The Ways of God in the Acts: 1. The Calling of the Jews

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The Calling of the Jews.
Chap. 2.
IT is important, to a due understanding of the ways of God in Christianity, to have a clear perception of the teaching contained in the Acts of the Apostles. In that book we have the three great facts particularly brought before us: (1) the descent of the Holy Spirit, according to the promise of the Lord Jesus; (2) the formation of the church of God—the body of Christ, and the house of God; and (3) the propagation of the gospel of Christ far and wide.
But there are differences in the divine action which we do well to note. It is a true remark that in studying the scriptures we learn more by looking for differences than for similarities. Many generally occupy themselves with looking for parallel passages in the word, supposing it to be the best way of acquiring a knowledge of the truth; but, while not slighting this method, our souls learn greatly by carefully noting the many differences that are there, and looking to the Spirit of God about them. In the Acts we have the Spirit dealing respectively with Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles, varying somewhat His method in each connection. It is these important variations we now propose to consider.
Acts 2 shows us the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Lord Jesus, before leaving His own, promised the precious gift to His disciples (John 14-16). In Acts 1 we get the Lord, after His resurrection, tarrying awhile with His own before going to the Father; putting before them in some sort their new position (not yet of course telling them of union with Him as one body), and speaking to them generally of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. They were to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father; He declares to them, “ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.” In chap. 2 the promise is seen fulfilled: the baptism of the Spirit takes place.
Now this was a wholly new thing: the saints of God had never experienced the like before. From the very beginning there have been those who through grace have been born of the Spirit; but the gift of the Spirit, sealing individual believers and baptizing all into one body, is an entirely new order of blessing, founded on redemption. That mighty work being now accomplished by which God has been vindicated and glorified, and the divine sin-purger having taken His seat on high, God is able in a righteous way to lavish every gift upon all who believe in His beloved Son. And, as one may say, Jesus received the Holy Spirit twice; first at Jordan for Himself, then on His return to glory for His saints. At Jordan the Father expressed the delight of His heart in Him as the perfect man on earth, “and the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon Him” (Luke 3:2222And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased. (Luke 3:22)); so that He could afterward say of Himself, “Him hath God the Father sealed” (John 6:2727Labor not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed. (John 6:27)). But when risen and ascended, Peter could declare, “therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, He hath shed forth this which ye now see and hear” (Acts 2:3333Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear. (Acts 2:33)).
But the manner of the Spirit's coming was quite different in the two cases. Upon the Lord He came like a dove; the form in connection with the disciples was “cloven tongues like as of fire.” Why the difference? He came upon the Lord Jesus in a form suited to the character of the blessed One Whom He was sealing. Christ was the meek and lowly One, not quenching the smoking flax, nor breaking the bruised reed. What more apt emblem of meekness than a dove? As for the disciples, they were to be witnesses as the Lord told them; hence tongues. They were cloven, for the testimony was not to be confined to the Jews, as in the day of Matt. 10—though it was to them first, as we shall soon see—but it was to branch out to Gentiles also, “to all that are afar off, as many as the Lord our God shall call.” The tongues were of fire, the usual symbol of divine holiness in judgment; for the testimony of God, while bringing blessing, nevertheless judges all before it, giving no quarter to all that is of fallen man.
But let none suppose from the fiery form that this is the baptism of fire spoken of by John the Baptist in Matt. 3 John said of Christ, “He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.” To these words doubtless our Lord alludes in Acts 1:55For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence. (Acts 1:5), “John truly baptized with water, but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence “; but with marked omission of “and fire.” If Matt. 3 be examined, it will be seen that the baptism of fire is judgment— “He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” This is not yet; through God's longsuffering grace the baptism of the Spirit is an accomplished fact: the baptism of fire awaits another day.
The first great result of the coming of the Spirit was a striking testimony to the Jews: “To the Jew first;” “Beginning at Jerusalem.” It was the feast of Pentecost, and many were in Jerusalem from far and near. To their utter surprise unlearned and ignorant men began to speak in other tongues, and to declare the wonderful works of God. This was plainly the hand of God. The men had not learned the languages; yet Parthians, Medes, Elamites, &c., heard them speaking in the tongues wherein they were born. Tongues are for a sign to unbelievers (1 Cor. 14:2222Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe. (1 Corinthians 14:22)). Thus did God surmount the confusion brought in at Babel. The day had not come for its removal; but God would have men of every tongue hear the glad tidings of His grace. The opinions as to the marvel were various. Some seemed thoughtful and said, “What meaneth this?” Others mocking said, “These men are full of new wine.”
Then Peter stood up with the eleven. What grace, that Peter of all the apostles should be so used I am aware that the Lord had said to him, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven “; and that here he is opening the door to the Jews, as in chap. 10. to the Gentiles. Still what abounding grace that he should be first to preach in the name of the risen Jesus! It was the preaching of a restored backslider. Grace had so wrought that he could calmly charge the Jewish nation with denying and crucifying Messiah. They might have retorted that he also had denied Him. But Peter had confessed his sin and been forgiven; and his conscience was clear and happy before God.
Let us notice his preaching. He explains the remarkable event of the day. He repudiates the insinuation of drunkenness, reminding them of the early hour, and brings forward Joel's prophecy. Had not the prophet spoken of an effusion of the Spirit in the last days? Why then need they be surprised at what had occurred? Not that Joel's prediction received then its complete fulfillment; for the Spirit was not yet poured out upon all flesh, nor had there been signs in heaven above and in the earth beneath; but it then had an incipient accomplishment—an outpouring of the Spirit had taken place.
