THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES
We pass to-day from the study of the Gospels to the study of the Acts of the Apostles, from the study of Christ's work For Us to the study of Christ's work 1n us and in his church.
The author of the Acts of the Apostles is Luke. We have plenty of external evidence to Luke's authorship in the testimonies of the church Fathers, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Eusebius, testimonies which I need not narrate to you; but we have internal evidence also, with which all of you are more or less familiar, and which, when it is set forth in order, is exceedingly convincing.
Luke begins the Acts of the Apostles with a reference to the former treatise, and that former treatise, as it is addressed to Theophilus, just as the Acts is, makes it quite certain that Luke himself, and no other, is the author of the Acts as well as of the Gospel.
Then we have similarities of style in the Gospel and in the Acts which cannot possibly be accidental. It will perhaps interest those of you who are familiar with the Greek to know that we have the use of verbs compounded with prepositions, in Luke and in Acts, to an extent not at all paralleled by any other of the books of the New Testament. We have the use of the preposition aov, for example, to a remarkable extent, as we have not in the Gospel of Matthew, of Mark, or of John. While we have that preposition used in Matthew only three times, we have that preposition used in the Gospel according to Luke twenty-four times, and in the Acts of the Apostles fifty-one times, showing that there is marked similarity of style in this particular. We have the Greek verb nopsmo&ae, to go, hardly used at all, used very sparingly indeed in other portions of the New Testament; but in Luke's Gospel we find it forty-nine times, and in the Acts of the Apostles thirty-eight times, showing that the peculiarities of the one are peculiarities of the other.
There are other connections of the Gospel and the Acts in the fact that the earlier portion of the Gospel, in which Luke seems to have material made ready to his hand, is Hebraistic in its style. He shows his faithfulness to his authorities by accepting the very words of the original, in many cases, while the latter portions of the Gospel are written in a more pure Greek. Now that is precisely the case with the Acts. The earlier portions of the Acts, which have to do with transactions within the bounds of the church in Palestine, are somewhat Hebraistic in their style; and the latter portion of the Acts, which narrates events of which Luke was in part an eye-witness, is written in Greek of a better style, a more classical Greek. Now this correspondence between the Gospel and the Acts tends to show that the same person was the author of both.
Then we find that there are striking coincidences between the speeches of Peter and Paul and James in the Acts and in the Epistles. We have from those same persons in each case not only the same general train of thought, but also expressions which indicate a peculiar authorship. You remember that great work of Paley, "Horce Paulina," the object of which was to show that the Acts and the Epistles show wonderful correspondence; that the Acts confirms the Epistles and that the Epistles confirm the Acts; that there are remarkable agreements between them which would not have been possible if the Acts had not been a historical document, and if, on the other hand, the Epistles had not been written by the very men to whom they are attributed. Here are proofs that Luke was the author of the Acts, and proof also that Luke's work is veritable history.
The date at which the Acts of the Apostles was written I think can be determined within a narrow limit, since Luke was the author. It is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke, or rather it is a work by the same author with the intent of making it a supplement to the Gospel; and, being a supplement to the Gospel, we are warranted in saying, as we said in discussing the Gospel itself, that in this book Luke represents Paul. Luke does not write at his own motion, or upon his own responsibility. The apostle Paul furnishes a large part of the material; the apostle Paul sanctions the work; the apostle Paul probably supervises the work; and, therefore, we are warranted in believing that, as the Gospel according to Luke was probably written toward the close of Paul's imprisonment at Caesarea, the Acts of the Apostles was probably written before the close of Paul's first imprisonment at Rome. As we may date the Gospel some time not after the year 59, so it is proper to date the Acts of the Apostles not much before the year 61, or toward the end of it.
