Acts 4

The discourse of the apostle was interrupted at this point, but this is lost to many a reader by the division of the chapters.

‘Now as they were speaking unto the people, the priests and the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came upon them, being distressed because of their teaching the people, and announcing in Jesus the resurrection from [the] dead, and they laid hands on them and put them in ward unto the morrow, for it was already evening. But many of those that heard the word believed, and the number of the men became about five thousand’ (vers. 1-4).

Religious authority took umbrage. Who were these men to speak within the precincts of the temple? It is true that a mighty miracle had been wrought publicly and undeniably; but officials are sensitive to any invasion of their rights, and are apt to leave God out of the account, speaking as of the world and knowing none else than the world to hear them. But a class came forward now, which had been comparatively in the background whilst the Lord lived and laboured. Then were the Pharisees His active adversaries, the advocates of defective and spurious righteousness, opposing the Righteous One. Now the enemy had ready another and very different body among the Jews, the Sadducees, roused from their habitual calm by a truth which convicted them of utter infidelity and of consequent antagonism to God and His word. Miracles were bad enough in the eyes of the free-thinkers, they brought the power of God too near, they were a sign to unbelievers that they might hear the truth. But the resurrection, exemplified in the person of Jesus, was intolerable; and none so intolerant as those who boast of tolerating every shade, when the truth confronts them. The mild Sadducee outdoes the previously fierce Pharisee, none so disturbed by the announcement of Jesus risen from the dead.

And no wonder. The resurrection of Him Whom man had just slain is the plain, conclusive, and irrefragable proof of God’s power according to His word, the most complete refutation of those who admit nothing beyond the natural course of things in this world. Laws which govern that course none dispute, nor the knowledge of such laws as men call science. But the resurrection proves One above those laws, which in no way control or limit His power, as He will demonstrate in the day in which He makes all things new. Meanwhile the raising of Jesus from the dead, while the ordinary course goes on, is the sufficient and striking witness to the power which will destroy the world that now is, and create a new one, wholly different, to His own glory.

Hence the sceptical school took fire at the apostles for proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead; for it laid bare their evil unbelief and convicted them of being enemies of the truth. fighting against God Himself. Otherwise they would have inquired into the facts; and, comparing them with the scriptures, they must have rejoiced that He had done so blessed and glorious a thing according to His word. For the resurrection of Christ is the pledge that those who are Christ’s shall rise as He rose: He is avowedly the firstfruits of those fallen asleep by Him. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. They are the heads of the two families, the Adam family, and the Christ family, death having come in by the one head, as now resurrection by the other. Those that are Christ’s rise at His coming. It is a resurrection from among the dead, as His was, and they reign with Him for a thousand years. The rest of the dead do not live till the thousand years have been completed. Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection: on such the second death has no power; but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years. No one doubts that in another sense they will reign for ever, to the ages of ages, as will all the godly who are to be born of God during the millennial reign. But this period of special reigning over the earth ought not to be ignored because of the eternal blessedness of the glorified after the kingdom is over and the new heaven and earth are come in the absolute sense, the wicked having been raised, judged, and cast into the lake of fire. Theirs is not a resurrection from the dead, for there are no more dead left in the grave, they themselves being the last remainder after the righteous are raised.

Thus it was not merely the truth of resurrection which roused Sadducean spite, but that of the resurrection from the dead. The resurrection of the unjust, of the mass of mankind, is not ‘from among’ the dead like the resurrection of the just; it is the effect of the power of Christ, the Son of God, when He summons the wicked from their graves to judgment. The righteous have life In the Son now, and rise to a resurrection of life; as the unjust to a resurrection of judgment a thousand years after, when they must honour Him Whom they now despise. So perfectly does John 5 agree with Rev. 20. There is no discrepancy; but there are two resurrections according to Scripture, not one only. ‘The general’ indiscriminate resurrection of the creeds is according to tradition, but is a fable. There will be a resurrection of both just and unjust, of the just to reign with Christ at His coming, of the unjust to be judged by Him before He delivers up the kingdom to Him Who is God and Father, when He shall have abolished all rule and all authority and power. Men, and even believers, whose mind is on the things of men, are offended at the grace which discriminates now, as it will yet more manifestly by the resurrection from the dead. They prefer a ‘dim religious light’, with its vagueness and uncertainty; they shrink from that blessed hope — at least in any definite shape — which is the fruit of sovereign grace for the believer, involving as it does the solemn and dark background of judgment for all who despise both grace and truth in Christ.

But if the apostles were put in ward that evening till the morrow, the word was not bound, the true light was already shining. Many of those that heard believed. The number of men rose to about five thousand. This would suppose not a few women and children. Compare Matt. 14:21; Luke 9:14; John 6:10. No sufficient reason appears for taking ‘men’ ( ἀνδρῶν) otherwise than with its usual precision.

