Great Texts of the Bible
Come Over and Help Us
And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There was a man of Macedonia standing, beseeching him, and saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us.—Acts 16:9.
1. This, says Sir W. M. Ramsay, is in many respects the most remarkable paragraph in Acts. In the first place the Divine action is introduced three times in four verses, marking and justifying the new and great step which is made at this point. In Acts 13:1-11 also the Divine action is mentioned three times, leading up to the important development which the author defines as “opening the door of belief to the Nations”; but in that case there were only two actual manifestations of the Divine guidance and power. Here on three distinct occasions the guidance of God was manifested in three different ways—the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, and the Vision—and the three manifestations all lead up to one end, first forbidding Paul’s purpose of preaching in Asia, then forbidding his purpose of entering Bithynia, and finally calling him forward into Macedonia. Now, amid “the multitude of the revelations” (2 Corinthians 12:7) granted to Paul, Luke selects only those which have a distinct bearing on his own purpose as a historian, and omits the vast majority, which were all important in their influence on Paul’s conduct and character. What is his reason for the insistence in this case?
2. It is not easy to account on strictly historical grounds for the emphasis laid on the passage to Macedonia. Lightfoot, in his fine essay on “the Churches of Macedonia,” recognizes with his usual insight that it is necessary to acknowledge and to explain that emphasis; but his attempt cannot be called successful. As he himself acknowledges, the narrative gives no ground to think that the passage from Troas to Philippi was ever thought of by Luke as a passage from continent to continent. A broad distinction between the two opposite sides of the Hellespont, as belonging to two different continents, had no existence in the thought of those who lived in the Ægean lands, and regarded the sea as the path connecting the Ægean countries with each other; and the distinction had no more existence from a political point of view, for Macedonia and Asia were merely two provinces of the Roman Empire, closely united by common language and character, and divided from the Latin-speaking provinces farther west.
3. The sweep and rush of the narrative is unique in Acts: point after point, province after province, are hurried over. The natural development of Paul’s work along the great central route of the Empire was forbidden, and the next alternative that rose in his mind was forbidden: he was led across Asia from the extreme south-east to the extreme north-west corner, and yet prevented from preaching in it; everything seemed dark and perplexing, until at last a vision in Troas explained the purpose of this strange journey. We cannot but be struck with the fact, that in this paragraph the idea seems to clothe itself in the natural words, and not to have been laboriously expressed by a foreign mind. And the origin of the words becomes clear when we look at the concluding sentence: “Immediately we sought to go forth into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that ‘God has called us for to preach the Gospel unto them.’ ” The author was with Paul in Troas; and the intensity of this paragraph is due to his recollection of the words in which Paul had recounted the vision, and explained the whole Divine plan that had guided him through his perplexing wanderings. The words derive their vivid and striking character from Paul, and they remained indelibly imprinted on Luke’s memory.1 [Note: W. M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller, 198.]
We shall take the subject in two parts—
I. The Vision
II. The Appeal.
“A vision appeared to Paul in the night; There was a man of Macedonia standing, beseeching him.”
1. A vision. The word (ὄραμα) is used by St. Luke eleven times in Acts (elsewhere in N.T. only in Matthew 17:9). It is expressive more naturally of a vision during wakefulness, whereas “dream” (ὄναρ) is the usual term for a vision during sleep.
2. The Meaning of the Vision.
(1) Whoever St. Paul’s night visitant may have been it is impossible to overlook the fact that great importance attached to the occurrence. To St. Paul “the vision was the reflexion of waking thoughts, and the revelation of the will of God” (Eugène Bersier); it is easy to understand his eagerness to follow this vision after he had been twice hindered in his purpose, and although it may well be that neither he nor St. Luke regarded the journey from Troas to Philippi as a passage from one continent to another continent, yet, to St. Paul, the extension of Christ’s kingdom was the one burning desire, and in the good Providence of Him who “sees with larger other eyes than ours,” the vision was instrumental in pointing the way for the founding of St. Paul’s first European Church. It is perhaps venturesome to say that the Gospel was now first preached on the continent of Europe, as the good tidings may have reached Rome through the Jews and proselytes who heard St. Peter on the Day of Pentecost.
(2) As our pioneer Apostle stood on this Asiatic frontier, among its stirring historic recollections, we must not suppose his thoughts rested long or chiefly upon them. His ardent desire to advance his Master’s work, together with an ever-present sense of his responsibilities, urged him to unflagging activity. Besides, the remarkable providential guidance under which he had been led hither, must have induced him to expect still further direction. There were heights of heathenism, vast expanses of moral darkness lying beyond the western horizon. Does his Master design that he shall scale those heights, that he shall penetrate those wastes? The vision leaves him no longer in doubt as to the field he shall enter.