You remember that the Acts, although it narrates Paul's journey to Rome, narrates Paul's preaching at Rome, speaks of Paul's imprisonment at Rome for two whole years, speaks of Paul's addresses to the Jews at Rome, yet does not give an account of the close of Paul's imprisonment at Rome. It is very certain that the Acts of the Apostles was written before the close of Paul's.imprisonment. It is almost impossible that the Acts of the Apostles should have been written after the close of Paul's imprisonment; for, if Luke had known of the issue of that imprisonment, that remarkable event which formed so natural a close of the apostle Paul's life would undoubtedly have been itself s narrated and described. The fact that he leaves Paul at the end of that two years' imprisonment, without indicating when that imprisonment terminated and what the result of it was, is to my mind evidence that the Acts of the Apostles must have been written before the close of that imprisonment, and that the only reason Luke does not tell us what the result was in that case is simply that he did not know, simply because the result had not yet taken place. So I think we may put the date of the Acts of the Apostles before the close of the year 61, as we put the date of the Gospel according to Luke before the year 59.
Now this fact will throw considerable light upon the circumstances in which the Acts was written. You must remember that Paul had had already twenty years of experience in preaching and speaking. That imprisonment at Caesarea was apparently ordered by divine providence, like the imprisonment of John Bunyan in Bedford jail, in order that he might, in solitary meditation and leisure, collect the results of what he had orally uttered, and prepare them to be put into permanent and written form.
As the imprisonment at Cassarea, during which Luke had access to Paul, as also did the other friends of Paul, was a time when Luke might have had constant conversation with the apostle, and yet at the same time been perfectly free to consult the earlier apostles and secure the material that was used in his Gospel; so we may believe that the imprisonment of Paul at Rome was also used for the purpose of putting together the narration of the wonderful way in which God had led him in his apostolic labors, and in which material that had been previously collected in Palestine might be supplemented by other material furnished by Paul in Rome; so that the Acts of the Apostles in its complete form might be the result.
In Caesarea, you remember, Philip the deacon resided. It was in Caesarea that Cornelius had lived; and all the evidence in connection with the preaching of Philip and in connection with the evangelization of Caesarea was right there at hand. The persons who were most interested were ready to communicate what they knew; and there was a multitude of other opportunities by which Luke might get at his material, might be directed in the putting of it together by the great apostle.
It seems to me that this fact, that the temporary ceasing of the apostle's public labors was thus made the means of a far greater permanent benefit to the church of God than even his public and oral preaching of the gospel could have been, is full of suggestion to us. Paul calls himself a prisoner of Jesus Christ; and yet he is perhaps of more service to Jesus Christ while he is a prisoner, in comforting the saints and in preparing a message of instruction to the church of God through all coming time, than he could have been in his oral discourses and his public labors; and so there is many a saint of God laid aside for a time by divine providence, prevented from mingling with the world, who, in that very imprisonment, so to speak, may be gaining new strength by reflection and prayer, and may be actually doing more for the world than he could have done had God permitted him to go about in his accustomed way. Imprisonment and seclusion are not the worst things for the saints of God. It certainly was not so in the case of the apostle Paul. I believe that these two imprisonments have resulted partly in giving to us not only a number of Paul's Epistles, but also the Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.
This designation, "The Acts of the Apostles," is very interesting in itself. In the Sinaitic manuscript the only designation given is " The Acts." I think it probable that this was the original title. Certain it is that Luke's Gospel has no author's name, and it is equally certain that no author's name is given to the Acts. The Acts is anonymous, not only so far as its authorship is concerned, but also in the fact that in it the name of Luke does not even once occur. As a matter of fact, it is not the Acts of the Apostles in any such sense as we are ordinarily inclined to believe. That phrase, the Acts of the Apostles, would give us the impression of a continuous and complete history of the apostolic labors and sufferings. Now it is very far from being the case that the Acts of the Apostles is such a document as this. Why, we have no history of the church in Jerusalem and of the work of the apostles there after the imprisonment and the deliverance of Peter! All that we know with regard to the great church in Jerusalem is what we know previous to that time; and then we know absolutely nothing of the introduction of the gospel at Rome, which might be conceived by us as the most important epoch in church history. The Acts of the Apostles tells us nothing about that. Moreover, we have not here a record of the labors and sufferings of a great majority of the apostles. The Eleven are mentioned, indeed, and the filling up of their number by the election of Matthias is spoken of at the first; but yet we hardly have the eleven mentioned before they drop out of sight; and, besides the intimation that they exist, once or twice afterward, we have hardly any account of them. And even with regard to the labors and sufferings of Paul, how much there is that is not related to us! Paul has told us with regard to his sufferings, his scourgings, his shipwrecks, his perils in journeyings and perils at sea, his troubles through false brethren and through imprisonment. Not a tenth part of all this is told us in the Acts of the Apostles. We should hardly know that Paul passed through that multitude of perils and troubles if it had not been for words of his in the course of his Epistles.
