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And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples.
Saul, a persecutor
Saul was an educated young man, and that he should engage in the work of persecution strikes us as anomalous and unnatural. In young men we naturally expect a frank concession of freedom to think and generous and chivalrous impulses. We are not much surprised when we find intolerance as men advance in life, for age is conservative, and may be narrow and bigoted. Young men are often sceptical and unsettled in their notions; they question the correctness of opinions long held to be true, and employ themselves in adjusting new discoveries to received truths. But the very nature of this process tends to make them liberal, for they cannot deny to others the liberty they claim for themselves. Old men, however, are confirmed believers or unbelievers; and hate to be opposed or unsettled. Hence we are not surprised that the Sanhedrin should be composed in a great part of “elders,” nor that the principal functionaries of the “holy office,” should be men of advanced years. Yet few men, young or old, have been so furious in persecution as was Saul (Acts 8:3; Acts 22:4; Acts 26:9-44.26.11; Galatians 1:13; 1 Timothy 1:13; 1 Corinthians 15:9).
I. The prevalence of persecution. The manner in which new views have been received is one of the most remarkable things in history. The public tears of Pericles were necessary to save Aspasia, suspected of philosophy; but all his eloquence could not save Anaxagoras for having taught that there was an intelligent cause of all things. Socrates was put to death for teaching the same thing. Aristotle only saved his life by flight in order, as he said, to save the Athenians a new crime against philosophy. Plato was twice thrown into prison, and once sold as a slave. Galileo was imprisoned for maintaining that the sun is the centre of the universe. The Saviour was crucified, and in almost every country His religion has encountered opposition and secured a triumph only as the result of a baptism of blood and fire.
II. Its causes.
1. The war of opinion. A man’s opinions are a part of himself, and become as dear as life or liberty. They are the measure of his reputation and influence, and are the result of all his experience and studies. To attack them is, therefore, to attack him; to overthrow them is to take away all that constitutes his claim to notice while living, or to remembrance when dead. This remark has additional force, if the matter is connected with religion. To attack this is to assail that which must be dearest of all to the heart of man, inasmuch as it may leave man in a world indisputably wretched with no hope of a better. Religious opinions, therefore, have been among the slowest to make progress; the strife in regard to them has been the most bitter; and freedom of religious speech has been among the last of the victories secured by the conflicts of past ages.
2. Vested interests. There are institutions, endowments, orders of men, customs and usages, that grow out of forms of doctrine. All the religions of ancient and most of modern times were sustained by law. Rome indeed recognised those of other nations, but then it was a principle that while each country recognised the rest, it allowed no attack on its own. When, therefore, Christianity attacked all forms of idolatry, it arrayed against itself all the malice of a mighty priesthood, and all the power of the State; and the result is well known.
3. The sanction given by religion to the corruptions of the human heart. The plan of the Prince of darkness has been to secure this for the indulgence of passion. Hence to attack vice, as true Christianity always does, and to carry a pure morality over the world, was to array against itself the power of all the religions of the earth.
4. The fixed aversion of the heart by nature to the holiness which God requires of man; to the scheme of salvation by the Cross, which is an “offence” to one class, and a “stumbling block” to another; to the doctrines of human depravity and of a just and changeless retribution, which grate hard on the natural feelings and are repulsive to human pride.
III. Its effects.
1. It has become, as the result of these trials, a settled principle that nothing which is good and true can be destroyed by persecution, but is established more firmly and spread more widely. It has led men to look with favour on what is persecuted; created a conviction that a right has been violated; awakened sympathy, stimulated inquiry in regard to the persecuted sentiments; and made the persecuted more firmly attached to their principles, and more eloquent in their defence. It has long since passed into a proverb that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Imperial power and every device of human ingenuity has been resorted to in order to extinguish it; and it may be assumed now that if Christianity is to become extinct in the world, it must be by some other means than by persecution.
