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V: 1, 2. In close connection with this unprecedented liberality of the brethren, we are now introduced to a remarkable case of corruption, of which it was the occasion. The praise always lavished on disinterested benevolence sometimes prompts illiberal men to make a pretense of liberality. But the mere desire of praise is incapable of subduing selfishness, so as to make a truly liberal heart; for it is itself a species of selfishness. In contrast with the course of Barnabas, we are told: (1) “But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, (2) and kept back part of the price, his wife being also privy to it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the feet of the apostles.” This language implies, what is distinctly avowed by the wife below, that this part was represented as the whole price of the possession.
3, 4. “But Peter said, Ananias, why has Satan filled thy heart, to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back part of the price of the land? (4) While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why hast thou put this thing in thy heart? Thou hast not lied to men, but to God. Here Peter brings together the influence of Satan, and the free agency of the tempted, just as he had, in former discourses, the free agency of men, and the purposes of God.128128See Com. iii. 17–18. He demands of Ananias, “Why has Satan filled thy heart to lie to the Holy Spirit,” and, in the same breath, “Why hast thou put this thing in thy heart?” The existence and agency of the tempter are distinctly recognized, yet it is not Satan, but Ananias who is rebuked; and he is rebuked for doing the very thing that Satan had done, showing that he is as guilty as though Satan had no existence. Indeed, he is rebuked for what Satan had done. The justice of this is manifest from the fact that Satan had no power to fill his heart with evil, without his co-operation. That he had rendered this co-operation, threw the responsibility upon himself.
Peter's knowledge of the deception was the result not of human information, but of the insight imparted to him by the Holy Spirit. This is necessary to the significance of the entire incident, as well as to the purport of Peter's own words.
5. The exposure of Ananias was very surprising, but neither the audience, nor perhaps Peter, was prepared by it for the event which immediately followed. (5) “And Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and expired. And great fear came upon all who heard these things.” There is no evidence that Peter had any will of his own in this matter; but it was an act of divine power exerted independent of the apostolic agency. The responsibility, therefore, attached not to Peter as an officer of the Church, but to God as the moral governor of the world. The propriety of the deed may be appreciated best by supposing that Ananias had succeeded in his undertaking. His success would not only have turned the most praiseworthy feature of the new Church into a source of corruption and hypocrisy, but it would have brought discredit upon the inspiration of the apostles, by 69showing that the Spirit within them could be deceived. Thus the whole fabric of apostolic authority, which was based upon their inspiration, would have fallen, and precipitated the entire cause into hopeless ruin. The attempt, therefore, presented a crisis of vital importance, and demanded some such vindication of their inspiration as could neither be mistaken nor forgotten. The immediate effect of the event was just the effect desired: “great fear came upon all who heard these things.”
6. The scene was too awful for lamentation, or for needless funeral services. As when Nadab and Abihu fell dead at the door of the tabernacle with strange fire in their censers,129129Lev. x. 1–7. there was no weeping nor delay. All were stricken with horror, as they saw the curse of God fall upon the wretch. (6) “And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him.“
7. Sapphira was not present. (7) “And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in.” How she remained so long ignorant of the fate of her husband, we are not informed, though it is a most extraordinary circumstance. He had died suddenly, in a manner which had excited everybody; had been buried; and three hours had passed; yet his wife, who must have been in the vicinity, has no intimation of it, but comes into the very assembly where it had occurred, without a word reaching her ear upon the subject. There is no way to account for this, but by the supposition that there was a concerted determination on the part of the whole multitude to conceal the facts from her. This was a most unnatural determination, and one difficult of execution, except on the further supposition that Peter commanded the multitude to restrain their natural impulses, and let her know nothing until he himself was ready to reveal it to her. This course was necessary in order to effectually expose her.
8–10. She came in prepared to act out fully the part which she had agreed upon with her husband. (8) “Then Peter answered her, Tell me whether you sold the land for so much? She said, Yes; for so much. (9) Then Peter said to her, Why is it that you have agreed together to put to proof the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of them who have buried thy husband are at the door, and they shall carry thee out. (10) Then she immediately fell at his feet and expired: and the young men coming in found her dead, and carried her out, and buried her by her husband.” In her case, Peter knew what was about to take place, and declared it; but there is no indication that he exerted his own will or miraculous power to cause her death. We regard her death, like that of Ananias, as a miracle wrought independent of the power lodged in the apostles.
