Bible Commentary in 8 Volumes
Acts of the
THE book of the ACTS OF THE APOSTLES forms the fifth, and last, of the historical books of the New Testament. And on this account it has been generally placed at the end of the four Gospels; though in several MSS. and versions it is found at the end of St. Paul’s Epistles, as many circumstances in them are referred to by the narrative contained in this book, which is carried down almost to the apostle’s death.
This book has had a variety of names: praxeiv twn apostolwn, the Res Gestae, Acts or Transactions of the Apostles, is the title it bears in the Codex Bezae. praxeiv twn /agiwn apostolwn, The Acts of the Holy Apostles, is its title in the Codex Alexandrinus, and several others, as well as in several of the ancient versions, and in the Greek and Latin fathers. One or other form of the above title is followed by almost all the editors of the Greek Testament, and translators and commentators in general. By some it has been reckoned a fifth Gospel; and by OEcumenius it is termed, The Gospel of the Holy Spirit; and by St. Chrysostom, to biblion, apodeixiv anastasewv, The Book, The Demonstration of the Resurrection. These two last characters are peculiarly descriptive of its contents. All the promises which Christ gave of the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit are shown here to have been fulfilled in the most eminent manner; and, by the effusion of the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of our blessed Lord has been fully demonstrated. The calling of the Gentiles is another grand point which is here revealed and illustrated. This miracle of miracles, as one terms it, which had been so frequently foretold by the prophets and by Christ himself, is here exhibited; and by this grand act of the power and goodness of God the Christian Church has been founded and thus the tabernacle and kingdom of God have been immutably established among men. It is truly a fifth Gospel, as it contains the glad tidings of peace and salvation to the whole Gentile world.
All antiquity is unanimous in ascribing this book to St. Luke as the author; and, from the commencement of it, we see plainly that it can be attributed to no other; and it seems plain that St. Luke intended it as a continuation of his Gospel, being dedicated to Theophilus, to whom he had dedicated the former; and to which, in the introduction to this, he expressly refers: indeed he has taken up the narrative, in this book precisely in the place where he had dropped it in the other. The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which he was taken up, etc.; and from this we may form a safe conjecture, that the two books were written at no greater a distance from each other than the time of the last occurrence recorded in this book. Some have supposed that this book was written from Alexandria; but this does not appear to be probable. The conjecture of Michaelis is much more likely, viz. that it was written from Rome, at which place St. Luke mentions his arrival, in company with St. Paul, shortly before the close of the book. See Acts 28:16.
Though the time in which the book of the Acts was written is not recorded, yet the same writer observes that, as it is continued to the end of the second year of St. Paul’s imprisonment, it could not have been written before the year 63; and, had it been written after that year, it is reasonable to conclude that it would have related some farther particulars relative to St. Paul; or would at least have mentioned the event of his imprisonment, in which the reader is so much interested. This argument seems conclusive, in reference to the date of this book.
St. Luke’s long attendance upon St. Paul, and his having been himself eye-witness to many of the facts which he has recorded, independently of his Divine inspiration, render him a most respectable and credible historian. His medical knowledge, for he is allowed to have been a physician, enabled him, as Professor Michaelis has properly observed, both to form a proper judgment of the miraculous cures which were performed by St. Paul, and to give an account and authentic detail of them. It is worthy also of observation that St. Luke himself does not appear to have possessed the gift of miraculous healing. Though there can be no doubt that he was with St. Paul when shipwrecked at Malta, yet he was not concerned in healing the father of Publius the governor; nor of the other sick persons mentioned Acts 28:8, 9. These were all healed by the prayers of St. Paul, and the imposition of his hands, and consequently miraculously; nor do we find any evidence that St. Luke was ever employed in this way. This is another proof of the wisdom of God: had the physician been employed to work miracles of healing, the excellence of the power would have been attributed to the skill of the man, and not to the power of his Maker.
The Acts of the Apostles have been generally considered in the light of a Church History, and, consequently, the first ecclesiastical history on record; but Professor Michaelis very properly contends that it cannot have been intended as a general history of the Christian Church, even for the period of time it embraces, as it passes by all the transactions of the Church at Jerusalem, after the conversion of St. Paul; the propagation of Christianity in Egypt; Paul’s journey into Arabia; the state of Christianity at Babylon; (1Pe 5:13;) the foundation of the Christian Church at Rome; several of St. Paul’s voyages; his thrice suffering shipwreck, etc., etc. See more particulars in Lardner and Michaelis.
The object of St. Luke appears to have been twofold: 1. To relate in what manner the gifts of the Holy Spirit were communicated on the day of pentecost, and the subsequent miracles performed by the apostles, by which the truth of Christianity was confirmed. 2. To deliver such accounts as proved the claim of the Gentiles to admission into the Church of Christ; a claim disputed by the Jews, especially at the time when the Acts of the Apostles were written. Hence we see the reason why he relates, Acts 8:1-25, the conversion of the Samaritans; and Acts 10:1-11:-18, the story of Cornelius, and the determination of the council in Jerusalem relative to the Levitical law; and for the same reason he is more diffuse in his account of St. Paul’s conversion, and his preaching to the Gentiles, than he is on any other subject. In such a restricted manner has St. Luke compiled his history, that Michaelis is of opinion that it was the intention of this apostle to record only those facts which he had either seen himself, or heard from eye witnesses. Introduct. vol. v. p. 326, etc.
