Meditations on Acts 20

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Acts 20.
From 2 Corinthians 1 and 4, it would appear that the persecution was more violent, and that it continued longer than during the public events recorded in Acts 19. But what these particulars may have been, we are not told. But after the stormy assemblage in the theater, Paul calls the disciples together, embraces them, and departs into Macedonia. Going over those parts, he exhorts the brethren, and arrives in Greece. There he remains three months. He had thought of returning from Greece to Syria; but the Jews—ever envious, and enemies to the gospel, as well as to the one who preached it outside their limits, since they had rejected Christ, and hope for them was gone—laid wait for him. The truth which they had had was always the truth; but now that the Son of God had come, and the Father and His love been manifested in Him, that no longer possessed any power; for this revelation was one of life eternal, and of the satisfaction of divine justice. They could not endure the thought of being placed on one side on account of the truth they would not receive, and therefore laid wait for Paul. When this becomes known to the apostle, he returns by way of Macedonia.
Let us remark in this brief narrative, which is not accidental, that when Paul had planted the gospel in a country, he did not abandon the converts, but returns with affectionate solicitude, instructs, exhorts, edifies, and watches over the seed planted by his instrumentality, in order that it may be preserved, and grow in the knowledge of Christ. He does not neglect the Lord’s garden, well knowing that tares may spring up where the good seed grows, and that the enemy can spoil the harvest, if it is not well guarded. It is more needful now than ever to do this, for we are in the perilous times of the last days. Though the enemy can never pluck the sheep out of the Good Shepherd’s hand, yet he may disperse them; they may be subjected to the effect of every kind of evil doctrine, by which their growth is hindered, the Lord’s glory trampled upon, testimony to Him destroyed, and the candlestick taken away. Let the Lord’s servants take warning!
Paul then returns by Macedonia. It’s not important, but in verse 4 we should read, “Gaius and Timotheus of Derbe.” From verse 5 we see that many attached themselves to Paul in the work; and others, besides those in verse 4 went before. Luke, the author of this book, and perhaps others too, accompanied the apostle in his journey towards Troas. The others tarried for him at Troas. It is not without interest to see this emotion of hearts moved by the gospel which Paul preached. All were free; some, such as Apollos, laboring apart; the others, the companions of the great central figure—great for his faith in Christ, and as sent directly from Him by the voice of the Holy Spirit—occupied and sent by Paul to carry on and accomplish the work in places he would himself have visited, had he not been obliged to go elsewhere, when the opportunity presented itself for them to be thus sent.
Leaving Philippi in five days, they come to Troas, and there remain seven days. Everywhere assemblies had been formed. Here a door had been opened to Paul in coming from Ephesus, but he had not been able to remain long, being uneasy about the Corinthians, since he did not find Titus there, whom he had sent to them. It was at Troas that Luke, who wrote the Acts, had attached himself to Paul, to accompany him the first time he visited Macedonia. We do not know how the gathering at Troas was formed; but there was one, and we are given to see, into it a little, not its discipline or gifts, as in Corinthians, but its ordinary walk.
The first day of the week the disciples met together to break bread. This was evidently their custom. It was the first day of the week, and the disciples gathered themselves together according to their habit, to break bread. It was the first object of their meeting, the center of their worship. Other things were done; they spoke, taught, as Paul did, sang; but they met together to break bread. This is confirmed by 1 Corinthians 11:2020When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord's supper. (1 Corinthians 11:20), where the apostle says that the Corinthians did not really assemble for the Lord’s supper, since each ate his own supper, not thinking of the others, but eating and drinking for his own pleasure. Now this shows clearly that the object of the assembly was the Lord’s supper. At the beginning they broke bread every day (Acts 2:42,4642And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. (Acts 2:42)
46And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, (Acts 2:46)
). When gatherings were formed everywhere, and zeal had been enfeebled, they met only on the first day of the week, the day of the Lord’s resurrection. This was not a rule, but Luke speaks of it as a usage well known everywhere among the Christians. It seems that Paul had awaited this day to speak to the disciples, simply because it was the day of their meeting together; however, that is not certain. However it may be, he profits by the occasion to preach to them before setting out, and he speaks till midnight. They met, it seems, in the evening.