2. In like manner, persecution becomes a test of the reality of religion. It is not, indeed, a direct demonstration of its truth. The advocates of other systems have borne persecution patiently, but although this does not prove that they were suffering for the truth, yet it may be still true that the mass of men will somehow see in the endurance of Christian martyrs an argument for the Divine origin of their religion. The number has been so great--they have borne their sufferings so patiently--they have met death so calmly--so many of them have been distinguished for intelligence--and so many of them were witnesses of what they affirmed to be true, that the general impression on mankind is that sufferings so varied, so protracted, so meekly borne, could be only in the cause of truth.
3. The results of persecution are worth all which they cost. The results of the imprisonment of Galileo, of the sufferings of Columbus, etc., are more than compensated for. And the happiness which has been conferred on the world by Christianity since the fires of persecution were first kindled, and that which the world will yet enjoy when it shall be diffused over all the earth have been and will be more than a compensation for all the sufferings of all the martyrs. (A. Barnes, D. D.)
The conversion of great men
As it is in the exquisite mystery of printing, the great difficulty lies in the composing and working of the first sheet, for by that one many thousands are easily printed; so the work of the ministry is to convert great men.
In uno Caesare multi insunt Marii
In one great man are many inferiors contained. When the great wheel of the clock is set a-moving, all the inferior wheels will move of their own accord. How zealous was St. Paul about the conversion of Sergius Paulus, the deputy of the country! He knew well enough that to take such a great fish was more than to catch many little ones, though the least is not to be despised. (Calamy.)
A remarkable conversion
This incident occurred many years ago in the heart of the Black Forest in Germany. It was at the dead of night. The place was lighted by torches, which cast a ghastly glare through the surrounding gloom. Savage looking men, fully armed, were sitting round in a circle. One of their number was holding up something in his hand. These men were robbers. That evening they had robbed a stagecoach. According to their custom, they were now engaged in selling by auction among themselves the articles that had been stolen. Travelling bags, different articles of clothing, and various other things had been disposed of in this way. Last of all a New Testament was held up. The man who acted as auctioneer introduced this “article” with some wicked remark, which threw the company into a roar of laughter. One of the company suggested, as a joke, that the auctioneer should open the book and read a chapter, as he said, “for their edification.” This motion was seconded, and carried unanimously. Opening the book at random, he began to read with an air of mock solemnity. As he went on reading, laughs and jokes were heard all round. While this was going on one man in the company, the oldest member of the gang, and who had been their ringleader in all that was evil, became silent. He sat with his hands clasped on his knees, lost in deep thought. It happened that the passage the auctioneer had just read was the very one he had heard read thirty years before, at family prayer in his father’s house, on the morning of the day when he left that home for the last time. In a moment all that scene came back to his memory. He thought of his father and mother, and brothers and sisters, and all that had made that home so sweet and happy to him then. Since leaving home he had never opened a Bibles never offered a prayer, and never had a thought of God or of eternity. But now, in a moment, his soul seemed to wake from that long sleep of thirty years. He thought of God; he thought of his wicked life, and was filled with sorrow and shame and fear. He was so occupied with these thoughts and feelings, that he took no notice of what was going on around him, till one of his comrades clapped him rudely on the shoulder, and said, “Now, old dreamer, what will you give for that book? you need it most of all, for you have been the biggest sinner among us.” “That’s true,” said the startled robber. “Give me that book, I’ll pay you the full price for it.” The next day the robbers scattered, and went into the neighbouring towns and villages to sell what they had got by robbing. The man with the Testament also went away. But he did not wish to sell anything. He sought a quiet, lonely place. There he remained for several days, reading that wonderful Book of God, shedding bitter tears over his sins, and earnestly praying for God’s pardoning grace. God heard his prayer. He found pardon and peace in believing, and became a new man. After awhile he went into one of the nearest towns to see a minister of the gospel. There he heard that the gang of robbers to which he had belonged had all been taken prisoners. He told the minister, whom he went to see, all about his previous life, and the change he had experienced. Then he gave himself up to the officers of justice. The rest of the gang were all put to death. But his free confession and evident repentance saved his life. He was put in prison, indeed; but, as he continued to behave like a truly penitent man, he was soon pardoned and released, and taken into the employment of one of the princes of that neighbourhood, and he proved a blessing to those about him all his days. (Christian Age.)
