After the death of Stephen a great persecution broke out. (Acts 8.) The Jewish leaders appear to have gained a victory over the disciples, and they determined to pursue their apparent triumph with the utmost violence. But God, who is above all, and who knows how to restrain the rising passions of men, overruled their opposition for the accomplishment of His own will.
Man had not yet learnt the truth of the proverb, that "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." In the case of the first and the noblest of martyrs, the proverb was fully verified. But all these eighteen hundred years, men have been slow to learn, or believe, this plain historical fact. Persecution, generally speaking, has advanced the cause which it sought to repress. This will be found true in the main, under every form of opposition and persecution. Resistance, decision, and firmness are created by such treatment. True, timid minds may be driven to apostasy for a time by persecution; but how often have such, with the deepest repentance, and in order to regain their former position, endured with cheerfulness the keenest sufferings, and displayed in their last moments the greatest fortitude! But persecution, in one form or another, is to be expected by the followers of Jesus. They are exhorted to take up their cross daily and follow Him. It tests the sincerity of our faith, the purity of our motives, the strength of our affection for Christ, and the measure of our confidence in Him.
Those who are not true in heart for Christ will be sure to fall away in a time of sharp persecution. But love can endure for its object, when it can do nothing else. We see this perfectly in the blessed Lord Himself. He endured the cross — that was of God: He despised the shame — that was of man. It was amidst the shame and sufferings of the cross that the full strength of His love appeared, and that He triumphed over everything. Nothing could turn His love aside from its object; it was stronger than death. In this, as in all things, He has left us an example, that we should walk in His steps. May we ever be found following hard after Him!
From the history of the church in the Acts we learn, that the effect of the martyrdom of Stephen was the immediate spread of the truth, which his persecutors were seeking to hinder. The impressions produced by such a witness, and such a death, must have been overwhelming to his enemies, and convincing to the unprejudiced and the thoughtful. The last resort of human cruelty is death: but, wonderful to say Christian faith, in its first trial, was proved to be stronger than death, and that in its most frightful form. This the enemy witnessed, and would ever after remember. Stephen was on the Rock, and the gates of hell could not prevail against Him.
The whole church at Jerusalem, on this occasion, were scattered abroad; but they went everywhere preaching the word. Like the cloud that flies before the wind, bearing its refreshing rain to thirsty lands, so the disciples were driven from Jerusalem by the storm of persecution, bearing the living waters to thirsty souls in distant lands. "And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles." Some historians have thought that the fact of the apostles remaining in Jerusalem, when the disciples fled, proves their greater firmness and faithfulness in the cause of Christ; but we are disposed to judge differently, and to consider it failure rather than faithfulness. The Lord's commission to them was, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." And they had been told before, "When they persecute you in one city, flee into another." As far as scripture history informs us, the commission was never carried out by the twelve. Nevertheless, God was mighty in Paul towards the Gentiles, and in Peter towards the Jews.
The Holy Spirit now leaves Jerusalem as to outward manifest power — most solemn truth! But that guilty city preferred the patronage of Rome to the resurrection-power of their own Messiah. "What do we? " said the Jews, "for this man doeth many miracles. If we let Him thus alone, all men will believe on Him; and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and our nation." They rejected the Messiah in His humiliation, and now they reject the testimony of the Holy Ghost to His exaltation. Their iniquity was full, and wrath was coming on them to the uttermost. But, for the present, our happier place, in tracing the history of the church, is to follow the Holy Spirit on His way to Samaria. His path is the silver line of saving grace to precious souls.
Philip, the deacon, evidently next to Stephen in zeal and energy, goes down to Samaria. The Holy Spirit works with him. In the wisdom of the Lord's ways, despised Samaria is the first place, outside of Judaea, where the Gospel was preached by His chosen witnesses. "Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them. And the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. And there was great joy in that city." A great many believed and were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon Magus, the sorcerer, owned the presence of a power far above his own, and bowed to the force and current of the Spirit's work in others, though the truth had not penetrated his own heart or conscience. But as we have now traveled to another part of the country, this may be the fitting place to say a word as to its history.
