William Kelly Major Works Commentary - Acts 28:1 - 28:31

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William Kelly Major Works Commentary - Acts 28:1 - 28:31

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Acts Chapter 28

The land to which they escaped they subsequently learnt to be Malta. This ought to be beyond controversy. Yet it has been contested even to our own day. The first who argued for the islet in the Gulf of Venice called Meleda seems to be Constantine Porphyrogenitus, who hazarded this opinion in his work on the Administration of the Empire, one of the Byzantine historians and of weight in what he personally knew. But he, like the few who adopted his view of the scene of the apostle's shipwreck had not duly considered the revealed account, any more than the actual facts of the two places as fitting in with that account. The direction of the wind favours Malta, as it blew them from Crete and Clauda toward the dreaded Syrtis. This could not have driven toward the north of the Gulf. Nor is there any need to narrow the Adriatic to that gulf; for it is well known that in ancient usage, and by such careful writers as Claudius Ptolemy, the famous geographer, it comprehended the open sea where the ship really drifted to Malta, and considerably farther. Then again there is nothing in the local features, soundings, anchorings, 'rough' or rocky places, creek with a beach, place with two seas, which can apply to Meleda as to Malta. And the argument founded on 'the barbarians' is quite invalid; for the Romans like the Greeks applied the term to those who were, not savages, but speakers of a language strange to themselves. Nor am I aware of any proof, even if the word meant 'savages', that this then applied to the inhabitants of Meleda more than to those of Malta, though it is difficult to suppose that that insignificant isle would have such residents as Publius, his father, and those that honoured Paul and his friends with many honours and kind supplies, to say nothing of the universal kindness to the soldiers and ship's company. Malta, from its position and value from of old to this day, has been an important island, never Meleda.

Scaliger and Bochart with their usual discernment and massive learning had no hesitation in refuting the mediaeval mistake, and vindicating the claim of 'St. Paul's Bay' in Malta as the true scene of the wreck and the escape. Bryant's reasoning, and later still S. T. Coleridge's pleas in behalf of Meleda against Malta, have no real ground-work.

'And when got safe we then ascertained that the island was called Melita. And the barbarians [or, natives] showed us no common kindness; for they kindled a fire-heap and took us all in because of the then rain and because of the cold. But when Paul gathered a certain quantity of sticks and laid [it] on the fire-heap, a viper came out through the heat and fastened on his hand. And when the barbarians saw the beast hanging from his hand, they said one to another, Certainly a murderer is this man, whom though got safe from the sea, justice refused to let live. He, however shook off the beast into the fire and suffered no harm. And they expected that he would be inflamed or fall down dead suddenly; but when they were long expecting and beheld nothing amiss happen, they, changing their mind, said that he was a god' (vers. 1-6).

Mr. Smith has well explained that there is no difficulty in understanding how the crew and the officers failed to make out the locality, even if ever so familiar in a general way as an Alexandrian ship with the great harbour of the island. They had drifted there in the dark, and there is no such definite landmark on the adjacent coast as to make identification easy; and whatever peculiarity may be there, they only discovered when they got close in before the ship ran aground. But the barbarians, or men of a foreign tongue,1 behaved with unusual philanthropy, which puts to shame what has too often been experienced on British shores and other coasts alas! since Christianity. They lit not a 'fire' merely, but one so large that the term employed is one usually applied to a funeral pyre (πυρά as indeed would be needed to meet the urgent need of such a dripping crowd with rain falling heavily, and severe cold.

1 Their tongue was then Punic fundamentally, as springing from Phoenicia, the great source of eastern enterprise and commercial marine. So it was in Carthage also. But Malta has seen radical changes, and in nothing more than its race of inhabitants and consequent language, which is now and has long been an Arabic patois, however much they flatter themselves on their descent from the Phoenicians.

