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Bible Commentaries

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New TestamentsSutcliffe's Commentary

- Acts

by Joseph Sutcliffe


THE English title of this book is too assuming, because it does not contain the Acts of the Apostles, but only the commencement in Jerusalem; such as the local labours of St. Peter, and the travels and sufferings of St. Paul. And through the sufferings of the church, the lives and labours of the other ten are lost in much obscurity. EUSEBIUS, in his Chronicum of the apostles, has left us the best digest of their labours and travels that he could. The churches they planted are the real historians of their labours and success.

In this book we have a beautiful portrait of the infant church in Jerusalem, the family of God consecrated to be heirs of the world. We see here the accomplishment of that luminous prediction in Isaiah 2:3. “Out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” We see the holy sons of Zion flying across the seas, the isles, and the continents, to carry the news of man’s redemption to nations that sat in darkness, and in the region of the shadow of death. Of Paul’s labours in Roman Asia we have but a brief account. He was driven from Antioch in the forty fifth year of Christ; and according to bishop Usher, entered on his new sphere of labours in Greece, and came to Philippi in the year fifty three.

A book, entitled the travels of Paul and Thecla, has been named in the introduction to St. Luke’s gospel; a book undoubtedly genuine, being the production of a priest of Asia, and widely circulated under the name of Luke; for transcribers, before the invention of printing, were apt to put the name of some father to their manuscripts, the better to procure a sale. When St. John reproved the priest for doing this, he said that he had composed the book because of the great love he had for St. Paul; and that the book by some means had escaped out of his hands. So Tertullian affirms in his book, De baptismo, caput 17. It must therefore have been the transcribers who put the name of Luke to the above production. Du Pin, the most laborious of all ecclesiastical historians, has therefore put this work among the spurious books, without the least doubt of its truth in the relation of historic facts.

In the remains of Cyprian of Carthage, who flourished in the third century, we find a prayer written during the severe persecution of Dioclesian. “Stand by us, oh Lord, as thou didst stand by the apostles in bonds, by Thecla in the fire, by Paul in persecution, and by Peter in the waves. The above history is honourably named by many of the fathers, as Gregory Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssæ, Chrysostom, and others. This history was rescued from long oblivion, and published by the learned Professor Dr. Grabe, while he resided in England, editor of the Septuagint, and who wrote short notes in Latin to bishop Bull’s defence of the Nicene fathers. The substance of the history is, that when the jews drove away Paul from Antioch, as related by Luke in Acts 13:50, he travelled to Iconium, the capital of Lycaönia, and preached in the house of Onesiphorus.

Onesiphorus, having been informed by Titus of Paul’s coming, went out to meet him, accompanied by Lectra his wife, and their two children, Simmia and Zeno, that they might receive him into their house; for Titus had informed them of the person of Paul, seeing they had not yet known him in the flesh. Walking therefore on the king’s road leading to Lystra, they waited, expecting to receive him. Not long after they saw Paul coming towards them, a man of small stature bald his legs distorted his eyebrows knit together his nose aquiline, but his whole exterior manifestly full of the grace of God. His countenance was sometimes like that of a man, and sometimes like that of an angel.

While Paul was discoursing in the house of Onesiphorus, Thecla, daughter of Theoclia, a virgin espoused to Tamyris, a prince of the city, standing at the adjacent window of her house night and day, heard Paul preach. And seeing many women and virgins go in to hear Paul, she accompanied them, for as yet she had only heard his voice. As Thecla continued to do this, Theoclia her mother sent for Tamyris, and informed him that Thecla had not risen up from her place for three days, nor taken any food, but had wholly given herself up to that stranger.

Tamyris, fearing some distraction of mind, spake to her with tenderness. “Why, Thecla, dost thou sit dejected thus with thine eyes fixed on the ground? What new passion has turned thee, and attached thee to this stranger? Turn to thy Tamyris, and be ashamed. Thecla, answering nothing, turned from them, and continued intent on hearing Paul. Tamyris, filled with despair, left the house, and watched the people that went to hear Paul. And seeing two men contending sharply in the street, asked, who is this man that seduces the minds of men, forbidding to marry? For I am in great anguish about Thecla, on account of her attachment to this stranger. On this, Demas and Hermogenes with one voice exclaimed, deliver him to the governor, and let him be put to death; and we will persuade Thecla that the resurrection which he preaches is past, whenever we come to the knowledge of God.

