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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

Acts 26

 

 

Verse 8

ST. PAUL AND THE RESURRECTION

‘Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?’

Acts 26:8

St. Paul’s appeal to Cæsar placed Festus in a difficulty. How could he draw up the indictment? The arrival of King Agrippa II. with his sister Bernice on their congratulatory visit to Festus was opportune. Agrippa would hear the man himself, and in this twenty-sixth chapter of the Acts we have the record of the Apostle’s most impressive address. The question in the text is difficult to answer, for God is omnipotent. King Agrippa could give no answer, nor can we. But we may meditate on the fact.

I. The evidence for the Resurrection.—Jesus of Nazareth was certainly dead; and by the testimony of those who had every opportunity to ascertain the fact He was certainly alive again. Not one of the disciples expected the Saviour to rise again; it was only by the irresistible power of accumulating evidence that they were forced from their incredulity to the conviction of the truth. He was seen by five hundred men and women who could not all have been fools or fanatics. On the basis of belief in the Resurrection a large community speedily sprang up in the world. On this basis still rests the Church of the Redeemer.

II. The practical importance of the Resurrection.

(a) If no Resurrection, we must part with that absolute confidence which we feel in every single statement that the Saviour made.

(b) If no Resurrection, we are deprived of assurance that there is any connection between His death and the forgiveness of our sins.

(c) If no Resurrection, then, to say the least, Christ was mistaken about Himself.

III. If we lose hold of the Resurrection we lose hold of that great foundation-truth that Jesus is the Son of God—the Eternal Son of the Eternal Father.

—Rev. Prebendary Gordon Calthrop.

Illustration

‘On the basis of belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, with all that it involves, a large community speedily sprang up in the world, as you will gather if you read the Epistles to the Romans, Galatians, and Corinthians—these Epistles having been written by St. Paul before any of the Gospels were issued, and only a few years after the crucifixion on Calvary. Relying on the testimony of those who had seen Jesus after He rose again from the dead—men and women, young and old people—many of them of intelligence, and standing, and culture, believed in Jesus, and were baptized into His Name, and formed the nucleus of what we now call the Christian Church.’


Verse 14

THE VOICE FROM HEAVEN

‘I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying … It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.’

Acts 26:14

So far as we know, those words were the first with which the silence of the Unseen was broken on earth since the Lord, rising from amidst the Eleven, on the hill-top above Bethany, had given them His blessing as He went. He had been seen once in His exaltation by Stephen, and Stephen had appealed to Him to receive his spirit. But there appears no record of an audible reply. Now, revealed again, Jesus is pleased to speak. He is there, objectively there, there in bodily reality (such, we know, was St. Paul’s absolute and lifelong conviction); and the air vibrated there with the spoken words, ‘It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.’

Is there not a wonder in that sentence, so spoken, and is there not a message in the wonder? We listen; it is a voice from the excellent glory. It is the speech of the Son of God, incarnate, glorified, supreme. What will be the style of His eloquence? What words almost unspeakable will sound from that height, conveying, surely, rather a sublime bewilderment to mortal ears than anything level to their receiving? Well, this was the sentence as it came: ‘It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.’

Here is, indeed, a paradox, when we come to look at it; a discord, almost grotesque at the first thought, if the words may be tolerated by reverence—but unspeakably thrilling as we think again. The King of Glory, from this place of light, putting out His autocratic power to change the course of history through that sovereign revolution in a human will of the first order, has occasion to speak; and speaking, He uses just a proverb, a homely proverb of the farm. Present to His mind is the ox that drags along the Galilæan peasant’s plough; the beast is sullen in his ponderous strength; he lashes back against the steel-shod goad; and he suffers for it, and he gives in at last. No throne of grace, or of glory, can modify His accustomed and most majestic simplicity. From the midst of the things unseen and eternal He stoops down to talk about the ox, and the goad, and the useless rebellion of the poor beast—all in the act of new-creating a Saul into a Paul.

And what are the messages to us of this divinely rustic voice from heaven?

I. Has it not something all of its own to tell us about that upper life, and its inhabitants, and above all about its ascended Prince? To me it seems that ‘heart and mind’ may feel a strong uplifting power, as they seek there to ascend and there to dwell, in this proverb out of the glory above. It says to us that the Unseen, ‘where Christ sitteth,’ the Paradise, the Third Heaven, may be indeed the place on due occasion for words unspeakable, which it is not lawful for mere man to utter—but not for them only. It is hospitable also to speak about the humblest works and most laborious days of our mortality. It is no mere sphere of transcendental abstractions, nor even only the palace of Powers and Virtues aloof from time. Heaven keeps a warm and genial continuity of thought with earth, and we need not wonder that its messengers, when their ministry gives occasion, know how to talk familiarly to man about manger and swaddling-clothes, about streaming tears and gazing eyes, about Judæa and Galilee, about girdle and sandals, about Paul and Cæsar, and shipwreck and escape.

