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Bible Commentaries

Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

Acts 21

 

 

Verses 1-7

Acts

DRAWING NEARER TO THE STORM

Acts 21:1 - Acts 21:15.

Paul’s heroic persistency in disregarding the warnings of ‘bonds and afflictions’ which were pealed into his ears in every city, is the main point of interest in this section. But the vivid narrative abounds with details which fill it with life and colour. We may gather it all round three points-the voyage, Tyre, and Caesarea.

I. The log of the voyage, as given in Acts 21:1 - Acts 21:3, shows the leisurely way of navigation in those days and in that sea.

Obviously the coaster tied up or anchored in port at night. Running down the coast from Miletus, they stayed overnight, first at the small island of Coos, then stretched across the next day to Rhodes, and on the third struck back to the mainland at Patara, from which, according to one reading, they ran along the coast a little further east to Myra, the usual port of departure for Syria. Ramsay explains that the prevalent favourable wind for a vessel bound for Syria blows steadily in early morning, and dies down towards nightfall, so that there would have been no use in keeping at sea after sundown.

At Patara {or Myra} Paul and his party had to tranship, for their vessel was probably of small tonnage, and only fit to run along the coast. In either port they would have no difficulty in finding some merchantman to take them across to Syria. Accordingly they shifted into one bound for Tyre, and apparently ready to sail. The second part of their voyage took them right out to sea, and their course lay to the west, and then to the south of Cyprus, which Luke mentions as if to remind us of Paul’s visit there when he was beginning his missionary work. How much had passed since that day at Paphos {which they might have sighted from the deck}! He had left Paphos with Barnabas and John Mark-where were they? He had sailed away from Cyprus to carry the Gospel among Gentiles; he sails past it, accompanied by a group of these whom he had won for Christ. There he had begun his career; now the omens indicated that possibly its end was near. Many a thought would be in his mind as he looked out over the blue waters and saw the glittering roofs and groves of Paphos.

Tyre was the first port of call, and there the cargo was to be landed. The travellers had to wait till that was done, and probably another one shipped. The seven days’ stay is best understood as due to that cause; for we find that Paul re-embarked in the same ship, and went in her as far as Ptolemais, at all events, perhaps to Caesarea.

We note that no brethren are mentioned as having been met at any of the ports of call, and no evangelistic work as having been done in them. The party were simple passengers, who had to shape their movements to suit the convenience of the master of the vessel, and were only in port at night, and off again next morning early. No doubt the leisure at sea was as restorative to them as it often is to jaded workers now.

II. Tyre was a busy seaport then, and in its large population the few disciples would make but little show.

They had to be sought out before they were ‘found.’ One can feel how eagerly the travellers would search, and how thankfully they would find themselves again among congenial souls. Since Miletus they had had no Christian communion, and the sailors in such a ship as theirs would not be exactly kindred spirits. So that week in Tyre would be a blessed break in the voyage. We hear nothing of visiting the synagogue, nor of preaching to the non-Christian population, nor of instruction to the little Church.

The whole interest of the stay at Tyre is, for Luke, centred on the fact that here too the same message which had met Paul everywhere was repeated to him. It was ‘through the Spirit.’ Then was Paul flying in the face of divine prohibitions when he held on his way in spite of all that could be said? Certainly not. We have to bring common sense to bear on the interpretation of the words in Acts 21:4, and must suppose that what came from ‘the Spirit’ was the prediction of persecutions waiting Paul, and that the exhortation to avoid these by keeping clear of Jerusalem was the voice of human affection only. Such a blending of clear insight and of mistaken deductions from it is no strange experience.

No word is said as to the effect of the Tyrian Christians’ dissuasion. It had none. Luke mentions it in order to show how continuous was the repetition of the same note, and his silence as to the manner of its reception is eloquent. The parting scene at Tyre is like, and yet very unlike, that at Miletus. In both the Christians accompany Paul to the beach, in both they kneel down and pray. It would scarcely have been a Christian parting without that. In both loving farewells are said, and perhaps waved when words could no longer be heard. But at Tyre, where there were no bonds of old comradeship nor of affection to a spiritual father, there was none of the yearning, clinging love that could not bear to part, none of the hanging on Paul’s neck, none of the deep sorrow of final separation. The delicate shades of difference in two scenes so similar tell of the hand of an eye-witness. The touch that ‘all’ the Tyrian Christians went down to the beach, and took their wives and children with them, suggests that they can have been but a small community, and so confirms the hint given by the use of the word ‘found’ in Acts 21:4.

III. The vessel ran down the coast to Ptolemais where one day’s stop was made, probably to land and ship cargo, if, as is possible, the further journey to Caesarea was by sea.

But it may have been by land; the narrative is silent on that point. At Ptolemais, as at Tyre, there was a little company of disciples, the brevity of the stay with whom, contrasted with the long halt in Caesarea, rather favours the supposition that the ship’s convenience ruled the Apostle’s movements till he reached the latter place. There he found a haven of rest, and, surrounded by loving friends, no wonder that the burdened Apostle lingered there before plunging into the storm of which he had had so many warnings.

The eager haste of the earlier part of the journey, contrasted with the delay in Caesarea at the threshold of his goal, is explained by supposing that at the beginning Paul’s one wish had been to get to Jerusalem in time for the Feast, and that at Caesarea he found that, thanks to his earlier haste and his good passages, he had a margin to spare. He did not wish to get to the Holy City much before the Feast.

Two things only are told as occurring in Caesarea-the intercourse with Philip and the renewed warnings about going to Jerusalem. Apparently Philip had been in Caesarea ever since we last heard of him [Acts 8:1 - Acts 8:40]. He had brought his family there, and settled down in the headquarters of Roman government. He had been used by Christ to carry the Gospel to men outside the Covenant, and for a time it seemed as if he was to be the messenger to the Gentiles; but that mission soon ended, and the honour and toil fell to another. But neither did Philip envy Paul, nor did Paul avoid Philip. The Master has the right to settle what each slave has to do, and whether He sets him to high or low office, it matters not.

