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THE ORIGIN AND AUTHORITY OF THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES
THESE words constitute the very brief preface which the writer thought sufficient for the earliest ecclesiastical history ever produced in the Church of God. Let us imitate him in his brevity and conciseness, and without further delay enter upon the consideration of a book which raises vital questions and involves all-important issues.
Now when a plain man comes to the consideration of this book one question naturally strikes him at once: How do I know who wrote this book, or when it was written? What evidence or guarantee have I for its authentic character? To these questions we shall apply ourselves in the present chapter.
The title of the book as given in our Bibles does not offer us much help. The title varies in different manuscripts and in different ancient authors. Some writers of the second century who touched upon apostolic times call it by the name our Bibles retain, The Acts of the Apostles; others call it The Acts of the Holy Apostles, or at times simply The Acts. This title of "Acts" was indeed a very common one, in the second and third centuries, for a vast variety of writing purporting to tell the story of apostolic lives, as an abundance of extant apocryphal documents amply proves. The Acts of Paul and Thecla, the Acts of St. Thomas, of St. Peter, and of St. John, were imitations, doubtless, of the well-known name by which our canonical book was then called. Imitation is universally acknowledged to be the sincerest form of flattery, and the imitation of the title and form of our book is an evidence of its superior claim and authority. One of the oldest of these apocryphal Acts is a document celebrated in Christian antiquity as the Acts of Paul and Thecla. We know all about its origin. It was forged about the year 180 or 200 by a presbyter of Asia Minor who was an enthusiastic admirer of the Apostle St. Paul. But when we take up the narrative and read it, with its absurd legends and its manifold touches and realistic scenes drawn from the persecutions of the second century, and well known to every student of the original records of those times, we can at a glance see what the canonical Acts of the Apostles would have been had the composition been postponed to the end of the second century. The Acts of Paul and Thecla are useful, then, as illustrating, by way of contrast in title and in substance, the genuine Acts of the New Testament which they imitated.
But then, some one might say, how do we know that the genuine Acts of the Apostles existed prior to the Acts of Paul and Thecla and the time of Tertullian, who first mentions these apocryphal Acts, and tells us of their forged origin? The answer to that query is easy enough. Yet it will require a somewhat copious statement in order to exhibit its full force, its convincing power.
Tertullian is a writer who connects the age of apostolic men, as we may call the men who knew the Apostles-Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement of Rome, and such like-with the third century. Tertullian was born about the middle of the second century, and he lived till the third century was well advanced. He was one of those persons whose chronological position enables them to transmit historical facts and details from one critical point to another. Let me illustrate what I mean by a modern example. Every unprejudiced thinker will acknowledge that the Rev. John Wesley was a man who exercised an extraordinary religious influence. He not only originated a vast community of world-wide extent, which calls itself after his name, but he also imparted a tremendous impetus to spiritual life and work in the Church of England. After the departure of Mr. Wesley from this life his mantle fell upon a certain number of his leading followers, men like Adam Clarke, the commentator; Jabez Bunting, the organiser of modern Wesleyanism; Thomas Coke, Robert Newton, and Richard Watson, the author of the "Institutes of Theology." Several of these men lived far into this century, and there are at the present day thousands still alive who recollect some of them, while there are many still alive who can recollect all of them. Now let us draw a parallel with all reverence, and yet with perfect fairness. John Wesley began his life at the beginning of the eighteenth century as our Lord began His human life at the beginning of the first century. John Wesley’s immediate disciples perpetuated their lives till the middle of the present century. Our Lord’s apostles and immediate followers perpetuated their lives in some cases till well into. the second century. At the close of the nineteenth century there are hundreds, to say the least, who remember Adam Clarke and Thomas Coke, who in turn were personally acquainted with John Wesley. In the last quarter of the second century there must have been many still alive-apostolic men, I have called them-whose youthful memories could bear them back to the days when the Apostle St. John, and men like St. Mark, and St. Luke, and St. Ignatius, still testified what they had personally seen and heard and known. Why, the simple fact is this, that in the year 1950 there will be still living numerous persons who will be able to say that they have personally known many individuals who were the friends and acquaintances of John Wesley’s immediate disciples. Four long lives of ninety years, and one overlapping the other, will easily cover three centuries of time.
Let us dwell a little more on this point, for it bears very directly on Tertullian’s witness, not only to the canon of the New Testament, but also to the whole round of Christian doctrine. It is simply wonderful what vast tracts of time can be covered by human memory even at the present day, when that faculty has lost so much of its power for want of exercise, owing to the printing-press. I can give a striking instance from my own knowledge. There is at present an acquaintance of mine living in this city of Dublin where I write. He is hale and hearty, and able still to take the keenest interest in the affairs of religion and of politics. He is about ninety-five years of age, and he has told me within the last twelve months that he remembers quite well a grandaunt of his born in the reign of Queen Anne, who used to tell him all the incidents connected with the earliest visits of John and Charles Wesley to Ireland about 1745. If Tertullian’s experience was anything like my own, he may quite easily have known persons at Rome or elsewhere who had heard the tale of St. Paul’s preaching, labour, and miracles from the very men whom the Apostle had converted at Antioch, Damascus, and Rome. I can give a more striking instance still, which any reader can verify for himself. Mr. S. C. Hall was a writer known far and wide for the last seventy years. About the middle of this century Mr. Hall was at the height of his popularity, though he only passed to the unseen world within the last year or so. In the year 1842 he, in union with his accomplished and well-known wife, composed a beautifully illustrated work, published in three volumes, called "Picturesque Ireland," which now finds an honoured place in many of our libraries. In the second volume of that work Mr. Hall mentions the following curious fact bearing on our argument. He states that he was then (in 1842) staying at the house of a gentleman, Sir T. Macnaghten, whose father had commanded at the siege of Derry in 1689, one hundred and fifty-three years before. Yet, vast as the distance of time was, the explanation which he offered was easy enough. The Macnaghten Clan was summoned to assist in the celebrated siege of Derry. They refused to march unless headed by their chief, who was then a boy of seven. The child was placed on a horse and duly headed his clan, who would follow him alone. That child married when a very old man, and his eldest son attained to an equally patriarchal age, carrying with him the traditions of Jacobite times down to the reign of Queen Victoria. I could give many other similar instances, illustrating my contention that vivid and accurate traditions of the past can be transmitted over vast spaces of time, and that through persons who come into living contact with one another.
Tertullian must have had ample means, then, of ascertaining the facts concerning the books of the New Testament from living witnesses. There is again another point we must bear in mind, and it is this: the distance of time with which Tertullian’s investigations had to deal was not so vast as we sometimes imagine. It was by no means so great as the spaces we have just now referred to. We naturally think of Tertullian as living about the year 200, and then, remembering that our Saviour was born just two centuries before, we ask, What is the value of a man’s testimony concerning events two centuries old? But we must bear in mind the exact point at issue. We are not inquiring at all about events two centuries old, but we are inquiring as to Tertullian’s evidence with respect to the canonical Gospels and the Acts; and none of these was one hundred years old when Tertullian was born, about 150 A.D., while the Gospel of St. John may not have been more than sixty years old, or thereabouts, at the same date. Now if we take up the writings of Tertullian, which are very copious indeed, we shall find that the Acts of the Apostles are quoted at least one hundred times in them, long passages being in some cases transcribed, and the whole book treated by him as Scripture and true history. If we accept the ordinary view, that the Acts were written previously to St. Paul’s death, the book was only a century old at Tertullian’s birth. But we can come nearer to the apostolic times.
The Muratorian Fragment is a document which came to light by chance one hundred and fifty years ago. It illustrates the age of the Acts, and shows what wondrous testimonies to the New Testament scriptures we may yet gain. Its story is a very curious and interesting one for ourselves. St. Columbanus was an Irish missionary who, about the year 600 A.D., established a monastery at Bobbio, a retired spot in North Italy. He gathered a library there, and imparted a literary impulse to his followers which never left them. Some Irish monk, a hundred years later than Columbanus, employed his time in copying into a book an ancient manuscript of the second century giving a list of the books of the New Testament then received at Rome. This second-century manuscript enumerated among these the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and thirteen Epistles of St. Paul. Concerning the Acts of the Apostles, the Roman writer of this document, who lived about A.D. 170, Says: "The Acts of all the Apostles are written in one book. Luke explains to the most excellent Theophilus everything which happened in his presence, as the omission of Peter’s martyrdom and of Paul’s journey into Spain manifestly proves"; a passage which clearly shows that about the middle of the second century the Acts of the Apostles was well known at Rome, and its authorship ascribed to St. Luke. But this is not all. We have another most interesting second-century document, which proves that at the very same period our canonical book was known and authoritatively quoted far away in the south of France. It is hard to exaggerate the evidential value of the Epistle of the Churches of Lyons and Vienne written about the year 177, and addressed to their brethren in Asia Minor. That letter quotes the books of the New Testament in the amplest manner, and without any formal references, just as a modern preacher or writer would quote them, showing how common and authoritative was their use. Leader-writers in the Times or the Sunday Review often garnish their articles with a scriptural quotation; the late Mr. John Bright, in his great popular orations, loved to point them with an apt citation from Holy Writ; but he never thought it necessary, nor do journalists ever think it necessary, to prefix a formal statement of the place whence their texts have been derived. They presume a wide knowledge and a formal recognition of the text of the Bible. So it was in this epistle written from Lyons and Vienne, and in it we find an exact quotation from the Acts of the Apostles-"According as Stephen the perfect martyr prayed, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge."
But this is not the whole of the argument which can be derived from the Epistle of the Lyonnese Christians, which is given to us at full length in the fifth book of the "Church History" of the celebrated historian Eusebius. Their incidental notice of the Acts involves a vast deal when duly considered. The Epistle from Lyons implies that the Acts were received as authoritative and genuine in the churches of towns like Ephesus, Philadelphia, Smyrna, Miletus, where the memories and traditions of the Apostles were still vivid and living. Then, too, the Bishop of Lyons had suffered in this persecution. His name was Pothinus. He was the first Bishop of the Church of Lyons, and he died when he was more than ninety years of age, and may have been a disciple of an apostle, or of one of the first generation of Christians. At any rate, his memory would easily carry him back to the days of Domitian and the times of the first century; and yet the Church over which this first-century Christian presided accepted the Acts of the Apostles. The testimony of Pothinus helps then to carry back the Acts of the Apostles to the year 100 at least. But we can go farther still, and closer to apostolic times.
The Gospel of St. Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are, we may say, universally admitted to be by the same writer. The reference of the Acts to the Gospel, the unity of style and tone of thought, all demonstrate them to be the production of one mind. Any circumstance therefore which proves the early existence of the Gospel equally proves the existence of the Acts of the Apostles. Now we have proof positive that the Gospel of St. Luke occupied an authoritative position and was counted an apostolic and sacred writing at Rome in the early years of the second century, say between too and 150, because when Marcion, whom we might call a primitive Antinomian, wished to compile a gospel suited to his own purposes, he took St. Luke s Gospel, cut out whatever displeased him, and published the remainder as the true version. The perversion and mutilation of St. Luke’s work show that it must already have held a high position in the Church at Rome, or else there would have been no object in mutilating it. Marcion’s treatment of St. Luke proves the use and position the Gospel and the Acts must have occupied in days when the converts and companions of the Apostles were still alive. That is as far as we can go back by external testimony. But then we must remember what these facts involve-that the Gospel and the Acts occupied authoritative positions in various parts of the world, and specially in Rome, Gaul, Africa, and Asia Minor, in the generation next after the Apostles. Then let us take up the Book of Acts itself, and what does this book, known at Rome and throughout the Christian world at that early period, tell us? It informs us that it was the work of the writer of the Gospel, and that the writer was a companion of the Apostle Paul throughout the portion of his career sketched in the latter part of the book. The Christian Church has never pinned its faith to the Lukian authorship of either the Gospel or the Acts. The question of the authorship of these books is an open one, like that of the Epistle to the Hebrews. The Acts has been attributed to Silas, to Timothy, to Titus; but I may say, without going into any further details on this question, that every attempt to ascribe the Acts to any one else save to the beloved physician has failed, and must fail, because he was the real author, well known to the living tradition of the Church of Rome in the early part of the second century, as that tradition is handed down to us in the language at the Muratorian Fragment.
