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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

Acts 28



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Verse 3


‘And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.’

Acts 28:3

This chapter records the sequel to the wreck. The two hundred and seventy-six souls had escaped from the ship and had all got safely to land. They found themselves upon the island which we now call Malta, but which was then known by the name of Melita. The Maltese had cherished and retained a belief in God as the moral ruler of the universe. God, they believed, punished wrong-doing, and rewarded virtue fully in this world. Human justice often failed in its work; Divine justice never! When, therefore, they saw the viper dart out upon the Apostle’s hand, they at once concluded that the man whom the soldiers watched with vigilance was a murderer. When St. Paul shook off the viper into the fire, and felt no harm, ‘they changed their minds, and said he was a god.’

The incident contains a lesson full of value and importance in the right guidance of all our life—social, religious, business, intellectual, or political. Everywhere in the pursuit of duty we must expect the viper to dart out upon us. Well for us if we are on our guard, and ready instinctively to shake off the attacks, and, God-protected, by Divine grace feel no harm.

I. The viper in business life.—Business is one of the most necessary things in the world. Those engaged in such duties may well seem, like St. Paul, to be energetically and characteristically helping to do something in the rain and cold, easing and ameliorating the condition of human life. But how often do we see the viper dart out of the midst of the work, and fasten on a man’s hand! How often do we see trade or business blunting the higher and nobler faculties of human life, blinding the soul to the spiritual world, exhausting all the natural energies in mere material, earthly interests, and sometimes—alas! too often—undermining the uprightness and honesty of a hitherto spotless character! How often do we see the hand or the heel wounded, while all power to shake off the venomous beast would seem to have deserted the soul!

II. The viper in knowledge.—Or look at knowledge in its many branches. What is more fascinating or delightful? But even here be on your guard! Even here the viper darts out and is ready to fasten on the hand. For there are spheres of truth which reason can only enter hand in hand with faith, and reason is apt to rise in rebellion, and flash scorn on that which is beyond its ken, and glory in its ignorance, or, as it prefers to phrase it, its agnosticism.

III. The viper in the Church.—The serpent has penetrated paradise, and all man’s life is henceforth lived in his presence. The Church is the paradise of God on earth. It is the nearest meeting-place of man with God. It is the Home of Grace. It is the refuge of penitent sinners. It is the resting-place of God’s revelation. It is the soul’s best and truest home. It is here that you can do the greatest works for God. It is here that you can lead others to know the happiness that you have found. It is here that you may be ‘the light of the world,’ and ‘the salt of the earth.’ It is here that you may be God’s band of labourers, ‘fellow-workers with God.’ Yet here, too, beware of the dart of the serpent. Here he fastens upon and wounds the hand, Here sometimes narrowness, bitterness, obstinacy and self-will. proud contemptuousness, prejudice, jealousy, and littleness of spirit may mar and spoil what God has intended.

IV. To shake off the viper.—St. Paul shook off the venomous beast into the fire, and felt no harm, because he did it instinctively the moment the dart was made, and because he was God-protected by the last promise of our Lord to His disciples. It is only by the religion of Jesus Christ that we can cast off the serpent. No profession of morality, no trusting in one’s own strength, no force of character, no amount of self-respect will do it. No; nothing but the indwelling guidance and strength of the Divine Spirit, perpetually cherished, perpetually invoked, perpetually obeyed—nothing but this will help us to shake off the power of evil, and to take no harm.

—Rev. P. M. Chamney.

Verse 15


‘Whom when Paul saw, he thanked God and took courage.’

Acts 28:15

After many perils and long delays, St. Paul had set his foot on the Italian shore, and was journeying towards Rome along the Appian Way. His heart was oppressed with sadness, and his spirit darkened by the shadow which seemed to overhang the future. But God provided for him a glad surprise, which, acting on his sensitive nature, had the effect of cheering him up, and sending him forward with new energy. When he reached Appii Forum, he was met by a company of Roman believers who had come all these forty-three miles to salute and encourage him; and at the next stage, ten miles nearer the city, another band was found waiting to bring him on his way. It was to St. Paul as if Jesus Himself had again appeared to him. The friendship of the disciples, pleasant in itself, was doubly prized as assuring him of the presence and the help of the Master.