Philip might have been contemptuous and jealous of the younger man, who had been nobody when he was chosen as one of the Seven, but had so far outrun him now. But no paltry personal feeling marred the Christian intercourse of the two, and we can imagine how much each had to tell the other, with perhaps Cornelius for a third in company, during the considerably extended stay in Caesarea. No doubt Luke too made good use of the opportunity of increasing his knowledge of the first days, and probably derived much of the material for the first chapters of Acts from Philip, either then or at his subsequent longer residence in the same city.

We have heard of the prophet Agabus before [Acts 11:28]. Why he is introduced here, as if a stranger, we cannot tell, and it is useless to guess, and absurd to sniff suspicion of genuineness in the peculiarity. His prophecy is more definite than any that preceded it. That is God’s way. He makes things clearer as we go on, and warnings more emphatic as danger approaches. The source of the ‘afflictions’ was now for the first time declared, and the shape which they would take. Jews would deliver Paul to Gentiles, as they had delivered Paul’s Master.

But there the curtain falls. What would the Gentiles do with him? That remained unrevealed. Half the tragedy was shown, and then darkness covered the rest. That was more trying to nerves and courage than full disclosure to the very end would have been. Imagination had just enough to work on, and was stimulated to shape out all sorts of horrors. Similarly incomplete and testing to faith are the glimpses of the future which we get in our own lives. We see but a little way ahead, and then the road takes a sharp turn, and we fancy dreadful shapes hiding round the corner.

Paul’s courage was unmoved both by Agabus’s incomplete prophecy and by the tearful implorings of his companions and of the Caesarean Christians. His pathetic words to them are misunderstood if we take ‘break my heart’ in the modern sense of that phrase, for it really means ‘to melt away my resolution,’ and shows that Paul felt that the passionate grief of his brethren was beginning to do what no fear for himself could do-shake even his steadfast purpose. No more lovely blending of melting tenderness and iron determination has ever been put into words than that cry of his, followed by the great utterance which proclaimed his readiness to bear all things, even death itself, for ‘the name of the Lord Jesus.’ What kindled and fed that noble flame of self-devotion? The love of Jesus Christ, built on the sense that He had redeemed the soul of His servant, and had thereby bought him for His own.

If we feel that we have been ‘bought with a price,’ we too, in our small spheres, shall be filled with that ennobling passion of devoted love which will not count life dear if He calls us to give it up. Let us learn from Paul how to blend the utmost gentleness and tender responsiveness to all love with fixed determination to glorify the Name. A strong will and a loving heart make a marvellously beautiful combination, and should both abide in every Christian.


Verse 8

Acts

DRAWING NEARER TO THE STORM

PHILIP THE EVANGELIST

Acts 21:8.

The life of this Philip, as recorded, is a very remarkable one. It is divided into two unequal halves: one full of conspicuous service, one passed in absolute obscurity. Like the moon in its second quarter, part of the disc is shining silver and the rest is invisible. Let us put together the notices of him.

He bears a name which makes it probable that he was not a Palestinian Jew, but one of the many who, of Jewish descent, had lived in Gentile lands and contracted Gentile habits and associations. We first hear of him as one of the Seven who were chosen by the Church, at the suggestion of the Apostles, in order to meet the grumbling of that section of the Church, who were called ‘Hellenists,’ about their people being neglected in the distribution of alms. He stands in that list next to Stephen, who was obviously the leader. Then after Stephen’s persecution, he flies from Jerusalem, like the rest of the Church, and comes down to Samaria and preaches there. He did that because circumstances drove him; he had become one of the Seven because his brethren appointed him, but his next step was in obedience to a specific command of Christ. He went and preached the Gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch, and then he was borne away from the new convert, and after the Spirit had put him down at Ashdod he had to tramp all the way up the Palestinian coast, left to the guidance of his own wits, until he came to Caesarea. There he remained for twenty years; and we do not hear a word about him in all that time. But at last Paul and his companions, hurrying to keep the Feast at Jerusalem, found that they had a little time to spare when they reached Caesarea, and so they came to ‘the house of Philip the evangelist,’ whom we last heard of twenty years before, and spent ‘many days’ with him. That is the final glimpse that we have of Philip.

Now let us try to gather two or three plain lessons, especially those which depend on that remarkable contrast between the first and the second periods of this man’s life. There is, first, a brief space of brilliant service, and then there are long years of obscure toil.

I. The brief space of brilliant service.

The Church was in a state of agitation, and there was murmuring going on because, as I have already said, a section of it thought that their poor were unfairly dealt with by the native-born Jews in the Church. And so the Apostles said: ‘What is the use of your squabbling thus? Pick out any seven that you like, of the class that considers itself aggrieved, and we will put the distribution of these eleemosynary grants into their hands. That will surely stop your mouths. Do you choose whom you please, and we will confirm your choice.’ So the Church selected seven brethren, all apparently belonging to the ‘Grecians’ or Greek-speaking Jews, as the Apostles had directed that they should be, and one of them, not a Jew by birth, but a ‘proselyte of Antioch.’ These men’s partialities would all be in favour of the class to which they belonged, and to secure fair play for which they were elected by it.

Now these seven are never called ‘deacons’ in the New Testament, though it is supposed that they were the first holders of that office. It is instructive to note how their office came into existence. It was created by the Apostles, simply as the handiest way of getting over a difficulty. Is that the notion of Church organisation that prevails among some of our brethren who believe that organisation is everything, and that unless a Church has the three orders of bishops, priests, and deacons, it is not worth calling a Church at all? The plain fact is that the Church at the beginning had no organisation. What organisation it had grew up as circumstances required. The only two laws which governed organisation were, first, ‘One is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren’; and second, ‘When the Spirit of the Lord is come upon thee, thou shalt do as occasion shall serve thee.’ Thus these seven were appointed to deal with a temporary difficulty and to distribute alms when necessary; and their office dropped when it was no longer required, as was probably the case when, very soon after, the Jerusalem Church was scattered. Then, by degrees, came elders and deacons. People fancy that there is but one rigid, unalterable type of Church organisation, when the reality is that it is fluent and flexible, and that the primitive Church never was meant to be the pattern according to which, in detail, and specifically, other Churches in different circumstances should be constituted. There are great principles which no organisation must break, but if these be kept, the form is a matter of convenience.

