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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

Acts 8

 

 

Verse 8

THE CHRISTIAN CITY

‘And there was great joy in that city.’

Acts 8:8

The city was Samaria, and the great joy was the fruit of the first preaching of the Gospel there. The disciples had been scattered by persecution from Jerusalem, and one of them had come to this city. To it he had told the truth which the Jews had rejected. He wrought miracles on all that were diseased; their health came back to them. Many taken with palsies, and that were lame were healed. Gladness ran along the streets of Samaria. The life of the whole town was stirred with a new inspiration, and there was great joy in that city.

Christianity has three different aspects in which it appears; three ways in which it makes its influence felt: truth, righteousness, and love. Every soul which is really redeemed by Christianity will enter into new beliefs, higher ways of action, and deeper affection towards its fellow-men. Belief, behaviour, and benevolence, these are the fields in which Christianity works. In every character Christianity will show its triple power.

Now, let us take these one by one, and ask if the city is not capable of each of them as well as the individual. They must exist primarily in the individual; all spiritual character must reside ultimately in the single soul, but still I think it is true that an aggregate of individuals may possess the spiritual character which the individual possesses, and the city, like the man, can exhibit Christian faith and Christian righteousness and Christian love.

I. Look first at faith.—Perhaps this seems the hardest to establish. There was a time, perhaps we say, when each city did indeed possess its own beliefs, when no man could live in Rome without believing like the Pope, or in Geneva without believing like John Calvin, or in New England without believing like the king and like the magistrates. Every city had then its faith. Every proclamation was based upon a creed. But all that is altered now. A thousand different beliefs fight freely in our streets, and all men are free. No man is less a citizen from anything he believes or disbelieves. When these old times come back again, then we shall have a believing city, but not till then. And these old times are never coming back. But this reasoning is surely somewhat shallow. It speaks as if the only exhibition of a faith were in formal statement. It ignores for the State what is being more and more accepted for the individual, that the best proof of a man’s believing is not his acceptance of a doctrine, but his impregnation with its spirit. It may be impossible that cities should confess their faith in their charters and make the simplest acknowledgement of their most fundamental articles in the heading of their statutes, or the inscriptions on their coins; but if its people believe in God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, and testify of that belief in a way recognisable of all by its way of life, then, is not that a believing city, even without creed or formal proclamation? It is a Christian city, a believing city, and how do we know? It is because that spirit which was never in the world, save as the spirit of Christian faith, prevails in and pervades its government and social life, the spirit of responsibility and of trust in a great Heavenly Father. These are the real spiritual results of Christian belief, which are not found in heathenism.

II. The second aspect under which Christianity presents itself is that of righteousness.—A Christian holds certain truths and does certain things. There is a moral character in his activities. I pass on to this question: Is it true that there may be a character involved by this gathering of men which we call a city as by an individual? Can there be a Christian city? The answer is not difficult. Every city has a moral character distinct from the individual character of its inhabitants. This is seen in two ways. First in official acts, which must be acts of justice or injustice, deceit or candour. It also appears in acting that is not official, as amongst its sistercities, but more in its power of influence as a moral force, which pervades and exercises power on all that came within it. Send a child to a heathen, brutal community, as of the South Sea, where vice is open, and he is certainly contaminated. What does it? Not this or that man’s example alone; but that evil influence is everywhere in the customs, manners, traditions. Then bring your boy and put him into great London. He will be influenced not merely by this or that character, but by its Christian goodness everywhere, in the just dealing of the street, the serene peace of the homes, the accepted responsibility and obligations of friends and neighbours; in the universal liberty, in the absence of cruelty, in the purity and decency, in the solemn state and the courteous ceremony; everywhere the testimony is of a city wherein dwelleth righteousness. This is the character of the city itself.