The discourse was long, and they had not yet broken bread; the weather was hot, and there were many lights. Such is human weakness, that all this so affected a certain Eutychus, that he was overcome with sleep, as Paul was long preaching, and fell down from the third floor, where he was sitting by the window. He was taken up by the men dead. Paul naturally interrupts his discourse, goes down and throws himself on him, declaring that life is still in him. The separation had not yet taken place; he was stunned by the fall, and if the power of God had not interposed, he would have been caught in the clutches of death. Life, however, had not yet gone out of the body; and by the Spirit, Paul so works on it, that the functions of life are restored. The bonds between soul and body are re-established. In the case of the child restored to life by Elijah (1 Kings 17:21-2221And he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried unto the Lord, and said, O Lord my God, I pray thee, let this child's soul come into him again. 22And the Lord heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived. (1 Kings 17:21‑22)) the soul had already left the body, and returned to it. From these cases, as always elsewhere, we see that the soul is entirely distinct from the body; and though in our present state it works by means of the body, yet it is in its habitation; that life in this world is the activity of the soul by means of the functions of the body, the activity of which is restored by sleep, because we are feeble; that when the soul leaves the body, the man is definitively dead, but that the activity of the soul by the functions of the body may be interrupted, as is partly the case in sleep; and this action is re-established if the soul have not left the body, if God does so or permits it.
In its highest part—the spirit, the soul in relation to God is alas! at enmity against Him: it will not and does not submit to Him. With its inferior part, it works in the body: marvelous creation! in relations with God above, and with nature before. It is a mixture of thoughts which seek to rise to God but cannot, and of creature thoughts. It is responsible to God according to the nature it has originally received from Him. When born of God, it receives a totally new life, in which it is in relation with God, according to grace and redemption, a life animated by the Spirit which it receives from above, and which makes of the body an instrument for the service of God. Possessing this life, we know that, “if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:11For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. (2 Corinthians 5:1)). I have said this in reference to Eutychus, because in these days the simplicity of the truth regarding the soul is lost sight of by many.
Paul then goes up again, and, having broken bread, talks still even till daybreak, comforting much the souls he saw perhaps for the last time. He then departs leaving Eutychus alive to the joy of the brethren. Paul sends on his companions by ship, and goes himself on foot, desiring to be alone. For us this is often a wise thing; to be alone, apart from men, but alone too with God, where we can think of Him, of ourselves before Him, of the work, as He sees it, and where in His presence responsibility is felt, instead of activity before men. No doubt this activity ought to appear in His presence, because it is holy; but at all events the activity of man is another thing than to place oneself before God, such as He is for us. It is not less true that this communion with Him, as His servants, gives and sustains a blessed confidence in Him, an intimacy of soul with Him, full of goodness and of grace.
Paul had instructed his companions to take him in at Assos, which they do: from thence they proceed to Mitylene, to Chios, and finally to Miletus, half a day from Ephesus. Paul had determined not to stop there, desiring if possible to be at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. If he had stopped at Ephesus, he must have remained some time, as he had labored there for a long period, and with great blessing. He passes on therefore, sending from Miletus for the elders of the assembly at Ephesus, the center of the work in that region. It is evident that the apostle was preoccupied with the circumstances in which he was placed—with the apparent end of his career. This thought, it is probable, exercised an influence over him, when he went alone on foot to Assos. And also it was the cause of his long speech at Troas.
It is not only imagination which suggests this idea; the apostle expresses (at the end of the Epistle to the Romans, written when he was about to leave Corinth (Rom. 15:3131That I may be delivered from them that do not believe in Judea; and that my service which I have for Jerusalem may be accepted of the saints; (Romans 15:31)), his fear that he might be an object of hatred to the rebels in Judea; and he desires the Romans to pray that he may be delivered out of their hands, hoping thus to be able to see their face with joy, and from Rome to continue his work in Spain. We know that in Palestine he was taken, and after two years confinement at Caesarea, went a prisoner to Rome; that he remained there as such two years more; and that there, as far as the word is concerned, his history terminated. It is possible that he may have been liberated; I believe so, from what we find in the Epistles to the Philippians and to Philemon (Phil. 1:25-2625And having this confidence, I know that I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith; 26That your rejoicing may be more abundant in Jesus Christ for me by my coming to you again. (Philippians 1:25‑26); Philem. 1:2222But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you. (Philemon 22)).
