TRACINGS FROM THE ACTS OF THE
OR 30 Years of Christian Work.
BY C. E. STUART, AUTHOR OF "OUTLINES OF THE ROMANS," "FROM ADVENT TO ADVENT,"
TEXTUAL CRITICISM FOR ENGLISH BIBLE STUDENTS," ETC.
THE rise and early progress of any remarkable movement
must ever have an interest for the thoughtful and the inquiring. We see then
some of the original labourers at work. We learn something of the springs of
the movement. And, whilst noticing results, we can trace the causes which
conduced to its success. If that is true of the many remarkable movements of
which this world has been the theatre, what shall we say of the rise and early
progress of Christianity? That must ever be to the Christian a study of intense
A movement like it has never been known. It started into life with all the energy of a giant, just when to human thoughts the mission inaugurated by its Founder had received its death-blow. It spread without human patronage, and without the aid of human power. The great ones of the earth where it arose, and those who wielded the sword of government in different countries to which it spread, were none of them at first in its favour, but for the most part manifestly hostile. Yet it progressed. Threats, imprisonments, scourgings, tumults, legal prosecutions, and even the fear of martyrdom, were alike insufficient to cow its supporters, or to check their ardour in propagating their views. It was intensely aggressive. It admitted of no compromise with any creed in the world. It claimed to be the true faith; and, as such, alone offering that which was needful for everlasting salvation. It had confessedly truth in common with Judaism, yet was jealous of any Judaising teaching. It alone, it proclaimed, could furnish any inquirer with the full revelation vouchsafed by God, for the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. iii. 15).
We have read in the Gospel of Luke of the birth and life on earth of its Founder. The birthplace, however, of the movement recorded in the Acts was really an upper room in Jerusalem, its time was the feast of Pentecost, and its first company numbered one hundred and twenty souls. But the number of its adherents in that city swelled to upwards of three thousand ere its first day had closed. And that remarkable result was effected simply by preaching the Gospel of the grace of God. Soon the company numbered five thousand. Priests and people in Jerusalem and Judsea, and subsequently men and women of wealth and position elsewhere, came under the sound of the preached Word, felt its power, and bowed to it as the truth of God. Never before had people of all classes and various creeds in such numbers given heed to a message from heaven.
That a history should be written of such a movement need not surprise us. But, as with another remarkable movement fifteen centuries earlier, only one history has in each case come down, written in the latter case by an eyewitness, and in the former by a contemporary of that which he records.
Profane history of their several dates, as far as preserved to our day, knows little or nothing of the marvels that the inspired historians record. Nor is this to be wondered at. For as with Israel at the Exodus, so with Christians in apostolic times, the conflict lay between them and the ruling powers of their day. Naturally, chroniclers of those times, who recorded the victories of their rulers, were little likely to hand down records of their defeats. And such there were in connection with the struggles against the emancipation of the Israelites, as well as against the rise and spread of Christianity. An authentic history, however, we have of both these epochs. Inspired histories we have to call them, because written under the guidance and by the direction of the Holy Ghost.
Remarkable indeed, as we have called it, was the first movement we have referred to, because it was the springing up, as it were, suddenly of a nation into political existence, with a country in prospect to which they were marching. Yet the second movement was the more remarkable, since it was the taking out of nations of a people to be gathered only to the Lord. In the former case it was the dawn of political life of a nation, born, as it were, in a day. In the latter it was the calling out of an assembly, limited to no country, peculiar to no race, embracing men and women of different nationalities, formerly practising diverse religious rites, and the blending them into one company, uniting all by the tie of spiritual brotherhood, and knitting them close together as members of that one body of which the Head was the crucified One in heaven. Marvellous were some facts in connection with each. The Red Sea had been divided for the passage of the Israelitish host, and the waters of the Jordan were arrested to let the people go over dryshod. That night in the sea and that day in the river channel were surely never forgotten by those who were present. And night after night, too, in the wilderness, a food, hitherto unknown on earth, and never again supplied after Israel rested on the west of Jordan, fell around their camp wherever it was pitched. Yet more marvellous were some of the facts connected with the latter movement. Galilsean fishermen were heard suddenly speaking in languages they had never learnt. They spoke intelligibly, and doubtless fluently. They spoke in the ears of those in whose mother tongue they were expressing themselves. These heard, they marvelled, and attested that the men were speaking in the tongue in which each listener was born. Other marvels there were; for, what had never been known, the shadow of Peter passing along the street was eagerly desired by sick ones to overshadow them, and clothes from Paul's body conveyed healing virtue to such as had need of it.