In the question, “Why have you agreed together to put to proof the Spirit of the Lord?” Peter expresses the result of their agreement, though it may not have been what they had in view. They did put the Spirit to proof, by testing his powers. If he had failed under the test, the consequences, as we have suggested above, would have been disastrous. But now that the test applied has triumphantly 70vindicated the fullness of apostolic inspiration, it was not likely that such another attempt could be made.
11. The failure of the plot proved as propitious to the cause of truth as its success would have been disastrous. (11) “And great fear came upon all the Church, and upon all who had heard these things.” This fear was excited, not only by the sudden and awful fate of the guilty pair, but also by the fearful nature of that spirit-searching knowledge imparted to the apostles. The disciples were now filled with more just conceptions than before of the nature of inspiration, and the unbelieving masses who heard of the event were awed into respect and reverence.
12, 13. Increased activity of the apostles followed, and their office was still further magnified. (12) “And through the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were done among the people. And they were all, with one accord, in Solomon's Portico, (13) and of the rest no man dare join himself to them, but all people magnified them.” It was the apostles alone who were in Solomon's Portico, as is evident from the fact that the term apostles, in the first clause of the 12th verse, furnishes the only antecedent to the pronoun they, in the statement, “they were all, with one accord,” etc. This being so, “the rest,” who dared not join themselves to them, must include other disciples, as well as the unbelieving multitude. It need not be concluded, from this, that the disciples stood off at the same fearful distance with unbelievers; but that they were so filled with awe by the exhibition connected with the fate of Ananias and Sapphira, that they dare not approach the apostles with the familiarity which had marked their former intercourse with them. Such a feeling was at first experienced by the apostles themselves in the presence of Jesus, and was well expressed by Peter, when he and his companions made the first miraculous draught of fishes: falling down at the knees of Jesus, he exclaimed, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”130130Luke v. 8. That such a feeling was also experienced by the whole Church, at this time, has just been stated by the historian, in verse 11, where he says, “Great fear came upon all the Church.”
14. The statement just made, that “of the rest no man dared to join himself to them,” can not mean that persons dared not join the Church, for the reverse is now stated. (14) “And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.” The increased awe in the presence of the apostles, with which the people were inspired, made them listen with increased respect to their testimony concerning Jesus, and brought them in greater numbers to obedience.
15, 16. The connection of Luke's next statement, introduced by the adverb so that, is somewhat obscure: but I presume he intends to state a result of all the facts just mentioned. Signs and wonders were done by the apostles; the people magnified them, and believers were the more added to the Lord. (15) “So that they brought forth the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them. (16) There 71came also a multitude out of the cities round about to Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those vexed by unclean spirits, who were all healed.“
17, 18. The excitement which now prevailed throughout Jerusalem and the neighboring villages, and found utterance in the most enthusiastic praise of the apostles, was too much for the equanimity of the dignitaries who had so strictly forbidden them to preach or teach in the name of Jesus. (17) “Then the high priest rose up, and all who were with him, being the sect of the Sadducees, and were filled with zeal, (18) and laid their hands on the apostles, and put them in the public prison.” Here we have the same Sadducees at work who had arrested and threatened Peter and John. They were “filled with zeal;” but it was a zeal inspired less by love for their own cause, than by hatred for that which was triumphing over it. The advocates of error will generally appear quite easy, and sometimes, even generous, when their cause is merely standing still; but their zeal is always kindled when the truth begins to make inroads upon them. The zeal of these Sadducees was fanned to its fiercest heat by recent events, and they determined to execute the threats with which they had recently dismissed two of the apostles, making all the twelve their present victims.