If we were writing a critical treatise, we should of course have to enter upon the full discussion of many questions which might here be raised. The Acts of the Apostles in its latter chapters plainly claims to be the work of an eye-witness. In its opening words, placed at the head of this dissertation, it claims to be the work of the author of the Gospel. All the facts fall into a simple, natural order if we accept the traditional testimony of the Church that the Acts and the Gospel were both of them written before the martyrdom of St. Paul, and were indited by the hands of St. Paul’s companion St. Luke. Any other solution is forced, unnatural, and involves inconsistencies on every side. We may turn aside from this brief outline of the critical question, to some more purely spiritual reflections, simply referring those who desire more information on the questions of date and authorship to such exhaustive works as those of Dr. Salmon’s "Introduction to the New Testament"; Dr. Westcott on the "New Testament Canon"; Dr. Charteris on "Canonicity," or Meyer’s "Introduction to the Acts."
First, then, it may strike the intelligent reader, how comes it that we have not much fuller testimony in early Christian writers to the Acts of the Apostles, and to all the books of the Old Testament? How is it that the writings of Polycarp, Ignatius, Clement of Rome, do not abound with references, not merely to the Acts, but also to the four Gospels and to the other works of the New Testament? How is it that we have to depend on this obscure reference and that dubious quotation? These are questions which had often puzzled my own mind before I had investigated, and must often have raised anxiety and thought in other minds sincerely desirous of being rooted and grounded in the truth. But now, after having investigated and thought, I think I can see solid reasons why things are as they are; clear evidences of the truth of the Christian story in the apparent difficulties. Historic imagination is one of the necessary requisites in such an investigation, and historic imagination is one of the qualities in which our German cousins, from whom most of the objections to the canon of the New Testament have been derived, are conspicuously deficient. They are gifted with prodigous industry, and an amazing capacity for patient investigation. They live secluded lives, however, and no one is a worse judge of practical life, or forms wilder conclusions as to what men actually do in practical life, than the academic pure and simple. A dear friend, now with God, himself a distinguished resident of a well-known college, used often to say to me, "Never trust the opinion of a mere college fellow or professor upon any practical point; they know nothing about life." This dictum, begotten of long experience, bears on our argument. German thought and English thought offer sharp and strong contrasts on many points, and on none more than in this direction. English students mix more in the world, are surrounded by the atmosphere of free institutions, and realise more vividly how men spontaneously act under the conditions of actual existence. The German thinker evolves his men of the past and the facts of their existence out of his own consciousness, without submitting them to the necessary corrections which experience dictates to his English brother; and the result is that while we may be very ready to accept the premises of the Germans, we should be in general somewhat suspicious of their conclusions. Scholarship alone does not entitle a man to pronounce on questions of history. It is only one of the elements requisite for the solution of such problems. Knowledge of men, experience of life, enabling a man to form a just and true mental picture of the past and of the motives by which men are influenced, -these are elements equally necessary. Now let us try and throw ourselves back by an effort of historical imagination into the age of Polycarp, Ignatius, and Clement of Rome. and I think we shall at once see that the omission of such abundant references to the New Testament as men at times desiderate was quite natural in their case.
Let us reflect a little. The manner in which the early Christians learned the facts and truths of Christianity was quite different from that which now prevails. If men wish now to learn about original Christianity they resort to the New Testament. In the age of Polycarp they resorted to the living voice of the elders who had known the Apostles, and had heard the truth from their lips. Thus Irenaeus, who had the four Gospels before him, tells us: "I can recall the very place where Polycarp used to sit and teach, his manner of speech, his mode of life, his appearance, the style of his address to the people. his frequent references to St. John and to others who had seen our Lord; how he used to repeat from memory the discourses which he had heard from them concerning our Lord, His miracles, and His mode of teaching; and how, being instructed himself by those who were eyewitnesses of the Life of the Word, there was in all that he said a strict agreement with the Scriptures." And it is very natural that men, though possessed of the Gospels, should thus have delighted in the testimony of elders like Polycarp. There is a charm in the human voice, there is a force and power in living testimony, far superior to any written words. Take, for instance, the account of a battle contributed to a newspaper by the best-informed correspondent. Yet how men will hang on the lips and follow with breathless attention the narrative of the humblest actor in the actual contest. This one fact, known to common experience, shows how different the circumstances of the early Christians were as touching the canonical books from those which now exist, or existed in the third and fourth centuries. Again, we must remember that in the age of Polycarp there was no canon of the New Testament as we have it. There were a number of books here and there known to have been written by the Apostles and their immediate followers. One Church could show the Epistle written by St. Paul to the Ephesians, another that written to the Colossians. Clement of Rome, when writing to the Corinthians, expressly refers them to the First Epistle to the Corinthians, which possibly was treasured by them as their one sacred document of the new covenant; and so it was doubtless all over the Christian world till well-nigh the close of the second century. The New Testament was dispersed in portions, a few leading Churches possessing perhaps all or most of the books, and a few remote ones probably only a few detached epistles, or a solitary gospel. A Greek document found in the National Library at Paris within the last few years illustrates this point. The Scillitan martyrs were a body of Africans who sealed their testimony to the faith by suffering martyrdom in the year 180, about three years after the sufferings of the Christians of Lyons and Vienne. North Africa, now the chosen home of the false prophet, was then the most fruitful field for the religion of the Crucified, yielding doctors, saints, confessors, in multitudes. The document which has now come to light tells the story of these North Africans and their testimony to the truth. The details of their judicial examination are there set forth, and in one question, proposed by the heathen magistrate, we have an interesting glimpse of the very point upon which we are insisting, the scattered and detached nature of the New Testament writings at that period. The President of the Roman Court, in the course of his examination, asks the leader of the martyrs, St. Speratus, "What are those books in your cases?" "They are," he replied, "the epistles of that holy man Paul." So that apparently the Scillitan Church depended for instruction, in the closing years of the second century, upon the Epistles of St. Paul alone.
The canon of the New Testament grew up by degrees, somehow thus. While the Apostles and their followers and the friends of their followers lived and flourished, men naturally sought after their living testimonies, consulting doubtless such documents as well which lay within their reach. But when the living witnesses and their friends had passed away, the natural instinct of the Church, guided by that Spirit of Truth which in the darkest times has never wholly left Christ’s Spouse, led her to treasure up and dwell with greater love upon those written documents which she had possessed from the beginning. It is no wonder, then, that we do not find large quotations and copious references to the canonical books in the earliest writers-simply because it was impossible they should then have occupied the same place in the Christian consciousness as they now do. Rather, on the contrary, we should be inclined to say that, had they been largely quoted and frequently referred to by Polycarp, Ignatius, or Clement, men might naturally have derived therefrom a forcible argument against the genuine character of the works of these primitive Fathers, as such quotations would have been contrary to the principles of human nature. It is very important for us to remember these facts. They have a very clear bearing upon present-day controversies. Friends and foes of Christianity have often thought that the truth of our religion was bound up with the traditional view of the canon of the New Testament, or with some special theory of inspiration; forgetting the self-evident truth that Christianity existed at the beginning without a canon of the New Testament, that the early Christians depended upon personal testimony alone, and that if the Apostles and their friends had never written a line or left a solitary document behind them, yet that we should have abundant information concerning the work and teachings of our Lord and His Apostles in the writings of the successors of the Apostles, compared with and fortified by contemporaneous pagan testimony. Men have sometimes thought and spoken as if the New Testament descended from-heaven in its present shape, like the image that fell down from Jupiter which the Ephesians worshipped, forgetting the true history of its upgrowth and origin. The critical theories that have been advanced in abundance of late years would have troubled a second-century Christian very little. If the Johannine authorship of the fourth Gospel were denied, or the Pauline authorship of Colossians or Ephesians questioned; what does it matter? would have been his reply. These documents may have been forgeries, but there are plenty of other documents which tell the same story, and I have myself known many men who have suffered and died because they had embraced the truths, from the lips of the Apostles themselves, which they have taught me. The simple fact is, that if all the books of the New Testament were proved impudent forgeries except the Epistle to the Romans, the two Epistles to the Corinthians, and the Calatians, which every person admits, we should have ample and convincing statements of Christian truth and doctrine. The devout Christian may, then, make his mind easy, certain that no efforts and no advances in the field of biblical criticism are likely to ruffle even a feather of the faith once delivered to the saints.
But then, some one may come forward and say, is not this a very uncomfortable position for us? Would it not have been much more easy and consoling for Christians to have had the whole canon of Scripture infallibly decided by Divine authority once for all, so as to save all doubts and disputations on the whole subject? Would it not have been better had the Acts of the Apostles expressly named St. Luke as its author, and appended ample proofs that its statement was true? This objection is a very natural one, and springs up at times in every mind; and yet it is merely part and parcel of the larger objection, Why has Revelation been left a matter of doubt and disputation in any respect? Nay, it is part of a still wider and vaster question, Why has truth in any department, scientific, philosophical, ethical, or historical, been left a matter of debate? Why has it not shone forth by its own inherent light and compelled the universal consent of admiring mankind? Why has not the great fundamental truth of all, the existence and nature of God, been made so clear that an atheist could not possibly exist? A century and a half ago Bishop Butler, in his immortal "Analogy," disposed of this objection, which still crops up afresh in every generation as if that work had never been written. God has placed us here in a state of probation, and neither in temporal nor in spiritual matters is the evidence for what is true, and right, and wise so clear and overwhelming that no room is left for mistake or error. As it is in every other department of life, so is it especially with reference to the canon of Scripture. It would doubtless be very convenient for us if the whole question were settled authoritatively and no doubts possible, but would it be good for us? would it be wholesome for our spiritual life? I trow not. We have, indeed, a living and speaking example of the blessings of uncertainty in the state of the Roman Catholic Church, which has tried to better the Divine method of training mankind, and banish all uncertainty. That communion undertakes to settle infallibly all questions of theology, and to leave nothing in doubt; and with what result? The vast body of the laity take no interest whatsoever in theological questions. They regard theology as outside their sphere, and belonging to the clergy exclusively. The clergy in turn believe that the Pope, in his office of infallible and universal pastor and teacher, has alone the right and authority to settle doctrines, and they leave it to him. They have made a solitude, and that they call peace, and the pretence alone of an authority which undertakes to release man from doubt and the need of investigation has paralysed theological inquiry among Roman Catholics.
The same results on a vastly larger scale must have happened throughout the Christian world had God made His revelation so clear that no doubt could arise concerning it. Man is a lazy animal by nature, and that laziness would at once have been developed by the very abundance of the light vouchsafed. Religion would have been laid aside as a thing settled once for all. All interest would have been lost in it, and human attention would have been concentrated on those purely mundane matters where uncertainty arises, and therefore imperiously demands the mind’s thought and care. The blessings of uncertainty would offer a very wide topic for meditation. The man of vast wealth whose bread is certain can never know the childlike faith whereby the poor man waits upon his God and receives from Him day by day his daily dole. The uncertainties of life hide from us much future sorrow, teach us to walk by faith, not by sight, and lead us to depend completely on the loving guidance of that Fatherly Hand which does all things well. The uncertainties of life develop the spiritual life of the soul. The doubts and questions which arise about religion bring their own blessings with them too. They develop the intellectual life of the spirit. They prevent religion becoming a matter of superstition, they offer opportunities for the exercise of the graces of honesty, courage, humility, and love; and thus form an Important element in that Divine training by which man is fitted here below for the beatific vision which awaits him hereafter. Human nature ever craves with longing desire to walk by sight. The Divine method evermore prescribes, on the contrary, that man must for the present walk by faith. Very wisely indeed, and with truest spiritual instinct, the poet of the "Christian Year" has sung, in words applicable to life and to theology alike:-
"There are who, darkling and alone,
Would wish the weary night were gone,
Though dawning morn should only show
The secret of their unknown woe:
Who pray for sharpest throbs of pain
To ease them of doubt’s galling chain:
‘Only disperse the cloud,’ they cry,
And if our fate be death, give light and let us die."