Further, the Apostles were imprisoned ; the doors were locked; the keepers outside were on guard; yet the whole company, the Twelve, were brought out by angelic agency, without the knowledge or suspicion of even one of the warders, who were found in the morning to be guarding an empty gaol ! And the Apostles, thus set free, were found continuing their mission, publicly speaking in the court of the Temple "all the words of this life." The rulers now doubted, and well they might, whereunto that would grow. Then Peter, arrested, and imprisoned by the king, and chained to two soldiers to keep him safe, was set free in the hours of night without one of his guards being aware of it. He walked out of the prison unchallenged, and, accompanied by the angel, passed out by the iron gate into the city, which had opened of its own accord. Bolts and bars, soldiers and warders, were alike powerless to detain those whom the Lord would set free. Divine power was working for and with the Christians.
Another startling fact was recorded. The relentless persecutor of the new faith was suddenly converted, and became a most zealous champion of the truth, confounding the Jews as he reasoned with them. The work still spread wider and wider. Gentiles were converted, and Christian assemblies began to be formed outside the land of promise. What the rabble of Thessalonica declared was indeed true - the world was being turned upside-down.
Then at Philippi Paul and Silas were imprisoned, and their feet made fast in the stocks; and though their backs had been lacerated by scourging, unjustly and unlawfully administered, and their wounds remained undressed, yet their spirits were free, and prayers and praises at night poured forth from their lips. The prisoners heard them. Suddenly an earthquake took place. The doors were opened. Every one's bonds were loosed. The prisoners were free. Yet none escaped. Of liberty, so dear to the captive, no one availed himself. And, stranger than all, the jailor was found prostrate before those two whose feet he had made fast in the stocks, anxiously inquiring of them the way of salvation. Nor did he ask in vain. The enemy would, if possible, stop the work in Philippi. It burst out afresh, where none would have looked for it - inside the walls of that city's prison.
Then, too, the energy of faith, as displayed in the Acts, must not be forgotten. We see the disciples, when threatened with the rulers at Jerusalem, kneeling together in prayer for boldness to speak the Word. And Paul, stoned one day at Lystra, and drawn out of the city for dead, departed on the next day to preach the Gospel in Derbe. Nothing damped their energies or chilled their ardour. And what shall we say of manifestations of grace - as Stephen praying for his murderers, and Paul and Silas preserving the jailor from impending self-destruction? Ere closing, we must call attention, first, to that touching scene of men, women, and children on their knees on the shore at Tyre, under the open canopy of heaven, commending Paul and his company to the Lord - an open-air prayer-meeting on no common occasion; and, next, to that last meal on board the vessel within sound of breakers, yet not in sight of land, when Paul encouraged the toiling, half-famished company to take food, his faith in the promise of God imparting confidence to all on board.
No romance could be more thickly studded with incidents of. the deepest interest than this short, simple, yet truthful narrative of St. Luke, destitute as it is of any rhetorical flourish or wordy embellishment. A history he has, under God, given us which we venture to say is without parallel in the ordinary writings of men. It is the history of the power of the Word of God, that sword of the Spirit wielded by men under the guidance of the Holy Gbost - miracles attesting in the first place the commencement of a new dispensation, and then confirming the word of the first preachers of the Christian faith.
To this book, so fruitful in instruction for the labourer and for the ordinary disciple as well, the reader's attention is sought to be directed in the following pages. And may it be that a fresh study of the Acts shall increase in the former his confidence in the power of the Word, and minister to the latter refreshment and comfort, as he recalls the care of the Lord evinced for all those given to Him by His Father.
