Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 79


The Word and the World

Preached 1849

  Frederick W. Robertson

“And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus; and finding certain disciples, he said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost,” etc. - Acts 19:1-2


We consider, to-day, the nineteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, but first we must make some preliminary remarks.

The second missionary journey of St. Paul was done, and he had left Europe for Asia. The object of his travel was threefold. 1. To complete in the temple of Jerusalem the vow which he had begun at Corinth (xviii. 18, 21). 2. To visit Antioch, the mother-church of Gentile Christianity, where his presence was much needed (xviii. 22). 3. To revisit the churches of Galatia, and strengthen those who had been tempted by false teaching in his absence (xviii. 23).

The last two of these objects were connected with one single point of interest. It was the Jewish controversy, which was then at its height. The council of Jerusalem had decided that a Gentile was not dependent for salvation on the Jewish law (xv. 23-29). But another question remained still open: Was a Christian who did not obey the law on the same level as a Christian who did obey it? Was it not a superior religious standing-ground, to add the ritual life to the life of faith?

With this question the whole of the Epistle to the Galatians is occupied. That epistle does not deal with the question, whether the ritual law is necessary for salvation; but with this-whether a Gentile Christian became a higher man than before by a ceremonial life; whether, in St. Paul’s words, “having begun in the spirit,” he could be “made perfect through the flesh.”

At Antioch that question assumed a practical form. The Jewish and Gentile Christians had lived in harmony, until certain zealous ritualists came from Jerusalem, where St. James presided. Then a severance took place. The law-observing disciples admitted these new converts to be Christians, but would not admit their standing in the Church to be equal to their own. They denied their complete brotherhood. They refused to eat with them. A Christian, not observing the ceremonial law, was to a Christian who did observe it very much what a proselyte of the gate was to an ancient Jew.

Two men of leading station yielded to this prejudice, though it was destructive of the very essence of Christianity. These were St. Peter and Barnabas. The “dissimulation,” as St. Paul calls it, of these two apostles suggests two instructive lessons.

The yielding of Barnabas reminds us of the insecurity of mere feeling. “Barnabas was a man of feeling and fine sensibilities. He could not bear to have his relative Mark severely judged (Acts xv. 36-39, and Col. iv. 10). It pained him to the heart to see that Paul, when be first essayed to join Himself to his disciples, was misunderstood (Acts ix. 26, 27).

He was a “son of consolation.” He sold his property to distribute to the Christian poor (Acts iv. 36, 37). He healed many a broken heart. But he wanted just that firmness which men of feeling so often want-the power of standing steadily by a principle.

The unsteadiness of St. Peter exhibits a different truth. It tells that a fall, however it may qualify a man for giving advice to others similarly tempted, does not qualify for future consistency, nor for the power of showing mercy in the highest way. No doubt St. Peter’s fall, after his conversion, peculiarly fitted him for strengthening his brethren. But sin weakens the power of resistance. He who yields once will more easily yield the second time. He who shrunk from standing by his Master found it fearfully easy to shrink from abiding by a principle. Sin indulged breaks down the barriers between good and evil, and turns strength into weakness! And failure does not make men merciful to others. St. Peter is just as hard to the Gentile Christians, expelling them from Christian society for that which he knew to be indifferent, as if he had always been firm in his own integrity. He only can ridge of error and show mercy, who has been “tempted, yet without sin.” This nineteenth chapter is divisible into three chief subjects:


