Click here to get started today!
Almighty God, is there not a rest provided for them that love thee a long Sabbath day without cloud and without night? Hast thou not told us that far beyond there is home-land? By these promises art thou taking us forward day by day, that we may enter into light and enjoy the warmth and the peace of eternal summer. Because of this comfort we are lifted up above all distresses; we speak of them as for the time only; we say, they come and go, and there is no stay in them; we fear them not; they are dying shadows, flying clouds, specks that vanish whilst we look upon them. We could not say this but for the promise of eternal life and endless joy service without weariness, attention unbroken to things Divine, amounting to rapture and all heavenliness of joy. This is thy gift in Christ Jesus. We are not walking from the light into darkness, but from darkness into light; wherefore we comfort one another with these words of thine: we say, "the road will not be long; another mile or two at the most, and the journey will be done; a few more years, and earth will be behind us a spot undiscernible in space." So are we taken forward, step by step, a day at a time; feeling warmer today than yesterday, because the Sabbath life is nearer. Surely this is thy voice; surely this is the light above the brightness of the sun that makes men blind at noonday, that afterward they may receive their inner and spiritual sight. This is thy gift, O Christ! meeting every man on the road, and smiting him to the ground that there he may leave his pride and rise up a humble child led by the hand. We bless thee for all these views of things unseen. We thank thee with swelling hearts of thankfulness because of these touches of a hand that may be felt but never seen. We bless thee with hymn upon hymn yea, in multiplied psalm for this religious light that looks with holy contempt upon all the charms and vexations of time, and draws itself forward by the mighty welcomes and gospels of heaven. Help us to know what we are, what we can do, what is thy purpose concerning us; and may we with all diligence and burning love gird ourselves to our work, and be found at the last willing, obedient, active servants, waiting for one advent the Lord; and the solution of all things, the coming of the Lord. Meanwhile, we have thy Book, but how seldom have we eyes to see it. We have thy written Word, but how rarely do we pass through the iron gate into the inner spirit and the sacred liberty. This is our blame; we have not because we ask not, or because we ask amiss. O that we had hearkened unto thy statutes and walked in the way of thy commandments, and held our ex" pectant life steadily towards the rising of the sun. Then had our peace flowed like a river, and our righteousness had been as the waves of the sea, and all the hurried week of the world's tumult would have been calmed by the peace of thine own Son. Meanwhile, we see thy providence passing before us day by day. We see that the axe is laid unto the root of the tree. Again and again we are startled by visions of righteousness and of sure and holy judgment amongst the lives of men. If we are perplexed by mystery, we are comforted by many a revelation. We see that thou art at war with the wicked man. If thou dost lift him up a little, it is to throw him down more heavily; if thou dost apparently show him favour, it is that he may the more surely know and feel the judgment of thy righteousness. We see that the righteous man is still loved of God and held fast in his right hand, educated by manifold discipline and instruction, but always being prepared for the high estate reserved in Christ Jesus for all whose hearts have lost their self-will in simple faith. We pray for one another, again and again, for our life is one daily need; our course is full of pain; we cannot do without thee one little day. Keep us, and we shall be kept; let thine hand be upon us, and we shall be as crowned kings. Regard the old and the young alike; thou canst make the old young; thou canst make the young maturer. Thou canst find for us water in the wilderness; show us the dripping of honey amongst hard rocks. The Red Sea is nothing before the rod of the Lord, and the wilderness is but the beginning of a garden when the Lord's love and light are in our hearts. So take us every one spotted, crooked, self-spoiled only now: broken-hearted, joyous, penitent whatever our condition be lay open wide the door wider still set it open thyself, thou Loving One; and all shall enter in, and falling down at thy feet, low before the Saviour's Cross, shall cry bitterly that they ever grieved thine heart. Amen.
1. Brethren [Paul's address to his kinsmen in the mother tongue] and fathers [Sanhedrists], hear ye the defence which I now make unto you [lit. "hear of me my present defence to you"].
2. And when they heard that he spake unto them in the Hebrew language they were the [still ( Act 21:40 )] more quiet: and he saith,
3. I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, at the feet of [the Jewish teachers sat upon an elevated chair, Vit. Svn., p. 165 f.] Gamaliel, instructed according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers [ i.e., Mosaically orthodox. Paul's defence is not based upon traditions, Galatians 1:14 , or Pharisaism, Php 3:5 ], being zealous [G., "a zealot"] for God, even as ye all are this day.
