And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita.…
Twice St. Paul came in contact with barbarians — twice he was counted as a god. Once at Lystra — once here at Melita. It is the Carthaginian or Phoenician religion which moulded the barbarian life that we examine.
I. BARBARIAN VIRTUES.
1. Two errors have been held on the subject of natural goodness.
(1) That of those who deny to fallen man any goodness at all. This is the effect of a system. No man in his heart believes it. Men are better than their creed. We find here the natural barbarian virtues of hospitality and sympathy. And a Christian contemplating this, gave this distinct testimony, "The barbarous people showed us no little kindness."(2) That of placing too high a value on the natural virtues. We hear much of early unsophisticated times, "when wild in woods the noble savage ran." According to this, civilisation is the great corrupter. But the truth is, the natural good feelings of human nature are only instincts: no more moral than a long sight or a delicate sense of hearing. You may travel among savages who treat you, as a stranger, with courtesy: but yet feed on the flesh of their enemies. And these Melitans, "who showed no little kindness," belonged to a stock who, in the most civilised days of Carthage, offered human sacrifice.
2. The advent of Christ brought a new spirit into the world. "Love your neighbour, hate your enemy." Carthaginians obeyed that. Christ said, "Love your enemies." Remark, too, the principle on which this is taught. "That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for He maketh," etc. So He converted rude barbarian instincts into Christian graces, by expanding their sphere and purifying them of selfishness — causing them to be regulated by principle, and elevating them into a conscious. imitation of God in His revealed character.
II. THE BARBARIAN IDEA OF RETRIBUTION.
1. Paul was one of those who are formed to be the leaders of the world. Foremost in persecution — foremost in Christianity — foremost in the shipwreck — foremost too, when all was over, in gathering the sticks to make the fire. From those sticks a viper sprung and fastened on his hand, and the first impression of the barbarians was, "No doubt this man is a murderer," etc. This is the basis of all natural religion, and underlies all mythologies. The Nemesis who presides over retribution — the whips and scorpions of the Furies — it seems the first instinct of religion. In the barbarian conception of it, however, there was something gross and dangerous; because —
(1) They misinterpreted natural laws into vengeance. There is a proneness in man to judge so. We expect that nature will execute the chastisements of the spiritual world. Hence all nature becomes to the imagination leagued against the transgressor. The walls of Siloam fell on guilty men. On this conviction nations constructed their trial by ordeal. The guilty man's sword would fail in the duel: and the foot would strike and be burnt by the hot ploughshare. Some idea of this sort lurks in all our minds. We picture the spectres haunting the bed of the tyrant. But experience corrects all this. The tyrant's sleep is often as sweet and sound as the infant's. The viper stings the innocent turf cutter. Only in poetry does the fire refuse to burn the innocent, and Purity lay her band on the fawning lion's mane. If we ask where these Melitans got their idea of retribution, the reply is, out of their own hearts. They felt the eternal connection between wrong-doing and penalty.
(2) They expected vengeance for flagrant crime only. "This man is a murderer." There is a common feeling now to that effect, "Murder will out." The truth is, we think much of crime, little of sin. There is many a murderer executed whose heart is pure compared with those of many a man who lives a respectable life. David was a murderer. The Pharisees had committed no crime; but their heart was rotten at the core.
2. As information increased, this idea of retribution disappears. Natural laws are understood, and retribution vanishes. Then often comes Epicureanism or Atheism. "All things come alike to all: there is one end to the righteous and to the sinner." If so, then the inference suggests itself — "Let us eat and drink" — it is all the same. Or the sceptical feeling comes thus: "Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency." Therefore why do right instead of wrong?
3. The Advent of Christ brought deeper and truer views. It taught what sin and suffering are. It showed the Innocent on the Cross bearing the penalty of the world's sin, but still the Son of God, with whom the Father was "well pleased." The penal agonies of sin are chiefly those which are executed within. "Vengeance," said the Melitans, "suffereth not the murderer to live." "Whosoever slayeth Cain," said God, "vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold." Cain the murderer lives — Christ, the holy, dies. Cain is to us the dread type of hell. To live! that is hell, to live when you would fain die. You may escape the viper and the wreck. You may by prudence make this world painless, more or less. You cannot escape yourself. Go where you will, you carry with you a soul degraded, its power lost, its finer sensibilities destroyed. Worse than the viper's tooth is the punishment of no longer striving after goodness, or aspiring after the life of God. Just as the man cannot see through the glass on which he breathes, sin darkens the windows of the soul. You are safe, go where you will, from the viper: as safe as if you were the holiest of God's children. The fang is in your soul.
III. THE BARBARIAN CONCEPTION OF DEITY.
1. When the viper fell off, and Paul was left uninjured, they changed their mind and said that he was a god.
(1) This implied a certain advance in religious notions. Man finds himself helpless among the powers of nature, and worships them. The highest is the worship of the host of heaven. With some it is the adoration of lifeless things. Evidently there can be no holy influence in this. Men worship by fear, and fortify themselves by charms and incantations: do not try to please God by being holy, but defend themselves from danger by jugglery. The Christians of the early ages carried about bits of consecrated bread to protect themselves from shipwreck. Besides this men have worshipped brute life. It is quite clear that the Melitans were beyond all this. It is a step when men rise from the worship of lifeless things to that of animals — another when they rise to worship human qualities; for they are nearest the Divine.
(2) But this worship of the human was the adoration of the marvellous — not the reverence for the good. It was not Paul's character to which they yielded homage. It was only his miraculous escape. So too at Lystra. It was the miracle which they chiefly saw. All that would pass away when they knew that he was a man of like passions with themselves, or when they were informed that it was a providential escape which might have happened to any ordinary man. When the savage sees the flash of European firearms, he kneels as to a god; but when he has learned its use, his new religion is gone. And thus science is converting the religion of mere wonder into atheism. As you teach laws, you undermine that religion. Men cease to tremble. The Laplander would no longer be awed by the eclipse if he knew how to calculate it with accuracy. The savage's dread of lightning as the bolt of God is over when he sees the philosopher draw it from the clouds, and experimentalise on it in his laboratory. And the Romanist, whose flesh creeps when he sees a miracle in the consecration of the sacraments, ends in infidelity, when reason has struck the ground of false reverence from beneath his feet.
2. Therefore has the Redeemer's advent taught a deeper truth to man. Paul spoke almost slightingly of the marvellous. "Covet earnestly the best gifts: yet show I unto you a more excellent way," etc. Love is diviner than all wondrous powers. So too the Son of God came into this world, depreciating the merely mysterious. "An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign," etc. It was not the supernatural in His miracles which proved them Divine. It was their goodness, their love, which manifested Deity. Faith stands serenely far above the reach of the atheism of science. It does not rest on the wonderful, but on the eternal wisdom and goodness of God. The revelation of the Son was to proclaim a Father, not a mystery. No science can sweep away the everlasting love which the heart feels.
(F. W. Robertson, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita.