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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

Acts 11

 

 

Verse 9

THE CATHOLICITY OF THE GOSPEL

‘What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.’

Acts 11:9

What a beautiful instance we have here of the Saviour speaking from heaven. Therefore it has peculiar force. It testifies as to what Jesus had done: ‘what God hath cleansed’; and it speaks to those whom He has cleansed and says that from the time of their cleansing nothing can henceforth make them common or unclean.

I. The universality of the Gospel.—There is a dispensational truth in this utterance. It is the beautiful truth that God no longer distinguishes between Israel and the Gentiles, and now for the first time St. Peter, the one who had always been of the most strict and exclusive of the Hebrews, was instructed in the universal character of the Gospel. Therefore Peter no longer hesitated when he knew that it was God’s will that all men should be saved. It is a triumph of grace to accept new truth and to live by it. God taught St. Peter that now all the barriers were broken down, and men were to know that salvation was for all.

II. A picture of mankind.—In the vessel let down from heaven were all kinds of beasts of the earth, and creeping things, and four-footed beasts, and fowls of the air. It seems to be a general summary intended to represent the whole creation, and is symbolical of man in his totality as divided into nations, into families, into households, and also as symbolising each individual considered in the many departments and characteristics of his being. Men differ from each other remarkably, and yet all are bound together without distinction, in one sheet for the purpose of God.

III. What is the purpose of thus bringing together all these nations, these congregations, these households, these individual men into one sheet? It is that they may learn to know God and to realise their own impotence and degradation; that they may know that all are equal in the sight of God.

IV. Some practical conclusions.

(a) This truth does away with self-righteousness. You may think you are an eagle and that others are the poor crawling worms. All are equal—there is no difference. If you begin to glory in yourself, you are done for. Your only salvation is in God’s cleansing.

(b) We learn that our duty is to all nations and peoples and languages. Therefore, go and tell them the story of the Cross.

(c) Never despair of any man. Seek him out to save him, even though he be as the vilest reptile.

(d) There is also a lesson for the careless, the cold, and the unconverted. ‘What God hath cleansed.’ Have you ever thought, when you were giving way to some vile passion or unholy desire, that God had cleansed you? What right have you to defile—to treat as a common thing, to pollute—the body of humiliation which God hath cleansed? Never call it common; never use it for anything low; never use your tongue to speak vile, unholy things; never use your eyes to look on impure sights; never use your hands to perform unrighteous acts.

(e) God hath cleansed you, should you then be groaning under the bondage of some sin? Recognise the fact that God hath cleansed you; therefore, never again be in bondage to sin as the children of Israel were in Egypt; never be wandering in the wilderness, but take your place in the high places; live in the King’s court in the very presence of God. Never make common what God hath cleansed.

—Rev. Prebendary Webb-Peploe.

Illustrations

(1) ‘What voice it was that gave utterance to these words, we are not told either in the tenth chapter, when the vision is first recorded, or in the eleventh chapter, where St. Peter describes it to those of the circumcision in Judea. But St. Peter in both places describes himself as saying, “Not so, Lord,” thus seeming to recognise the voice of Jesus, with Whom he had been so long and intimately associated a few years before, and Whose will he was now seeking to carry out.’

(2) ‘The difficulty raised by the Jews in admitting the Gentiles to the Church without circumcision led to the matter being thoroughly discussed and settled (cf. 15). The importance of this is shown by the existence for years of a party who would not accept this state of things, and gave much trouble to St. Paul (cf. Galatians 2:11-12). Had the mind of the Church, then, not been definitely expressed, this party might possibly have triumphed for some time. Here, and in Acts 10:45, the phrase, “They that were of the circumcision” is used to describe Jewish Christians generally. Afterwards (Galatians 2:12) it is used of the party referred to above, who insisted on circumcision as a necessary preliminary to baptism. In using it here probably Luke had the later development of this party in his mind. “Nothing doubting” (Acts 5:12) implies “making no distinction.” This is the great mark of the Catholic Church in contrast to a limited religion like Judaism. In the Church all distinctions of race and position disappear (cf. Acts 10:36). The phrase in Acts 10:20 is different.’


Verse 13-14

THE SPIRITUAL HISTORY OF CORNELIUS

‘He shewed us how he had seen an angel in his house, which stood and said unto him, Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon, whose surname is Peter; who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved.’

Acts 11:13-14

Of the various characters portrayed in the historical sequel to the Gospels, Cornelius, the Roman centurion of Cæsarea, is certainly one of the most interesting. To understand this passage aright we need to read it in connection with Acts 10. In his spiritual life-history there are three phases or stages to be observed He was—

I. A heathen.—‘A centurion of the band called the Italian’ (Acts 10:1). Whilst the sacred record gives no account of the history of Cornelius previous to his arrival on Jewish soil, yet it is clearly enough implied that by birth and education he was a Roman citizen and a Gentile idolater. His name, it has been remarked, seems to connect him with the noble and illustrious Roman family of the Cornelii. Religiously, then, his first standpoint was that of pagan ignorance and superstition; ‘an alien from the commonwealth of Israel, and a stranger from the covenants of promise.’ A trace of his heathen training is seen in his Gentile-like prostration at the feet of the Apostle Peter (Acts 10:25). Is his counterpart not to be found in this twentieth century of grace? Are there no ‘dark places of the earth’ yet unblessed with the light of revelation? Multitudes still ‘worship they know not what’; bowing down to ‘stocks and stones.’ And in our civilised and Christianised lands, are there not myriads ‘having no hope, and without God in the world,’ as literally as Cornelius ever was? Besides, in the spiritual history of every believer, has there not been a period, of longer or shorter duration, corresponding to this first stage in the religious experience of Cornelius—a state of being ‘far off’ ere being ‘made nigh by the blood of Christ’?