‘And it came to pass on the morrow that their rulers and elders and scribes were gathered together at Jerusalem, and Annas, the high priest and Caiaphas, and John, and Alexander, and as many as were of high-priestly lineage. And having set them in the midst they inquired, By what power, or in what name, did ye this? Then Peter, filled with [the] Holy Spirit, said unto them, Rulers of the people and elders [of Israel], if we this day are examined as to a good deed done to an infirm man, whereby he hath been cured, be it known to you all and to all the people of Israel that in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, Whom ye crucified, Whom God raised from [the] dead, in [or, by] Him [or, in this (name)] he standeth before you whole. He is the Stone that was set at naught by you the builders, that was made head of [the] corner. And in none other is there salvation, for neither is there a different name under heaven that is given among men by which we must be saved’ (vers. 5-12).

On the morrow flocked together the religious authorities from the highest, including all grades, and the two apostles were challenged. Peter answered in the power of the Spirit Who filled him, that the good deed was done in His name Whom they had crucified, and God had raised from the dead, Whom His word characterizes as the Stone, set at naught by the builders, yet become the head of the corner, the rejected but exalted Messiah. What a situation for the rulers and people of Israel! And what a light on all that had befallen ‘Jesus Christ of Nazareth’ was afforded by the testimony of scripture to the Stone, the unquestionable figure used of old about the Messiah!

Consider ever so briefly Gen. 49:22-24; Ps. 118:22 (the very passage referred to), Isa. 28:16, Dan. 2:34, 44, 45, specially with the use made of it by our Lord Himself in Matt. 21:42-44; to which we may add Eph. 2:20, and 1 Peter 2:7, 8. There is first His relation to Israel; then His rejection by the chiefs, but His exaltation notwithstanding; next, Jehovah’s commendation of Him to the believer in the face of divine judgment, and, lastly, His establishment of God’s kingdom here below, to the destruction of the Gentile powers which had displaced Israel. The New Testament while it of course confirms, supplements all this by connecting the Stone with the two advents of the Messiah, rendered necessary alike by God’s grace and His judgment, and by Israel’s unbelief now and future repentance in view of His coming again, crowned by Christ’s place as chief cornerstone, Who brings even now those of the Jews who believe in Him into better blessings than the nation will by and by receive at His appearing, that is, to be now a holy and a royal priesthood with all that is suited to each of these blessed relationships.

Into this Peter does not enter here; for he was addressing not the believing remnant of Christian Jews, but the proud and bitter enemies of both Christ and the Christian. But he does set forth, to Christ’s honour, and in love even to those who had so guiltily cast Him out, the plain and exclusive assurance of salvation in Christ. ‘In none other is there salvation, for neither is there another — a different — name under heaven that is given among men whereby we must be saved.’ How blessed that, though God has set Him up at His own right hand in heaven, His name is given under heaven among men on earth, by which we must be saved if saved at all! It is here and now that we must be saved; for it is of grace and by faith. There is no other name — our own least of all; and no other way, for He is the way. Faith exalts the Saviour and the God Who gave Him, and leaves no room for works of righteousness of our doing, even were we capable of them, which in our unbelieving state we certainly were not. All is of grace; but grace reigning through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord. How awful that men should neglect so great a salvation — yea, though, on behalf of Christ, His servants beseech them to be reconciled to God!

For the servants of Christ the conflict was now beginning. On the one side worldly power and religion, position and numbers; on the other, faith in His name Whom their adversaries had crucified. What could have seemed more unequal? Yes, to those who leave out God, and His Son, and the Spirit sent down from heaven. But in the believer is not this inexcusable unbelief? Why do we not always reckon on divine intervention, till He is judicially giving up people to their own delusions?

‘Now beholding the boldness of Peter and John, and aware that they were unlettered and simple men, they wondered, and recognized them that they were with Jesus’ (ver. 13). In none does the Spirit’s power shine more conspicuously than in such as can boast nothing of this world’s advantages. For high and low cry up the learning of the schools: the high, as making the most of what they themselves have enjoyed; the low, in general as excusing their own deficiency and overvaluing what they have not. But in the things of God nothing has power like faith in the God Who is glorifying Christ. And learning, whenever leaned on as an object, so far from being a help, is apt to become a positive hindrance and a real snare. Man as such is capable of attaining it in the highest degree; and pride generally follows, as well as the applause of men. But the ways of God are not as ours, and He was pleased to humble man, not only by Christ crucified, but by choosing the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise. In the front rank of those stand the apostles who, speaking broadly, had not one distinction in the eyes of the world, not one trait of which flesh could vaunt.