II. But above all, this voice from the glory above, as it comes from the lips of our Redeemer, takes us straight back again to His own human heart and faithful sympathy.—He is indeed, in the words of the man whom He converted in that great hour, words written (surprising thought) while scores, while hundreds of people yet lived who could remember His face and His bearing at Nazareth or in Jerusalem—He is exalted far above all heavens, to fill all things. Through Him, and also for Him, as their sublime goal and Head, ‘all things were made,’ and among them ‘the mighty kingdoms angelical’ in all the continents of heaven. But none the less, now as truly as ever, He is the Mother’s Son of a human home, the loving Neighbour of a terrestrial countryside. He is Redeemer, Mediator, King of Glory, God the Son of God. But oh! He is also the Friend, the Companion, the Brother, of our simplest, saddest, happiest, tenderest hour below. No fancied gulf of space isolates Him from us as we are; no limits of our body of humiliation confine us below His vivid sympathies. He Who does not forget the Galilæan farm takes to His heart the least romantic joys and sorrows of an English life.

Bishop H. C. G. Moule.

Illustrations

(1) ‘“Lord Jesus,” writes Joseph Hall, in the last of his quaintly noble Contemplations, “it is not heaven that can keep Thee from me; it is not earth that can keep me from Thee.”’

(2) ‘One hundred and sixty years ago, when a narrow but penetrating scepticism had widely and deeply affected educated English circles, an honest and anxious sceptic, George Lyttleton, afterwards first Baron of the name, discovered in the great Conversion, studied afresh with patient and open thought, good reason for intellectual reassurance and a return to reverent faith. “He found,” says Samuel Johnson, in the last of his Lives of the Poets, “that religion was true; and what he had learned he endeavoured to teach by Observations on the Conversion of St. Paul, a treatise to which infidelity has never been able to fabricate a specious answer.” Those last words may or may not be true to fact. Few arguments are so massive or so subtle as to preclude the production of a specious answer. But it is surely true that Lyttleton’s book (enriched not many years ago with a prefatory essay by that suggestive thinker, Henry Rogers) is still extremely well worth reading; it can still remind us, in a way of its own, of the vastness and depth of the historical as well as spiritual significance of the Conversion.


Verse 19

THE HEAVENLY VISION

‘Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision.’

Acts 26:19

St. Paul was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, and so it grew and expanded before his spiritual eyes until it left nothing outside its range, until it offered to him that unity after which all thinkers are consciously or unconsciously striving, and in the end he was able to conceive it as a whole, to express it, however inadequately, in terms of human language, and to propose it for all time to come as the profoundest and most ennobling philosophy of the life of mankind. Thus we begin to understand what made the great difference between St. Paul and the early writers who told the story of Jesus Christ in the Gospels.

I. The Body of Christ.—It was because he had seen the vision that he could not go back on other men’s recollections. He stood in a manner alone. His gospel was his own—‘my gospel,’ as he calls it. It was pre-eminently the gospel of the exalted Christ, and, may we not say it, the re-embodied Christ. Christ died, Christ rose, Christ ascended, Christ is supreme in the unseen world, and the same Christ is still living and working in the visible world to-day. He is not bodyless; He has feet and hands, eyes and lips; He sees and speaks and comes and helps, in and through His larger and ever growing Body—that body into which His disciples are baptized, within which they are held united by the sacred food which is His Body, through which they realise their relation to one another as parts serving the whole, which is Christ Himself. This, the living, exalted, active, ever enlarged Christ, this was the Pauline message.

II. The heavenly vision.—When once we have grasped the corporate relation of Christ and His disciples, the words are discovered to be profoundly significant. ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?’ He who touches the least member of the body touches the body. If you hurt my little finger I say that you hurt me. So that the words mean no less than this: ‘Thou art persecuting the very limbs of My body. Thou art persecuting Me, for I and they are one.’ Not that he would see it all from the first, but it was implicitly there. Christ and His Church are not two but one. ‘I persecuted the Church of God,’ says St. Paul in after days. ‘I am Jesus Whom thou persecutest,’ was the voice of his first vision.

