance with and study of the law, with his habits and principles fixed and determined, it might be felt that he could attend the university classes and mingle with heathen students in a way which might not have been safe when he was a mere youth. Gamaliel, under whom he studied, was a man devoted to Greek literature as well as to Hebrew law; he would no doubt breathe into his pupils something of his own spirit; Saul was just the sort of student to be influenced by this.
5. Here possibly he may have married. Many critics infer that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, from his giving his vote against the first Christian martyrs. Now, if this be the case he must have been married, a condition enforced when the great council had in its hands the power of life and death. The Jewish people said--“The man who is unmarried, whose heart has never been softened and sublimed by that regal affection which beautifies every other, may do very well to judge in matters of a pecuniary nature, but we will not entrust him with life and death.” (T. Binney.)
IV. His first APPEARANCE in history.--Christianity was as yet only two or three years old, and was growing very quietly in Jerusalem. At first the authorities had been inclined to persecute it, and checked its teachers when they appeared in public. But they had changed their minds and, acting under the advice of Gamaliel, resolved to neglect it, believing that it would die out if let alone. The Christians, on the other hand, gave as little offence as possible, and in the externals of religion continued to be strict Jews. It was a kind of truce which allowed Christianity a little space for secret growth. But Christianity could not keep such a truce; for there is in it a world-conquering force which impels it at all risks to propagate itself, and the fermentation of the new wine of gospel liberty was sure sooner or later to burst the forms of the Jewish law. At length a man arose in the Church in whom these aggressive tendencies embodied themselves. This was Stephen, a man full of the Holy Ghost, and possessed of capabilities which the brevity of his career only permitted to suggest, but not to develop themselves. One of the synagogues in which he encountered the champions of Jewish orthodoxy in debate was that of the Cilicians, the countrymen of Paul. May he have been a rabbi in this synagogue and one of Stephen’s opponents in argument? At all events, when the argument of logic was exchanged for that of violence, he was in the front. When the witnesses who cast the first stones at Stephen were stripping for their work, they laid down their garments at his feet. There, on the margin of that wild scene, in the field of judicial murder, we see his figure for the first time standing a little apart and sharply outlined against the mass of persecutors unknown to fame--the pile of many-coloured robes at his feet, and his eyes bent upon the holy martyr, who is kneeling in the article of death and praying: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” His zeal on this occasion brought Paul prominently under the notice of the authorities. It probably procured him a seat in the Sanhedrin, where we find him soon afterwards giving his vote against the Christians. At all events, it led to his being entrusted with the work of utterly uprooting Christianity, which the authorities now resolved upon. He accepted their proposal; for he believed it to be God’s work. He saw more clearly than anyone else what was the drift of Christianity; and it seemed to him destined, if unchecked, to overturn all that he considered most sacred. He was not a man to do things by halves, so he flung himself headlong into his task. Terrible were the scenes which ensued. He flew from synagogue to synagogue, and from house to house, dragging forth men and women, who were cast into prison and punished. The Church at Jerusalem was broken in pieces, and its members who escaped the rage of the persecutor were scattered over the neighbouring provinces and countries. Having heard that Damascus was one of the places where the fugitives had taken refuge, and that they were carrying on their propaganda among the numerous Jews of that city, he went to the high priest who had jurisdiction over the Jews outside as well as inside Palestine, and got letters empowering him to seize and bind and bring to Jerusalem all of the new way of thinking whom he might find there. (J. Stalker, D. D.)
V. His conversion.--Paul had nearly completed his journey. He had traversed the burning fiats and uplands of Gaulonitis and Iturea: he was now in the beautiful valley watered by the streams of the Abana and Pharpar, about a mile and a half, it seems probable, from Damascus. Behind him was the great dome of Hermon, capped with snow--on his right the Hauran--on his left the spurs of Antilibanus--before him the city which contained his destined victims, its white buildings just rising above the trees and gardens which lined the road. It is one of the very choicest spots on the surface of our globe--that approach to Damascus through the villages--beautiful in itself--more beautiful from its sharp contrast to the arid desert which encircles it. It is a very wilderness of gardens in which flowers and fruit are intertwined in a careless profusion--in which the prune, the apricot, the olive, festooned by the vine, grow on this side and on that with a rich luxuriance, while everywhere the channels that are distributed, for purposes of irrigation, over the plain, cool the air with the clear fresh streams that run down from the base of Antilibanus and maintain this wealth of vegetation under that burning sun. Its situation alone explains the fact that Damascus is the oldest of known cities, and that while Tyre, Babylon, Palmyra--each of these, ancient as they were, more modern than itself--have long since perished, and perished utterly, Damascus is still a place of beauty and even of importance. It was at noon, when all is hushed in these southern climes, even to the very birds upon the trees, that the event occurred which turned the whole current of the life of Saul of Tarsus. Suddenly--suddenly there was a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun. The stupefied companions of the Pharisee fell to the ground. They only rose to hear that a voice was being uttered which they could not understand. Although the narrative makes it certain that the vision was not merely internal to the soul of St. Paul, but an objective phenomenon, it was not intended for them, and they saw and heard only enough to know that it was in progress. Paul heard what they did not hear: he saw what they did not see. He heard in the tones of that voice which had fallen on the ears of Peter and of John, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me? It is hard for thee to kick against the goads.” He had, it is plain, felt the pleading of Stephen before the Sanhedrin--and his death outside the city--the constant, energetic, though sternly repressed working of his own conscience reviewing these facts of his own career. They were a cause at times of real secret distress to him; and here there was an evidence from without confirming what had been already whispered within. The religion which he had argued against, fought against, persecuted, might after all be--it was--true. It made people, in every way inferior to himself, somehow yet unmistakably, immeasurably his moral superiors. That he had already felt; and now here was the countersign of the feeling written in the very clouds of heaven. He could do no more. He asked submissively what he was to do, and he was told to arise and go into the city, and there it would be told him what he was ordained to do. The burning light of the vision had blinded him, and he entered Damascus, not at the head of his cavalcade, bent on schemes of violence and persecution, but led by the hand, as if he were himself a prisoner, to the house of Judas. There for three days he fasted, prayed--passed seventy-two hours in darkness, in silence, alone, alone with God. (Canon Liddon.)