19–21. When they were all seized and cast into prison together, the apostles could but expect that they would now feel the entire weight of the wrath which was treasured up against them. (19) “But an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors in the night, and led them forth, and said, (20) Go stand in the temple, and speak to the people all the words of this life. (21) And having heard this they entered into the temple early in the morning, and taught. But the high priest came, and those who were with him, and called together the Sanhedrim, and all the eldership of the children of Israel, and sent into the prison to have them brought.” The apostles were already in the temple, teaching the early worshipers as if nothing unusual had occurred, when the Sanhedrim met and sent to the prison for them.
22, 23. After some delay, the officers returned into the presence of the Sanhedrim without their prisoners. (22) “But when the officers arrived, and did not find them in the prison, they returned and announced, (23) saying, The prison we found closed with all safety, and the guards standing before the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one within.” This appalling circumstance would have been sufficient, with less determined men, to stay all hostile proceedings, and even to disperse the court who had assembled for the trial for the apostles.
24–26. The startling announcement was not without serious effect even upon the stubborn Sadducees. They were staggered by it, and knew not at first what to do or think. (24) “Now when the high priest and the captain of the temple, and the chief priest heard these words, they were perplexed concerning them, what this might come to. (25) But some one came and announced to them, Behold, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.” This announcement relieved the perplexity of the Sanhedrim, by enabling them to proceed with business, and relieving them from the unpleasant necessity of dispersing without a good excuse. They now dispatch a more honorable guard after the apostles than they had, 72at first; for the captain of the temple himself takes command. (26) “Then the captain went with the officers, and brought them without violence, for they feared the people, lest they should be stoned.” The clause, “lest they should be stone,” is so arranged as to furnish a reason for both the preceding statements, that they “feared the people,” and that they “brought them without violence.” The enthusiasm of the people had been much increased, no doubt, by the angelic deliverance, which was by this time well known about the temple.
27, 28. We have now a very lively and graphic description of the arraignment and trial of the apostles. (27) “And having brought them, they placed them in the Sanhedrim, and the high priest asked them, (28) saying, Did we not strictly command you not to speak in this name? And behold, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and intend to bring this man's blood upon us.” These words contain two specific charges against the apostles, disobedience to the Sanhedrim, and an effort to bring upon them the blood of Jesus.
29–32. To these charges the apostles candidly and fearlessly respond. (29) “Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.” This answers the first charge. They plead guilty, but justify themselves by the authority of God. Peter and John had left the Sanhedrim before, with the words, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to hearken to men more than to God, do you judge.” Now, as if that question was decided, they declare, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” They then answer the second charge by a restatement of the facts: (30) “The God of our fathers had raised up Jesus, whom ye slew, having hung him on a tree. (31) This man has God exalted to his own right hand, a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and remission of sins. (32) And we are his witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” This was repeating, with terrible emphasis, the very thing which was charged against them as a crime.
In the declaration that Jesus had been exalted a Prince and a Savior, “to grant repentance to Israel and remission of sins,” it is implied that repentance, as well as remission of sins, is in some sense granted to me. But to grant repentance can not mean to bestow it upon men without an exercise of their own will; for repentance is enjoined upon men as a duty to be performed by them. How, then, can that which is a duty to be performed, be said to be granted to us? We will readily perceive the answer to this question, by remembering that repentance is produced by sorrow for sin, and that it belongs to God to furnish men with the facts which will awaken this sorrow. Without revelation, men would never be made to feel that sorrow for sin which works repentance; but in the revelation of Jesus Christ we are furnished with the chief of these motives, and because of this, he is said to grant repentance.
33. The Sanhedrim had been astonished at the boldness of Peter and John on their former trial, but had contented themselves with severe threatenings. Now, both their commands and their threats, having been despised, and the bold innovators daring to defy them once more, they lost, for a moment, all the restraint which had been 73imposed by the fear of the multitude. (33) “Now when they heard this, they were exasperated, and determined to slay them.“
34–39. At this crisis the madness of the Sadducees was suddenly checked by the prudent counsel of one of the opposite party. The Pharisees were less exasperated, because their leading dogma was sustained by the apostles, and they saw that any imprudent proceedings were likely to involve the whole Sanhedrim in trouble, without regard to party; therefore, Gamaliel interposes his advice. (34) “But a certain Pharisee in the Sanhedrim, named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, honored by all the people, arose and commanded to put the apostles out for a little while.” This removal of the prisoners, like that of Peter and John before, was designed to prevent them from taking encouragement from any admissions which might be made during the pending discussion. They were, accordingly, withdrawn. (35) “And he said to them, Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you are about to do respecting these men; (36) For before these days, Theudas arose, declaring himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, attached themselves; who was slain, and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered and brought to nothing. (37) After this man, Judas the Galilean rose up, in the days of the enrollment, and drew away many people after him. He also perished, and all, as many as obeyed him, were dispersed. (38) And now I say to you, refrain from these men, and let them alone; for if this purpose or this work is from men, it will be destroyed; (39) but if it is from God, you are not able to destroy it; lest you even be found to fight against God.”