That is the first lesson that I take out of this story. Although it has not much to do with Philip himself, still it is worth saying in these days when a particular organisation of the Church is supposed to be essential to Christian fellowship, and we Nonconformists, who have not the ‘orders’ that some of our brethren seem to think indispensable, are by a considerable school unchurched, because we are without them. But the primitive Church also was without them.

Still further and more important for us, in these brief years of brilliant service I note the spontaneous impulse which sets a Christian man to do Christian work. It was his brethren that picked out Philip, and said, ‘Now go and distribute alms,’ but his brethren had nothing to do with his next step. He was driven by circumstances out of Jerusalem, and he found himself in Samaria, and perhaps he remembered how Jesus Christ had said, on the day when He went up into Heaven, ‘Ye shall be witnesses unto Me, both in Jerusalem and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.’ But whether he remembered that or not, he was here in Samaria, amongst the ancestral enemies of his nation. Nobody told him to preach when he went to Samaria. He had no commission from the Apostles to do so. He did not hold any office in the Church, except that which, according to the Apostles’ intention in establishing it, ought to have stopped his mouth from preaching. For they said, when they appointed these seven, ‘Let them serve tables, and we will give ourselves to the ministry of the word.’ But Jesus Christ has a way of upsetting men’s restrictions as to the functions of His servants. And so Philip, without a commission, and with many prejudices to stop his mouth, was the first to break through the limitations which confined the message of salvation to the Jews. Because he found himself in Samaria, and they needed Christ there, he did not wait for Peter and James and John to lay their hands upon his head, and say, ‘Now you are entitled to speak about Him’; he did not wait for any appointment, but yielded to his own heart, a heart that was full of Jesus Christ, and must speak about Him; find he proclaimed the Gospel in that city.

So he has the noble distinction of being the very first Christian man who put a bold foot across the boundary of Judaism, and showed a light to men that were in darkness beyond. Remember he did it as a simple private Christian; uncalled, uncommissioned, unordained by anybody; and he did it because he could not help it, and he never thought to himself, ‘I am doing a daring, new thing.’ It seemed the most natural thing in the world that he should preach in Samaria. So it would be to us, if we were Christians with the depth of faith and of personal experience which this man had.

There is another lesson that I take from these first busy years of Philip’s service. Christ provides wider spheres for men who have been faithful in narrower ones. It was because he had ‘won his spurs,’ if I may so say, in Samaria, and proved the stuff he was made of, that the angel of the Lord came and said to Philip, ‘Go down on the road to Gaza, which is desert. Do not ask now what you are to do when you get there. Go!’ So with his sealed orders be went. No doubt he thought to himself, ‘Strange that I should be taken from this prosperous work in Samaria, and sent to a desert road, where there is not a single human being!’ But he went; and when he struck the point of junction of the road from Samaria with that from Jerusalem, looked about to discover what he had been sent there for. The only thing in sight was one chariot, and he said to himself, ‘Ah, that is it,’ and he drew near to the chariot, and heard the occupant reading aloud Isaiah’s great prophecy. The Ethiopian chamberlain was probably not very familiar with the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which he seems to have been using and, as poor readers often do, helped his comprehension by speaking the words he sees on the page. Philip knew at once that here was the object of his mission, and so ‘joined himself to the chariot,’ and set himself to his work.

So Christ chooses His agents for further work from those who, out of their own spontaneous love of Him, have done what lay at their hands. ‘To him that hath shall be given.’ If you are ambitious of a wider sphere, be sure that you fill your narrow one. It will widen quite fast enough for your capacities.

II. Now let me say a word about the long years of obscurity.

Philip went down to Caesarea, and, as I said, he drops out of the story for twenty years. I wonder why it was that when Jesus Christ desired that Cornelius, who lived in Caesarea, should hear the gospel, He did not direct him to Philip, who also was in Caesarea, but bid him send all the way to Joppa to bring Peter thence? I wonder why it was that when Barnabas at Antioch turned his face northwards to seek for young Saul at Tarsus, he never dreamed of turning southwards to call out Philip from Caesarea? I wonder how it came to pass that this man, who at one time looked as if he was going to be the leader in the extension of the Church to the Gentiles, and who, as a matter of fact, was the first, not only in Samaria but on the desert road, to press beyond the narrow bounds of Judaism, was passed over in the further stages by Jesus, and why his brethren passed him over, and left him there all these years in Caesarea, whilst there was so much going on that was the continuation and development of the very movement that he had begun. We do not know why, and it is useless to try to speculate, but we may learn lessons from the fact.

Here is a beautiful instance of the contented acceptance of a lot very much less conspicuous, very much less brilliant, than the early beginnings had seemed to promise. I suppose that there are very few of us but have had, back in the far-away past, moments when we seemed to have opening out before us great prospects of service which have never been realised; and the remembrance of the brief moments of dawning splendour is very apt to make the rest of the life look grey and dull, and common things flat, and to make us sour. We look back and we think, ‘Ah, the gates were opened for me then, but how they have slammed to since! It is hard for me to go on in this lowly condition, and this eclipsed state into which I have been brought, without feeling how different it might have been if those early days had only continued.’ Well, for Philip it was enough that Jesus Christ sent him to the eunuch and did not send him to Cornelius. He took the position that his Master put him in and worked away therein.

And there is a further lesson for us, who, for the most part, have to lead obscure lives. For there was in Philip not only a contented acceptance of an obscure life, but there was a diligent doing of obscure work. Did you notice that one significant little word in the clause that I have taken for my text: ‘We entered into the house of Philip the evangelist, which was one of the seven’? Luke does not forget Philip’s former office, but he dwells rather on what his other office was, twenty years afterwards. He was ‘an evangelist’ now, although the evangelistic work was being done in a very quiet corner, and nobody was paying much attention to it. Time was when he had a great statesman to listen to his words. Time was when a whole city was moved by his teaching. Time was when it looked as if he was going to do the work that Paul did. But all these visions were shattered, and he was left to toil for twenty long years in that obscure corner, and not a soul knew anything about his work except the people to whom it was directed and the four unmarried girls at home whom his example had helped to bring to Jesus Christ, and who were ‘prophetesses.’ At the end of the twenty years he is ‘Philip the evangelist.’