VI. His retirement to Arabia.--Paul was a born thinker; it was not enough for him to experience anything; he required to comprehend it and fit it into the structure of his convictions. Immediately, therefore, after his conversion he went away, he tells us, into Arabia; and since there is no record of his preaching, and the statement occurs in the midst of a vehement defence of the originality of his gospel, we may conclude that it was for the purpose of grasping in thought the details and the bearings of the revelation. In lonely contemplation he worked them out; and, when he returned to mankind, he was in possession of that view of Christianity which formed the burden of his preaching during the subsequent years. There is some doubt as to the precise place of his retirement, but most probably it was the Arabia of the Wanderings, whose principal feature was Mount Sinai. This was a spot hallowed by great memories and by the presence of other great men of revelation. Here Moses had seen the burning bush and communed with God on the top of the mountain. Here Elijah had roamed in his season of despair and drunk anew at the wells of inspiration. What place could be more appropriate for the meditations of this successor of these men of God? In the valleys where the manna fell and under the shadow of the peaks which had burned beneath the feet of Jehovah he pondered the problem of his life. It is a great example. Originality in the preaching of the truth depends on the solitary intuition of it. Paul enjoyed the special inspiration of the Holy Ghost; but this did not render the concentrated activity of his own thinking unnecessary, but only lent it peculiar intensity; and the clearness and certainty of his gospel were due to these months of sequestered thought. (J. Stalker, D. D.)
VII. His position in the Church and his relation to its leaders.--The three most prominent apostles during our Lord’s lifetime were Peter, James, and John, and during the early years of the history the first and third of these maintain their preeminence, and then the second is suddenly called away without leaving a trace behind to justify the exalted place he occupied, and in his stead henceforth we find one born out of due season. I know not how we could find a truer point of view from which to regard the rise of the great apostle to the Gentiles, than by placing ourselves in the position of the early Church mourning over the untimely death of the eldest of the Sons of Thunder. It was not only that now for the first time a chasm had been made in the original apostolic brotherhood, but also that a change had come over the general aspect of the whole Christian society. Jerusalem was no longer the exclusive centre of the new faith; the Church was no longer one with the synagogue; new wants had arisen which no natural experience of the fishermen of Galilee was able to supply; the children were come to the birth, and there was not strength to bring forth: even Peter “withdrew” and separated himself from the emergency which he had been the chief instrument in bringing to pass; the framework of the early Church, which twelve years before had seemed instinct with immortal vigour, now appeared to be breaking up and passing away before a mightier spirit which it was unable to comprehend: far off beyond the confines of the Holy Land, in the Gentile city of Antioch, was growing up a new body of prophets which threatened to throw the older societies of Palestine into the shade; a new name was given to the disciples whose very form indicated its Roman origin, and from the adoption of which the great mass of believers shrank down to the very close of the apostolic age. It was with this new departure that Paul was called upon to cope. Paul the successor of James became the apostle to the Gentiles. Each of the three, however, has his distinct place in the early Church. Peter is the founder, Paul the propagator, John the finisher; Peter is the apostle of the rising dawn, Paul of the noon in its heat and clearness, John of the sunset--first the stormy sunset of the Apocalypse, then the calm brightness of the Gospel and Epistles of his old age. The whole world of Jewish Christians leaned on Peter, the whole world of Gentile converts leaned on Paul, and the whole body of mixed believers turned, after the fall of Jerusalem, to the sole surviving apostle at Ephesus Peter gave to Christianity its first outward historical form; Paul its inward and spiritual freedom; John that divine end and object in which form and spirit harmonise. (Dean Stanley.)
VIII. His mission.--
1. Its requirements and his fitness for it.
(a) Must be a Jew. Founded as Christianity is on the ancient covenant and promises, its appeal to the world was mainly through Judaism. It is to the Jews that the preacher must look for his earliest converts. And none but a Jew would gain access to that exclusive and prejudiced people.
(b) For the same reason the apostle of the world must be of pure Hebrew descent, and be able to speak in the sacred language of the law and prophets. The Hellenists were looked on by the purer Jews with contempt, and thus a Hellenist would have acted at a great disadvantage, inasmuch as to him the central fortress of Judaism was inaccessible.
