Now when Paul and his company loosed from Paphos, they came to Perga in Pamphylia: and John departing from them returned to Jerusalem.…
We are introduced to one of those synagogue scenes which are of so much interest in connection with the early progress of Christianity. Here the gospel fought its foes and triumphed by the logic of love; here the seeds were sown which sprang up to cover the world with fruit. According to the ordinary practice, the officers of the synagogue invite the strangers to address the congregation. Paul rises. His address falls naturally into parts. It resembles in general argument and tenor that of Stephen before the Sanhedrim. We may gather from it what were the great reasons which convinced and led to the conversion of the Jews.
I. THE PROVIDENTIAL COURSE OF ISRAEL'S HISTORY.
1. There was the Divine selection of a people, not to be for themselves favorites of God, but to be his light and salvation to the ends of the earth.
2. There was the wondrous deliverance of this people out of the oppressor's hand - from the land of Egypt. On this memory of a surpassing Divine power joined with Divine goodness, the historic Consciousness of the nation was based.
3. There was the desert discipline: the giving of the Law, the enforcement of holiness - chastisement, purification, education in obedience.
4. The expulsion of the Canaanite tribes and the foundation of a settled system of government. This, too, wan a great epoch; and Israel could not refer to it without the consciousness of her high mission as a nation - called of God to supersede the weak, effete idolatrous nations of the land, and to diffuse holier manners, purer laws.
5. The epoch of the kings. The brilliant but erring Saul; the hero David and his glorious era. Every nation has some similar or analogous points in its history on which its memory rests; landmarks of its way; prophetic moments containing the future; sowing-times for future harvests; endeavors towards an ideal. Think of our own Magna Charta, our Civil War, our Revolution, our struggle for existence, our chastisements, and our triumphs. Israel's history is the mirror in which every nation may view its own, and trace the hand of the same world-guiding providence.
II. THE CONSUMMATION OF ISRAEL'S HISTORY. In Jesus the line of Israel's greatness was continued. He was of the seed of David according to the flesh. There was an echo of glorious memories in him He came to revive the kingdom of David and the ascendency of Israel, although in a far different way from that expected by his countrymen. The testimony of the Baptist was mighty in favor of Jesus. No prophet in these latter days had commanded greater reverence than John the Baptist, the great religious reformer, a preacher of repentance. Now he had distinctly waived his claims to be the Messiah, and had pointed to Jesus; had retired before him with the most lowly confession of inferiority. When we see a great man sincerely willing to take a second place in the presence of a new-comer, it is a witness of the greatest moment to the latter's superiority. The highest human elevation of character - such as John's - can only bend before the Divine. "To you, then," may Paul well say to the Jews, "and that not on the ground of my assertion, but the witness of the greatest man held in honor by you, the second Elijah, is this salvation sent, this good news delivered."
II. THE CONDUCT OF THE SANHEDRIM TO JESUS EXPLAINED. Paul is aware that he has a great prejudice in the minds of his hearers to overcome - the great "scandal of the cross."
1. The ignorance of the rulers. They did not understand the voices of the prophets, nor the meaning of the Scriptures constantly read in their synagogues. But their ignorance was little excuse for them. They ought to have known better. If we choose to look at facts in one light only - that of our wishes or prejudices - we suppress a part of the truth; and when this suppressed truth rises up from an unexpected quarter to confront us, the sense of self-condemnation cannot be overcome. The Sanhedrim saw in Jesus the embodiment of suppressed truth, and they hated him. It was like the uprising of a ghost long thought to have been laid.
2. What they could not meet with reason they tried to quell by violence. Jesus was tried, with the result of establishing his innocence. No crime, no fault, no disobedience to the Law, no rebellion against order, could be proved. Yet he was handed to the Roman governor, and his death was a judicial murder.
3. Thus prophecy was unconsciously fulfilled. A suffering Messiah had been foretold, and had now been revealed in a death of martyrdom. Behind the innocence of the sufferer and the guilt of his murderers a purpose of eternal wisdom and love had wrought and fulfilled itself. It is this insight into Divine thoughts which can alone relieve the dreadful tragedies of human passions and events. While in one point of view the death of Jesus is a scene of horror and of darkness, and the thought of it a scandal to the Jew and a folly to the Greek, in another it is a revelation of a Divine love which conquers hate and forgives even guilty ignorance, and converts a revelation of weakness into a revelation of wisdom and of power.
III. THE RESURRECTION. Without this crowning fact the rest had been incomplete. A suffering Messiah would have been a witness of the peoples' sin; a Messiah rising triumphant over death could alone bespeak the victory of Divine love over human hate and sin. Here, then, comes the core of the message. The apostles can never forget that they are "witnesses of the Resurrection." And this was good news - the fulfillment of a promise made to the fathers in olden time. The apostles found in psalms and prophecies of the past which referred in the first instance to events then passing and persons then living, an ideal or prophetic element. "Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee;" these words, perhaps referable in the first instance to Solomon, can only in the apostolic thought be properly satisfied in Christ. And so with the other citation. The promise to continue the Divine covenant in the line of the kings is fulfilled above all in Jesus. We must recollect that the kingdom of Judah and the national life as a whole was ideal; that is, it pointed to meanings not at any time within the visible field of experience. If we grasp this thought, it may help us to understand how the apostles viewed Scripture, and how they quoted it; not so much for its literal and primary as for its spiritual and prophetic meaning. The Holy One of God was not to see corruption. But David passed away and mixed with dust. It is, then, in David's "greater Son" that this prophecy must be fulfilled, of an incorruptible and immortal life.
IV. THE REMISSION OF SINS. Through this risen One the blessed boon is proclaimed. The life, the death, the resurrection, would be simply a grand Divine drama, an object of contemplation, a piece of magnificent poetry, were there no practical result like this flowing from it. But it means victory and release from sin. Surrender to the Divine ideal, affiance in the Anointed of God, means deliverance and peace, not to be obtained by laborious obedience to the moral or ceremonial Law. Faith is whole-hearted surrender to the Divine Object. It is not a mere act of intelligence, nor yielding of the affections, nor decision of the will; but the giving up one's self to Christ. It is this which brings the full blessing of Divine peace upon the heart, and nothing short of this can do so.
V. FINAL WARNING. How shall men escape if they reject so great salvation? Refuse love, and wrath only can be expected. Similarly does Stephen's speech end with a sharp note of warning. Our heart is stirred by contrasted motives. We move between two poles of emotion. To be drawn by love is to be repelled by fear. The one motive or the other may have the greater weight with different minds, or with the same mind in different moods. Let us thankfully recognize that, whether the gospel touches the chord of love or of fear, it aims at our salvation. "Save, Lord, by love or fear!" - J.
Parallel VersesKJV: Now when Paul and his company loosed from Paphos, they came to Perga in Pamphylia: and John departing from them returned to Jerusalem.