Also, from 2 Timothy it seems that he was set free, and that he returned to Asia. But as to the Biblical record of his labors, all is finished at the end of the Acts, which leaves him a prisoner at Rome. According to God’s thoughts, such as they are communicated to us in the scriptures, that was the end of the apostle’s work. And he felt that such was the case; and it is no more a question of going to Spain, or traveling anywhere beyond Rome. The Holy Spirit spoke of bonds and tribulations; and Paul’s thought now turned towards his departure from this world.
The elders being come from Ephesus and assembled before him, Paul speaks of his ministry as of a thing accomplished. A little before he had told the Romans that he had no longer any place in those parts, his career there being over (Rom. 15:2323But now having no more place in these parts, and having a great desire these many years to come unto you; (Romans 15:23)). Revisiting the scenes of his work in Asia, and the regions of Asia Minor, he shows us the character of this work, and the effect of his departure; and this renders his discourse very important. He had served the Lord with much humility, in trials and in tears, caused by the snares of the Jews, whose opposition was continual and without conscience. In spite of it, however, he never failed both in public and in private to preach and teach all that was necessary for them, repentance towards God, and faith in Jesus Christ, as the true state of a soul brought to God. Nothing is said, as to the order of these two things in the heart, although in such order there is something practical, but of the true character of repentance and faith. Repentance was to be preached in the name of the Lord Jesus (Luke 24:4747And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24:47)); so that His name might be owned, and that sinners might repent. It was founded on the ground of the grace and truth that came by Him; but true repentance takes place in the presence of God, and goes beyond sorrow for having done wrong, or shame, or the mere work of the natural conscience.
The soul revealed to itself through grace comes with open eyes into God’s presence. All is judged according to Him whose presence is manifested to the soul; everything is judged as it appears in His eyes. The word of God is His eye in the conscience, and makes us feel that He has seen all, and then things appear to us as they do to Him. We no longer excuse ourselves, nor do we desire to do so. The result is confession to God by a conscience which feels itself in His presence (Heb. 4:12-1312For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. 13Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do. (Hebrews 4:12‑13)); while the heart restored desires holiness, and the soul feels its responsibility for all that we have done. We justify God in our condemnation (Luke 7:2929And all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John. (Luke 7:29)); though in such a case there is always some confidence in His grace, not peace but confidence; for He who has become light to the soul is also love, Himself being both these things. When He reveals Himself as light in order to show us our sins, it is in love He does so in Jesus; and He is love. He cannot reveal Himself to the soul without being the two things, for in His nature He is both.
Take the case of the woman in Luke 7. The light and the love of God had penetrated into her soul; she did not yet know what it was to be pardoned, but her heart had confidence in Jesus; and at the same time her conscience was deeply convinced of sin.
Take again the case of Peter (Luke 5:88When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord. (Luke 5:8)), the prodigal son (Luke 15:17-1917And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! 18I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, 19And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. (Luke 15:17‑19)), and of the thief on the cross (Luke 23:4141And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. (Luke 23:41)). Repentance thus is the effect of the revelation of God to the soul, which then shows itself; and up to a certain point it knows God as light, which manifests everything. “Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did” (John 4:2929Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ? (John 4:29)). But as love to the soul, the Lord inspires confidence, though the remission of sins be not known. This is discovered by the soul by faith in Christ Jesus—not only that Jesus is the Christ, but that by Him its sins are pardoned, for He was dead for our sins; and if we receive the word of God, we believing in Him know, that He has taken all our sins on Himself on His own body on the tree. When He had by Himself purged our sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high; because by one offering He has perfected forever them that are sanctified by that sacrifice.
Although faith in the work of Christ is necessary in order to possess peace, yet His person ever remains as the object of the heart—the Christ who has loved us, and given Himself for us, who now is glorified at the right hand of God, after having borne our sins, and submitted to death and the curse for us, but ever living for us now; who Himself will return to seek us, and make us perfectly like Himself in glory. We believe in Him, not only in the efficacy of His death. He is our righteousness before God, made such by God Himself, and we are accepted in the Beloved. John 17 tells us that we are loved with the same love wherewith the Father loves the Son. If true repentance is made in the presence of God, and in respect of Him, confidence and peace come by means of the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ. He has made peace by His own blood.