I. The Christian attitude toward the past.—‘He thanked God.’ The Apostle had been in many tribulations; he had suffered much; he was at this very moment a prisoner; yet ‘he thanked God.’ God had been with him, sustaining and delivering him. The very perils through which he had been brought had been turned by his Master into means of usefulness. The shipwreck had secured for him the friendship of the Roman centurion under whose care he had been placed, and furnished an opportunity of preaching the Gospel both to his fellow-passengers and to the inhabitants of Malta. His bearing under danger prepared a way for his reception and usefulness at Rome. So, he thanks God for trial as well as blessing—for blessing in trial and blessing as the consequence of trial. Looking back upon the past, is there not much to impel our gratitude?

II. The Christian attitude toward the future.—‘He took courage.’ St. Paul did not know all that was before him; yet he was stronger for anything that might come, because the unexpected kindness of Christian friends had reminded him anew of the favour and protection of Jesus. Now, similarly, the recollection of past blessings encourages us to exercise stronger confidence in God for the future. Of the future much is hid from us. We do not know what may be in store for us, whether severe trial, or difficult duty, or painful afflictions, or temporal calamity. In mercy to us God has kept all these things from us. They are known to Him, but they are uncertain to us. In regard to future events, the past, brightened to us as it is by the evidence of God’s faithfulness, bids us take courage. Is there severe trial before us? Then we have already proved that if we be only anchored within the veil we may safely outride every hurricane of temptation. Are we called to advance upon arduous duty? Then the past declares to us that difficulties lessen as we approach them, while God is near to help us in emergency. Must we pass through painful affliction? Then we know from experience that His grace will be sufficient for us, and that as our day our strength shall be. Is temporal ruin coming upon us? Then we have God’s past care over us, saying to us, ‘The Lord is able to give thee much more than this.’ Thus the past, rightly interpreted, takes away all anxiety regarding the future, and enables men to go forward into it without dismay. When we sing, ‘The Lord hath been mindful of us,’ the strain is incomplete if we do not add, ‘and He will bless us’; and when raising a stone of remembrance we inscribe upon the one side: ‘Ebenezer, hitherto the Lord hath helped us,’ our gratitude is of none effect unless we can engrave upon the other, ‘Jehovah Jireh, the Lord will provide.’


‘Many a man fails in a good but difficult effort because he is met with criticism when he deserves encouragement. A fireman was trying to reach from the top of a ladder a poor woman who was imploring help at the window of a burning house. A voice in the crowd below cried, “You can’t do it; come down!” Already burnt, and almost choked with smoke, he began to descend, leaving the woman to her fate, when a man exclaimed, “Give him a cheer!” The vast crowd made the air ring with their shouts, when the fireman stopped, again ascended, and brought the woman safely to the ground.’



We find that our Heavenly Father, when His servant St. Paul was on his way to Rome, showed tenderness, kindness, and consideration for him. He put it into the heart of the brethren that were in Rome to go out to the Appii Forum and the Three Taverns, which was half-way on the road that St. Paul was to come—to go out there and meet him. And St. Paul knew that this was done by God to encourage him.

I. Rome was the centre of the world, the seat of the world’s government. It was also the centre from which the great roads of trade went out in different directions. Ships were always coming to Rome, bringing merchandise from all parts of the world. The merchants had their houses and their agents in Rome. And people were living in Rome agents for this business, and that business, and the other, who had friends and relations in every part of the world. And, of course, in this great city there were always the contrasts of great wealth and great poverty. There were the marble palaces of the rich, and the wretched lodgings of the very poor. And there was always plenty of excitement in Rome; processions, amusements, exhibitions of every kind. There were wonderful specimens of art and statues, some of which have come down to our own day. And now for this great city St. Paul was bound.

II. And what was it that now led him thither?—Was it one of those motives that so often take people to visit great cities? Was it to obtain some advantage for himself, or to better himself in the world? Was it love of pleasure, or curiosity to see this great city? No! it was not any of these causes. Well! we remember St. Paul was a bishop, and bishops then, as now, had to go to this place and that to confirm those who had not yet received confirmation. And St. Paul himself wrote in his Epistle to the Romans, that he wished to go to Rome for that very purpose. ‘I long to see you, in order that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift; and in order that you may be established,’ or confirmed. And yet it was not for this reason only that St. Paul was going, but simply and solely because it was the will of God. The will of God had called him to witness for him in several other places, and made him shape his course for Rome.