4. And I persecuted this way [ Act 9:2 al.] unto the death [the persecutor's intent], binding and delivering into prisons both men and women.
5. As also the high-priest [of that time: still living] doth bear me witness, and all the estate of [G. "Eldership:" probably syn. with Sanhedrim] the elders: from whom also I received letters unto the brethren, and journeyed to Damascus, to bring them also which were there unto Jerusalem in bonds, for to be punished.
6. And it came to pass that [Acts 9:3-8 ; Acts 26:13 ff.] as I made my journey, and drew nigh unto Damascus, about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light [seen on the background of noon] round about me.
7. And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
8. And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest.
9. And they that were with me beheld indeed the light, but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.
10. And I said, What shall I do, Lord? And the Lord said unto me, Arise, and go unto Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do.
11. And when I could not see for the glory of that light [In. Acts 1:18 ; Psalms 104:2 ; 1Ti 6:16 ], being led by the hand of them that were with me, I came into Damascus.
12. And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well reported of by all the Jews that dwelt there,
13. Came unto me, and standing by me [sitting blind, unable to open eyelids] said unto me, Brother Saul, receive thy sight. And in that very hour I looked up on [G. "unto"] him.
14. And he said, The God of our fathers hath appointed [ Act 3:20 ] thee to know his will and to see the Righteous One [ Jesus, on whom God's righteous volition to save bases itself, Romans 3:21 , ff.; 2Co 5:21 ], and to hear a voice from his mouth.
15. For thou shalt be a witness for him unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard.
16. And now why tarriest thou? Arise and be baptized, and [symbolically] wash away thy sins, calling on His name [ 1Co 6:11 ].
17. And it came to pass that when I had returned to Jerusalem [sequel, not related at 9:26], and while I prayed in the temple, I fell into a trance,
18. And saw him saying unto me, Make haste, and get thee quickly out of Jerusalem: because they will not receive of thee testimony concerning me.
19. And I said [Paul would have made his début as the "Converted Persecutor." But Christ forbade], Lord, they themselves know that I imprisoned and beat in every synagogue them that believed on thee.
20. And when the blood of Stephen, thy witness, was shed, I also was standing by, and consenting, and keeping the garments of them that slew him.
21. And he said to me, Depart: for I ["I," emphatic] will send thee forth far hence unto the Gentiles [among Gentiles].
We wonder what speech Paul will now make. Will he enter into some learned theological argument and confound his hearers by his heavenly eloquence? What will he say under circumstances partly novel, severely critical? He will surely bring to bear the pressure of his whole intellectual force; he will make this the supreme occasion of a lifetime, and will contribute to it all that he has ever learned of earthly wisdom, and all that he has ever known of heavenly or spiritual experience. We await the opening of those eloquent lips with feverish expectancy, for this is a critical hour. The audience is, in many respects, unlike any other audience the Apostle has ever addressed, and he is now in the metropolis of the land. What is his defence? He tells over again the story of his conversion, and tells nothing more. The sublimity of that act is without parallel in the Christian ministry. Here is no elaborate argument, no penetrating criticism, no show of erudition, but a simple, child-like statement of facts; the application being to this effect: "Men, brethren, and fathers, after this, what could I do?" This is the key that opens the lock; that is the answer to the problem. "I myself actually passed through these experiences, and having passed through them, what other could I do than I have done? Have I not acted under the pressure of a Divine predestination?" We wondered how the old story of the conversion was bearing the wear and tear of Apostolic life; the answer is before us. Having gone down into the city and into the wilderness, and over the sea; having been beaten and stoned and imprisoned, and having had heaped upon him all obloquy, the Apostle ends just where he began: by telling, not the story of another man, but the simple experience of his own soul. The story is just the same. Sometimes imagination plays havoc with memory; sometimes we begin to wonder if our own life is true; there comes a time when we say, "Surely we were in a trance then; that cannot be just as we once thought it was." Imagination throws its own colours upon the simplest facts of early life, and we begin to regard those facts as part of an impalpable and mocking dream. This is particularly the case with the religious imagination; it leads us to disown our early selves; it teaches us to regard our first prayers as passionate and sentimental rather than as sober and vital. The religious imagination, when not kept under severe control, trifles with facts and makes us think that even history itself is only a coloured cloud. It is interesting, therefore, to find that Paul, after all the manifold and peculiar experience of a missionary's life, turns up at this moment and repeats the old story exactly as it occurred in the earlier part of his life. Paul lived in his own experience; Paul placed both his feet on the rock of facts which had occurred in his own knowledge. He was not without poetic fire; he was not destitute of religious imagination; but to what height soever his head soared, he always kept his feet firmly upon the rock of things which had happened to himself. That is the perpetual vindication of Christianity. Christianity is not to be defended by mere argument, by the able use of elegant terms and subtle phrases; Christianity does not challenge the world to a battle of opinions. Christianity is an incarnation; it stands up in its own living men, and says, "This is my work. If you want me to talk with you mere opinions and views and theories, you can answer me back wisely or unwisely as you may suppose; but the controversy which I have with the world is this: produce your men and I will produce mine." The tree is known by its fruit.