Such was the testimony of Paul, the truth of the conscience, peace, and the knowledge of God by His Son Jesus come down here in love, ascended into heaven as man, having accomplished the work which His Father had given Him to do. So great were the truth and the revelation, and so like the apostle is the execution of his ministry! But this ministry was drawing to its close, without knowing that such was the case. The Spirit testified in every place that bonds and tribulations awaited him; and he foresees that they would see his face no more. This furnishes the opportunity to speak of the effect of His departure. The sheep of Jesus are safe in His hands; as to the life He has imparted to them, they can never perish—none can pluck them out of His hand. But a temple had been established, a house on the earth, of which the apostle was by grace the founder according to the will of God, the wise master-builder (1 Cor. 3:1010According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. (1 Corinthians 3:10)). According to another figure, He has placed a candlestick on the earth to shine round about Himself, and this He can take away. There will always be a house of God built with His hand, and by His power which will never grow less—Christ the foundation, the stones living, by grace placed on this chief corner stone, and growing to an holy temple for the Lord (Matt. 16:1818And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18); 1 Pet. 2:4-54To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, 5Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4‑5); Eph. 2:2121In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: (Ephesians 2:21)).
Against this work of the Lord—a work carried on by grace in the heart—the gates of hell cannot prevail; for it is the fruit of the power of the Lord Jesus, working in grace. Moreover, this temple is not yet entirely built—it is growing. At least we may expect that by grace every soul can be introduced into it. God alone knows the moment when the work of grace which forms the assembly, the body of Christ, shall be accomplished. See 2 Peter 3:99The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9). But God’s will has been to form an assembly on the earth. The work of Jesus, of which we have spoken, is done here below; but beyond this, as we have seen, God formed an assembly by the ministry of Paul, a temple on the earth, confiding the building of this temple into the hands of men, and under their responsibility. It is now the habitation of God through the Spirit, Jews and Gentiles being built up together, founded according to the will of God, but left to the responsibility of man. “But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon.” “Now if any man build upon this foundation [Jesus Christ] gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is” (1 Cor. 3:12-1312Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; 13Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. (1 Corinthians 3:12‑13)).
There are three kinds of workmen: a good Christian and a good workman, such as Paul; a good Christian and a bad workman, himself saved, but his work to be consumed; then he who seeks to corrupt and destroy the temple of God, whose work, as well as himself, shall perish. Such were the heresiarchs, who, moved by the enemy, sought to corrupt the faith. Three sects of them existed during Paul’s own time; but as long as he remained in the world, his spiritual energy resisted and overcame evil; such as immorality among the Corinthians, and the loss of the doctrine of grace among the Galatians. But with his departure this energy disappeared. He had already said (Phil. 2:2121For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ's. (Philippians 2:21)) that all sought their own, not the things which were Jesus Christ’s. No soul was to be found like that of Timothy to care for the state of the Christians.
Paul tells the elders then that, after his departure, grievous wolves should enter in among them, and that even of their own selves perverse men should arise, and draw the disciples away. Till Satan be bound, and the Lord come to do it, there will ever be conflicts. Since the beginning of the world, whenever God has established anything good, man’s first act has been to destroy it. First, there was man himself; then, in the world after the flood, Noah got tipsy, and his authority was lost. Israel made the golden calf before ever Moses came down from the mountain. Nadab and Abihu offered strange fire the first day after their consecration, for which cause Aaron could no more enter into the inner sanctuary with his priestly garments of glory. Solomon having loved strange women, his kingdom was divided. So in the assembly established on the earth, soon after the apostle’s departure, evil presents itself; and it is of this that the elders are forewarned.
Where were the other apostles? At Jerusalem. Peter, the apostle of the circumcision, leaves the gathering scattered by the destruction of Jerusalem. The chief of the apostles abandon to Paul the preaching of the gospel among the Gentiles, to which work the Lord Himself had called him at the first, and then again expressly, by the Holy Spirit at Antioch. To the other apostles, therefore, he does not entrust his ministry. Still less does Paul imagine that there can be successors in his office. He knows nothing of successors; but he exhorts the existing elders to faithfulness and watchfulness, commending them to God, and to the word of His grace, “which,” he says, “is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.” Christ, ascended up on high, can still give evangelists, pastors, and teachers; and He does give them; but the office of personal apostolic care has disappeared. “After my departure,” says the apostle. This is a departure without succession. It is sad, surely, yet true; and we have seen it in all that God has established among men. His grace continues, the faithful care of Christ can never fail. The Spirit has given His instructions for this time, as at the beginning, and the Lord is enough for the present condition, as He was faithful in the past. But such a thing as a succession to his apostleship is unknown to Paul when he speaks of his absence. God, and the word of His grace, are for him the refuge of God’s people. They can meet together, and Christ will be in their midst; they can profit by the gifts He has granted according to His promise. The rules for our walk are contained in the word; but the apostleship, as a personal energy watching over the organization of the assembly, has disappeared, leaving no succession behind it.
