Acts 5The last verses of the foregoing chapter acquainted us with the practice of the primitive Christians at the first plantation of the gospel, in selling their possessions for charitable uses, and laying down the money at the apostles' feet, for the relief of their fellow brethren and members in Christ.
Now this chapter informs us, that according to their example, one Anania, and Sapphira his wife, consecrated a possession unto God, and sold the same to that purpose; but fraudulently kept back part of the price; and thus, as St. Chryostom notes, was found stealing his own goods: He had the formality to sell his lands as others did; but had not the sincerity to part with his money as others had.
Observe here, 1. The true nature of Ananias's sin, it as sacrilege; that is, a purloining or stealing of that which by vow and inward purpose of heart: covetousness and vain-glory, lying and hypocrisy, did all attend and accompany this sin; but the sin itself was sacrilege.
Learn hence, 1. That what is consecrated to God, must not be alienated or applied to to other uses.
2. That such an alienation is sacrilege, and a sin against God, being a breach of vow or promise made unto him; a lying unto God, as the text calls it.
3. That it is a heinous sin, which God will severely punish.
Observe, 2. How this secret sin, lying in the intention of the heart, was known to God, and by divine revelation made known to St. Peter.
Learn thence, That not only our outward actions are taken notice of by God, but even the purposes and intents of our hearts are all manifest and open to him, and thoroughly understood by them.
Observe, 3. How St. Peter justly aggravates their sin from the divinity of the person, (the Holy Ghost,) against whom it was committed, Why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie unto the Holy Ghost? Thou hast not lied unto man, but unto God.
But why is Ananias said to lie unto the Holy Ghost, rather than to God the Father or Jesus Christ the Son?
Answer, Either, 1. Because it is the power work of the Spirit search the heart, and to know the thoughts and purposes thereof:
Or, 2. Because the wealth brought in to the apostles and laid at their feet, was an effect of the Holy Spirit inclining the hearts of believers so to do.
Learn hence, The divinity of the Holy Ghost, that he is truly and really God: he whom the scripture calls the great and true God, is God; but the scripture calls the Holy Ghost the great and true God; therefore the Holy Ghost is God. Either the Holy Ghost is man, and God's messenger, or God himself; but the antithesis or opposite shews, that he is not man; for says the apostles, Thou hast not lied unto man:
And if the Holy Ghost had been only God's messenger, it had been as great a sin to lie to Peter, (he being God's extraordinary messenger,) as to lie to the Holy Ghost; therefore the apostle, in the fourth verse, doth explain what he meant, by lying to the Holy Ghost, in the third verse; namely, lying unto God: Thou hast not lied unto man, a creature like thyself, but unto God, even to the Holy Ghost who is God.
Observe here, 1. The justice of the punishment inflicted upon Ananias for his sin; he is struck dead upon the spot for his sacrilege, covetousness, hypocrisy and lying: Doubtless it was a very heinous sin which God so severely punished, and it was the first sin of this kind under the New Testament. This was the first consecration of goods that ever was made unto Christ our Lord, after he was exalted at the right hand of God in heaven; and this was the first sacrilege: The first sin of this kind, and therefore the first persons that were found guilty of it met with this severity, in terrorem, to make all others afraid of it. The first transgressors in any kind have been made public examples. Thus the angels befoe the Jewish church; Nadab and Abihu at the beginning of the Jewish church; and here Ananias and Sapphira, at the beginning of the Christian church.
Observe, 2. How Sapphira, the wife's, subjection to her husband, doth not excuse her from partaking in his sin, nor exempt her from the severity of the punishment.
God's authority in commanding or forbidding, must be first observed and obeyed, otherwise we put the creature in God's place, debase him and set up and idol, which the jealousy and holiness of God will never endure.
Observe, 3. How the same sin meets with the same punishment. Husband and wife had here agreed both what to do and what to say, and they that sinned together suffered together.
God is no respector of persons, male and female, Jew or Gentile, prince or subject, husband or wife; the soul that sinneth, it shall die; Then fell she down straightaway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost, Acts 5:10.
Observe, 4. That this miraculous way of punishing offenders with immediate death by the apostles, was not common: This is the only instance in the New Testament of so severe a punishment inflicted by the mouth of the apostles for any sin whatsoever; and it seems accommodated and suited to that particular time, in which magistrates were so far from defending the church, that they furthered the persecution, and endeavoured the extirpation of it.
