FOUR MEN WHO GAVE EVIDENCE OF LIFE
David J. Burr
Acts 3:1-11, 4:14
Acts 10:30-33, 11:15-18
Acts 26:15-18, 24-29
We were speaking together in the previous meeting about life and what it is, and the enjoyment of it. And, although I trust we sought to be simple in what we said, I am aware that it may seem a rather daunting subject especially if, when we are younger, we have not proved anything much about it yet. So I thought of drawing your attention to four men in the Acts of the Apostles who gave evidence of life without having much experience at all, so that we might be encouraged to go by the same way as they did and find the enjoyment of life for ourselves, because it is made quite clear in each passage what life meant to them and thus could mean to you and me as well.
So we have, first of all, this man, who I think is unnamed, in the third chapter. And then later we have Cornelius, who was a gentile. Later again we have the unnamed jailer in Philippi. Last of all we have the apostle Paul. Now, many of these passages from the Scripture have been used for the preaching of the gospel, and I expect they are fairly familiar. I seek help, with the Spirit, to say something fresh about them in connection with what life means when we are just beginning, and later on too.
Here we have Peter and John. They have not left the temple yet: the time was going to come in the Acts for leaving the temple and its arrangements behind; but the time for that had not yet come, and they are going up to pray. And there is a man – and I doubt if he was the only lame or frail man who was there – who was in practice a beggar. I do not know what you and I think as we pass beggars these days – probably our reaction is, quite often, that for one thing they ought to have a job, or for another the state looks after people like that. But in those days the state did not look after people and if you were lame, as this man was, you were likely to be very dependent upon the goodness of others. He thought that people going up to the temple to seek the presence of God were much the most likely people to give him something. And here came Peter and John, no doubt among many others.
Here he is, and he asks them for alms. He asks for what they could give him. Peter took a very firm look at him: he looked steadfastly upon him, with John. They both looked and they said, “Look on us.” He looked, and the Scripture makes quite plain what he was hoping for, that they were going to give him something. But Peter said, ‘Well, if it was silver or gold you were hoping for, I have none anyway, but I have something worth much more,’ “what I have, this give I to thee: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazaraean rise up and walk” (v6). Much better than being given something to keep him going from day to day, he was being given a resource that would make him able to stand up and see to himself!
Peter took hold of him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and his ankles were made strong. All that was wrong with his body had been relieved. He leaped up and he stood and walked. I think Luke, as a medical man, would have taken a particular interest in the detail. He “entered with them into the temple, walking, and leaping, and praising God” (v8). And perhaps there is no surprise that he was very thankful to God for changing his circumstances altogether.
You will notice that in these few verses nothing is said about the way of salvation. That does come later in this very same chapter. But I just wanted to call your attention to the effect upon this man of having the name of Jesus called upon him, and how he was set free, and, once he got strength, what he wanted to do. He wanted to do, to start with, what you and I want to do: he wanted to walk. And then he did what some of you might be more ready in your youth to do than some of us older ones: he was leaping. And then the third thing, which is open to us all, and I trust we all take advantage of it, is to praise God.
Everyone saw him and he became, in an instant, a witness. He became, clearly, someone identified with the name of the Lord and with God Himself: he was praising God. And they said, ‘Well, we know who this was, it is absolutely astonishing.’
He held on to Peter and John, and everyone came to see what was happening. I did not read any more of this chapter, but I would like to call your attention to what he did: “He held Peter and John.” That is very good advice to take, even today, to hold on to Peter and John. I know you will say, ‘What about Paul?’ We will come to Paul. But for the moment Paul had not come onto the scene. But Peter and John were there and it is a good thing to hold on to them.
Peter? Who was he? We know about Peter. He was a great shepherd, a man who cared about individual souls. He cared about how people were getting on. When he writes his epistle he writes to people who are dispersed – scattered (1 Pet 1:1). There is a lot of scattering in the world at the present time, and there is a lot of scattering among God’s people, too – very sadly so. I do not want to go into all of that, but it is a fact; and Peter writes with sympathy. The task of a shepherd was never more difficult than it is today. So, make way for those who take care of your souls and come to appreciate Peter and those who are like him.
And he held also on to John. Now, John is a rather different man from Peter. You can see that they got on very well together in the things of the Lord. They went up to the temple to pray together. But John is a different sort of man, a man with an interesting history; but we learn, perhaps, most about his outlook from his Gospel and his epistles. He comes across as one who was very near to the Lord. It says of him that he was one whom Jesus loved. He is a very self-effacing man. I think he refers directly to himself only once in the Gospel, and that is only to say, “I suppose” (John 21:25). That is all we hear directly from John, except that he tells us about some incidents he was involved in.
