We have here a short account of a long conference which Paul had with the Jews at Rome about the Christian religion. Though they were so far prejudiced against it, because it was every where spoken against, as to call it a sect, yet they were willing to give it a hearing, which was more than the Jews at Jerusalem would do. It is probable that these Jews at Rome, being men of larger acquaintance with the world and more general conversation, were more free in their enquiries than the bigoted Jews at Jerusalem were, and would not answer this matter before they heard it.
I. We are here told how Paul managed this conference in defence of the Christian religion. The Jews appointed the time, a day was set for this dispute, that all parties concerned might have sufficient notice, Acts 28:23. Those Jews seemed well disposed to receive conviction, and yet it did not prove that they all were so. Now when the day came,
1. There were many got together to Paul. Though he was a prisoner and could not come out to them, yet they were willing to come to him to his lodging. And the confinement he was now under, if duly considered, instead of prejudicing them against his doctrine, ought to confirm it to them; for it was a sign not only that he believed it, but that he thought it worth suffering for. One would visit such a man as Paul in his prison rather than not have instruction from him. And he made room for them in his lodging, not fearing to give offence to the government, so that he might do good to them.
2. He was very large and full in his discourse with them, seeking their conviction more than his own vindication. (1.) He expounded, or explained, the kingdom of God to them,—showed them the nature of that kingdom and the glorious purposes and designs of it, that it is heavenly and spiritual, seated in the minds of men, and shines not in external pomp, but in purity of heart and life. That which kept the Jews in their unbelief was a misunderstanding of the kingdom of God, as if it came with observation; let but that be expounded to them, and set in a true light, and they will be brought into obedience to it. (2.) He not only expounded the kingdom of God, but he testified it,—plainly declared it to them, and confirmed it by incontestable proofs, that the kingdom of God by the Messiah’s administration was come, and was now set up in the world. He attested the extraordinary powers in the kingdom of grace by which bore his testimony to it from his own experience of its power and influence upon him, and the manner of his being brought into subjection to it. (3.) He not only expounded and testified the kingdom of God, but he persuaded them, urged it upon their consciences and pressed them with all earnestness to embrace the kingdom of God, and submit to it, and not to persist in an opposition to it. He followed his doctrine (the explication and confirmation of it) with a warm and lively application to his hearers, which is the most proper and profitable method of preaching. (4.) He persuaded them concerning Jesus. The design and tendency of his whole discourse were to bring them to Christ, to convince them of his being the Messiah, and to engage them to believe in him as he is offered in the gospel. He urged upon them, ta peri tou Iesou—the things concerning Jesus, the prophecies of him, which he read to them out of the law of Moses and out of the prophets, as pointing at the Messiah, and showed how they had all had their accomplishment in this Jesus. They being Jews, he dealt with them out of the scriptures of the Old Testament, and demonstrated that these were so far from making against Christianity that they were the great proofs of it; so that, if we compare the history of the New Testament with the prophecy of the Old, we must conclude that this Jesus is he that should come, and we are to look for no other.
3. He was very long; for he continued his discourse, and it should seem to have been a continued discourse, from morning till evening; perhaps it was a discourse eight or ten hours long. The subject was curious—he was full of it—it was of vast importance—he was in good earnest, and his heart was upon it—he knew not when he should have such another opportunity, and therefore, without begging pardon for tiring their patience, he kept them all day; but it is probable that he spent some of the time in prayer with them and for them.
II. What was the effect of this discourse. One would have thought that so good a cause as that of Christianity, and managed by such a skilful hand as Paul’s, could not but carry the day, and that all the hearers would have yielded to it presently; but it did not prove so: the child Jesus is set for the fall of some and the rising again of others, a foundation stone to some and a stone of stumbling to others. 1. They did not agree among themselves, Acts 28:25. Some of them thought Paul was in the right, others would not admit it. This is that division which Christ came to send, that fire which he came to kindle, Luke 12:49, 51. Paul preached with a great deal of plainness and clearness, and yet his hearers could not agree about the sense and evidence of what he preached. 2. Some believed the things that were spoken, and some believed not, Acts 28:24. There was the disagreement. Such as this has always been the success of the gospel; to some it has been a savour of life unto life, to others a savour of death unto death. Some are wrought upon by the word, and others hardened; some receive the light, and others shut their eyes against it. So it was among Christ’s hearers, and the spectators of his miracles, some believed and some blasphemed. If all had believed, there had been no disagreement; so that all the blame of the division lay upon those who would not believe.