III. But we have to remember how St. Paul was going.—Not the way he might have wished for himself, at the head of a band of missionaries going there to preach the Gospel. No! he was to go as a prisoner. He had to stand his trial before the most cruel and unjust man that ever lived. And as if that were not enough, he had just been shipwrecked, and gone through all kinds of hardships on the sea. Starving, wet, cold, and all those other human hardships might have been enough to damp down the spirit of St. Paul. Well might he be dejected and cast down with all that he had lately gone through, with this doubt and uncertainty of what might happen to him! But as he plods his way towards the city, just by the roadside he sees a company of people standing to meet him: a company of brethren divinely sent out to meet him. And as he sees them, he thanks God, and takes courage. God is gracious to him. He feels that One Who has taken care of him in all perils and dangers through which he had gone beforetime will not desert him, and that even in this great city he has friends. He shall not be alone even there; not without sympathy and support and service. And St. Paul, seeing the brethren, ‘thanked God, and took courage.’

Life is full of temptations. And alas! our natures are so sinful that sometimes we are inclined to meet temptations half-way, inclined and ready to plunge into sin if it were not for the grace of God, which uses, as one of the means to keep us from sin, the example and the desire to obtain the good opinion of our own companions and friends. Is it not something that each one here should know that he is not alone, that if he does anything to disgrace himself, even here there will be those that sorrow for his fall; that it will be something for him to lose here these warm hands that now greet him, the brotherly help, the sisterly encouragement, which he will forfeit through wrong-doing? Will not this be something to assist him in keeping from temptation?

Bishop Watkin Williams.


‘There is a stirring story of Sir Colin Campbell when taking his Highland brigade into the battle of the Alma. He had a lot of men who had never seen a battle, and, of course, he did not know how they would behave. There might possibly be a few cowards among them; and he spoke to his men before they went under fire. “Now, lads, remember this! if one of you, not wounded, falls out of the ranks, and goes not on with the others; whatever excuse he may give, I will send his name home to be put up in his own parish church. His own neighbours and fellow-townsmen, the people of his own village, shall know him as a coward.” And whether there were fearful ones among them or not, certain it is that such a threat was worse than being shot a thousand times. And there was not one who did not do his duty manfully.’

Verse 24


‘And some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not.’

Acts 28:24

It was in the spring of a.d. 61 that St. Paul reached Rome. The aim of his life was fulfilled. The prisoners were handed over to the captain of the guard, but St. Paul was separated from the other prisoners, and ‘suffered to dwell by himself, with a soldier that kept him.’ After ‘three days’ he called the chief of the Jews together,’ explained the circumstances under which he had come to Rome, and again stated his ‘hope of Israel.’ He discussed these questions with all who came to ‘his lodging’ from morning till evening. ‘Some believed the things which were spoken, and some disbelieved.’

I. The Gospel itself prepares us for its own disappointment.—It is at least a remarkable thing that a religion which speaks so authoritatively, which claims so confidently for itself a heavenly and a Divine origin, should yet declare itself to be come into the world, not for triumph, but for division; should inscribe on its pages the admission that of the earliest witnesses of the Resurrection some doubted; should give directions for the treatment of refusers as well as of acceptors of the message; should state this as the effect of a long and detailed argument in its behalf on the part of its most earnest and persuasive advocate, that some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not. We say of such a religion that at least it has taken the sting, by anticipation, out of the argument from failure, and uttered a true prediction as to the degree and measure of its own success. Here, as elsewhere, we recognise that transparent truthfulness about itself, which is one of the distinctive badges of the pure original Gospel.

II. On the other hand, it cannot be said that Christianity regards with indifference this various, this chequered result.—But the Gospel, if it speaks truthfully—much more, if it speaks truly—does predict wrath, as well as promise mercy; it misleads, ignorantly or else intentionally, if there be not as really an eternal punishment as a life eternal. The Gospel is not in-different, though it be distinctly prescient, as to this believing and believing not.