(c) Again, none but the straitest sect of Judaism will furnish the man who shall be sufficient for this work. The pretended mysteries of the Rabbinical teaching must be in his grasp. All should be compelled to look up to him as one trained to teach, and thoroughly capable of doing it. And for another reason, the great apostle of Christianity must be a Pharisee. Of all the opposition offered to Jesus that of the Pharisees was the most consistent. They saw that if His teaching were true the ceremonial law had passed away, the barrier between Jew and Gentile was broken down.
(d) But a Jew born in Palestine, and receiving a purely Jewish education, could have been a missionary for the most part to pure Jews only. It is plainly necessary that he be accustomed to the use of the Hellenistic version of the Scriptures, together with the Hebrew original, and to the habits of thought and expression of the more cultivated Greeks.
(e) If, however, we rested here, one important advantage would be wanting. The great apostle is sure to incur the deadliest hatred of the Pharisaic party, which he has deserted to pass over to Christianity. One safeguard, and one only, humanly speaking, would obviate the danger of his career being cut short by conspiracy on the part of his enemies, or the tyranny of an unprincipled governor. He must possess the privileges of a Roman citizen.
2. Its significance. Paul was not like a missionary of later times, whose great work is accomplished if he can add to the number of his converts; he was this, but he was much more. It was not the actual conversions themselves, but the principle which every conversion involved; not the actual disciples he gained, but he who dared to make them disciples, that constituted the enduring interest of his life struggle. It was not merely that he reclaimed from paganism the Greek cities of Asia Minor, but that at every step westward from Palestine he tore up the prejudice of ages. It was not merely that he cast out the false spirit from the damsel of Philippi, but that when he set his foot on the farther shores of the AEgean, religion ceased for the first time to be Asiatic and became European. It was not merely that at Athens he converted Dionysius and Damaris, but that there was seen a Jew standing in the court of the Areopagus, and appealing to an Athenian audience as children of the same Father, and worshipping, though unconsciously, the same God. It was not that at Rome he made an impression on the slaves of the imperial palace, but that a descendant of Abraham recognised in the dense masses of that corrupt metropolis a field for his exertions as sacred as the courts of the Temple of Jerusalem. (Dean Stanley.)
3. His entrance on it.--Almost simultaneously with the baptism of Cornelius a great revival broke out among the Gentiles of the city of Antioch, the capital of Syria. The movement had been begun by fugitives driven by persecution from Jerusalem, and it was carried on with the sanction of the apostles, who sent Barnabas, one of their trusted coadjutors, from Jerusalem to superintend it. This man knew Paul. When the latter first came to Jerusalem after his conversion and essayed to join himself to the Christians there, they were all afraid of him, suspecting the teeth and claws of the wolf beneath the fleece of the sheep. But Barnabas rose superior to these fears and suspicions, and, having taken the new convert and heard his story, believed in him and persuaded the rest to receive him. The intercourse only lasted a week or two at that time, but Barnabas had received a profound impression of Paul’s personality and did not forget him. When he was sent down to superintend the revival at Antioch he soon found himself embarrassed with its magnitude, and in need of assistance; and the idea occurred to him that Paul was the man he wanted. Tarsus was not far off, and thither he went to seek him. Paul accepted his invitation and returned with him to Antioch. The hour he had been waiting for had struck, and he threw himself into the work of evangelising the Gentiles with the enthusiasm of a great nature that found itself at last in its proper sphere. The movement at once responded to the pressure of such a hand; the disciples became so numerous and prominent that the heathen gave them a new name.--that name of “Christians,” which has ever since continued to be the badge of faith in Christ; and Antioch, a city of half a million inhabitants, became the head-quarters of Christianity instead of Jerusalem. Soon a large Church was formed, and one of the manifestations of the zeal with which it was pervaded was a proposal which gradually shaped itself into an enthusiastic resolution to send forth a mission to the heathen. As a matter of course Paul was designated for this service.
IX. His missionary life.--Up to this time St. Paul had worked as a kind of curate to Barnabas. Like all really great men he was profoundly indifferent to any mere questions of personal or professional precedence; but after the conversion of Sergius Paulus, the proconsul of Cyprus, we have no longer “Barnabas and Saul,” but “Paul and Barnabas”--the Jewish name, “Saul,” being dropped, and the Roman name, “Paul” or “Paulus,” which the apostle had probably possessed from his birth, being adopted with, no doubt, a view to conciliating Gentile prejudice. Between his leaving Antioch and his arrest at Jerusalem he achieved his three missionary journeys. These journeys do not bear traces of any fixed plan. What plan there was was disturbed, sometimes by circumstances, sometimes by a higher guidance. They remind us of those efforts which the discovery of the new world, and the hope of finding the imagined El-Dorado, provoked at the hands of English and Spanish adventurers in the days of Philip and of Elizabeth. An enterprise, as we all know, is necessarily governed by circumstances, and can never be mapped out very systematically. But looking back upon these journeys we see that they do bear a certain relation to each other.
1. The first was tentative. It was the reconnaissance of the forces of the heathen enemy. It extended no further than to the northern side of those mountains upon which Paul had gazed in his childish days. It began with a great success. It well-nigh closed in the apostle’s martyrdom. In Cyprus he converts the Roman proconsul; he punishes the magician, Elymas. Crossing to the mainland, he makes a great impression by a single sermon at Antioch in Pisidia, which provokes an outbreak of Jewish hostility. At Iconium the scenes of Antioch are repeated. At Lystra and Derbe he is among uncivilised pagans, who are ready to pay him divine honours in one mood, and to stone him to death in another. Jewish hostility was at the bottom of the incident at Lystra, and the apostle turned homeward by the way he came, making as sure of his work as he could by leaving presbyters in every town he visited, and at last embarking at Attalia direct for the Syrian Antioch. The next year was marked by his visit to the apostolic council at Jerusalem.