II. Yet an earnest seeker after the true God.—Through contact at Cæsarea with the Jewish religion, Cornelius, like not a few other Gentiles in the Apostolic age, had become dissatisfied with his ancestral worship, and attached himself to the purer faith and morality of Judaism. Like the centurion mentioned in the Gospels (Luke 8:4-5), he was noted for his charitable deeds towards the Jews amongst whom he had been located. He shared in the Messianic hopes of the ‘chosen people,’ and may not have been entirely ignorant of the history and claims of Jesus of Nazareth. That he was acquainted with, at least, some of the facts of the life of Christ is apparent from St. Peter’s address (Acts 10:37). And yet, he lacked ‘joy and peace in believing.’ In him came to be fulfilled, in the marvellous way recorded in these chapters, the gracious promises: ‘Then shall ye know, if ye follow on to know the Lord.’ To all earnest and sincere seekers after truth, this second stage in the religious history of Cornelius is full of instruction and encouragement. Let there be in the ‘anxious inquirer’ of these days the devout heart, the guileless life, the unquenchable spiritual longings after truth, light, and peace that were so manifest in the centurion of Cæsarea, and the issue cannot fail to be the same, however different may be the Divine method. Finally, Cornelius was—

III. A Christian convert.—As Philip had done in the case of the Ethiopian chamberlain (Acts 8:26-40), so St. Peter, in the case of Cornelius and his friends, ‘preached unto them Jesus.’ On the devout centurion, and the company of Gentiles assembled in his house, the Holy Spirit descended, as it had done in the case of believers of another race, ‘at the beginning’ (Acts 2:2; Acts 11:15). Having thus visibly received ‘the thing signified’ in baptism, the outward rite was administered, by which they were admitted into the Church of Christ. Thus the ‘first-fruits of the Gentiles’ were gathered in. The door of mercy thrown open so providentially by the ‘Apostle of the Circumcision’ to sinners ‘of the Gentiles’ stands open until this day.


Verse 18

THE NATURE OF REPENTANCE

‘Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.’

Acts 11:18

There is a repentance which is not unto life. ‘Godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation, not to be repented of, but the sorrow of the world worketh death.’

I. What is true repentance?—The Greek word has four stages of meaning, which bring before us clearly the thing itself.

(a) After-thought or reflection.

(b) Change of Mind.

(c) Change of Feeling.

(d) Change of Life.

II. How is this repentance related to Life? ‘Repentance unto life.’

(a) Repentance is an expression of life—a sign that the soul has begun to live. Those who are dead in sin experience no godly sorrow.

(b) Repentance is the germ of life.—It is not only a sign of life, but a prophecy and pledge of richer, fuller life. It leads to the assurance of God’s favour, and that is life; to the enjoyment of His loving-kindness, and that is better than life.

III. In what sense is repentance granted by God?—‘Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance,’ etc.

(a) Not in any sense which removes it from the sphere of human obligation, or makes it other than the free act of the sinner. The prophets, John the Baptist, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Apostles, all commanded men to repent: they always spake of it as a duty. Further, he who has done the wrong is the only one who can truly repent of the wrong. Repentance is pre-eminently a personal, lonely, spiritual operation.

(b) But by including men within the scope of His redeeming purposes, and granting them Gospel privileges. This was certainly to a very great extent the meaning of the Church at Jerusalem in our text. So now in a very important sense God grants repentance unto a man when He brings him within the reach of Gospel influences.

(c) By the agency of His Spirit on the heart. It was so with the Gentiles here spoken of (Acts 11:15-17). There is a mysteriousness about the awakening of penitence which leads one to exclaim, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am.’ The renewed spirit delights to trace all good to God.

Illustration

‘Repentance means a changed mind, an altered ruling purpose, a new way of looking at things. This change of mind affects the whole judgment, intention, spirit of our being. It implies a turning about in the direction, the drift of a man’s innermost life. If he regarded the world, before repentance, as a place merely to get the greatest amount of bodily pleasure in, after repentance he will regard it as the place to get the greatest amount of goodness in; he repents of his sensuality. If he looked upon it before as only a shop for making money, afterwards he will look upon it as a mission-field for cultivating righteousness; he repents of his sordidness. If he treated his position before as only a dressing-room for ostentation, he will afterwards treat it as a vineyard for honest and useful labour; he will repent of his vanity and idleness. If he esteemed men and women before only as beings made to promote his comfort and advance his interests, he will afterwards esteem them as beings that he is to comfort, and whose interests he is to serve; he will repent of his cupidity and selfishness. And so through the whole circle of virtues and vices. His inmost purpose is changed. Literally, he thinks the other way.’


