Expositor's Dictionary of Texts
And it came to pass, that after we were gotten from them, and had launched, we came with a straight course unto Coos, and the day following unto Rhodes, and from thence unto Patara:Acts 21:13
Surely there is a time to submit to guidance and a time to take one's own way at all hazards.
In ch. 1. of Les Misérables, Mdlle Baptistine, after describing the apparently hazardous methods followed by the good bishop, adds: 'We leave ourselves in the hands of Providence, for that is how you must behave to a man who has grandeur in his soul.
Reference.—XXI. 13.—H. Arnold Thomas, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliv. p. 57.
The Peace of Defeat
There are compensations often for the vanquished; between the triumph of victory and the peace of defeat there may be little to choose. When a lawsuit that has been dragged over years comes to its close, there is an end, even for the defeated, of the protracted misery, the weary and racking suspense of delay. Though the worst has come to the worst—though the days of existence must be henceforth colourless when they are not harsh and sad—it is something that the strain upon fortitude has been relaxed for the moment. When some long-dreaded evil smites us into the dust, we may be amazed by our own calmness. Certainty, of whatever kind, relieves those worn with the effort of being deaf to the footsteps of fate. The truth—terrible as it is—falls on the dim, dull, puzzled brain with some strange sense of rest.
But there is a Christian peace in defeat, higher than the mere relief of overtaxed nature. We ceased, saying, The will of the Lord be done. There is a moment when effort should cease, because the issue is clear. That moment should carry us straight into the silence and rest of God.
I. There comes an hour to men—perhaps it comes to the most successful—when they accept the truth about themselves. They have hoped and striven for long to achieve something in life. Their hearts have been set on some shining mark. It may be that the whole endeavour and drift of many years have been to attain a certain definite position. In any case they have never thought to rest where they are. What has been is a preparation for what is to be—tolerable as such, but not otherwise. Gradually, with a slow distinctness, a dull pain, it has become evident that the issue is more doubtful than it seemed. Then come fervent efforts, silent conflicts of the spirit. And at last the end is plain. Even those who have hitherto protested with a fond vehemence of defence are silent. Ours, we find, are not the talents of the few, but of the many. Youth has gone, and taken away with it much that we dearly prized. It is the common lot. In every profession there are comparatively few whose early dreams come to fulfilment. The vast majority have to content themselves with humble aims, slow advancement, an uninteresting career, and a nameless memory. We can bear but little success, and little is given to us, and the day comes but too early when we know that the ascent of life has ceased, and that henceforth we must decrease.
Such defeat, if trustfully accepted, brings its own peace. There is an end of the long, lonely misgivings, of the ambition which has drawn such hard breath under the weight of self-distrust. There is a certain stage of life in which men naturally generous and warm-hearted are tempted to a little patient envy. It is when they hear the footsteps of the young hard behind them, and realise that those who come after are preferred before them. Accept the will of God, and all the bitterness goes.
II. Surely when Christian faith is more powerful in the world we shall alter our attitude towards the inevitable. Going forth to meet it, we shall be conquerors, not conquered. Why keep out of life the rich and deep memories it might hold if we did not fear to speak what is in the heart? A day dawns when human skill owns itself foiled; when the journey before the loved one is of few and measured steps. Then faith may grow into resignation, which a Roman Catholic writer has justly called the last term of Christian activity. It is in a true resignation that the Christian displays all his resources, brings all his powers into play. And Christian resignation there cannot be till we understand and believe that resignation is applicable only to things that pass away. We resign nothing that endures. We may have to part with it for more or fewer years; but it waits us in the world of eternal and complete restitution.
—W. Robertson Nicoll, Ten Minute Sermons, p. 51.
We are all conscious of the need of guidance at the cross roads of life when alternative courses of action lie in front of us, and we must, in spite of ourselves, take a decision which shall determine in one way or another the character of the following years. We inevitably cast about for some assistance in making up our minds. We shrink from the responsibility which yet is unmistakably ours. In the passage from the Book of the Acts from which my text is taken we have set before us a critical episode in the career of the Apostle Paul. He had to take a most important decision on which he plainly saw that the course of his ministry depended, and which, as the sequel showed, more than justified his estimate. Should he or should he not go up to Jerusalem?
