Gateway to the Classics: St. Mark by J. Paterson Smyth
St. Mark by  J. Paterson Smyth


Good Tidings of Great Joy

Acts VIII. 5 to end.

"The fruit of the Spirit is . . . joy."

A BOUT whom was last Lesson? What was he? Name another famous deacon? This chapter almost entirely about Philip. When Stephen was struck down Philip took his place. What great trouble came on the Church after Stephen's death? Persecutors led by whom? (v.  3). How did God bring good out of this trouble? (v.  5). What lesson for us? Probably the Christians thought it was hard on them, and wondered that God should allow it—perhaps some began to doubt Christ's constant care. Not till long afterwards could they see God's good purpose—the spreading of the Gospel. So with many of our troubles. We see no reason for them. We doubt and grumble and perhaps only in the Kingdom above shall we ever understand the good purpose of God in them.

§ 1. Baptizing into the Kingdom

Now, tell me the whole story of Philip and Simon Magus? (Question briskly on vv.  6-24.) Prepare questions carefully to bring out the important points. Remember O. T. case like Simon? Another in N. T.? (Exodus vii. 11, etc.;  Acts xix. 13-19). Do you think Simon's were real miracles?

What great difference in Philip's which made the people believe? (a) Very simple—no ranting or incantations or magical rites. (b) Unselfish, not for gaining money or "giving out that himself was some great one." (c) The whole teaching that accompanied his miracles appealed to the best instincts of the people. He preached Christ  unto them (v.  5). Christ's love, holiness, unselfishness, service of man, Christ's Death and Resurrection to give hope to the world. He preached Christ's dearest project for the world, "the Kingdom of God" (v.  12)—the kingdom on earth, whose laws were to be the laws of Heaven, whose subjects were to be pure and noble and unselfish—in some degree like the self-sacrificing Christ Himself. That was the ideal of the Church on earth. Man that was made in the image of God seldom falls so low that he cannot admire such a kingdom. Many of these Samaritans entered that kingdom. How? (v.  12). Have you entered it? How? Take care to be faithful in it. Did Philip say it did not matter about Baptism if they only believed? (vv.  12-38). Who commanded Baptism? Therefore, must never think lightly of it—never neglect it. What was the result of founding the "Kingdom of God" on Samaria? (v.  8). "Much joy" for the glad tidings and the blessed, helpful miracles. That is always result of real religion. Remember this, as we have to refer again to it at close.

§ 2. Confirmation

Now see Collect in Confirmation Service. The bishop says: "We make our humble supplications unto Thee for these Thy servants, upon whom, after the example of Thy holy Apostles,  we have now laid our hands." Where do we find this "example"? See vv.  14-18. See also ch.  xix. 5, 6. The deacons and the lay Christians preached and baptized, but to the Apostles the higher powers belonged. Perhaps this was necessary to keep the Church from splitting up into separate bodies of Christians, owning no allegiance to the Apostles, and not connected with the mother Church in any way.

The Church has kept up the custom: the bishop is still a centre of unity—no clergyman can be ordained, no child confirmed without him. This central authority helps to prevent divisions. Is Confirmation in our day only a mere form? Certainly not. We believe that through the power of God in the Church the grace of the Holy Ghost is conferred in Confirmation by the imposition of the bishop's hands. Therefore we speak of a child going not merely "to confirm" his promises and vows, but to be confirmed, i.e., strengthened,  by the power of the Holy Ghost for the struggles of the Christian life. Confirmation is to us the completing of Holy Baptism. Therefore look forward solemnly and hopefully to it by-and-by.

(In senior classes it may be pointed out that St. Peter (v.  14) was not the sender, but sent by the Apostles. No trace in the history of the early Church of the theory of Supremacy of Peter. The supreme rule belonged to no one man, but to the entire apostolate. So today the rule of the Church belongs to the entire episcopate, not to any individual bishop, whether in Rome or Canterbury or Armagh.)

§ 3. The Joy of Religion

Eastern picture. A hot road, white in the blinding sunlight—lonely—silent—deserted. Now a cloud of dust, a trampling of camels and horses, and a splendid chariot with its guards and outriders dashing along, and in it a black negro man, gorgeously dressed, earnestly reading a parchment roll. Who and what was he? Where had he been? What for? Therefore a Jew either by conversion or by descent.

Black Jews found long afterwards. (There is now in Cambridge a strange old red goatskin roll of part of Hebrew Bible that has been found in the synagogue of the Black Jews of Malabar in 1806.) See the puzzled look of the black reader. What is he reading? Whom does it refer to? What puzzles him? Probably had heard in Jerusalem of Stephen's death and excitement about Christ. Just in a fit state for learning about Christ. And just then suddenly, "by chance" as it seems to him, his carriage overtakes a solitary man, who startles him with a strange question. What? Tell me their conversation.

What a great deal depended on that "chance" meeting, both for the eunuch and probably for his nation. Probably first message of the Gospel to Africa. Was it really chance? Why not? (v.  26). So with many of our "chance" meetings and events. Often a man's whole future is altered through his chance coming home by one road rather than another, meeting and talking "by chance" to some man—reading "by chance" some book, hearing "by chance" some sermon. (Give instances if possible.) Sometimes, looking back on such "chances" afterwards, one feels solemnly that many chance things must be as much guided by God as was Philip's meeting with the eunuch. At any rate, all "chances" will be blessed to him whose life is being lived under the guidance of God.

Something else to be learned. Here is an untaught man puzzling over the Scriptures—like Luther when he found Bible in monastery at Erfurt—not content to throw them aside when difficult to understand. He was very  eager to know about God. Not many people very  eager. A great many care a little  about religion —enough to make them go to church, and keep from grave evil. But the man that really wins the happiness and blessing of religion is the man who is true to the little light he has, who says, "If there be a God, I am determined  to find Him—if His blessing be possible to win, I am determined  to win it." Of such was this eunuch. God always helps such. Like Cornelius. (ch.  x). The path of duty is the path towards finding Christ. The desire to learn and willingness to be taught are the great preparations for conversion. Therefore this Ethiopian at once  decides for Christ. It may endanger his high position. No matter: "What doth hinder me," etc. (v.  37). Evidently Baptism formed part of Philip's teaching to him, as of Peter (ch.  ii. 38).

So he went on his way rejoicing,  and we see him no more. But we in thought follow him with interest to his own land. Tradition says he converted Queen Candace and many of her people —perhaps he prepared the way for the later period when the nation became Christian, and the prophecy was fulfilled—"Ethiopia shall stretch," etc. (Psalms lxviii. 31). But all we know with certainty is that he went on rejoicing. So does every boy and girl and man and woman who is really living for our Lord. That would be the cure for gloom and fret everywhere. (See v.  8.) "Much joy in that city." Why? Look at cities to-day, with their crowds, their poor, their grasping struggle and worry of life. How make them glad? Try Philip's plan. Want to teach you, children, that the secret of purest, highest joy is true membership in the "Kingdom of God." Young people often think religion gloomy. Why? Perhaps because older Christians have gloomy faces, and find fault with fun and games and amusements. Never be misled by these gloomy, mistaken people, who have not enough of knowledge of Christ's character to make them rejoice in religion. To be members of Christ's Kingdom will but increase all your pleasures and purify all your life. "Much joy" is always the result of true religion, of beautiful lives. Does God like to see you, boys and girls, at games and pleasures, romping and rejoicing like the lambs in the field. What only does He forbid you? Yes. Sin, which would spoil your lives. He longs to see beautiful souls and beautiful deeds, and He wants to see you very happy. (See Lesson VI on St. Mark.)

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