There is patient perseverance at unrecompensed, unrecorded, and unnoticed work. ‘Great’ and ‘small’ have nothing to do with the work of Christian people. It does not matter who knows our work or who does not know it, the thing is that He knows it. Now the most of us have to do absolutely unnoticed Christian service. Those of us who are in positions like mine have a little more notoriety-and it is no blessing-and a year or two after a man’s voice ceases to sound from a pulpit he is forgotten. What does it matter? ‘Surely I will never forget any of their works.’ And in these advertising days, when publicity seems to be the great good that people in so many cases seek after, and no one is contented to do his little bit of work unless he gets reported in the columns of the newspapers, we may all take example from the behaviour of Philip, and remember the man who began so brilliantly, and for twenty years was hidden, and was ‘the evangelist’ all the time.

III. Now, there is one last lesson that I would draw, and that is the ultimate recognition of the work and the joyful meeting of the workers.

I think it is very beautiful to see that when Paul entered Philip’s house he came into a congenial atmosphere; and although he had been hurrying, out of breath as it were, all the way from Corinth to get to Jerusalem in time for the Feast, he slowed off at once; partly, no doubt, because he found that he was in time, and partly, no doubt, that he felt the congeniality of the society that he met.

So there was no envy in Philip’s heart of the younger brother that had so outrun him. He was quite content to share the fate of pioneers, and rejoiced in the junior who had entered into his labour. ‘One soweth and another reapeth’; he was prepared for that, and rejoiced to hear about what the Lord had done by his brother, though once he had thought it might have been done by him. How they would talk! How much there would be to tell! How glad the old man would be at the younger man’s success!

And there was one sitting by who did not say very much, but had his ears wide open, and his name was Luke. In Philip’s long, confidential conversations he no doubt got some of the materials, which have been preserved for us in this book, for his account of the early days of the Church in Jerusalem.

So Philip, after all, was not working in so obscure a corner as he thought. The whole world knows about him. He had been working behind a curtain all the while, and he never knew that ‘the beloved physician,’ who was listening so eagerly to all he had to tell about the early days, was going to twitch down the curtain and let the whole world see the work that he thought he was doing, all unknown and soon to be forgotten.

And that is what will happen to us all. The curtain will be twitched down, and when it is, it will be good for us if we have the same record to show that this man had-namely, toil for the Master, indifferent to whether men see or do not see; patient labour for Him, coming out of a heart purged of all envy and jealousy of those who have been called to larger and more conspicuous service.

May we not take these many days of quiet converse in Philip’s house, when the pioneer and the perfecter of the work talked together, as being a kind of prophetic symbol of the time when all who had a share in the one great and then completed work will have a share in its joy? No matter whether they have dug the foundations or laid the early courses or set the top stone and the shining battlements that crown the structure, they have all their share in the building and their portion in the gladness of the completed edifice, ‘that he that soweth and he that reapeth may rejoice together.’


Verses 9-15

Acts

DRAWING NEARER TO THE STORM

Acts 21:1 - Acts 21:15.

Paul’s heroic persistency in disregarding the warnings of ‘bonds and afflictions’ which were pealed into his ears in every city, is the main point of interest in this section. But the vivid narrative abounds with details which fill it with life and colour. We may gather it all round three points-the voyage, Tyre, and Caesarea.

I. The log of the voyage, as given in Acts 21:1 - Acts 21:3, shows the leisurely way of navigation in those days and in that sea.

Obviously the coaster tied up or anchored in port at night. Running down the coast from Miletus, they stayed overnight, first at the small island of Coos, then stretched across the next day to Rhodes, and on the third struck back to the mainland at Patara, from which, according to one reading, they ran along the coast a little further east to Myra, the usual port of departure for Syria. Ramsay explains that the prevalent favourable wind for a vessel bound for Syria blows steadily in early morning, and dies down towards nightfall, so that there would have been no use in keeping at sea after sundown.

At Patara {or Myra} Paul and his party had to tranship, for their vessel was probably of small tonnage, and only fit to run along the coast. In either port they would have no difficulty in finding some merchantman to take them across to Syria. Accordingly they shifted into one bound for Tyre, and apparently ready to sail. The second part of their voyage took them right out to sea, and their course lay to the west, and then to the south of Cyprus, which Luke mentions as if to remind us of Paul’s visit there when he was beginning his missionary work. How much had passed since that day at Paphos {which they might have sighted from the deck}! He had left Paphos with Barnabas and John Mark-where were they? He had sailed away from Cyprus to carry the Gospel among Gentiles; he sails past it, accompanied by a group of these whom he had won for Christ. There he had begun his career; now the omens indicated that possibly its end was near. Many a thought would be in his mind as he looked out over the blue waters and saw the glittering roofs and groves of Paphos.

Tyre was the first port of call, and there the cargo was to be landed. The travellers had to wait till that was done, and probably another one shipped. The seven days’ stay is best understood as due to that cause; for we find that Paul re-embarked in the same ship, and went in her as far as Ptolemais, at all events, perhaps to Caesarea.

We note that no brethren are mentioned as having been met at any of the ports of call, and no evangelistic work as having been done in them. The party were simple passengers, who had to shape their movements to suit the convenience of the master of the vessel, and were only in port at night, and off again next morning early. No doubt the leisure at sea was as restorative to them as it often is to jaded workers now.

II. Tyre was a busy seaport then, and in its large population the few disciples would make but little show.

They had to be sought out before they were ‘found.’ One can feel how eagerly the travellers would search, and how thankfully they would find themselves again among congenial souls. Since Miletus they had had no Christian communion, and the sailors in such a ship as theirs would not be exactly kindred spirits. So that week in Tyre would be a blessed break in the voyage. We hear nothing of visiting the synagogue, nor of preaching to the non-Christian population, nor of instruction to the little Church.

The whole interest of the stay at Tyre is, for Luke, centred on the fact that here too the same message which had met Paul everywhere was repeated to him. It was ‘through the Spirit.’ Then was Paul flying in the face of divine prohibitions when he held on his way in spite of all that could be said? Certainly not. We have to bring common sense to bear on the interpretation of the words in Acts 21:4, and must suppose that what came from ‘the Spirit’ was the prediction of persecutions waiting Paul, and that the exhortation to avoid these by keeping clear of Jerusalem was the voice of human affection only. Such a blending of clear insight and of mistaken deductions from it is no strange experience.

