Acts 9Observe here, 1. The lively character of a bloody persecutor: He breathes threatenings and slaughter against the members of Christ. His very breath smells of fire; threatenings and slaughter, like lightnings and thunder, proceed out of his mouth. Whilst a persecutor hath in him the breath of his own life, he breathes nothing but death against others: Nothing will satisfy him but the death and destruction of the members of Christ. An indiscreet and ungovernable zeal soon egenerates into fury and madness.
Observe, 2. How restless and unwearied persecutors are in the prosecution of their bloody designs and purposes. Saul was now inquisitor haretica pravitatis: away he trots to the high priest for commission to bind heretics, who believed on Jesus, and opposed the traditions of the fathers; and having, as he thought, swept Jerusalem of saints, he resolved next to ransack Damascus, though it was five or six days journey from Jerusalem: However he spurs on, away he goes through fire and water to revenge his malice on the poor members of Jesus Christ. The high priest needed not to hire Saul to do his black work, he both offers himself, and sues for the office: No doubt the high priest and council highly applauded his zeal and towardness for extirpating heretics, commending the gallantry of his resolution, and the bravery of his mind; and having scaled his commission, sent him away with wishes of success.
Saul was now onward of his journey to Damascus (the worst journey that ever he intended, but the best that ever he undertook,) a journey most maliciously purposed by him, but most mercifully disposed by God. Heaven had designed him for better service, and work of another nature; and accordingly he is stopped in his way, knocked off his horse, a sudden beam of light beyond the brightness of the sun darts upon him, dazzles him, and he hears a voice, saying Saul, Saoul, why persecutest thou me? that is, me in my members. Whatever is done against Christians for anything that Christ commandeth them, he takes it as done against himself. Such as persecute the saints for their sancity, persecute Christ himself; and he can no more endure to see them wronged, than himself. As the honour of Christ, the Head, redounds to the members, so the sorrows of the members are resented by the Head. Christ said not thus to his murderers on earth, Why bind ye me? Why buffet ye me? Why scourge ye, and why crucify ye me? But here, when the members suffer, he cries out from heaven, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
Lord! thou art more tender of thy body mystical, then thou was of thy body natural; more sensible of thy members sufferings, than of thine own.
Observe, 2. The wonderful power of the heart-changing grace of God. Saul cries out, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? Saul is no longer a lion, but a lamb; the wolf that hunted before for his prey, now gently couches like a sheep; hears and obeys the voice of Christ the great Shepherd; and of a persecutor of the church, becomes the great doctor of the Gentiles.
Behold! the tare is become wheat; the child of wrath, a chosen vessel; the prodigy of nature, the miracle of grace.
Lord! who can enough admire and magnify the sovereignty and omnipotent prevalency of divine grace, which could refine and did extract very precious gold from so rough, so coarse, and so base a metal?
Conversion is a work of wonder in all men, but a miracle in this man, and extraordinarily strange, and instantaneously sudden; and therefore is by no means to be made the measure and standard of every man's conversion.
Shall we think no man converted, unless he be struck down with a light and power immediately from heaven, and be taken with a fit of trembling, and frighted almost out of his wits?
How many by the benefit of a good education, others by the blessing of God upon some affliction, and upon calm consideration, without any great terrors and amazement, have been visibly changed and converted?
The effects and fruits of conversion are very visible in all, but the manner of conversion is not alike in all. Things may be very visible in their effects, which yet are not visible in their cause. If the fruits of our conversion be visible, the certainty of it is unquestionable, and the advantage of it will be unspeakable, although we cannot tell the time when, or the manner how, the Holy Spirit wrought it in us.
Observe here, 1. How easily God can make the fiercest persecutor to quake and tremble: Saul is struck down, but it is to convert him, not confound him; he trembles, but his trembling was in order to rejoicing. It was a favourable, though an affrighting stroke, which struck him down, but with design to raise him up again. Humiliation for sin, in some measure, always goes before a soul's acceptance of Christ, and subjection to him.
Observe, 2. How ready and desirous a converted person is to know and do the mind and will of God; Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? He is inquisitive after his duty, and desirous of the knowledge of it. We may sooner find fire without heat, than a true convert without operative grace. It is not, Lord, what wilt thou have me to say? but, What wilt thou have me to do? It is not the talking, but the walking and working person that is the true Christian.
Observe, 3. God's answer to Saul's inquiry; Arise, go into the city and it shall be told thee what thou must do.
Mark, He was going to Damascus before on the devil's errand, now God bids him go; he had better authority for his going thither now, than what he had from the high priest before: he went before for others' destruction; he now goes for his own instruction, in order salvation: There shall be told thee what thou must do.