III. The third development of Christianity is charity.—Truth and righteousness and love. We say, ‘Faith, Hope, and Charity, and the greatest of these is charity.’ When a man becomes a Christian he believes right and then does right, and then he tries to help his fellow-men. This is the highway of Christianity trodden by the multitudes of Christians in every age, and now again the question comes: Can a city, too, have Christian charity, and do good by the issue and utterance of its Christian character? The Christian character of charity is very apt indeed to delude us and to be lost sight of when we see it on a large scale. If a Christian man gives alms to a poor man it is laid down to impulse, and if a city provides for its own sick and needy and homeless, it is laid down to economy. In every case the connection of the charitable act with Christian faith is apt to be lost. But this is a very shallow view of the case. What is impulse? Is there no Christianity in it? Is it to-day the same feeling as a savage’s inpulse? Has Christianity done nothing to keep down every impulse to harm, and to strengthen this impulse to love our brethren? And do you say the city’s charity is all economy? For experience has shown her that it is a saving system. But who taught her this economy? Who told the city that human life was worth the saving, that the hospital was a good thing to have, that this is an experience, and organisation, a development to civilisation? How is it that Christianity alone has had this experience, and that outside her bounds the most highly-organised of nations in their best civilisation never had anything more than the barest rudiments of hospitals? No; the charity of the city is a distinct testimony to one thing wrought into the convictions of the city, and that one thing is the faith of the many, and our conviction has come nowhere except out of the Christian faith. The city may not know where it has come from, as very few of us can trace the deepest convictions in us to their source, but none the less does it spring out of the Gospel.

Bishop Phillips Brooks.

Illustration

‘If you are part of a great city, remember, oh, remember, that your righteousness is not for yourself alone: it is for your city. I am speaking here to business men who, if really Christians, may put a more Christian character into the business life of this Christian metropolis. I am speaking to women of society, who, if really Christians, may make the social character of this city more Christ-like, more true, serious, lofty, pure, charitable and obedient, less sordid, less sensual, less ignorant. I am speaking to young men on whom rests the development of that character in this city which their fathers gave it. If you fail, Christian men, what chance for the city? It is not for yourselves, even for your own happiness alone, here or in some far-off world, but for the city you love. Your character will become the character of thousands who will be gathered into her and born unto her. You have new motives to be earnest and pure, by the love of God, by the service of Christ, by the work of the Holy Ghost.’


Verse 17

THE FIRST CONFIRMATION

‘Then laid they their hands upon them, and they received the Holy Ghost.’

Acts 8:17

This passage has a particular interest for us, because it is the first instance of what is now known as ‘Confirmation.’ In the earliest days the ‘laying on of hands’ followed baptism immediately, or as soon as possible; indeed, we may say that it was the completion of baptism.

I. The Gift.—‘Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.’ If these words are true of the first believers at their ‘confirmation,’ can they be less true of you? I can only think of one objection, which, no doubt, occurs to many of you. The first believers, we are told, had ‘outward and visible’ as well as ‘inward and spiritual’ signs of the gift of the Spirit. ‘They spake with tongues and prophesied,’ so it is recorded on more than one occasion, To this I would reply that, no doubt, ‘tongues’ and ‘prophecy’ were signs of the gift of the Spirit; but they were not the gift itself; they were not a necessary part of it.

II. Let us not suppose, then, that we are in any different position from that of the first Christians.—We are living under the same conditions; we have all ‘received the Holy Ghost.’ The great question for us at this time is—How have we used or are we using the great gift? We know how some of them used it. We know the story of Ananias and Sapphira. We know the sin and shame of those Corinthian Christians of whom St. Paul said that the Spirit dwelt in them. All history is full of the falls and failures of those who have been ‘endued with power from on high.’

III. Is this the case with any of you?—Have you gradually, insensibly, let your vision fade? Have you sunk to the level of any society in which you might be? Are you conscious that your prayers are cold, that the tide of your spiritual life is slack? Ah, it is to you that the appeal comes—to ‘stir up the gift that is in you’; to realise and use the power in which so many of us are lacking. And yet the power is here; it only needs stirring, reviving, using.

—Rev. H. R. Gamble.


Verse 35

PREACHING JESUS

‘Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.’

Acts 8:35

At the close of this chapter the picture of the Crucifixion unrolls itself again: it is a miniature of the larger one painted with holy oil in the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah. In the conversion and baptism of this negro we see what wonderful ways God has of bringing men to Himself. Philip ‘began’ with the story of the Cross, and herein Philip is a pattern to all preachers.