"Unwise I deem them, Lord, unmeet
To profit by Thy chastenings sweet,
For Thou wouldst have us linger still
Upon the verge of good or ill,
That on Thy guiding hand unseen
Our undivided hearts may lean,
And this our frail and foundering bark
Glide in the narrow wake of Thy beloved ark."
The thoughts with which we have hitherto dealt connect themselves with the opening words of the text with which we have begun this chapter, "The former treatise I made, O Theophilus." There are two other points in this passage which are worthy of devout attention. The writer of the Acts took a thoroughly historical view of our Lord’s life after the resurrection as well as before that event. He considered that our Lord’s person, no matter how it may have been modified by His death and resurrection, was still as real after these events as in the days when He ministered and wrought miracles in Galilee and Jerusalem. His Whole life was continuous, from the day of the birth in Bethlehem "until the day He was taken up."
Then again St. Luke recognises the dual personality of our Lord. As we shall afterwards have frequently to notice, St. Luke realised His Divine character. In the opening verses of this book he recognises His complete and perfect humanity-"After that He had given commandment through the Holy Ghost unto the Apostles." There was an ancient heresy about the nature of our Lord’s person, which denied the perfection of our Lord’s humanity, teaching that His Divinity took the place of the human spirit in Christ. Such teaching deprives us of much comfort and instruction which the Christian can draw from a meditation upon the true doctrine as taught here by St. Luke. Jesus Christ was God as well as man, but it was through the manhood He revealed the life and nature of God. He was perfect Man in all respects, with body, soul, and spirit complete; and in the actions of His manhood, in the exercise of all its various activities, He required the assistance and support of the Holy Ghost just as really as we ourselves do. He taught, gave commandments, worked miracles through the Holy Ghost. The humanity of the Eternal Son required the assistance of the Divine Spirit. Christ sought that Divine aid in prolonged communion with His Father and His God, and then went forth to work His miracles and give His commandments. Prayer and the gift of the Spirit and the works and marvels of Christ were closely connected together, even before the open descent of the Spirit and the wonders of Pentecost. There was a covenant blessing and a covenant outpouring of the Spirit peculiar to Christianity Which was not vouchsafed till Christ had ascended. But the Divine Spirit had been given in a measure long before Christ came. It was through the Spirit that every blessing and every gift came to patriarchs, prophets, warriors, teachers, and workers of every kind under the Jewish dispensation. The Spirit of God came upon Bezaleel and Aholiab, qualifying them to work cunningly for the honour and glory of Jehovah when a tabernacle was to be feared. The Spirit of God came upon Samson, and roused his natural courage when Israel was to be delivered. The Spirit of God could rest even upon a Saul, and convert him for a time into a changed character. And just as really the Holy Ghost rested upon the human nature of Jesus Christ, guiding Him in the utterance of those commandments, the outcome and development of which we trace in the book of the Acts of the Apostles.
THE CONVERSATIONS OF THE GREAT FORTY DAYS.
THE conversations and intercourse between our Lord and His apostles during the forty days which elapsed from the resurrection to the ascension must have been of intensest interest, yet, like so much that we should esteem interesting concerning the heroes of Scripture and their lives, these things are wrapped round with thickest darkness. We get a glimpse of the risen Christ here and there. We are told He was conversing with His disciples touching the things concerning the kingdom of God. And then we are practically referred to the Acts of the Apostles if we wish to know what topics His resurrection discourses dealt with. And when we do, so’ refer to the Acts we find that His disciples moved along the line of Christian development with steps sure, unfaltering, and decided, because they doubtless felt themselves nerved by the well-remembered directions, the conscious guidance of the Eternal Son of God, vouchsafed in the commandments given by Him in the power of the Holy Ghost.
Let us reflect for a little on the characteristics of Christ’s risen appearances to His disciples. I note then in the first place that they were intermittent, and not continuous, - here and there, to Mary Magdalene at one time; to the disciples journeying to Emmaus, to the assembled twelve, to five hundred brethren at once, at other times. Such were the manifestations of our Lord; and some may feel inclined to cavil at them, and ask, Why did. He not dwell continuously and perpetually with His disciples as before His resurrection? And yet, reading our narrative in the light of other scriptures, we might expect the resurrection appearances of Christ to have been of this description. In one place in the Gospel narrative we read that our Lord replied thus to a section of His adversaries: "In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as angels in heaven." Now we often read of angelic appearances in Holy Scripture, in the Old and New Testament alike. We read too of appearances of Old Testament saints, as of Moses and Elias on the Mount of Transfiguration. And they are all like those of our Lord Jesus Christ after His resurrection. They are sudden, independent of time or space or material barriers, and yet are visible and tangible though glorified. Such in Genesis was Abraham’s vision of angels at the tent door, when they did eat and drink with him.
Such was Lot’s vision of angels who came and lodged with him in wicked Sodom. Such was Peter’s vision when an angel released him, guided him through the intricate mazes of Jerusalem’s streets; and such were Christ’s appearances when, as on this occasion, His disciples, now accustomed to His risen and glorified form, tested Him as of old with the question, "Lord, dost Thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?"
I. Now let us here notice the naturalness of this query concerning the restoration of the kingdom. The Apostles evidently shared the national aspirations of the Jews at that time. A large number of books have come to light of late years, which show what a keen expectation of the Messiah’s kingdom and His triumph over the Romans existed at the time, and prior to the time, of our Saviour. The book of Enoch, discovered one hundred years ago in Abyssinia, and translated into English in the beginning of the present century, was written a century at least before the Incarnation. The book of Jubilees was written in Palestine about the time of our Lord’s birth; the Psalter of Solomon dates from the same period. All these works give us clearest glimpses into the inner mind, the religious tone, of the Jewish nation at that time. The pious unsophisticated people of Galilee were daily expecting the establishment of the Messianic kingdom; but the kingdom they expected was no spiritual institution, it was simply an earthly scene of material glory, where the Jews would once again be exalted above all surrounding nations, and the hated invader expelled from the fair plains of Israel. We can scarcely realise or understand the force and naturalness of this question, "Dost Thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" as put by these Galilean peasants till one takes up Archbishop Laurence’s translation of the book of Enoch, and sees how this eager expectation dominated every other feeling in the Jewish mind of that period, and was burned into the very secrets of their existence by the tyranny of Roman rule. Thus, let us take the forty-seventh chapter of the book of Enoch, which may very possibly have been in the thoughts of the Apostles as they presented this query to their Lord. In that chapter we read the following words, attributed unto Enoch: "There I beheld the Ancient of Days, whose head was like white wool; and with Him another, whose countenance resembled that of man. His countenance was full of grace, like that of one of the holy angels. Then I inquired of one of the angels who went with me, and who showed me every secret thing concerning this Son of Man, who He was, whence He was, and why He accompanied the Ancient of Days. He answered and said to me, This is the Son of Man, to whom righteousness belongs, with whom righteousness has dwelt, and who will reveal all the treasures of that which is concealed. For the Lord of Spirits has chosen Him, and His portion has surpassed all before the Lord of Spirits in everlasting uprightness. This Son of Man whom thou beholdest shall raise up kings and the mighty from their couches, and the powerful from their thrones; shall loosen the bridles of the powerful, and break in pieces the teeth of sinners. He shall hurl kings from their thrones and their dominions, because they will not exalt and praise Him, nor humble themselves before Him, by whom their kingdoms were granted to them. The countenance likewise of the mighty shall He cast down, filling them with confusion. Darkness shall be their habitation, and worms shall be their bed; nor from that their bed shall they hope to be again raised, because they exalted not the Name of the Lord of Spirits." This is one specimen of the Messianic expectations, which were just then worked up to fever pitch among the Galileans especially, and were ever leading them to burst out into bloody rebellion against the power of the Romans. We might multiply, such quotations fourfold did our space permit. This one extract must suffice to show the tone and quality of the religious literature upon which the souls of the Apostles had fed and been sustained, when they proposed this query, "Dost Thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" They were thinking simply of such a kingdom as the book of Enoch foretold.
This very point seems to us one of the special and most striking evidences for the inspiration and supernatural direction of the writers of the New Testament. Their natural, purely human, and national conception of the kingdom of God was one thing; their final, their divinely taught and inspired conception of that kingdom is quite another thing. I cannot see how, upon any ground of mere human experience or human development, the Apostles could have risen from the gross, material conceptions of the book of Enoch, wherein the kingdom of the Messiah would have simply been a purified, reformed, and exalted copy of the Roman Empire of that day, to the spiritual and truly catholic idea of a kingdom not of this world, which ruled over spirits rather than over bodies. Some persons maintain that Christianity in its doctrines, organisation, and discipline was but the outcome of natural forces working in the world at that epoch. But take this doctrine alone, "My kingdom is not of this world," announced by Christ before Pilate, and impressed upon the Apostles by revelation after revelation, and experience after experience, which they only very gradually assimilated and understood. Where did it come from? How was it the outcome of natural forces? The whole tendency of Jewish thought was in the opposite direction. Nationalism of the most narrow, particular, and limited kind was the predominant idea, specially among those Galilean provincials who furnished the vast majority of the earliest disciples of Jesus Christ. Our minds have been so steeped in the principles of Christian liberalism, we have been so thoroughly taught the rejection of race-prejudice, that we can scarcely realise the narrow and limited ideas which must have ruled the minds of the first Christians, and therefore we miss the full force of this argument for the Divine character of the Christian religion. A Roman Catholic peasant from Connaught, an Ulster Orangeman, a Celtic Presbyterian Highlander, none of these will take a wide, tolerant, generous view of religion. They view the question through their own narrow provincial spectacles. And yet any one of them would have been broad, liberal, and comprehensive when contrasted with the tone and thought of the Galilean provincials of our Lord’s day. They lived lonely, solitary lives, away from the din, the pressure, and the business of daily life; they knew nothing of what the great outside world was thinking and doing; they fed their spirits on the glories of the past, and had no room in their gloomy fanaticism for aught that was liberal and truly spiritual. How could men like them have developed the idea of the Catholic Church, boundless as the earth itself, limited by no hereditary or fleshly bonds, and trammelled by no circumstances of race, climate, or kindred? The magnificence of the idea, the grandeur of the conception, is the truest and most sufficient evidence of the divinity of its origin. "In Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female," the rapt expression of an inspired and illuminated Apostle, when compared with this query, "Dost Thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" the darkened utterance of carnal and uninspired minds groping after truth, furnishes to the thinking soul the clearest evidence of the presence of a supernatural power, of a Divine enlightenment, vouchsafed to the Apostles upon the Day of Pentecost. If this higher knowledge, this nobler conception, this spiritualised ideal, came not from God, whence did it come?
I do not think we can press this point of the catholicity and universality of the Christian idea and the Christian society too far. We cannot possibly make too much of it. There were undoubtedly Christian elements, or elements whence Christian ideas were developed, prevalent in the current Judaism of the day. Many a clause of the Lord’s Prayer and of the Sermon on the Mount can be paralleled almost word for word from the Jewish teachers and writings of the times immediately preceding our Lord. There was nothing in Christ of that petty vanity of little minds which craves after complete originality, and which will be nothing if not completely new. He was indeed the wise and the good householder, who brought forth out of His treasures things old as well as things new: Many a teacher and thinker, like Philo, whose ideas had been broadened by the Divine training of banishment and enforced exile in Alexandria or in Asia Minor, had risen to nobler and wider views than were current in Palestine. But it was not among these, or such as these, that the catholic ideas of the gospel took their rise. Christianity took its rise among men whose ideas, whose national aspirations, whose religious hopes, were of the narrowest and most limited kind; and yet, amid such surroundings and planted in such a soil, Christianity assumed at once a world-wide mission, rejected at once and peremptorily all mere Judaic exclusiveness, and claimed for itself the widest scope and development. The universality of the Gospel message, the comprehensive, all-embracing character of the Gospel teaching, as set forth in our Lord’s parting words, is, we conclude, an ample evidence of its Divine and superhuman origin.
II. In this passage again there lies hidden the wisest practical teaching for the Church of all ages. We have warnings against the folly which seeks to unravel the future and penetrate that veil of darkness by which our God in mercy shrouds the unknown. We have taught us the benefits which attend the uncertainties of our Lord’s return and of the end of this present dispensation. "It is not for you to know times or seasons." Let us endeavour to work out this point, together with the manifold illustrations of it which the history of the Church affords.