TRACINGS FROM THE ACTS OF THE
"Acts of the Apostles," or the shorter title "Acts," is the designation
in one of the oldest uncial MSS. of that book of the New Testament which is the
earliest and the only inspired history of the Church of God on
As to its author there can be no doubt. The writer of the Third Gospel is the writer of the Acts. And the same man for whom that Gospel was written was before his mind when he penned this the later history. Luke is by general consent acknowledged to be the writer of the Third Gospel. He must therefore by consequence be the writer of the Acts, as its opening sentence indicates.
"The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and to teach, until the day in which He was taken [or, received] up, after that He through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the Apostles whom He had chosen" (i. 1,2). So reads the short introduction. Luke had written an account of the Lord Jesus Christ's sojourn upon earth from His birth to His ascension. He will now write an account of the effect produced in early years by the coming of the Holy Ghost to dwell on this earth in the Church of God. For about thirty-three years was the Lord Jesus Christ dwelling here below. Of the Church's history, for the first thirty years of its existence, Luke writes for the benefit directly of Theophilus, and indirectly for all his readers in subsequent ages.
Who Theophilus was, in whom the Church historian was so deeply interested, as we have remarked in the companion volume, that on the Gospel of Luke, is now wholly unknown. How Luke became acquainted with him, and where, are facts buried in oblivion. His name only has been imperishably preserved, being embalmed in the pages of Holy Writ. Yet some day we shall see him. He will come with Christ. He will reign with Christ. And the teacher and the pupil will be together in glory, both trophies of Divine grace. We have said we know nothing of Theophilus - of his parentage, of his abode, or of his life. Very different is it as to the historian. Though neither his birth nor his death are matters substantiated by reliable history, we know a good deal about him from the Acts and from the Epistles of St. Paul. But having traced that out, as far as Scripture is our guide, in the volume already referred to, there is no need to repeat it here. We would only now remind the reader that he first joined Paul at Troas (Acts xvi. 10); then went with him to Philippi, where apparently he stayed till the Apostle revisited it (xx. 6) ; after which he travelled with him to Jerusalem, sailed with him to Rome, and never left him, that we read of, till the latter's martyrdom.
The Uncial MSS
Taking the period covered by his Gospel and the Acts together, Luke travels over the first six decades of the Christian era - years these were of eventful interest indeed. Ere the period connected with his Gospel had closed, it became evident, and was openly confessed, that a great prophet had been raised up, and that God had visited His people (Luke vii. 16). So declared the multitude of Nain, when the widow's son was brought back to life by the commanding voice of the Lord Jesus Christ. But they thought only of that which concerned Israel, and their words had no reference to anything beyond. In the second part of these eventful decades a new thing was witnessed. God had "visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for His name" (Acts xv. 14). So spake James at the first Christian council. Interesting then, how interesting must this history ever be to us ! Yet if the number of uncial MSS. which have preserved its text be any guide to the estimation in which it was formerly held, it must be admitted that it did not meet with that general acceptance which it deserved. For of those containing the whole Gospels or parts of them, we can now reckon up sixty-six. Of those containing the Pauline Epistles, either wholly or portions, only twenty can be cited. But of the uncials which have handed down the Acts, either the whole of the book or but fragments of it, only fifteen in all can be named. Copies therefore of the Acts in the days of uncial writing were evidently in no great request.