The book of the Acts has been uniformly and universally received by the Christian Church in all places and ages: it is mentioned and quoted by almost every Christian writer, and its authenticity and importance universally admitted. Arator, a subdeacon in the Church at Rome, in the sixth century, turned it into verse. In ancient times, personal history and important transactions, in most nations, were generally thus preserved; as the facts, through the medium of verse, could be the more easily committed to memory.
St. Luke’s narration bears every evidence of truth and authenticity. It is not a made up history. The language and manner of every speaker are different; and the same speaker is different in his manner, according to the audience he addresses. The speeches of Stephen, Peter, Cornelius, Tertullus, and Paul, are all different, and such as we might naturally expect from the characters in question, and the circumstances in which they were at the time of speaking. St. Paul’s speeches are also suited to the occasion, and to the persons before whom he spoke. When his audience was heathen, though he kept the same end steadily in view, yet how different is his mode of address from that used when before a Jewish audience! Several of these peculiarities, which constitute a strong evidence of the authenticity of the work, shall be pointed out in the notes. See dome good remarks on this head, in Michaelis’ Introduction, ubi supra.
As St. Luke has not annexed any date to the transactions he records, it is not a very easy matter to adjust the chronology of the Acts; but, as in some places he refers to political facts, the exact times of which are well known, the dates of several transactions in his narrative may be settled with considerable accuracy. It is well known, for instance that the famine mentioned Acts 11:29, 30, happened in the fourth year of the Emperor Claudius, which answers to the forty-fourth of the Christian aura. From facts of this nature, dates may be derived with considerable accuracy: all such dates are carefully noted at the top of the column, as in the preceding parts of this Commentary; and the chronology is adjusted in the best manner possible. In some cases, conjecture and probability are the only lights by which this obscure passage can be illuminated. The dates of the commencement and the end of the book are tolerably certain; as the work certainly begins with the twenty-ninth year of the Christian aera, Acts 1:1 and ends probably with the sixty-third, Acts 28:30.
In the book of the Acts we see how the Church of Christ was formed and settled. The apostles simply proclaim the truth of God relative to the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ; and God accompanies their testimony with the demonstration of his Spirit. What was the consequence? Thousands acknowledge the truth, embrace Christianity, and openly profess it at the most imminent risk of their lives. The change is not a change of merely one religious sentiment or mode of worship for another; but a change of tempers, passions, prospects, and moral conduct. All before was earthly, or animal, or devilish; or all these together; but now all is holy, spiritual, and Divine: the heavenly influence becomes extended, and nations are born unto God. And how was all this brought about? Not by might nor power: not by the sword, nor by secular authority; not through worldly motives and prospects; not by pious frauds or cunning craftiness; not by the force of persuasive eloquence: in a word, by nothing but the sole influence of truth itself, attested to the heart by the power of the Holy Ghost. Wherever religious frauds and secular influence have been used to found or support a Church; professing itself to be Christian, there, we may rest assured, is the fullest evidence that that Church is wholly antichristian; and where such a Church, possessing secular power, has endeavored to support itself by persecution, and persecution unto privation of goods, of liberty, and of life, it not only shows itself to be antichristian, but also diabolic. The religion Of Christ stands in no need either of human cunning or power. It is the religion of God, and is to be propagated by his power: this the book of the Acts fully shows; and in it we find the true model, after which every Christian Church should be builded. As far as any Church can show that it has followed this model, so far it is holy and apostolic. And when all Churches or congregations of people professing Christianity, shall be founded and regulated according to the doctrines and discipline laid down in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, then the aggregate body may be justly called, The Holy, Apostolic, and Catholic Church.
The simplicity of the primitive Christian worship, as laid down in the book of the Acts, is worthy of particular notice and admiration. Here are no expensive ceremonies: no apparatus calculated merely to impress the senses, and produce emotions in the animal system, “to help,” as has been foolishly said, “the spirit of devotion.” The heart is the subject in which this spirit of devotion is kindled; and the Spirit of GOD alone is the agent that communicates and maintains the celestial fire; and God, who knows and searches that heart, is the object of its adoration, and the only source whence it expects the grace that pardons, sanctifies, and renders it happy. No strange fire can be brought to this altar: for the God of the Christians can be worshipped only in spirit and truth; the truth revealed, directing the worship; and the Spirit given, applying that truth, and giving life and energy to every faculty and power. Thus God was worshipped in his own way, and through his own power; every religious act, thus performed, was acceptable to him; the praises of his followers rose up as incense before the throne, and their prayers were heard and answered. As they had but one God, so they had but one Mediator between God and man, the Lord Jesus Christ. They received him as the gift of God’s eternal love; sought and found redemption in his blood; and, in a holy and useful life, showed forth the virtues of Him who had called them from darkness into his marvellous light; for no profession of faith was then considered of any worth that was not supported by that love to God and man which is the fulfilling of the law, which is the life and soul of obedience to the Divine testimonies, and the ceaseless spring of benevolence and humanity. This is the religion of Jesus Christ, as laid down and exemplified in this blessed book.
“Ye different sects, who all declare,
LO! CHRIST is here, and CHRIST is there,
Your stronger proofs divinely give,
And show me where the Christians live.”