The Acts does not give an account of the doings of the apostle John. One might think that the apostle John was just as important a person as Peter, just as important a person as Paul; but aside from the fact that John appears once as the companion of Peter at the healing of the lame man in the temple, and he does not say anything at that time, we have him mentioned only three times, and nothing is told us with regard to John's individual work in Palestine.
How curious it is, then, that, in what by its title purports to be the Acts of the Apostles, we have not the acts of very many of them. Those things upon which curiosity would like to dwell are entirely omitted. What, then, is the principle of selection which has led the Holy Spirit, out of the multiplicity of apostolic movements, to choose so few, and to set only these before us in the Acts of the Apostles? I think we must say, first of all, that it chiefly indicates that not all things are equally important in the history of the church of God. If so, we might expect that the Acts of the Apostles would be a series of annals, telling us from year to year just what happened to the church.
No, there are great critical movements upon which history turns. There are great central personages who are called by God to be leaders. There are great epochs, when there are changes from the old to the new. And we have brought to light this fact in the Acts of the Apostles, that there were great central personages, that there were great critical movements, that there were great changes; and upon those changes the whole future history of the church has depended. It is upon these that all the rays of divine light are made to converge. We have in the Acts of the Apostles two foci, as one might say, two great points of light; those points of light are made prominent, and everything else is allowed to recede into apparent insignificance.
Everything turns here upon the planting of the church among the Jews and upon the planting of the church among the Gentiles; and there were two great personages who were instrumental in these plantings of the church: Peter was instrumental as the apostle to the Jews, and Paul was instrumental as the apostle to the Gentiles. Around the movements and the works of these two apostles, their respective thoughts and their proper relation to each other, the whole story revolves.
In the Acts of the Apostles we find these two great influences set forth: the setting up of the gospel of the kingdom of Christ among the Jews, and the setting up of the gospel of the kingdom of Christ among the Gentiles. So the Acts of the Apostles forms a bridge from the Gospels to the Epistles.
Here is something very important in our understanding of the structure of the New Testament. The Gospels had been occupied in setting forth Christ's work for us, Christ's external work for man, his person, his incarnation, his teaching, his suffering, his death, his resurrection. All this is naturally followed by the account of Christ's work in us, Christ's work in his church, the extension of his gospel to the world; and this we have in the Acts of the Apostles. After the first work of the apostles in the setting up of the church has been narrated, we just as naturally have the instructions which the apostles give for the guidance and direction of the church, and these we find in the Epistles of the New Testament.
Let me bring this a little more vividly to your minds by asking you a question. Suppose, for a moment, you should just let the Acts of the Apostles drop out of the New Testament entirely. Imagine, for a moment, that your New Testament had no such book as the Acts; imagine you had read through the Gospels from Matthew to John, and you had gotten before your mind all Jesus had done in his suffering, death, and resurrection, and now you close the last page of the Gospel according to John and you turn to the next. Behold, you read, " Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ." "Well," you say, " Paul! Paul an apostle of Jesus Christ? Why, I have read nothing about Paul. Who is Paul? and where does Paul come from?"
Do you not see that you would have no bridge from the Gospels to the Epistles; that you would have no voucher for the authority of Paul; that all these epistles, which form so large a part of the New Testament, would have no authority, simply because you would not know anything of the adding of Paul to the number of the apostles? You would not know of Christ's direction of Paul in his apostolic labors; you would know nothing about the churches to which he preached; and you would know nothing about him who preached to them. So important, therefore, is the position of the Acts of the Apostles in its intermediate place between the Gospels and the Epistles, as assuring us of the authority upon which the Epistles rest. We should not read the Epistles with any assurance that they were the word of God; we should not read them with any understanding either of their office, of the persons to whom they were written, or of the reasons they wrote them, if it were not for what is told us in the Acts of the Apostles. The Acts of the Apostles, narrating to us the founding of the church at two great critical points and the leadership of two great men, has given us the connection between the Gospels "and the Epistles, and has furnished us a clue to all the remaining part of the New Testament.