I. The baptism of John’s disciples.

II. The burning of the “Ephesian letters.”

III. The tumult occasioned by the worshippers of Diana,


I. When St. Paul came to Ephesus, he found twelve disciples of John, bearing the name of Christians, but having a very imperfect form of Christianity. Now the baptism of John, which was all these men knew, means the doctrine of John-that cycle of teaching which is briefly symbolized by the chief ritual act of the system. The system of John was contained in a very narrow range of truth. It was such truth as we might have expected from a man who have been so disciplined. It was John’s lot to be born into the world in a period of highly-advanced society; and in that hot-bed of life-fictions, Jerusalem, the ardent mind of the young man found nothing to satisfy the cravings of its desire. He wanted something deeper and truer than the existing systems could afford him. He went to the Sadducee and the Pharisee in vain. He found no life in the Jewish ritual-no assistance from the rabbis. He went into the wilderness to commune with God, to try what was to be learned from Him by a soul in car-nest, without church, ministers, or ordinances. The heavens spoke to him of purity, and the river by his side of God’s eternity. Locusts and honey, his only food, taught him that man has a higher life to nourish than that which is sustained by epicurean luxuries. So disciplined John came back to his countrymen. As might be expected, no elaborate theology formed any part of his teaching. “We want a simpler, purer, austerer life. Let men be real. Fruits worthy of repentance-fruits, fruits, not profession. A new life. Repent.” That was the burden of John’s message.

A preparatory one evidently, one most incomplete in itself It implied the need of something additional, as St. Paul told these converts. “John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people that they should believe on Him who should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.” And none felt more distinctly than John that his was merely an initial work. That was a touching acknowledgment of the subordinate part he had to perform in the construction of the world’s new life. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” The work of John was simply the work of the axe. “The axe is laid to the root of the trees;” to destroy, not to build; to cut up by the roots ancient falsehoods; to tear away all that was unreal; to make a clearance that the light of day might come in. A great work, but still not the greatest.

And herein lay the difference between the two baptisms. John baptized with water, Christ with the Holy Ghost and fire. The one was simply the washing away of a false and evil past; the other was the gift of the power to lead a pure, true life.

This was all that these disciples knew; yet remark, they are reckoned as Christians. They are called “certain disciples”-that is, of Jesus. They knew little enough of Christianity; they had not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost. The doctrine of the Trinity they knew not, nor that of sanctification, nor probably that of the atonement. And yet in the Word of God they are called disciples of Christ.

Let us learn from that a judgment of charity. Let not the religious man be too prone to talk with contempt of a legal spirit. Let him not sneer at “merely moral men.” Morality is not religion, but it is the best soil on which religion grows. He who lives an honest, sincere, honorable life, and has strong perceptions of moral right and moral wrong, may not have reached the highest stages of spirituality, he may “know only the baptism of John;” he may aim as yet at nothing higher than doing his duty well,” accusing no man falsely, being content with his wages giving one coat out of two to the poor; and yet that man, with scanty theology and small spiritual experience, may be a real “disciple” in the school of Christ, and one of the children of the Highest.

Nay, it is the want of this preparation which so often makes religion a sickly plant in the soul. Men begin with abundance of spiritual knowledge; they understand well the “scheme of salvation;” they talk of religious privilege, and have much religious liberty; they despise the formal spirit and the legal spirit. But if the foundation has not been laid deep in a perception of the eternal difference between right and wrong, the superstructure will be but flimsy. I believe it is a matter of no small importance that the baptism of John should precede the baptism of Christ; that is, that a strict life, scrupulous regularity, abhorrence of evil-perhaps even something too austere, the usual accompaniment of sincerity at the outset-should go before the peace which comes of faith in Christ. First the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear. You can not have the harvest first. There is an order in the development of the soul, as there is in the development of the year of nature, and it is not safe to force. Nearly two thousand years were spent in the Divine government in teaching the Jews the meaning of holiness, the separation of right from wrong. And such must be the order of the education of children and of men. The baptism of repentance before the baptism of the Spirit.

The result which followed this baptism was the gifts of tongues and prophecy. On a former occasion I endeavored to explain what is meant by the gift of tongues. It appeared, then, that “tongues” were not so much the power of speaking various languages, as the power of speaking spiritual truths with supernatural and heavenly fervor. This passage favors that interpretation. The apostle was there with twelve new converts. To what purpose was the supposed use of various languages among such a number, who already understood one another? It would seem more like the showing off of a new accomplishment than the humble character of Christian modesty permits. If this gift simply made them linguists, then the miracle was of a temporary and earthly character. But if it consisted in elevating their spiritual intuitions, and enabling them to speak, “not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth, comparing spiritual things with spiritual,” then you have a miracle-celestial indeed, worthy of its Spirit Author. If it were only a gift of languages, then the miracle has nothing to do with us; but if it were the elevating of the natural faculties by God’s Spirit to a higher and diviner use, then we have a marvel and a truth which belongs to all ages. The life is the light of men. Give life, and light follows. Expand the heart, and you enlarge the intellect. Touch the soul with love, and then you touch the lips with hallowed fire, and make even the stammering tongue speak the words of living eloquence.