Such certainly were Peter and John now in presence of Jewish rulers who, having rejected Jesus, had lost God, and were putting forth nothing but an arm of flesh against His purposes and His servants. The rulers saw their bold bearing on the one hand, and on the other their lack of polite letters or of any public position which could whet their powers or impart experience and presence of mind. If they could not but wonder, they did also recognize their having been with Jesus. This could only aggravate their uneasiness, especially as an unanswerable witness was present.

‘And seeing the man that was healed standing with them, they had nothing to say in reply’ (ver. 14). How solemn the position of men who, bearing the name of God’s people, are so entangled by the enemy that they cannot deny the truth to which they are at the same time determined not to bow! To own it would be, they think, their ruin. Not so in truth, but their salvation! It would have been the humbling discovery of their sin, and of God’s unspeakable grace, of a rejected but exalted Messiah, Whose name by faith in it brings life and remission of sins. But no: they will not come to Him that they may have life. They love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil. They value the glory of men and not the glory of God, Who is in none of their thoughts. It is not only the unbelieving who perish, but the fearful, the cowardly, bent on present interests according to their own reckoning, and for their own pleasure, in contempt of evidence to their consciences adequate, yea overwhelming, that they are fighting against God. Did there not stand before all with the apostles a man who notoriously had never before stood?

Their guilty dilemma they did not disguise from themselves, nor one from another when they got rid of the presence of those who morally condemned them. ‘But, having commanded them to go aside out of the council, they were conferring among themselves, saying, What shall we do to these men? for that indeed a notable sign hath been done through them [is] manifest to all that inhabit Jerusalem; and we cannot deny it. But that it be not spread farther among the people, let us threaten them severely [lit. with threat] to speak to no man longer in [lit. on] this name’ [vers. 15-17]. Here the unerring word of God lays bare the workings of hardened feeling without conscience among His enemies; and none are so bitter, none so obdurate, as those who, responsible as His people to do His will have made up their mind to do the* own. They fully knew the remarkable deed just wrought by the apostle; they recognized it as not merely a miracle but ‘a sign’, yet did they strengthen themselves against the Almighty, running on the thick bosses of His buckler. In the face of the evident finger and instructive lesson of God, they deliberately strive together to extinguish its effects. They are well aware that ‘these men’ claim nothing for themselves, assert nothing but the name of Jesus. But this is the very name they themselves most fear and would banish for ever if they could. How vainly! It is the day pre-eminently for bearing witness to Jesus. This is the true and great business of the believer; this his one unfailing joy and duty: in the gospel, in the church, with friend or with foe, with few or with many, habitually in word, often in deed, sometimes in silence, but always, are we called to be His witnesses. Had not He Himself said to these very men with others, as His last charge, ‘Ye shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit is come upon you, and ye shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth’? Could those blind, plotting, self-condemned Jewish rulers stifle that testimony? So they hoped in the infatuation of unbelief which hid their own exceeding iniquity as well as God’s will and glory from their eyes. But faith vanquishes the world.

The charge not to speak at all nor teach in reference to (or resting on) the name of Jesus, which the council laid on Peter and John, was therefore as bold as it was wicked, and the more so as emanating from rulers claiming the highest authority in religion (ver. 18). How solemn to think that unwittingly they so treated their own Messiah! And why was it unwitting? Had God given them ineffectual light by the prophets? They own at that moment a manifest sign in the man that was healed. This they could not deny, that they would not believe. And so abiding in darkness they knew not the impiety of their enforcing silence about the Messiah Whose loving-kindness was better than life to His servants.

‘But Peter and John answering said unto them, Whether it be right before God to hear you rather than God, judge ye: for we cannot but speak the things which we saw and heard’ (vers. 19, 20). This reply put the case with unanswerable plainness and moral power. A ruler, especially a religious one, is bound to uphold what is righteous before God, and their charge simply amounted to heeding themselves in preference to God, for they demanded not a word more in the name of Jesus, though God had openly and just now honoured it unmistakably.

As for the apostles, faith in Christ, love to souls, special call, divine authority, and devotedness to His glory, all wrought to open their lips in His testimony and praise. The things they had seen and heard were so bound up with what was due to Jehovah and His Anointed, as well as with the believer’s blessedness and the unbeliever’s misery, that, woe be to them if they held their peace! A necessity was laid on them no less than on Paul at a later day (1 Cor. 9:16). They had received a personal command from Him by Whom kings rule in divine providence; only theirs was on the ground of grace and truth unknown to earthly governors as such, and for ends immeasurably higher and more enduring. Were those who claimed His sanction in a lower sphere authorized to set it aside in a higher? They might attempt it, but as surely would it be to their own irremediable destruction, as it would be in vain for those who heard the voice of One on high mightier than the noise of many waters, let the floods lift up their voice never so loftily.

‘And they having further threatened them let them go, finding nothing how they might punish them on account of the people; because all were glorifying God for what had been done. For the man on whom this sign of healing was wrought was more than forty years old’ (vers. 21, 22).

