Commentary on the Book of Acts
BY ITS OPENING words the Acts of the Apostles is linked in the clearest way with the Gospel of Luke. The same Theophilus is addressed, and in the first chapter the story is resumed just at the point where the Gospel left off, save that a few extra details are given of the Lord's words after His resurrection, and the account of His ascension is repeated in a somewhat different setting. The Gospel leads up to His resurrection and ascension. The Acts starts from those glorious facts and develops their consequences.
In the first verse Luke describes his Gospel as a "treatise . . . of all that Jesus began both to do and teach." The word "began" is worthy of note. It infers that Jesus has not ceased to do and teach by reason of His going on high beyond the sight of men. The Acts tells us what Jesus proceeded to do, by shedding forth the Holy Spirit from the Father, so that by Him He might act through the Apostles and others. In the same way we discover by reading the epistles what He proceeded to teach through the Apostles in due season. Before He was taken up He gave necessary instructions to the Apostles, and that, "through the Holy Ghost," though as yet the Spirit was not given to them. In his Gospel Luke had presented the Lord to us as the perfect Man, ever acting in the power of the Spirit, and in that same light we see Him here.
For the space of forty days He manifested Himself as the One living beyond the power of death, and thus abundant proof was furnished of His resurrection. During these contacts with His disciples He spoke to them of things concerning the kingdom of God, and directed them to await in Jerusalem the coming of the Spirit. John, who baptized with water, had pointed to Him as the Baptizer with the Holy Ghost, and that baptism was to reach them in a few days.
The Lord had been speaking of the kingdom of God; their minds however still ran on the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. In this they were like the two going to Emmaus, though now they knew that He was risen. Their question gave to the Lord the opportunity of indicating what was to be the programme for the opening dispensation, and we see again just what we saw in Luke 24; the Centre of the programme is not Israel but Christ. The coming of the Spirit would mean power, not that the apostles should be restorers of Israel, but "witnesses unto Me"-witnesses to Christ unto the utmost bounds of the earth. The four circles of witness, mentioned at the end of verse 8, supply us with one way of dividing up the book. We begin with the witness in Jerusalem, and until the end of Acts 7 we are occupied with that city and Judaea. Then in chapter 8 comes Samaria. In Acts 9 the man to carry the Gospel to the Gentiles is called; and in Acts 13 the mission to the uttermost parts begins.
There appears to be a contradiction between verse 7, and what Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5: 1 and 2. But there the point is that they knew well what was going to transpire as regards God's dealing with the earth: here that we may not know when, since that is a matter reserved by the Father for Himself alone. Our business is to render true and diligent witness to Christ. What that witness will effect is not plainly stated until we reach Acts 15: 14.
Having said these things Jesus was taken up and a cloud-doubtless the cloud of Luke 9: 34-hid Him from their eyes. Two heavenly messengers however stood by their side to supplement His declaration of a few moments before. Their mission was to be witnesses to the ascended Christ; but their hope was to be His return just as He went. His going was not something figurative, shadowy, mystical, but actual and literal. His coming will be actual and literal in like manner.
Ten days had to pass before the coming of the Spirit, and the rest of the chapter tells us how those days of waiting were occupied. The number of avowed disciples in Jerusalem was about one hundred and twenty, and prayer and supplication filled. their time. There could be no witness until the Spirit was given, but they could take and maintain the safe place of utter dependence upon God.
And further, they could refer to the Scriptures and apply them to the existing situation, inasmuch as the Lord had opened their minds to understand, as recorded in Luke 24. It is remarkable that Peter should have been the one to take the initiative in this matter, seeing he himself had so sadly sinned only about six weeks before. Still it shows that the Lord had thoroughly effected his restoration, and he was able to piece together Psalm 69: 25, and 109: 8, in this striking way. "Bishoprick" of course should be "office" or "charge," as reference to the Psalm will show. It was the office of apostleship that was in question, as also verse 25 of our chapter shows. Verses 18 and 19 are evidently not the words of Peter, but a parenthesis in which Luke gives us further details of the fearful end of Judas.
An essential feature of apostleship was first-hand knowledge of the risen Saviour. The apostle must be able to testify of Him as having personally seen Him in His risen estate: hence Paul's third question in 1 Corinthians 9: 1. Paul saw Him, not during the forty days but later in the full blaze of His glory. However, from the outset there must be the twelve apostolic witnesses, and Matthias was chosen. They had recourse to the Old Testament practice of casting lots: guidance, such as we read of in Acts 13: 2, could not be known until the Holy Ghost had been given.