Verse 20

THE SUBJECT OF ALL PREACHING

‘And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus.’

Acts 11:20

At the very beginning of Christian history we find the Church gaining greatly from persecution.

I. The first result of the tribulation that arose about Stephen was to threaten the infant Church with destruction. The Society at Jerusalem was dispersed. The Apostles now stood to their posts, but the probabilities pointed to their early martyrdom as the only result of their heroism. Luke, looking back on the whole episode from the standpoint of the next generation, is able to recognise the influence of that first persecution. It compelled two most necessary things.

(a) On the one hand, the Church was forced to engage in missionary labours.

(b) On the other, Christianity was forced to become catholic. There was considerable danger that the disciples in Jerusalem should settle down to the decent position of an estimable and pious sect. But even this was not all.

(c) A catholic propaganda cannot work with a particular Gospel. The zealots of particularism are the foster-parents of universalism. The creed must be worthy of the Church. And so we find that these exiles, who had become by force of circumstances missionaries, were the first to solve the problem which so gravely perplexed the Apostles. They forced the hands of their rulers by boldly offering their message to all who would listen to it.

II. Notice the suggestive summary of the catholic Gospel as it was first proclaimed—‘preaching the Lord Jesus.’ How should this new Jewish religion present itself to these Greeks? What should be the means of access to their hearts? How would it appeal to them? The answer must be found in the spiritual power of the Personality of Jesus. The missionaries, of course, built on the foundation of the universal belief in God. They started from the assumptions of theism, and they presented to their hearers the living Christ, the true Exponent of the Divine, the true Representative of the human. This intensely personal character of their preaching continually merges into view in the records of the Acts.

III. The Person of Christ is that element of Christianity which is neither temporal, nor local, nor transitory.—And other elements only come to have a certain permanence as they vindicate a relationship with that. Ecclesiastical systems, dogmatic systems, are growths conditioned in their growing by the myriad circumstances which condition all terrestrial developments. They have a relative fitness, a relative authority, a relative truth; but they fail and pass as conditions of existence change, and they who build their faith on them and entwine about them the deep affections of their hearts are predestined to infinite disappointment. ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away,’ saith the Lord; and as we regard the long story of Christianity we can understand what He meant. Everything has changed. Men’s notions of social order have changed, and their habits of life and modes of thought, and their codes of honour, and their systems of belief, and their organisations of worship. We live amid a world of extinct beliefs; we are girded with the wreckage of the century. Here alone is the thing that changes not; here the rock on which we build, on which our feet may find firm treading; here the unity which gathers into itself all the ages, and vindicates from the remotest past a living fellowship in the most distant future. Jesus Christ is ‘the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever.’ Here is the secret of all the Church’s continuous life.

IV. There is no escape from the duty of missions.—If we may venture to divine the purposes of God from the opportunities which He places within man’s reach, and the responsibilities which accumulate upon them, then we can hardly be mistaken in thinking that it is His purpose to convert the world mainly by the agencies of the English-speaking race. We are constantly reminded, not always by the pleasantest experiences, that our Empire has attained gigantic dimensions. We have gathered under our flag one-fourth of the human race. The notion of Empire is native to the English mind as two millenniums since it was native to the Roman mind. The Church of the English-speaking race stands towards the populations of Asia and Africa as the Church of Rome stood in the fifth century towards the populations of Europe. If the past may provide an interpretation for the future, then Canterbury is destined in the religious history of mankind to equal, nay, to eclipse, the fame of Rome.

—Rev. Canon Henson.

Illustration

‘The explanation of much of our missionary failure abroad, and here at home, must be sought in the fact that we have weighted our missions with the scandals of divisions and the distractions of our controversies. We have preached systems, we have preached causes, we have preached theology rather than the living Person of our Divine Lord. We have tried to make men members of something or other before we have brought them to be disciples. We have need to go back to the first methods, to revert to the first principles. It is the urgent necessity of our time, as well for the preservation of religion at home as for the bringing to the heathen the life-giving message of the Gospel, that this degrading warfare of competing denominations shall cease; and it can only cease by raising again into its true central prominence the apostolic creed which underlies all Christian beliefs, and is the common platform of all Christian discipleship—Jesus as Lord!’


Verse 22

THE DEPUTATION TO ANTIOCH

‘They sent forth Barnabas.’

Acts 11:22

Immediately after the death of Stephen the disciples were scattered abroad away from Jerusalem all over the country, and wherever they went they told the story of the love of Jesus. Some of these disciples had come to Antioch, and numbers of people were led by their preaching, accompanied by the power of God the Holy Ghost, to embrace the Gospel and to give themselves heart and spirit to the service of the Lord Jesus. Tidings of this work at Antioch were sent up to Jerusalem to the Church, and they commissioned St. Barnabas to go down to Antioch and there inquire as to the nature of this work.

I. The character of St. Barnabas.—The result of this visit of St. Barnabas is recorded in the Acts, and the character of the Apostle is also given to us. What a wondrous character it is! ‘A good man.’ But not only ‘a good man’—plenty of men in this world are good men, but he was something more than that—‘a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith.’ This man is sent as a deputation from the Church at Jerusalem to Antioch.