John is a humble-spirited man, but when you come to his epistle you find that he is also a father, and that he has authority. He is a father, so he cares about how the saints are getting on. He writes to fathers, young men and little children: he cares about people, how they are getting on. But he also writes with authority, and there is a place for authority in Christianity. I do not want you to identify it with some particular person other than the Lord Himself. All authority in the Church of God stems from the Lord Jesus, whose Church it is. But He has placed a measure of authority among His people, and we do well to be respectful to true authority. If we hear the word of the Lord we have an obligation to act upon it.
So I commend standing with Peter and John, and I read that verse in chapter 4 because in the meantime Peter has preached and then the priests and the captain of the temple – the head of the temple police – and the Sadducees (they had all come along) came and put Peter and John in prison overnight. And then, the next day, they are called up before a kind of court, and they have the opportunity to preach again. When we come to verse 14 we find that, through thick and thin, this man, who has only just come to the Lord, is standing with them. It does not say whether he was in prison overnight – he may have been. But I thought it was of great interest that, after all he had seen them go through – and he must have realised very quickly that the testimony of the Lord to which he had been called was already in great reproach – he still was standing with Peter and John. So that is a good thing to do; to make up your mind that you are going to be identified with the reproach of the Christ, and to stand by Him.
Now we come to Acts 10 and Cornelius. Now, again, this is a long history spread over one and a half chapters, but I think it is worth calling attention to Cornelius who, like ourselves, is a gentile. He is not a Jew. Peter, of course, was a Jew, and it was going to be a big test to Peter as to whether salvation was for anyone besides Jews. God put him to the test over this, and graciously prepared him for the test by giving him that vision of the sheet that came down out of heaven in which there were all sorts of creatures (Acts 10:10-16). You and I, if we are saved, do well to identify ourselves with that sheet, because every possible kind of person was there. Probably people that you would not have wanted to be connected with, and who might not have wanted to be connected with you or me – all found together in that one sheet, because God had cleansed everything that was there.
And so, when Peter gets this call to come over to Caesarea, God prepares the way. He prepares Peter, and He prepares Cornelius (Acts 10:1-8), so when they meet together everything is ready for this happy time when Peter preaches to quite a lot of people. There would have been Cornelius and his servants, and then there would be various people who had come in to hear the word. We are not told just how many there were, but there was a good company together. And Peter preached to them. Something very remarkable must then have happened between verses 43 and 44. Peter ends his preaching with that resounding verse, “To Him all the prophets bear witness that every one that believes on Him will receive through His name remission of sins” (v43). This is a very simple but profound statement of the gospel. “While Peter was yet speaking these words the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were hearing the word:” Cornelius, and the others (v44). So God had honoured Cornelius’s faith, and He had supported Peter in the preaching.
Now Peter had to go back (ch11), and when he got to Jerusalem he faced a challenge as to what he had done (v2-3). Others had not been favoured with that revelation that Peter had had, and they were rather shocked at what he had done. So Peter really says, ‘I can only tell you what happened: that I went because God had told me to go; we got there and I heard what had happened and I began to preach.’ He says, in this context – what had happened even before he had finished his preaching – “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them even as upon us also at the beginning” (v15). The work of God, you see, began to proceed immediately in the souls of those who heard and paid attention to Peter’s preaching.
What I want to call attention to is this. Peter says, ‘I saw the power of the Holy Spirit there and I could not deny it.’ And he said, ‘If that is what God is minded to do, it is not for me to resist it.’ Then a change comes over these perfectly genuine believers in Jerusalem who had been so shocked by what Peter had done. “And when they heard these things they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then indeed God has to the nations also granted repentance” (v18). Yes, “repentance,” but there is something else as well – “to life.” Cornelius, and those with him, had come immediately into life in the power of the Holy Spirit Who had come upon them.
I do not know whether we hear much more about Cornelius and those with him, but I think there was a great awakening in Jerusalem over the fact that not only were these people saved, but they had been granted repentance to life: they had become identified with the testimony of the Lord, and been given the power for it.
So now we have two men on board: the man in Acts 3 and the man in Acts 10. I have passed over one or two others, and we come on to Acts 16. The gospel has now come into Europe, it has come via Philippi. The result of Paul and those with him preaching is that they are put in prison. Now here we begin to see something of what life was like in the hearts of Paul and Silas.
It is midnight in a Roman prison and as far into it as you can get – in the inner prison – and their feet are tied to the stocks. Remember, we are talking about a man brought up at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), a dignified Pharisee who expected, in his earlier days, to be listened to with respect. We have his own word for it that he was “an insolent overbearing man” (1 Tim 1:13). Now, having been converted, he is in prison, as, of course, many believers less well‑known than Paul are today. We should remember prisoners, as bound with them (Heb 13:3).
“At midnight Paul and Silas, in praying, were praising God with singing” (v25). That would be a mark of very real life: that they get round to midnight and there is not much prospect of getting out and they do not know what is going to happen, they are in with some pretty rough company; but there they are, singing the praises of God.