So the Apostle Paul continually told what Jesus Christ had done for him. If the Church would stand firmly to this one point, there need be no controversy. This speech of the great Apostle does not refer to something that happened once for all in one man's life alone; this is but the specimen speech; every Christian man can make a similar speech for himself, sealed with the authority of his own consciousness and experience. That is the only sermon the world wants from any of us. Stand up and say where you were going, what you were, and what you are now. If in an unfortunate mood you refer to some other man's case, you may be perplexed by some cross inquiry as to the order of the facts; but if you keep to your own self your own very self there is no answer, unless the world should add to the vulgarity of its rudeness this additional aggravation: that it calls you a speaker of falsehoods. It never occurred to the Apostle that he was relating anything that ought to tax the imagination of his hearers; about the whole recital there is the tone of a sober annalist, the tone of a man who is simply telling what he saw, heard, felt, and enjoyed. The recital of those occurrences he called his "defence." The defence of Christianity is not a book but a man not an argument but a life. Christians are the defence of Christianity. Of course we shall be told about the shortcomings of Christians, their defects, their eccentricities, their sins. So be it. We may admit the impeachment in every item, and still the solid truth remains that Christians are the defence of Christianity. The taunt admits of easy and destructive retort. You tell me that London is a healthy city! Come with me to the hospitals today and let us walk upstairs, and downstairs, and along the corridors, and call in at every room in every ward, and I will show you every disease known amongst men in this climate. And yet we are told that London is a healthy city! Come with me from house to house throughout the metropolis, and in nearly every house I will find you a complaining voice someone is sick, someone feels pain. And yet they tell us that London is a healthy city! Let their hospitals confound them; and let all the invalids at home combine in one well-attested refutation of this optimistic view of London as the healthiest great city in the world. That kind of argument would not be admitted on sanitary questions; yet the very men, who would probably reject it upon the ground of a physical kind, might be tempted to use it in relation to Christians. There are sick Christians, Christian cripples, bad men in many respects, weak men in all respects, faulty men; and yet it remains true that Christians are the defence of Christianity; and even the weakest Christian may have about him that peculiar sign manual of heaven, which makes him greater than the greatest born of women outside the circle described with blood.