“Murder will out”
In one sense, if not in the common understanding of that phrase. If hatred is in a man’s heart, hatred will show itself in a man’s words and acts; for “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” And if hatred does show itself in a man’s words and acts, it is because hatred is in his heart. It is of no use for a man to say that his harsh and bitter words don’t mean anything; that they are only on the surface. They do mean a great deal; they mean that under the surface he is fully as bad as he shows himself above the surface. And as it is with men so it is with children. When a child stamps and screams with anger, and “just wishes nurse or teacher was dead,” that little one is breathing out the threatenings and slaughter which are in that little one’s heart. Parents and guardians ought to have this truth in mind in dealing with the children of their charge. (H. C. Trumbull, D. D.)
Went unto the high priest and desired of him letters to Damascus.--
We learn from 2 Corinthians 11:32-47.11.33, that Damascus was at this time under the government of Aretas, the king of Arabia Petraea. How it came to be so, having been previously under Vitellius, the Roman president of Syria (Jos. ‘Ant.” 14:4, § 5), is not clear. It is probable, however, that in the war which Aretas had declared against Herod Antipas, in consequence of the Tetrarch’s divorcing his daughter in order that he might marry Herodias (see Matthew 14:3; Luke 3:14), he had been led, after defeating the Tetrarch (Jos. “Ant.” 17:6, § 1), to push his victories further; and, taking advantage of the absence of Vitellius, who hastened to Rome on hearing of the death of Tiberius (A.D. 37), had seized on Damascus. In this abeyance of the control of the Roman power, Aretas may have desired to conciliate the priestly party at Jerusalem by giving facilities to their action against the sect which they would naturally represent as identified with the Galileans against whom he had been waging war. The Jewish population at Damascus was, at this time, very numerous. Josephus relates that not less than ten thousand were slain in a tumult under Nero (“Wars,” 2:25), and the narrative of the Acts (verse 14) implies that there were many “disciples of the Lord” among them. Many of these were probably refugees from Jerusalem, and the local synagogues were called upon to enforce the decrees of the Sanhedrin of the Holy City against them. (Dean Plumptre.)
If he found any of this way.--
We have here the first occurrence of a term which seems to have been used familiarly as a synonym for the disciples of Christ (Acts 19:9; Acts 19:23; Acts 22:4; Acts 24:14; Acts 24:22). It may have originated in the words in which Christ had claimed to be Himself the “Way,” as well as the “Truth” and the “Life” (John 14:6); or in His language as to the “strait way” that led to eternal life (Matthew 7:13); or, perhaps, again, in the prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3) cited by the Baptist (Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3) as to preparing “the way of the Lord.” Prior to the general acceptance of the term “Christian” (Acts 11:26) it served as a convenient, neutral designation by which might be used by others wished to speak respectfully, or, at least, neutrally, instead of the opprobrious epithet of the “Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). The history of the term “Methodists,” those that follow a distinct “method” or “way” of life, offers a partial but interesting analogue. (Dean Plumptre.)
I. The way is for lost wanderers. The very expression suggests man’s need of a way, i.e., of salvation. This need arises out of--
1. Men’s ignorance, errors, sin, danger. Men are lost, and no created power or wisdom can recover them and make them safe.
2. Men’s practical progressive nature put them in the right way, and then they need leading and keeping in it. A religion adapted to mankind must not only restore the wanderers, but further them on the right road.
II. This Way is Christ. “I am the Way,” “the new and living Way.”
1. Every way leads from some place. Christ leads from the land of bondage darkness, death. He both makes and shows a way out of a state of sin and condemnation.
2. What is the Way? The Lord, who delivers and conducts His emancipated ones in the way of obedience and righteousness by His Spirit. The new way of life adopted by the first Christians impressed beholders, who hence gave them the title of the people of “the Way.”
3. To what end?
(1) To God.
(2) To heaven. There is fulness of satisfaction in this provision and prospect.
III. The way is wisely planned and made. It is--
1. Clear and plain, not to be mistaken by those who are resolved to find it.
2. Straight and narrow. It is the one only way from which the traveller must not deviate.
3. Safe. Narrow, but not too narrow for him who will keep it.
IV. The way is for all men. Then--
1. Discover it. It is not hard to find it: Be not misled. Take no other.
2. Walk in it. It is one of two. It leads to life, the other to destruction. It is in vain to praise it unless you make it yours.
