THE first part of this chapter contains a narrative of the journey of Paul from Miletus to Jerusalem. It would serve no valuable purpose to trace his progress more fully than the inspired historian has done. To engage in a minute detail of the places mentioned in Scripture, of their situation, the character of their inhabitants, and their general history, is justifiable only when the knowledge of such particulars will throw light upon the passages to which they relate; and without this reference, is to give, under the name of a religious discourse, a geographical lecture, which is addressed with manifest impropriety to a worshiping assembly. There were, however, some incidents in his way to Jerusalem, of which it is necessary to take notice, before we procceed to consider what befel him on his arrival in that city.
The first is recorded in the fourth verse, which informs us, that on landing at Tyre Paul found disciples, |who said to him through the Spirit, that he should not go up to Jerusalem.| If we understand his words in the preceding chapter, |And now behold, I go bound in the Spirit unto Jerusalem,| to import, that he had undertaken this journey by the suggestion of the Holy Ghost, we here encounter a difficulty; for it would seem, that the Spirit had retracted his own order, and that having first commanded, he now forbade, the Apostle to go.
Besides, since Paul, notwithstanding the advice or prohibition of those disciples, did proceed to Jerusalem, must we not pronounce him to have been guilty of the high crime of disobeying a divine command, and, consequently, account the troubles, in which he was involved, the just punishment of his obstinacy? It is impossible, however, on the one hand, to believe, that the Holy Ghost issued contradictory precepts, like an inconstant man, who is of one mind to-day, and of another to-morrow; or on the other, to conceive, that Paul, who, on every other occasion, discovered the profound respect for the will of God, acted in this instance, without any imaginable reason, in direct opposition to it. The conclusion, therefore, to which we are necessarily conducted by these considerations, is, that he was not forbidden by the Spirit himself; but that the disciples in Tyre, forseeing the sufferings which awaited him, if he should go to Jerusalem, presumed to persuade him to desist from his intention. Their knowledge of the troubles which should befal him, proceeded from the Spirit; the counsel to stop in his journey was dictated by the officiousness of friendship. They said to him |through the Spirit| that he should not go up to Jerusalem; that is, they gave this advice, not by the direction of the Holy Ghost, but in consequence of that foresight of the result, which they had obtained by his inspiration. It is a probable apology for their conduct, that they had not been informed of the previous order to repair to that city.
The next remarkable circumstance occurred at Cesarea, where Paul remained for some time with Philip the Evangelist. |There came down from Judea a certain Prophet named Agabus. And, when he was come to us, he took Paul's girdle, and bound his own hands and feet, and said, thus saith the Holy Ghost, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.| Concerning this prediction, the fulfilment of which is afterwards related, I remark, that although it is said that the Jews should bind Paul, and deliver him up to the Gentiles, yet he was actually bound by the Gentiles, or by the captain of the Roman garrison, who had rescued him out of the hands of the Jews. There is, however, no contradiction between the prophecy and the event, because in the prophetical style, and indeed in the common style of the Scriptures, things are represented to have been done by a person which were done by others at his command, or through his influence, direct or indirect. It was in consequence of he rage which the Jews expressed against Paul, that the Romans seized and bound him. Agabus accompanied the prediction of his sufferings with a symbolical action or an action expressive of their nature. Actions of this kind are frequent among nations in the earlier periods of their history, when the imagination and passions operate with great vivacity, and perhaps the penury of language requires the aid of visible signs; and some of them are retained on particular occasions, after a people is far advanced in civilization. They were common among the ancient Prophets. Isaiah walked |naked and barefoot,| to signify, that the Egyptians and Ethiopians should be spoiled, and led into captivity by their enemies; and Ezekiel carried out his household-stuff in the sight of his countrymen, to intimate that Jerusalem should be plundered by the Chaldeans.| In the same manner, Agabus bound his own hands and feet with Paul's girdle, to foreshow that he should suffer bonds and imprisonment. It is probable, that when the Prophets first adopted the mode of communicating instruction by appropriate actions, as well as by words, they merely conformed to the manner of their age. It was calculated to rouse attention, to give a distinct and impressive idea of the subject, and, by interesting the imagination, to fix it in the memory.