II. What he saw at Antioch.—When he came there he saw ‘the grace of God’ (Acts 11:23). Barnabas saw the grace of God because he was ‘a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost.’ Some men can see no good in anything that is religious, no good in anything that points to Jesus, no good in anything that leads to God’s house and to God’s worship; no good whatever. They have not got eyes to see, and they have not got ears to hear, and they have not got hearts to understand. But Barnabas had. He had spiritual vision. When we see sin crucified, when we see evil habits overcome, when we see carnal desires trampled underfoot, when we see worldly things abhorred, when we see the flesh crucified, when we see men’s minds and hearts turned heavenward, when we see diligence in attending on the means of grace, when we see people coming frequently to the Holy Communion—then we see the grace of God as Barnabas saw it.

III. His gladness.—Then too, when he saw the grace of God, ‘he was glad.’ There is no person who does not rejoice to see a man really converted from his evil ways, really regenerated. We must be very hard-hearted if we are not really glad in heart. There is nothing that rejoices the heart of a clergyman more than to see the grace of God working in his congregation—a better attendance at church, more communicants, more liberality to the offertory, and a sympathetic interest in the work of the parish, and especially when he sees lives transfigured through the blessed leavening effect of the sanctifying grace of God the Holy Ghost.

IV. His exhortation.—What did he do? He exhorted them ‘that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord’; in other words, that they would continue in that grace upon which they had entered, that they would not be Christians one day, or one week, and then turn back again to the world, that they would not just merely be Christians on Sunday and be anything else every day during the week. So many professing Christians are like people who on Sunday put on their Sunday clothes, and on Monday put on different attire. Let me say to you, ‘Cleave unto the Lord.’ How? By constant diligent prayer, by attendance upon our religious duties, and especially by coming to the Holy Communion, not once a month, but once a week at least—by daily reading of God’s Word, and by doing all we can by our example and by our life in showing forth the glory of our Lord.

Illustration

“Barnabas” was the Christian, and probably the baptismal name, which the Apostle gave to “Joses,” a man of Cyprus, and a Levite—the first person recorded by name as having given his property to the Church, and who acknowledged the subordination of his own ecclesiastical office to, and its absorption in, the Christian ministry, by thus coming and laying the purchase-money of his land at the Apostles’ feet. The name “Barnabas” may equally mean “the son of consolation,” or “the son of exhortation.” And happily these two words are identical in the Greek. May we never divide them! always mixing comfort with teaching, and never approaching to anything like a reproof till we have first begun by consoling, even as Christ said of the Holy Ghost Himself, “When the Comforter is come, He will reprove.”’


Verse 23

CLEAVING UNTO THE LORD

“The … exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.’

Acts 11:23

Of this ‘cleaving unto the Lord’—what it is—we have a picture every day. The limpet cleaves to the rock. It is very hard to get it away; for the little creature in the shell knows that the moment it separates itself from the rock, that moment it dies. So with you; it is your life.

But how shall we ‘cleave’?

I. Lay it down well with yourself, that it needs just as much grace to carry it on, as ever it did to begin.—And it is right—if ever you asked for yourself converting grace—to ask just as earnestly for continuing grace. Perhaps some, whom you know, would not have fallen if they had done that. Perhaps you yourself would not have fallen if you had done that! True ‘He that hath begun a good work, will also perform it to the day of Christ.’ But this is the way in which He will perform it, He puts it into our hearts—from moment to moment—to seek grace to go on.

II. Never relax in any religious duty because you are older, or because you have gone a little way in the Christian path. Do not think that now you are to pray less often; or to pray shorter prayers; or to study your Bible less; or to come to Holy Communion less frequently; or to be less guarded in society, or in your own family. Be very jealous over the least symptoms of the slightest declension; remember, the tendency of everything is, by the law of gravitation, to run down. Therefore, whatever you may do, remember your enemy is always watching for opportunities; and grace is lost and souls perish, not by one great fall, but by a series of gradual weakening of the spiritual tone you get down, little by little, to lower levels. Keep your standard high; and be sure of this, that increase is the only possible way not to decrease.

III. To ‘cleave’ to any person or to any thing in which Christ is, is to ‘cleave’ to Christ—If you believe that Christ is in any one you know, draw near to that person, draw nearer. Cultivate the friendship of that person. Whatever work has most of Christ in it, give yourself most to that work. It is not an abstract Christ with which we have to do; He is a real, living, personal Christ. ‘Cleave to Him’ as a Brother. And He is a Christ in His people; and He is a Christ in His Church; and He is a Christ in the work He gives you to do, Find Him there; see Him there; serve Him there; ‘cleave to Him’ there.

Rev. James Vaughan.

Illustration

‘The great bane of by far the majority of people is, that they are living—at least as far as their religion is concerned—an aimless life! If the “heart” be without “purpose,” how can the life have an aim? The “heart” is a strange thing. It is like a very complicated machine, which carries within it tremendous powers. If those powers are left to work loosely, without government, without direction, the confusion, the distraction, the misery is incalculable. But gather them to a point—concentrate them—use them for their proper and appointed purpose; and the force for good is immense! All the “heart” wants is first an object suited to it; then a distinct pointing to that object; and then a fixing. But so long as you go on without any earnest intention, or with some end which does not collect and employ the energies with which you are endowed, your affections and your talents will only run to waste: they will be all in conflict; they will prey one upon another; they will do only mischief; they will be rather tormentors, than benefits, both to yourselves and to everybody else.’


