Saul was present at Stephen's death, and consenting to it. [See Footnote #14] This is the end of the first phase of the assembly of God-its history in immediate connection with Jerusalem and the Jews, as the centre to which the work of the apostles related, "beginning at Jerusalem"; carried on, however, in a believing remnant, but inviting Israel, as such, to come into it, as being nationally the object of the love and care of God, but they would not. Some accessory events follow, which enlarge the sphere of labour and maintain the unity of the whole, previously to the revelation of the call of the Gentiles, as such, properly speaking, and of the assembly as one body, independent of Jerusalem, and apart from the earth. These events are-the work of Philip in the conversion of Samaria and of the Ethiopian; that of Cornelius, with Peter's vision that took place after the vocation of Saul, who himself is brought in by a Jew of good report among the Jews as such; the labours of Peter in all the land of Canaan; and, finally, the connection established between the apostles at Jerusalem and the converted Gentiles at Antioch; the opposition of Herod, the false king of the Jews, and the care which God still takes of Peter, and the judgment of God upon the king. Afterwards comes the direct work among the Gentiles, having Antioch for its starting-point, already prepared by the conversion of Paul, through means and with a revelation that were quite peculiar. Let us follow the details of these chapters.
After the death of Stephen persecution breaks out. The victory, gained by a hatred the accomplishment of whose object was allowed by Providence, opens the floodgates to the violence of the Jewish leaders, enemies to the gospel. The barrier that restrained them once broken, the waves of passion overflow on all sides. People are often held back by a little remaining conscience, by habits, by a certain idea of the rights of others; but when the dykes are broken, hatred (the spirit of murder in the heart) satiates itself, if God permit, by actions that shew what man is when left to himself. But all this hatred accomplishes the will of God, in which man would perhaps otherwise have failed, and which in some respects he could not or ought not even to have executed, that is to say, the will of God in sovereign judgment. The dispersion of the assembly was Israel's judgment-a judgment which the disciples would have found it difficult to declare and to execute by the communication of greater light to them; for whatever may be the blessing and energy in the sphere where the grace of God acts, the ways of God in directing all things are in His own hand. Our part, too, in His ways as to those without, is in grace.
The whole assembly then, except the apostles, is scattered. It is questionable also, that the apostles did right in remaining, and whether a more simple faith would not have made them go away, and thus have spared the assembly many a conflict and many a difficulty in connection with the fact that Jerusalem continued to be a centre of authority.[See Footnote #15] The Lord had even said with Israel in view, "When they persecute in one city, flee into another"; and after His resurrection He commands them to go and disciple all nations. This last mission we do not find executed in the history of the Acts and the work among the Gentiles, and, as we see in Galatians 2, by a special agreement entered into at Jerusalem, it fell into the hands of Paul, being placed on an entirely new footing. The word tells us nothing of the accomplishment of this mission of the twelve towards the Gentiles, unless it be the slight general intimation in the end of Mark. God is mighty in Peter toward the circumcision and in Paul towards the Gentiles. It may be said that the twelve were not persecuted. It is possible, and I say nothing decided on the point; but it is certain that the passages which I have quoted have no fulfilment in the Bible history, and that another arrangement, another order of things, took place in lieu of that which the Lord prescribed, and that Jewish prejudices had in fact an influence, resulting from this concentration at Jerusalem, from which even Peter had the greatest difficulty to free himself.
Those who were scattered abroad preached the word everywhere, but only to the Jews, before some of them arrived at Antioch (chap. 11:19).
Philip however went down to Samaria, and preached Christ to them, and wrought miracles. They all give heed to him and are even baptised. A man who until then had bewitched them with sorcery, so that they had said he was the great power of God, even he also submits to the power which eclipsed his false marvels, and convinced him so much the more of its reality as he was conscious of the falseness of his own. The apostles make no difficulty with regard to Samaria. The history of Jesus must have enlightened them in that respect. Moreover, the Samaritans were not Gentiles. Still it was a Hellenist who preached the gospel there.
A new truth comes out here in connection with the regular process of the assembly-namely, that the apostles conferred the Holy Ghost by means of prayer and the laying on of hands: a very important fact in the history of God's dealings. Moreover Samaria was a conquest which all the energy of Judaism had never been able to make. It was a new and splendid triumph for the gospel. Spiritual energy to subdue the world appertained to the assembly. Jerusalem was set aside: its day was over in that respect.