Just three uncial MSS. give the Acts entire. These are the Alexandrian in the British Museum, the Vatican at Rome, and the Sinaitic at St. Petersburg. These three are the most ancient MSS. of the New Testament known. Another, the Porphyrian, is later, dating about the ninth century. This uncial contains all the Acts but chapters i.-ii. 13. Another MS., the Codex Laudianus, we would here notice. Now kept at Oxford, it was once in the possession of Archbishop Laud - hence its name Laudianus - and was by him presented to that University. Written most likely in Western Europe, says Scrivener in his "Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament", p. 159, it may have been brought to England by Archbishop Theodore, and was certainly, it is thought, used by Bede, the celebrated English historian, who died about A.D. 735. It is a bilingual codex, having the Greek text with a Latin translation side by side in parallel columns. It lacks xxvi. 29 to xxviii. 26. The other uncial MSS. of the Acts contain but portions, more or less in extent. What is true regarding the uncial MSS. of the Acts is no less true of the cursive MSS. About 638 such MSS. of the Gospels are reckoned up by Scrivener. Of such containing St. Paul's Epistles, he enumerates as distinct copies 295; whilst for the Acts and Catholic Epistles, which are usually found together, the same authority only gives 252. All this bears out the remark of Chrysostom, quoted by Meyer, that the Book of the Acts was much less known and read than the Gospels.
The Canon of the New Testament.
A few words on the order of the canon of the New Testament may not be out of place. We have said that the Acts and the Catholic Epistles are usually found together in MSS. This is the case in the three oldest uncials - the Vatican, the Sinaitic, and the Alexandrian. Yet as to this order there was evidently no fixed rule, nor was the place assigned the Acts in the sacred volume always that next to the Gospels. For in the Codex Sinaiticus the thirteen Epistles of Paul precede the Acts and the Catholic Epistles. Again, in the Codex Bezae it is evident that the Catholic Epistles had preceded the history of the Acts. Then in the enumeration of the books of the New Testament, whether by councils or by individual writers, no fixed order obtained. The Gospels, though not always in the same order as we have them, hold the first place. The Apocalypse, if mentioned, for the most part comes last. At times the Acts and Catholic Epistles are mentioned before the Pauline writings ; at times this order is reversed. The council of Carthage (A.D. 397) mentions the sacred books of the New Testament in the following order: the Gospels, the Acts, Paul's Epistles, the Catholic Epistles (James excepted), and the Revelation.
Amongst writers the same diversity obtains. Eusebius (A.D. 315 - 340) mentions the Acts next after the Gospels, and the Pauline Epistles are noticed before mentioning the Catholic Epistles, the order with which by our English Bible we are made familiar. On the other hand, Athanasius (A.D. 326 - 373) and Cyril (A.D. 349 - 386) give the Catholic Epistles a place next after the Acts and before the Pauline Epistles, just the order in those old uncial MSS. the Alexandrian and the Vatican. But Augustine (A.D. 355 - 430) as well as Innocent of Rome (A.D. 402) agree in quite a different arrangement, naming the Acts after all the Epistles and just before the Revelation.* From this it is plain that there never was an arrangement of the books recognised as of Divine or even of canonical authority, though the Acts was unquestionably reckoned by those writers as part of the New Testament canon. * See Wordsworth's Canon of the Scriptures, Appendix A.
Of course, like other books of Scripture, it has been attacked, both in ancient and in modern times. The Ebionites, Severians, Marcionites, and Manichseans quarrelled with it, because it failed to support their special tenets, but were unable to shake the general belief in its genuineness and authenticity. In modern times writers have risen up to question, and more than question, its right to be in the sacred canon as part of inspired Scripture. Yet the Acts remains in the estimation of most as a genuine and inspired history, and really written by Luke. Like a rock in the sea, around which the waves dash themselves only to be broken, whilst the rock remains immovable, so is it with Scripture. It has withstood, and will withstand, all the efforts of men to dislodge it from its position and annul its claim to be a written revelation from above. At times it may have seemed as if its credibility was shaken - like the rock momentarily hidden from view by the spray of the waves which have broken over it. But as that reappears unshaken, whatever has been the violence of the waters, so Scripture will emerge from all siftings and critical examinations as what it really is - the Word of our God. If the attempts of men in early days, soon after the apostolic age, failed to dislodge the Acts from its position as inspired Scripture, attempts in these days of a similar kind will surely fail. Living near the time of the writer, with men still on the earth who had been conversant with the Apostles, or with those who had enjoyed personal acquaintance with them, the early opponents had an advantage to which modern ones can lay no claim. Yet they failed ; and modern attacks on the Acts are witnesses of that. These, then, in their turn will fail, and the book will remain unscathed as long as the Church of God is here below.