Verse 24

CHARACTERISTICS OF ST. BARNABAS

‘He was a good man, and full of the holy Ghost and of faith.’

Acts 11:24

No better man could be sent to Antioch to ascertain the truth or otherwise of what the Apostles had heard. The writer of the Acts describes his characteristics.

I. ‘He was a good man.’—‘Good,’ not in the common acceptation of the term, but in the Divine. If a man lives morally; if he pays that which he owes; if he bestows his goods to feed the poor; if he conforms to the rules of society and the forms of religion, whatever his motives for so doing, by universal consent he is denominated ‘a good man.’ Now the goodness of St. Barnabas involved all this. He was of the tribe of Levi; a son of consolation as his name signifies, and as he was surnamed by his fellow-Apostles; and so kind and charitable that he sold all his lands at Cyprus, and laid the money at the Apostles’ feet at Jerusalem, that they might distribute to the necessities of the poor. But the goodness of St. Barnabas was Divine—the creation of the Holy Spirit; for He makes all really good men (John 1:12-13).

II. He was ‘full of the Holy Ghost.’—Not that he was with the Twelve, when, on the Day of Pentecost, ‘they were all filled with the Holy Ghost’; but it has been surmised that he was one of the converts made on that glorious day. Be this as it may, the same Divine privilege was granted to him. And it had the same sanctifying effect in him, though not accompanied by the gift of tongues.

III. He was also ‘full of faith.’—He was ‘strong in faith, giving glory to God.’ And because he believed in God he had faith in his mission. He knew and felt that Christianity was God’s living remedy for the world’s deadly ills, and therefore must ultimately prove efficacious in healing them. With this firm conviction, the offspring of his faith, he laboured most abundantly to spread it.

(SECOND OUTLINE)

THE MEANING OF GOODNESS

The immediate marks of goodness which are mentioned in connection with these words are, first of all, brightness and gladness. St. Barnabas is spoken of as being good, and as encouraging the people to persevere. The second mark had this for its result, that many were turned unto the Lord in consequence of St. Barnabas’s life and work. Both these points we may do well to pay attention to; for we often fail to have a hopeful spirit, and often fail to convince people when we are talking with them, because we are not as St. Barnabas was. Some pride, some jealousy, some envy, some vanity, that still smouldering ember of an early sin not quite quenched, these take the brightness out of us, and prevent its being said of us as often as it ought to be that we are good. Although we may be clever and in earnest, yet still it cannot be said of us in any true degree, as it was said of St. Barnabas, that many people have been turned unto the Lord through our conversation; and the reason is because, although it may be said of us that we are what St. Paul calls ‘righteous,’ yet we have not attained to that mysterious mark of influence which is called here being good.

I. What is meant here by being good?

(a) There must first of all be self-knowledge—a thing from which most of us flinch and fight shy of. What was one of the difficulties which must have beset Abraham when he was called? The difficulty is a very common one, and it frightens not a few from considering the fact of their call. Abraham was called while his father was still alive, and it would seem that God spoke to the son in a way in which He did not speak to the father. Now here arises at once a kind of horror in our minds that we should know more than our parents. But every generation as it proceeds along its way has some peculiar work to do, which the passing generation was not formed to do. And so it is with individuals; we have each a particular work to do, some steps to take which our parents could not mark out for us by their own footsteps going before. Many and many a son and daughter are driven from the realising of his or her personality and individuality because of this thought, ‘I shall then have to say and do some things which my parents never said or thought.’ But more or less every life is a separate voyage of discovery, and more or less we must make it alone. Certainly, in speaking to Christian people we can fall back on this comforting thought, that our parents have prayed for us again and again, they have asked God to show us His Will and to enable us to do it. Well then, if one feels called by God to take some step in advance of those who have gone before, one can feel that it is made in answer to the prayers of our parents, who in this way have raised us above their own reach.

(b) Then comes the thought of self-mastery. Everybody who knows himself finds a lower and a higher self perpetually at war with each other. The pity of it is that this war is carried on so halfheartedly; the pity of it is that people do not realise quicker than they do the necessity of self-mastery; and it puts a man in a nobler position when he resolves step by step to gain it.

(c) And then must come self-culture. Not at once will you reach perfection. You find out that you have certain capacities; yes, but these will want improving, and the best and most powerful gifts that we have depend for their full efficiency, not so much upon our working at them, as upon our working upon the lower gifts that we possess. It is here that so many people fail; they will not patiently work, so to say, at the background of the picture. There are gifts that we have, perhaps gifts of real genius, but if they are to reach their full efficiency, we must work hard at certain lower powers that we have, even though they will bring us no credit, in order that the higher gifts may not be dimmed.

And when there has been this self-knowledge, when there has been this self-mastery, this self-culture, what should follow?

(d) Self-devotion, self sacrifice. These powers are not merely to be self-built towers up which we are to mount in order that we may look down upon and despise our neighbours. No; the object of attaining all these things is not for our own self-exaltation, but for a nobler end, using what gifts we have for God’s glory and the good of others.

