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The book of Scripture on which we are about to enter, is called "The Acts of the Apostles;' a title, however, which was not, probably, given to it by the author; for it does not exactly correspond with the design of the work, which appears to have been, not to write a history of the transactions of every one of the apostles, but to give a general account of the first planting of the Christian religion in the world, and to enter no further into the miracles, discourses, and travels of any of the apostles than was necessary for this purpose. They are the transactions of Peter and Paul, principally, which he has selected with this design. Very little is said about any of the other apostles, although, no doubt, they were all alike active in this great work.
This book is professedly written as a continuation of the gospel of Luke, as is manifest from the introduction, and, there is every reason to suppose, by the same author ; being composed in the Greek language, in the same elegant style as that gospel, and having been universally attributed to that evangelist. Luke, it is generally allowed, was a physician, and may therefore be supposed to have had the benefit of some education. In this respect he had an advantage over the other evangelists, who were men of ordinary occupations, and wrote in language which corresponded with their situation in life. It has the same internal marks of being an au. thentic history which are to be found in the gospels. We observe in it the same simple and artless relation of facts, without any comments from the author to recommend them; the same minute detail of particulars in regard to time and place; the same unreserved disclosure of errors and failings in Christians and Christian teachers. Events of a public nature, recorded or referred to in this work, are found to correspond with the accounts left us of those times by Jewish and heathen historians : a circumstance that must give them credibility in the estimation of those who may doubt the character of the author, and which greatly confirms the faith of the believer. But the strongest evidence of the truth and genuineness of this history is derived from the regard that was paid to it by the first Christians, who were themselves witnesses of the transactions which it relates, and therefore proper judges of the degree of credit to which it was entitled. Their opinion upon this subject must decide ours. By them it is referred to as an authentic record, in those few remains of their writings which are come down to our time; nor do they give us the smallest intimation that its authority was ever questioned or disputed. Quotations are made from it on this ground in Clement of Rome, in Ignatius, and Polycarp; men who were contemporary with the apostles, and have been, therefore, called Apostolic Fathers. It is found in all the early catalogues of sacred books, and it was publicly read in the churches of Christians, along with the gospels. Stronger evidence than this of the authenticity of a book of the New Testament it is not possible to give.
Composers of books did not formerly annex dates to their writings, as it has been usual to do in modern times. We cannot, therefore, exactly ascertain at what time this book was written. But it could not be before the close of Paul's first imprisonment at Rome, which happened in the year sixty-three; for to that event the history is brought down; it is not, however, probable that it was much later than that period. Mill and Lardner conclude, after the most careful consideration of the subject," that it was written and published, together with Luke's gospel, in the year sixty-four of the Christian æra, which is reckoned from the birth of Christ, or a little more than thirty years after his ascension ; that is, at a time when great numbers were living who had been witnesses of the transactions here related, and while they were fresh in their memories, and when, therefore, a false account could not fail to be detected and exposed.
“This history contains an account of the choice of Matthias to be apostle in the room of the traitor, of the wonderful and plentiful pouring out of the gift of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and other disciples of Jesus at Jerusalem, at the Pentecost next succeeding his crucifixion, and of the testimony borne by the apostles to his resurrection and ascension, in their discourses, and by many miracles, and various sufferings; their preaching first at Jerusalem, and in Judæa, and afterwards, by themselves or their assistants, in
Samaria : and then to Gentiles in Judæa, and afterwards out of it, as well as to Jews: and of the conversion of Paul, and his preaching, miracles, labours, sufferings, in many cities and countries, parts of the Roman empire, and the polite world, and at length in Rome itself." *
In the first nine chapters we have an account of the preaching of the gospel to the Jews, and of the reception which it met with from that people. In the remaining part of the book we have the history of the publication of it to Gentiles, first in Judæa and afterwards beyond the limits of that country. In the sixteenth chapter the writer joins his name with that of Paul, saying, "immediately after he had seen the vision, we endeavoured to go into Macedonia.” So that it appears that of all the subsequent transactions he was himself an eye-witness. The former part of the volume he had partly from his own knowledge, and partly from the information of others, who had the best opportunities of making themselves acquainted with what he relates.
The first thirty years after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, was a very active period, in which much work was done in propagating the Christian religion, the bare recital of which would probably fill many volumes, and which only a few men of leisure would be able to read. Luke, therefore, writing for the instruction of men in every situation in life, has very wisely confined himself to a brief account of some of the principal transactions, which might be read by all. In consequence of pursuing this design, he has omitted many things about which we are very desirous to be informed.
It is the natural remark of an ancient Christian writer and orator, (Chrysostom,) that Luke leaves us thirsting for more; but he very properly adds, had he written more it could only be a repetition of the same difficulties and dangers which he had recounted before, of imprisonments, tortures, tumults, and deaths. On account of this studied brevity, and the abrupt manner in which he breaks off the history of individuals in several instances, it has been concluded by some that the author meant to write another volume, in which he might continue and complete the history which he had left defective in this. But however desirable such a continuation may seem to us, it does not appear that he had any such design. The truth is, that his object being not to aggrandize individuals, by entering into a minute account of their actions, whether Peter, Barnabus, or Paul, * but to give us an idea of the first planting of the Christian religion, as soon as he had said as much as was necessary for this purpose, he breaks off his history. Thus he drops Paul himself, upon his confinement at Rome, although it appears that he was with him long afterwards, and might have continued his history much further, had he been so pleased, or had he conceived that such a work would be useful. There is no reason, therefore, to conclude, from such circumstances, that the present is an imperfect or incomplete work.
* Lardner, Vol. VI. p. 146.
Of the importance and value of this history it would not be easy to say too much. For it contains an account of the doctrine which was taught by the apostles and first preachers of Christianity, the reasonings and arguments employed to recommend it, the evidence with which it was attended, their sufferings in support of the truth, and the success which attended their labours; particulars, concerning all of which Christians must desire to be well informed; as they must, likewise, of the reasonings and objections of unbelievers, of which it contains a like faithful account.
This history is the best introduction to the epistles, and the surest proof of their authenticity. From the correspondence between the facts mentioned in it with those which are mentioned or alluded to in the epistles of Paul, a learned clergyman of the church of England, (Dr. Paley,) has deduced a clear and satisfactory argument to prove the authenticity of these epistles, and the truth of the history, and, by consequence, the truth of Christianity itself.
For the principal events in the life of Christ we have the evidence of three independent witnesses, or witnesses who wrote without any communication with each other; in which case their united testimony is of much more weight than that of any single individual. By this means, however, the value of a particular history is lessened; for were it mutilated or lost, its place would be supplied by the others. But the present history is rendered peculiarly interesting, by being the only one of its kind : for no other person has given us an authentic account of the same period; so that if any misfortune had befallen this, the loss would have been irreparable. On all these accounts it claims from us the most careful attention.
* Lardner, Vol. VI. p. 147.