Now, after having said so much with regard to the two points, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, viz., Luke, and the title of the work, viz., " The Acts," and after having explained just how much weight and how little weight is to be attached to that phrase, I would set before you the two great objects of the Acts. Those two great objects are given to us in the Acts themselves; they are given to us in the very first verse of the Acts; so that, although we have no title, we do have as clear an indication of the drift of it all, as if Luke, who wrote the Acts, had set down a title for himself.
You remember that the Acts begins by speaking of the things which Jesus began both to do and to teach, and then it proceeds to narrate what follows. We have in that word "began." I think, a clue to Luke's purpose, to one of his main objects. In other words, it is intimated to us that the work of Christ, when he was here in the flesh, was only the beginning of his work. It is intimated to us that Christ's work for us was only preparatory to another work in us; that Christ's work For the church was only preparatory to his work 1n the church. Jesus himself intimates this when he promises the coming of the Holy Spirit. He says, " I will send the Comforter "; and then, in immediate connection with this, only a sentence or two after, "I will come to you." In other words, Christ comes in the Holy Spirit; and the work of the Holy Spirit is, in a proper sense, a continuation of the work of Christ.
We have in the Gospels, then, the beginning of Christ's work upon the earth; and we have in the Acts the continuance of that work through the apostles and through the church. It will interest you to look through the Acts and to mark the passages—a great number of them—in which the Holy Spirit is mentioned, and in which the work and the power of the Holy Spirit are set forth. You know that the first great event in the Acts of the Apostles is the pouringout of the Holy Spirit. We have the ascension of Christ narrated, apparently in connection with the promise that the Holy Spirit should be bestowed. Christ's going was not, as John says, to leave the disciples orphans, but only to prepare his coming again in a new form. The Holy Spirit is the all-present Christ. The Holy Spirit is Christ present more universally than he could possibly be if he were here in this world in visible form; so that in the Holy Spirit we have Christ present with his people, scattered though they may be over all the earth, present at the same moment to every Christian soul.
The descent of the Holy Spirit, then, is the first great event in the Acts of the Apostles; and now, after that descent of the Holy Spirit, we have the continual manifestation of the Spirit's presence and power; we have miracles performed in the name of Jesus; we have the sending out of the apostles and deacons, chosen through the Holy Spirit; we have the condemnation of Ananias and Sapphira, who lied to the Holy Spirit; and then we have the final missionary work of Paul and Barnabas, with all the evidences which the Holy Spirit gave of his presence and power. In the Acts of the Apostles we have the presence and power of the Holy Spirit continually set forth; the words Holy Spirit are continually recurring, as they do not recur in the Gospels. The first great object of the Acts of the Apostles is therefore to set forth Christ's work in the world through his church; the building up of his church through the agency of the apostles; and yet not this agency as something separate from him, but rather as the agency which he himself uses, to show his personal power in setting up his kingdom in the world; in other words, the first great object of the Acts is to show forth the setting up of Christ's kingdom in the world by the living, personal agency of Christ himself through his Holy Spirit.
Now, there is another object which the Acts has in view, and that is the setting forth of the universal character of the religion of Jesus. At this distance of time we have almost no conception of that revolution in human thought which took place when Judaism was outgrown and Christianity was extended to the Gentile world. We have no conception of the narrowness and prejudice of even those apostles to whom Christ first preached his gospel. The idea that one could ever be saved, except by becoming a Jew, was something entirely foreign to their thoughts. Their only idea of salvation was that of coming within the pale of Judaism, submitting to the Jewish ritual and organization, and thus becoming heir to the promises given to Abraham and the fathers. The idea that the gospel was for all the world, and that any human soul could come directly to God through Jesus Christ, without being circumcised and becoming a Jew, was something so strange and wonderful that it required a perfect earthquake to shake the idea into the apostles' minds.