This is a solemn truth, which must be well borne in mind. But we must never forget that Christ is always enough for the assembly; that He is faithful in His care of it, and that He can never fail in strength, in love or in faithfulness. What we have to do is to count on Him, and that with purpose of heart. Divine power is manifested more in Elijah and Elisha than in all the prophets of Jerusalem from the time of Moses himself. The Lord gives what is needful to His people. The word of God confirms sadly, but abundantly, what Paul says here. His testimony is that not only should evil appear in the exterior constitution of the church, but that it should continue till the Lord comes in judgment. Let us consider what the word of God says.
Jude declares that it was already needful to write to them, to exhort them to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints, because certain men had crept in unawares who turned the grace of our God into lasciviousness. They were corrupting the assembly from within; and what is very remarkable, he declares that these are they (that is, the class of persons) who will be among the objects of the Lord’s judgment, when He comes with ten thousands of His saints. The corruption, begun during the time of the apostles, will continue till the coming of the Lord. So much for internal corruption. But this is not all. Evil unfolds itself from the other side, as we find in the Epistle of John. Some had abandoned Christianity openly. “Little children, it is the last time; and as ye have heard that Antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists, whereby we know that it is the last time. They went out from us, but they were not of us” (1 John 2:18-1918Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. 19They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us. (1 John 2:18‑19)).
Thus we see that though this apostle survived Paul for many years, and certainly watched over the assemblies, in Asia Minor at least, dwelling, as it is said, at Ephesus, it was only in order to record the fact that the last time was already come, which was shown by the presence of these antichrists, and by the apostasy of many. If it be asked why God waits so long before executing judgment, the answer is to be found in 2 Peter 3:99The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9): “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” To Him a thousand years are as one day. In the time of the Jews, judgment was pronounced (Isa. 6), eight hundred years before it was executed, that is, when they had finally rejected the humbled, but also glorified Son of God.
The epoch of this ruin of the assembly on the earth is determined, namely, on the death of Paul—“After my departure.” Doubtless, corruption had been rapidly growing. The mystery of iniquity was already working during the apostle’s life; but his spiritual energy knew how to resist it. He being gone, however, it went on increasing without hindrance, except from the grace of God in individuals, and the chastisement by which God arrested the decline into ruin and corruption. The testimony of God, although hid under a bushel, has never yet been extinguished; and God has from time to time raised up witnesses in the midst of darkness, feeble perhaps, but true; and, at the time of the Reformation, delivered whole countries from open corruption. But we have seen that the evil, introduced in the time of Jude, was to continue till the judgment.
This solemn and humiliating truth is confirmed by other passages. The assembly has never been restored. Not only does John say that the last time has come, but that this is marked by the presence of antichrists. Now Antichrist shall be destroyed by the coming of the Lord. Paul reveals to us that the apostasy that began to show itself in John’s time will be fully unfolded at the last time; when Antichrist himself shall be manifested, whose coming shall be after the working of Satan, and whom the Lord shall destroy when He comes in glory. The mystery of iniquity was already working, even during the apostle’s life, and the progress of evil was to continue from his days till the Lord should come. Thus too, the Lord says that the tares are to grow till the harvest.
It seems to us, then, that the death of Paul is the moment from which we must count the prevalence of evil. We say “prevalence,” because evil was already working, though Paul resisted it by the power of the Spirit; and because this evil was to go on increasing till Christ should come; because in the last days perilous time should come, and the form of godliness without the power of it. Then in 2 Timothy 3 we also get the word of God set forth as that which is necessary, and sufficient to render the man of God perfect, and furnished unto all good works. All this truth is powerfully confirmed by what is said in Revelation 2 and 3, where the Christian who has ears to hear is called upon to hearken, not to the church, but to what the Spirit saith unto the church; and in His words we find judgment pronounced by Jesus Christ on the state of the church.