Here, then, is the plain line along which we must move when called upon for our defence. We must not ask our friends to contribute a library out of which we may cull the many evidences which establish the Christian argument; but, standing forward on stair-top, or in the marketplace, or in the Church, let us say, "Men, brethren, and fathers, hear ye my defence" then will come your own life-story. We do not need much poetic genius to dictate on the spot a hundred varying tales, each of which would be an invincible argument on the side of Christianity. "Men, brethren, and fathers," says some poor old mother in the Church, "hear ye my defence. I was left in difficulty and trouble and sorrow: I knew not where to turn: all heaven was a cloud, all the earth was a swamp; I sat down and felt the pain of utter helplessness, when suddenly I heard a voice saying unto me, 'Pray to thy Father in heaven.' I looked and saw no man; and whilst I was looking the voice said again, 'Pray to thy Father in heaven.' I never had prayed just in the right way; but, at that moment, my heart dissolved in softness, and my eye brightened with hope, and I fell down, and, crying unto heaven, asked the Lord to show me what he would have me to do. Suddenly there was a great light around me, and a hand took hold of mine, and ever since that day I have felt that I am not an orphan, or a lost thing, or a forsaken life, but under shepherdly and fatherly superintendence; I feel that the very hairs of my head are all numbered." Sweet old mother! sit down; the philosophers can never answer that; bless thee! that is a speech to which there is no reply. Have you no tale to tell about the dark days, the friendless days; the sudden suggestion that stirred the mind; the inspiration like a flash of light at midnight; the key you found in the darkness when you put your hand out which has unlocked every gate and every door ever since? Stand up and tell your tale. Let me not hear your opinions and your views and conjectures and speculations keep them to yourself; but when we call for your defence read out of the pages of your heart. Every man has his own defence, his own particular vision or view of -God. What we want to hear from each man is what he himself knows. Keep to facts they are the noblest poetry; keep to facts they are the blossoms that no cold wind can blow down, but must mature into luscious and nutritious fruit. Herein is the strength of some of us; herein is the secret of our ardent preaching. Were we to preach what we have read, were we to preach from the purely intellectual and argumentative point, we are keen enough in spiritual hearing to detect noises in the air, challenging us at a thousand points; but standing back in our own selfhood, we see it all, and so complete is our consciousness and experience that it never occurs to us any man can doubt our word. This will be the case with Paul. When he argued about the resurrection, he said with infinite simplicity, "If it were not so, we ourselves would be found liars before God, and that is impossible." The sweet truthfulness, the simple, beautiful self conviction of soul in that testimony! We need no certificate after that; it comes so freshly, in a certain sense so naively, and with such a heavenliness of simplicity as to be in itself a very powerful argument. It is possible to account for the greatest changes in life; it is not always possible to complete an argument; it is not always possible to put into words the feelings which have made us what we are. There are silent defences; there are defences which only speak as the light speaks, and that is by wordless shining; nevertheless, the man himself knows in his own heart the truth of what he would say if words were equal to the occasion. If you have any doubt in your own heart, it must be about yourself and not about the truth. Why do men fly upon the truth, as if that were to blame, instead of flying upon their own incomplete experience, and saying, "The fault is in me"? If you are not a converted man a man whose soul has been turned right round then blame your own want of conversion, and not the truth which you nominally profess. A converted man is one who is completely turned right round in every act, motive, impulse, and purpose; a converted man is as one who was travelling east, but is now marching straight towards the west. You could tell what turned you round it was a death, a grief, a reading of the Book, a sermon, a singular providence, the hearing of a hymn, the touch of a child, the feeling of an inward agony. That is your defence; it is not mine; it is not another man's, probably, but it is yours, just as your heart is yours, and your hand. Your heart and hand have something in common with every other human heart and hand, yet there is a specialty that makes each yours and no other man's. It is so in Christian experience. Every man has his own view of God, his own conception of the Cross, his own speechless explanation of the inexplicable mystery of the Atonement of Christ. We want more personal experience in the Church. Herein the idea of some Christian communions is a sound conception of Christian fellowship and communion, namely: that we should meet one another periodically, and audibly say what God has done for the soul. The practice may easily be abused; it is not our business to show how Christian privileges may be degraded, but how they may be turned to the highest advantage; and, judging by apostolic history and precedent, nothing is so convincing, so satisfactory, as for the soul to tell its own story, in its own words, and when the soul does that, the best of all sermons will be preached. We can say, "We were as sheep going astray, but now we are returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls." Each can say, who has known Christ's ministry in the soul, "Once I was blind; now I see." Each can say, "I have altered my standard of judgment, my whole estimate of things; the world used to be a great place to me, now I can hardly see it: my eyes are filled with another glory a glory that excelleth; and now when I look down upon the earth, I see in it nothing but types, shadows, symbols of better things; once I thought time long, now it is only a short hot breath; once I thought life a daily pain, now it is a daily expectation. Death is abolished. O death! O death! grim death where is thy sting, thou defeated foe, thou overthrown one?" What wrought this? "It was wrought thus: I was going from Jerusalem to Damascus, and at noonday, in a light which put out the sun, Jesus of Nazareth met me, talked to me, spoke to my very soul; and if any man were to deny that, he would be a liar, not I. I know it; it is my life's life; it is the fact which is the keystone of my life's bridge; it is the stone that gives unity to the present and hope for the future. Men, brethren, and fathers, hear ye my defence! My defence is not an argument which you can answer, but a fact to which I can swear."