(a) The wisdom of the Divine answer will best be seen if we take the matter thus, and suppose our Lord to have responded, to the apostolic appeal fixing some definite date for the winding-up of man’s probation state, and for that manifestation of the sons of God which will take place at His appearing and His kingdom. Our Lord, in fixing upon some such definite date, must have chosen one that, was either near at hand or else one that was removed far off into the distant future. In either of these cases He must have defeated the great object of the Divine society which He was founding. That object was simply this, to teach men how to lead the life of God amid the children of men. The Christian religion has indeed sometimes been taunted with being an unpractical religion, turning men’s eyes and attention from the pressing business and interests of daily life to a far-away spiritual state with which man has nothing to do, at least for the present. But is this the case? Has Christianity proved itself unpractical? If so, what has placed Christendom at the head of civilisation? The tendencies of great principles are best shown in the actions of vast masses. Individuals may be better or worse than their creeds, but if we wish to see the average result of doctrines we must take their adherents in the mass and inquire as to their effect on them. Here, then, is-where we may triumph. The religions of Greece and of Rome are identical in principle, and even in their deities, with the paganism of India, as the investigations of comparative historians have abundantly shown. Compare Christendom and India from the simply practical point of view, and which can show the better record? The paganism of India, Persia, and Western Asia was the parent of the paganism of Greece and Rome. The child has passed away and given place to a noble and spiritual religion, while the parent still remains. And now what is the result? Can the boldest deny that while barbarism, decay, and death reign over the realms of Asiatic paganism, though starting with every advantage upon its side, concerning the religion of the Cross, which is taunted with being an unpractical religion, and concerning that religion alone, can it be said in the language of the rapt Jewish seer, "Wheresoever the waters of that river have come, behold there is life," and that the fair plains, and crowded cities, and the massive material development and civilisation of Europe and of America alike proclaim the truth, that Christianity has the promise of the life which now is as well as of that which is to come?
(b) Our Lord’s answer to His Apostles was couched in words suited to develop this practical aspect of His religion. It refused to minister to mere human curiosity, and left men uncertain as to the time of His return, that they might be fruitful workers in the great field of life. And now behold what ill results would have followed had He acted otherwise! The Master in fact says, It is not well for you to know the times or seasons, because such knowledge would strike at the root of practical Christianity. Uncertainty as to the time of the end is the most healthful state for the followers of Christ. Christ holds out the prospect of His own return for a twofold purpose: first, to comfort His people under the daily troubles of life -"Rejoice in the Lord alway: again I will say, Rejoice. Let your forbearance be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand"; "Whatever our hope or joy or crown of glorying, are not even ye, before our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming"; "If we believe that Jesus Christ died and rose again, even so them also that are fallen asleep in Jesus will God bring with Him" - these and dozens of other passages, which will recur in a moment to every student of St. Paul’s writings, prove the power to comfort and sustain exercised by the doctrine of Christ’s second coming. But there was another and still more powerful influence exercised by this doctrine. It stirred men up to perpetual watchfulness and untiring care. "Watch, therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour"; "Therefore be ye also ready, for in an hour that ye think not the Son of man cometh"; "The night is far spent, the day is at hand; let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light,"-these and many a similar exhortation of the Master and of his chosen Apostles alike, indicate to us that another great object of this doctrine was to keep Christians perpetually alive with an intense anxiety and a sleepless watchfulness directed towards the person and appearing of Christ. The construction of the gospel narrative shows this.
(c) There are in the New Testament, taken as a whole, two contrasted lines of prophecy concerning the Second Coming of Christ. If in one place the Lord Jesus speaks as if the date of His coming were fixed for His own generation and age, "Verily, I say unto you, this generation shall not pass away till all these things shall be fulfilled," in the very same context He indicates that it is only after a long time that the Lord of the servants will return, to take account of their dealings with the property entrusted to them. If St. Paul in one place seems to indicate to the Thessalonians the speedy appearing of Christ and the end of the dispensation, in another epistle he corrects such a misapprehension of his meaning. If the Revelation of St. John in one place represents the awful Figure who moves amid the Churches, watching their works and spying out their secret sins, as saying, "Behold, I come quickly," the same book pictures a long panorama of events, extending over vast spaces of time, destined yet to elapse before the revelation of the city of God and the final triumph of the saints. The doctrine of Christ’s second appearing is like many another doctrine in the New Testament. Like the doctrine of God’s election, which is undoubtedly there, and yet side by side with election appears as really and truly the doctrine of man’s free will; like the doctrine of God’s eternal and almighty love, side by side with which appears the existence of a personal devil, and of an abounding iniquity and sorrow which seems to contradict this doctrine; like the doctrine of the Godhead itself, where the Unity of the Divine Nature is most clearly taught, yet side by side therewith appears the manifold personality of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as existing in that Nature; - so too is it in the case of the doctrine of Christ’s Second Coming. We have a twofold antinomy. In one line of prophecy we have depicted the nearness and suddenness of Christ’s appearing; in another line we behold that tremendous event thrown into the dim and distant future. And what is the result upon the human mind of such opposite views? It is a healthy, useful, practical result. We are taught the certainty of the event, and the uncertainty of the time of that event; so that hope is stirred, comfort ministered, and watchfulness evoked. We can see this more clearly by imagining the opposite. Suppose Christ had responded to the spirit of the apostolic query, "Dost Thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" and fixed the precise date of His coming? He would in that case have altogether defeated the great end of His own work and labour. Suppose He had fixed it a thousand years from the time of His Ascension. Then indeed the doctrine of Christ’s Second Coming would have lost all personal and practical power over the lives of the generation of Christians then living, or who should live during the hundreds of years which were to elapse till the date appointed. The day of their death, the uncertainty of life, these would be the inspiring motives to activity and devotion felt by the early Christians; while, as a matter of fact, St. Paul never appeals to either of them, but ever appeals to the coming of Christ and His appearing to judgment as the motives to Christian zeal and diligence. But a more serious danger in any such prediction lurks behind. What would have been the result of any such precise prophecy upon the minds of the Christians who lived close to the time of its fulfilment? It would have at once defeated the great end of the Christian religion, as we have already defined it. The near approach of the great final catastrophe would have completely paralysed all exertion, and turned the members of Christ’s Church into idle, useless, unpractical religionists. We all know how the near approach of any great event, how the presence of any great excitement, hinders life’s daily work. A great joy or a great sorrow, either of them is utterly inconsistent with tranquil thought, with steady labour, with persistent and profitable exertions. The expectation-of some tremendous change, whether it be for happiness or misery, creates such a flutter in the spirit that steady application is simply out of the question. So would it have been in our supposed case. As the time fixed for the appearance of our Lord drew nigh, all work, business, labour, the manifold engagements of life, the rearing of families, the culture of the ground, the development of trade and commerce, would be considered a grand impertinence, and man’s powers and man’s life would be prostrated in view of the approaching catastrophe.
(d) Again and again has history verified and amply justified the wisdom of the Master’s reply, "It is not for you to know times or seasons." It was justified in apostolic experience. The Second Epistle to the Thessalonians is a commentary on our Lord’s teaching in this passage. The Christians of Thessalonica imbibed the notion from St. Paul’s words that Christ’s appearance to judgment was at hand. Perhaps St. Paul’s words in his first Epistle led them into the mistake. The Apostle was not infallible on all questions. He was richly inspired, but he knew nothing of the future save what was expressly revealed, and beyond such express revelations he could only surmise and guess like other men. The Thessalonians, however, were led by him to expect the immediate appearance of Christ, and the result was just what I have depicted. The transcendent event, which they thought impending, paralysed exertion, destroyed honest and useful labour, scandalised the gospel cause, and compelled St. Paul to use the sternest, sharpest words of censure and rebuke. The language of St. Paul completely justifies our line of argument. He tells us that the spirits of the Thessalonians had been upset, the natural result of a great expectation had been experienced as we might humanly have predicted. The beginning of the second chapter of his Second Epistle proves this: "Now we beseech you, brethren, touching the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together unto Him; to the end that ye be not quickly shaken from your mind, nor yet be troubled, either by spirit, or by word, or by epistle as from us, as that the day of the Lord is present." See here how he dwells on mental perturbation as the result of high-strung expectation; and that is bad, for mental peace, not mental disturbance, is the portion of Christ’s people. Then again he indicates another result of which we have spoken as natural under such circumstances. Idleness and its long train of vices had followed hard upon the mental strain which found place for a time at Thessalonica, and so in the third chapter of the Epistle he writes, "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly"; and then he defines the disorderliness of which he complains, "For we hear of some that walk among you disorderly, that work not at all, but are busy-bodies." Or, to put the matter in a concise shape, and interpret St. Paul into modern language, the expectation of the near approach of the judgment and the personal appearing of Christ had upset the spirits of the Thessalonians; it had so fluttered them they could not attend to ordinary business. Human nature then asserted itself. Idleness resulted from the mental disturbance. Idleness begot gossip, disorder, and scandals. The idlers indeed professed that they ceased from labour in order to give their whole attention to devotion. But St. Paul knew that there was no incompatibility between work and prayer, while he was convinced there was the closest union between idleness and sin. Idleness put on an appearance of great spirituality, but St. Paul effectually met the difficulty. He knew that an idler, no matter how spiritual he pretended to be, must eat, and so he strikes at the root of such mock religion by laying down, "If any will not work, neither let him eat,"- a good healthy practical rule, which soon restored the moral and spiritual tone of the Macedonian Church to its normal condition.
(e) The experiences of Thessalonica have been often repeated down through the ages till we come to our own day. I remember a curious instance that I once read of exactly the same spirit, and exactly the same method of cure, as St. Paul used, in the case of an Egyptian monastery in the fifth century. The monks were then divided into two classes. There were monks who laboured diligently and usefully in communities, and there were others who lived idle lives as solitaries, pretending to a spirituality too great to permit them to engage in secular pursuits. A solitary one day entered a monastery presided over by a wise abbot. He found the monks all diligently employed, and, addressing them from his superior standpoint, said, "Labour not for the meat that perisheth." "That is very good, brother," said the abbot. "Take our brother away to his cell," he said to one of his attendants, who left him there to meditate. Nature, after a time, began to assert its sway, and the solitary became hungry. He heard the signal for the midday meal, and wondered that no man came to summon him. Time passed, and the evening meal was announced, and yet no invitation came. At last the solitary left his cell and proceeded in search of food, when the wise abbot impressed on him the Pauline rule that it was quite possible to unite work and worship, labouring for the bread that perisheth while feeding on the bread that is eternal.
The tenth century again verified the wisdom of the Divine denial to reveal the future, or fix a date for Christ’s second coming. The year 1000 was regarded in the century immediately preceding it as the limit of the world’s existence and the date of Christ’s appearing. The belief in this view spread all over Europe, and the result was just the same as at Thessalonica. Men abandoned all work, they left their families to starve, and thought the one great object worth living for was devotion and preparation for their impending change. And the result was widespread misery, famine, disease, and death, while, instead of working any beneficial change upon society at large, the terror through which men had passed brought about, when the dreaded time had gone by, a reaction towards carelessness and vice, all the greater from the self-denial which they had practised for a time. And as it was in the earlier ages so has it been in later times. The people of London were, in the middle of the last century, deluded into a belief that on a certain day the Lord would appear to judgment, with the result that the business of London was suspended for the time. The lives of John Wesley and his fellow-evangelists tell us how diligently they seized the opportunity of preaching repentance and preparation for the coming of Christ, though they shared not the belief in the prediction which gained them their audience. While again in the present century there was a widespread opinion about the year 1830 that the coming of Christ was at hand. It was the time when the Irvingite and Darbyite bodies sprang into existence, in which systems the near approach of the Second Coming forms an important element. Men then thought that it was a mere matter of day or weeks, and in consequence they acted just like the Thessalonians. In their ardour their minds were upset, their business and families neglected, and, as far as in them lay, the work of life and of civilisation was utterly destroyed. While when again we come to later times experience has taught that no men have been more profitless and unpractical Christians than the numbers, by no means inconsiderable, who have spent their lives in vain attempts to fix new for this year, and again for that day, the exact time when the Son of Man should appear. The wisest Christians have acted otherwise. It is told of a foreign bishop, eminent for his sanctity and for the wise guidance which he could give in the spiritual life, that he was once engaged in playing a game of bowls. One of the bystanders was of a critical disposition, and was scandalised at the frivolity of the bishop’s occupation, so much beneath the dignity, as it was thought, of his character. "If Christ was to appear the next moment, what would you do?" he asked the bishop. "I would make the next stroke the best possible one," was the wise man’s reply. And the reply involved the true principle which the Lord Himself by His refusal to gratify the Apostles’ curiosity desired to impress on His people. The uncertainty of the time of Christ’s coming, combined with the certainty of the event itself, should stir us up to intensity of purpose, to earnestness of life, to a hallowed enthusiasm to do thoroughly every lawful deed, to think thoroughly every lawful thought, conscious that in so doing we are fulfilling, the will and work of the great Judge Himself. Blessed indeed shall be those servants whom the Lord when He cometh shall find so doing.