This was the gift of tongues that followed the reception of the Divine Spirit.


II. The second subject in the chapter is the burning of the “Ephesian letters.”

Ephesus was the metropolis of Asia. Its most remarkable feature was the temple of Diana-one of the wonders of the world. It contained a certain image, misshapen, of a human form, reported by tradition to have fallen from the skies; perhaps one of those meteoric stones, which, generated in the atmosphere, and falling to the ground, are reckoned by the vulgar to be thunderbolts from heaven.

This image represented Nature, the prolific nurse and source of all life, and the worship was a worship of Nature. Upon the base of the statue were certain mysterious sentences, and these, copied and written upon papers and amulets, were known far and wide by the name of “Ephesian letters.” This was the heathen form of magical superstition. But it seems there was a Jewish practice of the occult art besides. They used certain incantations, herbs, and magical formulas, said by tradition to have been taught by Solomon, for the expulsion of diseases and the exorcism of evil spirits.

The state of Ephesus, like that of Corinth and Athens, was one of metropolitan civilization; and it is nothing strange that in such a stage of social existence, arts and beliefs like these should flourish; for there is always a craving in the soul of man for something supernatural, an irrepressible desire for communion with the unseen world. And where an over-refined civilization has choked up the natural and healthy outlets of this feeling, it will inevitably find an unnatural one. The restless spirit of those times, dissatisfied with their present existence, in spite of itself feeling the degradation of the life of epicurean indolence and selfishness instinctively turned to the other world in quest of marvels. We do not wonder to find atheism and abject superstition co-tenants of the same town or the same mind. We do not marvel that in the very city where reasonable. Christianity could scarcely find a footing, a mob could be found screaming for two hours, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” that when men had “not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost,” wise men and men in authority should be believers in “the image which fell down from Jupiter.” Ephesus was exactly the place where Jewish charlatans and the vendors of “Ephesian letters” could reap a rich harvest from the credulity of skeptical voluptuaries.

It is difficult to know what to say about this Oriental magic. Shall we say that it was all imposture? or account for its success by the power of a highly-excited imagination? or believe that they were really making use of some unknown powers of nature, which they themselves in ignorance supposed to be supernatural? Little can now be decided. That the magicians themselves believed in their own art is plain, from the fact of the existence of these costly “Ephesian letters,” and scientific “curious books,” which had apparently reached the dignity of an elaborate system; and also from the fact that some of them, as the seven sons of Seeva, believed in Christianity as a higher kind of magic, and attempted to use its formula, as more efficacious than their own. “We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth.” Had they been only impostors, they would have taken Paul for an impostor too.

Here was one of those early attempts, which in after ages became so successful, to amalgamate Christianity with the magical doctrines. Gnosticism was the result in the East, Romanism the result in the West.

But the spirit of Christianity brooks no amalgamation. The essence of magic consists in this: the belief that by some external act-not connected with moral goodness, nor making a man wiser or better-communication can be insured with the spiritual world; and the tutelage of God or some superior spirit be commanded for a mortal. It matters not whether this be attempted by Ephesian letters, amulets, charms, curious books-or by sacraments, or by Church ordinances or priestly powers-whatever professes to bring God near to man, except by making man more like to God, is of the same spirit of Antichrist.