This gave occasion to the incident related so graphically in verses 3-6. The apostle, with his usual earnestness and lowly love, gathers a faggot of sticks near the spot and laid it on the fire-heap, when a viper, no doubt before this dormant in the neglected wood, was roused as well as irritated by the heat and seized on the hand of Paul. It was ordered of God to verify the promise of the Lord Jesus (Mar_16:18), and as a sign to the kind heathen, and so much the more as they quite mistook its import at first by leaving out God as unbelief habitually does. For when they saw the noxious creature hanging from his hand, they were assured that he must be a murderer, escaped from the sea, only to meet a just retribution. But when he shook off the serpent into the fire without suffering anything out of the way, and they looked long in vain for either virulent inflammation or sudden falling dead, all was changed, and they called him a god. Such is the worth of human opinion outside its own sphere. Little could they conceive that he was a man of God, a prisoner in heathen hands because of the deadly hatred of God's people, the Jews, and this really because of the good news of Christ he preached to the Gentiles. But moral enigmas in this world are more surprising than the greatest of intellectual difficulties. Of one thing we may be sure, that the natural man is here invariably astray.

Nor was this all. The signs of Christianity are characteristically beneficent, samples of that power which in the age to come will banish the evil one and chase away the dire effects of sin, when mankind as a whole, and pre-eminently Israel, shall sing, 'Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits, Who forgiveth all thine iniquities, Who heareth all thy diseases' (Psa_103:2-3). That day has not yet dawned on Israel and the nations, but meanwhile for the inauguration of the gospel and in honour of Him Who was crucified by men but now exalted of God in heaven, there was, wherever it seemed fitting, a display of the powers of the coming age, not only over a vanquished enemy, but in pity for his poor victim, suffering man. Thus another of the signs to follow those that believed was soon after added: 'they shall lay hands on sick persons, and they shall be well' (Mar_16:18).

'Now in the country surrounding that place were lands belonging to the chief1 of the island, by name Publius, who received and entertained us three days courteously. And so it was that the father of Publius lay ill of a fever2 and dysentery; unto whom Paul came in and laid his hands on him with prayer, and healed him. This then being done, others also that had sicknesses on the island came and were cured; who also honoured us with many honours, and on sailing put on board [or, laded us with] things for our need' (vers. 7-10).

1 There is good reason from more than one ancient inscription to regard 'the first', or 'chief' as a title and not a vague distinction.

2 Fever is in the Greek plural, being a malady of renewed attacks. No writer in either the Old or New Testament abounds in such medical technicality as Luke; and nobody has so elaborately evinced this fact as Dr. W. K. Hobart in his Medical Language of St. Luke, an interesting volume of the Dublin University Press Series.

Here then we have the gracious healing power attached to the Lord's name, but no pretentiousness on the apostle's part. He prayed and laid his hands on the sick man. The healing of one so prominent arrested attention. Many others in the island came with their sicknesses and were cured also, for grace is no respecter of persons. Nor did Paul or Luke decline their attentions and kind offerings, though assuredly they sought nothing at their hands. Indeed it is of all consequence that the Christian, while valuing as our Father does even a cup of cold water given in the name of a disciple, should render a simple and true testimony that the gospel, the grace and truth of Christ, has everything to give; it is never to gain what self seeks in this world. God is a Giver Himself, the Giver of the best and indeed of all good, and He loves that His own keep up the family character in this respect as in all others (2Co_9:7). On the other hand, it is very far from the ways of Christ to cherish a narrow, hard, and unappreciative heart where kindness is meant, especially because of His word and work. It is only the Holy Spirit keeping Christ before the eye of faith that can enable us to discern the path in the midst of difficulties and dangers on all sides.

'And after three months we sailed in a ship of Alexandria after having wintered in the island, with Dioscuri3' for a sign. And landing at Syracuse we tarried three days; and thence having gone round we arrived at Rhegium, and after one day when a south wind sprung up we came on the second day unto Puteoli, where we found brethren and were besought to tarry with them seven days; and so we came unto Rome. And thence the brethren having heard about us came out to meet us as far as Appii Forum and Tres Tabernae, whom when Paul saw, he thanked God and took courage' (vers. 11-15).