Observe here, The testimony or witnesses of Saul's conversion, to writ, the men that journeyed with him; it is probable that he had a considerable number of officers with him, to bring both men and women that professed Christianity bound to Jerusalem. These saw the light shining and heard a confused noise like thunder, but they saw not Christ himself, as he did, nor heard the articulate voice of Christ that he heard, which spake so powerfully, so convincingly, and so convertingly to his soul.
Lord, how many are there that come under thine ordinances, who hear only (like Saul's companions) a confused noise and empty sound! They do not hear the distinct voice of Christ speaking to their hearts with a strong hand, inwardly and effectually, and so remanin under the power of unbelief, in an unconverted state.
Observe here, 1. The change of Saul's posture; He arose from the earth. He that fell to the earth a persecutor; rises up a saint. O free mercy, and astonishing rich grace! that the earth upon which he lay did not open her mouth and swallow him up alive: He that had run away from God, and employed his feet in the service of the devil, is once more set upon his feet again.
Observe, 2. His blindness and loss of sight: When his eyes were opened, he waw no man. Christ taught him, by his bodily blindness, the blindness of his soul in spiritual things, which till now he was insensible of. As Saul was, so all naturally are, spiritually blind, before regeneration and conversion: True, he was brought up at the feet of Gamaliel, and was a great proficient in human learning, but after his conversion he counted that knowledge no better than blindness, Phil 3:7-8.
Observe, 3. His manuduction or leading by the hand into the city; They hid him by the hand into Damascus. Who led him? Doubtless his companions that came along with him upon his bloody design from Jerusalem. Here the blind lead the blind; those very hands lead him to Damascus which should have haled the saints from Damascus to Jerusalem. But, O Saul! thou hadst a better leader than all these, even Christ himself: he led thee by the hand into the city, in order to the completing of thy conversion: Now happy Saul! though formerly rebellious, who hast thy Saviour for a leader, thou shalt neither wander nor miscarry.
Observe, 4. The duration and continuance of Saul's blindness; He was three days without sight. This was a long night to him who persecuted the children of the day; a just time for him to be in darkness, who so implacably attempted to blow out the light of the gospel: But perhaps no less time would have been sufficient to humble him for his rage and madness against Christ and his members. Besides, there are some that think that, in these three days of his continued blindness, he had that rapture into the third heaven, which is mentioned, 2Cor 12:2. But however that be, doubtless in this time his mind was filled with divine contemplations; and that glorious gospel was taught him in three days, which he taught to others all his days.
Observe, 5. His abstinence from food; He did neither eat nor drink: he spent those three days, we may believe in fasting and prayer, and extraordinary humiliation before God, for his former wicked life, and particularly for his violent persecution of the church of Christ: He fasted to make him more fervent in prayer; for fasting prepares for prayer, and gives wings to prayer.
Observe here, 1. Though Christ converted Saul himself, yet Ananias his minister must instruct him. By Christ is grace infused, but by his ministers increased; such an honour doth Christ put upon the ministers of the gospel, that he makes use of their endeavours ordinarily both for the production and augmentation of grace in the hearts of his people.
O, the necessity and usefulness of a standing ministry! It is a singular favour to have men like ourselves; and behold the honour that God puts upon the ministers, in using them as conduit pipes, for conveying the water of life to us, which he is not pleased to communicate immediately from himself!
Observe, 2. What an exact knowledge the Lord has of particular persons and particular places: he tells Ananias in what city Saul was, in Damascus; in what street he was, in the street called Straight; in whose house he was, in the house of Judas.
It is matter of consolation, yea of highest consolation to the children of God, to know and remember that God knows them, that God knows their persons, knows their purposes, knows their performances, knows their place of abode; that he knows who they are, what they do, and where they dwell.
It assures them as to their persons, that they shall be accepted; as to their performances, that they shall be rewarded; as to their habitations, that they shall be loved, blessed, and protected by him.
So dear are the holy servant of God unto him, that he loves the very streets in which they lodge, the house in which they dwell; the walls of their habitation are always before him, and he delights continually to look upon them. Let holiness to the Lord then be always written in fair and legible characters upon the walls of our houses, Zech 14:10.
Observe, 3. The course which Almighty God takes to remove all fear from Ananias's mind, and to encourage him to go to Saul, according to the direction given him; although he had been such a bloody persecutor, he tells him, that, Behold, he prayeth.; as if he had said, "Though he has been bad, he is not now what he was, he is another man; nay, he is a new man, he is truly and thoroughly converted; and this is the undeniable evidence and testimony of it, That whereas before he persecuted, now he prayeth: "Behold, he prayeth."