Observe lastly, The effect which this tremendous miracle had upon the whole church; it awfully affected them with fear and trembling; Great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things.
God's extraordinary providences, either judgments or mercies, towards ourselves or towards others, ought to affect us with holy fear, and that fear which works righteousness, When his judgments are abroad in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness; Isa 26:9 that is, they ought to do so, and, if ever they will do it, they will do it then: Judgments work fear, and fear works righteousness.
Three things are here observable:
1. How that act of severity upon Ananias and Sapphira for their hypocrisy, is instantly succeeded with acts of clemency and mercy upon others: The former acts of severity in the apostles were necessary to prevent the intrusion of hypocrites into the Christian church: These subsequent acts of mercy were as necessary for the propagating of the gospel, and to invite people to the love of Christianity.
Accordingly, the apostles, after the death of Ananias, are endued with power from on high to work signs and wonders, to heal diseases, to cast out devils; insomuch, that the people brought forth their sick into the streets, and laid them upon beds, and couches, hoping that the shadow of Peter, as he passed by, might reach and recover some of them.
The church of Rome makes a noise with this text, and produces it to prove St. Peter's supremacy over the rest of the apostles, because his very shadow cured the diseased: But very groundlessly; for
1. By the same argument they may prove St. Peter to be superior to Christ himself; this being more than what Christ himself wrought, according to what he foretold, Greater works than these shall ye do &c. Joh 14:12.
2. The papists might observe, were they not wilfully blind, that the napkins and handkerchiefs, which were carried from St. Paul's body, cured diseases also, and dispossessed devils, Acts 19:12.
3. Besides all this, it is not here expressly said, that any sick were actually healed by St. Peter's shadow, but that the diseased were brought, in hopes that his shadow might produce such effects; and, if it did so, Almighty God thereby put honour upon the gospel, and upon all the apostles, without any particular respect, or special regard to the person of St. Peter.
Observe, 2. The place where the apostles assembled to preach the gospel, and work miracles for the confirmation of the same, They were all with one accord in Solomon's porch.
Where note, 1. Their unity and unanimity: There were no persons among them guilty of schismatical separation in forsaking the public assembly; but with one mouth, as well as with one mind and heart, they glorified God.
2. Their prudential boldness and holy courage appeared in preaching to the people in Solomon's porch; for the Sanhedrin, or great council, sat in, or very near that place, even that council, which in the former chapter imprisoned them, and in this beat them. Acts 5:40.
Learn thence, That nothing better becomes the ministers and messengers of Jesus Christ, than an holy and humble, a wise and meek, a zealous and convincing boldness, in asserting the truths of the gospel, and in reproving sin, and denouncing judgments against impenitent sinners. Consider we, how bold and zealous our Lord and Master was in his ministry, We know thou teachest the way of God truly, and acceptest not the person of any. Luke 20:21
And the apostles learnt the same of their Master, Acts 4:13. When the high priest saw the boldness of Peter and John, they took knowledge of them that they had been with Jesus.
Observe, 3. How God over ruled the judgment inflicted upon Ananias and Sapphira, and caused it to work for special good.
Thus, such of the apostles' hearers, who were unsound and insincere, durst not join themselves to them, having seen a great instance of severity upon concealed hypocrisy! They were afraid to come among them anymore, or to make a shew of such piety and zeal as Ananias did, for fear of the same, or such like punishment as he had.
But however the people extolled and magnified, admired and applauded them, and multitudes were daily added to the church. This seems to be the sense of And of the rest durst no man join himself to them, but the people magnified them, and believers were added to the Lord multitudes both of men and women. Acts 4:13 Nothing doth more affect and afflict unsound and drossy hypocrites, than the sight of God's judgments inflicted upon others in this world, and the fear of the righteous judgment of God upon themselves in the world to come.
Note here, 1. How the persecution of the holy apostles did gradually advance and increase. In the former chapters the apostles were only secured, kept in hold for a night and dismissed with a threatening next day; but now being filled a second time with the Holy Spirit, they are better enabled to grapple with sufferings, and to glorify God under them: and accordingly here they are committed to the common prison amongst malefactors, and afterwards beaten and exposed to public shame, Acts 5:40.
O the tenderness of God towards his tender servants! While these apostles were striplings, their faith feeble, and their grace weak, God stayeth the rough wind, keeps off the storm of persecution from them. God will evermore suit the stroke to his peoples strength, proportion their burden to their back, and never suffer them to be tempted above what they are able.