The Holy Land, interesting beyond all other nations of the earth, both morally and historically, is in size very small. "It is but a strip of country, about the size of Wales, less than 140 miles in length, and barely 40 in average breadth." The northern portion is Galilee; the center, Samaria; the south, Judaea. But though physically so small, it has been the theater of the most momentous events in the world's history. There the Savior was born, lived and was crucified — and there He was buried and rose again. And there too, His apostles and martyrs lived, testified and suffered; and there the first gospel sermon was preached, and there the first church was planted.
The land originally occupied by Israel, lay between the ancient empires of Assyria and Egypt. Hence the frequent reference in the Old Testament to "the king of the North," and the "king of the South." Owing to this position, it was often the battle field of these mighty empires; and we know it will yet be the scene of their last and deadly conflict. (Daniel 11.) So superstitious have men been about the Holy Land, that it has been the object of national ambition, and the occasion of religious wars, almost ever since the days of the apostles. Who could estimate the blood that has been shed, and the treasure that has been wasted, on these sacred plains? — and all, we may add, under the fair name of religious zeal, or rather, under the banners of the cross and the crescent. Thither the pilgrims in every age have traveled, that they might worship at the holy sepulcher, and fulfill their vow. It has also been the great attraction for travelers of all characters and of all nations; and the great emporium for miracle-working relics. The Christian, the historian, and the antiquarian have searched it diligently, and made known their discoveries. Ever since the days of Abraham, it has been the most interesting and attractive spot on the earth's surface. And to the student of prophecy, its future history is even more interesting than its past. He knows that the day is coming, when the whole land shall be peopled by the twelve tribes of Israel, and filled with the glory and majesty of their Messiah. Then shall they be owned as the metropolitan people of the earth. We now return to Samaria, with its new life and joy.
The Samaritans through God's blessing readily believed the Gospel, as preached by Philip. The effects of the truth, thus received in simplicity, were immediate and of the most blessed character. "There was great joy in that city," and many were baptized. Such must ever be the effects of the Gospel, when believed, unless there be some hindrance in connection with ourselves. Where there is genuine simplicity of faith, there must be genuine peace and joy, and happy obedience. The power of the Gospel, over a people who had for ages resisted the claims of Judaism, was thus displayed. What the law could not do, in this respect, the Gospel accomplished. "Samaria was a 'conquest,'" as one has said, "which all the energy of Judaism had never been able to make. It was a new and splendid triumph of the Gospel. The spiritual subjugation of the world appertained to the church."
The bitter jealousy that existed between Jews and Samaritans had long been proverbial; hence we read, "The Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans." But now, in connection with the Gospel of peace, this root of bitterness disappears. Nevertheless in the wisdom of God's ways, the Samaritans must wait for the highest blessing of the Gospel, until the Jewish believers — the apostles from the church at Jerusalem — lay their hands on them, and offer up prayer for them. Nothing can be more deeply interesting than this fact, when we take into consideration the religious rivalry that had been so long manifested by both. Had not Samaria received this timely lesson of humility, she might have been disposed, once more, to maintain her proud independency of Jerusalem. But the Lord would not have it so. The Samaritans had believed, rejoiced, and were baptized, but they had not received the Holy Ghost. "Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John; who, when they were come down, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Ghost. Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost."
Identification is the great idea of the laying on of hands, and unity is the consequence of the gift of the Holy Ghost. These are immense facts in connection with the progress of the church. Samaria is thus brought into happy association with her ancient rival, and made one with the church at Jerusalem. There is no thought in God's mind of the one assembly being independent of the other. Had they been each blessed separately and independently, their rivalry might have been greater than ever. But it was to be no longer: "Neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem," but one Head in heaven, one body on earth, one Spirit, one redeemed family worshipping God in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeketh such to worship Him."