Almighty God, we are thy children, and would make a child's speech unto thee, every one in his own need and in his own sin. Every one of us has a need of his own and also a sin which he cannot lay at the door of others. Thou knowest us within and without yea, thou dost know our thought before it is fully formed, and thou dost hear the word whilst it is yet but a thought. We cannot run away from the glory of thy light; there is no spot which it does not brighten. We cannot escape God "Thou, God, seest me." All things are naked and open unto thine eyes; there is no concealment, there is no darkness, there is no sure hiding. We stand in the light of thine eye all the day and all the night; this is our joy as well as our fear. Thou knowest us altogether. Thou knowest what we are, what we sprang from, what are our temptations and peculiarities, and thou wilt judge righteous judgment. In wrath thou wilt remember mercy, and in thy sword is measure; thou wilt not forget that we are but dust. We have come with the new song in our mouth, because of the new mercy that is in our life. The song is not first: it is second. We cannot overtake the Lord; we cannot outrun the Almighty. The mercy is always first; the song comes too long afterward. Thy mercy is a great mountain, a shining sun, a river full of water and infinite comfort yea, it is all things beautiful and rich and good in one sublime donation. Because of the Lord's mercies we are not consumed; because of the Lord's compassion we have yet a lot and portion in the land and a memorial amongst the living. This is the Lord's daily goodness; this is the perpetual miracle of love: behold! this also is part of the redeeming ministry of heaven. Thou dost redeem us with blood every day; the Cross is still here: we see it, touch it, read its meaning so full of love and bow down before its sacrifice as the one thing needed to deliver us from the infinite guilt and burden of sin. Keep us near the Cross; there is healing in that tree, there is safety in that refuge, there is hope in that light. Keep us closer still to the tree on which the Saviour died. We would plant no tree of our own; we would make no refuge of our own invention; we would flee unto the Lord's own Cross, and, knowing no other answer to thy law, we would rest there, and there find the peace which passeth understanding. Thou hast given each of us work to do, and thou hast given us strength to do it with. Help each of us to know his exact duty and to do it, not with one hand, but with both hands, and with both hands earnestly, as if the whole struggle depended upon us; and then, having done what in us lies, may we find the rest of good service and sacred industry in the' blessing of heaven. We thank thee that we lift up our eyes beyond the dust; we thank thee for the voices within, which will not let us rest in a mean life; we are glad because of the discontent which afflicts us with holy trouble; it is our immortality, it is the presence of the Divine One in our heart, it is the inspiration of God. Prevent us from settling down upon the emptiness of this earth and the uselessness of the honours and gifts of dying time. We seek a city out of sight. We would declare plainly that we are but pilgrims and can only tarry for an hour and then rise to pursue the mysterious journey. Help us whilst using the earth not to abuse it, to handle it right wisely with the prudence of heavenly wisdom the large-mindedness which comes of Divine inspiration. For all thy love, we bless thee. We put out our hand towards thee in token of homage; we bow down before the Lord, not with servile fear, but with an abasement of soul which comes of overflowing gratitude and unspeakable reverence and love. Continue thy goodness to us for the few miles more of life's little journey. Be with those who are far down the hill not far from the gate which opens upon the acre of the dead. Be with those who are on the top of the hill, shouting in the fulness of their strength, and show them that their way now lies gently downward. Be with all who are struggling towards the top often weary, out of breath, longing to lie down, willing to find a grave even on the youth-side of life's great hill. Give them courage, newness of hope, confidence in God, and may they rise to pursue the journey like men who have been refreshed at the heavenly banquet. Show us again and again somewhat of life's mystery that we may be sober, and that we may chasten ourselves and know that we are but men who can read only a little of thy will and who soon forget what they read. Then touch our hearts secretly and surprise us into such little joys and passing delight as may recover us from irreligious dejection, and give us hope that one day we shall stand amongst those on whose bright faces there is no sign of sorrow. The Lord give us hold of the upper world; the Lord take our hearts up into heaven and feed them there and send them back to the earth to despise its enticements, but to do its work with willing obedience. Comfort our sick ones at home; give them Sabbath twice over in the quiet of their own chambers; whilst they wonder that they are not in their accustomed place, may the whole house in which they dwell become doubly sacred to them because of spiritual presences and ministrations. Cause their health to return and their hope to be re-established, and bring them back to us again longing to make up for work left undone. The Lord to whom the sea belongs look upon all who are now upon it; give them good voyaging, sleep at night, joy by day, health all the twenty-four hours, and bring them to their desired haven singing a new song, blessing the Providence which saved them. Be with all our dear ones in the colonies, in the distant parts of the earth amongst strange people speaking unfamiliar tongues. Why these separations? Why these divisions? May we be chastened and sanctified by the influence arising from such thinking and doing good, hope that through the blood of the everlasting covenant the blood precious in the sight of heaven we shall all be gathered together into one bright heaven the summer-land, unvisited by winter, never touched by chilling frost the land of song and liberty, of purity and service, the mysterious land, the home of the blessed. Amen.