No word is said as to the effect of the Tyrian Christians’ dissuasion. It had none. Luke mentions it in order to show how continuous was the repetition of the same note, and his silence as to the manner of its reception is eloquent. The parting scene at Tyre is like, and yet very unlike, that at Miletus. In both the Christians accompany Paul to the beach, in both they kneel down and pray. It would scarcely have been a Christian parting without that. In both loving farewells are said, and perhaps waved when words could no longer be heard. But at Tyre, where there were no bonds of old comradeship nor of affection to a spiritual father, there was none of the yearning, clinging love that could not bear to part, none of the hanging on Paul’s neck, none of the deep sorrow of final separation. The delicate shades of difference in two scenes so similar tell of the hand of an eye-witness. The touch that ‘all’ the Tyrian Christians went down to the beach, and took their wives and children with them, suggests that they can have been but a small community, and so confirms the hint given by the use of the word ‘found’ in Acts 21:4.

III. The vessel ran down the coast to Ptolemais where one day’s stop was made, probably to land and ship cargo, if, as is possible, the further journey to Caesarea was by sea.

But it may have been by land; the narrative is silent on that point. At Ptolemais, as at Tyre, there was a little company of disciples, the brevity of the stay with whom, contrasted with the long halt in Caesarea, rather favours the supposition that the ship’s convenience ruled the Apostle’s movements till he reached the latter place. There he found a haven of rest, and, surrounded by loving friends, no wonder that the burdened Apostle lingered there before plunging into the storm of which he had had so many warnings.

The eager haste of the earlier part of the journey, contrasted with the delay in Caesarea at the threshold of his goal, is explained by supposing that at the beginning Paul’s one wish had been to get to Jerusalem in time for the Feast, and that at Caesarea he found that, thanks to his earlier haste and his good passages, he had a margin to spare. He did not wish to get to the Holy City much before the Feast.

Two things only are told as occurring in Caesarea-the intercourse with Philip and the renewed warnings about going to Jerusalem. Apparently Philip had been in Caesarea ever since we last heard of him [Acts 8:1 - Acts 8:40]. He had brought his family there, and settled down in the headquarters of Roman government. He had been used by Christ to carry the Gospel to men outside the Covenant, and for a time it seemed as if he was to be the messenger to the Gentiles; but that mission soon ended, and the honour and toil fell to another. But neither did Philip envy Paul, nor did Paul avoid Philip. The Master has the right to settle what each slave has to do, and whether He sets him to high or low office, it matters not.

Philip might have been contemptuous and jealous of the younger man, who had been nobody when he was chosen as one of the Seven, but had so far outrun him now. But no paltry personal feeling marred the Christian intercourse of the two, and we can imagine how much each had to tell the other, with perhaps Cornelius for a third in company, during the considerably extended stay in Caesarea. No doubt Luke too made good use of the opportunity of increasing his knowledge of the first days, and probably derived much of the material for the first chapters of Acts from Philip, either then or at his subsequent longer residence in the same city.

We have heard of the prophet Agabus before [Acts 11:28]. Why he is introduced here, as if a stranger, we cannot tell, and it is useless to guess, and absurd to sniff suspicion of genuineness in the peculiarity. His prophecy is more definite than any that preceded it. That is God’s way. He makes things clearer as we go on, and warnings more emphatic as danger approaches. The source of the ‘afflictions’ was now for the first time declared, and the shape which they would take. Jews would deliver Paul to Gentiles, as they had delivered Paul’s Master.

But there the curtain falls. What would the Gentiles do with him? That remained unrevealed. Half the tragedy was shown, and then darkness covered the rest. That was more trying to nerves and courage than full disclosure to the very end would have been. Imagination had just enough to work on, and was stimulated to shape out all sorts of horrors. Similarly incomplete and testing to faith are the glimpses of the future which we get in our own lives. We see but a little way ahead, and then the road takes a sharp turn, and we fancy dreadful shapes hiding round the corner.

Paul’s courage was unmoved both by Agabus’s incomplete prophecy and by the tearful implorings of his companions and of the Caesarean Christians. His pathetic words to them are misunderstood if we take ‘break my heart’ in the modern sense of that phrase, for it really means ‘to melt away my resolution,’ and shows that Paul felt that the passionate grief of his brethren was beginning to do what no fear for himself could do-shake even his steadfast purpose. No more lovely blending of melting tenderness and iron determination has ever been put into words than that cry of his, followed by the great utterance which proclaimed his readiness to bear all things, even death itself, for ‘the name of the Lord Jesus.’ What kindled and fed that noble flame of self-devotion? The love of Jesus Christ, built on the sense that He had redeemed the soul of His servant, and had thereby bought him for His own.

If we feel that we have been ‘bought with a price,’ we too, in our small spheres, shall be filled with that ennobling passion of devoted love which will not count life dear if He calls us to give it up. Let us learn from Paul how to blend the utmost gentleness and tender responsiveness to all love with fixed determination to glorify the Name. A strong will and a loving heart make a marvellously beautiful combination, and should both abide in every Christian.


Verse 16

Acts

AN OLD DISCIPLE

Acts 21:16.

There is something that stimulates the imagination in these mere shadows of men that we meet in the New Testament story. What a strange fate that is to be made immortal by a line in this book- immortal and yet so unknown! We do not hear another word about this host of Paul’s, but his name will be familiar to men’s ears till the world’s end. This figure is drawn in the slightest possible outline, with a couple of hasty strokes of the pencil. But if we take even these few bare words and look at them, feeling that there is a man like ourselves sketched in them, I think we can get a real picture out of them, and that even this dim form crowded into the background of the Apostolic story may have a word or two to say to us.