Note, 2. The apostles being prisoners for Christ and his Gospel, they have an angel for their keeper and deliverer, who opens the prison door, and overpowers and puts out the devil. God could otherwise have delivered them, but he makes use of the ministry of angels for the confirming of their faith, and to let them see by experience that he had given his angels charge over them. Since the establishment of the gospel, God will have us live more by faith, and to walk less by sense, and therefore we must not now (ordinarily) see those ministering and beneficent spirits: but although their visible operations for the heirs of salvation shall never cease, Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation? Heb 1:14
Note, 3. The apostles being thus brought out of prison by an angel, are commanded to preach, and they have their text given them by the angel that opened both the prison and the pulpit door for them. The angel said unto them, Go, and speak unto the people all the words of this life, Acts 5:20. That is, of this life for which you were imprisoned, this life which the Sadducees, who imprisoned you, deny; namely, the resurrection of the body, and eternal life.
Learn, That not the things of this life, but the things of eternity and the to come, the unseen things of another world, ar the things which all the ministers of Christ ought to preach, and press their people to the pursuit of; Go, and speak unto the people all the words of this life: That is, the gospel, which is the word of life, and directs them how to attain eternal life and salvation by Jesus Christ.
Observe here, 1. No sooner were the apostles out of prison, but they enter into the temple and preach, with a redoubled zeal and diligence; no doubt, Satan had better have let these holy men alone, than have cast them into prison; for the cold blasts of persecution and imprisonment beating upon their outward man, by a spiritual anitiperistasis, augmented the heat of grace within. There is no such way to be even with the devil and his instruments, for all their spite and malice against us, as by doing all the good we can to the souls of men.
Observe, 2. How the deliverance which God wrought for the apostles, in bringing them miraculously out of prison by the conduct of an angel, did confound the council which laid them in: They were nonplussed and horribly perplexed at it: They doubted whereunto this would grow. They stood amused and amazed, and knew not what measures to take; but were at their wits-end, Sin oft-times brings men into straits, but straits do not always bring men off from their sins.
Thus here, notwithstanding their present perplexity of spirit, they spur on, and bring them again before the council, Then went the captain with the officers of the temple, and brought them without violence. Acts 5:26
Observe, 3. The crimes which the holy apostles were unjustly accused of; namely, obstinacy and sedition. They are charged with obstinacy for persisting to preach the gospel, when they had strictly (but very wickedly) forbidden them: And they are accused of sedition, as if they endeavoured to stir up the people to avenge the blood of Christ upon the rulers, as being unjustly shed by them. The greatest innocency cannot protect the holiest persons from slander and false accusation. The best of men have sometimes been charged withe the blackest crimes. No wonder that the Sanhedrin, or great counsel, which charged Christ himself with imposture and blasphemy, did accuse the apostles of sedition and contumacy; The disciple is not above his Master.
Observe, 4. The contumelious reflection which they had made upon our Lord Jesus Christ himself: You intend, says the council, to bring this man's blood upon us: As if the holy Jesus had not been worthy the naming by them. Christ told his disciples, Luke 6:22. that the world should cast out their name as evil. Behold! his own is used no better: He is homo nullius nominis. This man, this fellow, this deceiver, were the opprobrious titles which the learned Rabbies thought fit to impose upon the best man that ever the world had. Lord! how can we be abased enough for thee, who wast so degraded and debased for us?
To the foregoing charge of obstinacy brought in against the apostles, St. Peter answers in the name, and as the mouth of the rest; owning that they had not obeyed them in their injunction, because they had commanded that which was contrary to the command of God.
Where observe, How the apostles assert the prerogative of Christ as their apology for disobedience to human commands: We ought to obey God rather than men.
The second part of the charge was sedition; as if the apostles endeavoured to stir up the people to revenge the blood of Christ upon the chief priests and rulers.
Thence note, That it is no new thing to tax the ministers of Christ for preaching sedition, when rulers design to stop their mouths, and not suffer them to preach at all. But to remove this part of the charge, the apostle tells them, that this Jesus whom they ignominiously slew on earth, is now an exalted Prince in heaven, able to give repentance and remission of sins to the worst of his murderers, if they unfeignedly desire it: Him hath God exalted to give repentance and remission of sins &c.