How was Paul affected by the repeated notices of the afflictions, which he was to endure in Jerusalem? Sometimes, when a man is suddenly involved in perilous circumstances, his mind, by an instinctive effort, rises up to his situation; and, amidst his active exertions to save himself, he has not leisure to take a full and deliberate view of his danger. Few are possessed of such strength of mind, and cool courage, as to look forward with composure to the scene of troubles, through which they are destined to pass. He who is a hero amidst the tumult of a battle, would, perhaps, prove a coward, if he were waiting the slow approach of death in a prison, or on a sick bed. Dark and alarming as was the prospect before him, Paul betrayed no symptoms of fear; but retained his self-command, and the firmness of his resolution. Like his Master, with the cross in his eye, he |steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem;| and like him too, he reproved those friends, whose unseasonable kindness would have dissuaded him from his duty. |And when we heard these things, both we and they of that place besought him not to go up to Jerusalem. But Paul answered, What mean ye to weep, and to break mine heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.| The concern which the disciples expressed for his safety, was natural. They loved him as a friend, and his life was valuable to the Church. As a proof of their affection, their tears could not but be pleasing to him; but temptation sometimes steals upon us, in the most innocent form, and by a path, which virtue alone was expected to tread. Those tears might melt his soul into unmanly softness. Grief is contagious; and while we sympathize with the sufferer, we would most willingly relieve him. Who could endure the thought of wounding a tender affectionate heart, which trembles for his happiness, and is alive to every injury which he sustains? Who, in opposition to the most earnest solicitations, would persist in an enterprise, the issue of which would overwhelm that heart with sorrow? Paul was too well acquainted with human nature not to be sensible, that he was now exposed to a hazardous trial. He therefore checked the disciples. |What mean ye to weep, and to break mine heart?| |Why do you endeavour, by your prayers and solicitations, to persuade me not to go to Jerusalem? I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die there for the name of the Lord Jesus. Those chains of which you are so much afraid, I shall welcome as an honourable badge of my relation to him; and death itself shall have no terrors for me, if I am required to submit to it, in defence of his cause.| The reiterated warnings which he received of his danger, illustrate his magnanimity. We behold a man, who having conceived and resolved upon an important design, pursues it with inflexible perseverance amidst scenes of difficulty and trouble, and is determined to sacrifice even life itself to the attainment of his purpose.
|And when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, The will of the Lord be done.| His friends perceiving that he acted under a divine impulse, to which the common maxims of prudence must yield, desisted from their importunities; and their solicitude for his safety gave place to a superior principle, reverence for God. Their conduct affords an example of acquiescence in the dispensations of heaven, which we should imitate, when our friendship and affection are severely tried by a separation from those whom we love. It is the duty of rational creatures to acknowledge, not in words only, but in practice, the supreme authority of their Maker, who has an undoubted right to dispose of them and their affairs according to his pleasure. To this duty Christians are under peculiar obligations, arising from the certain knowledge, that his procedure is always wise and gracious, and that submission to his decrees will be productive of the happiest consequences. Into the hands of our Father and our Sovereign we should surrender what is dearest to us without a murmur. And then only do we render to God the homage, to which he is entitled, when not venturing to prescribe to unerring wisdom, and to limit almighty power, we give our unqualified assent to the arrangements of his providence, and rejoice in the manifestation of his glory, although it should be displayed at the expense of our best earthly enjoyments. |The will of the Lord be done.|
Let us now proceed to consider the transactions of Paul in Jerusalem. The day after his arrival, he paid a visit to James and the elders, who were assembled to receive him. |And when he had saluted them, he declared particularly what things God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry.| It was a narrative of splendid achievements. Without any disposition to boast, Paul could relate a series of flattering successes, of astonishing miracles, of multiplied hardships and perils which he had encountered with heroic courage. Yet, without those emotions of envy which the superior excellence of others is so apt. to excite in little, and sometimes even in great minds, the audience listened with pleasure to the detail, and with one voice |glorified the Lord.| They were animated by the liberal spirit of Christianity, which engages with such ardour in the cause of religion, and, from a conviction of its importance, is so earnest in wishing its success, that if the work is done, it cares not who is the agent; and is content, if such is the will of God, to labour in obscurity, while others are appointed to act upon a conspicuous theatre.
