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Free Books » Bonar, Horatius » Light & Truth: Acts and the Larger Epistles

Chapter 1 - Acts 1:1 - The Christ of God and History Light & Truth: Acts and the Larger Epistles by Bonar, Horatius


Our Bible is of God; yet it is also of man. It is both divine and human. It comes to us from God's Spirit; it comes also from man's spirit. It is written in the language of earth, yet its words are the words of Him "who speaketh from heaven." Natural, yet supernatural; simple, yet profound; undogmatical, yet authoritative; very like a common book, yet very unlike also; dealing often with seeming incredibilities and contradictions, yet never assuming any need for apology, or explanation, or retractation; a book for humanity at large, yet minutely special in its fitnesses for every case of every soul; carrying throughout its pages, from first to last, one unchanging estimate of sin as an infinite evil, yet always bringing out God's gracious mind toward the sinner, even in his condemnation of the guilt; such is the great Book with which man has to do, which man has to study, out of which man has to gather wisdom for eternity, one of the many volumes of that divine library which is one day to be thrown open to us, when that which is perfect is come, and that which is in part shall be done away.

It is just a common physician, a Gentile too, who writes this book of the "Acts of the Apostles"; and he writes it as a part of human history,—the history of his period. He indulges in no lofty language when relating the wonders on which he so briefly touches. All is calm. The historian does justice to his history, yet he does not embellish. He tells his story well, but in few words; he neither colors nor elaborates. He makes his readers feel how thoroughly they can trust his narrative. It is man speaking to his fellowmen; yet it is heaven speaking to earth.

The names are human names, whether of persons or places; mostly Gentile, yet with these are associated divine words and scenes; everywhere we see human faces and hear human voices, yet also everywhere do we see the face and hear the voice of the Son of God. It is not the orator, or the philosopher, or the metaphysician we meet with in these chapters, it is "the ambassador for Christ"; his are the footsteps that we hear in every city, whether Corinth, or Athens, or Ephesus, or Antioch, or Rome.

All is unspeakably earnest. There is no jesting nor trifling anywhere. The reader may weep, but cannot smile. God is too near, and the cross too vivid, and the great throne too bright.

How so much of the divine and so much of the human can be woven together we do not try to say. The reader, if he be taught of God, will soon make discoveries for himself.

The book is very unlike what we should have expected. It is the preface to, or rather the first chapter of, church history, yet it bears not the slightest resemblance to any other church history which has yet been produced.

It contains everywhere the facts which constitute the gospel; and it proclaims also that gospel itself,—the glad tidings of God's free love to the chief of sinners.

The "former treatise" is the Gospel of Luke. It was written to this same Theophilus, a friend of the evangelist, loved and honoured. He who wrote it knew well the things which he was recording "from the very first"; and he wrote it to give increased certainty in regard to the things which Theophilus had already been instructed in (Luke 1:3, 4).

This first verse of the "Acts" carries us back to this former treatise, and gives us in few words its title or contents,—"a treatise of all that Jesus began both to do and teach." Wonderful and precious record! A "gospel" in very deed, filled with glad tidings from first to last; every chapter containing joy for the sons of men, by revealing to them the character, and preserving the deeds and words, of Him who did all things well, and who spake as never man spake. Our business, as readers of that gospel, is simply to extract the peace, and to listen to the love which it contains. Its burden is glory to God, peace on earth, goodwill to men. In it peculiarly shines the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

There seems almost a contradiction between this first verse of the Acts and the last of the fourth evangelist. John (21:25) tells us that the world could not contain the books which should be written concerning the sayings and doings of Jesus; whereas Luke speaks of noticing all things. But Luke evidently intends to tell us that he is giving us a specimen of all things, an accurate summary of the whole life of the Son of God on earth,—his words of grace and truth,—his deeds of compassion, and love, and power.

The expression, "all that Jesus began to do and teach," is a peculiar one, and seems to imply two things: first, that the gospel was to be a record of the doings and sayings of Jesus from the very beginning, which it pre-eminently is, recording the previous prophecy, the angelic annunciation, the conception and birth of Jesus. Of the human side of Jesus, the Christ of God, Luke especially records the beginning. And all, from the very first, is grace and truth. The love of Father, Son, and Spirit is there. God is love. The grace of the Son of God to the sinner shines out gloriously in every page, in the doing and in the teaching. "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." The record is part of human history; it relates to things on earth, not in heaven; and into that fragment of earthly story, God has woven the wonders of his surpassing love. But the expression "began" means, secondly, that this record is the beginning or fountain-head of all subsequent Christian history; that out of these doings and teachings have flowed all things connected with the church of God down to the last. It is a fontal record; a root; a wellspring; the source of a river which is still flowing amongst us, and refreshing the sons of men.