(3) He receives no direct instructions, but the intimation and signs of a symbolic vision. He does not receive an explicit command, or demonstrative proof of the particular path on which God wishes him to walk, but implicit indications, inferential proof of both. In his peculiar circumstances, in his expectant state of mind, with his past experience of the ways in which God guides, he speedily and rightly understands the instructions God means to communicate to him. He speedily interprets the vision; in it he hears the voice of God and the voices of his destitute fellow-men calling to him. Their spiritual distress and need comes as the cry of men perishing for lack of help, which he can give—the cry of those who have no vision, and are ready to perish in the misery of sin and ignorance of the Gospel. We read in the verse following the text, “After he had seen the vision, immediately we endeavoured to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us to preach the Gospel unto them.”
(4) What does the vision mean for us? It is a repetition with renewed emphasis of the command, “Go ye into all the world.” It is a call to interpret the symbol in the light of all our knowledge. Archbishop Temple has said: “The call to preach the Gospel to all nations, to every creature, has become more imperative, because it has become more clearly understood, and more completely within our reach. We know now what is meant by ‘all nations.’ We can count the nations; we can sum up all their languages; we can precisely define their limits. The habitable world has become, not a vast, vague, unlimited expanse, but a definite area, with bounds that can be traced upon a map. And so, too, now, all the nations have become accessible; we not only know them, but we also know how to reach them.” They wait our answer to their appeal. They wonder why we delay to come to them.
There is an old story that caught fire in my heart the first time it came to me, and burns anew at each memory of it. It told of a time in the southern part of our country when the sanitary regulations were not so good as of late. A city was being scourged by a disease that seemed quite beyond control. The city’s carts were ever rolling over the cobble-stones, helping to carry away those whom the plague had slain.
Into one very poor home, a labouring man’s home, the plague had come. And the father and children had been carried out until on the day of this story there remained but two, the mother and her baby boy of perhaps five years. The boy crept up into his mother’s lap, put his arms about her neck, and with his baby eyes so close, said, “Mother, father’s dead, and brothers and sister are dead;—if you die, what’ll I do?” The poor mother had thought of it, of course. What could she say? Quieting her voice as much as possible, she said, “If I die, Jesus will come for you.” That was quite satisfactory to the boy. He had been taught about Jesus, and felt quite safe with Him, and so went about his play on the floor. And the boy’s question proved only too prophetic. Quick work was done by the dread disease. And soon she was being laid away by strange hands.
It is not difficult to understand that in the sore distress of the time the boy was forgotten. When night came, he crept into bed, but could not sleep. Late in the night he got up, found his way out along the street, down the road, into where he had seen the men put her. And throwing himself down on the freshly shovelled earth, sobbed and sobbed until nature kindly stole consciousness away for a time.
Very early the next morning a gentleman, coming down the road from some errand of mercy, looked over the fence, and saw the little fellow there. Quickly suspecting some sad story, he called him, “My boy, what are you doing there? My boy, wake up, what are you doing there all alone?” The boy waked up, rubbed his baby eyes, and said, “Father’s dead, and brothers and sister’s dead, and now—mother’s—dead—too. And she said, if she did die, Jesus would come for me. And He hasn’t come. And I’m so tired waiting.” The man swallowed something in his throat, and in a voice not very clear, said, “Well, my boy, I’ve come for you.” And the little fellow waking up, with his baby eyes so big, said, “I think you’ve been a long time coming.”1 [Note: S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Service, 61.]
“Come over into Macedonia, and help us.”
1. It is the cry of Greece to Judea—the appeal of the secular to the sacred. Greece had every secular possession the heart can name—beauty, philosophy, art, culture, gaiety. Judea had at this moment no secular possession at all; she had only Christ. Yet rich Greece called for the help of poor Judea! It is no passing picture, no evanescent experience; it is an eternal truth. The secular world cannot live without the help of Christ. No man can fulfil the duties of the hour by the light of the hour; it is always by a coming light. The schoolboy works for his prize, the clerk for his promotion. Nothing of value is stimulated by the mere sense of the moment. Not even charity is so stimulated. My benevolence for anything is proportionate to my idea of its longevity. Rome had no hospitals for incurables, no infirmaries for lives useless to the State. Why have we such institutions? It is because we think of these people as possible members of a future state. Our charity has been born of our faith and our hope. Why do we not follow the Roman in eliminating deformed infants? Because we have more pity? Nay, the Roman was prompted by pity. We refuse to follow, not because we feel more deeply, but because we see more clearly. We have caught sight of another chance for the deformed infant—a chance which his misfortune will not impair. We have seen that he too is worth training, worth educating, worth moulding—that there is a place waiting for him in a republic even larger than that of Rome.
Through midnight gloom from Macedon,
The cry of myriads as of one,
The voiceful silence of despair,
Is eloquent in awful prayer:
The soul’s exceeding bitter cry,
“Come o’er and help us or we die!”