If this is some answer to the question, it is not all, it does not touch the position of St. Barnabas.

II. ‘A good man, and full of the Holy Ghost.’—This does not mean simply that he had something of the influence of the Holy Ghost as it had been in the world ever since the brooding over the surface of the waters, but St. Barnabas had a great measure of that peculiar and special indwelling of the Blessed Spirit which our Saviour promised to those whom He left, and yet would not leave as orphans. There are some people who wish to be good, who are willing to entertain the idea of individuality, of personality, of self mastery, self-culture, and even of self-devotion, but who keep outside, more or less, of the special gifts of the Holy Spirit. ‘I believe in the Holy Ghost.’ ‘I believe in the Holy Catholic Church.’ Ask yourselves whether in your anxiety to be good there is within you a humble and full acceptance of all those powers of the Holy Spirit in the way in which our Blessed Lord appointed them to be used.

And yet that was not all.

III. St. Barnabas was also ‘full of faith.’—This was, of course, in one sense, the outcome and result of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling. Faith is a gift of God not only in the object but in the act. It is also the cause and the support of the goodness of life. Here we need a caution. As there are those outside the Church who are trying to be good, and yet have not that obedience to accept the assistance of the Holy Spirit in the way in which Christ has appointed; so there may be some who are members of the Church, and who yet may be tempted to be content more or less with a religion which consists of good-heartedness, a religion which is chiefly based on the feelings and the sentiments, called out either by witnessing the miseries of the poor or by the splendour of ritual and high musical services. In both cases the real object of our faith as Christians might be left very much in the background, and practically treated as indifferent, almost as useless. It becomes us as members of a Church for which God has done great things to reflect whether we are truly accepting the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Church, and, if in the Church, whether we are looking in the right and true direction to see what is the fountain from which these gifts flow.

—Bishop Edward King.

Illustration

‘Whatever good natural qualities a man may have, before they can be turned to good account for God they must be elevated, improved, transfigured, as we may say, by the operation of the Holy Ghost, and by genuine faith in God. Natural good qualities are like all the rest of our nature. They are damaged by sin and by the Fall. There is no steadfastness in them. They are tainted by self. We see this constantly in men who are naturally good-natured as we say, but who are weak in Christian principle. Their good-nature takes a tinge of selfishness as they grow older, unless it grows to be something better than mere good-nature by the operation of the Holy Spirit. It must either grow better or grow worse. If it does not grow up to be something better than mere good-nature, it degenerates into that sort of easy good-nature, which never really gives up anything for others, but only seems to do so, and wins a cheap popularity by never contradicting anybody.’

(THIRD OUTLINE)

‘GOOD, BUT WEAK’

St. Barnabas was good, but he was not on that account perfect. He was good, but as a famous preacher said of another character in the Old Testament, ‘He was good, but weak.’ This, perhaps, will not surprise many people. To them, there is always a sort of connection between goodness and weakness, whereas there is no connection at all. Yet men may be good and weak.

I. St. Barnabas would certainly seem to have an element of weakness in his character, which came out in two ways:—

(a) First of all, in the matter of eating with the Gentiles. You will remember how at Antioch he and St. Peter, with others, forgot their own prejudices and customs and had boldly sat down to eat with the Gentile Christians; but when there came certain Jewish Christians, we are told that first of all St. Peter (who in many respects was notoriously weak) silently and gradually withdrew himself, and ate no more with them; and even St. Barnabas, says St. Paul with some indignation, ‘was carried away with their dissimulation.’

(b) And, secondly, his weakness came out in another and still more famous episode in his life—that which was connected with Mark. On one lonely journey, St. Paul and St. Barnabas determined to take with them Mark, the young cousin of Barnabas, who may have had a soft training, being the only son of a rich widow, living, perhaps, in a villa of Gethsemane outside Jerusalem. This young man, who had been brought up in considerable luxury, when the crisis of his life came, when he found himself face to face with the robbers and other unpleasant accompaniments of travel in Asia Minor in those days, losing heart, returned to Jerusalem. Then, later on, having, perhaps, gone through some silent struggle of his own, he offered himself again for the service, and St. Barnabas wished to take him, but St. Paul refused, and the quarrel waxed hot between them. Here St. Barnabas was weak. The young man had forfeited their confidence, but St. Barnabas said, like many others, peace at any price. So we even have here the beginning of a system known as nepotism, or the favouring of relations—the preference of kinsmen for this place or for that. So there came that great apostolic quarrel. And they parted, those two Apostles, and after this parting from St. Paul, St. Barnabas disappears altogether from the pages of sacred history, or remains the good-natured man.

II. Yet these are the important words which remain; ‘He was a good man.’—And his goodness was shown in more ways than one. There are three instances I would give you:—

(a) It was shown in the recognition of the work of the Holy Ghost among the Gentiles. It was a sign of goodness in St. Barnabas that he was able to put by his own prejudices; when he saw ‘the grace of God’ he was glad. It was all he cared about, ‘for he was a good man.’ There is one sign of his goodness, in letting his prejudices die before the grace of God.