The Apostle was of all men the most sensitively loyal to the indications of Divine purpose, and these so far from allowing and confirming his own perception of duty seemed to be uniformly unfavourable. The Apostle has to resist the most formidable pressure conceivable. He has to set his own conviction, not of truth but of his personal duty with regard to a practical matter which could not, it may be thought, properly challenge the great name of conscience, against solemn and reiterated protests from those who claimed, and from St. Paul's own standpoint, claimed rightly, to speak with Divine authority. Prophecy, we know, held in the Apostolic Church a supreme place. We are assured that the Apostle was well accustomed to shape his conduct by these Divine intimations. Yet when all the recognised and hitherto rigidly obeyed signs of Divine leading opposed his resolution to go to Jerusalem as the first step towards Rome, the same Apostle decisively rejects them and persists in his own purpose. St. Paul was a genuine hero, and he disdained to take account of his personal fortunes when the cause of his Master was in question. Given sufficient reason for thinking that the kingdom would be advanced by his perilous journey and nothing more was needed to justify the risk.
I. The Need of Guidance.—We are all conscious of the need of guidance. In our case, as in the Apostle's, the justification of our persistence will be in the inherent superiority of our own perception of duty. In the absence of any interior certitude, we may—nay, we must—be led by the lesser and lower leadings of circumstance, and I know no valid reason why we should demur to the sacred writer's description of these leadings as also in their measure truly Divine, but when once that interior certitude is ours all the other instruments of guidance must be set aside in its favour. That is how I understand St. Paul's behaviour. Up to a certain point in his history he was dependent from day to day on the indications of God's will. But then was granted an immediate revelation of his personal duty. He saw the goal towards which his efforts were to be directed, he realised his purpose in life, he understood God's will in him. Henceforward he was set free from the uncertitude and inconsistencies that marked his course. His career became the steady and continuous working out of a definite project which made it intelligible.
II. Divine Guidance Vouchsafed.—Granting that extraordinary vocations which stamp on human careers a sublime aspect are but few, must we therefore conclude that from most Christians that interior certitude as to personal duty is withholden? Must the multitude of disciples live without the illumination of assured direction from God? I do not believe it. On the contrary, I hold that there is none of us who confesses that his true lot of life must be to do the will of God, and with that conviction surrenders himself wholly and deliberately to the control of God's Spirit, who does not receive the guidance he seeks. We fail, not from lack of leading, but from lack of courage to obey the leading we have.
III. But the Heart must be Free. —At the risk of using language which may seem unreal and conventional, I would ask how can the consciousness of Divine guidance maintain itself in hearts filled with the unsatisfying distractions of that pursuit of amusement which in all classes of the community has become among us a consuming passion? St. James tells us that God gives wisdom to those that seek for it, but not to those distracted seekers whom he likens to the wind-driven waves of the sea. 'Let not that man think that he shall receive anything from the Lord.' We have to begin to become serious by giving to the things of the Spirit the importance which belongs to them, by making the Divine claim on our lives the standpoint from which to regard them, by cultivating the opportunities of usefulness which come to us, by refusing to acquiesce in the idle and unordered course of living, by insisting at whatever cost on cleansing our lives from conscious insincerity. Then at least we have come within the sanctuary where oracles of guidance are vouchsafed, where watchfulness and obedience gain outward pledges of Divine leading.