Tamyris, on hearing this, went early next morning with a guard of officers, and a multitude of people to the house of Onesiphorus, and dragged away Paul, amidst the shouts of the crowd, “away with the sorcerer, and deliver him to the governor.” Tamyris, standing before the judgment seat, impeached Paul. The governor, after hearing Paul’s reply, committed him to prison, till he could more fully hear him. But Thecla, finding that Paul was committed, arose by night; and pulling off her ear-rings gave them to the porter, and her silver mirror to the keeper, to gain admission to Paul. Then placing herself, like Mary, at his feet, she continued to hear him preach the wonderful things of God. And perceiving that Paul disregarded what he suffered, and held fast his confidence in God, she was exceedingly confirmed in the faith.

Next morning there was a great alarm in the family for Thecla, and by Tamyris, for they feared some evil had befallen her. Hearing she had gone to the prison, they stirred up the people, and again led Paul to the judgment seat. Thecla, however, still continued to attend, and prostrated herself in prayer on the identical spot where she had heard Paul deliver his instructions. At length, the governor commanded her to be brought. Thecla, hearing this, went forth with joy, while the people still cried, “he is a sorcerer, let him be put to death.” Notwithstanding all this, the governor willingly heard Paul: and having taken counsel, he said to Thecla, Why art thou not given in marriage to Tamyris, according to the laws of Iconium? Thecla, fastening her eyes on Paul, answered nothing. Then her mother vehemently cried out, Let her be burned, that others may fear.

The governor being now exceedingly irritated, condemned Paul to be scourged, and Thecla to be burned. He then in person attended at the theatre to see this cruel spectacle. Then as a lamb, hunted in the desert, looks round for a shepherd, so Thecla’s eyes looked for the venerable Paul. After looking through the crowd she saw the Lord standing near her, in the likeness of Paul, and inwardly exclaimed, “Paul is come to see me, as though I should not suffer patiently.” Still fastening her eyes upon him, she saw him ascend up into heaven. Then she understood it was the Lord, seen in the person of Paul.

Her robes were then taken off; and by the populace she was compelled to ascend the pile. The governor himself was much affected with a sight of her beauty, her patience, and her fortitude. The faggots and the wood being placed in order, she stretched forth her hands in prayer, and ascended the pile. The fire was applied on different sides, and the flames spread round about, but had no power to scorch her. God had compassion on her youth. A loud noise was heard in the heavens, a dark cloud overspread the amphitheatre, accompanied with such torrents of rain and hail as extinguished the fire. Thus was Thecla delivered.

This illustrious virgin, after being a confessor in her own city, and forsaken of her friends, became a public character in Roman Asia; and after having escaped the wild beasts at Antioch, and laboured much in the Lord, she received the crown of martyrdom at Seleucia in the province of Isauria. The emperor Zeno built and endowed a church to her memory.


All men ask for more than Luke has recorded. There are many chasms in his history, where he seems to have been separated from Paul, and he would not write what he had not seen. The demand for more is great, but the notices of the fathers are few.

The beloved Clement, whose name is in the book of life, Philippians 4:3, says in his epistle to the Corinthians, section 5., “Let us set before our eyes the holy apostles. Peter by the unrighteous envy [of the jews] sustained not one or two, but many scenes of suffering, till at length being martyred, he entered the abode of glory prepared for him.”

“For the same cause did Paul receive the reward of his patience. Seven times he was in bonds. Five times he was whipped, and once was he stoned. He preached both in the east and the west, leaving behind him the glorious report of his faith. And having in this way preached righteousness to the whole Roman world, and with this design, [after his liberation] travelled even to the utmost boundaries of the west. Επι το τερμα τες δυσεως ελθοντι . He at last suffered martyrdom by the command of his governors, and departed out of this world to his holy place, leaving the most exalted pattern of patience to every future age.”

