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A Commentary On Acts Of The Apostles by J. W. McGarvey

Acts XIV

XIV: 1, 2. In Iconium the two missionaries met with better success than in Antioch, but they encountered similar opposition, and from the same source. (1) |Now it came to pass in Iconium, that they went together into the synagogue of the Jews, and so spoke that a great multitude, both of the Jews and the Greeks, believed. (2) But the unbelieving Jews stirred up and disaffected the minds of the Gentiles against the brethren.| The multitude of Jews and Gentiles who believed must have been |great,| not in comparison to the whole population, but to the number who were usually convinced under such circumstances, and especially to the number who had just been convinced in Antioch. For we see that the unbelieving Jews were still an influential body, and the remark that they |disaffected the minds of the Gentiles| indicates that the masses of the Gentiles were still unbelievers.

It should not escape the notice of the reader, that the conviction of these people is attributed distinctly to the force of what the apostles spoke. They |so spoke that a great multitude believed.| This is one among many incidental remarks of Luke, which indicate that he had no conception of the modern doctrine that faith is produced by an abstract operation of the Holy Spirit, and which confirm by historic facts the doctrine of Paul, that faith comes by hearing the word of God.

3-7. This divided and excited state of the public mind continued during the whole time that Paul and Barnabas remained in the city. (3) |They continued there a long time, speaking boldly respecting the Lord, who bore testimony to the word of his favor, and granted signs and wonders to be done through their hands. (4) Yet the multitude of the city was divided: some were with the Jews, and others with the apostles. (5) But when an onset was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to abuse and stone time, (6) they, being aware of it, fled down to the cities of Lycaonia, Lystra, and Derbe, and the surrounding country; (7) and there they preached the gospel.| In the rapid sketch which Luke is giving us of this rather hurried missionary tour, he makes no definite note of time, to indicate how long the two missionaries remained at any particular place. The above remark, that they continued in Iconium |a long time,| is the only note of the kind in the tour, and it is very indefinite. It only indicates that their stay here was long in comparison with that at most other places during this tour.

Though their preaching here was not as successful as might have been expected from the length of time employed, it received abundant attestations of the Lord's approval. The proof of this fact adduced by Luke is quite different from that often adduced for a similar purpose by modern writers. Now, the proof that a man's ministry is |owned and accepted| by the Lord, is found in the |abundant outpourings of the Spirit| which attend it; and this, in other words, means the number of |powerful conversions| with which it is rewarded. But the Lord's method of bearing testimony to the word of his favor, according to Luke, was by |granting signs and wonders to be done| by the hands of the preachers; while not a word is said, either by him or any other inspired writer, of such a spiritual attestation as is now confidently referred to. This shows that our modern revivalists have confounded the attestations of the word by signs and miracles, which was common, in apostolic times, with the exciting scenes which now occur in their revivals. This mistake not only confounds things essentially different, but assumes that the apostles were accustomed to scenes of which they never dreamed. Moreover, it erects a false and very injurious standard by which to judge whether a man's ministry is acceptable to God. If the preacher who is most successful in gaining converts is the one whose ministry is most acceptable to God, then there is not the same value in earnest piety, a blameless life, and watchful oversight of the flock which the apostolic epistles would lead us to believe; since it sometimes occurs that men who obtain the fame of great |revivalists,| are quite deficient in these essential characteristics of an acceptable minister of the Word.

The onset made by the multitude, like the similar proceedings in Antioch, was instigated by the unbelieving Jews, though effected chiefly by the Gentiles and the rulers of the city. The escape of the missionaries must have been narrow, and was probably owing to the kindness of some stranger, whom Paul and Barnabas may have remembered with gratitude, but whose name will not be known to the great world till the day of eternity.

8-12. The district of Lycaonia, into which the apostles had fled, was an interior district of Asia Minor, lying north of the Taurus Mountains, but of very indefinite boundaries. The exact situation of the two towns, Lystra and Derbe, is not now known. With the character of the people, however, which is the important consideration in a narrative like this, we are made sufficiently acquainted by the narrative itself. It was one of those retired districts, remote from the great marts of trade and the routes of travel, where the people retained their primitive habits, spoke their primitive dialect, and knew little of either the civilization of the Greeks, or the religion of the Jews. This rude state of society will account for some of the peculiarities of the following narrative.