IF WE READ Leviticus 23, we can see that just as the Passover was prophetic of the death of Christ, so Pentecost was prophetic of the coming of the Spirit, in whose power there is presented to God the "new meat offering" consisting of the two loaves of firstfruits-an election from both Jew and Gentile, sanctified by the Holy Ghost. Just as that to which the Passover pointed was fulfilled on the Passover day, so that to which Pentecost pointed was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. On Jesus the Spirit came as a dove: on the disciples as the sound of a mighty blowing or breathing, and as cloven tongues of fire. The wind appealed to the ear, and was reminiscent of the Lord's own inbreathing, of which John 20: 22 speaks. The tongues of fire appealed to the eye, and were quite unique. The wind filled all: the tongues sat upon each. We may connect inward power with the one; and with the other the expression of the power in the many tongues as the Spirit gave utterance. When Jesus came, He was audible, visible and tangible-see, 1 John 1: 1. When the Spirit came He was audible and visible only, and that in this mysterious way.
It is important that we should, from the outset, distinguish between the great fact of the Spirit's presence, and the signs and manifestations of His presence, which vary so greatly. This is the definite gift of the Spirit, referred to in John 7: 39; John 14: 16, though, since here only Jews were in question, the pouring out of the Spirit upon believing Gentiles (see Acts 10: 45) was an act supplementary to this. Having come thus the Spirit abides with the saints right through the dispensation. As the result of the out-pouring here, they were all filled with the Spirit, so that He was in complete control of each. We must also distinguish between the gift of the Spirit and the filling with the Spirit, since the former may be had without the latter, as we shall see later. Here both were present together.
Those upon whom the Spirit came were a praying people, in this resembling their Lord. They were also people of one accord, and consequently in one place. The one place is not named: it may have been the upper room of Acts 1, but more probably, in view of the crowds that heard the Spirit-given utterances, some court of the temple, such as Solomon's porch. At any rate the thing was real and powerful and could not be hid. It was, within a limited sphere, a reversal of Babel. There man's proud building was stopped by the confusion of tongues: here God signalized the start of His spiritual building by giving mastery over the tongues and reducing them to order.
We may see another contrast in the fact that when the tabernacle had been made in the wilderness and the Lord took possession of it by the cloud of His presence, He at once began to speak to Moses concerning sacrifice. This is shown by connecting Exodus 40: 35, with Leviticus 1: 1 and 2. In our chapter we have God taking possession of His new, spiritual house by His Spirit, and again He at once speaks by His inspired Apostles. Many people from different countries hear "the wonderful works of God."
The enquiry of the crowds gave the opportunity for witness. Peter was the spokesman, though the eleven stood with him as supporting his words, and he at once directed them to the scripture which explained what it all meant. Joel had predicted the pouring out of the Spirit upon all flesh in days that are yet to come, and what had just transpired was a fulfilment of it, though not the fulfilment. Peter's words, "this is that which was spoken," imply that it was of the nature of that which Joel had foretold, but not necessarily the full and conclusive thing which the prophecy had in view. John the Baptist had said of Jesus, "The same is He which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost" (John 1: 33). Joel had said that, after Israel's repentance and the destruction of their foes, there should be this pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh. Now on the day of Pentecost there had been a kind of firstfruits of this in the pouring out of the Spirit upon those who formed the nucleus of the church. That was the true explanation of what had happened. They were not drunk with wine, but filled with the Spirit.
But Peter did not stop there; he proceeded to show why this baptism of the Spirit had taken place. It was the direct action of Jesus, now exalted to the right hand of God. This we find when we reach verse 33; but from verse 22 he had been leading the minds of people through the scenes of the crucifixion to His resurrection and exaltation. Jesus of Nazareth had been most manifestly approved of God during the days of His ministry, yet they had slain Him with their wicked hands. He had been delivered up to this by God according to His "determinate counsel and fore-knowledge," for God knows how to make the wrath of man to praise Him and accomplish His designs of blessing; though this does not diminish man's responsibility in the matter. Verse 23 is a clear instance of how the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man do not clash, when it is a question of practical results; though we may have difficulty in reconciling the two as a matter of theory.
What they had so wickedly done God had triumphantly undone. The collision between their programme and God's was complete. It presaged their own complete undoing and overthrow in due season; particularly as the resurrection had been foreseen by God, and foretold through David in Psalm 16. Now David could not possibly have been speaking of himself, for he had been buried and his grave was well known amongst them at that day. When he spoke of One, whose soul was not left in hades and whose flesh did not see corruption, he spoke of Christ. What he said had been fulfilled: Jesus was not only raised but exalted to heaven.
As the exalted Man, Jesus had received of the Father the promised Holy Ghost, and had shed Him forth upon His disciples. At His baptism He received the Holy Ghost for Himself as the dependent Man; now He receives the same Holy Ghost on behalf of others as their Representative. By shedding forth the Spirit these others were baptized into one body and became His members. This we learn from later scriptures.