That is a pretty good test, you know, of how much alive you are. I can say, quite simply and honestly, it would be a great test to me. Maybe it would be to you. There they were; we often read these verses, but let us think about what they mean in terms of two Christians, distinguished in the service of God and the work of the Lord, in prison, and at midnight they are singing. That is the first thing, evidence in them of life.
Now, something happens; there is a great earthquake. Everything is undermined and everyone gets free, if they want to use it. And there is a jailer, someone in charge of the prison, probably hoping that he was ‘off duty’ for the night because everyone was tied up and locked up and so he could relax for a bit. Now he finds that he cannot relax at all – in fact, given the kind of punishments that prevailed in the Roman Empire, he himself was very close to death.
And so he decides he had better take the first step, he had drawn a sword and was about to kill himself. But Paul calls out – how often you find that Paul, as a man of God, has the power and authority to take control of a situation in a godly way. He says, ‘No! Do yourself no harm, we are all here.’ So he is stopped in his tracks, he comes in, and he falls down before them. Things are already changing a bit from ‘two men in the innermost prison:’ he now says to them, “Sirs” – gentlemen! – “what must I do that I may be saved?” (v30).
I wonder what made him put it that way. He might well wonder how he could be saved from the wrath of the Roman authorities, but he takes up a phrase which will have meant a great deal to them: “What must I do that I may be saved?” And they gave a very simple answer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and thou shalt be saved, thou and thy house” (v31). And, in case he did not immediately understand what they meant by that, “they spoke to him the word of the Lord, with all that were in his house.”
And so, by a combination of what we have in verse 31 and what is in verse 32 that we are not told, he comes to the Lord and is saved. And thus he takes them that same time into his house, having washed them from their stripes; “and was baptised, he and all his straightway.” This was a very, very rapid change of ground. One moment he was on the point of actually committing suicide, now he is able to rejoice in his house!
“Having brought them into his house he laid the table for them, and rejoiced with all his house, having believed in God.” As I read this earlier I was reminded of a verse in the First Epistle of John. John gives one very simple test of whether we are alive in the sense that we are speaking of. He says, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren” (1 John 3:14). I think that is what this jailer represents – great simplicity of heart. Two men who had been his prisoners are now, immediately, his guests at the table, and he is enjoying fellowship with them. It is very simple, you see. It did not wait for him to go through a course of instruction or being examined in the Scriptures or anything like that, he just begins. Christianity begins here, so there he was: two men in a mess from their wounds, he washes them. I do not suppose that he had washed many prisoners’ stripes before! And he makes them welcome at his table. He was one who had passed from death to life because he loved the brethren.
Just a word as to Acts 26. You remember the context of Acts 26: Paul had gone up to Jerusalem. There would be many views as to whether Paul was wise or right to do that, which is something we leave with the Lord. But there he was, and the result of his going up to Jerusalem was that he found himself in prison. And there were those who were not content with his just being in prison, they would have been very glad to take the law into their own hands and put him to death. And Paul, of course, was very well aware of that. He was in prison, and this would have been back at Caesarea.
There was one governor there – Felix. He has a bit to do with Paul, who took the opportunity to reason with him about righteousness, temperance, and the judgement to come (Acts 24:25) – three things that the governor badly needed to know about, but he did not really like it. It made him afraid, but does not seem to have led to any peace for his soul. So Felix spent time with Paul, but he left Paul there for two years.
Then there was another governor, we come to Festus. Festus is reminded by the Jews that he has a prisoner that they are very interested in. Actually, they would like an opportunity to kill him if he set out, even under guard, to go up to Jerusalem.
This eventually leads to Paul saying, ‘We cannot go on the way we are:’ “I appeal to Caesar” (Acts 25:11). He must have known what that would involve. It involved a long journey all across the Mediterranean, and you can read in chapter 27 how that journey turned out: it was a very difficult and testing one.
But in chapter 26 he has an opportunity to defend himself. Now, he has been in prison two years, he has gone in danger of his life, and he might have been excused if he had been a bit embittered in his spirit. But when we come to this preaching (because that is what it really is) we do not find any trace of bitterness.
He takes the opportunity of going over his own conversion, what had ever put him into the Christian way, and he tells this very unlikely audience: Festus, a dissolute Roman governor, and Agrippa, a disreputable king. He takes the opportunity with these two men and the others in the audience to go over what his calling was, what the Lord had told him to do: to go to the nations “to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God” (v18). This was Paul’s mission, to preach. And then, there is something else, “that they may receive remission of sins.” The preaching is not intended just to be a lovely song, but it is meant to lead to repentance and the remission of sins.