III. The Pauline mission.—This was the man who was not disobedient to the heavenly vision. Plainly such a man as this was a man to be claimed for a great cause, was a chosen vessel to bear the name of Christ to the Gentiles. He could never allow the possibility of a broken Christianity, which should admit of two churches, Jewish and Gentile. The Gentile was co-heir and concorporate with the Jew or he was nothing at all. He was a member of the body or else he was still an alien, still without hope. There could be no compromise. If at Antioch Jew and Gentile could not eat together, what was become of the Body of Christ? We are one body, as he afterwards said; we are one body because we all partake of the one loaf; the loaf which we break is the fellowship of the body. The unity of Christians, and therefore Christianity itself, was at stake in the controversy, and St. Paul stood actually alone in perceiving it.

IV. True unity.—The body is Christ. It unites all classes and all nationalities. It finds place for every one, keeps every one in his place. It transmutes self-assertion into self-devotion. It counts charity, that is to say the spirit of membership, above all other spiritful gifts. It creates an efficiency and generates a force which transcends all efforts of all individuals, and which in the end will be irresistible. It presents a living Christ to the world, a living and growing Christ, embodied in the Life of His members, gathering up in one all the individuals of humanity into the ultimate unity of God’s One Man. And so it offers a new philosophy of human life, and with it a new human hope, as certain of fulfilment as the purpose of God.

Dean Armitage Robinson.

Illustration

‘“It has been our duty,” once said Prebendary Webb-Peploe, “to look to see whether there was any possible bond of union which might develop at last into real union and co-operation of service; whether we have, with regard to Dissenters, as we call them, or Nonconformists, kept strictly before our spiritual eyes that word ‘all one in Christ Jesus.’ I am one who has been privileged to know for many years the splendour of the power of that utterance at the Keswick Convention and similar gatherings, and I know what it is to be able to absolutely forget mentally whether the brother speaking from the front of the platform was of this denomination or of that, because he preached Christ Jesus the Lord, and we were enabled to realise, as he spoke, that he was in communion with God the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ, and the man’s message came home to us with power for that reason.”’


Verse 22

STEADFASTNESS

‘Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day.’

Acts 26:22

Continuance—steadfastness—what an important question it is! Let us spend a little time in looking at—

I. Its nature.—What sort of continuance do we want? In what directions have we to continue?

(a) A Christian must continue in the faith. In the faith, viewed objectively.

(b) There must be also continuance in practice. We must be ‘doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving our own selves.’

(c) Christian continuance is continuance in prayer. As writes the Apostle: ‘Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving’ (Colossians 4:2).

(d) Christian continuance is continuance in fellowship. In one sense it is sadly true that we are all solitaries, but in another we must never forget that we are members of a society.

II. Its necessity.—But we go on to ask why this continuance is so necessary. The answer is—

(a) It is necessary for sincerity. It is much to begin well, but can you continue? There is no such proof of strength as endurance.

(b) It is necessary for success.

III. How it is to be secured.—But now we come to the all-important question, How is this continuance to be secured? What is its secret? There are two ways of looking at the question—a Divine side and a human side—and neither of them must be forgotten.

(a) The Divine side. (1) The promises of God; (2) the intercession of Christ; and (3) the indwelling of the Holy Ghost secure continuance.

(b) The human side. How are we to continue? The answer is—

(a) By faith. ‘The just shall live by faith’—that is, shall go on living by faith, by faith, by faith—all our journey through.

(b) The secret of continuance is the Presence of the continuing Christ.

(c) Finally, if we would continue we must look forward as well as upwards. Hope as well as faith has her appropriate sphere in Christian continuance. We look for a city which hath foundations

Rev. E. W. Moore.

Illustrations

(1) ‘“How is it that you get through so much?” said a visitor one day to the great missionary, William Carey. “I do not know,” he answered, “except it is that I keep on doing.”’

(2) ‘Who has not heard of Bernard Palissy, the Huguenot potter, who made firewood of the chairs and tables and rafters of his house—to the consternation of his wife, who regarded him as a visionary dreamer, while his children were wanting bread, but who at last discovered the great secret of enamel ware, which had been lost for centuries, and which has made his name famous while the world goes round? Continuance will ultimately be rewarded. Witness the lives of missionaries like Moffat, Judson, David Livingstone, Alexander Mackay—who waited long before the fruits of their labour were seen, but whose successors have reaped an abundant harvest.’


Verse 28

ALMOST PERSUADED

‘Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.’

Acts 26:28

Who and what was the man who used these remarkable words? He was no infidel, no scoffer at religion, no despiser of God’s Word, no inattentive listener to the truths of the Gospel. Far otherwise. He had been brought up in the holiest religion of the day. He was familiar with the Word of God, and believed what the prophets had written. He listened to the most stirring appeals of the ambassador of Christ. Surely these were evidences most remarkable, most satisfactory, most conclusive. And yet he was never truly converted to God.