Finding no Jewish synagogues, to afford them an assembly of devout hearers, the missionaries took advantage of such other opportunities as offered, to get the ears of the people. Having succeeded in collecting a crowd in Lystra, they met with the following incident: (8) |A certain man in Lystra was sitting, impotent in his feet, a cripple from his birth, who had never walked. (9) The same was listening to Paul speaking, who, looking intently upon him, and seeing that he had faith to be healed, (10) and said with a loud voice, Stand upright on your feet; and he leaped and walked about. (11) The multitude, seeing what Paul did, lifted up their voice in the speech of Lycaonia, and said, The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men. (12) And they called Barnabas Jupiter, and Paul, because he was the chief speaker, Mercury.|

Although Paul had been speaking to them of the true God, and of his Son Jesus Christ, until the cripple, at least, believed; yet, when the miracle was wrought before them, all their heathenish ideas rushed back upon their minds, and they at once supposed that they stood in the presence of gods. Such was the natural conclusion of men who had been educated from childhood to believe the strange inventions of heathen mythology. It was an honest mistake, committed through ignorance.

Their conclusion as to which of the gods had appeared, was as natural and as instantaneous as their conviction that they were gods. They had a temple, or a statue, or perhaps both, in front of their city, as we learn below, to the honor of Jupiter; hence any god who might appear to them would be naturally taken for him. But when two gods appeared together, the one who acts as chief speaker could be no other than Mercury, the god of Eloquence, and the constant attendant of Jupiter in his terrestrial visits. The remark of Luke that Paul was called Mercury |because he was the chief speaker,| shows that he was familiar with Greek mythology.

13. The people felt the warmest gratitude for the visit of their supposed gods, and gave expression to their feeling in the most approved method. (13) |Then the priest of the Jupiter that was before the city brought bulls and garlands to the gates, and, with the people, wished to offer sacrifices to them.| The garlands of flowers were designed, according to a well-known custom of the ancients, to deck the forms of the bulls about to be offered. It is not altogether certain whether the |gates| referred to are those of a private court within which Paul and Barnabas may have retired when first greeted as gods, or the gates of the city, of which there may have been two or more in the same part of the wall, and near which the apostles may have remained with a part of the crowd. The latter I regard as the most probable supposition. The sacrifices were to be offered to the supposed gods in person, and not to the image which stood before the city.

14-18. Nothing could have been more unexpected or more painful to the humble missionaries, than a demonstration of this kind. The purpose of the priest and the crowd with him was, doubtless, communicated to them before the rites were commenced. (14) |Which when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard, they rent their clothes, and ran into the crowd, crying aloud, (15) and saying, Men, why do you do these things? We are men of like passions with yourselves, preaching the gospel to you, that you should turn from these vanities to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; (16) who in generations past suffered all the Gentiles to go on in their own ways; (17) although he did not leave himself without testimony, doing good, and giving you rains from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling your hearts with food and gladness. (18) And by saying these things they with difficulty restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them.|

The habit of rending one's clothes under the influence of sudden passion, which Paul and Barnabas had inherited from their ancestors, and fell into on this occasion, appears very singular to the taste of western nations. The earliest historical traces of it are found in the family of Jacob, and the example of Job; and the latest in the instance before us, which is the only one recorded of the apostles. How so childish and destructive a custom could have originated, it is difficult to imagine; but when once introduced, it is easy to see how it might be transmitted by imitation, until the use of more costly garments would put a stop to it with the economical, or the the restraints of a more enlightened piety would mollify the passions of the religious. It was, certainly, very inconsistent with the calm self-possession inculcated by Christ and the apostles; but we can excuse Barnabas and Saul on this occasion, in consideration of their early habits, which often spring unexpectedly upon men in a moment of sudden excitement.