III. When we strive to look below the surface, and to discover why one believes and another believes not; why that proof which is equal for all should convince one and fail with another; why it is that God’s rain and God’s sunshine fertilise this spot and leave that barren; why reason and conscience, mind and soul, equal (in two instances) in vigour and capacity, should view with different eyes the selfsame disclosure; we are in the midst, at once, of those indeed secret things which belong wholly to the Lord our God. And we must be willing, unless we should make shipwreck at once of faith and charity, to leave all judgment in His hands, Who, being the Lord of all, will assuredly do right.

IV. In the face of these unaccountable differences between man and man; some believing, and others (with advantages at least equal) believing not; we come, more and more as life advances, to rest, simply and trustingly, upon the declaration of Scripture, that faith itself is God’s gift, the work of His Spirit, and commonly the direct answer to persevering prayer. We presume not, we believe it to be at present impossible, to state or define to ourselves the logical coherence of the two fundamental doctrines of grace and responsibility.

V. It must be plain to every one that, even among professed Christians, there are still believing men and unbelieving.—Therefore, it is still with us, as it was in the first days of the Gospel, an anxious, a fearful inquiry, Do we yet believe? If we do, we cannot sleep in indifference, we cannot rest in the world, we cannot live in sin. To believe is to see ourselves lost by nature and redeemed by the blood of Christ. To believe is to live no longer to ourselves, but to Him Who died for us and rose again. To believe is to declare plainly, by our whole spirit and conduct, that we are strangers and pilgrims on this earth, seeking a better country, that is, an heavenly. To believe is to have our affection set on things above, our very life hidden with Christ in God.

Dean C. J. Vaughan.

Verse 28


‘Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will bear it.’

Acts 28:28

The Jews had exhausted St. Paul’s patience. He had reasoned with them; he had pleaded with them; but all to no purpose. They refused to accept the message he brought, and henceforth he turned to the Gentiles. The Jews had lost their opportunity; ‘the salvation of God’ was ‘sent unto the Gentiles.’ ‘They will hear it,’ said St. Paul. And we have heard it. The great question is, Have we accepted it?

I. The mission to the Gentiles.—We have become inheritors of the promises of God. Unto us has the message of salvation been sent. St. Paul, as the Apostle of the Gentiles, was the instrument in God’s hands of the conversion of thousands. His forecast was right. The Gentiles heard the Gospel; they accepted it; and the Church which, in his day, was but a small company, has now spread over the whole earth.

II. Our privileges are neither few nor small. With nineteen centuries of Christian effort behind us the Church ought to be a great power. And it would become such if every baptized Christian realised how great and glorious is his position in Christ. This is our day of opportunity, not only in relation to spreading the Gospel in the vast unevangelised fields abroad, but also in regard to our own attitude towards the Christian faith and life. How few of us can say that we are living up to our Christian privileges. Is it not the fact, indeed, that some of us reject the Gospel as really and truly as did the Jews of old? We make profession, no doubt, of our belief in Christianity, but so far as our daily life is concerned it has no power or effect at all. ‘This people honoureth Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me,’ are words which express the actual condition of some of us; and they seal our condemnation.

III. Our responsibility.—The day of privilege will not always last. ‘He came unto His own, and His own received Him not.’ What was the result? ‘The salvation of God is sent to the Gentiles.’ If we, in our sin or our indifference, reject Him, who can say how soon our day of visitation shall pass away?

IV. There is yet another point of view from which this question of privilege and responsibility may be considered. It is important to observe the influence of long-continued and exclusive privileges on the opinions and the doctrinal belief of those enjoying them. It is melancholy to observe with what facility advantages possessed by a few for the good of many may come to be regarded as prerogatives belonging to the few to the entire exclusion of the many. If the Jews, with an unfinished revelation and a heavy ceremonial yoke upon their necks, could dream of an exclusive right to God’s compassions, what may not we, without preventing grace, infer from our unclouded light and our unshackled freedom? And if this error had a tendency to vitiate their whole view of Divine truth, what security have we that an analogous effect may not be realised in our experience? If we are conscious of inadequate exertions in the great cause of missions, let us think of Israel and remember that if we do not value Christianity enough to share it with the heathen, they may yet become possessed of it at our expense.


‘St. Paul remained in his hired house for two whole years of imprisonment, receiving all who came to him. The record suddenly ends here, and the account of his trial, as also of the after story, can only be gathered from the Epistles.’


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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Acts 28:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.

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