(b) His goodness is seen in this—that he was a peacemaker. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’ Twice St. Barnabas saved St. Paul for the Christian Church. It was this gentle, good man, ‘full of the Holy Ghost,’ a peace-lover, who, in the first instance, when all were suspicious of this terrible persecutor, took him by the hand and brought him into the apostolic band. Let that be written down for St. Barnabas, that he served the Church by saving a greater man to serve it.

(c) There is the love of the brethren shown by a capacity for self-sacrifice. It is one of the earliest marks of the infant Church. It was one of the first acts which seems to attract the attention of the writer of the Acts of the Apostles. When he was speaking about the early days of the Church, he picked out one man: ‘And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.’ No cheap religion for this Barnabas. The love of the brethren had to be shown by self-sacrifice. And by self-sacrifice the history of the Church began, as with self-sacrifice it must go until the end. Here is always a sign of the love of the brethren, and of sincerity. Are men ready for any measure of self-sacrifice?

—Rev. H. R. Gamble.

Illustration

‘The merely good-natured man does very little, and, on the whole, gets very little thanks for what he does. It is the men who have principles to which they must stick, and for which, if necessary, they are prepared to die, who make a mark on their contemporaries and on history. Principles must prevail. Mere good-nature is no good in the end. The first thing is to do justice. You may remember some very notable words of a Psalm which says, “Thou, Lord, art merciful, because Thou rewardest every man according to his work.” The general notion of mercy is to reward men not according to their works. The better view is, “Thou, Lord, art merciful, because Thou art just.”’


Verse 26

THE NAME ‘CHRISTIAN’

‘And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.’

Acts 11:26

This is an interesting fact for all of us, since, whatever our differences, we are all proud of the name of Christians—more proud of that name than of any other name. Let us inquire (1) When, (2) Where, (3) Why, it was given to us.

I. When?—Not until twelve years apparently after the Ascension. Twelve long years of most intense life, of persecution, trial, growth, development, had passed over the Church before its members received any distinctive and abiding name. This serves to remind us that God cares for things, not names. God makes the things; man gives the names. Yet how much controversy is merely about names.

II. Where?—In Antioch. And if we ask what sort of place it was, we find:—

(a) It was beautiful. Situate on the Orontes, where it breaks through between Lebanon and Taurus; the scenery magnificent; itself splendidly adorned, and surrounded by groves and gardens.

(b) It was rich; the capital of Syria and third city of the world; centre of traffic and commerce between East and West.

(c) It was pleasure-loving; the meeting-place of lively Greek and self-indulgent Eastern, with every inducement and every advantage for enjoyment.

(d) It was wicked; always so in ancient heathen cities, but Antioch was exceptionally depraved. Rome was horribly bad; but when the satirist wished to say that Rome was made tenfold more corrupt, he wrote that the Orontes had emptied itself into the Tiber.

(e) It was heathen, very heathen. Here were the notorious groves of Daphne, where Apollo was worshipped with all magnificence and vice.

III. Why?—That is not quite so certain; but we may safely say it came about in this manner. The men of Antioch noticed some amongst them who differed from others—not that they were strangers by name or by face, but their behaviour was strange. The heathen were astonished and curious, and asked them: ‘Who has taught you this? Who has made you so different from what you were? Who has given you this new-fangled idea of the beauty and wealth and pleasure and sin (as you call it) of Antioch? Who has forbidden you to worship our gods with us, who are so kind to us, and let us enjoy ourselves so well?’ To this the answer was ever, ‘Christ.’ Christ has taught us that the world and its beauty pass away; but He has told us of a new heaven and a new earth far better. Christ has taught us to think but little of this world’s wealth, for He has given us treasure in heaven. Christ has taught us to look for higher pleasures than these of yours. Christ has taught us, above all, to know and to hate sin because He hates it. Christ has taught us not to worship your false gods, because He alone is worthy to be worshipped. ‘So,’ they would say, ‘this is your God and your Teacher, this Man Who was crucified and dead and buried under Pontius Pilate.’ ‘Yes,’ they would reply, ‘He was. For love of us He died; but He rose again and ascended into heaven, and He will come again to take us out of this world to Himself. Meanwhile we are His; we belong to Him, and serve Him, and wait for Him.’ Then some among the heathen would believe; the rest would scoff and call them ‘Christians.’

—Canon Winterbotham.

Illustration

‘The object of a name is to distinguish persons and things from others with which they might be confused. The followers of our Lord Jesus Christ were originally content to be called “the brethren,” “the Disciples,” or “the way.” They were few in number in their different neighbourhoods, and they knew what they meant by those terms. But it was not long before something more definite was required, and at Antioch a new and clearer designation grew into use. Probably their friends who did not share their change of opinions, but had no great hostility to them in consequence, invented for them the descriptive title by which they were henceforth to be known; Christ-people they were called, Christians, the followers of Christ. Nothing could be more simple and true. For a long time no other appellation was necessary. But as the heresies which the Apostles predicted grew and multiplied, some further nomenclature was required. The heretics all called themselves Christians; something was needed to point out those who all over the civilised world continued united in the Apostles’ fellowship and doctrine. The adoption of a name, or its repudiation, very often means a vast deal more than is seen on the surface. For these the word Catholic, or Universal, came to be employed; as an early writer, Pacian, expressed it, “Christian is my name, Catholic or Universal my surname.” The Universals were those who did not render themselves Particularlists by some special division of opinion, but who everywhere held to the common doctrine of the united Churches of Christendom.’