The spirit-world of God has its laws, and they are unalterable. They are such as these: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall I see God;” “Blessed are the merciful-the peacemakers-the meek-the poor in spirit ;” “If any man will do His will, he shall know;” “if a man love Me he will keep My words: and My Father will love him, and We will come unto him. and make our abode with him.” This is Christianity. There is no way of becoming a partaker of “the powers of the world to come,” except by having the heart right with God. God’s presence, God’s protection, is the privilege of the humble, the holy, the loving. These are the laws of the kingdom of God’s Spirit, and no magic can reverse them. The contest was brought to an issue by the signal failure of these magicians to work a miracle-the man possessed leaped upon the exorcisers, and they fled wounded, upon which there was great consternation in Ephesus. The possessors of curious books came, confessed their guilt, and burnt them with their own hands in the apostle’s presence.

You will observe in all this the terrible supremacy of conscience. There was struck a chord deep in the moral nature of these men, and it vibrated in torture. They could not bear their own secret, and they had no remedy but immediate confession. It is this arraigning accuser within the bosom that compels the peculator, after years of concealed theft, to send back the stolen money to his employer, with the acknowledgment that he has suffered years of misery. It was this that made Judas dash down his gold in the Temple, and go and hang himself. It is this that again and again has forced the murderer from his unsuspected security in social life, to deliver himself up to justice, and to choose a true death rather than the dreadful secret of a false life. Observe how mightily our moral nature works-for health and peace, if there be no obstruction; but for disease and torture, if it be perverted. But, anyhow, it works, and with living, indestructible force, as the juices of vigorous life, if obstructed, create and feed gigantic disease.

Consider, in the next place, the test of sincerity furnished by this act of burning the Ephesian letters. First of all it was a costly sacrifice. They were valued at fifty thousand pieces of silver. In those days, copies were not multiplied by printing; and the possessor of a secret would take care not to multiply it. Rarity created costliness. The possession of one such book was the possession of a fortune. Then, again, there was the sacrifice of livelihood. By these books they got their living. And a man who had lived to thirty or forty years of age in this mode of life was not young enough to begin the world again with a new profession. It was to throw themselves almost into beggary. Moreover, it was the destruction of much knowledge that was really valuable. As in the pursuit of alchemy real chemical secrets were discovered, so it can not be doubted that these curious manuscripts contained many valuable natural facts. To burn them was to waste all these-to give the lore accumulated for years to the winds.

Once more: it was an outrage to feeling. Costly manuscripts, written with curious art, many of them probably the heirlooms of a family, many which were associated with a vast variety of passages in life, old feelings, old teachers and companions, these were to be committed mercilessly to the flames. Remember, too, how many other ways there were of disposing of them. Might they not be sold, and the proceeds “given to the poor?” Might they not at least be made over to some relative who, not feeling any thing wrong in the use or possession of them, would not have his conscience aggrieved? Or might they not be retained, the use of them being given up, as curious records of the past, as the treasure-stores of so much that was beautiful and wise?

And then conscience arose with her stern, clear voice. They are the records of an ignorant and guilty past. There must be no false tenderness; the sacrifice must be real, or it is none. To the flames with them, till their ashes are strewed upon the winds, and the smoke will rise up to heaven a sweet savor before God.

Whoever has made such a sacrifice as this-and every real Christian in the congregation in some shape or other has-will remember the strange medley of feeling which accompanied the sacrifice. We should err if we expected such a deed to be done with feelings entirely single. There is a mixture in all such sacrifices. Partly fear constrained the act, produced by the judgment on the other exorcists; partly genuine remorse; partly there was a lingering regret as leaf after leaf perished in the flames; partly a feeling of relief, and partly a heavy sense of loss in remembering that the work of years was obliterated, and that the past had to be lived a fresh as a time wasted; partly shame, and partly a wild tumult of joy, at the burst of new hope, and the prospect of a nobler life. We can not, and dare not, too closely scan such things. The sacrifice was made, and He who knows the mixture of the earthly and the spiritual in His creatures’ hearts doubtless accepted the sacrifice.

