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Tuesday, November 28th, 2023
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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Bible Commentaries
Acts 21

Expositor's Dictionary of TextsExpositor's Dictionary

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Verses 1-40

Acts 21:13

Surely there is a time to submit to guidance and a time to take one's own way at all hazards.


In ch. 1. of Les Misérables, Mdlle Baptistine, after describing the apparently hazardous methods followed by the good bishop, adds: 'We leave ourselves in the hands of Providence, for that is how you must behave to a man who has grandeur in his soul.

Reference. XXI. 13. H. Arnold Thomas, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliv. p. 57.

The Peace of Defeat

Acts 21:14

There are compensations often for the vanquished; between the triumph of victory and the peace of defeat there may be little to choose. When a lawsuit that has been dragged over years comes to its close, there is an end, even for the defeated, of the protracted misery, the weary and racking suspense of delay. Though the worst has come to the worst though the days of existence must be henceforth colourless when they are not harsh and sad it is something that the strain upon fortitude has been relaxed for the moment. When some long-dreaded evil smites us into the dust, we may be amazed by our own calmness. Certainty, of whatever kind, relieves those worn with the effort of being deaf to the footsteps of fate. The truth terrible as it is falls on the dim, dull, puzzled brain with some strange sense of rest.

But there is a Christian peace in defeat, higher than the mere relief of overtaxed nature. We ceased, saying, The will of the Lord be done. There is a moment when effort should cease, because the issue is clear. That moment should carry us straight into the silence and rest of God.

I. There comes an hour to men perhaps it comes to the most successful when they accept the truth about themselves. They have hoped and striven for long to achieve something in life. Their hearts have been set on some shining mark. It may be that the whole endeavour and drift of many years have been to attain a certain definite position. In any case they have never thought to rest where they are. What has been is a preparation for what is to be tolerable as such, but not otherwise. Gradually, with a slow distinctness, a dull pain, it has become evident that the issue is more doubtful than it seemed. Then come fervent efforts, silent conflicts of the spirit. And at last the end is plain. Even those who have hitherto protested with a fond vehemence of defence are silent. Ours, we find, are not the talents of the few, but of the many. Youth has gone, and taken away with it much that we dearly prized. It is the common lot. In every profession there are comparatively few whose early dreams come to fulfilment. The vast majority have to content themselves with humble aims, slow advancement, an uninteresting career, and a nameless memory. We can bear but little success, and little is given to us, and the day comes but too early when we know that the ascent of life has ceased, and that henceforth we must decrease.

Such defeat, if trustfully accepted, brings its own peace. There is an end of the long, lonely misgivings, of the ambition which has drawn such hard breath under the weight of self-distrust. There is a certain stage of life in which men naturally generous and warm-hearted are tempted to a little patient envy. It is when they hear the footsteps of the young hard behind them, and realise that those who come after are preferred before them. Accept the will of God, and all the bitterness goes.

II. Surely when Christian faith is more powerful in the world we shall alter our attitude towards the inevitable. Going forth to meet it, we shall be conquerors, not conquered. Why keep out of life the rich and deep memories it might hold if we did not fear to speak what is in the heart? A day dawns when human skill owns itself foiled; when the journey before the loved one is of few and measured steps. Then faith may grow into resignation, which a Roman Catholic writer has justly called the last term of Christian activity. It is in a true resignation that the Christian displays all his resources, brings all his powers into play. And Christian resignation there cannot be till we understand and believe that resignation is applicable only to things that pass away. We resign nothing that endures. We may have to part with it for more or fewer years; but it waits us in the world of eternal and complete restitution.

W. Robertson Nicoll, Ten Minute Sermons, p. 51.

Divine Guidance

Acts 21:14

We are all conscious of the need of guidance at the cross roads of life when alternative courses of action lie in front of us, and we must, in spite of ourselves, take a decision which shall determine in one way or another the character of the following years. We inevitably cast about for some assistance in making up our minds. We shrink from the responsibility which yet is unmistakably ours. In the passage from the Book of the Acts from which my text is taken we have set before us a critical episode in the career of the Apostle Paul. He had to take a most important decision on which he plainly saw that the course of his ministry depended, and which, as the sequel showed, more than justified his estimate. Should he or should he not go up to Jerusalem?