In verses 34-36, Peter carries his argument a step further to its climax. David had prophesied of his Lord, who should be exalted to God's right hand. David himself was not ascended to the heavens any more than he was risen from the dead. The One of whom David spoke was to sit in the seat of administration and power until His foes were made His footstool; therefore the conclusion of the whole matter was this:-the shedding forth of the Spirit, which they had seen and heard, proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that God had made the crucified Jesus both Lord and Christ.
As Lord He is the great Administrator on God's behalf, whether in blessing or in judgment. His shedding forth the Spirit had been an act of administration, which had revealed His Lordship.
As Christ He is the anointed Head of all things, and particularly of the little handful of His own left upon earth. His reception from the Father of the Spirit on their behalf, preliminary to shedding Him forth, had revealed His Christhood.
Being "made" Lord and Christ is quite consistent with His having been both during His sojourn on earth. These things were ever His, but now He was officially installed as such, as the risen and glorified Man. Wonderful news for us; but terrible news for those who had been guilty of His crucifixion. It simply guaranteed their dreadful damnation, if they persisted on their course.
The Spirit, who had just fallen upon the disciples, now began to work in the consciences of many of the hearers. As they began to realize the desperate situation in which they were placed by the resurrection of the Lord, they were pricked in the heart and cried out for direction. Peter indicated repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ as the way to remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit; for, as he points out in verse 39, the promise in Joel is to repentant Israel, and to the children of such, and even to distant Gentiles. Thus in the first Christian sermon the extension of Gospel blessing to Gentiles is contemplated. Remission of sins and the gift of the Spirit carry with them all Christian blessings.
It may strike us as remarkable that Peter does not mention faith. But it is inferred, for no one would submit to baptism in the name of Jesus Christ except they believed in Him. Baptism signifies death, and consequently dissociation from the old life and connections. They would not be prepared to cut their links with the old life unless they really believed in Him who was Lord of the new life. With many words Peter testified, and exhorted them to cut their links, and thus save themselves from that "untoward generation."
Faith was present, for no less than three thousand received Peter's word. An hour before they knew the anguish of being pricked to the heart. Now they received the Gospel and cut their links by baptism. Having thus dissociated themselves from the mass of their nation, who had crucified their Lord, they took their stand by the side of the original 120, who were multiplied twenty-six times in one day. Further, not only did they begin, but they were marked by stedfast continuance.
The four things that marked them, according to verse 42, are worthy of note. First comes the apostles' doctrine or teaching. This lies at the foundation of things. The apostles were the men to whom the Lord had said, "When He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth" (John 16: 13). Their doctrine was consequently the fruit of the Spirit's guiding. The church was now in being, and the first thing that marked it was subjection to the Spirit's teaching through the apostles. The church does not teach; it is taught, and is subject to the Word as given by the Spirit.
Continuing in apostolic doctrine, they continued also in apostolic fellowship. They found their practical life and society in apostolic company. Formerly they had everything in common with the world; now their communion with the world had disappeared and communion with apostolic circles had been established-and the apostolic communion was "with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ" (1 John 1: 3).
They continued also in the breaking of bread, which was the sign of their Lord's death, and also incidentally-as we learn from 1 Corinthians 10: 17-an expression of fellowship. Thus they were in constant remembrance of their Lord who died, and preserved from reverting to the old associations.
Finally, they continued in prayers. They had no power in themselves; all was vested in their Lord on high and in the Spirit given to them. Hence constant dependence on God was necessary for the maintenance of their spiritual life and testimony.
These things marked the primitive church, and should no less mark the church today. The things mentioned in the closing verses of the chapter were of a less permanent character. The apostles, with signs and wonders are gone. The Christian communism, which prevailed at the outset, also passed away; as did the continuing with one accord in the temple, and the being in favour with all the people. Yet all was over-ruled of God. The selling of their possessions led to much poverty amongst the saints when years later the famine came, and thus was the occasion for that ministry of relief from Gentile assemblies (see, Acts 11: 27-30) which did so much to bind together the Jewish and Gentile elements in the church of God.
For the moment there was simplicity, gladness and singleness of heart with much praise to God. And the work of God, adding the believing remnant to the church, still went on.
THE ACTS is an historical book, but it is not mere history. An immense amount of apostolic service is left unrecorded, and mention is made of just a few incidents which serve to show the way the Spirit of God operated in bearing witness to the risen and exalted Jesus, and in conducting the disciples into the fulness of Christian blessing. The book covers a period of transition from the beginning of the church at Jerusalem to the full ingathering from among the Gentiles.