His name and his birthplace show that he belonged to the same class as Paul, that is, he was a Hellenist, or a Jew by descent, but born on Gentile soil, and speaking Greek. He came from Cyprus, the native island of Barnabas, who may have been a friend of his. He was an ‘old disciple,’ which does not mean simply that he was advanced in life, but that he was ‘a disciple from the beginning,’ one of the original group of believers. If we interpret the word strictly, we must suppose him to have been one of the rapidly diminishing nucleus, who thirty years or more ago had seen Christ in the flesh, and been drawn to Him by His own words. Evidently the mention of the early date of his conversion suggests that the number of his contemporaries was becoming few, and that there were a certain honour and distinction conceded by the second generation of the Church to the survivors of the primitive band. Then, of course, as one of the earliest believers, he must, by this time, have been advanced in life. A Cypriote by birth, he had emigrated to, and resided in a village on the road to Jerusalem; and must have had means and heart to exercise a liberal hospitality there. Though a Hellenist like Paul he does not seem to have known the Apostle before, for the most probable rendering of the context is that the disciples from Caesarea, who were travelling with the Apostle from that place to Jerusalem, ‘brought us to Mnason,’ implying that this was their first introduction to each other. But though probably unacquainted with the great teacher of the Gentiles-whose ways were looked on with much doubt by many of the Palestinian Christians-the old man, relic of the original disciples as he was, had full sympathy with Paul, and opened his house and his heart to receive him. His adhesion to the Apostle would no doubt carry weight with ‘the many thousands of Jews which believed, and were all zealous of the law,’ and was as honourable to him as it was helpful to Paul.

Now if we put all this together, does not the shadowy figure begin to become more substantial? and does it not preach to us some lessons that we may well take to heart?

I. The first thing which this old disciple says to us out of the misty distance is: Hold fast to your early faith, and to the Christ whom you have known.

Many a year had passed since the days when perhaps the beauty of the Master’s own character and the sweetness of His own words had drawn this man to Him. How much had come and gone since then-Calvary and the Resurrection, Olivet and the Pentecost! His own life and mind had changed from buoyant youth to sober old age. His whole feelings and outlook on the world were different. His old friends had mostly gone. James indeed was still there, and Peter and John remained until this present, but most had fallen on sleep. A new generation was rising round about him, and new thoughts and ways were at work. But one thing remained for him what it had been in the old days, and that was Christ. ‘One generation cometh and another goeth, but the “Christ” abideth for ever.’

‘We all are changed by still degrees;

All but the basis of the soul,’

and the ‘basis of the soul,’ in the truest sense, is that one God-laid foundation on which whosoever buildeth shall never be confounded, nor ever need to change with changing time. Are we building there? and do we find that life, as it advances, but tightens our hold on Jesus Christ, who is our hope?

There is no fairer nor happier experience than that of the old man who has around him the old loves, the old confidences, and some measure of the old joys. But who can secure that blessed unity in his life if he depend on the love and help of even the dearest, or on the light of any creature for his sunshine? There is but one way of making all our days one, because one love, one hope, one joy, one aim binds them all together, and that is by taking the abiding Christ for ours, and abiding in Him all our days. Holding fast by the early convictions does not mean stiffening in them. There is plenty of room for advancement in Christ. No doubt Mnason, when he was first a disciple, knew but very little of the meaning and worth of his Master and His work, compared with what he had learned in all these years. And our true progress consists, not in growing away from Jesus but in growing up into Him, not in passing through and leaving behind our first convictions of Him as Saviour, but in having these verified by the experience of years, deepened and cleared, unfolded and ordered into a larger, though still incomplete, whole. We may make our whole lives helpful to that advancement and blessed shall we be if the early faith is the faith that brightens till the end, and brightens the end. How beautiful it is to see a man, below whose feet time is crumbling away, holding firmly by the Lord whom he has loved and served all his days, and finding that the pillar of cloud, which guided him while he lived, begins to glow in its heart of fire as the shadows fall, and is a pillar of light to guide him when he comes to die! Dear friends, whether you be near the starting or near the prize of your Christian course, ‘cast not away your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward.’ See to it that the ‘knowledge of the Father,’ which is the ‘little children’s’ possession, passes through the strength of youth, and the ‘victory over the world’ into the calm knowledge of Him ‘that is from the beginning,’ wherein the fathers find their earliest convictions deepened and perfected, ‘Grow in grace and in the knowledge’ of Him, whom to know ever so imperfectly is eternal life, whom to know a little better is the true progress for men, whom to know more and more fully is the growth and gladness and glory of the heavens. Look at this shadowy figure that looks out on us here, and listen to his far-off voice ‘exhorting us all that with purpose of heart we should cleave unto the Lord.’

II. But there is another and, as some might think, opposite lesson to be gathered from this outline sketch, namely, The welcome which we should be ready to give to new thoughts and ways.

It is evidently meant that we should note Mnason’s position in the Church as significant in regard to his hospitable reception of the Apostle. We can fancy how the little knot of ‘original disciples’ would be apt to value themselves on their position, especially as time went on, and their ranks were thinned. They would be tempted to suppose that they must needs understand the Master’s meaning a great deal better than those who had never known Christ after the flesh; and no doubt they would be inclined to share in the suspicion with which the thorough-going Jewish party in the Church regarded this Paul, who had never seen the Lord. It would have been very natural for this good old man to have said, ‘I do not like these new-fangled ways. There was nothing of this sort in my younger days. Is it not likely that we, who were at the beginning of the Gospel, should understand the Gospel and the Church’s work without this new man coming to set us right? I am too old to go in with these changes.’ All the more honourable is it that he should have been ready with an open house to shelter the great champion of the Gentile Churches; and, as we may reasonably believe, with an open heart to welcome his teaching. Depend on it, it was not every ‘old disciple’ that would have done as much.

Now does not this flexibility of mind and openness of nature to welcome new ways of work, when united with the persistent constancy in his old creed, make an admirable combination? It is one rare enough at any age, but especially in elderly men. We are always disposed to rend apart what ought never to be separated, the inflexible adherence to a fixed centre of belief, and the freest ranging around the whole changing circumference. The man of strong convictions is apt to grip every trifle of practice and every unimportant bit of his creed with the same tenacity with which he holds its vital heart, and to take obstinacy for firmness, and dogged self-will for faithfulness to truth. The man who welcomes new light, and reaches forward to greet new ways, is apt to delight in having much fluid that ought to be fixed, and to value himself on a ‘liberality’ which simply means that he has no central truth and no rooted convictions. And as men grow older they stiffen more and more, and have to leave the new work for new hands, and the new thoughts for new brains. That is all in the order of nature, but so much the finer is it when we do see old Christian men who join to their firm grip of the old Gospel the power of welcoming, and at least bidding God-speed to, new thoughts and new workers and new ways of work.