For the origin of the mixed people and worship of Samaria, see 2 Kings
17. They were but half Jews, though they boasted of their relation to Jacob. They received the five books of Moses as sacred, but undervalued the rest of the Bible. They were circumcised, kept the law after a sort, and were expecting a Messiah to come. The personal visit of the blessed Lord to Samaria is of the deepest and most touching interest. (John 4.) The well at which He rested, it is said, "lay in a valley between the two famous mountains, Ebal and Gerizim, on which the law was read. On the latter height stood the rival temple of the Samaritans, which had so long afflicted the more zealous Jews by its daring opposition to the one chosen sanctuary on Mount Moriah."
CONVERSION OF THE ETHIOPIAN EUNUCH
Philip is now called to leave his happy and interesting work at Samaria, and go down to Gaza — a wilderness — and preach the gospel there to a single person. Surely there is in this fact a lesson for the evangelist of the deepest importance, and one that must not be passed over without a brief notice.
The preacher, in such a scene of awakening and conversion as there was at Samaria, necessarily becomes greatly interested in the work. God is setting His seal on the ministry of the word, and sanctioning the meetings with His presence. The work of the Lord prospers. The evangelist is surrounded with respect and affection, and his children in the faith naturally look up to him for further light and instruction as to their path. How can he leave such a field of labor? many will inquire, Would it be right to leave it? Only, we reply, if the Lord called His servant to do so, as He did in the case of Philip. But how is one to know now, seeing that angels and the Spirit do not speak to him as they did to Philip? Though not spoken to in this way, he ought to look for and expect divine guidance. Faith must be his guide. Circumstances are unsafe as a guide; they may rebuke and correct us in our path, but the eye of God must be our guide. "I will guide thee with Mine eye" is the promise;
"I will instruct thee, and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go." (Psalm 32.)
The Lord only knows what is best for His servant and for His work. The evangelist in such a scene would be in danger of feeling his own personal importance. Hence the value, if not the necessity, of changing the place of service.
"Arise," said the angel of the Lord to Philip, "and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert. And he arose and went; and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure and had come to Jerusalem for to worship, Was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet. Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot." (Ac 8:26-29.)
The immediate and unquestioning obedience of Philip at this time is beautiful. He raises no question as to the difference between Samaria and Gaza — between leaving a wide field of labor, and going away to a desert place, to speak to one person about salvation. But the Spirit of God was with Philip. And the one desire of the evangelist should ever be to follow the leading of the Spirit. From the want of spiritual discernment a preacher may remain in a place after the Spirit has ceased to work in it, and so labor in vain.
God, in His providence,takes care of His servant; He sends an angel to direct him as to the road he is to take. But when it is a question of the gospel and dealing with souls, the Spirit takes the direction. "Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot." We know of nothing, in the whole history of the church, more interesting than this scene on the way to Gaza. The angel and the Spirit of God accompany the evangelist: the former representing the providence of God in marking out the very road he is to take; the latter representing spiritual power in direct dealing with souls. As it was then, so is it now; though we are more in the habit of thinking of the guidance of the Spirit, than of the direction of providence. May we trust God for everything! He changes not!
The gospel now finds its way, in the person of the queen's treasurer, to the center of Abyssinia. The eunuch believes, is baptized, and goes on his way rejoicing. What he sought for in vain in Jerusalem, and had taken a long journey to seek there, he finds in the desert. Beautiful instance of the grace of the gospel! The lost sheep is found in the wilderness, and living waters spring up in the desert. He is also a beautiful instance of an anxious soul. When alone and unemployed, he reads the prophet Isaiah. He muses on the prophecy of the suffering, unresisting, Lamb of God. But the moment of light and deliverance had come. Philip explains the prophet: the eunuch is taught of God — he believes: immediately desires baptism, and returns to his home, filled with the new joys of salvation. Would he be silent there as to what he had found? Certainly not; a man of such character and influence would have many opportunities of spreading the truth. But as both scripture and history are silent, as to the results of his mission, we venture not further.
The Spirit is still seen in company with Philip and carries him far away. He is found at Azotus, and evangelizes all the cities unto Caesarea.
But a new era in the church's history begins to dawn. A new workman enters the scene, and the most remarkable in many ways that ever served the Lord and His church.