3. Perseverance in it. Only such as continue in it can reach the goal.
4. Point it out to others. All true Christians live for this. (J. R. Thompson, M. A.)
And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus.--
The city has the interest of being one of the oldest in the world. It appears in the history of Abraham (Genesis 14:15; Genesis 15:2), and was, traditionally, the scene of the murder of Abel. David placed his garrisons there (2 Samuel 8:6; 1 Chronicles 18:6), and, under Rezon, it resisted the power of Solomon (1 Kings 11:24). Its fair streams, Abana and Pharpar, were, in the eyes of the Syrian leper, better than all the waters of Israel (2 Kings 5:12). It was the centre of the Syrian kingdom in its alliances and wars with those of Israel and Judah (2 Kings 14:28; 2 Kings 16:9-12.16.10; Amos 1:3; Amos 1:5). Its trade with Tyre in wares, and wine of Helbon, and white wool is noted by Ezekiel (chap 27:16, 18). It had been taken by Parmenion for Alexander the Great, and again by Pompeius. It was the birth place of Nicolaos of Damascus, the historian and rhetorician who is conspicuous as the counsellor of Herod the Great (Jos. “Ant.” 12:3, § 2; 16:2, § 2). At a later period it was the residence of the Ommiyad caliphs, and the centre of the world of Islam. The beauty of its site, the river which the Greeks knew as Chrysorrhoas, the “Golden Stream,” its abounding fertility, the gardens of roses, made it, as Lamartine has said, a “predestined capital.” Such was the scene which met the bodily eye of the fanatic persecutor. The historian does not care to dwell on its description, and hastens to that which met his inward gaze. Assuming the journey to have been continuous, the approach to Damascus would come on the seventh or eighth day after leaving Jerusalem. (Dean Plumptre.)
St. Paul on the way to Damascus
How many thoughts have been awakened by the approach to the most ancient of existing cities! Abraham, as he journeyed from the far East, drew near to Damascus, and Elisha, as he journeyed from Samaria (2 Kings 8:7), and Ahaz when he went to meet the king of Assyria (2 Kings 16:9), and Mahomet who, as he approached it, exclaimed, “Man can have but one Paradise in life--my Paradise is fixed above”; and turned away lest that glorious city should tempt him from his mission. But of all the travellers who, “as they journeyed came near to Damascus,” there is none who has such an interest for us as the great apostle. Let us consider--
I. Paul’s conversion. Conversion--i.e., “a turning round” from bad to good, from good to better, is necessary for us all. We are sometimes inclined to think that bur characters, once formed, can never be changed. This is not true. Our natural dispositions and faculties rarely change; but their direction can be changed; and the difference between their upward and their downward direction deserves the name of conversion. Paul, in great measure, remained the same as before--he retained his zeal, his power, his energy; but the turn which was given to these qualities gave a turn to his whole life, and, through him, a turn to the life of the whole world. He approached Damascus a furious persecutor; he entered it a humble penitent; he left it a great apostle. So is it with us. Much about us never can be changed; but much about us can and ought and, with God’s help, will be changed. We are all on the road, not to Damascus, but to some end or object. To every one of us, as to St. Paul, that end or object will at last appear in a light totally different from what we now expect; and on that changed light may depend our happiness or misery, our usefulness or uselessness.
II. How it was brought about.
1. By the vision of Christ. How this entered into his soul we know not; but that it did enter there is sure from all that he afterwards did and said. And it is this same communion with Christ which still is the most powerful instrument of making every human soul better, and wiser, and nobler than it was before.
2. By calling to his mind the true knowledge of what he was doing. He thought that he was doing God service by trampling down an heretical sect. That voice from heaven told him that in those poor Christians he was persecuting the Great Friend and Deliverer of the world. So it is still; often we think that we are all right; that no one can find fault with us. And yet all the while, as God sees us, we are injuring the very cause we wish to promote; those of whom we think so little may be the very likenesses and representatives to us of Christ. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me.”