In describing their effort to restrain the idolatry of the multitude, Luke once more reverses their names, saying Barnabas and Saul, as he did before the conversion of Sergius Paulus. This is because Barnabas was called Jupiter, and was the chief figure in this scene. The care with which Luke changes the order of their names, according as one or the other is most prominent, confirms what we have said of the pre-eminence of Barnabas previous to the commencement of this missionary tour.

Though Barnabas, on this occasion, received the chief honor at the hands of the people, yet Paul continued to play the part of Mercury which the people had assigned him; for the speech to the idolaters bears unmistakable marks of his paternity. Mr. Howson notices the coincidence between the exhortation to the Lystrians, that they |should turn from these vanities to the living God,| and his remark to the Thessalonians, that they had |turned from idols to serve the living and true God;| between the remark that |in generations past God suffered the Gentiles to go on in their own ways,| and his statement to the Athenians, that |the times of this ignorance God had overlooked;| and finally, between the argument by which he proves that God had not left himself without testimony among the heathen, and that in Romans, where he says (to quote the common version,) |The invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.| To which I would add, that the coincidence in thought between this speech, so far as reported, and that made in Athens to another company of idolaters is so striking, that the latter might be regarded as the same speech, only modified to suit the circumstances of the audience and the peculiarities of the occasion.

The speech and manner of the apostles finally brought the people back to their senses. It was a sad disappointment to know that their wonderful visitors were only men like themselves, and this conviction left them in great bewilderment as to the nature of the superhuman power which Paul had exerted.

19. This state of suspense was most favorable to the acceptance of Paul's own explanation of his miraculous power, and consequently to their belief of the gospel; and we can not doubt that some of the disciples, whom we afterward find there, owed their conviction, in part, to the circumstance. But with those who did not promptly embrace the faith, the same suspense made room for explanations unfavorable to conviction, and such explanations were soon given. (19) |But Jews from Antioch and Iconium came thither, and having persuaded the multitude, and stoned Paul, they dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead.| The readiness with which a people who had so recently offered divine honors to Paul were persuaded to stone him to death, though at first glance surprising, is but a natural result of all the circumstances. That portion of them who had been prominent in the idolatrous proceedings felt mortified at the discovery of their mistake, and were naturally inclined to excuse their own folly by throwing censure upon the innocent objects of it. The Jews stimulated this feeling by urging that Paul was an impostor, and that all the honorable women and chief men of Antioch and Iconium had united in driving him away from those cities. This enabled them to charge him with willful deception, and as their feelings were already keyed up to their utmost tension they were easily swayed to the opposite extreme, and at a nod from the Jews they were ready to dash him to pieces. That Paul, rather than Barnabas, was the victim of their wrath, resulted from the fact that both here and in the cities from which the Jews had come, he was the chief speaker. The same circumstance which had given him the inferior place in their idolatry, gave him, finally, the superior place in their hatred.

20. Although Paul's physical constitution was feeble, he had, as is often the case with such constitutions, great tenacity of life. The mob left him, thinking he was dead. (20) |But while the disciples were standing around him, he rose up, and entered into the city, and the next day he went out with Barnabas into Derbe.|

21, 22. Having been compelled to fly from Antioch to Iconium, and from Iconium to Lystra, wading into deeper dangers at every step, who can tell the feelings with which the wounded missionary enters the gate of another heathen city, bearing visible marks of the indignity he had suffered, to excite the contempt of the people? We know, from the expression given to his feelings on some other occasions, that now they must have been gloomy indeed. But he who brings light out of darkness caused a refreshing light to shine upon the darkening pathway of his faithful servant, by granting him here a peaceful and abundant harvests of souls. (21) |And when they had preached the gospel in the city, and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, (22) confirming the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God.| Luke passes hurriedly over these scenes; but the uninspired imagination loves to linger among them, to sympathize with the suffering apostles in their afflictions and comforts, and also with the congregations in the four cities, as the two brethren, who had come among them like visitors from a better world, were bidding them farewell, and leaving them to make their own way through many temptations into the everlasting kingdom of God.