No event in the progress of the church so deeply, or so blessedly, affects her after history, as the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. From being the chief of sinners, he became the chief of saints — from being the most violent opposer of Christ, he became the most zealous defender of the faith — as a hater and persecutor of the name of Jesus on the earth, he was "chief;" all others, compared with him, were subordinate. (Acts 9; 1 Timothy 1.)
It is quite evident, from what he says of himself, that he believed Judaism to be not only divine, but God's perpetual and unchangeable religion to man. It would be difficult to account for the strength of his Jewish prejudices on any other principle. Therefore all attempts to set aside the Jews' religion, and to introduce another, he considered to be of the enemy, and to be strenuously opposed. He had heard the noble speech of Stephen — he had witnessed his triumphant death; but his subsequent persecution of the Christians showed that the moral glory of that scene had made no serious impression on his mind. He was blinded by zeal; but zeal for Judaism now was zeal against the Lord. At this very time he was "breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord."
Hearing that some of the persecuted saints had found a shelter in Damascus, an ancient city of Syria, he made up his mind to go there, and bring them back to Jerusalem as criminals. For this purpose he received letters from the high priest and the estate of the elders, that he might bring them bound to Jerusalem to be punished. (Ac 22:1; 26:1.) He thus became the very apostle of Jewish malice against the disciples of Jesus; ignorantly, no doubt, but he made himself their willing missionary.
With his mind wrought up to the most violent pitch of persecuting zeal, he sets forth on his memorable journey. Unshaken in his ardent attachment to the religion of Moses, and determined to punish the converts to Christianity, as apostates from the faith of their ancestors, he approaches Damascus. But there, in the full energy of his mad career, the Lord Jesus stops him. A light from heaven, above the light of the sun, shines around him, and overwhelms him in its dazzling brightness. He fails to the earth — broken in will, subdued in mind, humbled in spirit, and altogether changed. His heart is now subject to the voice that speaks to him; he owns its power and authority. Reasoning, extenuation, self-justification, have no place in the presence of the Lord.
A voice from the excellent glory had said unto him, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me? And he said, Who art Thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest." Thus the Lord Jesus, though in heaven, declares Himself to be still identified with His disciples on the earth. The oneness of the church with Christ, its Head in heaven, the germ of the blessed truth of the "one body," is folded up in these few words, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me? ... I am Jesus whom thou persecutest." To be at war with the saints is to be at war with the Lord Himself. Blessed truth for the believer, but how solemn for the persecutor!
The vision Saul had seen, and the terrible discovery he had made, completely engross him. He is blind for three days, and can neither eat nor drink. Thus he enters Damascus, blind, broken, humbled, beneath the solemn judgment of the Lord! How different from what he had intended! He now joins himself to the company which he had resolved to exterminate. Nevertheless he enters in by the door, and humbly takes his place with the disciples of the Lord. Ananias, a godly disciple, is sent to comfort him. He receives his sight, he is filled with the Holy Ghost, he is baptized, he receives meat and is strengthened.
It is the thought of some, that the Lord gives in the conversion of Saul, not only a sample of His long-suffering, as in every sinner that is saved, but as a sign of the future restoration of Israel. Paul tells us himself, that he obtained mercy because he did it ignorantly in unbelief; and this is the very ground of mercy for Israel in the latter day. As our Lord Himself prayed for them: — "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Peter also, says
"And now, brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers." (Ac 3:17.)
But as the apostleship of Paul differs in many respects from that of the twelve, it will be necessary to notice it briefly. Unless this difference is understood, the true character of the present dispensation will be but feebly apprehended.
The LAW and the PROPHETS were until JOHN; after John the LORD Himself, in His own Person, offers the kingdom to Israel; but "His own received Him not." They crucified, the Prince of life; but God raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His own right hand in heavenly places. We have next THE TWELVE APOSTLES. They are endued with the Holy Ghost, and bear witness to the resurrection of Christ. But the testimony of the twelve is despised, the Holy Ghost is resisted, Stephen is martyred, the final offer of mercy is rejected, and now the Lord's dealings with Israel as a people close for a season. The scenes of Shiloh are enacted over again, Ichabod is written on Jerusalem, and a new witness is called out, as in the days of Samuel.