3. By the appeal to the best part of his own heart. “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks”--against the goad, against the stings, of conscience. He had doubtless already had better feelings stirring within him from what he had seen of the death of Stephen and of the good deeds of the early Christians. In this way his conversion, sudden as it seemed at last, had been long prepared. His conscience had been ill at case; and in this perplexity it needed only that one blessed interposition of his merciful Lord to recall him to a sense of his better self. And each of us has a barrier against sin set up within him against which we may kick, but which will, thanks to the mercy of God, long resist our efforts.
III. What resulted from it. This is too great a subject to be spoken of here in all its parts. But one single point is put before us by this morning’s lesson (Acts 24:25). If we wish to make St. Paul’s conversion and doctrine anything more than a mere name, we shall try to bear away from the road on which it took place the thought of at least these three things--the duty of justice, and self-restraint, and the certainty of a judgment to come. (Dean Stanley.)
And suddenly there shined round about him a light from heave.
The heavenly light
As the supernatural reflects the moral in all the miracles of the Bible, so in the conversion of St. Paul. We have here--
I. An emblem of the gospel.
“a light from heaven.” All knowledge is light. But as the light here was peculiarly dazzling, so the gospel is a special revelation of God’s will. It is heavenly light, because--
1. Of its Divine origin. The apostles denied that they preached “cunningly devised fables.” As the eye is made for the light, so the soul is made for Divine truth. The gospel speaks with so much clearness and authority, that conviction is carried home. Would anyone have convinced Saul that he saw merely the blaze of a torch. Nor can anyone persuade the believer that he is only influenced by the words of man? “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
2. Of its benign influence. The light and heat of the sun come like every good and every perfect gift, from the Father of lights. As heaven is bright and loving, so the gospel is the good news of salvation to men. It brings the peace and smile of heaven. There was darkness before, but now God hath shined in our heart.
3. It leads heavenward. Christians are not pilgrims because they are forced by time to move on, but because they have the light, and move in the right direction.
II. An illustration of Divine methods. “Suddenly there shined a light.”
1. The sovereignty of the Divine will. God has no need of consultations with His creatures. His wisdom is infinite, and His tender mercies are over all His works (Romans 11:33-45.11.36). How unexpected the scene near Damascus. You ask, why God has done this? and the only answer is, “I am that I am.” You must accept the Saviour on this ground: it is the will of God.
2. The decisiveness and finality of the Divine acts. The appearance to St. Paul was as emphatic as it was sudden. There was no mistake as to the source of the communication. Jesus met with Saul, not to parley with him, but to acquaint him with the ultimatum of the court of heaven. You perceive this in Paul’s answer. The gospel is of none effect unless it carries with it its final appeal and authority.
3. The mercifulness of the Divine purposes. God comes to save, and not to destroy our souls. (Weekly Pulpit.)
When need is greatest God is nearest
I. To Saul. When sin rose highest the Lord snatched him back.
II. To the Christians at damascus. When the enemy was even before the gate, the Lord called, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no farther.” (K. Gerok.)
I. Saul before conversion. He seems to have been aroused to supreme violence by the martyrdom of Stephen. Like some beasts of prey which grow uncontrollable the moment they taste blood, this restless zealot “breathed out threatenings,” a metaphor which reminds one of pictures of war horses snorting fire from their kindled nostrils. We see then--
1. That a young man can be thoroughly moral and yet be anything but a Christian. Compare what Paul said of himself about this period of his life (Acts 23:1) with what he writes about his correctness according to the standard of those times (Philippians 3:4-50.3.6).
2. That a young man can be very conscientious and honest, and yet not be a Christian (Acts 24:16). Everybody admitted that Saul acted up to his convictions. What he thought to be right, that he did swiftly and fearlessly (2 Corinthians 1:12; Acts 26:9-44.26.11).
3. That a young man can be very zealous in religion, and yet do more injury than good. What our Lord thought of the Pharisees we know, but He never credited them with indolence (Matthew 23:15). But Saul prided himself on being one of the “straitest” of them (Acts 26:4-44.26.5). There is a zeal not according to knowledge: and it makes a vast difference what a man believes, even if he is sincere; for the more sincere he is, if he be wrong, the worse it is for him and everybody else.