I. The Cross teaches the evil of sin.—Imagine a boy who lives in disobedience to the wishes of his father. He runs away from home. In course of time the father dies, and he finds a letter from which it is clear that the conduct of his son has broken his heart. That boy learns for the first time how base and cruel and ungrateful he has been. The story of the Cross is such a letter. My sin has broken my Saviour’s heart.

II. The Cross is the heart of the Gospel.—‘O sweet exchange!’ wrote some one in the second century, meaning that Christ had borne his sin, and that he had received Christ’s righteousness. It is a far cry from the second to the twentieth century. Yet the human heart has the same needs, and those needs are met by the story of the Cross in the twentieth as surely as they were in the second century.

III. The Cross reveals the glory of self-sacrifice.—Sir James Young Simpson was the discoverer of chloroform, and in the year 1847 he sat down with his friends Drs. Keith and Duncan, and tested on himself and them the action of the drug, and he threw himself, and they consented to his throwing them, into a state of unconsciousness which might have been death—who can help admiring self-sacrifice?

IV. The Cross is a test of character.—It is a revelation. It shows the dark features of the money-loving Judas. We see the hypocrisy of Caiaphas, the Machiavelli of his age. Pilate vacillates: he will take no sides: he would have saved Christ, but he preferred, as he thought, to save himself; he puts his own interest first. Pilate’s wife, in strange contrast, will do something, and if needs be suffer much for her Saviour, so great was her reverence and her love. The Jews did not know Him to be the Lord of glory, but they knew him to be a righteous Man, and they did not act up to the light they had. The ‘thoughts out of many hearts’ are revealed (Luke 2:35).

—Rev. F. Harper.

Illustration

‘I remember the time,’ said Bishop Walsham How, ‘when I used to resent the complaint that a sermon had said nothing about Christ. I have lived to see that I was wrong. The hearts of your people do long to hear about Him. They never feel quite satisfied if they do not. Be it narrowness, or superstition, or what you will, the simple Christian craves the very Name of Jesus. I should like, if I dare, to think this a sign of growing more like a child again; but anyhow, I confess that I should myself go home dissatisfied with a sermon which had in it no mention of our dear Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’


Verse 39

THE JOYS OF LIFE

‘And he went on his way rejoicing.’

Acts 8:39

There must have been some very strong reasons why the eunuch should pursue his way down to Ethiopia that day rejoicingly. He was in the ecstasy of the delight of the first discovery of truth—that strange, that delicious sensation! He had just dedicated himself solemnly to God, and he had found that resting place, a fixed heart. He had received the grace of holy baptism, and the Holy Ghost, the spring of all life and joy, was in his soul; and within him and about him everything danced and sung like a new creation. He had the sweet peace of the sense of the forgiveness of all his sins—the deepest, the most incommunicable of all happinesses. That wonderful Person, whom Philip had just been revealing to him in the fifty-third of Isaiah—was now his own felt, precious Saviour. His heart was soft, and tender, and full of love. He carried with him a presence, which is the very ‘light of life,’ and before which all shadows fly away, and every obstacle becomes a thing of nought. And beyond the country to which he was travelling, there was another country, a new home. It was now opening to his view; it seemed but a step, and he would be there. These are the true joys of life, and he who has them is independent of the outer world. I do not wonder that ‘he went on his way rejoicing.’ And for you I am very anxious that you should ‘go on your way rejoicing.’

I. We do everything best when we are happy.—We pray best, we praise best, we work best, we bear best.

II. Joy is a great means of santification.—It is a fount of kindness. It helps very much to conquer temper.

III. It adorns religion, and makes it winning to those around us.

IV. It is like heaven; and a happy God looks down and sees His own reflection in a happy child.

V. It is right.—It is a command. I know no other command which is so reiterated, ‘Rejoice; and again I say, Rejoice.’

VI. We have so many things to make us happy.

Rev. James Vaughan.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Acts 8:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/cpc/acts-8.html. 1876.

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