Whence learn, 1. That Jesus will be a Saviour to none to whom he is not a Prince. We must submit ourselves to his ruling power, as well as commit ourselves to his saving mercy. For it is in vain to expect salvation by him, if we do not yield subjection to him.
2. That repentance and remission of sins are the special fruits and advantages of Christ's exaltation: Him hath God exalted to repentance and remission of sins.
Learn, 3. That it is the sole prerogative of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give repentance and remission of sins.
Where note, The encouragement which the apostle's ministry gave to the murderers of Christ to hope for pardon; he preaches the duty of repentance, and the privilege of remission of sins, but assureth them, for their comfort, that Christ stands ready to dispense both. But observe the sad effects which this sermon had upon these hearers; it was for substance the same which St. Peter preached, Acts 2:1-47. when so many thousands were pricked at the heart by sorrow and compunction; whereas these men were cut to the heart with anger and indignation.
Whence learn, 1. That the most sound and sacred doctrine, is an intolerable torment to an unsound and unholy heart; That the word of God dispensed by the same minister, and in the same manner, has not always the same success. The substance of both these sermons was the same, (Jesus and the resurrection,) and the preacher (St. Peter) was the same, but the success was not the same; to let the apostle know, that the excellency of the power was of God, and not of himself, as St. Paul speaks, 2Cor 4:7.
Observe here, 1. A general council erring, and that fundamentally in matters of faith. They determined peremptorily, That the doctrine and practice of the apostles was not from God; and accordingly resolved to suppress them, and that by death.
Thence learn, That no determination of a council against a doctrine or practice, is any demonstrative or sufficient proof, that such a doctrine or practice, is any demonstrative or sufficient proof, that such a doctrine or practice is not from God.
Observe, 2. How God raised up a particular person in the council Gamaliel, to interpose on the apostles' behalf as Nicodemus before had done on Christ's behalf; and uses them as an instrument to preserve them from the rage and fury of their persecutors. Without question, Gamaliel's spirit was actuated and influenced by the Spirit of God, to give such counsel as is here given.
Observe, 3. The counsel and advice given in the several parts of it.
1. He advises them to take heed what they did to these men, Acts 5:35. implying, that men had need take heed how they engage themselves in suppressing or destroying any sort of men whatsoever, until they have clear and expressive warrant from heaven for the execution.
2. He assures them, that if this work be of men, it will certainly come to naught; which he proves by a double instance, namely, Theudas, and Judas of Galilee, who both pretended to be sent of God as Saviours of their country, and gathered many followers, but miscarried in their enterprise; intimating that every invention, contrivance, or device of man, especially in things pertaining to God and religion will in time be blasted and blown upon by God, and come to nothing.
3. He adds, That if this work be of God, it can never be overthrown, but the attempt will be deemed a fighting against God: Signifying to us, that for any person to attempt the suppression of any doctrine or practice that is from God, is to fight against God himself.
4. He intimates to them the great peril and danger of fighting against God, in the word even, lest ye be found even fighting against God.
Thence learn, That fighting against God is a most dangerous enterprise for any person at any time to be found engaged or concerned in.
Observe, 4. The success or issue of Gamaliel's counsel; his advice being so wise and rational, it prevailed with the rulers to desist from their former intention of putting the apostles to death; but they come not off without blows, though without bloodshed; they are scourged, as their Master was before them, which was both a painful and reproachful punishment. Yet were they so far from being discouraged, that they were the more resolved. They rejoiced that they were so graced as to be disgraced for Christ, and accounted it their highest honour to be dishonoured for him; esteeming it a very great favour and happiness to bear reproach for Christ, according to that of the apostle St. Peter,
1. If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you 1Pe 4:14. This sent them from the presence of the council rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name.
Observe, lastly, How wisely and well the holy apostles improve their restored liberty; they redouble their pains and diligence in preaching the gospel, and are unwearied in the way of their duty, and in the work of their God, Daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and to preach Jesus Christ Acts 5:42; that is, they laid hold on every opportunity, in season and out of season, publicly and privately, to publish the gospel to those that had not received it, and farther to instruct those that had already received the faith of Christ. Thus the more outrageous were their adversaries, the more courageous were the holy apostles. They religiously profess the name of Christ, and resolutely abide by their profession, though they were derided, imprisoned, persecuted, and beaten for the same.
Lord! help thy ministers at this day to suffer reproach for thy gospel; but never let any of them either reproach it, or be a reproach unto it. Amen.
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