The Acts of the Apostles is in great part given us to show the process of transition by which the gospel passed from the Jew to the Gentile, by which the Gentile came to hold equal rights in the kingdom of God, and to be regarded as equally an object of divine favor and blessing. The tendency among the Jews was just as it is among Christians to-day, to think that they were the special favorites of heaven, and that God had chosen them and brought them into his kingdom for their own sakes. It was the object of Christ Jesus, so soon as he had ascended his throne, to dispel this selfishness, to convince his church that the gospel was for the world. So you find that there is a passing from Peter to Paul.
Paul, you know, on his last journey goes back to Jerusalem and preaches the gospel there. He does everything he can to conciliate the Jewish Christians; in fact, he comes under very favorable circumstances on account of the multitude of his converts among the Gentiles; but you know what difficulties he met with. The result of that embassy was that he was actually driven out from Jerusalem, and was compelled finally and forever to make his way to the Gentiles and to confine his labors to them.
There is a transition from Jerusalem to Rome. After the twelfth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles you read almost nothing in regard to Jerusalem. The scene of the apostle's labor is changed. It is now more important that the gospel should be preached through the world; and you have a gradual progress from Jerusalem and Judea, to Samaria, to Antioch, and finally to Rome. Home missions, we may say, led to foreign missions.
We have the passage from Peter to Paul, we have the passage from Jerusalem to Rome, we have the passage from Jews to Gentiles, we have the passage from local to universal; and as this passage is made we have speeches and utterances on the part of Peter and on the part of Paul which give us typical illustrations of their way of presenting the great truth to those whom they address.
If you take, for example, Paul's utterances to the heathen, there is one comparatively long speech at Athens. Then you have a comparatively long speech to the Jews of Pisidia, and then you have another comparatively long speech to the Jews at Rome.
So you have a marvelous system of selection that takes out the important things and sets them before us, with the one idea of showing how the gospel that once was thought by the Jews to belong to themselves alone is to be preached as the means of salvation to every human being, both Jew and Gentile.
In this process we have a beautiful incentive to broad and universal work in the kingdom of Christ. Just so surely as we are shut up in ourselves, and fancy that we are brought into the kingdom of Christ simply for our own sake, just so surely the blessings of the kingdom will be taken from us and will be bestowed upon others. The Acts of the Apostles breathes the most liberal spirit, and urges us to no selfish conception of the kingdom of God, but to efforts to extend his gospel to earth's remotest bound.
Let me go back to the thought with which I began. The Acts of the Apostles narrates to us the beginning of the work of Christ in the church and in the world, the work of Christ since his ascension. It lays down the principle of that work. It teaches us of the resurrection, which was the main subject of preaching. It tells us something of the power in which that historical fact was to be proclaimed, the power of the Holy Spirit. It teaches something of the greatness and power which is possible to Christ's servants, and it teaches that we are to leave all personal considerations and devote ourselves to the great work of subduing the world. But in all this it gives us only the beginning. It tells us only what Christ Began to do and to teach while here in the flesh, with the view of spreading his gospel from Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria to Antioch and Ephesus and Athens and Corinth and Rome, and to the ends of the earth.
Now the Acts of the Apostles is, so to speak, first of all, his new work in the foundation of the church through the preaching of the gospel; and we have in it a clue to the method of Christ's labor, and his promise that success shall attend that labor as it goes on through all the ages, until his purpose is accomplished and the whole world shall be brought back to God.
At the end of the first chapter of John's Gospel there is a text which I think we might well apply here. Jesus says, " Nathanael, because I said I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? Greater things than these shalt thou see." Then he goes on to speak of the heavens opening and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man, intimating that he was to be the medium of communication between earth and heaven, the channel through which all God's blessings were to flow to the world. "Greater things than these shall ye see," says Christ. As he utters those words to Nathanael he utters those words to us. We have seen great things since the time when the Acts of the Apostles was written. The gospel has been preached in almost every heathen land of the habitable world, and thousands have been converted; still Christ can say to us, " Greater things than these shall ye see "; and there never will be a time, even after all his wonderful revelations of the divine nature, after all the wonderful triumphs of his kingdom, when he will not be able to turn to the sacramental host that follows him and say, " Greater things than these shall ye see." The Acts of the Apostles, like the gospel itself, is only the beginning of the more wonderful future that is before us. Let us thank God and take courage, for "mercy shall be built up forever."