References.—XXI. 15, 16.—Expositor (5th Series), vol. i. p. 213. XXI. 15-18.—Ibid. (6th Series), vol. iv. p. 115. XXI. 16.—W. Brock, Midsummer Morning Sermons, p. 186. Expositor (7th Series), vol. vi. p. 371. XXI. 20.—Expositor (6th Series), vol. ix. p. 271. XXI. 21.—Ibid. vol. iii. p. 139; ibid. vol. xii. p. 106. XXI. 23.—H. S. Holland, God's City, p. 317. XXI. 27, 29.—Expositor (4th Series), vol. ii. p. 149. XXI. 28.—Ibid. (6th Series), vol. iv. p. 120. XXI. 39.—H. L. Thompson, The Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, p. 24. R. F. Horton, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxx. p. 305. Expositor (6th Series), vol. vii. p. 109; ibid. vol. xi. p. 39; ibid. (7th Series), vol. v. p. 195. XXII. 3.—Ibid. (5th Series), vol. ix. p. 437. XXII. 5.—Ibid. (4th Series), vol. ii. p. 212. XXII. 8.—Ibid. vol. iv. p. 182. XXII. 9.—Ibid. (6th Series), vol. vi. p. 192. XXII. 10.—Ibid. (5th Series), vol. ix. p. 314.
And finding a ship sailing over unto Phenicia, we went aboard, and set forth.
Now when we had discovered Cyprus, we left it on the left hand, and sailed into Syria, and landed at Tyre: for there the ship was to unlade her burden.
And finding disciples, we tarried there seven days: who said to Paul through the Spirit, that he should not go up to Jerusalem.
And when we had accomplished those days, we departed and went our way; and they all brought us on our way, with wives and children, till we were out of the city: and we kneeled down on the shore, and prayed.
And when we had taken our leave one of another, we took ship; and they returned home again.
And when we had finished our course from Tyre, we came to Ptolemais, and saluted the brethren, and abode with them one day.
And the next day we that were of Paul's company departed, and came unto Caesarea: and we entered into the house of Philip the evangelist, which was one of the seven; and abode with him.
And the same man had four daughters, virgins, which did prophesy.
And as we tarried there many days, there came down from Judaea a certain prophet, named Agabus.
And when he was come unto us, he took Paul's girdle, and bound his own hands and feet, and said, Thus saith the Holy Ghost, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.
And when we heard these things, both we, and they of that place, besought him not to go up to Jerusalem.
Then Paul answered, What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.
And when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, The will of the Lord be done.
And after those days we took up our carriages, and went up to Jerusalem.
There went with us also certain of the disciples of Caesarea, and brought with them one Mnason of Cyprus, an old disciple, with whom we should lodge.
And when we were come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly.
And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present.
And when he had saluted them, he declared particularly what things God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry.
And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law:
And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs.
What is it therefore? the multitude must needs come together: for they will hear that thou art come.
Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men which have a vow on them;
Them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law.
As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication.
Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them entered into the temple, to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification, until that an offering should be offered for every one of them.
And when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews which were of Asia, when they saw him in the temple, stirred up all the people, and laid hands on him,
Crying out, Men of Israel, help: This is the man, that teacheth all men every where against the people, and the law, and this place: and further brought Greeks also into the temple, and hath polluted this holy place.
(For they had seen before with him in the city Trophimus an Ephesian, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple.)
And all the city was moved, and the people ran together: and they took Paul, and drew him out of the temple: and forthwith the doors were shut.
And as they went about to kill him, tidings came unto the chief captain of the band, that all Jerusalem was in an uproar.
Who immediately took soldiers and centurions, and ran down unto them: and when they saw the chief captain and the soldiers, they left beating of Paul.
Then the chief captain came near, and took him, and commanded him to be bound with two chains; and demanded who he was, and what he had done.
And some cried one thing, some another, among the multitude: and when he could not know the certainty for the tumult, he commanded him to be carried into the castle.
And when he came upon the stairs, so it was, that he was borne of the soldiers for the violence of the people.
For the multitude of the people followed after, crying, Away with him.
And as Paul was to be led into the castle, he said unto the chief captain, May I speak unto thee? Who said, Canst thou speak Greek?
Art not thou that Egyptian, which before these days madest an uproar, and leddest out into the wilderness four thousand men that were murderers?
But Paul said, I am a man which am a Jew of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city: and, I beseech thee, suffer me to speak unto the people.
And when he had given him licence, Paul stood on the stairs, and beckoned with the hand unto the people. And when there was made a great silence, he spake unto them in the Hebrew tongue, saying,