2. On his second missionary circuit he refused to take Barnabas’s nephew, who had shown a want of apostolic resolution, and this leads to a separation between Barnabas and himself. Silas took the vacant place. This journey is, on the whole, the most important. It is the richest in incident, and the boldest in range. Again the missionaries start from Antioch. They pass through Syria, Cilicia, Lycaonia; they revisit the old scenes of Derbe and Lystra, where Timothy is taken into the apostle’s company. And then the Galatian mission followed. St. Paul was detained in the district by some bodily ailment; but this did not prevent him founding probably at least three Churches, amid an amount of enthusiasm characteristic of a people of Celtic origin, and soon to be followed by a serious reaction. He then intended to work along the western coast of Asia Minor, or subsequently along the northeastern coast of Bithynia. He was in both cases prevented by Divine intimations, and finally was directed by a vision to cross from Troas into Macedonia. This decisive moment marked the entrance of the gospel into Europe. Accompanied by St. Luke, who joined him at Troas, he crossed to Neapolis. And then the Roman colony Philippi is the scene of the conversion of Lydia, of the exorcism of the slave girl, of the scourging and imprisonment of the apostles, of the conversion of the jailer. At the purely Greek city of Thessalonica the successful preaching on three Sabbaths is followed by an attack on the house of Jason, by his arrest, by the apostle’s escape by night. At Berea the Jews were of a more generous bearing, and there are many converts, yet the apostle has to be privately removed in order to secure his safety. At Athens he is face to face with the great traditions of the past of Greece--with the scorn and curiosity of Epicureans and Stoics, and with an anxious idolatry that would leave no possible object of superstition unvenerated. And Corinth, famous for the gross impurity connected with its popular worship of Aphrodite, is his residence for a year and a half. It witnesses the conversion of Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, the formal secession of the Church from the synagogue to the house of Justus, the failure of the Jewish appeal to Gallio; and then there follows the apostle’s return, by way of Cenchrea and Ephesus, to Jerusalem, for the feast of Pentecost.
3. Paul’s third journey is clearly intended to supplement and to confirm the work of the second. He had not yet visited Ephesus, the capital of Asia Minor, and one of the great centres of the ancient world. Ephesus, to which a famous temple and commercial interests drew together men of many races, had a natural charm for the heart of an apostle. He spent three years here, so great was his sense of its importance to the future of the faith. The progress of his work was marked by his secession from the synagogue to the lecture room of Tyrannus--then by his triumph over the professors of magic--lastly, by the great riot organised by the discontented silversmiths who made shrines for the temple of Diana. And the other noteworthy point of this circuit is his visit to Corinth, which, as we know from his two Epistles to that Church--one of them written from Ephesus, and the other while he was travelling through Macedonia--urgently required his presence. On his way he went so far west as to pass the frontiers of Illyricum. He remained in Corinth three months, wrote the Epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, and, in the spring of 58, returned by way of Philippi and Miletus, at Miletus taking leave of the presbyters of Ephesus, and, with presentiments of coming trouble strongly upon him, reached Jerusalem. (Canon Liddon.)
X. His arrest and imprisonment.--On arriving at Jerusalem Paul was received gladly by “the brethren,” and on his formally reporting to the Church what things God had wrought by his ministry, “they glorified God.” But certain things had transpired which had compromised his Jewish orthodoxy in the eyes of the stricter members of the Church. To satisfy these the apostle was requested to conform to certain customs, at no small expense, which would set him right. Paul, willing to become all things to’ all men, consents. But the very course by which he sought to conciliate opposition only succeeded in inflaming it and imperilling his own life. His presence in the temple, in the discharge of a temple rite, leads to an accusation that he was profaning the temple. An infuriated mob assemble, from which the apostle is only rescued by the timely arrival of a Roman troop. In a position of safety he requests permission to address the rabble, to whom he delivers an apology for his life. The tumult subsides, only to be excited again by his frank statement of his Divine call as the apostle to the Gentiles. Unable to guess the occasion of these uproars the commandant orders Paul to be examined by scourging--an order that is instantly countermanded when the subject of it is discovered to be a Roman citizen. The following day he is tried before the Sanhedrin, who were thrown into hopeless confusion by the apostle’s confession that he was a Pharisee, and that for the hope and the resurrection of the dead he was called in question. This brought the Pharisees over to his side, and in the tumult which followed Paul was taken away. A plot to assassinate him leads to his removal to Caesarea, where he was tried before Felix, and had subsequent interviews with him which must have proved his innocence to the venal governor. But “Felix, willing to show the Jews a pleasure, left Paul bound.” Felix was succeeded by Festus, who, anxious to get at the facts, suggested a second trial at Jerusalem; but the apostle, doubtless stung by his sense of innocence, by the hopelessness of securing justice, and by the sense of danger, made his memorable appeal to Caesar. This only served to deepen the new governor’s perplexity, for he had no idea what complaint he should allege against the prisoner to his imperial master. Whether Agrippa, before whom Paul made a third defence, was able to help him we know not. All we know is that he was sent to Rome, where, after great suffering and a disastrous shipwreck, he eventually arrived. For two years he resided in the imperial city, where he was, in spite of his chain, incessantly engaged in preaching and correspondence. At the close of this period, apparently, he was released, the charges against him having broken down. The rest of his career can only be filled in by tradition, and conjecture based on expressions in his later Epistles; but most probably the next few years of his life were spent in visits to Spain, Greece, and Asia Minor, and then by a second term of imprisonment at Rome. (J. W. Burn.)