The holy and blessed Dorotheus, bishop of the city of Byzantium, now Constantinople, and martyr in that city, has left us short notes of the twelve apostles.

1. Peter, who after departing from Antioch, travelled into the principal places of Galatia, and of the Mediterranean sea, and in all Cappadocia, and Bithynia, preaching the gospel; and lastly in all Italy and Rome. 1 Peter 1:1.

2. Andrew, his brother, travelled through all Bithynia, Thracia, and Scythia, preaching the gospel of the Lord. He afterwards went to the great city of Sebasteia, where Apsarius formed his camp, and preached on the river Phasis; and in the interior of Ethiopia. He was crucified at Patras in Achaia. [See Sebaste in the map of Paul’s travels.] 3. But James, the son of Zebedee, went after the twelve tribes of Israel, preaching Christ, and was beheaded with the sword by Herod the tetrarch, or viceroy to the Romans in Cæsarea of Palestine.

4. John, his brother, who wrote the gospel, and who having preached Christ in Ephesus, was banished by the emperor Trajan to the isle of Patmos for the confession of the christian faith; and being released, he obtained the favour, as many think, to live in the flesh together with Enoch and Elijah. [This conjecture rose from the words of Christ to Peter: “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee.” John 21:22-23.]

5. Philip, the apostle, preached the gospel in Phrygia, and was buried with his daughters in Hierapolis, who are mentioned by Luke in the Acts of the apostles.

6. Bartholomew, the apostle, who after having successfully preached the gospel to the Indians, translated for them the gospel according to St. Matthew. He slept at Corbanopolis, a city of Upper Armenia.*

7. Thomas, the apostle, after having preached Christ to the Parthians, the Medes, the Persians, the Bactrians, the Germans, finally received the crown of martyrdom in a city of India called Calamitâ.

8. Matthew, the evangelist, after writing his gospel in Hebrew, and delivering it to the church in Jerusalem, and having preached Christ in the east, received the crown of martyrdom at Hierapolis, a city of Syria.

9. Jude, the brother of James, after having preached the gospel throughout the whole region of Mesopotamia, departed by martyrdom at Edessa, where he was interred.

10. Simon, who is surnamed Judas, having preached Christ in Eleutheropolis, the regions of Gaza, and as far as Egypt, was buried at Ostracinâ, a city of Egypt, being affixed to a cross by the command of Trajan.

11. Matthias, who was numbered with the eleven apostles in the place of Judas Iscariot, having first preached the gospel in Ethiopia, and received the palm of martyrdom, was buried in the place he had fertilized with his blood.

12. Simon Zelotes, after travelling through the region of Mauritania, [literally the country of the blacks] and Africa, [say Carthage] went everywhere preaching Christ. Last of all he came to Britain, where he was crucified and buried.

* To the above account of Bartholomew we may add the opinion of many, that he and Nathaniel are the same person, because Bartholomew is not a proper name, but merely an appellative, the son of Ptolemy. This seems the more probable, as no distinct notice is taken of his call to the office; and John seems to rank Nathaniel among the apostles, when he says that Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel, the two sons of Zebedee, with two other disciples being gone out a fishing, Jesus showed himself to them on the shore. John 21:2.


In this book we have glanced on the first planting of christianity, and turned our views to the labours, the sufferings, and success of St. Paul. This chosen vessel, designated of God to the sanctuary, received a considerable education in Tarsus, a city celebrated for literature. He came to Jerusalem to finish his theological course, and to qualify himself for preferment. But God had better views in store. We see him coming into the church with a soul and with an education every way qualified to do the will of God. In his call and mission he was so clear, that neither poverty, nor hardships, nor sufferings could move him; for the Lord was with him, according to all his promises. If his poor body wore away daily, his inward man was renewed day by day with the consolations of Christ. The churches he planted were almost as numerous as the cities he visited, and his rising progeny in the Lord, seemed, according to the promise, as the stars of heaven for multitude, and as the sands upon the sea shore, innumerable.