Learn thence, That spiritual breath is a good sign of spiritual birth: none of God's children are still-born, they all come crying into the world. The duty of prayer faithfully and perseveringly performed, is a good evidence that a soul is thoroughly converted and brought home by repentance unto God; Behold, Saul prayeth!
But did he never pray till now? Yes, no doubt, many a time; when he was a strict Pharisee, he prayed after a loose and customary manner; but he never prayed so sensibly and feelingly, so spiritually and affectionately, so fervently and perseveringly before, as he did after his conversion. His prayer before was the cry of the old, now of the new creature; before, he prayed with coldness and indifferency, now, he prays with warmth and fervency, as a person in earnest for his soul's happiness and salvation; therefore, Christ brings it in with a note of attention and observation: Now, Behold, he prayeth!
Observe here, 1. Ananias's reluctancy and fear to go to Saul, because of his former violent persecution, and present commission: Lord, I have heard of this man &c.
Learn, That such as are very ready and forward for Christ's service, may, upon appearing difficulties, hang back, till they be helped over those difficulties by the helping hand of Christ. Thus it was with Ananias; Behold, says he, here I am, Lord, Acts 9:10 to shew his readiness to run on any errand that Christ would send him: But when he came to understand his message, he was affrighted, and began to draw back; Therefore the Lord graciously condescends to remove the stumbling block that lay in the way of the servant's obedience. Fear not; as if Christ had said, "Go thy way, he is not what he was, he is another man; yea, he is a new man."
Observe, 2. The honourable title which Christ puts upon Saul, He is a chosen vessel, to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings.
Where, note, 1. The term of usefulness; he is a vessel. Now a vessel is not a natural but an artificial instrument. No man is born, but made a minister of the gospel.
Vessels are not of equal capacity, some are greater, others less; all ministers have not like endowments, nor are they equally fitted for the sacred employment.
Again, vessels are receptive instruments; they must take in before they can give out. What the ministers of the gospel have received of the Lord, that they deliver to their people; they give out what God gives in.
Finally, vessels are for effusion, as well as for reception: they let out as well as take in; yea, therefore take in, that they may let out; therefore have the ministers of Christ a treasure of divine knowledge in themselves, that they may communicate and impart it to others. And it is not impaired by imparting, but, like the oil in the widow's vessel, increased by pouring out. A minister, by communicating the treasure of his knowledge, enriches others without impoverishing himself.
Note, 2. The term of excellency, He is a chosen vessel, chosen to preach Christ, chosen to suffer for Christ: a vessel chosen to bear the divine treasure of the gospel both to Jews and Gentiles.
Lord! what honour dost thou put upon thy ministers in making them vessels of honour fit for the master's use and the family's service!
If I may not be a vessel of gold or silver, let me be a vessel of wood or stone, so I may be a vessel unto honour, a successful instrument in thy hand, for thy glory, and the church's good.
Observe here, 1. Ananias, though no apostle, no deacon, nor minister, that we read of, but an ordinary and private Christian only, yet he has power to heal Saul of his blindness, and to confer the Holy Ghost; Receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost: If so, undoubtedly he had an extraordinary warrant for this extraordinary work; for none but the apostles had power to confer the Holy ghost. No ordinary person ought to undertake any part of the ministrial functions without an extraordinary call and commission.
Observe, 2. The title given by Anania to Saul, Brother Saul; they were now brethren by faith and profession, owning the same God, united to the same Saviour, animated by the same Spirit, encouraged by the same promises, partakers of the same hope, and heirs of the same glory. As the scripture speaks of a brotherhood betwixt Christ and his believers, He is not ashamed to call them brethren; so it speaks of a brotherhood betwixt believers themselves, Love the brotherhood: that is, thw whole fraternity and society of Christians, who are sunguine Christi conglutinati, cemented by the blood of Christ, and united by the bond of love.
Observe, 3. How this converted person, Saul, takes upon him the badge of Christianity by baptism; He arose, and was baptized. Listing himself thereby a soldier under Christ's exalted banner, and entering himself a member of that church which heretofore he had made havoc of.
Observe, 4. The prudent care which Saul takes of his health, by giving nature it necessary refreshment; He received meat and was strengthened. Doubtless his body was much weakened and enfeebled, by his long journey partly, but by his consternation, fear, and grief especially, as also by his humiliation, watchings, fasting and prayer: It was therefore his duty to refresh nature, and to strengthen himself for the service of his great Master, wherever, he should please to send him. Whilst we are in the body, there is a debt of care which we owe to the body: Meat and drink are the supports of life, under the influence of the divine blessing; and all superstitious abstinence from food is no better than will-worship.