III. Christ, after He had reproved the spirit of vain curiosity which strikes at the root of all practical effort, then indicates the source of their strength and the sphere of its activity. "Ye shall receive power after the Holy Ghost is come upon you." They were wanting then, as yet, in power, and the Holy Ghost was to supply the want. Intellect, talent, eloquence, wit, all these things are God’s gifts, but they are not the source of spiritual power. A man may possess them one and all, and yet be lacking in that spiritual power which came upon the Apostles through the descent of the Spirit. And the sphere of their appointed activity is designated for them. Just as in the earliest days Of Christ’s public ministry He spake words indicative of the universal spirit of the gospel, and prophesied of a time when men from the east and west should come and sit down in the kingdom of God, while the children of the kingdom should be cast out, so, too, one of His few recorded resurrection sayings now indicates the same: "Ye shall be My witnesses, both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth." Jerusalem, Judaea, - the Apostles were to begin their great practical life of witnessing at home, but they were not to stay there. Samaria was next to have its opportunity, and so we shall find it to have been the case; and then, working from home as centre, the uttermost parts of the earth, a distant Spain from Paul, and a distant India from Thomas, and a barbarous Scythia from Andrew, and a frigid, ocean-girt Britain from a Joseph of Arimathaea, were to learn tidings of the new life in Christ.
THE ASCENSION OF CHRIST AND ITS LESSONS.
IN this passage we have the bare literal statement of the fact of Christ’s ascension. Let us now consider this supernatural fact, the Ascension, and meditate upon its necessity, and even naturalness, when taken in connection with the whole earthly existence of Incarnate God, and then strive to trace the results and blessings to mankind which followed from it in the gift of the new power, the covenanted gift of the Spirit, and in the spread of the universal religion.
I. The ascension of our Lord is a topic whereon familiarity has worked its usual results; it has lost for most minds the sharpness of its outline and the profundity of its teaching because universally accepted by Christians; and yet no doctrine raises deeper questions, or will yield more profitable and far-reaching lessons. First, then, we may note the place this doctrine holds in apostolic teaching. Taking the records of that teaching contained in the Acts and the Epistles, we find that it occupies a real substantial position. The ascension is there referred to, hinted at, taken as granted, presupposed, but it is not obtruded nor dwelt upon overmuch. The resurrection of Christ was the great central point of apostolic testimony; the ascension of Christ was simply a portion of that fundamental doctrine, and a natural deduction from it. If Christ had been raised from the dead and had thus become the firstfruits of the grave, it required but little additional exercise of faith to believe that He had passed into that unseen and immediate presence of Deity where the perfected soul finds its complete satisfaction. In fact, the doctrine of the resurrection apart from the doctrine of the ascension would have been a mutilated fragment, for the natural question would arise, not for one age but for every age. If Jesus of Nazareth has risen from the dead, where is He? Produce your risen Master, and we will believe in Him, would be the triumphant taunt to which Christians would be ever exposed. But then, when we closely examine the teaching of the Apostles, we shall find that the doctrine of the ascension was just as really bound up with all their preaching and exhortations as the doctrine of the resurrection; the whole Christian idea as conceived by them just as necessarily involved the doctrine of the ascension as it did that of the resurrection. St. Peter’s conception of Christianity, for instance, involved the ascension. Whether in his speech at the election of Matthias, or in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, or in his address in Solomon’s Porch after the healing of the crippled beggar, his teaching ever presupposes and involves the ascension. He takes the doctrine and the fact for granted. Jesus is with him the Being "whom the heavens must receive until the times of restoration of all things." So is it too with St. John in his Gospel. He never directly mentions the fact of Christ’s ascension, but he always implies it. So too with St. Paul and the other apostolic writers of the New Testament. It would be simply impossible to exhibit in detail the manner in which this doctrine pervades and underlies all St. Paul’s teaching. The ascended Saviour occupies the same position in St. Paul’s earliest as in his latest writings. Is he speaking of the lives of the Thessalonians in his First Epistle to that Church: "they are waiting for God’s Son from heaven." Is he pointing them forward to the second advent of Christ: it is of that day he speaks when "the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven." Is he in Romans 8:1-39. dwelling upon the abiding security of God’s elect: he enlarges upon their privileges in "Christ Jesus, who is at the right hand of God, making intercession for us." Is he exhorting the Colossians to a supernatural life: it is because they have supernatural privileges in their ascended Lord. "If ye then were raised with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is seated on the right hand of God." The more closely the teaching of the Apostles is examined, the more clearly we shall perceive that the ascension was for them no ideal act, no imaginary or fantastic elevation, but a real actual passing of the risen Saviour out of the region and order of the seen and the natural into the region and order of the unseen and supernatural. Just as really as they believed Christ to have risen from the dead, just as really did they in turn believe Him to have ascended into the heavens.
II. But some one may raise curious questions as to the facts of the ascension. Whither, for instance, it may be asked, did our Lord depart when He left this earthly scene? The childish notion that He went up and up far above the most distant star will not of course stand a moment’s reflection. It suits the apprehension of childhood, and the innocent illusion should not be too rudely broken; but still, as the advance of years and of wisdom dispels other illusions, so too will this one depart, when the child learns that there is neither up nor down in this visible universe of ours, and that if we were ourselves transported to the moon, which seems shining over our heads, we should see the earth suspended in the blue azure which would overhang the moon and its newly-arrived inhabitants. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles does not describe our Saviour as thus ascending through infinite space. It simply describes Him as removed from off this earthly ball, and then, a cloud shutting Him out from view, Christ passed into the inner and unseen universe wherein He now dwells. The existence of that inner and unseen universe, asserted clearly enough in Scripture, has of late years been curiously confirmed by scientific speculation. Scripture asserts the existence of such an unseen universe, and the ascension implies it. The second coming of our Saviour is never described as a descent from some far-off region. No, it is always spoken of as an Apocalypse, - a drawing back, that is, of a veil which hides an unseen chamber. The angels, as the messengers of their Divine Master, are described by Christ in Matthew 13:1-58. as "coming forth" from the secret place of the Most High to execute His behests. What a solemn light such a scriptural view sheds upon life! The unseen world is not at some vast distance, but, as the ascension would seem to imply, close at hand, shut out from us by that thin veil of matter which angelic hands will one day rend for ever. And then how wondrously the speculations of that remarkable book to which I have referred, "The Unseen Universe," lend themselves to this scriptural idea, pointing out the necessity imposed by modern scientific thought for postulating some such interior spiritual sphere, of which the external and material universe may be regarded as a temporary manifestation and development. The doctrine of the ascension, when rightly understood, presents then no difficulties from a scientific point of view, but is rather in strictest accordance with the highest and subtlest forms of modern thought. But when we advance still closer to the heart of this doctrine, and endeavour, quite apart from all mere carping criticism, to realise its meaning and its power, we shall perceive a profound fitness, beauty, and harmony in this mysterious fact. Laying apart all carping criticism, I say, because the critical spirit is not appreciative, it is on the look-out for faults, it necessarily involves a certain assumption of superiority in the critic to the thing or doctrine criticised; and most certainly it is not to the proud critic, but to the humble soul alone, that the doctrines of the Cross yield of their sweetness, and make revelation of their profound depths. We can perceive a fitness and a naturalness in the ascension; we can advance even farther still, and behold an absolute necessity for it, if Christ’s work was to be perfected in all its details, and Christianity to become, not a narrow local religion, but a universal and catholic Church.
III. The ascension was a fitting and a natural termination of Christ’s earthly ministry, considering the Christian conception of His sacred Personality. When the Second Person of the Eternal Trinity wished to reveal the life of God among men, and to elevate humanity by associating it for ever with the person of Him who was the eternal God, He left the glory which He had with the Father before the world was, and entered upon the world of humanity through a miraculous door. "The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man’s nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, of her substance." These are the careful, accurate, well-balanced words of the second Article of the Church of England, in which all English-speaking Christians substantially agree. They are accurate, I say, and well-balanced, avoiding the Scylla of Nestorianism, which divides Christ’s person, on the one side, and the Charybdis of Eutychianism, which denies His humanity, on the other. The Person of God, the Eternal Word, assumed human nature, not a human person, but human nature, so that God might be able, acting in and through this human nature as His instrument, to teach mankind and to die for mankind. God entered upon the sphere of the seen and the temporal by a miraculous door. His life and work were marked all through by miracle, His death and resurrection were encompassed with miracle; and it was fitting, considering the whole course of His earthly career, that His departure from this world should be through another miraculous door. The departure of the Eternal King was, like His first approach, a part of a scheme which forms one united and harmonious whole. The Incarnation and the Ascension were necessarily related the one to the other.
IV. Again, we may advance a step further, and say that not only was the ascension a natural and fitting termination to the activities of the Eternal Son manifest in the flesh, it was a necessary completion and finish. "It is expedient," said Christ Himself, "that I go away; for if I go not away the Comforter will not come to you." For some reason secret from us but hidden in the awful depths of that Being who is the beginning and the end, the source and the condition of all created existence, the return of Christ to the bosom of the Father was absolutely necessary before the outpouring of the Divine Spirit of Life and Love could take place. How this can have been we know not. We only know the fact as revealed to us by Jesus Christ and affirmed by His Apostles. "Being therefore by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, He hath poured forth this which ye see and hear," is the testimony of the illuminated Apostle St. Peter on the day of Pentecost, speaking in strict unison with the teaching of Jesus Christ Himself as reported in St. John’s Gospel. But without endeavouring to intrude into these mysteries of the Divine nature, into which even the angels themselves pry not, we behold in the character and constitution of Christ’s Church and Christ’s religion sufficient reasons to show us the Divine expediency of our Lord’s ascension. Let us take the matter very plainly and simply thus. Had our Lord not ascended into the unseen state whence He had emerged for the purpose of rescuing mankind from that horrible pit, that mire and clay of pollution, immorality, and selfishness in which it lay at the epoch of the Christian Era, He must in that case (always proceeding on the supposition that He had risen from the dead, because we always suppose our readers to be believers) have remained permanently or temporarily resident in some one place. He might have chosen Jerusalem, the city of the great King, as His abode, and this would have seemed to the religious men of His time quite natural. The same instinct of religious conservatism which made the Twelve to tarry at Jerusalem even when persecution seemed to threaten the infant Church with destruction, would have led the risen Christ to fix His abode at the city which every pious Jew regarded as the special seat of Jehovah. There would have been nothing to tempt Him to Antioch, or Athens, or Alexandria, or Rome. None of these cities could have held out any inducement or put forward any claim comparable for one moment with that which the name, the traditions, and the circumstances of Jerusalem triumphantly maintained. Nay, rather the tone and temper of those cities must have rendered them abhorrent as dwelling-places to the great Teacher of holiness and purity.