The Apostle was of all men the most sensitively loyal to the indications of Divine purpose, and these so far from allowing and confirming his own perception of duty seemed to be uniformly unfavourable. The Apostle has to resist the most formidable pressure conceivable. He has to set his own conviction, not of truth but of his personal duty with regard to a practical matter which could not, it may be thought, properly challenge the great name of conscience, against solemn and reiterated protests from those who claimed, and from St. Paul's own standpoint, claimed rightly, to speak with Divine authority. Prophecy, we know, held in the Apostolic Church a supreme place. We are assured that the Apostle was well accustomed to shape his conduct by these Divine intimations. Yet when all the recognised and hitherto rigidly obeyed signs of Divine leading opposed his resolution to go to Jerusalem as the first step towards Rome, the same Apostle decisively rejects them and persists in his own purpose. St. Paul was a genuine hero, and he disdained to take account of his personal fortunes when the cause of his Master was in question. Given sufficient reason for thinking that the kingdom would be advanced by his perilous journey and nothing more was needed to justify the risk.

I. The Need of Guidance. We are all conscious of the need of guidance. In our case, as in the Apostle's, the justification of our persistence will be in the inherent superiority of our own perception of duty. In the absence of any interior certitude, we may nay, we must be led by the lesser and lower leadings of circumstance, and I know no valid reason why we should demur to the sacred writer's description of these leadings as also in their measure truly Divine, but when once that interior certitude is ours all the other instruments of guidance must be set aside in its favour. That is how I understand St. Paul's behaviour. Up to a certain point in his history he was dependent from day to day on the indications of God's will. But then was granted an immediate revelation of his personal duty. He saw the goal towards which his efforts were to be directed, he realised his purpose in life, he understood God's will in him. Henceforward he was set free from the uncertitude and inconsistencies that marked his course. His career became the steady and continuous working out of a definite project which made it intelligible.

II. Divine Guidance Vouchsafed. Granting that extraordinary vocations which stamp on human careers a sublime aspect are but few, must we therefore conclude that from most Christians that interior certitude as to personal duty is withholden? Must the multitude of disciples live without the illumination of assured direction from God? I do not believe it. On the contrary, I hold that there is none of us who confesses that his true lot of life must be to do the will of God, and with that conviction surrenders himself wholly and deliberately to the control of God's Spirit, who does not receive the guidance he seeks. We fail, not from lack of leading, but from lack of courage to obey the leading we have.

III. But the Heart must be Free. At the risk of using language which may seem unreal and conventional, I would ask how can the consciousness of Divine guidance maintain itself in hearts filled with the unsatisfying distractions of that pursuit of amusement which in all classes of the community has become among us a consuming passion? St. James tells us that God gives wisdom to those that seek for it, but not to those distracted seekers whom he likens to the wind-driven waves of the sea. 'Let not that man think that he shall receive anything from the Lord.' We have to begin to become serious by giving to the things of the Spirit the importance which belongs to them, by making the Divine claim on our lives the standpoint from which to regard them, by cultivating the opportunities of usefulness which come to us, by refusing to acquiesce in the idle and unordered course of living, by insisting at whatever cost on cleansing our lives from conscious insincerity. Then at least we have come within the sanctuary where oracles of guidance are vouchsafed, where watchfulness and obedience gain outward pledges of Divine leading.

References. XXI. 15, 16. Expositor (5th Series), vol. i. p. 213. XXI. 15-18. Ibid. (6th Series), vol. iv. p. 115. XXI. 16. W. Brock, Midsummer Morning Sermons, p. 186. Expositor (7th Series), vol. vi. p. 371. XXI. 20. Expositor (6th Series), vol. ix. p. 271. XXI. 21. Ibid. vol. iii. p. 139; ibid. vol. xii. p. 106. XXI. 23. H. S. Holland, God's City, p. 317. XXI. 27, 29. Expositor (4th Series), vol. ii. p. 149. XXI. 28. Ibid. (6th Series), vol. iv. p. 120. XXI. 39. H. L. Thompson, The Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, p. 24. R. F. Horton, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxx. p. 305. Expositor (6th Series), vol. vii. p. 109; ibid. vol. xi. p. 39; ibid. (7th Series), vol. v. p. 195. XXII. 3. Ibid. (5th Series), vol. ix. p. 437. XXII. 5. Ibid. (4th Series), vol. ii. p. 212. XXII. 8. Ibid. vol. iv. p. 182. XXII. 9. Ibid. (6th Series), vol. vi. p. 192. XXII. 10. Ibid. (5th Series), vol. ix. p. 314.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Acts 21". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/edt/acts-21.html. 1910.
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