Observe, lastly, Saul is no sooner changed himself, but he changeth his company and acquaintance. He no longer associates with the chief priests and rulers of the synagogues, but with the followers of Jesus, Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus. Acts 9:19 Men who cunningly conceal their inclinations, may yet be known by their constant companions. Saul was now a companion of them that feared God, and kept his commandments. The disciples at Damascus, whom he came to destroy, are now become his delight; He continued certain days with the disciples.
Here we have an account of St. Paul's entrance upon his ministerial office in preaching the gospel; Straightaway he preached Christ in the synagogues.
Where note, 1. The time of his preaching, Straightaway: he fell presently to his Master's work, not consulting flesh and blood about the difficulties and dangers that might attend it; but performs his duty with such zeal and immediate application, as became a person of his holy character and profession.
Note, 2. The place where he preached, In the Jewish synagogues: He was afterwards indeed the apostle of the Gentiles, but according to Christ's command, he first preached the word of life to the Jews, to convert some, and to leave others without excuse: After which he turned from them unto the Gentiles according to It was necessary that the word of God should first be spoken to you; but because you put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles Acts 13:46.
Note, 3. The doctrine he preached; That Jesus was the Son of God, the true, promised, and expected Messioas; and that all the prophecies and predictions of the prophets concerning the Messias, were exactly fulfilled in his person.
Note, 4. The effect of his preaching:
1. Some of his auditors were amazed, admiring that so pestilent a persecutor was become a powerful preacher, These glorified God in him.
2. Others were confuted, yea, confounded, being unable to withstand the force and dint of his argument, by which he proved, that this is the very Christ.
Note, 5. The hazard which tha apostle ran in preaching the gospel at Damascus; his enemies, who were not able to resist the wisdom and spirit by which he spake, took council day and night, there being in their apprehensions no possibility of his escaping.
Note, 6. The manner and means of his deliverance: some Christians who dwelt at Damascus let him down in a basket by the wall, and so he escaped the hands of his bloody enemies. The wisdom of God is never at a loss to find out ways and means, either ordinary or extraordinary, for the deliverance of his servants, when their deliverance makes most for hsi own glory, and the gospel's advantage. God had much work for Paul to do; and till he had finished his work, his enemies could not take him off with all their combined power and malice.
Here we have an account of the second place which Paul exercised his ministry in; namely, Jerusalem.
Having escaped with his life at Damascus, he comes to Jerusalem and attempts to join himself to the disciples there, who were all afraid of him, knowing how bloody a persecutor he had been. The conversion of a persecutor is so rare and seldom heard of, that it puts the largest charity hard to it, to believe the verity and reality of such a person's conversion unto God.
The disciples, who had formerly felt the effects of Saul's persecuting rage and fury, might justly be afraid of taking him into intimate fellowship and communion with the Spirit of God to present Saul to the church, and free their minds of all fears and jealousies which they had entertained concerning him; and this he doth by a threefold argument:
1. Because he had seen Jesus Christ in the way, as he went to persecute the saints at Damascus.
2. Because the Lord had spoken to him with a strong hand, and wrought a mighty change in him, and upon him; the persecutor being now become a great professor.
3. Because he was not only become a professor, but a preacher of that gospel he had persecuted, and this boldly and publicly, both at Damascus and in Arabia; proving undeniably that Jesus was the Christ and the true Messiah.
This testimony of Barnabas was full and satisfactory, both to the church at Jerusalem, and also to Peter, James, and John, who gave Paul the right hand of fellowship, and he went with him to the work.
Observe, lastly, how the enemies of the gospel conspire against Paul's life here at Jerusalem, as they did before a Damascus; for preaching Christ, and disputing with the Grecians in defence of the gospel of Christ, they lay siege for his life.
Learn thence, That always opposition, and often persecution, is the evil ghost that haunts the preachers and preaching of the gospel wherever it goes. To preach the word convincingly, brings the ill-will of an evil world infallibly upon the head of the preacher.
But why did these men rather seek to kill Paul than Peter, James, or Barnabas?
Answer, Because he was formerly one of their own company, of their own college; a persecutor like themselves, and a persecutor with themsleves. This enraged them; they looked not upon him as an apostle, but as an apostate; one that had revolted from them,. a renegado, and as such they meditate his destruction night and day; insomuch, that it is probable, that never were so many sufferings heaped upon the head of any minster of the gospel throughout the world, as upon St. Paul, (see them reckoned up, 2Cor 11:23 &c.) partly through the hatred of the Jews, and partly through the fury of the blind Gentiles; yet the Lord delivered him out of all. Till his work was done, and his race run, and he had finished the course of his ministry, neither the malice of men, nor the rage of devils, could take him off.