3 These were Castor and Pollux, the fabulous patrons of seamen among the heathen, as is familiar with those who have read the Greek and Latin poets.

We have seen how the Lord attracted hearts by His gracious power to that truth which is for heaven and eternity, but received here only by faith, and here productive of good and holy and godly fruits to His praise, the comfort of love among His own, and no small testimony to His name among those that are not His, if peradventure they might be won and called out of darkness into His marvellous light.

In the early spring they took ship again, this time also of Alexandria that had escaped the storm which had wrecked their former ship because the master and crew had slighted the warning of the apostle. We do not hear of preaching, though we may be sure that the grace of Christ and the love of souls did not slumber in the hearts of His servants. But we see the place given to them, and to Paul in particular, by their past experience rising more and more as God saw fit to use each occasion where man's wisdom or power was unavailing.

Syracuse, a famous city of Sicily, was soon reached, but after a stay of three days they compassed the coast and came to Rhegium and the next day to Puteoli. The former was in the south-west extremity of Italy, a port of Bruttium on the sea. The latter, in the Bay of Naples, was celebrated for its thirty-three mineral wells which indeed gave it its name, as well as for its earth valued even to this day for its uses.

Here brethren were found who entreated that the apostle and the rest should remain with them seven days, the old term of a visit so natural among Christians who valued, above all, the joy of fellowship on the Lord's day and at His Supper, along with the manifold opportunities of edification, prayer and the word, meanwhile. 'Then we went unto Rome.' What a contrast with the great ones of the earth, victor or vanquished, who had so often taken the same road! 'His be the Victor's name' was their life-song and brightest triumph - His Who 'trod all our foes beneath His feet By being trodden down.' His servants tread in His footsteps, though it was His alone to suffer for sins.

But ere they reached the metropolis of the world, a fresh witness of love greeted the apostle and his company. How refreshing to his spirit! From Rome, when the brethren heard of their arrival in Italy, 'they came out to meet us as far as Appii Forum and Tres Tabernae'. The former was less than forty miles, the latter more than thirty miles from the great city. Neither place enjoyed a good repute even in heathen eyes. A classic poet has left a lively record of his passing through the more distant of the two with its low yet extortionate taverns and squabbling bargemen. How different the meeting of the apostle of the Gentiles with those saints of Rome to whom he wrote not long before he was taken prisoner! He was nearing brethren he had longed to see that he might impart some spiritual gift for their establishment, or, as he humbly and beautifully put the matter, that he with them might be comforted in them, each by the other's faith, both theirs and his.

And now two companies had come forth to welcome him; for this is made plain by the mention of places distant by a few miles, but no short way from Rome in days when travelling was far from so easy as it is now. None of these was troubled by the badness of the water, nor complained of mosquitoes or marsh-frogs or bantering slaves or lazy boatmen; no elation in the company by great friends or good cheer, still less by the wordy wars of buffoons while they dined. But debtor to Jew and Greek he that prayed for fruit to God's glory through Christ the Lord gave Him thanks and took courage when he saw those whom love in the truth had brought from Rome to welcome him. And what a joy for men delivered from the false glitter of the world and their selfish profit from its grinding tyrant, the many-headed Beast, to recognize by grace in Paul the prisoner the most honoured servant of the Lord, the inspired writer to them of an Epistle yielding to none in depth and comprehensiveness of treating and enforcing the foundations of a saint's relationship with God, and the walk and service proper to it now!