During the successful labours of Paul among the Gentiles, the gospel had made great progress in Judea. |Thou seest, brother, how many thousands| (the word signifies ten thousands) |of Jews there are which believe, and they are all zealous of the law.| The zeal of the unbelieving Jews for the law was founded in the persuasion, that it was the only acceptable mode of serving God; and it excited them to reject Christianity as a false and heretical religion. The Jewish converts, while they received the gospel, believed at the same time, that the law retained its authority; and hence, although they observed the institutions of Christ, they lived, in all other respects, like the disciples of Moses. Some proceeded so far as to maintain, that obedience to the law was necessary to justification. It may be presumed, that an opinion so contrary to the truth, and so expressly condemned by the Council of Jerusalem, was not common among the Christians of that city; but it would be an excess of charity to suppose, that none of them had adopted it.
Among those zealots, a report had been spread, which was calculated to prejudice them against Paul. |They are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews, which are among the Gentiles, to forsake Moses, saying, that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs. What is it therefore? The multitude must needs come together, for they will hear that thou art come;| and there was reason to fear, that at this meeting, Paul would be publicly accused by the zealots for the law, and much ill humour would be discovered. To guard against such disagreeable consequences, James and the elders proposed the following expedient. |Do therefore this that we say to thee: we have four men which have a vow on them; them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them that they may shave their heads: and all may know, that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee are nothing, but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law.| The vow which those men had made, seems to have been the vow of the Nazarite, by which an Israelite engaged to drink no wine or strong drink, during the period of his separation, and not to suffer a razor to come upon his head. At the expiration of his vow, he shaved his head, and presented in the temple certain offerings, which the law had prescribed. It appears from the writings of the Jews, not to have been uncommon for persons, who had not come under this vow, to assist the Nazarites in defraying the expense of the customary sacrifices. This the elders advised Paul to do, or to adopt their own words, |to be at charges with the men, that they might shave their heads.| The shaving of the head was an expression used to denote the completion of the vow. Thus it would be understood, that there was no foundation for the account which had been circulated concerning him as an enemy to the law; for the Jews would see him giving an unequivocal proof of his regard to it, by the observance of one of its remarkable institutions.
|As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded, that they observe no such things, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication.| The elders refer to the decree of the Council of Jerusalem, which exempted the Gentiles from the Jewish law, and subjected them only to the restrictions here enumerated. No blame could be imputed to Paul for having taught that they might be received into the fellowship of the disciples, without submitting to circumcision and the ritual of Moses. His doctrine on this point had the sanction of the highest authority in the Church.
The transaction which has now been explained, is involved in difficulties, and has given rise to objections affecting not only the wisdom but the integrity of all who were concerned in it. Was it not a true report respecting Paul, it has been said, which the brethren in Judea had heard? Did he not teach the Jews to forsake Moses, and tell them, that his law had lost its power of obligation? On what ground, then, can James and the elders be justified in suggesting a plan, the express design of which was to persuade the disciples in Jerusalem of the contrary? Should it be insinuated, that they might not be well acquainted with the doctrine of Paul, a supposition which has little probability, did not the Apostle himself know, that he had taught the exemption of the Jews as well as of the Gentiles from the yoke of ceremonies? Why, then, did he consent to act in such a manner as should make it be believed that |those things whereof the brethren had been informed concerning him were nothing,| when in substance they were unquestionably true? Was he ashamed or afraid to profess in Jerusalem, what he had boldly avowed in Greece and Asia? Why did he not with his wonted candour declare, that the Jews were no longer bound to circumcise their children; that in Christ Jesus circumcision was of no avail; and that nothing was required by the gospel, but faith which works by love? It must be acknowledged, that the conduct of all parties in this affair, seems to give ground for these, or similar objections; and to some they have appeared so strong, and so incapable of a satisfactory solution, that their minds have been much perplexed.
