The One Question in Conduct
Acts 4:18-31
And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus.…

We have here —

I. A CRITERION OF FREEDOM. The two men are prisoners; but who will say that they are not free? Great things may be expected of any man when he has gained the moral liberty to put this question first. The liberty of a Roman citizen at that time was costly, but, like all mere political independence, stopped far short of this. It secured mortal rights; but it could never confer the conscience which inquires, or the power to perform, what is right. That distinction between rights claimed and right done runs very deep, dividing the world into two orders of souls. It may be pure selfishness that insists on its rights. It must be unselfish duty that chooses what is right and does it in singleness of heart. A new commonwealth had just risen from the grave of Christ, and here was its watchword.


1. We have one outward witness to the religion of Jesus — the Christian propriety of domestic habits; the Christian talk of the railway and parlour; the Christian tone of literature; the Christian fashion of Sunday and ceremony. But as the eyes of God run over the Christian world, does He not seek some other proof?

2. This brings us to the vital point. Original Christianity is a religion of righteousness. Behold the Divine Man! Observe the proportions of His doctrine — how much about duty, character, the glory of right, the wretchedness of wrong; how little about anything else I Notice what kind of people hated Him — corrupt office-holders, hypocritical devourers of widows' houses, traders in virtue and blood, etc. Notice what kind of people loved Him — men that wanted to be honest and true, women that wanted to be strong in charity and pure in heart. Infer from these passions that He crossed, and from the noble aspirations that He invigorated, what it was, after three years of loving work, that drove the nails through His hands and feet. Settle it with yourself in this way, what was the vital core of His ministry? Was it not righteousness in man? Was it not to set up a kingdom of "right"? Did not Christ come and die to beget by a new faith a race of men right-thinking, right-feeling, right-reverencing, right-working? He had now but just ascended out of sight. The power of His Spirit had illuminated His messengers. Two apostles there, knowing Him thoroughly, sure of His meaning, are told to shut their lips about Him. The blood scarcely yet dry at Calvary shows that these magistrates' threats are not empty. But nothing comes into their minds but one open answer, not whether it be prudent, politic, safe, profitable, or even "necessary," but "Whether it be right." I take that to be the fundamental ground in practical Christianity. Many other things have been crowded into its place; things of. high pretension and considerable value. But we had better go back to the beginning. For what is Catholic, Evangelical, Churchly, reasonable, true as Christ is true, we had best go nowhere else but there. This is -what we mean by the appeal to primitive antiquity and apostolical authority. They make the substance of personal Christianity to be a character that you can trust. Dogma, formularies, symbols, sermons, exist for character. It is the decisive test, as to every particular action, as to its being done or let alone — "whether it be" — not lucrative, fashionable, popular, comfortable, but "right." Call Christianity a temple — this is its foundation; a kingdom — this is its law; a tree — this is the root; a stream — this is the spring; a creed — this is the conclusion of all its articles.

3. Does the world want this less now than ever before? Take two of the great departments of human conduct for a criterion.

(1) Business life. It would seem that the highest law here, the ideal mercantile condition, would be that producers, sellers, and buyers should trust one another, and not be disappointed in that trust; that the money, the interest, the good name of each one should be safe in his neighbour's hands. But do not business men watch one another with distrustful anxiety? Are not the processes of trade and commerce methods of protecting one man from another's rapacity? What are all the complicated functions of the attorney, the court, the police, but a standing presumption that men will cheat if they can? Every little while comes a crash. Some hitherto unquestioned reputation collapses in disgrace. A merchant, a banker, a contractor, a trustee of orphans' inheritances, fails; so fails that integrity, truth to his creditors, gratitude to his friends, fail in him and with him. The tumbling down of all the towers and steeples of the town ought to send less shock and gloom through the air. Then, on the other hand, there appears amongst you, now and then, a man of solid virtue — so true, so unbribable, that everybody does trust him, and is never betrayed. The very rarity and refreshment of the sight tell to the same conclusion. There is a widespread lack of simple reverence for the right. There is some defect in our training. Right is not first; it comes after profit, office, position. In the summing-up of Old Testament morality there were three requirements of God: "Do justly" was the first of the three. In the new gospel test there are two conditions of acceptance for every nation; and working "righteousness" is one of the two.

(2) From business turn to social entertainment. Christianity is in the world of common social life not to prohibit it or to ask leave to look on, but to regulate it by its rule, helping to sweeten it by its charity, and to elevate it by its chaste nobility. Yet as one sees what passes, and listens to what is said, he wonders how often the participators ask of this or that feature of the spectacle "Whether it be right." Are the going or staying, the indulgence or rejection, the expenditure, style, talk, dress, drink. brought to this Christian criterion of right and wrong? I speak of no artificial standard or rule; but does the question of duty, by any rule, of sin by any standard, get a fair and clear hearing of all.

4. In the gospel there are proportions. In one sense the bark of a fruit-tree is as necessary as the root or the sap, the limbs of the body as the heart. But after all we build badly, and we grow badly, unless we set things in their order, always with a view to the one end, and keep the essentials supreme. In the religion of Christ the one end is character. In the kingdom of God the honours are for those who are good and true; uprightness is the nobility; and the business of the citizens is not only to take the name of their King, and to bow in His presence, but to be like Him. An apostolic faith is not handed down, but it fails on the way unless it carries with it an apostolic conscience. Before Mammon, before the spirit of society, before gain and fashion, before all the world's rulers and elders and scribes, make your answer for God, each one alone, and then stand. In a way that will need no subtle imagination to explain, the grand issue of that old trial in Jerusalem will be yours also: "All men glorified God for that which was done."

(Bp. Huntington.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus.

WEB: They called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus.

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