4. That when a young man becomes a true Christian he perceives the sorrowful mistake he made before (Galatians 1:13; 1 Timothy 1:12-54.1.16; 1 Corinthians 15:9).
II. Saul’s conversion. Observe here--
1. How surely fixed is the unseen limit beyond which rebellious sinners are not permitted to go. God sometimes suffers a bad man to succeed in a bad cause, so as to make his arrest more abrupt, and his final failure more overwhelming. He did not stop Saul at Jerusalem; He let him prance his proud steed across Palestine; then He interposed, and with one flash of His presence He ended that high career.
2. How surely fixed is the Divine grace within which a penitent sinner can find safety. The issue is always narrowed down to two persons, God and the human soul; that is the reason why God takes conversion sovereignly into His own hands, and that is the reason why we cannot repent or believe for each other. Mark the words “thou” and “me” at the beginning and at the end of the conversation. It was as if Christ had told Paul, the conflict is between Me and thee; and then it was as if Paul told Christ he admitted it, duty is from me to Thee. When that supreme point in a soul’s history is reached, and never before, it is easy to find peace; for the soul stands before a merciful God at last. Conclusion: The lesson leaves this proud persecutor in a pitiable condition of humiliation. But Saul is happy; he has become Paul. He takes a new commission; he is a “chosen vessel” now (Acts 5:15). (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
Conversion of St. Paul
The festival of the Conversion of St. Paul falls aptly near the end of the Epiphany season, for it was brought about by a manifestation of Christ, and that vouchsafed to one who, though himself a Jew, was chosen to “be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.” The manifestation on the road to Damascus was of Christ glorified. St. Paul alludes to this distinction in the Epistle to the Galatians (Galatians 1:1). The apostle, like the original twelve, was called by Christ Himself; but it was his special and solitary honour to have been “commissioned by the risen and glorified Lord.” There are three manifestations of Christ in glory, or rather three to whom these epiphanies were vouchsafed--St. Stephen, St. Paul, and St. John. Over and above their special purposes in relation to the persons to whom our Lord appeared, these unveilings of Christ, since the “cloud received Him out of our sight,” help us to realise the continuity of His work in heaven. St. Paul was drawing near to Damascus. It was about noon. The city may be seen from afar. The desert is passed. The eye feasts itself upon the green avenues through which the ancient capital is approached. In the distance may be descried the faint outline of its white buildings standing out against the azure sky. Saul catches already the murmurs of “the rivers of Damascus,” and the ripple of the rivulets which glisten and sparkle and leap amongst the tangled brushwood. The perfume from the Syrian gardens, in which shrub, and fruit, and flower, are intermingled in wild profusion, which refresh the weary traveller, have little charm for him. He is “breathing out” slaughter. His mind is filled with the thought of how many disciples of Christ he may lay violent hands upon, and bring “bound unto Jerusalem.” There is, however, another image which will rise up before his memory. There is the face of a young man, his eyes uplifted towards heaven. Saul hears again his dying prayer, and the thuds of the stones which are falling around him; he cannot shake off the remembrance--the courage and the forgivingness of the youthful martyr--“Thy martyr Stephen” (Acts 22:20), what was it sustained him? When--“suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: and he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me? And he said, Who art Thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.” The Church usually celebrates the martyrdom of the saints, the end rather than the beginning of their spiritual course. But, as she marks in her Calendar the conception and nativity of our Lord’s mother, and the birth of St. John the Baptist, so she keeps a festival to commemorate the conversion of St. Paul. It is the great turning point in Saul’s history, a change somewhat out of the range of the ordinary operations of grace. We call it in our collect a “wonderful” conversion. Let us inquire into the cause of Saul’s conversion, and secondly, note what is marvellous about it.