There is no Christian life that has not in it sacrifice, and that alone is the sacrifice which is made in the spirit of the conflagration of the “Ephesian letters,” without reserve, without hesitation, without insincere tenderness. If the slaveholder, convinced of the iniquity of the traffic in man, sells the slaves on his estate to the neighboring planter, the mark of sincerity is wanting; or if the trader in opium or in spirits quits his nefarious commerce, but first secures the value of all that remains in his warehouse or in his ships, again there is a something which betokens the want of a heart true and honest; or if the possessor of a library becomes convinced that certain volumes are unfit for his shelves, immoral, polluting the mind of him that reads them, and yet can not sacrifice the brilliant binding and the costly edition without an equivalent, what shall we say of these, men’s sincerity?

Two things marked these Ephesians’ earnestness-the voluntariness of their confession, and the unreserved destruction of these records and means of evil. And I say to you, if there be a man here before me with a sin upon ]his heart, let him remember conscience will arise to do her dreadful work at last. It may be when it is too late. Acknowledgment at once, this is all that remains for him to relieve his heart of its intolerable load. If he has wronged a man let him acknowledge it and ask forgiveness; if he has defrauded him of his due, or kept him from his rights, let him repair, restore, make up; or, if the guilt be one with which man intermeddleth not, and of which God alone takes cognizance, on his bended knees this night, and before the sun of to-morrow dawn, let him pour out the secret of his heart, or else, it may be that in this world, and in the world to come, peace is exiled from his heart forever.


III. We shall consider, thirdly, the sedition respecting Diana’s worship. First under this head let us notice the speech of Demetrius-in which observe:

1. The cause of the slow death which error and falsehood die: shot through and through, they still linger on. Existing abuses in Church and State are upheld because they are intertwined with private interests. The general good is impeded by private cupidity. The welfare of a nation, the establishment of a grand principle, is clamored against because destructive of the monopoly of a few particular trades. The salvation of the world must be arrested that Demetrius may continue to sell shrines of Diana. This is the reason why it takes centuries to overthrow an evil, after it has been proved an evil.

2. The mixture of religious and selfish feelings. Not only “our craft,” but also the worship of the great goddess Diana. Demetrius was, or thought himself sincere; a man really zealous for the interests of religion. And so it is with many a patriotic and religious cry. “My country”-“my church”-“my religion”-it supports me. “By this craft we have our wealth.”

3. Numbers are no test of truth. What Demetrius said, and the town-clerk corroborated, was a fact-that the whole world worshipped the great goddess Diana. Antiquity, universality, popularity, were all on her side; on the other, there were only Paul, Gaius, Aristarchus. If numbers tested truth, Apollos in the last chapter need not have become the brilliant outcast from the schools of Alexandria, nor St. Paul stand in Ephesus in danger of his life.

He who seeks Truth must be content with a lonely, little-trodden path. If he can not worship her till she has been canonized by the shouts of the multitude, he must take his place with the members of that wretched crowd who shouted for two long hours, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” till truth, reason, and calmness were all drowned in noise.

Let us notice the judicious speech of the town-clerk, or chamberlain more properly, in which observe-

1. The impression made by the apostle on the wiser and calmer part of the community. The Asiarchs, or magistrates, were his friends. The town-clerk exculpated him, as Gallio had done at Corinth. Herein we see the power of consistency.

2. The admitted moral blamelessness of the Christians. Paul had not “blasphemed” the goddess. As at Athens, he had not begun by attacking errors, or prejudices, or even superstitions. He preached truth, and its effect began to be felt already, in the decline of the trade which flourished by the sale of silver models of the wondrous temple-a statistical fact, evidencing the amount of success. Overcome evil by good, error by truth. Christianity-opposed by the force of governments, counterfeited by charlatanism, sneered at by philosophers, cried down by frantic mobs, coldly looked at from a distance by the philosophical, pursued with unrelenting hatred by Judaism, met by unions and combinations of trades, having arrayed against it every bad passion of humanity-went swiftly on, conquering and to conquer.

The continental philosophers tell us that Christianity is effete. Let this narrative determine. Is that the history of a principle which has in it seeds of death? Comes that from the invention of a transient thought of man’s, or from the Spirit of the everlasting ages?