At any rate, the risen Saviour, if He remained upon earth, must have chosen some one place where His presence and His personal glory would have been manifested. Now let us contemplate, and work out in some detail, the results which would have inevitably followed. The place chosen by our Lord as His visible dwelling-place must then have become the centre of the whole Church. At that spot pilgrims from every land must necessarily have assembled. To it would have resorted the doubter to have his difficulties resolved, the sick and weak to have their ailments cured, the men of profound devotion to bathe themselves and lose themselves in the immediate presence of the Incarnate Deity. All interest in local Churches or local work would have been destroyed, because every eye and every heart would be perpetually turning towards the one spot where the risen Lord was dwelling, and where personal adoration could be paid to Him. All honest, manly self-reliance would have been lost for individuals, for Churches, and for nations. Whenever a difficulty or controversy arose, either in the personal or ecclesiastical, the social or political sphere, men, instead of trying to solve it for themselves under the guidance of the Divine Spirit, would have hurried off with it to the Fount of supernatural wisdom, as an oracle, like the fabled pagan ones of old, whence direction would infallibly be gained. Judaism would have triumphed, and the dispensation of the Spirit would have ceased.
The whole idea, too, of Christianity as a scheme of moral probation would have been overthrown. Christ as belonging to the supernatural sphere would of course have been raised above the laws of time and space. For Him the powers of earth and the terrors of earth would have had no meaning, and heavenly glory, shooting forth from His sacred Person, would have compelled obedience and acceptance of His laws at the hands of His most deadly and obstinate foes. Sight would have taken the place of faith, and the terrified submission of slaves would have been substituted for the moral, loving obedience of the regenerate soul. The whole social order of life would also have been overthrown. God has now placed men in families, societies, and nations, that they might be proved by the very difficulties of their positions. The probation which God thereby exercises over men extends not to those alone who are subject to government, but to those as well who are entrusted with government. God by His present system tries governors and governed, kings and subjects, magistrates and people, parents and children, teachers and pupils, all alike. Any one who has ever made the experiment knows, however, how impossible it is to give full play to one’s power and faculties, whether of government or of teaching, when overlooked by the conscious presence of one who can supersede and control all arrangements made or all the instructions offered. Nervousness comes in, and paralyses the best efforts a man might otherwise make. So would it have been had Christ remained upon earth. Neither those placed in authority nor those set under authority would have done their best or played their part effectually, feeling there was One standing by whose all-piercing gaze could see the imperfection of their noblest actions. A modern illustration or two will perhaps exhibit more plainly what we mean. London, with its enormous and ever-growing population, constitutes in many respects a portentous danger to our national life. But thoughtful colonists often see in it a danger which does not strike us here at home. London has a tendency to sap the springs of local interest and local self-reliance. Every colonist who attains to wealth and position feels himself an exile till he Can get back to London, which he regards as the one centre of the empire worth living at; while the colonies, viewing London as the centre of England’s wealth, power, and resources, feel naturally inclined to fling upon London the care and responsibility of the empire’s protection, in which all its separate parts should take their proportionate share.
Or again, let us take an illustration from the ecclesiastical sphere. M. Renan is a writer who has depicted the early history of the Church from a sceptical point of view. He has done so with all the skill of a novelist, aided by the resources of immense erudition. Before Renan became a sceptic he was a Roman Catholic, and a student for the priesthood in one of those narrow seminaries wherein exclusively the Roman Church now trains her clergy. Renan can never, therefore, view Christianity save through a Roman medium, and from a Roman Catholic standpoint. Descended himself from a Jewish stock, and trained up in Roman Catholic ideas, Renan, sceptic though he be, is lost in admiration of the Papacy, because it has combined the Jewish and the ancient imperial ideas, so that Rome having taken the place which Jerusalem once occupied in the spiritual organisation, has now become the local centre of unity for the Latin Church, where Christ’s vicar visibly bears sway, to whom resort can be had from every land as an authoritative guide, and whence he and he alone dispenses with more than imperial sway the gifts and graces of Divine love. Rome is for the Latin Church the centre of the earth, and upon Rome and its spiritual ruler all interest as concentrated as Christ’s earthly representative and deputy. Now what London is to our colonists, what Rome is for its adherents, such, and infinitely more, would the localised presence of Jesus Christ have been for the Christian world had not the ascension taken place. The Papacy, instead of securing the universality of the Church, strikes a deadly blow at it. The Papacy, with its centralised ecclesiastical despotism, is not the Catholic Church, it is simply the local Church of Rome spread out into all the world; just as Judaism never was and never could have been catholic in its ideal, no matter how widely spread it was, from the shores of the British Islands in the West to the far-distant regions of China in the East. Its adherents, like the eunuch of Ethiopia, never felt a local interest in their religion, -their eyes ever turned towards Zion, the city of the great King. And so would it have been with the bodily presence of Christ manifested in one spot; the Christian Church would still have remained a purely local institution, and the place where the risen Saviour was manifested would have been for Christian people the one centre towards which all their thoughts would gravitate, to the complete neglect of those home interests and labours in which each individual Church ought to find the special work appointed for it by the Master. It was expedient for the Church that Christ should go away, to deepen faith, to strengthen Christian self-reliance, to offer play and scope for the power and work of the Holy Ghost, to render life a testing-ground, and a place of probation for the higher life to come. But above all, it was expedient that Christ should go away in order that the Church might rise out of and above that narrow provincialism in which the Jewish spirit would fain bind it, might attain to a truly universal and catholic position, and thus fulfil the Master’s magnificent prophecy to the woman of Samaria, when, viewing in spirit the Church’s onward march, beholding it bursting all local and national bonds, recognising it as the religion of universal humanity, He proclaimed its destiny in words which shall never die-"Woman, believe Me, the hour cometh when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem shall ye worship the Father. God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth." The ascension of Jesus Christ was absolutely necessary to equip the Church for its universal mission, by withdrawing the bodily presence of Christ into that unseen region which bears no special relation to any terrestrial locality, but is the common destiny, the true fatherland, of all the sons of God.
V. We have now seen how the ascension was needful for the Church, by rendering Christ an ideal object of worship for the whole human race, thus saving it from that tendency to mere localism which would have utterly changed its character. We can also trace another great blessing involved in it. The ascension glorified humanity as humanity, and ennobled man viewed simply as man. The ascension thus transformed life by adding a new dignity to life and to life’s duties.
This was a very necessary lesson for the ancient world, especially the ancient Gentile world, which Christ came to enlighten and to save. Man, considered by himself as man, had no peculiar dignity in the popular religious estimate of Greece and Rome .A Greek or a Roman was a dignified person, not, however, in virtue of his humanity, but in virtue of his Greek or Roman citizenship. The most pious Greeks or Romans simply despised mankind as such, regarding all other nations as barbarians, and treating them accordingly. Roman law exempted Roman citizens from degrading and cruel punishments, which they reserved for men outside the limits of Roman citizenship, because that humanity as humanity had no dignity attached to it in their estimation. The gladiatorial shows were the most striking illustration of this contempt for human nature which paganism inculcated.
It is a notable evidence, too, of the firm grasp upon the popular mind this contempt had taken, of the awful depths to which the fatal infection had permeated the public conscience, that it was not till four hundred years after the Incarnation, and not till one hundred years after the triumph of Christianity, that these frightful carnivals of human blood and slaughter yielded to the gentler and nobler principles of the religion of the Cross. No name indeed in the long roll of Christian martyrs, who for truth and righteousness have laid down their lives, deserves higher mention than that of Telemachus, the Asiatic monk, who, in the year 404, hearing that the city where the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul had suffered was still disgraced by the gladiatorial shows, made his way to Rome, and by the sacrifice of his own life terminated them forever within the bounds of Christendom. Telemachus rushed between the combatants in the arena, flung them asunder, and then was stoned to death by the mob, infuriated at the interruption of their favourite amusement. A tragic but glorious ending indeed, showing clearly how little the Roman mob realised as yet the doctrine of the sanctity of human nature; how powerful was the sway which paganism and pagan modes of thought held as yet over the populace of nominally Christian Rome; the tradition of which even still perpetuates itself in the cruel bull-fights of Spain. From the beginning, however, Christianity took exactly the opposite course, declaring to all the dignity and glory of human nature itself. The Incarnation was in itself a magnificent proclamation of this great elevating and civilising truth. The title Son of Man, which Christ, rising above all narrow Jewish nationalism, assumed to Himself, was a republication of the same dogma; and then, to crown the whole fabric, comes the doctrine of the ascension, wherein mankind was taught that human nature as joined to the person of God has ascended into the holiest place of the universe, so that henceforth the humblest and lowliest can view his humanity as allied with that elder Brother who in the reality of human flesh-glorified, indeed, spiritualised and refined by the secret, searching processes of death-has passed within the veil, now to appear in the presence of God for us. What new light must have been shed upon life-the life of the barbarian and of the slave-crushed beneath the popular theory of St. Paul’s day! What new dignity this doctrine imparted to the bodies of the outcast and despised, counted fit food only for the cross, the stake, or the arena! Man might despise them and ill-treat them, yet their bodies were made like unto the one glorious Body for ever united to God, and therefore they were comforted, elevated, enabled to endure as seeing Him who is invisible. Cannot we see many examples of the consoling, elevating power of the ascension in the New Testament? Take St. Paul’s writings, and there we trace the influence of the ascension in every page. Take the very lowest case. Slaves under the conditions of ancient society occupied the most degraded position. Their duties were of the humblest type, their treatment of the worst description, their punishments of the most terrible character. Yet for even these oppressed and degraded beings the doctrine of the ascension transformed life, because it endowed that menial service which they rendered with a new dignity. "Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eye service, as men pleasers, but in singleness of heart, fearing God." And why? Because life has been enriched with a new motive: "Whatsoever ye do, do it heartily as to the Lord, and not unto men; knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance; for ye serve the Lord Christ." Ye serve the Lord Christ. That was the supreme point. The cooking of a dinner, the dressing of an imperious lady’s hair, the teaching of a careless or refractory pupil-all these things were transfigured into the service of the ascended Lord. And as with the servants, so was it with their masters. The ascension furnished them with a new and practical motive, which, at first leading to kindly treatment and generous actions, would one day, by the force of logical deduction as well as of Christian principle, lead to the utter extinction of slavery. "Masters, render unto your servants that which is just and equal, knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven." The doctrine of the ascension diffused sweetness and light throughout the whole Christian system, furnishing a practical motive, offering an ever-present and eternal sanction, urging men upwards and onwards; without which neither the Church nor the world would ever have reached that high level of mercy, charity, and purity which men now enjoy. Perhaps here again the present age may see the doctrine of the ascension asserting its glory and its power in the same direction. Much of modern speculation tends to debase and belittle the human body, teaching theories respecting its origin which have a natural tendency to degrade the popular standard. If people come to think of their bodies as derived from a low source, they will be apt to think a low standard of morals as befitting bodies so descended. The doctrine of evolution has not, to say the least, an elevating influence upon the masses. I say nothing against it. One or two passages in the Bible, as Genesis 2:7, seem to support it, appearing, as that verse does, to make a division between the creation of the body of man and the creation of his spirit. But the broad tendency of such speculation lies in a downward moral direction. Here the doctrine of the ascension steps in to raise for us, as it raised for the materialists of St. Paul’s day, the standard of current conceptions, and to teach men a higher and a nobler view. we leave to science the investigation of the past and of the lowly sources whence man’s body may have come; but the doctrine of the ascension speaks of its present sanctity and of its future glory, telling of the human body as a body of humiliation and of lowliness indeed, but yet proclaiming it as even now, in the person of Christ, ascended into the heavens, and seated on the throne of the Most High. It may have been once humble in it’s origin; it is now glorious in its dignity and elevation; and that dignity and that elevation shed a halo upon human nature, no matter how degraded and wherever it may be found, because it is like unto that Body, the firstfruits of humanity, which stands at the right hand of God. Thus the doctrine of the ascension becomes for the Christian the ever-flowing fountain of dignity, of purity, and of mercy, teaching us to call no man common or unclean, because all have been made like unto the image of the Son of God.
THE ELECTION OF MATTHIAS.
We have selected the incident of this apostolic election as the central point round which to group the events of the ten days’ expectation which elapsed between the Ascension and Pentecost. But though this election is a most important fact, in itself and in the principles involved therein, yet there are numerous other circumstances in this waiting time which demand and will amply repay our thoughtful attention.