We would add that it is one thing to submit to the discipline, or practical judgment of an assembly, regarding evil, and quite another thing to suppose, when we are called upon to judge of the state of the church by the words of Christ and of the Spirit, that the authority of the assembly is the perpetual safeguard of the faith. The universal assembly, Christianity, is corrupted and divided, and cannot, even as an instrument in the hands of God, secure the maintenance of the truth. It is submission to the word of God only that can do it.
In order to show how far the primitive church wandered from the truth, we shall quote from a book read in the assembly, one hundred and fifty years after the death of John, cited by one of the best fathers of the primitive churches as part of the inspired scriptures, and esteemed as such by another, who was less orthodox, it is true.
The author, pretending to have received a revelation says, “A man possessed a vineyard, and commanded his servants to gather the fruits. The servant, being very faithful, did what was entrusted to him, and besides, out of devotedness to his master, rooted all the weeds out of the vineyard. The master who was so much pleased with the servant, that he consulted his son and his friends as to what should be done for the faithful servant, and it was decided to make him heir with the son. Now the master is God, the son is the Holy Spirit, the friends are the angels, and the servant is Christ. God had sent him to establish the clergy for the support of the faithful; but He had done much more than this, and what God had not told him to do—He had taken away sins. Thus it is, according to the consultation of God with the Holy Spirit, and the angels, co-heirs with the Holy Spirit, who is Son and Heir of God.” Such is what was read in the churches, written by the brother of Pope Pius, and pretended to have been inspired by God. And this a hundred and fifty years after the birth of Christ. What is recounted in the same book of holiness is no better. What is there related as holy in the visions of Hermas, it is impossible to transcribe on these pages!
Such then is the testimony of the apostle; after his departure, evil would prevail, active both within and without. He tells them nothing of the nomination of successors to the elders, any more than he does of a successor to himself. He insists on the faithfulness of those who were there, whom the Holy Spirit had made bishops (for bishops and elders were one and only one office); and commends them to God and to the word of His grace, which was able to build them up, and give them an inheritance among them that were sanctified. In fact, no means is established in the word for the continuance of the organization of the assembly. People are mistaken on this point. The disciples were waiting for the coming of the Lord, the Lord Himself. See the parables of the servant, Matthew 24, of the virgins and the talents. But the apostle shows that this coming might be delayed till long after the life of those then on the earth. The sleeping virgins are the very same that are revealed; the servants who received the talents those found afterward at the coming of the Lord. Paul says, “We which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:1515For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. (1 Thessalonians 4:15)). They did not know when He would come, but still they waited for Him (Luke 12:3636And ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord, when he will return from the wedding; that when he cometh and knocketh, they may open unto him immediately. (Luke 12:36)). What has produced the moral ruin of the assembly is, that she has ceased to look for the Lord; but has said, “My Lord delayeth his coming” (Matt. 24:4848But and if that evil servant shall say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; (Matthew 24:48)). She has taken and beaten her fellow-servants, has eaten and drunk with the drunken. The hierarchy has been established; worldliness has invaded the assembly; and thus alliance has been made with the world.
The apostle recalls his own faithfulness, how he had been an example to the elders, laboring with his own hands, since it was more blessed to give than to receive. Then, kneeling down, he prays with them all. And they, weeping, embrace him sorrowfully, chiefly for the word that he had spoken, that they should see his face no more. And they accompanied him to the ship. Solemn departure, the end of the apostle’s public work. He speaks of it as of a finished work, announcing that henceforward, in consequence of his absence, evil would prevail in the outward assembly of God on the earth, but assuring the faithful that God and the word of His grace would be enough to build them up, and give them an inheritance among those that were sanctified. This was certain. The power of Christ secures it; but the exterior system, Christianity, would be corrupted, having given up the expectation of the Lord’s return. Paul teaches the same truth in 2 Timothy 3. John tells us that the last time has already arrived.
The patience of God continues to accomplish the work of grace; and Christ to supply the gifts necessary to the perfecting of the saints, and the building up of the assembly, although our coldness greatly hinders the Spirit. And this will be the case till the end of the gathering of the saints. Christianity has ripened in the midst of evil, as foretold by the apostles. It is evil which began in apostolic times, and which was already sufficiently mature in John’s time, the last of the apostles; for he says that the last times had already come. We trust that the cry, “Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him” (Matt. 25:66And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. (Matthew 25:6)) has already begun to go forth, and that many hearts will respond, and kindle their lamps. May the Lord add daily to their number!