I. The Agrippas of St. Paul’s day abound on every side.—There are multitudes who, like him, hear the truth, know the truth, believe the truth, and are from time to time subjects of the most serious convictions, but who have, nevertheless, never been truly converted to God. Regular in attendance at the house of God, and on the various means of grace, ready to weep at the recital of Christ’s sufferings, and yet still unsaved.

II. When will you be persuaded?—In your dying hour? When you see the end approaching? Is not this the secret hope you are cherishing? Is this the time? When disease is wasting the frame, when pain is racking the body, and when the throbs and throes of dissolving nature are shaking the earthly tenement to its centre—is this a time to seek the Lord? Is this rational? That a business, the most momentous of life, on which is suspended the destiny of your soul for ever and ever, and compared with which the most important concerns of this world are as nothing, can be crushed within the limits of a dying hour! Yet this is the hope you are secretly cherishing. Thus your life is a mockery of God. God asks you—presses you—for a life devoted to Him; and you are secretly, yet consciously and wilfully, putting Him off.

—Rev. F. Whitfield.

(SECOND OUTLINE)

WHY NOT A CHRISTIAN?

This is one of the few instances in which it is absolutely necessary to correct the Authorised Version. Agrippa did not mean that he was almost persuaded to be a Christian, but just this—‘With but little persuasion thou wouldest fain make me a Christian.’ St. Paul pleaded for Christ persuasively enough, but Agrippa was not open to conviction.

If you pressed for a reason those who still neglect the call of Christ, you would find it would be one of the following five.

I. Some have difficulties about the Bible.—The Bible is not a scientific primer nor a handbook on geology and astronomy. The words ascribed to Galileo are worth quoting: ‘The Scriptures were given to man, not to teach him how the heavens go, but to teach him how to go to Heaven.’ The Bible does not pretend to explain everything; it tells us distinctly that ‘now we know in part.’

II. Others complain of the inconsistent lives of many who profess to be Christians.—Men say they are just as mean and greedy and grasping and selfish as the people of the world. There is no doubt much truth in this. Some people draw us to Christ as the flowers draw us to the garden, others repel us from Him. But then you must judge the Christian faith by Christ Himself.

III. Then another objection is—‘I am not good enough.’—If you say so, then open your New Testament and read how Christ received the worst of sinners. Bishop Andrewes said, ‘I am made of sin.’ So ‘be of good cheer,’ and no longer say, ‘I am not good enough,’ because there is a welcome for all who come.

IV. There are business difficulties.—Extraordinary adulteration is practised in food and medicine. It is very difficult to be always honest and tell the truth. ‘If you don’t do this, somebody else will,’ was said to George Eliot’s hero, Felix Holt. ‘Then somebody else shall. I won’t.’

V. It is a lack of humility that prevents multitudes from coming to Christ.—To renounce their own righteousness and flee to Christ alone with ‘nothing’ in their hands: men will not do this: it is too humbling: so they make the great refusal as Agrippa did. Such persons have never mourned over the evil of their own hearts.

Rev. F. Harper.

Illustration

‘A rich Jew once visited a friend of mine, and said to him: “I have come to you, sir, because I am to be married to a Christian girl, and they tell me it is best for me to become a Christian, and they have recommended me to see you. Tell me, what is Christianity?” And my friend pointed to a crucifix which was lying on his study table, and said to the Jew, “That is it.” The Jew answered: “That? Why, that is a peasant Jew whom we killed in Palestine, nearly two thousand years ago; surely you don’t expect me, an educated Jew, to accept that?” “No,” my friend said, “I do not. You have made a mistake, you have not looked at the thing I pointed at,” and he pointed again. And over the Figure on the Cross was one word, “Others.” And the Jew looked, and rising from his chair he said: “My God, man, I never knew it was that. It is too much. Why, He gave all He had for others, it is too much. Is that your Christianity?” “Yes,” said my friend, “nothing else.” Then said the Jew: “I cannot be a Christian, I am too rich.” And in the hall downstairs, as he was going, he said to my friend, “You will find a cheque for fifty pounds upstairs; spend it for your poor. To-night I dine in the West End, but I shall not drink one glass of champagne the less on account of that money; it will make no difference to me at all, but He gave all—ah, it is too big; I never saw it before. I cannot be a Christian.”’

 


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Acts 26:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/cpc/acts-26.html. 1876.

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