I. There is, for instance, the simple fact that ten days were allowed to elapse between Christ’s departure and the fulfilment of His promise to send the Comforter to take His place with His bereaved flock. The work of the world’s salvation depended upon the outcome of this Divine agent. "Tarry ye in the city till ye be endued with power from on high"; and all the time souls were hurrying on to destruction, and society was becoming worse and worse, and Satan’s hold upon the world was daily growing in strength. God, however, acted in this interval according to the principles we see illustrated in nature as well as in revelation. He does nothing in a hurry. The Incarnation was postponed for thousands of years. When the Incarnation took place, Christ grew up slowly, and developed patiently, till the day of His manifestation to Israel. And now that Christ’s public work on earth was done, there is no haste in the further development of the plan of salvation, but ten days are suffered, to elapse before His promise is fulfilled. What a rebuke we read in the Divine methods of that faithless, unbelieving haste which marks and mars so many of our efforts for truth and righteousness, and specially so in these concluding years of the nineteenth century. Never did the Church stand more in need of the lesson so often thus impressed upon her by her Divine Teacher. As Christ did not strive nor cry, neither did any man hear His voice in the streets, so neither did He make haste, because He lived animated by Divine strength and wisdom, which make even apparent delay and defeat conduce to the attainment of the highest ends of love and mercy. And so, too, Christ’s Church still does not need the bustle, the haste, the unnatural excitement which the world thinks needful, because she labours under a sense of Divine guidance, and imitates His example who kept His Apostles waiting ten long days before He fulfilled His appointed promise. What a lesson of comfort, again, this Divine delay teaches! We are often inclined to murmur in secret at the slow progress of God’s Church and kingdom. We think that if we had the management of the world’s affairs things would have been ordered otherwise, and the progress of truth be one long-continued march of triumph. A consideration of the Divine delays in the past helps us to bear this burden, though it may not explain the difficulty. God’s delays have turned out to His greater glory in the past, and they who wait patiently upon Him will find the Divine delays of the present dispensation equally well ordered.
II. Then again, how carefully, even in His delays, God honours the elder dispensation, though now it had grown old and was ready to vanish away. Christianity had none of that revolutionary spirit which makes a clean sweep of old institutions to build up a new fabric in their stead. Christianity, on the contrary, rooted itself in the past, retained old institutions and old ideas, elevating indeed and spiritualising them, and thus slowly broadened down from precedent to precedent. This truly conservative spirit of the new dispensation is manifest in every arrangement, and specially reveals itself in the times selected for the great events of our Lord’s ministry-Easter, Ascension, then the ten days of expectation, and then Pentecost. And it was most fitting that it should be so. The old dispensation was a shadow and picture of the higher and better covenant one day to be unfolded. Moses was told to make the tabernacle after the pattern shown to him in the mount, and the whole typical system of Judaism was modelled after a heavenly original to which Christ conformed in the work of man’s salvation.
At the first Passover, the paschal lamb was offered up and the deliverance from Egypt effected; and so, too, at the Passover the true Paschal Lamb, Jesus Christ, was presented unto God as an acceptable sacrifice, and the deliverance effected of the true Israel from the spiritual Egypt of the world. Forty days after the Passover, Israel came to the mount of God, into which Moses ascended that he might receive the gifts for the people; and forty days after the last great Paschal Offering, the great spiritual Captain and Deliverer ascended into the Mount of God, that He, in turn, might receive highest spiritual blessings and a new law of life for God’s true people. Then there came the ten days of expectation and trial, when the Apostles were called to wait upon God and prove the blessings of patient abiding upon Him, just as the Israelites were called to wait upon God while Moses was absent in the mount. But how different the conduct of the Apostles from that of the more carnal Jews! How typical of the future of the two religions - the Jewish and the Christian! The Jews walked by sight, and not by faith; they grew impatient, and made an image, the golden calf, to be their visible Deity. The Apostles tarried in patience, because they were walking by faith, and they received in return the blessing of an ever-present unseen Guide and Comforter to lead them, and all who like them seek His help, into the ways of truth and peace. And then, when the waiting time is past, the feast of Pentecost comes, and at Pentecost, the feast of the giving of the old law, as the Jews counted it, the new law of life and power, written not on stony tables, but on the fleshy tables of the heart is granted in the gift of the Divine Comforter. All the lines of the old system are carefully followed, and Christianity is thus shown to be, not a novel invention, but the development and fulfilment of God’s ancient purposes. We can scarcely appreciate nowadays the importance and stress laid upon this view among the ancient expositors and apologists. It was a favourite taunt used by the pagans of Greece and Rome against Christianity that it was only a religion of yesterday, a mere novelty, as compared with their own systems, which descended to them from the dawn of history. This taunt has been indeed most useful in its results for us moderns, because it led the ancient Christians to pay the most careful attention to chronology and historical studies, producing as the result works like "The Chronicle of Eusebius," to which secular history itself owes the greatest obligations.
The heathens reproached Christians with the novelty of their faith, and then the early Christians replied by pointing to history, which proved that the Jewish religion was far older than any other, maintaining at the same time that Christianity was merely the development of the Jewish religion, the completion and fulfilment in fact and reality of what Judaism had shadowed forth in the ritual of the Passover and of Pentecost.
III. We notice again in this connection the place where the Apostles met, and the manner in which they continued to assemble after the ascension, and while they waited for the fulfilment of the Master’s promise: "They returned unto Jerusalem, and they went up into an upper chamber." Round this upper room at Jerusalem has gathered many a story dating from very early ages indeed. The upper room in which they assembled has been identified with the chamber in which the Last Supper was celebrated, and where the gift of the Holy Ghost was first received, and that from ancient times. Epiphanius, a Christian writer of the fourth century, to whom we owe much precious information concerning the early ages of the Church, tells us that there was a church built on this spot even in Hadrian’s time, that is, about the year 120 A.D. The Empress Helena, again, the mother of Constantine the Great, identified or thought she identified the spot, and built a splendid church to mark it out for all time; and succeeding ages have spent much care and thought upon it. St. Cyril of Jerusalem was a writer little referred to and little known in our day, who yet has much precious truth to teach us. He was a learned bishop of Jerusalem about the middle of the fourth century, and he left us catechetical lectures, showing what pains and trouble the Early Church took in the inculcation of the fundamental articles of the Christian creed. His catechetical lectures, delivered to the candidates for baptism, contain much valuable evidence of the belief, the practice, and the discipline of the early ages, and they mention among other points the church built upon Mount Zion on the spot once occupied by this upper room. The tradition, then, which deals with this chamber and points out its site goes back to the ages of persecution; and yet it is notable how little trouble the book of the Acts of the Apostles takes in this matter. It is just the same with this upper chamber as with the other localities in which our Lord’s mighty works were wrought. The Gospels tell us not where His temptations occurred, though man has often tried to fix the exact locality. The site of the Transfiguration and of the true Mount of Beatitudes has engaged much human curiosity; the scene of Peter’s vision at Joppa and of St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, -all these and many other divinely honoured localities of the Old as well as of the New Testament have been shrouded from us in thickest darkness, that we might learn not to fix our eyes upon the external husk, the locality, the circumstances, the time, which are nothing, but upon the interior spirit, the love, the unity, the devotion and self-sacrifice which constitute in the Divine sight the very heart and core of our holy religion. They assembled themselves, too, in this upper chamber in a united spirit, such as Christianity, though only in an undeveloped shape, already dictated. The Apostles "continued steadfastly in prayer, with the women also, and Mary, the mother of Jesus." The spirit of Christianity was, I say, already manifesting itself.
In the temple, as in the synagogues to this day, the women prayed in a separate place; they were not united with the men, but parted from them by a screen. But in Christ Jesus there was to be neither male nor female. The man in virtue of his manhood had no advantage or superiority over the woman in virtue of her womanhood; and so the Apostles gathered themselves at the footstool of their common Father in union with the women, and with Mary the mother of Jesus. How simple, again, this last mention of the Blessed Virgin Mother of the Lord! how strangely and strongly contrasted the scriptural record is with the fables and legends which have grown up round the memory of her whom all generations must ever call blessed. Nothing, in fact, shows more plainly the historic character of the book we are studying than a comparison of this last simple notice with the legend of the assumption of the Blessed Virgin as it has been held since the fifth century, and as it is now believed in the Church of Rome. The popular account of this fabled incident arose in the East amid the controversies which rent the Church concerning the Person of Christ in the fifth century. It taught that the Holy Virgin, a year or so after the ascension, besought the Lord to release her; upon which the angel Gabriel was sent to announce her departure in three days’ time. The Apostles were thereupon summoned from the different parts of the world whither they had departed. John came from Ephesus, Peter from Rome, Thomas from India, each being miraculously wafted on a cloud from his special sphere of labour, while those of the apostolic company who had died were raised for the occasion. On the third day the Lord descended from heaven with the angels, and took to Himself the soul of the Virgin. The Jews then attempted to burn the body, which was miraculously rescued and buried in a new tomb, prepared by Joseph of Arimathaea in the Valley of Jehoshaphat. For two days the angels were heard singing at the tomb, but on the third day their songs ceased, and the Apostles then knew that the body had been transferred to Paradise. St. Thomas was indeed vouchsafed a glimpse of her ascension, and at his request she dropped him her girdle as a token, whereupon he went to his brother Apostles and declared her sepulchre to be empty. The Apostles regarded this as merely a sign of his customary incredulity, but on production of the girdle they were convinced, and on visiting the grave found the body gone.
Can any contrast be greater or more striking between the inspired narrative, composed for the purpose of ministering to godly life and practice, and such legendary fables as this, invented to gratify mere human curiosity, or to secure a temporary controversial triumph? The Divine narrative shrouds in thickest darkness details which have no spiritual significance, no direct bearing on the work of man’s salvation. The human fable intrudes into the things unseen, and revels with a childish delight in the regions of the supernatural and miraculous.
What a striking likeness do we trace between the composition of the Acts and of the Gospels in this direction! The self-restraint of the evangelical writers is wondrous. Had the Evangelists been mere human biographers, how they would have delighted to expatiate on the childhood and youth and earlier years of Christ’s manhood. The apocryphal Gospels composed in the second and third centuries show us what Our Gospels would have been had they been written by men destitute of an abundant supply of the Divine Spirit. They enter into the most minute incidents of our Lord’s childhood, tell us of His games, His schoolboy days, of the flashes of the supernatural glory which ever betrayed the awful Being who lay hidden beneath. The Gospels, on the other hand, fling a hallowed and reverent veil over all the details, or almost all the details, of our Lord’s early life. They tell us of His birth, and its circumstances and surroundings, that we might learn the needful lesson of the infinite glory, the transcendent greatness of lowliness and humiliation. They give us a glimpse of our Lord’s development when twelve years old, that we may learn the spiritual strength and force which are produced through the discipline of obedience and patient waiting upon God; and then all else is concealed from human vision till the hour was come for the manifestation of the full-orbed God-Man. And as it was with the Eternal Son, so was it with that earthly parent whom the consensus of universal Christendom has agreed to honour as the type of devout faith, of humble submission, of loving motherhood. Fable has grown thick round her in mere human narrative, but when we turn to the inspired Word, whether in the Gospels or in the Acts, - for it is all the same in both, - we find a story simple, restrained, and yet captivating in all its details, ministering indeed to no prurient curiosity, yet rich in all the materials which serve to devout meditation, culminating in this last record, where the earthly parent finally disappears from out of sight, eclipsed by the heavenly glory of the Divine Son:-"These all continued steadfastly in prayer, with the women, and Mary, the mother of Jesus."
