Acts 28After a long and dangerous voyage, recorded in the foregoing chapter, the providence of God brought St. Paul and the rest of the prisoners to an island called Melita, where they were courteously received by the islanders; who finding them wet and cold, made them a fire to warm and refresh them: when, behold, a viper that was in the wood, feeling the heat of the fire, leaped out upon St. Paul, and fastened on his hand: which the islanders seeing, instantly concluded that the apostle was some notorious malefactor, whom divine vengeance followed: but the apostle, (according to our Saviour's promise, If ye touch any deadly thing it shall not hurt you, Mr 16:18) shaking off the venomous beast into the fire, without harm, the people presently changed their opinion, and took him for a god, that was come to them in the shape of a man.
Here note, 1. How it pleased God by a new miracle to confirm the apostle's authority, and thereby to prepare the hearts of those barbarous people for the receiving of the gospel. God will honour his gospel, and the faithful dispensers of it, wherever they go, by preparing the hearts of the people to receive and entertain it.
Note, 2. That great and manifold dangers and distresses may, and oft-times do, befal gracious persons. No sooner is one affliction passed over and gone from them, but presently another comes on with a fresh assault.
Thus here, St. Paul had no sooner escaped the shipwreck, and gets to shore, but a viper fastens upon his hand: Many are the afflictions of the righteous.
Observe, 3. That the very light of nature suggests, even to the most barbarous heathens, that wickedness shall not go unpunished; No doubt this man is a murderer, whom vengeance suffereth not to live.
Note, 4. That natural agents cannot act or exert their natural powers, without the concourse and concurrence of supernatural providence: this viper, according to its nature, did not, and could not, sting the apostle, being restrained by the overruling providence and power of God.
Note, 5. That the humanity of these barbarous heathens towards those that suffered shipwreck, may justly condemn the inhumanity of them that are called Christians, towards those that are shipwrecked: How do some that live near the sea-coast rejoice in a wreck at sea, in hopes of enriching themselves with the spoils of others! The barbarous were humane here, but the humane are now barbarous.
Note, 6. How prone and ready men are to draw sinful inferences from sorrowful premises; to conclude, that such a man, or such a people, are wicked, because they are wretched; great sinners, because great sufferers. This was the barbarous logic of these islanders. It had been well that it had been confined to that island: When the barbarians saw the venomous beast on the apostle's hand, they said, No doubt this man is a murderer.
Note, 7. How mutable is the mind of man, and how inconstant are men in their esteem, and opinions of men: the apostle had no sooner shook off the viper into the fire, but the barbarians change their opinions into another extreme; he whom they accounted a murderer before, they called a god now: They changed their minds, and said that he was a god. They are light and lavish in their applauding, as before they were rash and severe in censuring.
Thus, upon changes of providence, many change their opinions of men, sometimes for the better, but commonly for the worse. Lord! help me to esteem myself only by the esteem which I have with thee. Let me never be lifted up with the applaudings, not cast down by the despisings, of men; neither praise nor reproach are much to be accounted of, whilst we are innocent, and make thee our friend.
Question. But why did not St. Paul, that shook off the viper from his hand, shake off the chain from his arm, and set himself at liberty?
Answer. St. Paul was not the author, but a minister or instrument in this miracle, God wrought special miracles by the hand of Paul. Acts 19:12
Now, when the deliverance of the apostle from his bonds made most for the glory of God, he was delivered; but, when his bonds would more advance the gospel, God kept him in bonds.
Observe here, How God goes on still to honour the person and ministry of St. Paul, in the eyes and hearts of this barbarous people, by enabling him further to work miracles in this island.
First, on Publius, the governor's father, and then on others that were diseased in the island.
Here note, 1. How great the civility of the governor of the island was towards St. Paul, entertaining him and all the company with him, even more than two hundred persons, at his own charge.
And, 2. How well the governor was rewarded for his hospitable charity; his father lying sick of a fever and bloody flux, is miraculously recovered by God. As there is no duty more certainly rewarded in another world than that of charity, so is it frequently rewarded in this world. Publius was well paid by his father's recovery, for what he did for St. Paul and his company.