How mournfully it echoes on,
For half the world is Macedon!
These brethren to their brethren call,
And by the Love which loved them all,
And by the whole world’s Life they cry,
“O ye that live, behold we die!”
By other sounds our ears are won
Than that which wails from Macedon;
The roar of gain is round us rolled,
Or we unto ourselves are sold,
And cannot list the alien cry
“O hear and help us lest we die!”
Yet with that cry from Macedon
The very car of Christ rolls on!
“I come; who would abide My day
In yonder wilds prepare My way;
My voice is crying in their cry,
Help ye the dying lest ye die!”1 [Note: S. J. Stone. Poems and Hymns, 248.]
2. It is a cry from the weak to the strong. Examine the spirit of the prayer in the words of the text as to the nature of the help invoked. It is a strong word (βοήθησον) that is translated “help”—strong as “succour” or “rescue.” When the partners of Simon were beckoned—to come and help (ἐλθόντας συλλαβέθαι)—the beckoners were doing their best to “bear a hand.” But it is the “help of the helpless” that is implied in the text; so helpless—at least in some cases, and those the worst—as not even to know that they needed deliverance. The man of Macedonia was an ideal, whether or not he was an actual, man. He is the impersonation of a need—felt, or so much the worse when it is not felt. From this the Apostle rightly concluded that not man, but the Lord, had called them to preach the Gospel in Europe.
Do you remember De Quincey’s dream—how in his dream he saw the great chariot rushing down the vast aisles of a cathedral, past the storied tombs of kings and warriors, on which were the sculptured forms of the mighty dead, and yet upon the pavement in the very track of the chariot was a little child stooping down and playing with a flower, heedless of the approaching death? So terrible and imminent was the tragedy, that at the moment when the horse’s feet were about to crush the life out of the little one, the figure of a trumpeter that was lying on a tomb started up from his stony sleep and blew a blast of warning, while an angel hand stretched forth to snatch the little one from its awful death!1 [Note: J. M. Gibbon.]
3. It is the cry of earth to heaven. If the great and good gifts should not be bestowed upon people that have not intelligently asked for them, then what becomes of God’s gift of Jesus Christ, our Saviour, to this world? Did we ask for Him? Did we send for him? Did we clamour till our voices reached Him in the high halls of heaven, and He condescended to come at our call? Was the Cross of Christ, with all the glory of suffering, of measureless sacrifice, a response to a framed request for such a wondrous manifestation of wisdom and of love? We know that it was not. “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” And yet I think our Lord would tell us that He saw, in the vision of His infinite love—that vision that interprets and transfigures and disentangles objects from their vulgar limitations and surroundings—in His high heaven men stretching out hands, and saying, “Come down and help us.”
In the year 1896 Dr. Miller, Principal of the Christian College of Madras, was Moderator of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland. An address came from India to the Assembly. It came from persons the great majority of whom had not accepted Christianity. It was a cry, not from the West to the East like the cry of the man of Macedonia, but from the East to the West. In reply to the address Dr. Rainy said in the Assembly: “We rejoice in all good gifts which are peculiarly your own; and we would be serviceable to you in communicating, so far as you will receive them, whatever good gifts have been bestowed upon us by Him who has made of one blood all nations of men to dwell upon the face of the earth. But, in that spirit, we desire, affectionately and above all things, once more to commend to you, as our missionaries have often done, the Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, who for us men and for our sake took flesh and died. We men in the West have no better claim to Him than you have. We possess nothing so precious—we value nothing so much—we have no source of good so full, fruitful, and enduring—we have nothing to compare with the Lord Jesus Christ. To Him we must bear witness. And we should gladly consent that you should cease to listen to us, if you would be led to give your ear and your heart to Him.”1 [Note: The Life of Principal Rainy, ii. 175.]
Come Over and Help Us
Banks (L. A.), Paul and his Friends, 88.
Brooks (P.), The Candle of the Lord, 91.
Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women, and Children, 3rd Ser., 257.
Gibbon (J. M.), The Vision and the Call, 1.
Jerdan (C.), For the Lambs of the Flock, 302.
Little (J.), The Day-Spring, 132.
Matheson (G.), Rests by the River, 35.
Parker (J.), The City Temple, i. (1872) 1.
Taylor (W. M.), The Silence of Jesus, 194.
Vaughan (C. J.), The Church of the First Days, 341.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons, 1st Ser. (1869), 57.
Christian World Pulpit, xv. 296 (Dykes); xxxiii. 308 (Owen); xliii. 283 (Gibbon); li. 273 (Fairbairn); lii. 67 (Oluwole); lv. 387 (Lawrence); lix. 142 (Macdonald); lxxiii. 341 (Warschauer).
Church Pulpit Year Book, viii. (1911) 15.
Clergyman’s Magazine, 3rd Ser., viii. 175.