Satan had a most inveterate malice against the special apostle of the gentiles. Often he drew him into perils and jeopardy; but he lived among deaths. Five times he was whipped by the malicious jews. Thrice he was beaten with rods. Once he was stoned, and probably left for dead. Yet he still went on serving the best of Masters, who had made him a debtor of service to all men, and laid a necessity upon him to preach the gospel.

God, who had never ceased to protect his ambassadors, abandoned him at last, but with a limited commission, to the enmity of Satan, and the long festering fury of the jews. This most holy man was bound with a chain, impeached by his country, dragged from prison to prison, and from one tribunal to another. Oh how dark are the ways of the Lord; how profound and mysterious the work of his counsel. But his wisdom is perfect, and his righteousness without a spot. Let me learn of his servant to trust in him amidst all the dark and beclouded reverses of life. God sits in the heavens all composed, and laughs at the craft of Satan, and the malice of men. His apostles had now been preaching for near thirty years, chiefly to the poor. The great, the Roman world, knew little of Christ. St. Paul was the happiest man to tell them of the glory and kingdom of the Lord. He was now qualified with an immensity of learning, wisdom, and experience. He spake with tongues more than any other minister, and perhaps with more than any other man in the empire. He was endowed also with every divine excellence of spiritual gifts, and natural fortitude for the arduous mission. Therefore, if I may so speak, heaven stooped for once to the pride of senators and kings; they would not stoop to hear the gospel of a poor apostle, and God sent it to them in the mouth of a state prisoner, whose case is always interesting in the political circles.

When the jews in the temple were about to tear Paul to pieces, Lysias rescued him by a mistake, thinking he had been the seditious Egyptian who had escaped the carnage of Felix. On the steps of the castle, Paul raised his chained hands, and addressed the furious bigots of his country. And as he spake in the Hebrew tongue, they listened to him silent as the night, till he spake of going to the gentiles. Next day, Paul addressed the jewish council, left them without excuse, and threw the pharisees and sadducees into confusion by showing his hope of the resurrection from the dead. At Cæsarea he preached twice before the court; the latter time before three princes, Felix, Festus, and Agrippa; for Festus providentially was come to succeed Felix. On board the ship, to two hundred and seventy six seamen and passengers, from all nations, he taught the whole truth, and showed the wonders of revelation in the name of Christ. And surely those men could never forget what they then both heard and saw.

In Rome, whether through recommendation of the kings of Asia, as is most probable, or whether through some other providential cause, Paul was singularly favoured to live in his own hired house. Here for two years he taught daily all that came to him. He held religious assemblies in his house every day. There was not any part of the mystery of godliness or glory of Christ he did not publish. He was Nero’s prisoner; and neither pagan priest, nor jewish scribe durst forbid him. Many in Cæsar’s household received the faith of Christ. He consoles the tears of Timothy by saying, that his bonds had turned out for the furtherance of the gospel. Yea, after two years, Nero himself heard Paul, and set him at liberty, if Velesius be correct. See Euseb. Ecclesiastes Hist. book 2. chap. 22. When Paul made his first defence, no man stood with him, and he prayed that it might not be laid to their charge. But God delivered him, to use his own words, out of the mouth of (Nero) the lion. Now, Satan, where is thy craft? Now, oh jews, where is your malice? Come and see what good you have done to the cause of righteousness and truth. Never had the gospel reached the ears of so many illustrious potentates, and their courts, had it not been for your dire wisdom, which is folly with God.

God had also a work of writing to be done for his church: and when St. Paul was full of wisdom, and full of days, the Lord gave him a little leisure to write those plenary epistles to the churches which convey to the christian world all knowledge requisite for salvation. And whoever will calmly examine the whole of his fourteen epistles, many of which were written when he was full of labours, he must own that no human wisdom and accomplishments could possibly compose epistles with the like propriety of address, depth of thought, and elevation of piety. Thus we see in the life and labours of this holy man, extended to a public course of thirty five years, the never-ceasing goodness of the Lord, and the care of providence over the church. To Him be glory for ever and for ever. Amen.

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