23. They were left as |sheep in the midst of wolves;| but they were committed to the care of the great Shepherd of the sheep, and were supplied with under-shepherds to keep them in the fold. (23) |And having appointed for them elders in every Church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, in whom they believed.| Here we have the same prayer and fasting, connected with the appointment of elders, which we have already noticed upon the appointment of the seven deacons in Jerusalem, and upon the sending forth of Paul and Barnabas from Antioch. The laying on of hands, which was a part of the ceremony on those occasions, is not here mentioned; but as we have already seen that it was a part of the ceremony of appointment to office, and as the apostles are said to have appointed these elders, we may safely infer that it was not omitted.

As the office exercised by these elders, and the number of them in each congregation, have been made subjects of controversy, we will devote some space to grouping a few facts which bear upon these points. The passage before us contains the earliest mention of the appointment of elders, yet these were by no means the first elders appointed. For Paul and Barnabas, when sent to Jerusalem with a contribution for the poor saints, delivered it to |the elders.| This shows that there were already elders in the Churches in Judea. Paul and Barnabas, on their present tour, appointed elders in every Church; Titus was left in Crete that he might set in order the things that were omitted, and appoint elders in every city; and James takes it for granted that every Church has elders, by directing, in his general epistle, that the sick should call for the elders of the Church, to pray for them and anoint them with oil, with a view to their recovery. In view of these facts, it can not be doubted that the office of elder was universal in the apostolic Churches.

That the term elder is used as an official title, and not merely to indicate the older members of the Church, is sufficiently evident from the fact that men became elders by appointment, whereas an appointment can not make one an old man. The fact that these officers were called elders indicates that they were generally selected from the elderly class; still, it does not necessarily imply that, to be an elder officially, a man must be an elder in years. Terms which are appropriated as official titles do not always retain their original meanings. Whether advanced age is necessary to the elder's office is to be determined, not by the official title, but by the qualifications prescribed. But, inasmuch as no such qualification is anywhere prescribed, we conclude that any brother who possesses the qualifications which are prescribed, may be made an elder, though he be not an old man.

The term bishop in our common version, rendered in some English versions overseer, is but another title for this same officer. This is evident, first, from the fact that the same brethren of the congregation in Ephesus, who came down to Miletus to meet Paul, are styled by Luke |elders of the Church,| and by Paul, bishops. Second, In the epistle to Titus, Paul uses the two terms interchangeably. He tells Titus that he left him in Crete to ordain elders in every city, prescribes some of the qualifications for the office, and assigns as a reason for them, |for a bishop must be blameless,| etc. If Washington, in his Farewell Address, had advised the American people to always elect as President a man of known integrity, and had given as a reason for it that the chief magistrate of a great people should be of blameless reputation, it would be as reasonable to deny that the terms president and chief magistrate are used interchangeably, as that the terms elder and bishop are in the passage.

That there was a plurality of elders in each congregation could hardly be disputed by an unbiased reader of the New Testament. Two facts, alone, would seem sufficient to settle this question: first, the fact that Titus was to ordain elders, not an elder, in every city; second, that they were elders, and not an elder from the Church in Ephesus, who came to meet Paul at Miletus. The objection sometimes urged, that there may have been several Churches in each of these cities, and that the plurality of elders was made up of the single elders from the individual Churches, is based upon a conjecture utterly without historic foundation. But if the argument from these passages were waived, the issue is conclusively settled by the statement of our text, that Paul and Barnabas, |appointed elders in every Church.| A plurality of elders, therefore, and not a single one, were appointed for each Church.

A full exhibition of the duties of the elder's office, and of the moral and intellectual qualifications requisite to an appointment thereto, belongs to a commentary on the First Epistle to Timothy, rather than on Acts of Apostles. We will not, therefore, consider them here, further than to observe that the duties were such as can not be safely dispensed with in any congregation; while the qualifications were such as were then, and are now, but seldom combined in a single individual. Indeed, it can not be supposed that Paul found in the young congregations of Lystra, Iconium, Antioch, and every other planted during this tour, men who could fill up the measure of the qualifications which he prescribes for this office. But he appointed elders in every Church, hence he must have selected those who came nearest the standard. It is not an admissible objection to this argument, that inspiration may have supplied the defects of certain brethren in each congregation, so as to fully qualify them; for moral excellencies, which are the principal of these qualifications, are not supplied by inspiration. The truth is, the qualifications for this office, like the characteristics prescribed for old men, aged women, young men and women, and widows, respectively, are to be regarded as a model for imitation, rather than a standard to which all elders must fully attain. It were as reasonable to keep persons of these respective ages out of the Church, until they fill up the characters prescribed for them, as to keep a Church without elders until it can furnish men perfect in the qualifications of the office. Common sense and Scripture authority both unite in demanding that we should rather follow Paul's example, and appoint elders in every Church from the best material which the Church affords.