This chapter opens with the healing of the man who, lame from his birth, lay at the Beautiful gate of the temple. As the next chapter tells us he was above forty years old-the complete period of probation had been fulfilled in him. The man had not been healed by the Lord Jesus in the days of His flesh, though He so frequently taught in the temple; but he was healed by the power of His Name, now that He was glorified in heaven. Peter had neither silver nor gold, but the power of the Name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth he could wield, and the man was instantly healed in most triumphant fashion. Today many earnest Christian folk are mostly concerned about collecting the silver and gold for the support of the work of the Lord, and the power of the Name lies largely unused. This is to our reproach.
By reason of his deformity the lame man had lain under certain disabilities according to the law; now grace had removed his deformity and with it the disability, so that he could enter the temple with freedom; and holding on to the Apostles there was no hiding those who had been the instruments of his deliverance. This gave Peter the opportunity of testimony. He at once put himself and John out of the picture, in order that the glorified Jesus might fill it.
Peter's boldness is remarkable. He charged the people with their denial of "the Holy One and the Just," though he himself not many weeks before had denied his Lord. They had had before them "the Prince [Author] of life" and "a murderer;" that is a taker of life. They killed the One, and chose the other; yet He, whom they killed, God had raised from the dead, and thus they were caught in red-handed rebellion against God. Moreover this "perfect soundness" has been granted to the lame man in the power of His Name, through faith. They could not see the glory of Jesus in heaven, but they could see the miracle wrought in His Name upon earth. The soundness on earth was linked with the glory in heaven.
Verse 17 shows that God was prepared to treat their dreadful crime as a sin of ignorance-as manslaughter, for which a city of refuge is provided, and not as murder. This was a direct answer to the prayer on the cross, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." By their sinful act God had accomplished His purpose as to the suffering of Christ, and hence there was still an offer of mercy for them as a nation. That offer Peter made, as recorded in verses 19-26 of our chapter. Everything hinged upon their repentance and conversion.
Whether Isaiah 35: 6, 7, was in Peter's mind as he spoke about "the times of refreshing," we cannot say, but it does seem as if it must have been in the mind of the Spirit who was speaking through him. When "the lame man" shall "leap as an hart," then, "in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert." But all this refreshing predicted by Isaiah is for "the ransomed of the Lord." and for no others. Hence only repentance and a complete turning round would bring such times; if that took place God would send Jesus Christ to bring them to pass.
The term, "restitution of all things," has been misused in the service of the idea that God is going ultimately to save and restore everybody-even the devil himself. But the passage reads, "the restitution of all things, which God hath spoken . . ." It is things, not persons, and things which from the outset He had spoken by His prophets. God is going to make good every word, and to establish in Christ everything which has broken down in the hands of men. That time will not come till Jesus Himself comes, and since He is the Prophet of whom Moses spoke, all things will be brought to an issue when He does come, and everyone who disregards Him will be destroyed from among the people. There will be a time of blessing established, the like of which has not been since the world began.
In these words, then, Peter made the definite offer on God's behalf that if at this point there was repentance and turning to God on a national scale, Jesus would return and establish the predicted times of blessing. In the last verse of the chapter he also added that, whatever their response was, God had raised up Jesus to bless them in turning them from their sins. These two things we all need: first, the judicial blotting out of our sins; second, to be turned away from our sins, so that they lose their power over us.
AS WE READ the opening verses we find the answer to this offer, which was given by the official heads of the nation. The offer being based on the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, it was particularly obnoxious to the Sadducees and to the priests, who were of that party. They gave it an unqualified rejection by arresting the apostles. The work of God, in converting power, went on however, as verse 4 records; and the next day, when examined before the council, Peter found fresh opportunity for testimony, in answering their question as to the power and Name in which he had acted.
The Name and power was that of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom they had crucified and whom God had exalted. Psalm 118: 22 had been fulfilled in Him, and Peter proceeded to widen out the testimony from that which was particular to that which is universal. The power of the Name was right before their eyes in the particular case of the lame man healed: it was no less potent for the salvation of men universally. The physical healing of the man was just a sign of the spiritual healing which the Name of Jesus brings. The despised Jesus of Nazareth is the only door into salvation.
Verses 13-22, show most strikingly how Peter's testimony was vindicated. The apostles were unlearned and ignorant according to worldly standards, yet they had been with Jesus and were bold, and this impressed the council, who would fain have condemned them. Three things hindered however:
(1) "They could say nothing against it" (verse 14);
(2) They had to confess, "we cannot deny it" (verse 16);
(3) They found "nothing how they might punish them" (verse 21).
When men wish to discredit anything, they usually in the first place deny it, if that be at all possible. If that be not possible, they find some way of speaking against it, misrepresenting it, if need be. Lastly, if that be not possible, they attack the persons involved in the thing, blackening their characters and punishing them. These three well-known devices were in the minds of the council, but all