XI. Closing years and death.--Since Paul’s release events had occurred which made a Christian’s position much more insecure. After the great fire in Rome in the year 64, the Emperor Nero endeavoured to divert the popular indignation of which he was the object, by turning it from himself upon the Christians. Tacitus has described the atrocities of this first persecution of the Church--how some Christians were crucified, how some were dressed in the skins of wild beasts and hunted to death with dogs, how some were clothed in dresses of inflammable material, and set on fire at night in order to illuminate the imperial gardens. This was three years before St. Paul’s last arrest. St. Paul was well out of the way when it happened, but the name of so noted a leader of the Christians would now have been known to the Roman police, and they would have been on the lookout for him. Probably he reached Rome early in 68, and his case would have come on for early trial before the city prefect to whom the emperor at that time delegated cases of this kind. He would have been tried in one of the great basilicas or law courts which abutted on the forum. The tragic interest of the Second Epistle to Timothy consists in its belonging to the, we may almost say, closing days of the life of the great apostle. It was written when his case had been brought into court for the first time--when he had been acquitted of the first charge against him; that is, probably, his being concerned in the burning of Rome. He says that on that occasion no man stood by him, whether as patron or as advocate. He had had to plead his cause all alone. And yet he was not alone: he was more than ever conscious of the strengthening presence of our Lord. But for this, the isolation of those last weeks would have been quite unbearable. Demas had forsaken him for worldly motives. Crescens, for some unnamed reason, had gone off into Galatia. Even Titus--we cannot suppose it was through cowardice--had left for Dalmatia. Only Luke remained. He longed to see Timothy once more before he died, but he knew that the end was near, and it is impossible to say whether his wish was granted. The second charge against him--probably that of introducing a religion unrecognised by the state--would no doubt have gone against him. But then he could die as a Roman citizen. (Canon Liddon.)
We may follow him in imagination to the scene of his martyrdom. Accompanied by the centurion and soldiers who were to see him executed, he left Rome by the gate now called by his name. Near that gate, close beside the English cemetery, stands the pyramid of C. Cestius, and under its shadow lie the remains of Keats and Shelley, and of many who have left behind them beloved or famous names. Yet even amid these touching memorials the traveller will turn with deeper interest to the old pyramid, because it was one of the last objects on which rested the eyes of Paul. For nearly three miles the sad procession walked; and doubtless the dregs of the populace, who always delight in a scene of horror, gathered round them. About three miles from Rome, not far from the Ostian Road, is a green and level spot, with low hills round it, known anciently as Aquae Salviae, and now as Tre Fontane. There the word of command to halt was given; the apostle knelt down: the sword, flashed, and the life of the greatest of the apostles was shorn away. Who that watched that obscure and miserable end could have dreamed that Rome itself would not only adopt the gospel of that poor outcast, but even derive from his martyrdom, and that of his fellow apostle, her chief sanctity and glory in the eyes of a world; that over his supposed remains should rise a Church more splendid than any ancient basilica; and that over a greater city than Rome the golden cross should shine on the dome of a mighty cathedral dedicated to his name. (Archdeacon Farrar.)
XII. Some prominent features of his character.--
1. Completeness. There are three aspects of human life--
Paul exhibits the astonishing endurance which no trials could exhaust, and which enabled the most physically weak of the apostles to become the most ceaselessly active; the high conviction that God had called him to a special apostolate to the Gentiles; the enthusiasm of humanity which made him ready to associate, for their souls’ sakes, whether with men who had once been thieves and drunkards, or with sweet, innocent and gentle women; the courtesy which made him equally at home among slaves and kings; the power of style which rose or fell with the occasion, sometimes condescending to the humblest colloquialism, sometimes rising to the most impassioned eloquence; the clearness of insight which always kept one end in view and sacrificed all minor points to attain it; the total emancipation from that slavery to trifles which is the characteristic of small minds, and is ever petrifying religion into formulae, or frittering it away into ceremonial; the spirit of concession; the tact of management; the willingness to bear and forbear, descend and condescend; the tolerance of men’s prejudices; the contented acceptance of less than was his due. And there were in the soul of Paul qualities far more precious for his life’s work than even these. There was the tenderness for his converts which makes his words ever sound as though he were ready to break into sobs, as he thinks, on the one hand, of their affection, on the other, of their ingratitude; there was the conviction which makes him anticipate the very fiat of the throne of judgment, and vehemently to exclaim that if an angel were to preach a different gospel it would be false; there was the missionary restlessness, so often found in the great pioneers of salvation, which drives him from city to city and continent to continent in the cause of God; there was the ardent and imaginative impulse which made it the very poetry of his life to found a Church among the Gentiles as the first messenger of the gospel of peace; and last, but perhaps most important of all, there was the perfect faith, the absolute self-sacrifice and self-obliteration, which rendered him willing, nay glad, to pour out his whole life as a libation; to be led in triumph from city to city as a captive at the chariot wheels of Christ. (Archdeacon Farrar.)