The union of these two characteristics should be consciously aimed at by us all. Hold unchanging, with a grasp that nothing can relax, by Christ our life and our all; but with that tenacity of mind, try to cultivate flexibility too. Love the old, but be ready to welcome the new. Do not invest your own or other people’s habits of thought or forms of work with the same sanctity which belongs to the central truths of our salvation; do not let the willingness to entertain new light lead you to tolerate any changes there. It is hard to blend the two virtues together, but they are meant to be complements, not opposites, to each other. The fluttering leaves and bending branches need a firm stem and deep roots. The firm stem looks noblest in its unmoved strength when it is contrasted with a cloud of light foliage dancing in the wind. Try to imitate the persistency and the open mind of that ‘old disciple’ who was so ready to welcome and entertain the Apostle of the Gentile Churches.

III. But there is still another lesson which, I think, this portrait may suggest, and that is, the beauty that may dwell in an obscure life.

There is nothing to be said about this old man but that he was a disciple. He had done no great thing for his Lord. No teacher or preacher was he. No eloquence or genius was in him. No great heroic deed or piece of saintly endurance is to be recorded of him, but only this, that he had loved and followed Christ all his days. And is not that record enough? It is his blessed fate to live for ever in the world’s memory, with only that one word attached to his name-a disciple.

The world may remember very little about us a year after we are gone. No thought, no deed may be connected with our names but in some narrow circle of loving hearts. There may be no place for us in any record written with a man’s pen. But what does that matter, if our names, dear friends, are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, with this for sole epitaph, ‘a disciple’? That single phrase is the noblest summary of a life. A thinker? a hero? a great man? a millionaire? No, a ‘disciple.’ That says all. May it be your epitaph and mine!

What Mnason could do he did. It was not his vocation to go into the ‘regions beyond,’ like Paul; to guide the Church, like James; to put his remembrances of his Master in a book, like Matthew; to die for Jesus, like Stephen. But he could open his house for Paul and his company, and so take his share in their work. ‘He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward.’ He that with understanding and sympathy welcomes and sustains the prophet, shows thereby that he stands on the same spiritual level, and has the makings of a prophet in him, though he want the intellectual force and may never open his lips to speak the burden of the Lord. Therefore he shall be one in reward as he is in spirit. The old law in Israel is the law for the warfare of Christ’s soldiers. ‘As his part is that goeth down to the battle, so shall his part be that abideth by the stuff: they shall part alike.’ The men in the rear who guard the camp and keep the communications open, may deserve honours, and crosses, and prize-money as much as their comrades who led the charge that cut through the enemy’s line and scattered their ranks. It does not matter, so far as the real spiritual worth of the act is concerned, what we do, but only why we do it. All deeds are the same which are done from the same motive and with the same devotion; and He who judges, not by our outward actions but by the springs from which they come, will at last bracket together as equals many who were widely separated here in the form of their service and the apparent magnitude of their work.

‘She hath done what she could.’ Her power determined the measure and the manner of her work. One precious thing she had, and only one, and she broke her one rich possession that she might pour the fragrant oil over His feet. Therefore her useless deed of utter love and uncalculating self-sacrifice was crowned by praise from His lips whose praise is our highest honour, and the world is still ‘filled with the odour of the ointment.’

So this old disciple’s hospitality is strangely immortal, and the record of it reminds us that the smallest service done for Jesus is remembered and treasured by Him. Men have spent their lives to win a line in the world’s chronicles which are written on sand, and have broken their hearts because they failed; and this passing act of one obscure Christian, in sheltering a little company of travel-stained wayfarers, has made his name a possession for ever. ‘Seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not’; but let us fill our little corners, doing our unnoticed work for love of our Lord, careless about man’s remembrance or praise, because sure of Christ’s, whose praise is the only fame, whose remembrance is the highest reward. ‘God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love.’


Verses 27-39

Acts

PAUL IN THE TEMPLE

Acts 21:27 - Acts 21:39.

The stronger a man’s faith, the greater will and should be his disposition to conciliate. Paul may seem to have stretched consideration for weak brethren to its utmost, when he consented to the proposal of the Jerusalem elders to join in performing the vow of a Nazarite, and to appear in the Temple for that purpose. But he was quite consistent in so doing; for it was not Jewish ceremonial to which he objected, but the insisting on it as necessary. For himself, he lived as a Jew, except in his freedom of intercourse with Gentiles. No doubt he knew that the death-warrant of Jewish ceremonial had been signed, but he could leave it to time to carry out the sentence. The one thing which he was resolved should not be was its imposition on Gentile Christians. Their road to Jesus was not through Temple or synagogue. As for Jewish Christians, let them keep to the ritual if they chose. The conciliatory plan recommended by the elders, though perfectly consistent with Paul’s views and successful with the Jewish Christians, roused non-Christian Jews as might have been expected.

This incident brings out very strikingly the part played by each of the two factors in carrying out God’s purposes for Paul. They are unconscious instruments, and co-operation is the last thing dreamed of on either side; but Jew and Roman together work out a design of which they had not a glimpse.

I. Note the charge against Paul.

The ‘Jews from Asia’ knew him by sight, as they had seen him in Ephesus and elsewhere; and possibly some of them had been fellow-passengers with him from Miletus. No wonder that they construed his presence in the Temple into an insult to it. If Luther or John Knox had appeared in St. Peter’s, he would not have been thought to have come as a worshipper. Paul’s teaching may very naturally have created the impression in hot-tempered partisans, who could not draw distinctions, that he was the enemy of Temple and sacrifice.

It has always been the vice of religious controversy to treat inferences from heretical teaching, which appear plain to the critics, as if they were articles of the heretic’s belief. These Jewish zealots practised a very common method when they fathered on Paul all which they supposed to be involved in his position. Their charges against him are partly flat lies, partly conclusions drawn from misapprehension of his position, partly exaggeration, and partly hasty assumptions. He had never said a word which could be construed as ‘against the people.’ He had indeed preached that the law was not for Gentiles, and was not the perfect revelation which brought salvation, and he had pointed to Jesus as in Himself realising all that the Temple shadowed; but such teaching was not ‘against’ either, but rather for both, as setting both in their true relation to the whole process of revelation. He had not brought ‘Greeks’ into the Temple, not even the one Greek whom malice multiplied into many. When passion is roused, exaggerations and assumptions soon become definite assertions. The charges are a complete object-lesson in the baser arts of religious {!} partisans; and they have been but too faithfully reproduced in all ages. Did Paul remember how he had been ‘consenting’ to the death of Stephen on the very same charges? How far he has travelled since that day!