(SECOND OUTLINE)

WHAT IS IT TO BE A CHRISTIAN?

‘What is it to be a Christian?’ It is a name lightly, and variously, and capriciously used; and there is the more need of an accurate definition.

I. One of Christ’s.—The first and simplest and truest answer to that question might be found in the very word itself. It is a person in whose heart Christ is as inwrought as the word Christ’ is wrapped up in the word ‘Christian.’ A Christian—according, therefore, to the root of the word would be a person who is one of Christ’s; just as a ‘Ro-man’—a Roman—is one of the Romans. It is evident from the very word itself that Christ must be everywhere. He must be at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. It is the Christ in you, and you in Christ, which makes a Christian.

II. How does a person become a Christian?—Where does it begin? It begins by an action of the Holy Ghost in the heart. The Holy Ghost working in a man’s soul breathes there a sense of sin; a feeling of need. Then the same Spirit reveals Christ to that soul as meeting that need, as the only thing that can meet it. And the man, convicted by his conscience, sees in that Christ just what he wants. The Holy Ghost draws him to Christ. He seeks Christ; he believes in Christ; he gives himself to Christ; he rests on Christ. Thus, by a secret process, he is received into Christ. Christ is in him, and he is in Christ. That man has become a Christian.

III. A Christian carries Christ with him wherever he goes.—Christ is now a felt, living Presence. They commune. There is a voice and there is an echo. It is as true as if he saw a person. He has it in his daily walks; he has it in his conscience; he has it in his pleasures; he has it in secret places; he has it in public worship; and he has it in the Holy Communion tenfold. And so—as is wont—with very much converse he gradually takes the mind of Christ. He sees things as Christ sees them. And love springs up, and increases, every day—love growing into intensity.

IV. Can that love have no results?—What are the results? Sin is become hateful to that man, because Jesus hates it; and in every sin to which he is tempted he sees a nail which fastens his dear Saviour to His Cross! And the higher love has now superseded the lower and the grovelling affections of his nature. What is anything to him in which Christ is not? Can he find pleasure—when he cannot find Him? His standard has gone up. He has higher aims. His life now is to do all the good he can in the world for Christ’s sake. He has the very savour of Christ. And every one that sees that man, ‘takes knowledge of him that he has been with Jesus.’

—Rev. James Vaughan.

Illustration

‘We do not know whether the name of Christian was given by the enemies of Christianity as a term of reproach, or whether the early Church adopted it as a title of honour. At any rate, the word itself occurs three times in the New Testament: in our text; Acts 26:28; Acts 1 St. Peter Acts 4:16. We know the word Christ means Anointed: therefore a Christian is one anointed by the Holy Spirit. A true Christian has the Holy Spirit: “As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.” Of course, some Christians are Christians only in name. They profess and call themselves so, but they have no faith in Christ and no love to the brethren of Christ.’

(THIRD OUTLINE)

THE TRUE-HEARTED CHRISTIAN

The true-hearted Christian is

I. A man in Christ.—So St. Paul speaks of himself (2 Corinthians 12:2). And he says all believers were chosen in Him before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4).

II. A man for Christ.—He has given himself to Christ (2 Corinthians 8:5). He is Christ’s property in a very special sense. Not his own, for he has been bought with a price. Therefore his eyes, his mouth, his tongue, his ears, his hands, his knees, his feet, intellect, money, influence, are dedicated to his Master. In one word, he is what St. Paul loved to call himself—a slave of Jesus Christ.

III. A man like Christ.—I know the portrait is defaced and blurred with sin; but still, more or less, his features are like the children of the King. And the likeness will be completed one day (Romans 8:29). You know what Christ did. ‘Christ pleased not Himself’—that was His inward life. ‘He went about doing good’—that was His outward life.

IV. A man with Christ (Acts 4:13).—He has a foretaste of the fruits of the Tree of Life. He finds to his endless comfort that the streets of heaven stretch down to earth. ‘Ye are come unto Mount Zion.’ Yes; Christ’s presence to the believer is a ‘living, bright reality.’

—Rev. F. Harper.

Illustration

‘There was a terrible accident which happened in the North some years ago. One of those tall factory chimneys came down. Before it fell there had been some talk in the works about the danger of it. There was a little lad who lived with his mother, a widow, and supported her by his work in this factory. He woke up one morning and said he could not work that day, “for,” he added, “I am sure that chimney is coming down.” It was one of those strange instances of “coming events casting their shadows before.” It was stated that at the inquest, when the mother told the story, there was not a dry eye in the room. She reasoned with the lad, and said, “You must go”; and he replied, “I don’t want to.” At last she said, “You must go, my boy; the rent is due.” Without another word, constrained by a mother’s loving heart, that lad got up and went out in the darkness of the morning, saying, “Mother, I will go for thee.” She never saw him again until he was carried home dead on a stretcher. And if we are Christians indeed should we not say, “Saviour, I will go for Thee”—to that heavy cross, to that disagreeable duty, to bear the scorn and cold indifference of the world—“Saviour, I will go for thee”?’

 


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Acts 11:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/cpc/acts-11.html. 1876.

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