It will be noticed that there is not a trace of Peter either now or subsequently, any more than in the Epistle more full of personal notices in its last chapter than any other in the New Testament. How unaccountable if the great apostle of the circumcision were then at Rome in any capacity whatever, still more if he there held the position assigned by some traditionmongers! And if Peter did not found the church in Rome, certainly no other apostle had a hand in it. Indeed, Paul near the beginning and before the end of his Epistle to the Romans, gives us two statements irreconcilable with that ancient fable. In Rom_1:13 he evidently regards the head of Gentiledom as falling within his province, no less than heathen lands east of it, whilst the Epistle itself from the first chapter to the last is the fullest proof of a large number of saints already there, even both Jews and Gentiles. Then again, in the chapter before the last, he lays down what was the regular and constant aim of his ministry - his labours where Christ was not named and his avoidance of building upon another man's foundation. For, as already noticed, there was a lack in Rome of what an apostle could best supply (Rom_1:11), which it is inconceivable to suppose asserted if Peter or any other apostle had visited the city before Paul wrote or went. We may therefore dismiss absolutely what Eusebius states in the Armenian text of the Chronicon, followed as it is in the main by Jerome (Catal. 1) and by heaps of Romanists, that Peter visited Rome as early as A.D. 42! and stayed there twenty years! (Jerome et al. say twenty-five years): a statement as impossible to stand with what scripture tells of Peter as with what we learn there of Paul.

Yet we do see Paul needing to take courage, as he drew near the city he had so longed to visit in the Lord. He seems as deeply conscious of weakness and fear and trembling as when preaching at Corinth years before. His experience of the Lord's gracious care on the last perilous voyage and wreck, also the proofs of His power accompanying him with their effects on all at Malta, did not hinder this. Indeed it is in weakness that the Lord proves the sufficiency of His grace, as He had taught the Corinthians after no less real experience of delivering power in Ephesus (2 Cor. 1 and 12). And here the Lord works not by such a vision as had sustained Paul when in danger of yielding to depression (Act_23:11) but by the faith and affection of the brethren from Rome. For it would seem that the delay at Puteoli, due to brethren there who would have him stay a week in their midst, gave occasion for the tidings of his arrival in Italy reaching the saints in Rome and of their coming to meet him. And no difficulty, it is clear, was interposed by the authorities, who held him a prisoner, such was the moral respect inspired among the Roman officials, and not least in the centurion who had witnessed his ways and words all the journey from the east to the west.

But how sweet and wondrous the dealings of grace to know from indisputable authority that the saints he was going to help so mightily were used of the Lord for the cheer of the apostle himself on the road: the best comment on his own words written to them beforehand - his desire to have mutual comfort among them, each by the faith that was in the other, both theirs and his!

How practical is the truth that the body of Christ is one, and has many members set each one in the body even as it pleased God! 'And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again, the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay much rather, those members of the body which seem to be more feeble are necessary: and those parts of the body which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness, whereas our comely parts have no need. But God tempered the body together, giving more abundant honour to that part which lacked, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member is honoured, all the members rejoice with it' (1Co_12:19-26). Such is the church, called to be on earth the answer to Christ in heaven. Oh, how soon the declension, how far the departure, and how universal the ruin! Do we feel it, judge ourselves, and seek His will?

Thus the apostle comes to the metropolis of the world a prisoner. Such was the will of God. There were saints in it then, as we know from the Epistle written to them from Corinth (Rom_16:3). Many assemblies were apostolically founded, not that in Rome. So did God anticipate by condemning the pride of man which later on indulged in this tradition, as groundless as are most others. The chief city of the Gentiles, which lay within Paul's province, not Peter's (Gal_2:8), could boast truthfully of no apostle as its founder. But more, there the greatest witness of the gospel came in bonds. So was the gospel to fare even more bitterly in the torture and at the stake when the pagan Babylon became the mystery of impiety, the papal Babylon. Yet the word of God was not bound, any more than crueller fiats consumed it later, even when a pseudo-Christian priest sat on the throne of the Caesars, and men masqueraded in the garb of the Lamb's followers who were ravening wolves, and really heathen in heart and unbelief.