Let us examine the transaction more minutely, and we shall, perhaps, discover, that the conduct of Paul and the elders was not so unjustifiable as at first sight it appears. It may be remarked, that the unfavourable report respecting Paul, which the proposed plan was intended to disprove, was not true in its full extent. He taught indeed, in every place, that obedience to the law of Moses was not necessary to justification, and did not hesitate to declare, that, in consequence of the death of Christ, and the introduction of the new economy, it was not binding upon the conscience. But, this was very different from asserting, |that the Jews ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs.| If any believing Jew had chosen not to observe the ordinances of the ceremonial law, the Apostle, I presume, would not have condemned him. But, he did not condemn those, who continued to observe them. He never pronounced the practice of the Mosaic rites, unless it was accompanied, as in the case of the Galatians, with an error in relation to the ground of our acceptance in the sight of God, to be inconsistent with the faith and duty of a Christian. He could not have done so without criminating himself; for we know, that |to the Jews he became as a Jew,| conforming their customs, with a view to gain them over to the gospel; and we have seen him, from the same motive, circumcising Timothy. There was properly, therefore, no dissimulation in his joining with the four men who had made a vow, because, on other occasions, |he walked orderly, and kept the law.| When he was abroad among the Gentiles, he had entered into the vow of the Nazarite, and shorn his head.
But why, it may be asked, did James, and the elders, and Paul, concur in encouraging the converted Jews, who were zealous for the law, to think, that its obligation continued, although they were aware, that it was abrogated by the death of Christ? Did they not lend their influence to foster a prejudice, which they should rather have exerted their authority to eradicate? It is certain, that the Jews who believed, were emancipated from the Mosaic institute, and might have refused to be any longer in bondage to the elements of the world. But, it appears from the New Testament, that God was pleased, in condescension to the peculiar circumstances of that people, to permit their ancient law to be observed for some time, by those who had embraced Christianity. This permission, I say, was granted from respect to the circumstances of the Jews, whose zeal for the law will not appear surprising to those who attend to the reasons on which it was founded. From their earliest years they had imbibed a sacred reverence for its institutions; and, prior to their conversion, they had regarded it as the only system of religious worship which was acceptable to God. They were fully assured, that its origin was divine, and they had been accustomed to believe it to be of perpetual obligation. To adopt the idea, that this law, so ancient, so venerable, and so sacred, was of no farther use in the service of God, and should, therefore, be laid aside as unprofitable, was a revolution of sentiment too great and violent to be suddenly effected. The change was accomplished by gradual and gentle means. First, the Gentiles were received into the Church without circumcision, and the acceptance of a sinner was declared to depend solely upon faith; next, the Jews were explicitly informed, particularly in the Epistle which Paul addressed to them, that the ultimate design of their ritual was fulfilled in the death of the Messiah; and, when their zeal for the law had been thus insensibly cooled, its abrogation was plainly signified by the destruction of the temple, in which alone its solemn rites could be performed.
After that event, the law was forsaken by all the Jews who professed Christianity, except a few zealots, who having adopted, at the same time, some heretical opinions concerning the person of our Saviour, were expelled from the communion of the Catholic Church. The conduct of the elders and Paul was conformable to this plan of gracious condescension. Respecting the prejudices of the Jews, in favour of the institutions which God himself had delivered to them, and the abrogation of which was not generally understood, they complied with them for a time; and choose rather to expect their removal, by the silent influence of the truth and the progress of events, than to run the risk of irritating their minds, and turning their zeal into inflexible obstinacy, by demanding an immediate renunciation of their ancient habits and attachments.
In this manner the transaction may be explained, so as to preserve our respect for the wisdom and integrity of the persons concerned in it. If, however, there should be some, to whom this explanation does not seem satisfactory, they may be reminded, that while we believe the Apostles to have been inspired, and infallibly directed in the revelations which they made to the world, we do not maintain, that their conduct was, on every occasion, exempt from error. Peter and Barnabas were once guilty of dissimulation from fear of giving offence to the Jews; and if James had been betrayed into the same fault by the same temptation, no conclusion to the discredit of Christianity, or of the Apostolical office, could be drawn from the one case, any more than from the other. We should only have another proof, that the highest attainments in gifts and grace do not raise the possessors to perfection; and that in the present state, man, although placed in the most advantageous circumstances, is still man, a weak and erring being.