A question has been raised as to whether Luke is not guilty of an anachronism in this report of Gamaliel's speech, by making him refer to a Theudas, who is mentioned by Josephus, and who flourished many years later, under the reign of Claudius Cæsar. Such a reference could not possibly be made by Gamaliel; and if it was made by Luke, he is not only guilty of the anachronism, but, what is far worse, of giving a false report of Gamaliel's speech. Rather than admit a hypothesis involving such consequences in reference to a historian of unimpeached veracity, we must suppose that some impostor by the name of Theudas did flourish at the time here alluded to by Gamaliel. Judas the Galilean is also mentioned by Josephus, whose account of him agrees with this given by Gamaliel. The enrollment is most likely the same referred to in Luke ii. 1.
Upon the fate of these two impostors, Gamaliel bases his advice to the Sanhedrim, in reference to the apostles. The moral merits of this advice may be differently estimated, according to the point of view from which he contemplate it. If we regard it as a general rule of procedure in reference to religious movements, it must be regarded as a mere time-serving policy. Instead of waiting to see whether such a movement is going to prove successful or not, before we take ground in reference to it, the lover of truth will promptly investigate and decide its merits without regard to public opinion. But if we regard Gamaliel as only giving a reason why men should not persecute a cause which they are not prepared to accept, it was certainly most judicious advice. When we have decided against a cause, we should render a reason for our decision, and then leave it to the 74developments of Providence, well assured that whatever is not from God will come to nothing without any violent agency on our part. We should also be afraid to resist with violence or passion any thing bearing a semblance to truth, lest we fight against God, and be ourselves overthrown.
The last clause in Gamaliel's speech, “Lest you be found even to fight against God,” indicates a suspicion, on his part, that such a result was by no means impossible. In view of the many miracles which had been wrought by the apostles, and their miraculous deliverance from prison the very night before, it is strange that something more than a suspicion to this effect did not possess the mind of Gamaliel, and of all the Sanhedrim. It was, doubtless, owing to serious misgivings on this point, that the embittered Sadducees yielded so readily to advice from the opposite party.
40. There was no opposition to Gamaliel's advice. (40) “And they obeyed him; and having called the apostles, and scourged them, they commanded them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.” Scourging was so common in the Roman empire, even of men untried and uncondemned, and was so common a fate of Christians at the time Luke was writing, that he mentions it here rather as a matter of course. It is the first time, however, that it was experienced by the apostles, and was, probably, harder to endure than it ever was afterward.
41, 42. However painful the scourging was, it did not cause any resentful manifestations on the part of the sufferers, but they bore it cheerfully. (41) “Then they departed from the presence of the Sanhedrim, rejoicing that they were thought worthy to be dishonored for his name. (42) And every day, in the temple, and from house to house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.” The Sanhedrim had now tried both threats and scourging upon the apostles without checking their activity, and as there was nothing further for them to try but death, which they were not yet prepared to inflict, they relinquished for awhile their efforts. In this first contest, therefore, the apostles were completely victorious, and compelled their adversaries to abandon the field.
The apostles taught and preached not only publicly in the temple, but “from house to house.” In this they give an example to the ministry of all ages, which is well worthy of imitation. Private instruction and admonition bring the teacher and the taught into closer contact, and secure an individuality of effect not attainable in a public assembly. It can not, therefore, be well dispensed with; but he who employs it most diligently will, other things being equal, employ his energies most successfully.
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