Note, 3. The means which the apostle used for the recovery of this sick person: prayer and imposition of hands, Paul prayed, and laid his hands on him, and healed him. Acts 28:8
Now, hereby the apostle showed that he could do nothing of himself; accordingly he applies by prayer to that God who killeth and maketh alive, and the Lord heard him. St. Paul had honoured God, and now God honours him. How grieved was the holy apostle when God's honour was sacrilegiously given to him! I doubt not but it grieved the good man more when they called him a god, than when they accounted him a murderer; here therefore he returns the honour to God by prayer, ascribing all to him; and God honours him by making him the instrument of the miraculous cure.
Note, 4. How the infinitely wise God made all things work together for his own glory: that the apostle should suffer shipwreck; that he should be cast upon an island; that he should be cast upon a barbarous island, where the name of God was not known; that a viper should fasten upon him, and not hurt him; that the governor of the island's father, and other inhabitants of the island, should at this time be sick, and miraculously cured by St. Paul.
All these tender towards the promoting of God's glory, by opening an effectual door for the conversion of many souls; for during three months that the apostle stayed there, he planted a Christian church in the island, which became famous for its steadfastness in the truth.
Note, 5. The proof and evidence which the islanders gave of the truth of their conversion by the apostle's ministry among them; namely, that those new converts loaded St. Paul's ship with necessaries for their voyage when he went away from them. This was a real fruit of their effectual faith, as also their honouring him with many honours. The best evidence of sincere faith, is a holy fruitfulness in good works, in works of piety towards God, and works of charity towards man: They honoured us with many honours, and when we departed they laded us with such things as were necessary.
Observe here, 1. That St. Paul at the command of God, though shipwrecked before, yet puts forth to sea again. A clear call from God, will carry on a Christian cheerfully to grapple with all imaginary difficulties and dangers, without either dispute or delay.
Thus did the apostle here; he enters a ship of Alexandria, sails from Malta to Syracuse in Sicily, from thence to Rhegium, in Italy, from thence to Puteoli; where they found some Christians, with whom they abode seven days.
Here note, How wonderfully the Christian religion was spread abroad in the Italian country, yea, in and about Rome before St. Paul's coming thither. From Puteoli the apostle passes to Rome, the chief city in Italy, the empress of the world, and seat of the Roman emperor. He is met upon the road by many eminent persons, as conquerors used to be, to congratulate their great victories; even by Christians, who are called brethren, Acts 28:15 who are not ashamed of St. Paul's chain, but left their houses and came forth to meet him, some fifty miles, others thirty; some one day's journey, others two; to congratulate his coming, and pay their respect unto him: for which favour the apostle thanked God and took courage. That is, he owned it as an encouragement sent from God unto him, and was greatly refreshed by their company. But how came Christians so early to be found at Rome? Who converted them? St. Paul had never been there till now, and we read not of St. Peter, or any of the apostles, having been there thus early; yet St. Paul finds many Christians at and about Rome.
Answer. These brethren are thought to be converted by such as were present at Jerusalem at the feast of Pentecost, Acts 2:10, where it is expressly said, That there were strangers of Rome then present, when those mighty miracles were wrought there; and we may suppose that they, becoming true converts at that time, did propogate the gospel in and about Rome, according to their ability; and the blessing of God so accompanied and succeeded their endeavours, that the apostle now found some saints even in Nero's house: Thus mightily grew the word of God, and prevailed.
Now is the great apostle landed and lodged a prisoner at Rome, according to the divine prediction, Be of good cheer, Paul: as thou hast testified of me at Jerusalem, so shalt thou bear witness also at Rome. Acts 23:11
Yet observe, 1. The favour which God gave him in the sight of his enemies: he is not clapped up in the common gaol, but a sort of prisoner at large; he dwells by himself in his own hired house, with his keeper with him. This liberty was highly valued by the apostle, we may believe; not so much for his own comfort, as for the benefit and advantage of the gospel; for by this means he had an opportunity of going abroad and preaching the word of God in every place, as the providence of gave him opportunity.