Peter's style in preaching Christ is noticeably different from Paul's. The apostle of the church starts with Christ as glorified, showing the wondrous results of His death and resurrection in the light of the glory with the counsels of God now accomplishing on the ground of it. Peter, on the contrary, speaks of Jesus as One Whom the Jews had known among them, marked out by God by miracles and wonders and signs; but Whom they had crucified and slain, showing also that God had raised Him and put. Him at His own right hand. He had been delivered up by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God. The Jews and their rulers, not knowing Him nor the voices of the prophets read every day, had fulfilled them in condemning Him (Acts 13:2727For they that dwell at Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they knew him not, nor yet the voices of the prophets which are read every sabbath day, they have fulfilled them in condemning him. (Acts 13:27)). But God raised Him up, and David had spoken of it in the Psalms, as Peter proceeds to show. The time was when Peter and his companions needed to be shown Christ in the Psalms (Luke 24:2727And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)). Now he quotes several and presses them upon the consciences of his hearers. Psa. 16 is the first witness (with perhaps a clause from Psa. 21 in ver. 28). Of Whom had David spoken? “Thou wilt not leave My soul in Hades, neither wilt Thou suffer Thy Holy One to see corruption.”
Did the Psalmist speak of himself? Nay, he was both dead and buried, and his sepulcher was known to all the Jews; he has not yet known resurrection, and certainly not exaltation by the right hand of God. But, “being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins according to the flesh he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; he, seeing this before, spake of the resurrection of Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, neither His flesh did see corruption.” This includes an allusion to Psa. 132 to which is added the crowning word from Psa. 110:11<<A Psalm of David.>> The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool. (Psalm 110:1). The solemn conclusion of all was that God had made the crucified Jesus Lord and Christ.
What a position for the Jewish nation! convicted of the deepest enmity against God, of utter blindness as to the scriptures, of the betrayal and murder of their Messiah. The awful truth pressed itself home upon many— “they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Now notice carefully the answer, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Why this order? Why is repentance pressed rather than faith? And why must baptism precede remission of sins and the gift of the Spirit? especially as a very different order is to be observed in the case of the Gentiles in Acts 10. The answer is to be found in the peculiarity of the circumstances. These proud Jews stood convicted of the rejection and murder of Messiah. God would have this deeply felt (therefore repentance is pressed), and would have them submit to baptism in the name of the One they had despised ere blessing could be theirs. Will any say this is the usual order? It is exceptional and extraordinary; and in it we see the perfect wisdom of God's ways.
Peter assured them that the promise was to them and their children, and to all that are afar off, as many as the Lord shall call (including Gentiles); and exhorted them to save themselves from the untoward generation which was about to be visited with judgment (see also ver. 47).
Those who received His word (“gladly” is a doubtful word. See Matt. 13:2020But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; (Matthew 13:20)) were baptized: and the same day were added 3,000 souls1. Thus did God commence His new thing in the earth, the church of God. The waiting company received the, baptism of the Spirit, and thus became the body of Christ, though as yet they knew nothing of the doctrine of it. The 3,000 were introduced by the gift of the Spirit into the same blessed place. No such portion had been enjoyed by saints, however favored before that day. The church had no existence in O. T. times, save in the counsels of God. Christ must take His seat on high as the glorified head, and the Spirit must descend, ere such a thing could exist on earth.
But it does now exist, and the souls before us were brought into it on that memorable day. “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Steadfast continuance is good. To some Paul had to say, “Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?” (Gal. 5:77Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth? (Galatians 5:7)). Not so in Jerusalem on the Pentecostal day. There are four things to be noticed here. (1) “The apostles' doctrine.” What else did they, or do we, want? Apostolic doctrine is the standard and test of truth as John declares, “We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:66We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error. (1 John 4:6)). Are we prepared to bring all our ways and the teaching we accept to this test? Tradition is of but little worth, however ancient and widely received; what was “from the beginning” alone has a claim upon our souls. (2) “Fellowship:” What a mercy that we are not called to walk alone! In a hostile world, what a relief to the heart that God has given us the fellowship of saints! Do we value it sufficiently?
No saint is self-sufficient; we all need what God has for us by means of our brethren. But our fellowship must be holy. Better far to walk alone than compromise the Lord's name. In such a case His grace will be made sufficient for the soul, as many can testify; but such is not the ordinary Christian path, but fellowship. (3) “The breaking of bread.” This had clearly a larger place in the Christianity of those days than now. While continuing daily in the temple, they broke bread “at home” on (at least) the first day of the week (Acts 20). Love was too fresh to be satisfied with a monthly or quarterly remembrance of Christ. In our day the very name is well-nigh lost, to say nothing of the reality. What are the sounds around us? One tells us of the mass, another of the sacrament; but how often do we hear God's titles, “the breaking of bread,” and “the Lord's supper?” (4) “The prayers.” They felt the solemnity of their position in the midst of enemies, and valued united prayer. When the apostles were “let go” in chap. iv., they at once sought out “their own company,” and together they gave themselves to prayer. Do we feel our need? It is sorrowful to see saints, who are regular in their attendance at the Lord's table, indifferent to the prayer-meeting. What can be said of their condition of soul?
It is truly a lovely picture the Spirit brings before us here; first love, ardent faith, and earnest zeal for the glory of the absent Lord. But as yet all in the church were Jews; others were to be called, as succeeding chapters will show.