Blessed be God, our times are in his hands, not in our enemies, nor yet in our own.
That is, "After Saul's miraculous conversion, and after he was sent away, and departed from those parts, where the Jews, his old companions in persecution, could not endure his presence, he having been just before as zealous a persecutor as themselves: Then the churches planted by Philip and others throughout Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, had much rest and peace, and were greatly edified in knowledge of the Holy Spirit daily increasing in them, the number of believers daily multiplied.:"
Learn thence, That after the persecution and wearisome troubles of the church, God has his times for their peace and rest. God sends his church sun-shine after showers, a calm after a storm, health after an hectic, and a Canaan"s rest after a wilderness journey.
Learn, 2. That it is the church's duty to improve her peace and rest for her establishment and and increase in all the graces and comforts of the Holy Spirit.
Learn, 3. That it is a very great blessing to have the churches of God multiplied, and their multiplication is the happy fruit and consequent of their having peace; Then had the churches rest, were edified, and multiplied.
The Holy Ghost now leaves the relation of St. Paul's life and actions for the present, and returns to give a farther account of St. Peter, what he said, what he did, and what he suffered, particularly at Lydda, at Joppa, and Cesarea: At Lydda he healed Eneas, at Joppa he raised Dorcas, and at Cesarea he preached the gospel to the Gentiles.
Observe, 1. What this great apostle St. Peter did at Lydda: He there, in the name, that is, by the power of Christ, healeth Eneas, who lay sick of the palsy, and had kept his bed eight years.
Where note, The difficulty of the cure; the disease was a dead-palsy, which had taken away the use of his limbs, and made him bed-rid for eight years: All this is recorded, to shew the difficulty of the cure, and the greatness of the miracle: Omnipotenti medico nullas insanabilis occurit morbus; "To such an Almighty Physician, as the great God is, no disease is found incurable."
Note, 2. The manner of the cure: St. Peter acts in Christ's name, not his own: and lets the lame man know whom he should own for his benefactor, Christ himself: The apostle was but the instrument in Christ's hand; and that the cure was perfectly miraculous appears by this: The cripple was cured immediately, and cured perfectly; it was a present cure, And he arose immediately Acts 9:34.
The instantaneous manner of the cure shews it to be miraculous, and by divine power; for nature and art act in time and by degrees, bringing nothing to perfection on a sudden: Whereas this cure was wrought in a moment, his strength is restored in an instant.
It was also a perfect cure, and as an evidence of it, he takes up his bed. This was to shew that he was fully recovered.
Note, 3. The effects of this cure: It had such an influence upon the spectators of this miracle, that all that dwelt at Lydda and Sharon, when they saw it, turned to the Lord, Acts 9:35. That is, they embraced the faith, seeing this cripple so strangely, so suddenly, and so perfectly cured.
This chapter concludes with a relation of a second miracle wrought by St. Peter at Joppa, in raising dead Dorcus to life.
Where note, 1. The person upon whom this miracle was wrought, Dorcas, a woman rich in good works, full of alms-deeds; yet neither her piety towards God, nor her liberality to the poor could preserve her either from death or from diseases.
A dear disciple may be diseased, and die; Behold he whom thou lovest is sick, Joh 11:3 yea, and dead too. Strength of grace, and dearness of respect, even from Christ himself, cannot prevail against diseases. Good Dorcas here lies dead, with her body washed not only to fit her for burial, but especially to shew their hope of the resurrection.
Note, 2. The doleful lamentation made by widows for the loss of this good woman, who used to clothe the naked with the labour of her hands: She did not spend her time in making rich apparel for herself, but in making garments for the poor; and it seems she had good store of them ready made by her for the poor's use, as their necessities did require; They shewed the coats and garments which Dorcas had made; the undoubted tokens and evidences of saints that can remain in honour of them when departed, are acts of piety towards God and of charity to the poor.
Note, 3. The manner of St. Peter's working this miracle.
1. He puts them all out of the room where the dead lay; partly to prevent interruption in the exercises of prayer, which he was now about to perform.
2. He kneeled down; which recommends to us that reverential posture in our prayers to the great God of kneeling before him.
3. He prayed; thereby owning and acknowledging, that the power of raising her was from God, not from himself.
Note, lastly, The effect of this miracle: Many believed in the Lord: She was raised more for the good of others than her own; for her restoring to natural life was the occasion of raising many to a life of faith; Upon the sight of this famous miracle performed by St. Peter, many believed in the Lord.
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