Observe, 2. St. Paul is no sooner come to Rome, with desire and design, no doubt, to preach the gospel there to his countrymen the Jews in the first place; but he sends for the Jews to come to him, states his case to them, lays the matter of fact before them, and endeavours to remove all prejudice from their minds, which they might have taken up against him, and so have missed of the benefit of his ministry.
From whence learn, That it is the great duty of the ministers of the gospel, prudently to prevent, if possible, or presently to remove, all prejudices, which may be taken up by their people against their persons; knowing that if they have a prejudice against their persons, they will never relish their doctrine, nor be benefited by their ministry.
Thus did the great apostle here endeavour to set himself right with his auditors the Jews, before he began to preach to them.
Observe, 3. How the apostle was not ashamed of, but rather glories in, the cause for which he suffered: For the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain. As if he had said, "For preaching that Messiah who hath long been hoped and prayed for, I am come hither a prisoner; or, for the sake of Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah who hath long been expected and hoped for, who is now come in the flesh, to be their Redeemer, and in whom all the true Israel of God repose all their hope of salvation,and by whom they expect a joyful resurrection, I am bound with this chain."
Here observe, 1. The hard usage which the blessed apostle meets with from the hands of a wicked world: a chain is clapped upon him, as if he was some rogue or thief. Paul the lamb, was now a prisoner to Nero the lion. The best of men may, and oft do, suffer under the notion of the most vile and wicked persons.
Observe, 2. The true cause of St. Paul's sufferings: For the hope of Israel I am bound. That is, for the object of Israel's hope, or the Messiah which they so long expected, and so much hoped for.
Observe, 3. The publication which St. Paul makes of his sufferings here at Rome: he tells all the world, for whom, and in whose cause he now suffered.
Thence learn, That sufferings for Christ and the gospel are no matter of shame, but glory: the apostle doth not blush to say, For the hope of Israel, I wear this chain; the shame belonged to them that clapped on the chain, not to him that wore it.
Observe, 4. The end why the apostle makes known his sufferings; namely, That all the Jews now at Rome might know the true cause wherefore he suffered. St. Paul's enemies had laid heavy things to his charge, which possibly might fly as far as Rome: now although he little regarded what the wicked world said of him, yet he desired to stand right in the thoughts of the Jews here at Rome; and therefore as soon as he was come thither, he sends for them to acquaint them with the cause of his imprisonment.
When good men are in a suffering condition, the devil is very industrious to defame them, and the world very ready to misrepresent them; therefore it is a duty which is owing to themselves, to vindicate their own innocency, and to set forth the cause of their sufferings in a clear and true light. It is verily for the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.
Observe here, 1. The advantage which the apostle had to preach the gospel to these Jews at Rome: they assure him that they had entertained no prejudice against his person; for they had received no letters out of Judea concerning him; neither had any of their brethren that came from Judea spoken any evil of him; yea, they assure him, it was their desire to hear him preach, and to understand what he had to say for the Christian religion, (which they call a sect or heresy,) that both Jews and Gentiles did generally oppose and speak against and talk hardly of.
Observe, 2. How readily the apostle complies with their request in preaching to them: time and place are appointed, the people assembled. The great truth defended and approved was this, That Jesus of Nazareth was the true and promised Messiah, in whom all that desire to be saved ought to believe and trust. This argument he confirmed by testimonies out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, continuing his discourse from morning until night: so unwearied was this faithful labourer in his Lord and Master's work.
Observe, 3. The different success of the word preached, and the contrary effects which it had upon its hearers: Some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not.
As the same sun that softens the wax hardens the clay, so has the gospel different effects upon those it is preached to; there are some whom no sun will tan, no heat will warm, no influence will quicken. To some we are the savour of life unto life, to others the savour of death unto death: but, blessed be God, if we his ministers be found faithful, we shall be a sweet savour unto God, as well in them that perish, as in them that are saved.