The "doings" of Christ here referred to are contained in the Gospels; the "teachings" of Christ are also contained in these. But the immediate developments of these are given us in subsequent scriptures; the development of he "doings" in the "Acts," that of the "teachings" in the epistles. In other words, the original source divided itself into two streams, and is still flowing in these. The Acts are the specimen of true church history as to doing; and the epistles the specimens of true church history as to doctrine. All then that is true and good in church history, throughout the ages, we are to connect with the life of Christ; and all that is evil, we are to connect with the evil one and his agencies,—adversaries of Christ Himself while here, and adversaries of His church in all after days, even till the day when the great prince of the power of the air, the god of this world, is bound, and cast into the bottomless pit.

I. We connect all subsequent testimony with Christ's doings and sayings. All the testimony delivered by Christian witnesses goes back to Christ's life; and is as it were prolongation of His own voice, a continuation of His own doings; not to the early ages merely, nor even to the first age, but straight back to the very days of Christ when here. It is of His life and death that the witnesses speak; and it is that life and death that contain the power which their testimony embodies. The Holy Ghost takes these things and makes use of them. It is the belief of His testimony to the words and ways of Christ that saves and blesses the soul. It is no gospel of Christ that does not take us back to the three and thirty years of His sojourn here. In preaching, we stand at Bethlehem, or at Capernaum, or at Jerusalem. We seek to bring every hearer of our message into direct contact with these places and their events. The power of our testimony lies in the directness of its communication with the manger and the cross; as well as with all between. We set aside the eighteen centuries that have intervened, and (overleaping the ages) we go back to the great fountainhead, as if we were living in the day of Christ, and moving among His miracles and gracious words. Our testimony is of "all that Jesus began to do and to teach." It is Jesus Himself that is working His miracles before our very eyes, and speaking to us still.

II. We connect each individual conversion with Christ's sayings and doings. The soul, in the moment of its mighty change, is brought into direct communication with these; it is transported back over eighteen centuries, and feels itself in the very presence of Jesus of Nazareth,—speaking, working, loving, blessing, saving, pardoning, comforting. The sinner looks in the face of Jesus, and Jesus looks in his; the link is knit; the intercourse has begun; and the world in which the saved man forever after lives is the world of Christ's sayings and doings, the world of which Christ is the center, the fullness, the glory, and the all. Virtue goes out from these sayings and doings of this personal Christ to lay hold on the sinner. And this is the beginning of his eternal history! Up till the moment in which he came into living contact with what Jesus was and did and taught, he had no true history; but from the moment of the vital contact his endless history began.

III. We connect each planting of a church with what Jesus did and taught. We see this very clearly in Luke's story of the planting of Christianity. Trace up the history of a church,—at Jerusalem, or Samaria, or Antioch, or Thessalonica,—to its true source, and you are landed at once among the scenes of Christ's life on earth. There is no church where there is no direct link of this kind. Apostolical succession is not simply a fable; but it is the utter destruction of all that constitutes the foundation of a church. A true church knows no distance of place or time between itself and its Lord's doings and teachings, whereas this ecclesiastical genealogy would throw up a mountain barrier between. Each Church begins just where each sinner begins,—with Jesus himself. Other foundation can no man lay; other soil can no church root itself in; round no other center can any church revolve. Christ is all and in all! Not numbers, nor bulk, nor wealth, nor influence, nor antiquity, nor organization, nor literature, nor music, nor vestments, nor administrative skill, nor various learning,—not all these together make up the glory of a church. For what is the temple if the shekinah be not there? What is a church or congregation if the Holy Ghost, revealing Christ in his grace and glory, be not the indwelling and in working energy?

IV. We connect each true revival of religion with when' Jesus did and preached. No quickening can be genuine save that which goes back to this, and takes its rise from this. Excitement, earnestness, impression, there may be; but only that is authentic, and divine, and abiding, which springs directly out of that which Jesus began to do and to teach. Not to produce a movement, but to evoke the vital and everlasting force contained in the life and death of the Son of God, is the "revivalism" of Scripture. Each minister, or evangelist, or sower of the seed requires to keep this in mind. How many revivals have been failures, and mere caricatures of Pentecost, by forgetfulness of this. The work of revival is not ours, but God's; and it is only in connection with such preaching and labour as takes us directly back to doings and sayings of Jesus that He will work. The human imitation of revival may be got up in connection with any exciting words or events, but the divine reality has but one beginning. It was this that made the Reformation so glorious. It brought the nations back, not simply to Pentecost, but to that which produced Pentecost, and to which Pentecost so signally pointed, the life and death of the Christ of God.

It is of that life and death that the Holy Ghost still makes use, in His operations in churches and individuals. Thus He witnesses for Christ. Thus He glorifies Christ. Thus He educes all the true spiritual movements of the world out of the one great fountain-head; and connects the genuine ecclesiastical history of each age, and nation, and city, and village directly with Bethlehem, and Nazareth, and Capernaum, and Golgotha. And it is in proportion as we ourselves realize this connection that we become what we profess to be, followers of Him who, though He was rich, for our sakes became poor.