III. The awakening word which Paul said to them at parting. He perceived by what they muttered that there were many among them, and perhaps the greater part, that were obstinate, and would not yield to the conviction of what he said; and they were getting up to be gone, they had had enough of it: “Hold,” says Paul, “take one word with you before you go, and consider of it when you come home: what do you think will be the effect of your obstinate infidelity? What will you do in the end hereof? What will it come to?”
1. “You will by the righteous judgment of God be sealed up under unbelief. You harden your own hearts, and God will harden them as he did Pharaoh’s’; and this is what was prophesied of concerning you. Turn to that scripture (Isa. 6:9, 10), and read it seriously, and tremble lest the case there described should prove to be your case.” As there are in the Old Testament gospel promises, which will be accomplished in all that believe, so there are gospel threatenings of spiritual judgments, which will be fulfilled in those that believe not; and this is one. It is part of the commission given to Isaiah the prophet; he is sent to make those worse that would not be made better. Well spoke the Holy Ghost by Esaias the prophet unto our fathers. What was spoken by JEHOVAH is here said to be spoken by the Holy Ghost, which proves that the Holy Ghost is God; and what was spoken to Isaiah is here said to be spoken by him to their fathers, for he was ordered to tell the people what God said to him; and, though what is there said had in it much of terror to the people and of grief to the prophet, yet it is here said to be well spoken. Hezekiah said concerning a message of wrath, Good is the word of the Lord which thou hast spoken, Isa. 39:8. And he that believes not shall be damned is gospel, as well as, He that believes shall be saved, Mark 16:16. Or this may be explained by that of our Saviour (Matt. 15:7), “Well did Esaias prophesy of you. The Holy Ghost said to your fathers, that which would be fulfilled in you, Hearing you shall hear, and shall not understand.” (1.) “That which was their great sin against God is yours; and that is this, you will not see. You shut your eyes against the most convincing evidence possible, and will not admit the conclusion, though you cannot deny the premises: Your eyes you have closed,” Acts 28:27. This intimates an obstinate infidelity, and a willing slavery to prejudice. “As your fathers would not see God’s hand lifted up against them in his judgments (Isa. 26:11), so you will not see God’s hand stretched out to you in gospel grace.” It was true of these unbelieving Jews that they were prejudiced against the gospel; they did not see, because they were resolved they would not, and none so blind as those that will not see. They would not prosecute their convictions, and for this reason would not admit them. They have purposely closed their eyes, lest they should see with their eyes the great things which belong to their everlasting peace, should see the glory of God, the amiableness of Christ, the deformity of sin, the beauty of holiness, the vanity of this world, and the reality of another. They will not be changed and governed by these truths, and therefore will not receive the evidence of them, lest they should hear with their ears that which they are loth to hear, the wrath of God revealed from heaven against them, and the will of God revealed from heaven to them. They stop their ears, like the deaf adder, that will not hearken to the voice of the charmer, charm he ever so wisely. Thus their fathers did; they would not hear, Zech. 7:11, 12. And that which they are afraid of in shutting up their eyes and ears, and barricading (as it were) both their learning senses against him that made both the hearing ear and the seeing eye, is, lest they should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. They kept their mind in the dark, or at least in a constant confusion and tumult, lest, if they should admit a considerate sober thought, they should understand with their heart how much it is both their duty and their interest to be religious, and so by degrees the truth should be too hard for them, and they should be converted from the evil ways which they take pleasure in, to those exercises to which they have now an aversion. Observe, God’s method is to bring people first to see and he and so to understand with their hearts, and then to convert them, and bow their wills, and so heal them, which is the regular way of dealing with a rational soul; and therefore Satan prevents the conversion of souls to God by blinding the mind and darkening the understanding, 2 Cor. 4:4. And the case is very sad when the sinner joins with him herein, and puts out his own eyes. Ut liberius peccent, libenter ignorant—They plunge into ignorance, that they may sin the more freely. They are in love with their disease, and are afraid lest God should heal them; like Babylon of old, We would have healed her, and she would not be healed, Jer. 51:9. This was the sin. (2.) “That which was the great judgment of God upon them for this sin is his judgment upon you, and that is, you shall be blind. God will give you up to a judicial infatuation: Hearing you shall hear—you shall have the word of God preached to you over and over—but you shall not understand it; because you will not give your minds to understand it, God will not give you strength and grace to understand it. Seeing you shall see—you shall have abundance of miracles and signs done before your eyes—but you shall not perceive the convincing evidence of them. Take heed lest what Moses said to your fathers should be true of you (Deut. 29:4), The Lord has not given you a heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day; and what Isaiah said to the men of his generation (Isa. 29:10-12), The Lord has poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and has closed your eyes.” What with their resisting the grace of God and rebelling against the light, and God’s withdrawing and withholding his grace and light from them,—what with their not receiving the love of the truth, and God’s giving them up for that to strong delusions, to believe a lie,—what with their wilful and what with their judicial hardness, the heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing. They are stupid and senseless, and not wrought upon by all that can be said to them. No physic that can be given them operates upon them, nor will reach them, and therefore their disease must be adjudged incurable, and their case desperate. How should those be happy that will not be healed of a disease that makes them miserable? And how should those be healed that will not be converted to the use of the methods of cure? And how should those be converted that will not be convinced either of their disease or of their remedy? And how should those be convinced that shut their eyes and stop their ears? Let all that hear the gospel, and do not heed it, tremble at this doom; for, when once they are thus given up to hardness of heart, they are already in the suburbs of hell; for who shall heal them, if God do not?