Threatening, and further threatening, are tokens of weakness and ill-will, not of power which knows how to forbear till the critical moment come. It is the natural resource of such as have not the truth, and can find no plea of unrighteousness in those they would punish. In this case too, as often, the people were feared, not God. Not that they loved but rather despised the people; but they were necessary as an instrument of influence and the loss of this they dreaded above all. What a contrast with that Ruler, Who is just, ruling in the fear of God! Their character is as darkness, and the end death: He, as the light of the morning when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain.

Government, poor as it may be now, is right and needful; but it is never right when those who should exercise it shrink from fear of the people, instead of acting before God Who authorized them. Alas! it was the religious council that was without God and opposed to Him; and the poor and simple, ignorant as they might be, in this case did all glorify God for that which was done. They were familiar for many years with the sufferer who by divine power was healed; and they had no class interest which was wounded by owning the good hand of God. The Jewish rulers feared not God but the people, and would have punished the holy servants of Christ if they could only have found an excuse plausible before men. They were in the darkness of nature, with the pride of possessing the law of God, and under the direction of Satan. The wisdom of their wise was perishing, and the understanding of their prudent hid. Learned or unlearned were obliged alike to own in the presence of His revealed mind that they could not read it.

Henceforth His word was with the servants and confessors of the Lord Jesus, the Spirit given them was self-evidently not of cowardly fear, but of power and love and a sober mind. The truth of Christ too nearly concerns God and man to be shelved. If truly received, it commands conscience and heart, mind and soul. If the rulers could not deny the sign before their eyes, still less could the apostles refrain from confessing the name of Jesus, the Saviour in heaven for man on earth. For them to withhold God’s glad tidings in Christ would have been treason spiritually. Indifference to Christ or the gospel is cousin-germane to infidelity.

Undeniably there was now a power on earth intrinsically superior to that of man beyond all comparison, but not yet at work so as to preclude shame and suffering, above all for Christ’s sake. Nor was it merely with dark heathenism that it clashed, but with the highest authority of the Jewish people, now proving themselves as opposed at least as the heathen to the light and truth and power of God manifested by the presence of the Holy Spirit here below. The wonders and signs done by the apostles, the tongues of the Gentiles spoken in a moment by Jewish Christians who had never learnt them, the mighty works of God in redemption set forth, and unselfish grace raising the believers above what not only their own habits craved, but the nature of man universally, did not, rich as they are, constitute the entire testimony for the name of the Lord Jesus.

A particular sign before the temple, done in His name, had roused not more the amazement of the multitude than the jealous fears of the religious chiefs, sore troubled because they proclaimed in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. How blinding is the influence of unbelief! They could not deny the reality of the miracle; they would not believe the gospel. They put in ward and further threatened the instruments of divine power. They have not a word to say about their own Scriptures bearing witness to their rejection and God’s exaltation of the Messiah; yet they charged the apostles not to speak at all, nor teach in the name of Jesus, desirous of punishing them, but finding as yet no means how to do so, because of the people whose favour they dreaded to lose, without the fear of God. A truly lamentable picture of those who claimed to be exclusively His people on the earth!

Little did they know that God had begun to call a new corps of witnesses from His ancient people, and that He would gather in more from the Gentiles. And so the Spirit is intimating in this very Book as a fact, the ground of which is explained in the Epistles.

‘But being let go they came unto their own [company], and reported all that [or, whatsoever] the chief priests and the elders said unto them. And they on hearing [it] with one accord lifted up [their] voice unto God and said, Master, Thou [art] He that made the heaven, and the earth, and the sea, and all that in them [is]; Who16 by [the] Holy Spirit, [by the] mouth of our father David Thy servant, didst say, Why did Gentiles rage and peoples meditate vain things? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against His Anointed [or, Christ]. For of a truth in this city against Thy holy Servant Jesus Whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate with Gentiles and peoples of Israel were gathered to do whatsoever Thy hand and Thy counsel foreordained to come to pass. And now, Lord, look upon their threatenings, and give to Thy bondmen with all boldness to speak Thy word, while [lit., in that] Thou stretchest forth Thy hand for healing and that signs and wonders be done by the name of Thy holy Servant Jesus’ (vers. 23-30).

What made these believers ‘their own company’? What drew the two apostles to them instinctively and immediately on their dismissal from the council? It was the Spirit of God Who had gathered them to the name of the risen Christ. The people of Israel, their leaders at least, were now becoming their enemies as His, a new people was being formed with a High Priest sat down on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle which the Lord pitched, not man. For He has obtained a ministry the more excellent, by how much also He is the Mediator of a better covenant which has been enacted upon better promises [Heb. 8:1, 2, 6]. It is not that they then understood their own privileges as they are here put, nor that the statement here cited covers their best and highest blessings; but they knew the One on high Who was the accomplishment and securer of all, and hence they were more and more attracted to the circle of those who confessed Him and detached in principle, as gradually more in heart, from their old belongings and their old boast.