Some may be disposed to infer the unlawfulness of the transaction from its unhappy termination, which may be construed into a declaration of Providence against it. It must, indeed, be acknowledged, that we can hardly conceive any scheme to have a more unfortunate issue. The believing Jews were, no doubt, convinced, that Paul was not such an enemy to the law of Moses as they had been led to believe; but this was an object of little importance. With respect to himself, the consequences were of a serious nature; for he was involved in a long series of troubles, was shut up in prison for several years, and was exposed to the risk of closing his invaluable labours, by a premature and violent death. This unprosperous result would almost lead us to suspect, that God was displeased with the measure, did we not know, that the dispensations of providence towards individuals afford no certain criterion of their character and the nature of their actions; and that hisservants have often experienced great opposition and incredible hardships, when they were obeying the clearest dictates of his word.
|Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them, entered into the temple, to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification; until that an offering should be offered for every one of them.| It seems to have been his design, in going into the temple, to give notice to the priests, that he had joined with the four men, and would observe the purity which was required from the Nazarite, for seven days, at the end of which their vow would expire. The temple was surrounded with two courts, separated by a wall of three cubits in height, which was sufficient to mark their boundaries, and, at the same time, permitted those who were in the one court to see what was passing in the other. Into the interior court none but a Jew was permitted to enter; the presence of a stranger would have profaned it. The exterior court was open to the Gentiles; but pillars were erected at proper intervals, with an inscription warning them to proceed no farther, and threatening the impious intruder with death. Some Jews from Asia, who had seen Paul in the streets of Jerusalem, accompanied by Trophimus, a native of Ephesus, hastily concluded, when they again saw him in the temple, that the same person was along with him; and that having formerly spoken, as they affirmed, in disrespectful terms of that holy edifice, he had now polluted it, by introducing an uncircumcised man into its sacred inclosure. This happened, when the seven days of his purification were almost ended. Filled with indignation at his supposed crime, they called aloud to the bystanders to assist in seizing him; and to inflame their zeal, they advanced such charges against him as were peculiarly offensive and provoking to every orthodox Jew. They accused, him not only of having profaned the temple by bringing Greeks into it, but of declaiming every where |against the people, and the law, and this place,| because he had taught, that the exclusive privileges of the Jews were at an end, and the Gentiles were now to be admitted into the covenant of God; that the Messiah having died upon the cross, the law which prefigured him was to give place to a new and more spiritual system of worship; and that Jehovah, who had for many ages made the temple his peculiar residence, was to be adored, in every land, from the rising to the setting sun.
These accusations. produced an instantaneous and violent commotion. |All the city was moved, and the people ran together: and they took Paul, and drew him out of the temple: and forthwith the doors were shut.| There is a degree of fury approaching to madness, observable in the proceedings of the Jews against the followers of Jesus, which was the effect of the fierce temper of that people, exasperated by religious bigotry. When the passions of any mob are let loose, law, justice, and humanity present but feeble barriers to their outrages; but a Jewish mob was still more furious and ungovernable, and resembled a number of savage beasts thirsting for blood. It was a principle publicly avowed, and, in the latter period of their history, frequently acted upon, that zeal for the glory of God would justify them in putting transgressors of the law to death, without a judicial trial. In the hands of such men, Paul was in imminent danger; and had not Providence seasonably interposed, he should now have closed his labours and his life. |But as they went about to kill him, tidings came unto the chief captain of the band,| or the garrison of Roman soldiers, stationed in a tower which commanded the temple, |that all Jerusalem was in an uproar; who immediately took soldiers, and centurions, and ran down unto them, and when they saw the chief captain, and the soldiers, they left beating of Paul.| The Roman commander interfered to suppress the tumult; and finding Paul to be the cause or occasion of it, he rescued him out of the hands of the Jews, and secured him, that if he was guilty of any crime, he might be legally tried and punished. He was the instrument of Providence for the preservation of the great Apostle, who had yet to go through a long course of trials and important services.