The presence of the power of the Holy Ghost acting in Peter preserves the assembly as yet from the entrance of hypocrites, the instruments of Satan. The great and powerful fact that God was there manifested itself and made the darkness evident which circumstances had concealed. Carried along by the strong current, Simon had yielded, as to his intelligence, to the authority of Christ whose name was glorified by Philip's ministry. But the true condition of his heart, the desire of his own glory, the complete opposition between his moral condition and all principle-all light from God-betrays itself in presence of the fact that a man can impart the Holy Ghost. He desires to buy this power with money. What a thought! It is thus that the unbelief which appears quite to pass away, so that the things of God are outwardly received, betrays itself by something which, to one who has the Spirit, is so grossly contrary to God that its true character is manifest even to a child taught by God Himself.
Samaria is thus brought into connection with the centre of the work of Jerusalem, where the apostles still were. Already the Holy Ghost's being bestowed on the Samaritans was an immense step in the development of the assembly. Doubtless they were circumcised, they acknowledged the law, although the temple had in a certain degree lost its importance. The body of believers was more consolidated, and, so far as they still held to Jerusalem, it was a positive gain; for Samaria, by receiving the gospel, entered into connection with her ancient rival, as much as the apostles themselves were so, and submitted to her. Probably the apostles, during that time of persecution, did not go to the temple. God had opened a wide door to them outside, and thus made them ample amends in their work, for the success of the rulers of Israel who had stopped it in Jerusalem; for the energy of the Spirit was with them. To sum up: that which is presented here is the free energy of the Spirit in others than the apostles, and outside Jerusalem which had rejected it; and the relations maintained with the apostles and Jerusalem by their central action, and the authority and power with which they were invested.
Having accomplished their work, and themselves evangelised several villages of the Samaritans, Peter and John return to Jerusalem. The work outside goes on, and by other means. Philip, who presents the character of prompt unquestioning obedience in simplicity of heart, is called to leave his prosperous work with which all his personal importance (if he had been seeking it) was connected, and in which he was surrounded with respect and affection. "Go," said the angel of the Lord, "toward the south, unto the way that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza." It was a desert. Philip's ready obedience does not think of the difference between Samaria and Gaza, but of the Lord's will: and he goes. The gospel now extends to the proselytes from among the Gentiles, and makes its way to the centre of Abyssinia. The Queen's treasurer is admitted among the disciples of the Lord by baptism, which sealed his faith in the testimony of the prophet Isaiah; and he goes on his way, rejoicing in the salvation which he had taken a toilsome journey from a far country to seek in legal duties and ceremonies, but with faith in God's word, in Jerusalem. Beautiful picture of the grace of the gospel! He carries away with him, and to his home, that which grace had bestowed on him in the wilderness-that which his wearisome journey to Jerusalem had not procured him. The poor Jews, who had driven away the testimony from Jerusalem, are outside everything. The Spirit of the Lord carries Philip far away, and he is found at Azotus; for all the power of the Lord is at the service of the Son of man for the accomplishment of the testimony to His glory. Philip evangelises all the cities unto Caesarea.
Footnotes for Acts 8
14: We may remark here, that the sanctuary, so to speak, is open to all believers. The veil indeed was rent by the death of Christ, but the grace of God was still acting towards the Jews, as such, and proposed to them the return of Jesus to the earth; that is to say, outside the veil, in the event of their repentance, so that the blessing would then have been upon the earth-the times of refreshing by the coming of Christ, which the prophets had announced. But now it is no longer a Messiah, the Son of David, but a Son of man in heaven; and, by the Holy Ghost here below, an opened heaven is seen and known, and the great High Priest (standing as yet) at the right hand of God is not hidden behind a veil. All is open to the believer; the glory, and He who has entered into it for His people. And this, it appears to me, is the reason why He is seen standing. He had not definitely taken His place as seated ('eis to dienekes'; in perpetuity) on the heavenly throne, until the testimony of the Holy Ghost to Israel of His exaltation had been definitively rejected on earth. The free testimony of the Spirit which is developed, here and afterwards, is highly interesting, without touching apostolic authority in its place, as we shall see. As to the Jews, till the High Priest comes out, they cannot know that His work is accepted for the nation; as, in the day of atonement, they had to wait till he came out that they might know it. But for us the Holy Ghost is come out while He is within, and we know it.
15: This is no wise prevents the manifestation of the sovereign wisdom of God. The development of the doctrine of the assembly in its oneness, and as the body of Christ, was but so much the more perfect and unmixed, as we find it taught by Paul; who was called outside of Judaism by the revelation of a heavenly Christ. Neither do these ways of sovereign wisdom in God make any change at all in the responsibility of man. The outward unity of the assembly was also preserved by this means, by the connection kept up between the other places and Jerusalem, until the work among the Gentiles outside Judaism made these connections extremely difficult and precarious. This, however, rendered the grace and the wisdom of God but so much the more apparent.