And ‘their own company’ responded with one accord on hearing their report of all that the religious chiefs of the nation had said. Their utterance is a remarkable outpouring to God, and proves how deeply they err who fancy that there can be no agreement in prayer save through a previously composed and commonly possessed form: a grave interference with, and practical denial of, the power of the Holy Spirit, the only right and adequate spring of all that should characterize the assembly of God. For He it was Who guided in this spontaneous spreading out before God of their then passing circumstances, according to the written word and in striking identification with the Lord Jesus. ‘Master,’ said they, in the sense of Sovereign owner and disposer of all, ‘Thou art He that made the heavens and the earth, and the sea, and all that in them is.’ They acknowledge His glory in creation, but turn at once to His prophetic word through David in the beginning of Psalm 2. This they distinctly apply to that unnatural combination, which Jerusalem had just beheld, between Gentiles and Jews, between Herod and Pontius Pilate, against Jesus the Messiah. He Who at first created all, governed all, and He had revealed His will in His word though not yet was it all fulfilled.

For beyond a doubt it was of the Holy Ghost that David so spoke. To no event since the Psalm was written can the opening words apply save to the one just before them, of that strange union and daring guilt they do speak with precision, where Jew and Gentile set themselves with their rulers in array against Jehovah and His Anointed as never before or since. There are great principles in Scripture, but also exclusively personal prophecies. But though the disciples discern in it a Satan-directed conspiracy, in which evil seemed to have all its way without check even to the crucifying of the Lord of glory, they are clear that the enemy with all his hosts has in reality gained nothing but defeat. The others thought it not at all when they held their council and adjudged Jesus to the death of the cross; but they were gathered by Him Who is higher than the highest, to do whatsoever His hand and His counsel predetermined to be done.

And so it ever is, even in this world lying in the wicked one though it be, but not always so conspicuously as the written word made it in that which was and is so infinitely momentous to God and man. But how solemn to see ‘in this city’, as everywhere, that men who are the nearest concerned, the perpetrators of these horrors against God and His Christ, are the last to perceive the import of their own acts, still less God’s gracious and worthy purposes by them! In truth, not one sparrow falls on the ground without Him; and the very hairs of our head are all numbered.

Futile and wicked effort! The murderous violence of man but rivets the bands and cords he would burst asunder. He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall have them in derision. But this is far from all in the second Psalm. Then shall He speak to them in His wrath and vex them in His sore displeasure. This, however, is not yet, for, instead of judgments to punish their evil and overwhelm their pride, His grace is meanwhile sending out the gospel — repentance and remission of sins preached in the name of Jesus to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. The promise of His Father is sent forth on the disciples, the Holy Ghost as power from on high to associate those who believe with Himself in heaven. When this work of heavenly grace is done, God will take His place for the earth and in Israel especially. He has in no way forgotten or repented of His promise to Abraham or David. ‘Yet have I set My King upon My holy hill of Zion. I will declare the decree: Jehovah hath said unto Me, Thou art My Son; this day have I begotten Thee. Ask of Me, and I shall give Thee the heathen for Thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for Thy possession.’

Do any contend that this latter part of the Psalm is now accomplished, ‘spiritually’ as they call it, under the gospel? It is perfectly demonstrable that such a straining of Scripture is precluded by the context. For it is therein declared that Messiah shall [not save, nor unite to Himself as members of His body but] break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. So Rev. 2:27 shows that the faithful who are now being called will share in this with Christ at His coming, instead of its being fulfilled in some allegorical way at the present — a sense unworthy of all just interpretation. Hence the final appeal is to the kings and judges of the earth to pay homage to Jehovah and the Son, lest He be angry, and they perish under ever so little a kindling of His wrath. It is not a call to the poor and heavy-laden to believe the gospel; it is a question of the future and manifest kingdom of God when the Son of man comes in power and glory. Compare Psalm 8: and Daniel 2; Dan. 7. Still, whether it be then or now, blessed are all they that put their trust in Him.

In vain do some, following a few Rabbis, limit or even apply such words to the reign of David or Solomon, for the words go beyond their glory, and still more of their successors. Neither attempted to reign to the ends of the earth, or required the homage of its kings as such; nor was any man called to trust in either; nor was lack of reverence visited with such perdition. That Christ has not yet executed the judgment of verse 9 is no proof that He will not, but is rather the solemn assurance that He will.

In connection with our Scripture it is noticeable that those who so definitely use the Psalm for its accomplishment in the uprising against the Messiah stop short there. Not a thought is expressed by them of His asking for Jehovah’s giving the heathen for His inheritance and the uttermost parts of the earth for His possession (ver. 8). Christ is occupied with His heavenly relations and offices now. He will ask for the earth when He is about to come and execute judgment on the living and the dead. Then will be His appearing and His kingdom. Now He is hid in God, the source of gifts for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ, till we all come unto the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God (Eph. 4:11-13).