It is unnecessary to make any observations upon the remaining part of the chapter. We have seen on what occasion, and by what means Paul was deprived of his liberty, which he did not regain for several years. I shall, in the next Lecture, call your attention to his appearance before the Sanhedrim.
We perceive from the events which have now come under review, that among the disadvantages under which the gospel laboured at its first publication, its contrariety, real or apparent, to the existing religions, was not the least unfavourable to its success. To all the modifications of paganism it was professedly hostile; and it demanded the immediate and unqualified renunciation of the objects and the rites of their worship. Its opposition to the religion of Moses was only apparent; but the appearance was so strong as to alarm the Jews, and rouse them to the most determined resistance. It required them to desist from circumcision, sacrifices, and the other ceremonial ordinances, and to adopt in their room the simple and spiritual institutions of the gospel. Notwithstanding the fickleness which men often discover in matters of taste and fashion, and even in affairs of much greater importance, there are some cases, in which the power of habit operates with so much force, as to render a change exceedingly difficult. Having long acquiesced in a set of opinions and practices, they startle at every proposed alteration, and will not listen with patience to the arguments which are intended to show that it is an improvement. We wonder at the obstinacy, with which the believing Jews retained their ancient usages, although they might have understood that they had lost their meaning and use. It is evident, at the same time, that no people were ever so justifiable in being slow to admit a change, because their religion had been delivered to their fathers by God himself, and was contained in books, which they justly regarded as divine. May we not wonder much more at some persons among ourselves, who entertain the same sacred respect for human dogmas, matters of doubtful disputation, and mere forms, which have nothing to recommend them but the authority of their ancestors, who had no better right to institute forms in religion than their descendants? Let the most trifling variation be introduced in the order of procedure to which they have been accustomed; let an alteration be made in modes manifestly indifferent, and times arbitrarily fixed; let a human appendage to a divine ordinance be removed; and they are as much alarmed and displeased, as if an attempt had been made to subvert the foundations of our faith. Such persons would do well to consider, that, in the same spirit, they would have been as ready, if they had lived in the days of Paul, to exclaim against his doctrine, as the most furious zealots for the law, among the believers in Jerusalem.
Let us remark with pleasure, in the triumph of the gospel over every kind of opposition, a proof of its divinity, and an earnest of its future victories. Heathenism, with all the assistance which it received from the secular power, and the strong interest which it possessed in the corrupt passions of mankind, was not able to stand against it. Judaism yielded to its superior influence. Myriads of the Jews embraced Christianity. That religion, indeed, still subsists; but in what condition? Is it not divested of its glory, without its temple, its priests, and its sacrifices? Has it not degenerated into an absurd and contemptible superstition, which is retained only by the outcasts of mankind? It is the meagre and lifeless image of what it once was; and while it points its impotent malice against Christianity, it involuntarily does it homage, by bearing testimony to the truth of its predictions, in every region of the earth.
My brethren, our hearts are ready to despond when we consider the formidable obstacles, which oppose the diffusion of evangelical truth. Heathen idolatry and Mahometan superstition are established throughout a great part of the earth. In other regions, Antichristian delusion have spread far and wide their baleful influence, and infidelity boasts of its numerous disciples. Ignorance, dissipation, and the love of worldly things have alienated the minds of most men from serious subjects. But meditate now upon the works of the Lord, and remember the years of his right hand. Have we forgotten the victories, which it has gained? Do we suspect that it has lost its vigour, or that God will never again pluck it out of his bosom? If his power seems at present to slumber and sleep, it is that it may awake with greater energy than ever. |Behold, I create new heavens, and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind.| Let us not perplex ourselves about the means of effecting that mighty revolution in human affairs, which is announced by prophecy. He will provide them, |who calls the things that are not as though they were.| All nature is obedient to his voice; and if, in the whole compass of creation, nothing should be found fit for his purpose, there is an unfailing resource in his Almighty power. When he says, |Let there be light, there shall be light.|