And then, something else: an “inheritance among them that are sanctified by faith in Me.” It may well be that that did not mean very much to Agrippa or to Festus; but I suggest it ought to mean something to you and me. You and I – and even this occasion is a witness to it – are favoured with the company of fellow Christians, and that is part of the inheritance among those that are sanctified by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Do not treat the fellowship lightly. It is to be valued as something that God has given to you and me, both for His own honour, and for our support and encouragement and strengthening, for such time as we remain in this world. Do not play fast and loose with the fellowship, and do not say to yourself, ‘It will always be there if I ever need it,’ because you cannot count on that. If you treat the things of God lightly you may find that God has something to say to you about them.
So Paul had always set himself to bring to light something about this inheritance. It is an inheritance which has its many privileges. We enjoy some of them on a day like this. It also has its responsibilities; and if you commit yourself to the privileges, you find that you have also committed yourself to the responsibilities. The two go together, and it is a mark of a real and earnest Christian that they do make that commitment.
Do not just be a passenger. Be committed to the things of the Lord and the fellowship of God’s Son. That is what we are called to. You may find that there are not all that many that you are able to experience it with. There are those here today who meet with very small companies of Christians, and we might suppose that things would be a good deal easier for them if they just gathered with whoever they could find in the place they come from. But then we come up against Scriptures that give us some directions about the terms of fellowship – how real fellowship is to be found.
If you want the Lord’s blessing, if your eyes have been opened to see anything of what fellowship involves, you will want to be true to the fellowship, and you will not be comfortable in your spirit if you compromise that. I just say that because the “inheritance among them that are sanctified by faith in Me” is something very attractive and valuable, but it calls for a sense of responsibility. None of us can rely on other people to do it all for us. Many of us may have tried that and thought for a long time it would be all right, until – and I speak from experience – some crisis comes where we find it is not quite like that and that we have got to stand up and be counted. We begin to find out that fellowship is of real value, it is costing something and it is worth something.
Now Paul reaches the end of his address. “As he answered for his defence with these things,” Festus rather interrupted him (v24). Festus has an easy solution to all of this. Festus does not want to hear about remission of sins and being committed to the testimony of the Lord. He was a Roman and he has a very simple answer, “Thou art mad, Paul,” which was very insulting. He was dealing with a man who by any reckoning was an intelligent man. He says, “Much learning turns thee to madness.” He did not say what evidence he had for that. He just tries to see Paul off with an insult, but Paul was not seen off as easily as that. He says, “I am not mad.”
He still addressed him as “most excellent Festus;” he kept the spirit of respect. He says in the Epistle to the Romans that we are to submit to the powers that be (Rom 13:1), and Paul did submit. He says, ‘What I am saying are’ “words of truth and soberness” (v25). And he turns to the king – King Agrippa, who, whatever his many shortcomings, had a Jewish background and ought to have known something of what Paul was speaking about. He says, ‘I think you know what I mean.’ He says, ‘It certainly was not done in any hidden way.’ The crucifixion of Christ must have been common knowledge in Jerusalem. And the fact that there were Christians who were prepared to stand for the name of the Lord must have been well-known as well.
He asked Agrippa, “Believest thou the prophets?” (v27). He puts pressure on Agrippa as to what he might nominally assent to and what, if anything, he really believed. And there are a lot of people today who are nominally this or nominally that. When I was in the army we had a form to be filled in, which asked people to state what their religion was. If I went by the number of men that told me to put ‘Church of England,’ the churches of this country would be full to the doors! It is just nominal, you see. It did not mean anything. You do not want to be a nominal Christian.
“Believest thou the prophets?” You might claim to be a Christian. What about the Bible? Do you believe it? Do you act upon it? Well, Agrippa did not want to be taxed with questions of that sort. He says, “In a little thou persuadest me to become a Christian” (v28). There are many ideas as to what Agrippa really meant, but Paul took him up. He said, “I would to God, both in little and in much, that not only thou” – not just Agrippa – “but all who have heard me this day, should become such as I also am” (v29). The king, the governor, Bernice, and many others, were in the room, and Paul wanted them to come the same way. But in grace he just adds a few other words, “except these bonds.” He did not want any of them to suffer what he had suffered. Life shows itself in the spirit of grace, and these words of Paul’s were sober, but they were gracious. He had preached to them, not with a view to putting them in the wrong, but seeking that they might be put in the right – that they might find remission of sins for themselves as well.
As our brother was saying in the reading (p16), there are two aspects to life: there is life before God, and there is the result in the way that I conduct myself in the testimony of our Lord here. I feel concerned for myself, and perhaps for all the brethren, that in our spirits, toward one other and toward the world, we should show the Spirit of Christ, as witnessed in the Scripture, and as the Holy Spirit would have it done in His power, and in the life which is in Christ Jesus.
May the Lord help us all.
7 November 2009