I. The narrative of St. Paul’s conversion is three times told in the Acts of the Apostles, besides the apostle’s allusions to it in several Epistles. From all we gather that the great change in Saul’s convictions was brought about by a vision. It was the result of grace, though two factors, as we shall presently see, combined to produce it. Grace may come to us from without or from within. Grace in both these ways moved the soul of Saul of Tarsus. God appeals to us both through outward objects, and by His voice within. By the preaching of the gospel, by the working of miracles, by the events of Divine Providence, by the influence and power of good example, He can speak to us. He spoke to Saul in a vision. There are those who deny, or at least doubt, the supernatural character of the event. Saul “fell to the earth,” they say; but this might have taken place through natural causes. The whole might have been the result of a thunderstorm, a sunstroke, a fit, or simply might have arisen from mental hallucination. But Saul’s companions in travel also heard the “voice,” though they saw not the Form, nor caught the words. They “saw indeed the light, and were afraid.” The light “above the brightness” of the midday sun, St. Paul says, when standing before Agrippa, not only encircled himself, but “them which journeyed with” him, and all fell to the earth together. It was at noon when all in Eastern climes is hushed and still, and beneath a cloudless sky, that this happened. All Saul’s prepossessions, all Saul’s interests from an earthly point of view, his reputation and his honour, are against the change which at that moment was wrought. St. Paul is no visionary, but a man of masculine mind and clear judgment. Intellect appears to predominate over the imaginative faculty in the apostle, if we may judge from his Epistles. God speaks sometimes in visions to His saints. These visions are of different kinds; some addressed to the mind, others to the imagination, some to the eye of sense. St. Paul’s was of the last kind, like the burning bush which Moses saw, and from the midst of which the voice of God was heard; so Saul saw with his eyes, and was blinded by the glory which he beheld. But grace from without is not enough. The fact that only one of the two thieves who were crucified with Christ repented will be sufficient to show that man may have the grandest opportunities and neglect them. The vision was rich, indeed, in revelation upon which St. Paul gazed--Jesus glorified--“I am Jesus of Nazareth,” not only “I was.” The memories of earth will not be expunged by the waters of Lethe from the soul as it passes into the eternal world. Jesus is still “Jesus of Nazareth.” His history is a part of Himself. Saul, as he was persecuting the Christians, looked back to Christ, thought of Him only in reference to His mortal life in the past. Now he realises a present Christ--that which some who have been brought up as a Christian fail to do--and, moreover, learns the truth that Christ is one with His members, and that in persecuting them he was persecuting Him. It was, then, a rich external revelation of truth to Saul, but it needed inward grace that it might become victorious. The soul must be illumined also from within. The inspirations of that Spirit whose work it is to “receive of” Christ and reveal Him unto us, must be vouchsafed. And this also was granted. “It pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by His grace, to reveal His Son in me” (Galatians 1:15-48.1.16). The cause, then, of St. Paul’s conversion, as of all others, is the grace of God. But there is another factor which has ever its share in the work of conversion--the human will. God does not destroy our moral accountability. Even in the case of St. Paul, whose conversion was in many ways “wonderful,” it rested with himself whether he would or would not yield to the grace which was given him. He distinctly asserts that he was “not disobedient unto the heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19). It was a moment not only of rich revelation, but also of entire self-surrender, when Saul exclaimed, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?”
II. We have considered how the grace of God, from without and from within, and the cooperation of the human will, changed Saul into Paul, the persecutor into the apostle. Now look at the greatness of the event; in what respects it was wonderful. The justification of a sinner is ever a great event. St. Paul’s conversion was wonderful because of the sharp antagonism between his previous and subsequent life. This antagonism is common when of a moral kind. Such a sharp contrast may be traced between the life of St. Mary Magdalene or St. Matthew, before their conversion and after. But it was the strength and violence of St. Paul’s religious opinions which underwent this remarkable change. He was blinded by prejudice and passion.