The obstinate infidelity and unreasonable unbelief which was found among the Jews under the apostle's preaching, was no doubt a great grief of heart unto him; but at their departure he tells them, that they would not be persuaded that this unbelief of theirs was what the prophet Esaias had long before punctually foretold, That hearing they will not see; having contracted such a wilful hardness, blindness, and deafness, as will not suffer them to hearken to any counsel which may end to their conversion and salvation.
Here note, That though the present unbelief of the obstinate Jews to whom the apostle now preached, was long before foretold by the prophets of God; yet the prophets' prediction was no cause of their unbelief, or that which laid them under an impossibility of believing; but the fault lay in their own obstinate wills; with respect to which, by the just judgment of God, they were blinded and hardened. When sinners close their eyes wilfully, and say, They will not see.
Deus non deserit nisi deserentem; the Jews had forsaken God, and now God forsakes them. But the apostle tells them, that upon this refusal of theirs he was to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, and that they would hear it, and gladly receive it, The salvation of God is sent to the Gentiles, and they will hear it. Acts 28:29
Where observe, the epithet or title given to the gospel, The salvation of God.
1. It is styled salvation, because it makes a tender and universal offer of life and salvation unto lost sinners.
2. It is called the salvation of God, because it is a salvation of his providing and contriving, of his revealing and discovering. It is his by way of patefaction and discovery; his by way of power and efficacy; The salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles.
Note here, 1. The special favour indulged St. Paul, now a prisoner at Rome, with so much freedom, and without any molestation, to preach the gospel in his own hired house for two years together.
Where observe, 1. Who preaches; St. Paul a prisoner, who scarcely had liberty to hear, rarely to preach.
2. Where he preached; even in proud, powerful, and imperious Rome, and in his own hired house there.
3. To whom he preached: To all that came unto him. He set open the doors of his house for all comers, excluding none from the gracious offers of salvation by a Redeemer, upon the condition of faith and obedience.
4. How long he continued his ministry at Rome; for two whole years at that time: he would neither be allured by flatteries, nor hectored by threatenings, to lay down his ministry, or desist from his preaching work.
5. After what manner he preached; with all confidence, boldness, openness, and freedom, with such an undaunted courage as neither a love of life, nor fear of death, could overcome.
6. The subject matter of his preaching: The kingdom of God, and things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ; not vain janglings or envious railings, but Jesus Christ, and the way of salvation by him.
Lastly, with what freedom he did all this, No man forbidding him; neither emperor, nor senate, nor magistrate, nor soldier, nor priest, nor people, though in an heathen city, devoted to idolatry, in the least hindering or forbidding him.
Where note, That Rome heathen of old was far less cruel and much more courteous to the preachers of the gospel, than Rome anti-Christian since has been. Then an apostle might preach two years together without molestation in his own hired house, to all comers; but now a minister of God must there have no public or private place of meeting to worship God according to his word and will, without the danger of an inquisition.
To conclude: See how impossible it was at that day to hinder the progress of the gospel; even as impossible as to hinder the sun from shining, or the wind from blowing. That God, who shut the mouths of the hungry lions, that they hurt not Daniel, did open the mouth of the apostle, that neither Nero nor the Jews could stop it; yea, after this, he was delivered from the mouth of the lion; rescued out of Nero's hands. And God would have continued to deliver him, had not his death been more for the glory of God and his own advantage than his life, which at last was offered up a sacrifice and sweet-smelling savour, acceptable unto God through Jesus Christ.
Thus St. Luke concludes his history of St. Paul's life, without giving us any particulars of his death. He leaves him at Rome, a prisoner under Nero, where after two years' confinement, the scriptures seem to hint, that he was set at liberty, and that he went about preaching the gospel and confirming the churches for some years; but an attempt to trace this apostle farther without scripture light, may be the ready way to lose ourselves. Let us therefore conclude with prayer,
That Almighty God, who through the preaching of his apostle St. Paul did cause the light of the glorious gospel to shine throughout the world, would mercifully grant that we, having his wonderful conversion and instructive example in our remembrance, may show forth our thankfulness unto him for the same, by following the holy doctrine which he taught through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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