'And when he came to Rome [the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the praetorian guard, but]1 Paul was allowed to remain with the soldier who guarded him. And it came to pass that after three days he2 called together those that were chief of the Jews; and when they were come together he said unto them, [Men] Brethren, I, though having done nothing against the people or the customs of our fathers, was delivered a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans; who, after examination, wished to release me because there was no cause of death in me. But when the Jews spoke against [it], I was constrained to appeal to Caesar, not having anything to accuse my nation of. For this cause therefore did I call for you to see and to speak with, for on account of the hope of Israel am I bound with this chain. And they said unto him, We neither received letters from JudÂ?a concerning thee, neither did any of the brethren on arriving report or speak anything evil concerning thee. But we beg [or, think well] of thee to hear what thou thinkest; for concerning this sect it is known to us that it is everywhere spoken against' (vers. 16-22).

1 The most ancient copies do not recognize the bracketed clause.

2 The Text. Rec. wrongly reads 'Paul' here on insufficient evidence.

Two things appear in the apostle: entire superiority to the rancour that had hitherto pursued him from the Jews, and also untiring zeal to seek that they should hear the truth, and not judge themselves unworthy of eternal life. Nor was there the least underhand work. He invited their chief men, not the less informed, and he explained that, without wrong to the Jews or to their hereditary customs, he was a prisoner from Jerusalem among the Romans, who after examination were minded to acquit him but for the opposition of the Jews, which forced his appeal to the emperor. But he points out the real offence - his stand for the hope of Israel. He might have exposed their conspiracy to murder him when in Roman hands, a fact which, if published in Rome, would have as completely served himself as blasted the Jews. But not a word escapes him, save of unselfish love, saying he had no charge against those that had so persistently sought his death. It was truly for the hope of Israel he wore the chain - for the Messiah fraught with blessings of every kind, never to wane, for Israel. And if Jews turned a deaf ear, those sure mercies (before which Israel one day will melt in true repentance) must find suited objects, if not in the favoured land, in the barren wilderness where open outcasts now live to God's glory, the objects of the grace of Jesus

Of this grace to Gentiles, however, which had roused the hate of Jews elsewhere, the apostle does not yet speak, but simply of the fact that it was for the Christ, the hope of Israel, that he was a prisoner.

The fact is that the Jews, having failed, with successive governors, and even with king Agrippa, were shrewd enough to apprehend the folly of carrying their complaints of Paul to Caesar. They had no true criminal charge. And what would a Roman emperor care for their religious accusation? The Jews therefore replied that neither letters nor visitors had laid any formal complaint before them against Paul, but that they wished to hear what he had to say of the sect so universally spoken against as Christians. This was precisely what the apostle's heart desired.

'And having appointed him a day, many came unto him into the lodging, to whom he expounded, testifying the kingdom of God, and persuading them1 concerning Jesus, from both the law of Moses and the prophets from morning till evening. And some assented to the things that were said, and some disbelieved. And being disagreed one with another they left, Paul having said one word, Well spoke the Holy Spirit through Isaiah unto our fathers, saying, Go unto this people and say, With hearing ye shall hear and in no wise understand, with seeing ye shall see and in no wise perceive. For the heart of this people became gross, and with [their] ears they became dull of hearing, and [their] eyes they closed, lest they should see with [their] eyes and hear with [their] ears and understand with the heart, and return, and I should heal them. Be it known therefore unto you that this2 salvation of God was sent to the Gentiles: they also will hear' (vers. 23-28). Verse 29 in the Text. Rec. as represented in the Authorized Version is not found in the ancient Greek MSS. To cast out an innovation is the reverse of innovating.