2. “Your unbelief will justify God in sending the gospel to the Gentile world, which is the thing you look upon with such a jealous eye (Acts 28:28): therefore seeing you put the grace of God away from you, and will not submit to the power of divine truth and love, seeing you will not be converted and healed in the methods which divine wisdom has appointed, therefore be it known unto you that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, that salvation which was of the Jews only (John 4:22), the offer of it is made to them, the means of it afforded to them, and they stand fairer for it than you do; it is sent to them, and they will hear it, and receive it, and be happy in it.” Now Paul designs hereby, (1.) To abate their displeasure at the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles, by showing them the absurdity of it. They were angry that the salvation of God was sent to the Gentiles, and thought it was too great a favour done to them; but, if they thought that salvation of so small a value as not to be worthy of their acceptance, surely they could not grudge it to the Gentiles as too good for them, nor envy them for it. The salvation of God was sent into the world, the Jews had the first offer of it, it was fairly proposed to them, it was earnestly pressed upon them, but they refused it; they would not accept the invitation which was given to them first to the wedding-feast and therefore must thank themselves if other guests be invited. If they will not strike the bargain, nor come up to the terms, they ought not to be angry at those that will. They cannot complain that the Gentiles took it over their heads, or out of their hands, for they had quite taken their hands off it, nay, they had lifted up the heel against it; and therefore it is their fault, for it is through their fall that salvation is come to the Gentiles, Rom. 11:11. (2.) To improve their displeasure at the favour done to the Gentiles to their advantage, and to bring good out of that evil; for when he had spoken of this very thing in his epistle to the Romans, the benefit which the Gentiles had by the unbelief and rejection of the Jews, he says, he took notice of it on purpose that he might provoke his dear countrymen the Jews to a holy emulation, and might save some of them, Rom. 11:14. The Jews have rejected the gospel of Christ, and pushed it off to the Gentiles, but it is not yet too late to repent of their refusal, and to accept of the salvation which they did make light of; they may say No, and take it, as the elder brother in the parable, who, when he was bidden to go work in the vineyard, first said, I will not, and yet afterwards repented and went, Matt. 21:29. Isa. the gospel sent to the Gentiles? Let us go after it rather than come short of it. And will they hear it, who are thought to be out of hearing, and have been so long like the idols they worshipped, that have ears and hear not? And shall not we hear it, whose privilege it is to have God so nigh to us in all that we call upon him for? Thus he would have them to argue, and to be shamed into the belief of the gospel by the welcome it met with among the Gentiles. And, if it had not that effect upon them, it would aggravate their condemnation, as it did that of the scribes and Pharisees, who, when they saw the publicans and harlots submit to John’s baptism, did not afterwards thereupon repent of their folly, that they might believe him, Matt. 21:32.
IV. The breaking up of the assembly, as it should seem, in some disorder. 1. They turned their backs upon Paul. Those of them that believed not were extremely nettled at that last word which he said, that they should be judicially blinded, and that the light of the gospel should shine among those that sat in darkness. When Paul had said these words, he had said enough for them, and they departed, perhaps not so much enraged as some others of their nation had been upon the like occasion, but stupid and unconcerned, no more affected, either with those terrible words in the close of his discourse or all the comfortable words he had spoken before, than the seats they sat on. They departed, many of them with a resolution never to hear Paul preach again, nor trouble themselves with further enquiries about this matter. 2. They set their faces one against another; for they had great disputes among themselves. There was not only a quarrel between those who believed and those who believed not, but even among those who believed not there were debates. Those that agreed to depart from Paul, yet agreed not in the reasons why they departed, but had great reasoning among themselves. Many have great reasoning who yet do not reason right, can find fault with one another’s opinions, and yet not yield to truth. Nor will men’s reasoning among themselves convince them, without the grace of God to open their understandings.