2. Conscientiousness. Even before his conversion “he reverenced his conscience as his king.” When he believed that he ought to do anything he went forthwith and did it. When he persecuted the Church he did so simply because he believed he was doing God service (Acts 26:9-11). When, again, near Damascus he was convinced that he was fighting against God, he gave up in a moment his commission from the chief priests, and transferred his allegiance to Christ (Acts 9:1-9). And all through his Christian career he acted invariably on the same principle (Acts 23:1; Acts 24:16; 2 Corinthians 1:12; 2 Timothy 1:3). Nor was this accomplished without effort. He “exercised” himself--a word describing the exertions of the athlete to gain the prize--i.e., he trained himself, and strained every nerve to keep his conduct always abreast of his convictions. No matter what it cost him--a post of conspicuous political importance, his liberty or his life--he would keep a good conscience. (W. M. Taylor, D. D.)
3. His courage. By this is not meant physical bravery, although Paul was conspicuous for this, but the moral heroism which confronts all the consequences of doing right. Immediately after his conversion he went into the Jewish synagogue to preach Christ; and after a brief interval repaired to Jerusalem, a hotbed of the persecution of which he had been an agent. He never paused to think what would become of himself before he entered on the course the Lord commanded him to take. When he was exposed to violent assault at Lycaonia, or to imprisonment at Philippi, or to the fury of the mob at Ephesus, he never attempted to purchase safety by trimming; and whether he stood before the Jewish council or the Roman governor, the effeminate Agrippa or the brutal Nero, he was always valiant for the truth; and the claims of friendship or the appeals of affection were as powerless to change his purpose as were the chains of imprisonment or the terrors of martyrdom (Acts 20:24). (W. M. Taylor, D. D.)
4. Devotion to Christ. This was the supreme characteristic of the man, and from first to last the mainspring of his activities. From the moment of his first meeting with Christ he had but one passion; his love to his Saviour burned with more and more brightness to the end. He delighted to call himself the slave of Christ, and had no ambition except to be the propagator of His ideas and the continuer of His influence. He took up this idea of being Christ’s representative with startling boldness. He says the heart of Christ is beating in his bosom towards his converts; he says the mind of Christ is thinking in his brain; he says that he is continuing the work of Christ and filling up that which was lacking in His sufferings; he says the wounds of Christ are reproduced in the scars upon his body; he says he is dying that others may live, as Christ died for the life of the world. But it was in reality the deepest humility which lay beneath these bold expressions. He had the sense that Christ had done everything for him; He had entered into him, casting out the old Paul and ending the old life, and had begotten a new man, with new designs, feelings and activities. And it was his deepest longing that this process should go on and become complete--that his old self should vanish quite away, and that the new self, which Christ had created in His own image and still sustained, should become so predominant that, when the thoughts of his mind were Christ’s thoughts, the words on his lips Christ’s words, the deeds he did Christ’s deeds, and the character he wore Christ’s character, he might be able to say, “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” (J. Stalker, D. D.)
5. Enthusiasm combined with prudence. It was this that preeminently qualified him for his work. There was in him a fire which no difficulties that stood in his way could quench; but along with it there was a moderation which kept him back from all extravagance. He unites a zeal, which one would think could brook no restraint, with a wonderful tact and shrewdness. A certain sagacity or good sense presides over his conduct. His burning earnestness never runs into fanaticism. At the right time he knows how to consult expediency. When we find these apparently incongruous qualities combined in the champion of any cause we may look for great results. These traits mingle in the character of a statesman like Cromwell, and in the founders of some of the great religious orders. Paul’s history contains many examples of this. He would not yield an inch to the demand of the Judaisers when principle was at stake, even though it should bring him into collision with the chief apostle, yet he would go very far in making concessions to remove the prejudice of the Jews. Before the Sanhedrin he contrived, by avowing himself a believer in one of the doctrines of the Pharisees, to kindle a strife between the two sects, in the smoke of which he effected his escape. He was not afraid of the face of man: he did not tremble before the furious mob at Jerusalem, and he stood before Nero without quailing; but he was not the man to throw away his life; and he did not think it undignified to be let down in a basket from the wall of Damascus. He had no heroic moods which moved him to fling away a reasonable caution. (G. P. Fisher, D. D.)
6. Faithfulness and tenderness. You see how in his letter to the Galatians the indignation of his soul comes out against those who would tamper with the Cross of Christ, while at the same time he “travails in birth again” for his dear children, who were in danger of being injured by their efforts. You remember also how in writing to the Philippians he denounces, but with tears, those among them who were the enemies of the Cross of Christ; and you cannot have forgotten how he warned the Ephesians “night and day with tears.” So, again, he says that among the Thessalonians he was gentle as a nurse cherishing her children; while in his letter to the Philippians his heart wells up with tenderness as he styles his friends “dearly beloved and longed for.” In his severest censures he is affectionate to those who have erred, and anxious lest they “should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow.” How considerate also he was for the weak brethren, lest they should be injured by lack of thoughtfulness on the part of the strong! (W. M. Taylor, D. D.)
