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Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Lesson

Acts 11:27--12:3



Primitive Charity.

27 And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch.   28 And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Cæsar.   29 Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judæa:   30 Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.

When our Lord Jesus ascended on high he gave gifts unto men, not only apostles and evangelists, but prophets, who were enabled by the Spirit to foresee and foretel things to come, which not only served for a confirmation of the truth of Christianity (for all that these prophets foretold came to pass, which proved that they were sent of God, Deut. xviii. 22; Jer. xxviii. 9), but was also of great use to the church, and served very much for its guidance. Now here we have,

I. A visit which some of these prophets made to Antioch (v. 27): In these days, during that year that Barnabas and Saul lived at Antioch, there came prophets from Jerusalem to Antioch: we are not told how many, nor is it certain whether these were any of those prophets that we afterwards find in the church at Antioch, ch. xiii. 1. 1. They came from Jerusalem, probably because they were not now so much regarded there as they had been; they saw their work in a manner done there, and therefore thought it time to be gone. Jerusalem had been infamous for killing the prophets and abusing them, and therefore is now justly deprived of these prophets. 2. They came to Antioch, because they heard of the flourishing state of that church, and there they hoped they might be of some service. Thus should every one as he hath received the gift minister the same. Barnabas came to exhort them, and they, having received the exhortation well, now have prophets sent them to show them things to come, as Christ had promised, John xvi. 13. Those that are faithful in their little shall be entrusted with more. The best understanding of scripture-predictions is to be got in the way of obedience to scripture-instructions.

II. A particular prediction of a famine approaching, delivered by one of these prophets, his name Agabus; we read of him again prophesying Paul's imprisonment, ch. xxi. 10, 11. Here he stood up, probably in one of their public assemblies, and prophesied, v. 28. Observe, 1. Whence he had his prophecy. What he said was not of himself, nor a fancy of his own, nor an astronomical prediction, nor a conjecture upon the present workings of second causes, but he signified it by the Spirit, the Spirit of prophecy, that there should be a famine; as Joseph, by the Spirit enabling him, understood Pharaoh's dreams, foretold the famine in Egypt, and Elijah the famine in Israel in Ahab's time. Thus God revealed his secrets to his servants the prophets. 2. What the prophecy was: There should be great dearth throughout all the world, by unseasonable weather, that corn should be scarce and dear, so that many of the poor should perish for want of bread. This should be not in one particular country, but through all the world, that is, all the Roman empire, which they in their pride, like Alexander before them, called the world. Christ had foretold in general that there should be famines (Matt. xxiv. 7; Mark xiii. 8; Luke xxi. 11); but Agabus foretels one very remarkable famine now at hand. 3. The accomplishment of it: It came to pass in the days of Claudius Cæsar; it began in the second year of his reign, and continued to the fourth, if not longer. Several of the Roman historians make mention of it, as does also Josephus. God sent them the bread of life, and they rejected it, loathed the plenty of that manna; and therefore God justly broke the staff of bread, and punished them with famine; and herein he was righteous. They were barren, and did not bring forth to God, and therefore God made the earth barren to them.

III. The good use they made of this prediction. When they were told of a famine at hand, they did not do as the Egyptians, hoard up corn for themselves; but, as became Christians, laid by for charity to relieve others, which is the best preparative for our own sufferings and want. It is promised to those that consider the poor that God will preserve them, and keep them alive, and they shall be blessed upon the earth, Ps. xli. 1, 2. And those who show mercy, and give to the poor, shall not be ashamed in the evil time, but in the days of famine they shall be satisfied, Ps. xxxvii. 19, 21. The best provision we can lay up against a dear time is to lay up an interest in these promises, by doing good, and communicating, Luke xii. 33. Many give it as a reason why they should be sparing, but the scripture gives it as a reason why we should be liberal, to seven, and also to eight, because we know not what evil shall be upon the earth, Eccl. xi. 2. Observe,