II. Note the immediately kindled flame of popular bigotry.

The always inflammable population of Jerusalem was more than usually excitable at the times of the Feasts, when it was largely increased by zealous worshippers from a distance. Noble teaching would have left the mob as stolid as it found them; but an appeal to the narrow prejudices which they thought were religion was a spark in gunpowder, and an explosion was immediate. It is always easier to rouse men to fight for their ‘religion’ than to live by it. Jehu was proud of what he calls his ‘zeal for the Lord,’ which was really only ferocity with a mask on. The yelling crowd did not stop to have the charges proved. That they were made was enough. In Scotland people used to talk of ‘Jeddart justice,’ which consisted in hanging a man first, and trying him leisurely afterwards. It was usually substantially just when applied to moss-troopers, but does not do so well when administered to Apostles.

Notice the carefulness to save the Temple from pollution, which is shown by the furious crowds dragging Paul outside before they kill him. They were not afraid to commit murder, but they were horror-struck at the thought of a breach of ceremonial etiquette. Of course! for when religion is conceived of as mainly a matter of outward observances, sin is reduced to a breach of these. We are all tempted to shift the centre of gravity in our religion, and to make too much of ritual etiquette. Kill Paul if you will, but get him outside the sacred precincts first. The priests shut the doors to make sure that there should be no profanation, and stopped inside the Temple, well pleased that murder should go on at its threshold. They had better have rescued the victim. Time was when the altar was a sanctuary for the criminal who could grasp its horns, but now its ministers wink at bloodshed with secret approval. Paul could easily have been killed in the crowd, and no responsibility for his death have clung to any single hand. No doubt that was the cowardly calculation which they made, and they were well on the way to carry it out when the other factor comes into operation.

III. Note the source of deliverance.

The Roman garrison was posted in the fortress of Antonia, which commanded the Temple from a higher level at the north-west angle of the enclosure. Tidings ‘came up’ to the officer in command, Claudius Lysias by name [Acts 23:26], that all Jerusalem was in confusion. With disciplined promptitude he turned out a detachment and ‘ran down upon them.’ The contrast between the quiet power of the legionaries and the noisy feebleness of the mob is striking. The best qualities of Roman sway are seen in this tribune’s unhesitating action, before which the excited mob cowers in fright. They ‘left beating of Paul,’ as knowing that a heavier hand would fall on them for rioting. With swift decision Lysias acts first and talks afterwards, securing the man who was plainly the centre of disturbance, and then having got him fast with two chains on him, inquiring who he was, and what he had been doing.

Then the crowd breaks loose again in noisy and contradictory explanations, all at the top of their voices, and each drowning the other. Clearly the bulk of them could not answer either of Lysias’ questions, though they could all bellow ‘Away with him!’ till their throats were sore. It is a perfect picture of a mob, which is always ferocious and volubly explanatory in proportion to its ignorance. One man kept his head in the hubbub, and that was Lysias, who determined to hold his prisoner till he did know something about him. So he ordered him to be taken up into the castle; and as the crowd saw their prey escaping they made one last fierce rush, and almost swept away the soldiers, who had to pick Paul up and carry him. Once on the stairs leading to the castle they were clear of the crowd, which could only send a roar of baffled rage after them, and to this the stolid legionaries were as deaf as were their own helmets.

The part here played by the Roman authority is that which it performs throughout the Acts. It shields infant Christianity from Jewish assailants, like the wolf which, according to legend, suckled Romulus. The good and the bad features of Roman rule were both valuable for that purpose. Its contempt for ideas, and above all for speculative differences in a religion which it regarded as a hurtful superstition, its unsympathetic incapacity for understanding its subject nations, its military discipline, its justice, which though often tainted was yet better than the partisan violence which it coerced, all helped to make it the defender of the first Christians. Strange that Rome should shelter and Jerusalem persecute!

Mark, too, how blindly men fulfil God’s purposes. The two bitter antagonists, Jew and Roman, seem to themselves to be working in direct opposition; but God is using them both to carry out His design. Paul has to be got to Rome, and these two forces are combined by a wisdom beyond their ken, to carry him thither. Two cogged wheels turning in opposite directions fit into each other, and grind out a resultant motion, different from either of theirs. These soldiers and that mob were like pawns on a chessboard, ignorant of the intentions of the hand which moves them.

IV. Note the calm courage of Paul.

He too had kept his head, and though bruised and hustled, and having but a minute or two beforehand looked death in the face, he is ready to seize the opportunity to speak a word for his Master. Observe the quiet courtesy of his address, and his calm remembrance of the tribune’s right to prevent his speaking. There is nothing more striking in Paul’s character than his self-command and composure in all circumstances. This ship could rise to any wave, and ride in any storm. It was not by virtue of happy temperament but of a fixed faith that his heart and mind were kept in perfect peace. It is not easy to disturb a man who counts not his life dear if only he may complete his course. So these two men front each other, and it is hard to tell which has the quieter pulse and the steadier hand. The same sources of tranquil self-control and calm superiority to fortune which stood Paul in such good stead are open to us. If God is our rock and our high tower we shall not be moved.

The tribune had for some unknown reason settled in his mind that the Apostle was a well-known ‘Egyptian,’ who had headed a band of ‘Sicarii’ or ‘dagger-men,’ of whose bloody doings Josephus tells us. How the Jews should have been trying to murder such a man Lysias does not seem to have considered. But when he heard the courteous, respectful Greek speech of the Apostle he saw at once that he had got no uncultured ruffian to deal with, and in answer to Paul’s request and explanation gave him leave to speak. That has been thought an improbability. But strong men recognise each other, and the brave Roman was struck with something in the tone and bearing of the brave Jew which made him instinctively sure that no harm would come of the permission. There ought to be that in the demeanour of a Christian which is as a testimonial of character for him, and sways observers to favourable constructions.

 


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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Acts 21:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/mac/acts-21.html.

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