Hence the praying saints do not now ask for such vengeance from God on their adversaries, as we find in the Old Testament, and emphatically in the Psalms which reflect the inmost feeling of the godly concerned, whether in their past preparatory accomplishment or in their complete fulfilment at the end of the age. It is not, as many in ignorant presumption dare to think, that these intercessions against the wicked, as in Psalms 6, 10, 54, 59, 83, and the like, are vindictive; they are solemnly judicial when the time and instruments are there to pour out God’s wrath on all who despise Him. But now it is the day of grace and salvation, the accepted time: while Christ sits on the right hand of God; and the Holy Ghost is uniting to Him the one body, the church; and sovereign grace in the gospel flows out, overflowing for the time all difference between Jew and Gentile who are called to heavenly glory. In a spirit suitable to this do they pray, ‘And now, Lord, look upon their threatenings, and give to Thy bondmen with all boldness to speak Thy word, while Thou stretchest forth Thy hand for healing, and that signs and wonders be done by the name of Thy Servant Jesus’ (vers. 29, 30).

It was enough for their hearts that the Lord should look upon the threats of those that sought their injury: He knew best what to permit and what to restrain; and He could deliver. For themselves they besought grace to speak His word with all boldness or liberty. Is this what we are doing or seeking? Do we prize it as our chief joy and duty and business on the earth? Is it merely with Christian companions of like mind, spending an hour or two in the morning with people of leisure, and in the evening with those who have closed their earthly toils? This may be all well; but in such circumstances it is apt to be sitting over the word rather than the word over them, admiring the things which they know, and criticizing those who do not know the wondrous counsels and ways of grace. Far different was the heart of these early saints who had so much to learn; but in their faith they supplied, or added, that moral courage and zeal for Christ and divine love which drew them out to speak His word ‘wish all boldness’.

The Lord granted their desire, not merely in setting at naught when He saw fit for His glory the threatenings of His and their enemies, but in rendering free and bold witness to Himself. His word ran and was glorified, as we shall see; and believers were the more added to the Lord multitudes of both men and women. They spoke of Him devotedly, and abundantly did He bless them. It never occurred to their simple minds that they should preach for preaching’s sake, with the inevitable and deserved result of absolutely no fruit. Speaking His word, they looked to Him that it would issue to His glory in bringing souls to God and filling them with divine joy in His grace.

It is true that their faith, according to the word of the Lord (Mark 16:17, 18), counted on more than spiritual blessing. The healing of the sick or infirm, in His name, they desired, as a precious and significant token to unbelievers. So had the Master wrought when here; so would they His bondmen do in witness of His gracious power, as He was risen and in heaven Who had vanquished Satan, the Lord working with them and confirming the word by the signs that followed. In the confidence of this guarantee on His part they ask Him to grant them with all boldness to speak His word, whilst He stretches forth His hand for healing, and that signs and wonders be done in the name of the holy Servant Jesus.

This power was seasonable where God was inaugurating the infinite fact of the Holy Spirit sent down in person from heaven and now permanently making the assembly to be His habitation, His temple or house on earth What honour too for Him Whom the Jews had crucified by the hand of lawless men, that these signs and wonders were done ‘through the name of His Servant Jesus’! When the name of the Lord was professed throughout Christendom, there would have been no adequate object, or even propriety, in the continuance of such signs, the Scriptures being then accepted in that sphere as the true and full revelation of God. And inasmuch as that profession of acceptance for the most was unreal and superficial and increasingly to the denial by their works of the Lord Whom they professed how morally incongruous would have been the continuance of these external tokens of honour and power!

The more one weighs the matter, the more fitting does it seem that He Who vouchsafed miracles at the beginning should not have bound them as an inalienable heirloom to the church or to His servants. He promised that they would follow ‘those that believe’; and so they did. He never intimated that they were to follow perpetually or absolutely. And they then ceased in His wisdom, as they really could not be now without the danger, yea certainty, of ill results to His dishonour; for they must tend to gloss over the present ruin-state of the assembly, to blunt the conscience of all, if all had them, or to inflate a few if only exercised by a few.

The testimony, the word of God, was then the prime desire which they spread before Him, for they sought mercy and blessing for their adversaries, not vengeance; and the seals of power they asked at His hand did not consist of consuming fire from above, or of the earth opening to devour the foe, but rather of ‘healing’, and, if ‘signs and wonders’, they besought them ‘through the name of His holy Servant Jesus’, because their hearts were set on the honour of the Son, even as they honoured the Father. The power prayed for was not for apostolic influence or authority, but for His glory Who made Himself a bondman, and to commend the word that reveals Him. It was the Creator, Who, after predicting through His servant David, had now accomplished His work, even by means of His enemies.