22. And they gave him audience unto this word [ Act 21:28 ]; and they lifted up their voice, and said, Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live.
23. And as they cried out, and threw off their garments, and cast dust into the air [stoning preliminaries],
24. The chief captain commanded him to be brought into the castle, bidding that he should be examined by scourging, that he might know for what cause they so shouted against him.
25. And when they had tied him up with [G. "before," i.e., ready for the thongs, the scourges], Paul said unto the centurion that stood by, Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned?
26. And when the centurion heard it. he went to the chief captain, and told him, saying, What art thou about to do? for this man is a Roman.
27. And the chief captain [tribune] came, and said unto him [for he would know that a native of Tarsus had not, as suck, the right of citizenship]. Tell me, art thou [Gr. "thou," emphatic used in contemptuous surprise] a Roman? And he said, Yea.
28. And the chief captain answered, With a great sum of money [G. "capital"] obtained I this citizenship [Dio. Cass. lx. 17 and al. relate the frequent sale of the citizenship at this epoch an oft-ridiculed abuse to fill the exchequer]. And Paul said [answering the contempt], But I am a Roman born [hereditary citizenship nobler than that obtained by purchase. Moreover, Paul's ancestor probably obtained it by the exercise of some noble magistracy].
29. They then which were about to examine [scourge] him straightway departed from him: and the chief captain also was afraid, when he knew that he was a Roman and because he had [was in the position of having] bound him.
30. But on the morrow, desiring to know the certainty wherefore he was accused of the Jews, he loosed him [the haughty tribune had left him bound when the scourging was intermitted, his pride, in spite of his fear ( Act 22:29 ), not allowing him to go back upon his own act], and commanded the chief priests and all the council to come together, and brought Paul down, and set him before them.
The Point of Secession
Paul calls this speech his defence. That defence we have already examined line by line. We were struck by the thought that the defence is not an intellectual argument, but a personal experience. We ventured to lay down the doctrine that personal testimony is the best defence alike of providence and redemption. Each man must say what he knows, and not concern himself with things that lie beyond his consciousness and outside his own experience. An interesting point occurs on the review of the defence, namely, that our conversion does not cause us to forget our past life. Paul recounts his earlier years with painfulness of detail and in tones which must have caused his heart no little suffering. Not one incident is forgotten; nothing is kept back of all the dreary tale. The past is not a dead-letter in the memory of the converted man. He looks at it that he may receive instruction from it; he remembers the hole of the pit out of which he was digged; he says it does him good to go back to that mire and pit and look at beginnings, for it chastens his soul, it shows him new aspects of the goodness and the power of God, it lifts his prayers to a higher level, it chastens into noblest and strongest refinement all his desires and aspirations. The past is always to be the present, but only in a sense not to rule over us, not to throw us into deep and nightly dejection, but to show on the other side the miracle of Divine love, the completeness of Divine deliverance, the perfectness of Divine wisdom. It would be convenient to forget the past; it would, in many cases, be pleasant to have no past. But the days do not die in the nights: they are but planted in that dark soil to grow up and bear fruit on the shining morrow. Still, life would become intolerable if we could not deal in some other way with the past. Christianity deals intelligently with all our past career. It takes it up line by line, examines it in the light, it sets it down item by item, it adds it up into its total significance and value, and then it says as an accusing, as a charge of guilt upon the soul, as a pitiless creditor, "Thou art for that disabled and dispossessed." The past is still there a book to be read, a figure to be looked at, a caution from which to learn wisdom; but in its tormenting force, in its stinging accusativeness, it is no longer the tyrant of our life. That is the mystery of faith, that is the mystery of forgiveness: that the things are still there, as things that did actually occur, but their moral relation to us is wholly and for ever changed. Who could stand a daily accumulating hell behind him? God says, "Not any coal shall be added to that fire: the fire itself shall be put out, but the black ashes shall be full of meaning to the man who was once scorched by the fury of their flames." We are thankful for this; it is a very gospel, it is a complete and glorious deliverance; but for this, every day would bring its own burden, and the days all added up into one total would burn us with unquenchable fire. This is let us say to our souls over and over again the mystery of pardon, the miracle of forgiveness; and if we are so constituted that we cannot forgive ourselves, yet is that self-unforgivingness, when properly managed and administered, an agent of real discipline and health to the soul that submits to it. Paul then, you observe, kept his past steadily before him, right away up from his birth and birthplace to the time when he bent his back for the last laceration all things before him clearly, quotably, yet not accusingly. That our past should always be at our right hand, and yet have no power to stop our prayers, is the triumph of God; that all the past should be near us, touching our very neck, and yet have no power of strangulation this is the mystery