7. Humility. He never sought his own glory. On several occasions, indeed, he stood, as one may say, upon his dignity, and declared that he was “not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles,” but that was because the purity of the gospel, the liberty of the Church, and the supremacy of the Lord Jesus were assailed through an attack on his apostolical authority. Usually, however, he kept himself in the background; and, like John the Baptist, he was willing to decrease, if only thereby Christ should increase. It is interesting to note how his humility seems to have grown as he advanced in life. In 1 Corinthians he calls himself “the least of the apostles”; in Ephesians, written six years later, during his first imprisonment, he speaks of himself as “less than the least of all saints”; and in 1 Timothy, which belongs to the last stage of his earthly history, he calls himself the chief of sinners. Thus, as he advanced in holiness he advanced in its constituent element, humility. As he increased in the knowledge of Christ he increased in his hatred of sin. The tree that grows the tallest sends its roots most deeply into the soil. The bird that soars the highest builds on the ground its lowly nest. The flower of sweetest fragrance is the modest violet that blooms beneath the hedge. So the holiest saint is the humblest. Let us learn, then, in this particular of Paul, as he learned of Christ (Philippians 2:3-8; 1 Peter 5:5). (W. M. Taylor, D. D.)
8. Intensity. The same earnestness of Conviction, strength of will, and vitality of allegiance went into his Judaism and his Christianity; for after the straitest sect he lived a Pharisee, and yet he was not disobedient to the heavenly vision. He was a man to look on with cool consent at Stephen’s martyrdom, and after the voice from heaven to accuse himself as the chief of sinners. His strong passions made all his religious experience vivid as the lightning, and his comprehensive intellect made his eloquence reverberate like thunder. His moods were various, but all intense. He could with equal skill sport satire with the Corinthians, or foil such dignitaries as Agrippa and Felix with his polished rhetoric, or smite Elymas the sorcerer and the backsliders of Galatia with the battle axe of his indignation. Too rapid in his style to balance an antithesis, or limit a parenthesis, or modulate his sentences, he forgets all the rules of composition in the thing to be said. He was resolute enough to withstand Barnabas, his associate, in a question of principle, yet tender enough to restore Eutychus and comfort afflicted women. A man to confound equally the Jews who required a sign and the Greeks who sought after wisdom: a man to spend three years in Arabia to prove whether the inspiration was genuine, and its pulse healthy; a man to sing praises in a jail, and when an earthquake opened the walls calmly to tell the jailer to do himself no harm, for he had not availed himself of his liberty, and then to preach Christ to the frightened keepers, and the next day to stand upon his dignity until the magistrates had confessed their injustice: a man that could tell without complaining but with a cheerful tone of stripes, stonings, shipwrecks, etc., could also tell of visions of the third heavens, and of the peace that passeth understanding. (Bp. Huntington.)
9. Love, conscience, and pride. Paul’s original nature had three dominant faculties--pride, conscience, love; and they stood in that order, pride giving the keynote, conscience supplying the motive power, and love, when it was in consistence with these, accompanying them. After he became a subject of renewing grace, these were still the three dominant faculties, but they stood in exactly the reverse order love first, conscience next, and pride last. By pride I do not mean the offensive kind of pride, but self-esteem--that sense of one’s own personality which God gives as the inspiration of dignity and character. (H. Ward Beecher.)
10. Love of city life. Paul was always a lover of cities. Whereas his Master avoided Jerusalem and loved to teach on the mountainside or the shore of the lake, Paul was constantly moving from one great city to another. Antioch, Ephesus, Athens, Corinth, Rome, the capitals of the ancient world, were the scenes of his activity. The words of Jesus are redolent of the country, and Seem with pictures of its still beauty or homely toil--the lilies of the field, the sheep following the shepherd, the sower in the furrow, the fishermen drawing their nets. But the language of Paul is impregnated with the atmosphere of the city and alive with the tramp and hurry of the streets. His imagery is borrowed from scenes of human energy and monuments of cultivated life--the soldier in full armour, the athlete in the arena, the building of houses and temples, the triumphal procession of the victorious general. (J. Stalker, D. D.)
11. Statesmanship. Paul possessed, together with the spirit of a missionary, the shrewdness of a statesman. But he was no doctrinaire. He was the founder of churches, not the framer of constitutions. He had none of that pedantry which insists on a uniform method of ecclesiastical government, and disdains any diplomatic intercourse between diverse forms of Church administration. He knew that religions, like civil communities, can, if left to themselves, discover and adapt to their own ends the machinery of their own organisation. Hence, even in the Pastoral Epistles, where we should naturally expect some distinct theory of Church government, his advice bears rather on the qualifications of those whom the churches select as their officers, than on the administration and government of the Church. Then, again--a sure mark of true statesmanship--he knew that the best way to obviate quarrels was to recognise differences. He was well aware that men may work for a common purpose, even though their several methods of procedure may be various, and that, provided the means be just and honourable, identity of end is a sufficient bond of unity. Experience proves that the higher the object which men propose to themselves, the easier to invite the cooperation of different forces. The wisdom of the statesman consists in effecting a harmony of interests, that of a great religious reformer in enlisting all action on behalf of one grand purpose. Both wreck their reputation when they ally themselves to party cries and narrow rules, which Paul never did. A great statesman has no policy: he accepts a few leading principles, his wisdom being to show how these principles apply to the various occasions of human life. And similarly the leading rules of Paul’s teaching and procedure were a few inductions, the application of which is universal. (Paul of Tarsus, by a Graduate.)