We have intimated that the history covers about the first thirty years of the Church's existence, and we add that also of the establishment of the form of the kingdom called the kingdom of the heavens, a term with which Matthew's Gospel and the parables contained in it have made us familiar. Yet chronological data is rarely furnished us by Luke. He writes as one who was acquainted with the facts he narrates, introducing a reference to a date here and there, but in nowise as one forming a journal or even a chronicle of the different years.
The first distinct reference to a date that we meet with is that of the famine in the days of Claudius Cassar. It lasted a considerable time between A.D. 44-48. Barnabas and Saul, charged with contributions from Christians at Antioch, went up to Jerusalem to convey that token of brotherly fellowship and love. Most probably, having been forewarned by Agabus of its approach, they went up either just previous to its commencement, or in the very early days of that severe visitation. The next date that we can find is that of the death of Herod Agrippa I., which took place A.D. 44. Then we read of the proconsulship of Gallic at the time that Paul was at Corinth. This is set down for A.D. 53. Another, and the last note of time, is the commencement of the procuratorship of Porcius Festus, A.D. 60. Assuming that the outpouring of the Spirit took place at Pentecost in the year 30 A.D., Paul's conversion is set down at A.D. 37. So starting from Pentecost, we have Paul's conversion just seven years after that event. What interesting work had gone on! What surprises were still in store for the saints ! In the next heptad, not only had Samaria received the Word, but Gentiles began to be numbered among the converts, and Antioch, destined to become the chief centre of foreign missionary effort, had been evangelised by earnest men of Cyprus and Cyrene. The first seven years close with the conversion of a persecutor. The second seven years end with the death of Herod Agrippa, who had also played the part of persecutor of the Christians, but in order to ingratiate himself with the Jews. Nine years now roll by, eventful years indeed; for during them the Gospel was planted in Asia Minor, and had reached as far as Corinth, witnessing everywhere to the power of the truth, and of its suitability for Gentiles of every social class, equally with all ranks among the Jews. Seven years more run on, and the Apostle, who had wrought such marvels at Ephesus, is a prisoner of the Romans at Csesarea, kept for the hearing of Caesar.
The above are the chief chronological data found in this history, which is a record of God's work on earth by His Word, showing how it spread from Jerusalem and Judaea, first to Samaria, then to Antioch and to Asia Minor, and then to Achaia, the modern Morea, embracing several centres of the heathen world, as Ephesus, Athens, and Corinth, in all of which it gained adherents, winning souls for Christ. Doctrinal disquisitions or treatises on Church truth we shall look for in vain in its pages - the subject of the council at Jerusalem excepted. But we do learn how the Gospel was preached, and what were the great lines of teaching handled by the Apostle Paul. Luke's evident aim was to trace the successive steps of the new movement, carried on under the guidance and personal superintendence of the Holy Ghost, For the labourers in the Word of that day were subject to no human authority in their service, nor were they guided in it by apostolic directions. The work spread, and manifested itself to be especially of God. Fields opened up, and labourers entered on them, often before the Apostles were aware of the fresh development which was taking place. They heard what had been done, yet for the most part had no hand in directing it.
To a detailed study of this interesting history let us now turn. We shall find it embraces acts of Peter (i.-xii.) and acts of Paul (xiii.-xxviii.). These may be said roughly to divide the book. We shall see, too, the opening up of different fields of labour, after attention has been first directed to displays of Divine power in connection with the work in Jerusalem, the book ending with Paul a prisoner at Rome, yet free to communicate to any who came to him truth needful for their everlasting welfare. Hence we might also divide the Acts into three great parts, illustrating respectively the power of God, the word of God, and the grace of God to a failing servant. All this will, we trust, be made apparent as we proceed. We would only here add, that authorities have been consulted, though they are not always mentioned. Meyer as a commentator and Mr. Lewin as a biographer for historical and topographical details have been freely used ; and in quoting the text the Authorised Version has been generally followed, reference being made to the Revised Version where called for.
Go To Chapter One
Home | Links | Writings | Biography