of saving grace. We are thereby saved from suicide; no man could stand the pressure of all his yesterdays; if he were to open his mind to that pressure and let the full storm of his guilty days break upon his soul, he would be turned to despair or to self-slaughter. Here again blessed be God! here is the power that enables us to escape from the past, and turn the future through its suggestive and sobering influence into a better time. This is the only right way of dealing with the past. Do not escape it by any species of intoxication; do not drown your conscience; do not fill your ears with the unholy din that will silence the tones of the accusing angel; you must fight that battle out upon holy ground. The aim is not to secure by narcotics what can only be secured by forgiveness. He who shuts his ears and says there is no noise is a foolish man; he who closes his eyes when his house is on fire and says, "I do not see the flame, and therefore there is none," is a madman. The past must be intelligently dealt with yea, I will say philosophically that is to say, its very heart must be pierced, its innermost quality must be known, and it must be dealt with on its merits and throughout the whole circle of its scope, and the only power known to me which can do that is the Cross and blood of Christ. "The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin." I would begin every sermon with that sentence; in every sermon that should be the loudest note; every discourse should conclude with that solemn gospel.
The immediate point of the 22nd verse is hardly of less consequence. Paul was listened to attentively until he came to a certain word. What was that word? You find it in the 21st verse: "I will send thee," said the Lord, "far hence unto the Gentiles. And they gave him audience unto this word, and then lifted up their voices and said, Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live." How some words madden men single words, short words, but words pregnant with history and moral suggestion. We are not offended by the word "Gentiles," otherwise we should be offended by our own name, for we indeed belong to the Gentile tribes; but the ancient Jews were the enemies of the Gentiles I am not speaking of modern Jews, who have lost nearly everything that makes a Jew, but of the ancient Jews and they have written hatred in their books against the Gentiles; they have written oaths that they themselves would rather not have any Messiah than a Messiah that had a kindly feeling towards the heathen: they would only have a Messiah for themselves; and the books of the ancient Jews are full of cursing and swearing and bitterest language against all men who are not, or were not, Jews according to their definition of the term. This explains the fury of the mob: so long as Paul had a tale to tell they listened to him. Paul a wise rhetorician kept the burning word until the very last, but like a man skilled in speech, he got it quite out. The very place of this word in the great speech is a stroke of genius; it is the last word, it is all there, but the moment it was uttered it was like a spark thrown into a magazine of gunpowder. It is curious to observe in the New Testament the points at which audiences break away from the speakers. Take the case of Jesus Christ himself; one of his sublimest speeches you will find in John vi. In the course of that speech he becomes intensely spiritual; in the 66th verse of the chapter we read, "From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him." What time was that? It was the time of spiritual revelation. So long as there were parables to hear, and loaves and fishes to be divided, and miracles to be gazed upon and wondered at, there was no turning away; but when the Lord became intensely spiritual in his teaching, profoundly doctrinal, when he said, "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me.... It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.... No man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father," then they left him. This is a point which is often forgotten in estimating the influence of Christ's ministry. We are often told, "Preach like Jesus Christ, and the people will hear you gladly;" whereas the truth is that the moment Jesus Christ left the elements of teaching the merely introductory and alphabetic points of teaching the moment he came to deal with the real and eternal purpose of his teaching, the people left him. That must be the result of spiritual preaching everywhere. The world does not want spiritual preaching; the Church cannot understand spiritual preaching. If we were to speak spiritually, shaking off all accent and colour and mere form, the churches would be empty by necessity: we are obliged to keep on the outside, and show the great stones of the temple; we dare not go inside and touch the altar. The Athenians left Paul at another point. They listened to him with more or less interest when he made his great speech upon Mars' Hill, but the moment he began to speak about the resurrection of the dead, "some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter," with an ill-suppressed sneering laugh in their tone. They did not want to hear about the resurrection of the dead; they wanted philosophy, speculation, high discourse, poetry. So long as Paul kept himself to the exposition of a kind of theosophy, the Athenians listened to him, and thought he was an extraordinary man, notwithstanding the novelty of his appearance; but when he spoke of the resurrection of the dead, they mocked. In this particular instance another point of departure is chosen. The Jews listened unto Paul so long as he related incidents and confined himself to matters which were, more or less, of a purely Jewish kind; but the moment he said "Gentiles," they went mad, cried out, cast off their clothes, and threw dust into the air, and were in a fury of resentment.