12. Supereminence. Here was one to whom no single man that has ever lived can furnish a parallel.
(a) As a theologian, we may compare him with Augustine or Thomas Aquinas; yet how should we be shocked to find in him the fanciful rhetoric and dogmatic bitterness of the one, or the scholastic avidity of the other!
(b) As a moral reformer, we may compare him with Savonarola; but in his practical control of the most thrilling spiritual impulses--in making the spirit of the prophet subject to the prophet--how grand an exemplar might he not have furnished to the impassioned Florentine!
(c) As a preacher, we may compare him to St. Bernard; yet St. Paul would have been incapable of the unnatural asceticism and heresy-hunting hardness of the great abbot of Clairvaux.
(d) As a reformer, who altered the entire course of history, Luther alone resembles him; yet how incomparably is the apostle superior to Luther in insight, courtesy, humility, dignity, and self-control!
(e) As a missionary, we might compare him to Xavier, as a practical organiser to Gregory, as a fervent lover of souls to Whitefield, and to many other saints of God in many other of his endowments; but no saint of God has ever attained the same heights in so many capacities, or received the gifts of the Spirit in so rich an outpouring, or borne in his body such evident brand marks of the Lord Jesus. In his lifetime he was no whir behind the very chiefest of the apostles, and he towers above the very greatest of all the saints who have since striven to follow the example of his devotion to his Lord. (Arch. deacon Farrar.)
13. Unity of purpose. His motto, as he tells us in the Epistle to the Philippians, is “one thing only.” It is his motto, not in action merely, but in thought. This it was which fitted him supremely for doing the work assigned him by Providence. God meant to use him as His instrument to give currency in the faith of Christendom to the great truth that salvation is of grace, and he so burnt that truth into his soul that he could not get past it, or see round it, or refrain from speaking of it; could not find time for speaking of anything else except in relation thereto. The one-sidedness of the instrument, thus explained, is a homage to the importance of the truth proclaimed. (A. B. Bruce, D. D.)
XIII. General reflections.--
1. Paul an evidence for Christianity. Here we have a man of liberal attainments, and in other points of sound judgment, who had addicted his life to the service of the gospel. We see him in the prosecution of his purpose travelling from country to country, enduring every species of hardship, encountering every extremity of danger, expecting wherever he came a renewal of the same treatment; yet when driven from one city preaching in the next, spending his whole time in the employment, sacrificing to it his pleasures, ease, safety; persisting in this course to old age, unaltered by the experience of perverseness, ingratitude, and desertion; unsubdued by anxiety, want, labour, persecutions; unwearied by long confinement; undismayed by the prospect of death. Such was Paul. The question is whether falsehood was ever attested by evidence like this? Is an example to be met with of a man voluntarily undertaking a life like Paul’s for the sake of carrying about a story that was false, and which, if false, he must have known to be so? (Archdeacon Paley.)
2. Paul a specimen of what Christianity can make of a man. Christianity obtained in Paul an incomparable type of Christian character. It already, indeed, possessed the perfect model of human character in the person of its Founder. But He was not as other men, because from the beginning He had no sinful imperfection to struggle with; and Christianity still required to show what it could make of imperfect human nature. Paul supplied the opportunity of exhibiting this. He was naturally of immense mental stature and force. He would have been a remarkable man even if he had never become a Christian. The other apostles would have lived and died in the obscurity of Galilee if they had not been lifted into prominence by the Christian movement; but the name of Saul of Tarsus would have been remembered still in some character or other even if Christianity had never existed. Christianity got the opportunity in him of showing the world the whole force that was in it. Paul was aware of this himself, though he expressed it with perfect modesty, when he said, “For this cause I obtained mercy, that in me as chief might Jesus Christ show forth all His long-suffering for an ensample of them who should hereafter believe on Him to everlasting life.” His conversion proved the power of Christianity to overcome the strongest prejudices and to stamp its own type on a large nature by a revolution both instantaneous and permanent. Paul’s was a personality so strong and original that no other man could have been less expected to sink himself in another; but, from the moment when he came into contact with Christ, he was so overmastered with His influence that he never afterwards had any other desire than to be the mere echo and reflection of Him to the world. But, if Christianity showed its strength in making so complete a conquest of Paul, it showed its worth no less in the kind of man it made of him when he had given himself up to its influence. It satisfied the needs of a peculiarly hungry nature, and never to the close of his life did he betray the slightest sense that this satisfaction was abating. His constitution was originally compounded of fine materials, but the spirit of Christ passing into them raised them to a pitch of excellence altogether unique. Nor was it ever doubtful, either to himself or to others, that it was the influence of Christ which made him what he was. The truest motto for his life would be his own saying, “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” Indeed, so perfectly was Christ formed in him, that we can now study Christ’s character in his, and beginners may perhaps learn even more of Christ from studying Paul’s life than from studying Christ’s own. In Christ Himself there was a blending and softening of all the excellencies which make His greatness elude the glance of the beginner, just as the very perfection of Raphael’s painting makes it disappointing to an untrained eye; whereas in Paul a few of the greatest elements of Christian character were exhibited with a decisiveness which no one can mistake, just as the most prominent characteristics of the painting of Rubens can be appreciated by every spectator. (J. Stalker, D. D.)
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30