The qualifications to be prescribed for one who would fill an office depend upon the duties of the office. Imperfection in the qualifications leads to proportionate inefficiency in the performance of the duties. Seeing, then, that but few men are found possessing, in a high degree, all the qualifications for the office of bishop, we should not be surprised that its duties have generally been more or less inefficiently performed. Much less should we, as so many have done, seek a remedy for this inefficiency, in an entire subversion of the Church organization instituted by the apostles. After all that can be said to the contrary, the apostolic plan has proved itself more efficient than any of those invented by men. Those congregations of the present day which are under the oversight of an efficient eldership, other things being equal, come nearer, in every good word and work, to the apostolic model of a Church of Christ, than any others in Christendom. And those which have a comparatively inefficient eldership will compare most favorably with those under an inefficient pastorship of any other kind. Finally, such inefficiency is not, after all, more frequently found in the eldership than in what is popularly styled the ministry. This must be so, from the fact that the qualifications for the office, public speaking alone excepted, are more frequently found combined in three or four men, than in one, whether pastor, or class-leader, or whatever may be his title. The folly, therefore, of abandoning the apostolic eldership in favor of any other organization, is demonstrated by history; while its wickedness must be apparent to every one who esteems apostolic precedents above human expedients. To seek an escape from the condemnation due for this wickedness, by asserting that the apostles left no model of Church organization, is only to add to the original crime by perverting the Scriptures to excuse it. So long as it stands recorded that Paul and Barnabas |appointed for them elders in every Church,| and so long as the duties of these officers remain carefully prescribed in the apostolic epistles, so long will it be false to deny that the apostles left us a definite model of Church organization, and wicked in the sight of God to abandon it for any other.

24-26. Leaving Antioch of Pisidia, the apostles returned as far as the sea-coast by the same route through which they had gone up into Pisidia. (24) |And passing through Pisidia, they came into Pamphylia; (25) and having spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia. (26) Thence they sailed to Antioch, whence they had been commended to the favor of God for the work which they had performed.| Perga, on the river Cestrus, a few miles above its mouth, was the point at which they had disembarked on their first arrival from Cyprus. They had made no delay there at first, but now we are told that they |spoke the word in Perga.| Luke's silence in reference to the result of this effort is an indication that it was not very decided. It is probable that their design was simply to usefully employ an interval during which they were waiting for a vessel bound to Antioch. This conjecture is confirmed by the fact that they finally left Perga by land, and walked down to Attalia on the sea-coast, where they would be likely to meet with a vessel without so long delay. They were not disappointed; for |thence they sailed to Antioch.|

27, 28. The apostles had now completed their missionary tour, and there could but be great anxiety in the congregation who had sent them forth, to know the result of their labors. It was the first mission ever sent to the heathen world. The missionaries were as eager to report the success with which their sufferings and toil had been crowned, as the congregation were to hear it. He who returns from a hard-fought field bearing good tidings, pants beneath the burden of his untold story. (27) |And having arrived and assembled the Church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and that he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. (28) And they continued there no little time with the disciples.| In the statement that God had |opened a door of faith to the Gentiles,| this is an allusion both to the opening of that national inclosure which had hitherto confined the gospel almost exclusively to the Jews, and the introduction of the distant Gentiles through that door into the Church. Before this, faith had been to them inaccessible; for |how shall they believe on him of whom they had not heard?| But now that the preachers had been sent out to them, the door was open, and faith was accessible to all.

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