The great teaching of this review is that all men part company with their teachers at certain points. The point is not always the same: some remained with Jesus, notwithstanding the spirituality of his teaching; some heard about the resurrection of the dead with comparative interest, for they themselves had some leaning in the direction of that doctrine; others could hear about the Gentiles with mental composure; there was nothing in the word itself to unbalance their equilibrium. But the lesson is, that there are points at which we all fly off. There are points which would dissolve this assembly in a moment, to which we dare not, or may not, refer. Men always like to listen to themselves preaching; it is not the teacher who preaches, but the people who, accepting his monotonous and indisputable platitudes, are themselves preaching through him, and the more energetic he is the more comfortable they are. But who dare speak the new word, start the new thought, break away into the new direction, shake off the accepted, and enter neglected paths, and carve, under what is believed to be Divine inspiration, new and broader paths of progress? Look at this particular case: what was the disease under which these people were suffering? The eternal disease of humanity, which is narrow-mindedness. It is distressing, were it not for a kind of sad comedy that runs through it and puckers it into a kind of unholy laughter, to see how we rebuke narrow-mindedness in others, and practise it with religious fidelity ourselves. I know not how the difficulty is to be met. The moment the Jews heard the word "Gentiles" they would hear no more of Apostolic eloquence. The man who could entertain a kindly interest towards the Gentiles was a "fellow" "not fit to live." That was called religious earnestness, religious zeal, contention for the faith once delivered to the saints! Are there any against whom we cry out? Have we learned Christ's great lesson: "Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold; them also I must bring"? Have we left the ninety-and-nine accepted ideas in the wilderness and gone out after that which is lost, until we find it? Are we shepherds or bigots? men of progress or men of retrogression? I do not ask for new truth, for there is none and can be none; I do not ask for a "new theology," for that were a contradiction in terms theology, properly understood, is an eternal quantity. I ask for great-heartedness all but infinite heartedness, that will listen to all kinds of people, hoping that in the course of their talk they will drop the one word which the great Teacher can take up and magnify into a gospel. Save us! O Saviour of the world! our Lord Christ Jesus, from the spirit that listens for the other word, which we can work up into an indictment. If any man has a prophecy, let us hear it; if any man has a saying, let us listen to it; if any man has a new reading of the old Book, let us hear him. A tone may be a lesson; an emphasis may be equal to a revelation. We lose so much when we are narrow, unsympathetic, bigoted. The only condition of mind which Jesus Christ can approve is a condition of all hopeful love. Is that a mere sentiment? Far from it, for nothing can burn with so intense a wrath against all evil as holy love. Indifference cannot be angry. Love has two looks like the mysterious wheel in the great ancient darkness one look of benignity, warmth, hopefulness, and benediction towards all who want to be better and to pray the large prayer; and the other look that strikes off the hoops of iron from the wheels of the enemy the piercing, blighting look, the face of holy anger that will have no truce, or parleying, or compromise with any child of darkness. Let us take care how we condemn the narrow-mindedness of men who lived nineteen centuries since, and then practise it in some other form ourselves. Let our prayer be for larger roads, swifter progress, ampler light, more courage, more hope.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Acts 22". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26