IV. And then we have the record of the apostolic election, which is rich in teaching. We note the person who took the first step, and his character, so thoroughly in unison with that picture which the four Gospels present. St. Peter was not a forward man in the bad sense of the word, but he possessed that energetic, forcible character to which men yield a natural leadership. Till St. Paul appeared St. Peter was regarded as the spokesman of the apostolic band, just as during our Lord’s earthly ministry the same position was by tacit consent accorded to him. He was one of those men who cannot remain inactive, especially when they see anything wanting. There are some men who can see a defect just as clearly, but their first thought is, What have I to do with it? They behold the need, but it never strikes them that they should attempt to rectify it. St. Peter was just the opposite: when he saw a fault or a want his disposition and his natural gifts at once impelled him to strive to rectify it. When our Lord, in view of the contending rumours afloat concerning His ministry and authority, applied this searching test to His Apostles, "But whom do ye say that I am?" it was Peter that boldly responded, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." Just as a short time afterwards the same Peter incurred Christ’s condemnation when he rebuked the Saviour for the prophecy of His forthcoming death and humiliation. The character of St. Peter as depicted in the Gospels and the Acts is at unison with itself. It is that of one ever generous, courageous, intensely sympathetic, impulsive, but deficient, as impulsive and sympathetic characters often are, m that staying power, that capacity to bear up under defeat, discouragement, and darkness which so conspicuously marked out the great Apostle of the Gentiles, and made him such a pillar in the spiritual temple of the New Jerusalem. Yet St. Peter did his own work, for God can ever find employment suitable to every type of that vast variety of temperament which finds shelter beneath the roof of Christ’s Church. St. Peter’s impulsiveness, chastened by prayer, solemnised by his own sad personal experience, deepened by the bitter sorrow consequent on his terrible fall, urged him to take the first conscious step as the leader of the newly-constituted society. How very similar the Peter of the Acts is to the Peter of St. Matthew; what an undesigned evidence of the truth of these records we trace in the picture of St. Peter presented by either narrative! Just as St. Peter was in the Gospels the first to confess at Caesarea, the first to strike in the garden, the first to fail in the high priest’s palace, so was he the first "to stand up in these days in the midst of the brethren," and propose the first corporate movement on the Church’s part.
Here again we note that his attitude at this apostolic election proves that the interviews which St. Peter held with Christ after the Resurrection must have been lengthened, intimate, and frequent, for St. Peter’s whole view of the Christian organisation seems thoroughly changed. Christ had continued with His Apostles during forty days, speaking to them of the things concerning the kingdom of God; and St. Peter, as he had been for years one of the Lord’s most intimate friends, so he doubtless still held the same trusted position in these post-resurrection days. The Lord revealed to him the outlines of His kingdom, and sketched for him the main lines of its development, teaching him that the Church was not to be a knot of personal disciples, dependent upon His manifested bodily presence, and dissolving into its original elements as soon as that bodily presence ceased to be realised by the eye of sense; but was rather to be a corporation with perpetual succession, to use legal language, whose great work was to be an unceasing witness to Christ’s resurrection. If Peter’s mind had not been thus illuminated and guided by the personal instruction of Christ, how came it to pass that prior to the descent of the Spirit the Apostles move with no uncertain step in this matter, and unhesitatingly fill up the blank in the sacred college by the election of Matthias into the place left vacant by the terrible fall of Judas? The speech of St. Peter and the choice of this new Apostle reflect light back upon the forty days of waiting. No objection is raised, no warm debate takes place such as heralded the solution of the vexed question concerning circumcision at the council of Jerusalem; no one suggests that as Christ Himself had not supplied the vacancy the choice should be postponed till after the fulfilment of the Master’s mysterious promise, because they were all instructed as to our Lord’s wishes by the conversations held with Christ during His risen and glorified life.
Let us pause a little to meditate upon an objection which might have been here raised. Why fill up what Christ Himself left vacant? some shortsighted objector might have urged; and yet we see good reason why Christ may have omitted to supply the place of Judas, and may have designed that the Apostles themselves should have done so. Our Lord Jesus Christ gifted His Apostles with corporate power; He bestowed upon them authority to act in His stead and name; and it is not God’s way of action to grant power and authority, and then to allow it to remain unexercised and undeveloped. When God confers any gift He expects that it shall be used for His honour and man’s benefit. The Lord had bestowed upon the Apostles the highest honour, the most wondrous power ever given to men. He had called them to an office of which He Himself had spoken very mysterious things. He had told them that, in virtue of the apostolic dignity conferred upon them, they should in the regeneration of all things sit upon thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. He had spoken, too, of a mysterious authority with which they were invested, so that their decisions here upon earth would be ratified and confirmed in the region of heavenly realities. Yet when a gap is made by successful sin in the number of the mystical twelve, who are to judge the twelve tribes, He leaves the selection of a new Apostle to the remaining eleven, in order that they may be compelled to stir up the grace of God which was in them, and to exercise the power entrusted to them under a due sense of responsibility. The Lord thus wished to teach the Church from the earliest days to walk alone. The Apostles had been long enough depending on His personal presence and guidance, and now, that they might learn to exercise the privileges and duties of their Divine freedom, He leaves them to choose one to fill that position of supernatural rank and office from which Judas had fallen. The risen Saviour acted in grace as God ever acts in nature. He bestowed His gifts lavishly and generously and then expected man to respond to the gifts by making that good use of them which earnest prayer, sanctified reason, and Christian common-sense dictated.
St. Peter’s action is notable, too, in another aspect. St. Peter was undoubtedly the natural leader of the apostolic band during those earliest days of the Church’s history. Our Lord Himself recognised his natural gifts as qualifying him to fulfil this position. There is no necessity for a denial on our part of the reality of St. Peter’s privilege as contained in such passages as the verse which says, "I will give unto thee (Peter) the keys of the kingdom of heaven." He was eminently energetic, vigorous, quick in action. But we find no traces of that despotic authority as prince of the Apostles and supreme head over the whole Church with which some would fain invest St. Peter and his successors. St. Peter steps forward first on this occasion, as again on the day of Pentecost, and again before the high priest after the healing of the impotent man, and yet again at the council of Jerusalem; for, as we have already noted, St. Peter possessed in abundance that natural energy which impels a man to action without any desire for notoriety or any wish to thrust himself into positions of undue eminence. But then on every occasion St. Peter speaks as an equal to his equals. He claims no supreme authority; no authority, in fact, at all over and beyond what the others possessed. He does not, for instance, on this occasion claim the right as Christ’s vicar to nominate an Apostle into the place of Judas. He merely asserts his lawful place in Christ’s kingdom as first among a body of equals to suggest a course of action to the whole body which he knew to be in keeping with the Master’s wishes, and in fulfilment of His revealed intentions.
V. The address of St. Peter led the Apostles to practical action. He laid the basis of it in the book of Psalms, the mystical application of which to our Lord and His sufferings he recognises, selecting passages from the sixty-ninth and the one hundredth and ninth Psalms as depicting the sin and the fate of Judas Iscariot; and then sets forth the necessity of filling up the vacancy in the apostolic office, a fact of which he had doubtless been certified by the Master Himself. He speaks as if the College of the Apostles had a definite work and office; a witness peculiar to themselves as Apostles, which no others except Apostles could render. This is manifest from the language of St. Peter. He lays down the conditions of a possible Apostle: he must have been a witness of all that Jesus had done and taught from the time of His baptism to His ascension. But this qualification alone would not make a man an Apostle, or qualify him to bear the witness peculiar to the apostolic office. There were evidently numerous such witnesses, but they were not Apostles, and had none of the power and privileges of the Twelve. He must be chosen by his brother Apostles. and their choice must be endorsed by heaven; and then the chosen witness, who had known the past, could testify to the resurrection in particular, with a weight, authority, and dignity he never possessed before. The apostolic office was the germ out of which the whole Christian ministry was developed, and the apostolic witness was typical of that witness to the resurrection which is not the duty alone, but also the strength and glory of the Christian ministry; for it is only as the ministers and witnesses of a risen and glorified Christ that they differ from the officials of a purely human association.
After St. Peter had spoken, two persons were selected as possessing the qualifications needful in the successor of Judas. Then when the Apostles had elected they prayed, and cast lots as between the two, and the final selection of Matthias was made. Questions have sometimes been raised as to this method of election, and attempts have been sometimes made to follow the precedent here set. The lot has at times been used to supersede the exercise of human judgment, not only in Church elections, but in the ordinary matters of life; but if this passage is closely examined, it will be seen that it affords no justification for any such practice. The Apostles did not use the lot so as to supersede the exercise of their own powers, or relieve them of ‘that personal responsibility which God has imposed on men, whether as individuals, or as gathered in societies civil or ecclesiastical. The Apostles brought their private judgment’ into play, searched, debated, voted, and, as the result, chose two persons equally well qualified for the apostolic office. Then, when they had done their best, they left the decision to the lot, just as men often do still; and if we believe in the efficacy of prayer and a particular Providence ordering the affairs of men, I do not see that any wiser course can ever be taken, under similar circumstances, than that which the Apostles adopted on this occasion. But we must be careful to observe that the Apostles did not trust to the lot absolutely and completely. That would have been trusting to mere chance. They first did their utmost, exercised their own knowledge and judgment, and then, having done their part, they prayerfully left the final result to God, in humble confidence that He would show what was best.
The two selected candidates were Joseph Barsabas and Matthias, neither of whom ever appeared before in the story of our Lord’s life, and yet both had been His disciples all through His earthly career. What lessons for ourselves may we learn from these men! These two eminent servants of God, either of whom their brethren counted worthy, to succeed into the apostolic College, appear just this once in the sacred narrative, and then disappear for ever. Indeed it is with the Apostles as we have already noted in the case of our Lord’s life and the story of the Blessed Virgin, the self-restraint of the sacred narrative is most striking. What fields for romance! What wide scope for the exercise of imagination would the lives of the Apostles have opened out if the writers of our sacred books had not been guided and directed by a Divine power outside and beyond themselves. We are not, indeed, left without the materials for a comparison in this respect, most consoling and most instructive for the devout Christian.
Apocryphal histories of all the Apostles abound on every side, some of them dating from the second century itself. Many of them indeed are regular romances. The Clementine Homilies and Recognitions form a religious novel, entering into the most elaborate details of the labours, preaching, and travels of the Apostle Peter. Every one of the other Apostles, and many of the earliest disciples too, had gospels forged in their honour; there was the Gospel of Peter, of Thomas, of Nicodemus, and of many others. And so it was with St. Matthias. Five hundred years after Christ the Gospel of Matthias was known and repudiated as a fiction. A mass of tradition, too, grew up round him, telling of his labours and martyrdom, as some said in Ethiopia, and as others in Eastern Asia.
Clement, a writer who lived about the year 200, at Alexandria, recounts for us some sayings traditionally ascribed to St. Matthias, all of a severe and sternly ascetic tone. But in reality we know nothing either of what St. Matthias did or of what he taught. The genuine writings of apostolic times carry their own credentials with them in this respect. They are dignified and natural. They indulge in no details to exalt their heroes, or to minister to that love of the strange and marvellous which lies at the root of so much religious error. They were written to exalt Christ and Christ alone, and they deal, therefore, with the work of Apostles merely so far as the story tends to increase the glory of the Master, not that of His servants. Surely this repression of the human agents, this withdrawal of them into the darkness of obscurity, is one of the best evidences of the genuineness of the New Testament. One or two of the earliest witnesses of the Cross have their story told at some length. Peter and Paul, when compared with James or John or Matthias, figure very largely in the New Testament narrative. But even they have allotted to them a mere brief outline of a portion of their work, and all the rest is hidden from us. The vast majority even of the Apostles have their names alone recorded, while nothing is told concerning their labours or their sufferings. If the Apostles were deceivers, they were deceivers who sought their rewards neither in this life, where they gained nothing but loss of all things, nor in the pages of history, where their own hands and the hands of their friends consigned their brightest deeds to an obscurity no eye can pierce. But they were not deceivers. They were the noblest benefactors of the race, men whose minds and hearts and imaginations were filled with the glory of their risen Redeemer. Their one desire was that Christ alone should be magnified, and to this end they willed to lose themselves in the boundless sea of His risen glory. And thus they have left us a noble and inspiriting example. We are not apostles, martyrs, or confessors, yet we often find it hard to take our part and do our duty in the spirit displayed by Matthias and Joseph called Barsabas. We long for public recognition and public reward. We chafe and fret and fume internally because we have to bear our temptations and suffer our trials and do our work unknown and unrecognised by all but God. Let the example of these holy men help us to put away all such vain thoughts. God Himself is our all-seeing and our ever-present Judge. The Incarnate Master Himself is watching us. The angels and the spirits of the just made perfect are witnesses of our earthly struggles. No matter how low, how humble, how insignificant the story of our spiritual trials and struggles, they are all marked in heaven by that Divine Master who will at last reward every man, not according to his position in the world, but in strict accordance with the principles of infallible justice.
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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Acts 1". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Epiphany