1 The Text. Rec. adds 'the things'.

2 The Text. Rec. inserts 'the': 'this' is the reading of AB, good cursives, and many of the most ancient versions.

Thus God gave His servant an open door to the very people whom he loved so well and whose brethren's malice made him a prisoner, and so much the longer because there was no one to lay a definite charge. It was a moment of exceeding solemnity to the apostle's spirit, as there in Rome he laid bare the truth of God's kingdom and of the Person of Jesus from the law and the prophets for one long day; and with the result that some were persuaded of the things that were said, while others disbelieved, a stronger expression than their simply not believing. The word of God in the light of Jesus comes to put them to the proof, as it does and is intended to do.

But if disagreeing among themselves they took their leave, Paul reiterated the long suspended sentence, already pronounced by the Judge Himself in Joh_12:37-41 seven centuries and more after Isaiah was inspired to utter it from the vision in the temple in the year when king Uzziah died (Isa. 6). What a witness of divine patience as well as of sure judgment on His own people! Jehovah, the God of Israel, sent His prophet with the message originally. Then Jehovah-Jesus toward the close of His rejected testimony of love and light in their midst departed and hid Himself, after having done so many signs which manifested the Father and the Son at work in grace. Yet they believed not in Him, according to Isaiah 53, yea more, they could not believe, for the judicial spell was taking effect, fruit of despising every word and proof of God Himself, the Son, on earth

'These things said Isaiah, because he saw His [Christ's] glory, and he spake of Him' (Joh_12:41). Such is the comment of the inspired Evangelist. Now the word is again cited by Paul, only with this emphatic reference - 'Well spoke the Holy Spirit.' He Who of old gave the prophet to see, hear, and write, was now sent down from heaven to make good Christ's glory, and is declared to be the One Who then and thus spoke. The Spirit had been rejected by the Jews as the witness of the glorified Son of man, as truly as the Son on earth had been, and Jehovah as such of old On the ground of responsibility all was over with the chosen people, who, having failed in righteousness, abhorred sovereign grace in the gospel. But the mercy they despised will be their only ground in the latter day, when the last empire of the Gentile rises up to oppose the returning Lord at His appearing in glory, in alliance with the Antichrist in the land of Israel. These are the Beast and the False Prophet of the Revelation.

Meanwhile the Jew is finally cut off, and before the apostasy is come and 'the man of sin' revealed, the gospel goes forth on its errand of heavenly mercy to the Gentiles. 'They also will hear,' said the messenger from his bonds in Rome. And so it has been; so it is; though the shadows deepen as the end of the age draws near. Then an ungrateful Christendom will cast off the faith, and more and more return to naturalism, in love not only of present things but of idolatry, and in man set up as true God, that wrath may come to the uttermost on all, whether Jew or Gentile, who spurn grace and bow down to the creature lifted up to destruction by Satan in the despite and denial of the Father and the Son.

But meanwhile 'this salvation of God was sent to the Gentiles.' For the grace of God goes down to the lowest when the light of the knowledge of His glory shines, as now in the gospel it does in the face of Jesus at His right hand. Thus Israel is cast off, the Gentiles hear and the apostle was in bonds. So the history ends.

But the apostle, a prisoner in Rome, sent thence to the Jews the deepest message they ever received from God, as also Paul sent to the saints at Ephesus and Colosse the fullest words on the body and its Head, and on Christian experience to the Philippians, and personally to Philemon: so fertilizing was the stream that flowed through him in his captivity.

'And he remained two whole years in his own hired lodging, and received all that came unto him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ, with all boldness unhinderedly' (vers. 30, 31).

Such is the simple, solemn, and dignified close of inspired ecclesiastical history. Some speak of it as abrupt, because it does not tell us of the subsequent imprisonment of the apostle and his death. It is the same spirit of unbelief which complains of the two Gospels that do not set before us the ascension scene, as if God did not know best how to reveal His own truth. Paul is a prisoner, yet not so as to hinder the going forth of the truth even in Rome. To know more of the apostle we must read closely the word; yet even so nothing is there to encourage curiosity, superstition, or hero-worship, but everything that God in all things may be glorified by Jesus Christ.