1. What they determined—that every man, according to his ability, should send relief to the brethren that dwelt in Judea, v. 29. (1.) The persons that were recommended to them as objects for charity were the brethren that dwelt in Judea. Though we must, as we have opportunity, do good to all men, yet we must have a special regard to the household of faith, Gal. vi. 10. No poor must be neglected, but God's poor most particularly regarded. The care which every particular church ought to take of their own poor we were taught by the early instance of that in the church at Jerusalem, where the ministration was so constant that none lacked, ch. iv. 34. But the communion of saints in that instance is here extended further, and provision is made by the church at Antioch for the relief of the poor in Judea, whom they call their brethren. It seems it was the custom of the Jews of the dispersion to send money to those Jews who dwelt in Judea, for the relief of the poor that were among them, and to make collections for that purpose (Tully speaks of such a thing in his time, Orat. pro Flacco), which supposes there were many poor in Judea, more than in other countries, so that the rich among them were not able to bear the charge of keeping them from starving; either because their land had become barren, though it had been a fruitful land, for the iniquity of those that dwelt therein, or because they had no traffic with other nations. Now we may suppose that the greatest part of those who turned Christians in that country were the poor (Matt. xi. 5, The poor are evangelized), and also that when the poor turned Christians they were put out of the poor's book, and cut off from their shares in the public charity; and it were easy to foresee that if there came a famine it would go very hard with them; and, if any of them should perish for want, it would be a great reproach to the Christian profession; and therefore this early care was taken, upon notice of this famine coming, to send them a stock beforehand, lest, if it should be deferred till the famine came, it should be too late. (2.) The agreement there was among the disciples about it, that every man should contribute, according to his ability, to this good work. The Jews abroad, in other countries, grew rich by trade, and many of the rich Jews became Christians, whose abundance ought to be a supply to the want of their poor brethren that were at a great distance; for the case of such ought to be considered, and not theirs only that live among us. Charitable people are traders with what God has given them, and the merchants find their account in sending effects to countries that lie very remote; and so should we in giving alms to those afar off that need them, which therefore we should be forward to do when we are called to it. Every man determined to send something, more or less, according to his ability, what he could spare from the support of himself and his family, and according as God had prospered him. What may be said to be according to our ability we must judge for ourselves, but must be careful that we judge righteous judgment.

2. What they did—they did as they determined (v. 30). Which also they did. They not only talked of it, but they did it. Many a good motion of that kind is made and commended, but is not prosecuted, and so comes to nothing. But this was pursued, the collection was made, and was so considerable that they thought it worth while to send Barnabas and Saul to Jerusalem, to carry it to the elders there, though they would want their labours in the mean time at Antioch. They sent it, (1.) To the elders, the presbyters, the ministers or pastors, of the churches in Judea, to be by them distributed according to the necessity of the receivers, as it had been contributed according to the ability of the givers. (2.) It was sent by Barnabas and Saul, who perhaps wanted an occasion to go to Jerusalem, and therefore were willing to take this. Josephus tells us that at this time king Irates sent his charity to the chief men of Jerusalem, for the poor of that country; and Helena, queen of the Adiabeni, being now at Jerusalem, and hearing of many that died of famine there, and in the country about, sent for provisions from Cyprus and Alexandria, and distributed them among the people; so says Dr. Lightfoot, who also computes, by the date of Paul's rapture, "fourteen years before he wrote the second Epistle to the Corinthians" (2 Cor. xii. 1, 2), that it was in this journey of his to Jerusalem, with these alms and offerings, that he had his trance in the temple (which he speaks of, ch. xxii. 17), and in that trance was rapt up into the third heaven; and then it was that Christ told him he would send him thence unto the Gentiles, which accordingly he did as soon as ever he came back to Antioch. It is no disparagement, in an extraordinary case, for ministers of the gospel to be messengers of the church's charity, though to undertake the constant care of that matter would ordinarily be too great a diversion from more needful work to those who have given themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.




The Martyrdom of James; Peter's Imprisonment.

1 Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church.   2 And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.   3 And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. (Then were the days of unleavened bread.)   4 And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.

Ever since the conversion of Paul, we have heard no more of the agency of the priests in persecuting the saints at Jerusalem; perhaps that wonderful change wrought upon him, and the disappointment it gave to their design upon the Christians at Damascus, had somewhat mollified them, and brought them under the check of Gamaliel's advice—to let those men alone, and see what would be the issue; but here the storm arises from another point. The civil power, not now, as usual (for aught that appears) stirred up by the ecclesiastics, acts by itself in the persecution. But Herod, though originally of an Edomite family, yet seems to have been a proselyte to the Jewish religion; for Josephus says he was zealous for the Mosaic rites, a bigot for the ceremonies. He was not only (as Herod Antipas was) tetrarch of Galilee, but had also the government of Judea committed to him by Claudius the emperor, and resided most at Jerusalem, where he was at this time. Three things we are here told he did—

I. He stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church, v. 1. His stretching forth his hands to it intimates that his hands had been tied up by the restraints which perhaps his own conscience held him under in this matter; but now he broke through them, and stretched forth his hands deliberately, and of malice prepense. Herod laid hands upon some of the church to afflict them, so some read it; he employed his officers to seize them, and take them into custody, in order to their being prosecuted. See how he advances gradually. 1. He began with some of the members of the church, certain of them that were of less note and figure; played first at small game, but afterwards flew at the apostles themselves. His spite was at the church, and, with regard to those he gave trouble to, it was not upon any other account, but because they belonged to the church, and so belonged to Christ. 2. He began with vexing them only, or afflicting them, imprisoning them, fining them, spoiling their houses and goods, and other ways molesting them; but afterwards he proceeded to greater instances of cruelty. Christ's suffering servants are thus trained up by less troubles for greater, that tribulation may work patience, and patience experience.

II. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, v. 2. We are here to consider, 1. Who the martyr was: it was James the brother of John; so called to distinguish him from the other James the brother of Joses. This was called Jacobus major—James the greater; that, minor—the less. This who was here crowned with martyrdom was one of the first three of Christ's disciples, one of those that were the witnesses of his transfiguration and agony, whereby he was prepared for martyrdom; he was one of those whom Christ called Boanerges—Sons of thunder; and perhaps by his powerful awakening preaching he had provoked Herod, or those about him, as John Baptist did the other Herod, and that was the occasion of his coming into this trouble. He was one of those sons of Zebedee whom Christ told that they should drink of the cup that he was to drink of, and be baptized with the baptism that he was to be baptized with, Matt. xx. 23. And now those words of Christ were made good in him; but it was in order to his sitting at Christ's right hand; for if we suffer with him, we shall reign with him. He was one of the twelve who were commissioned to disciple all nations; and to take him off now, before he had removed from Jerusalem, was like Cain's killing Abel when the world was to be peopled, and one man was then more than many at another time. To kill an apostle now was killing he knew not how many. But why would God permit it? If the blood of his saints, much more the blood of apostles, is precious in his eyes, and therefore, we may be sure, is not shed but upon a valuable consideration. Perhaps God intended hereby to awaken the rest of the apostles to disperse themselves among the nations, and not to nestle any longer at Jerusalem. Or it was to show that though the apostles were appointed to plant the gospel in the world, yet if they were taken off God could do his work without them, and would do it. The apostle died a martyr, to show the rest of them what they must expect, that they might prepare accordingly. The tradition that they have in the Romish church, that this James had been before this in Spain, and had planted the gospel there, is altogether groundless; nor is there any certainty of it, or good authority for it. 2. What kind of death he suffered: He was slain with the sword, that is, his head was cut off with a sword, which was looked upon by the Romans to be a more disgraceful way of being beheaded than with an axe; so Lorinus. Beheading was not ordinarily used among the Jews; but, when kings gave verbal orders for private and sudden executions, this manner of death was used, as most expeditious; and it is probable that this Herod killed James, as the other Herod killed John Baptist, privately in the prison. It is strange that we have not a more full and particular account of the martyrdom of this great apostle, as we had of Stephen. But even this short mention of the thing is sufficient to let us know that the first preachers of the gospel were so well assured of the truth of it that they sealed it with their blood, and thereby have encouraged us, if at any time we are called to it, to resist unto blood too. The Old-Testament martyrs were slain with the sword (Heb. xi. 37), and Christ came not to send peace, but a sword (Matt. x. 34), in preparation for which we must arm ourselves with the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, and then we need not fear what the sword of men can do unto us.

III. He imprisoned Peter, of whom he had heard most, as making the greatest figure among the apostles and whom therefore he would be proud of the honour of taking off. Observe here, 1. When he had beheaded James, he proceeded further, he added, to take Peter also. Note, Blood to the blood-thirsty does but make them more so, and the way of persecution, as of other sins, is downhill; when men are in it, they cannot easily stop themselves; when they are in they find they must on. Male facta male factis tegere ne perpluant—One evil deed is covered with another, so that there is no passage through them. Those that take one bold step in a sinful way give Satan advantage against them to tempt them to take another, and provoke God to leave them to themselves, to go from bad to worse. It is therefore our wisdom to take heed of the beginnings of sin. 2. He did this because he saw it pleased the Jews. Observe, The Jews made themselves guilty of the blood of James by showing themselves well pleased with it afterwards, though they had not excited Herod to it. There are accessaries ex post facto—after the fact; and those will be reckoned with as persecutors who take pleasure in others' persecuting, who delight to see good men ill used, and cry, Aha, so would we have it, or at least secretly approve of it. For bloody persecutors, when they perceive themselves applauded for that which every one ought to cry shame upon them for, are encouraged to go on, and have their hands strengthened and their hearts hardened, and the checks of their own consciences smothered; nay, it is as strong a temptation to them to do the like as it was here to Herod, because he saw it pleased the Jews. Though he had no reason to fear displeasing them if he did not, as Pilate condemned Christ, yet he hoped to please them by doing it, and so to make an interest among them, and make amends for displeasing them in something else. Note, Those make themselves an easy prey to Satan who make it their business to please men. 3. Notice is taken of the time when Herod laid hold on Peter: Then were the days of unleavened bread. It was at the feast of the passover, when their celebrating the memorial of their typical deliverance should have led them to the acceptance of their spiritual deliverance; instead of this, they, under pretence of zeal for the law, were most violently fighting against it, and, in the days of unleavened bread, were most soured and embittered with the old leaven of malice and wickedness. At the passover, when the Jews came from all parts to Jerusalem to keep the feast, they irritated one another against the Christians and Christianity, and were then more violent than at other times.



[With gratitude to the Christian Classics Ethereal Library for this text.]