THE GREAT APOSTLE of the Gentiles now comes before us. He is as one born out of due time and out of due place. His apostleship had nothing to do with Jerusalem, or with the twelve. It was outside of both. His call was extraordinary and direct from the Lord in heaven. He is privileged to bring out the new thing, the heavenly character of the church — that Christ and the church are one, and that heaven is their common home. (Ephesians 2.) So long as God was dealing with Israel these blessed truths were kept a secret in His own mind.
"Unto me," says Paul, "who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, Who created all things by Jesus Christ." (Ephesians 3.)
There could be no doubt, from the character of the apostle's call, as to its divine authority. "Not of men, neither by man," as he says in his Epistle to the Galatians, "but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, Who raised Him from the dead." That is, it was "not of men," as to its source, not of any synod of official men. "Neither by man" was it, as to the medium through which his commission came. He was not only a saint, but an apostle, by calling: and that call was by Jesus Christ, and God the Father Who raised Him from the dead. In some respects his apostleship was even of a higher order than that of the twelve. They had been called by Jesus when on the earth; he had been called by the risen and glorified Christ in heaven. And, his call being thus from heaven, he wanted neither the sanction nor the recognition of the other apostles.
"But when it pleased God... to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the heathen, immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus." (Ga 1:15,17. )
The manner of Saul's call to be an apostle is worthy of special note, as it struck at the root of Jewish pride, and may also be viewed as the deathblow to the vain notion of apostolic succession. The apostles, whom the Lord had chosen and appointed when He was on the earth, were neither the source nor the channel, in any way, of Saul's appointment. They did not cast lots for him, as they did in the case of Matthias. Then they were scarcely off Jewish ground, which may account for their deciding by lot. It was an ancient form in Israel of discovering the divine will in such matters. But these emphatic words, "Paul, an apostle, not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ," completely exclude the intervention of man in every shape and way. Apostolic succession is set aside. We are saints by calling and servants by calling. And that call must come from heaven. Paul stands before us, as the true pattern for all preachers of the gospel, and for all ministers of the word. Nothing can be more simple than the ground he takes as a preacher, great apostle though he was.
"We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak. (2Co 4:13.)
Immediately after he was baptized and strengthened, he began to confess his faith in the Lord Jesus, and to preach in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. This is a new thing. Peter preached that He had been exalted to the right hand of God — that He had been made both Lord and Christ; but Paul preaches the higher doctrine of His personal glory — "that He is the Son of God." In Matthew 16, Christ is revealed by the Father to the disciples, as "the Son of the living God." But now He is revealed, not only to Paul, but in Paul. "It pleased God to reveal His Son in me," he says. But who is sufficient to speak of the privileges and blessings of those to whom the Son of God is thus revealed? The dignity and security of the church rest on this blessed truth; and also the gospel of the glory, which was especially entrusted to Paul, and which he calls "my gospel."
"On the Son thus revealed within," as one has sweetly said, "hangs everything that is peculiar to the calling and glory of the church — her holy prerogatives — acceptance in the Beloved, with forgiveness of sins through His blood — entrance into the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, so as to have made known to us the mystery of the will of God — future inheritance in and with Him in whom all things in heaven and earth are to be gathered — and the present seal and earnest of this inheritance is the Holy Ghost. This bright roll of privileges is inscribed by the apostle, thus — 'spiritual blessings in the heavenlies;' and so they are; blessings through the Spirit flowing from and linking us with Him who is the Lord in the heavens." (Eph 1:3-14.)
But the doctrine of the church — this mystery of love, and grace, and privilege — was not revealed until Paul declared it. The Lord had spoken of it as that which the presence of the Comforter was to effect, saying, "At that day ye shall know that I am in My Father, and ye in Me, and I in you." And again, when He said to the disciples after the resurrection, "I ascend unto My Father and your Father, unto My God and your God." Of this "bright roll" of blessing Paul was especially and characteristically the apostle.
We must now leave the history of Saul for a little, and turn to Peter, who occupies the field until Saul commences his public ministry in Acts 13.
Chapter 4 - The Missionaries of the Cross