It will be noticed that the critical text differs not a little from the Received, not merely in omitting ‘God’ in ver. 24, and giving ‘in this city’ in ver. 27, but yet more in the singular addition ‘by [the] Holy Spirit’ in ver. 25, given by ABE and other authorities. It is difficult to conceive the ordinary text deliberately changed into that ancient form with its unusual apparent harshness; it is easy to understand that later copyists might soften the phrase. It is not often that the older witnesses give us greater copiousness; but here we have distinct instances of it. Further, in vers. 27 and 30, as in Acts 3:13, 26, the true counterpart is ‘Servant’, and not ‘Son’, nor even ‘Child’ here, answering to Isaiah 13:1; Isaiah 52:13; as indeed the Authorized Version rightly translates in ver. 25. Only in the prayer Jesus is here carefully distinguished from David as His ‘holy’ One.

A distinct and immediate answer to united prayer was now given, faith as ever, receiving more than it asked. ‘And when they prayed, the place wherein they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the17 Holy Spirit, and spoke the word of God with boldness. And the heart and soul of the multitude of those that believed were one; and not one said that aught of his possessions was his own; but they had all things common. And with great power did the apostles render the witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus; and great grace was upon them all. For neither was there anyone in want among them; for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold [them] and brought the prices of the things that were being sold, and laid [them] at the feet of the apostles, and distribution was made to each according as anyone had need. And Joseph that by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas (which is, being interpreted, Son of exhortation), a Levite a Cyprian by birth, having a field, sold [it] and brought the money and laid [it] at the feet of the apostles’ (vers. 31-37).

The voice of Jehovah shakes the wilderness. He looks on the earth, and it trembles. So when He comes to reign, the earth will see and tremble. Here it was not in judgment, but in grace that He gave this outward token of His intervention, not conveying as in an earthquake the idea of some universal and unlimited danger, but by its peculiar form, limited to the place wherein they were assembled, giving the conviction that He heard and watched over them for His own glory.

But there was more and better than any external sign. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke (not now, as far as we are told, with other tongues, but) the word of God with boldness. It was the presence of God manifested most suitably in power but grace withal. It was wholly distinct from that operation of the Spirit where a soul is born anew. It was the energy of the Holy Spirit, shown outwardly as well as in believers: the Spirit not only given, but excluding the action of flesh so that, for the time at least, nothing wrought which was not of Himself. It was spiritual power but in the dependence of faith, uttering not merely strong and original ideas but the word of God with boldness, as became His servants, confiding in His perfect grace, and feeling the ruin of man without Christ. Before this, two of the apostles, when forbidden by the high authorities of Israel, pleaded, ‘We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard’ (Acts 4:20). They were all now animated with like faith and fervour in the Holy Ghost. It was no small thing for any to be thus strengthened; how much more to see an entire company of such confessors!

How are they characterized? ‘And the heart and soul of the multitude of those that believed were one.’ Never before Pentecost had such a time appeared on earth. What is described is, if possible, more vividly spiritual now that opposition came out distinctly against them. All savours of His presence Who deigned to come down from heaven and make the saints the dwelling-place of God. The Holy Spirit it is Whose energy works all that is acceptable to God, all that is edifying for man. Without Him there had been only so many individuals. The Spirit unites to Christ, He also and thereby gives practical unity as here. The heart and soul of those that believed, though a multitude, was one. Undoubtedly such unity could not have been without one supreme and absorbing object, even Christ, but there was also needed the power of the Spirit to exclude the activity of each several will. For flesh loves to differ, and seeks its own things. Next, they all sought the things of Jesus Christ, though without intelligence of union with Christ or heavenly relationships. Yet never before nor since has there been in any communion on earth an equal testimony to deliverance through His name from the selfishness of nature and the pride of the world, never more sustained joy in God or more mutual love through our Lord Jesus. It was the accomplishment of the prayer in John 17:20, 21, ‘that they all may be one, as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me.’ Their heart and soul were one. The expression of the inspired historian is more energetic, as the practical unity in grace was realized with singular brightness before the world. No sign of greater weakness in the church than division of way, feeling, or thought; no more evident mark of the Spirit’s power than unity of which Christ is the spring and character.

Next follows, as fresh as ever, that unexampled token of superiority to personal interests which Pentecost first beheld. ‘And not one said that aught of his possessions was his own; but they had all things common.’ Certainty this was in no sense law but grace; but is it not surprising that any believing the scriptures should elude the plain and blessed fact? It was a state of things beautifully suited to the church when it was all in Jerusalem, and in the full early bloom created by the ungrieved Holy Spirit: when saints were gathered to the Lord elsewhere, we find it no more. Communion of goods, so far as it was carried out in grace, in the nature of things could only be rightly whilst all the members were in one place. When the Lord wrought in other places, the saints were as near in divine relationship as those that dwelt in the same city. That which was peculiar to the assembly in Jerusalem then merged into more ordinary and comprehensive forms of love toward all the saints wherever found, for the church on earth is one, and we are members one of another, even if in the most distant quarter of the globe. We have then instruction and exhortation of the most precious kind about giving, as in Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 16; 2 Cor. 8, 9, Gal. 6; Eph.4; Phil. 4; 1 Tim. 6; Heb. 13, et al., clearly supposing no such state as all things common, but rather rich and poor who were appealed to accordingly. The word of the Lord, though to us always true, was receiving its most marked application: ‘Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s, but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world (age) to come, eternal life’ (Mark. 10:29, 30).

Here too we are told of the prominent place Christ’s resurrection held in apostolic teaching. ‘And with great power did the apostles render the witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.’ Need it be urged that the apostles were right, not the moderns who preach the Lord in His service, or in His death, and there practically stop? For thus do these curtail the true witness of its blessed fulness; and all their preaching, not to say their faith, suffers. For why sever the resurrection from the death of Christ? If He ‘be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain: ye are yet in your sins’. Without His resurrection there is no proof that our sins are gone, ourselves justified, and God glorified. Where resurrection is not held fast in power, the door is ever open both to ignore man’s total ruin, and the full deliverance God has wrought in Christ and is now giving freely in His grace. Some may reason, others may hope; but the resurrection is the grand fact that He Who suffered for our sins is no longer in the grave where man laid His body, but is raised of God, Whose glad tidings concerning His Son are that He is thus proclaimed victorious over sin and death to the salvation of every believer.

And this witness is of all efficacy for the faithful, for ‘great grace was upon them all’. It is of all moment to arrest and win unbelievers to God; but faith sees in the resurrection of the Lord the pledge of its own justification no less than of the judgment of all who oppose or neglect so great salvation. The God Who raised from the dead Him Who made Himself responsible for our sins, and went down into death under divine judgment for our sakes, is the Saviour God; and His great grace reproduces itself in those who know Him thus. Love is not the fruit of a command or of an effort to love. His grace has creative power of graciousness in such as know themselves loved of Him.

It is painful that any one should, from Acts 2:47, reduce this ‘great grace’ to ‘popular favour’. The next verse (Acts 4:34) does nor give the reason why the people looked favourably upon them (‘because they suffered none of their number to be in need’, as if the church were a good benefit club!). Verse 34 merely exemplifies a special way in which the great grace upon them wrought; especially as it was no longer the simple immediateness of giving which was originally seen in Acts 2:44, 45. Now, when lands or houses were sold, the prices were laid at the feet of the apostles, and distribution was made to each according as anyone had need. What a contrast between the spontaneous unselfishness here manifest and the formal rigour of monastic rule — Mendicant Friars and the like!

Among those distinguished by their self-stripping love for the brotherhood stands specially recorded the afterwards eminent name of Joseph, surnamed Barnabas (vers. 36, 37), Son of exhortation, or perhaps of consolation. Later on (Acts 11:24) he is characterized as ‘a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith’. Here, a Cyprian, he is said to have been a Levite, yet possessed of a field, which he sold and laid the money at the feet of the apostles. The express mention of the circumstance here proves how little the practice had become compulsory; for why name Barnabas in particular, if it were a rule absolute and universal? Where men imitate in the world or even in the church, law-work supersedes grace, and the community swamps the individual to the destruction of love on one side and of conscience on the other. The grace and truth which came by Jesus Christ alone puts and keeps both in their true place, whether the individual or the body, because thus only God is God before man believingly. Popery and communism alike strive in vain to realize the unselfish grace of these early days in the church; for they are, neither of them, likenesses but caricatures, and are as far as possible from having the same source, character, or issue.

Grace is inimitable; only the Holy Spirit can produce it in reality. He it is Who wrought in so rich a measure then; and He abides to work whatsoever is in keeping with Christ at all times, with full consideration of what is due to God’s actual ways, and to man’s state also. But the interests and activity of the Holy Ghost are no longer in the fold of Israel. He is present, in the fullness of grace and power withal, in a new and different sphere outside Israel no less than the nations, He is there bearing witness of the risen Jesus Whom men crucified and slew, and of the boundless blessing conferred on those that confess Him. He is producing new and suited fruit in those that are His, united as one soul, whatever their old habits or once clashing interests: such now is the sweet effect of their oneness in the Father and the Son, that the world might believe that the Father sent the Son.

16 The most ancient reading, here followed, seems difficult or at least confused.

17 The article is required by the best authorities: a plain proof, if needed, that the Holy Spirit personally is in question, not a mere influence. Bishop Middleton is also mistaken about the converse, or absence of the article, which is quite independent of personality, and simply characterizes.