1. It was wonderful, in that the grace of God overtook him in the very act of sin, as he was drawing near to Damascus, in the very acme of opposition and of violence. Souls sometimes prepare the way for God’s grace by outwardly ceasing from sin. The stone of evil habit is removed from the door of that sepulchre before the voice of Christ penetrates into the realms of the dead. But St. Paul’s experience is an illustration of the mission of God the Son to mankind--“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
2. The change was “wonderful” too, in its suddenness. Conversions may be suddenly or gradually effected. St. Peter’s is an instance of a spiritual evolution, the gradual development of a vocation: Paul’s of a sudden and more violent change. The former is a type of what is normal; the latter, of what is wonderful or extraordinary. God turns water into wine at Cana in a moment, but this was a miracle. He brings wine regularly out of the vine by means of the natural processes of growth and culture. Nor again, must we exaggerate the suddenness of St. Paul’s conversion, though we admit that it was wonderful. St. Stephen’s martyrdom had made an ineffaceable impression on his mind. Revolutions do not take place in history without a long series of events which lead up to them, though they seem to burst upon the world in a moment: so with the great apostle, though sudden was the change, there were doubtless preparations of grace going before it.
3. Lastly, it was wonderful in its completeness. There is usually the gradual growth, oftentimes the fluctuations or relapses. The new life has “first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear.” But in St. Paul’s case, as in the miracle of Cana, which we have already alluded to as in some sense its analogue--the miracle of turning water into wine, “the good wine” surpassed the ordinary produce of the grape; so the operations of grace seemed to have been so condensed in the soul of St. Paul as to bring fruit to perfection at once. He seems not to pass through what spiritual writers describe as the stages of purgation, illumination, and union with God, but attains at once to a vigorous spiritual life and a burning love for Christ. (W. H. Hutchings, M. A.)
To consider, then, the circumstances of St. Paul’s conversion as an outline of our own. “He fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying to him.” It is, accordingly, mostly amid terror and amazement that men are restored to God. God has impressed a law on the natural world also, that healthful cure can, for the most part, only take place through bitterness and suffering. The cures of our bodies picture to us the cures of our souls. The progress may be more or less painful; but bitterness is mixed in all. Those who have felt it say that the restoration of suspended life is far more suffering than apparent death. Restored circulation has pain; every touch of our body, whereby health is given back, has pain; well-nigh every healing medicine is bitter or revolting to our taste. By this universal law God would reconcile us to those merciful bitternesses, whereby He corrects our vitiated love for the destructive sweetnesses of this world, and cures our sickly tastes and appetites, teaching us to find no sweetness but in Him. So He prepares us beforehand to look to them as healthful, and find therein our health. Yes! sorrow, sickness, suffering, loss, bereavement, bring with them precious hours. God blinds us, like Saul, to the world, that, like Saul’s, He may open our eyes to Him. He strikes us down, that He may raise us up. We should not be eager to escape sorrow, but only, through sorrow, to escape death. But pain of body, and sorrow of heart, have their end; if not sooner, yet in the grave: terror of soul has of necessity no end. Time, if it does no more, reconciles to sorrow, but not to fear. Man can endure the past, because it is past; the present, because it must end: but fear for the future, when the future is eternity, has no end. Yet it was through fear that God brought St. Paul to Himself; “and he trembling and astonished said.” Nay, so wrapt up in this fear and awe did the heavenly voice leave him, that for three days and three nights he neither ate nor drank, but prayed. In fear He struck him to the ground; in fear and blindness, though with hope, He raised him. Fear, exceeding fear of hell, is one of the most usual ways in which God brings us back to Himself. It needs not that others have warned us of it, Children may hear of it, as it should seem, when man intends it not to reach them. But God brings it home to their tender consciences. To “cease to do evil,” and “learn to do well,” is the whole of repentance, but such repentance is not learned without sorrow, sorrow, heart-searching in proportion to the sin. “God,” it has been said, “willeth to save sinners, but He willeth to save them as sinners. If He saved them by a simple change of heart, without any repentance for their past life, He would save them as innocent. He wills that they should feel ‘that it is an evil thing and bitter to have forsaken the Lord thy God.’” God Himself, in His miraculous conversion of His chosen vessel, St. Paul, kept him three days and three nights without relief. During that long space of fixed sorrow and humiliation, intenser than we have ever felt, He allowed not his mind to be ministered to by man. How much more may we be content to bear sorrow and fear, who, wherein we have sinned, have sinned against the light, not of the law only, but of the gospel; not against the light shining around us, but against the light, lightened within us; not against a revelation made without us, but grieving the good Spirit of God placed within us. Sorrow then and aching of heart, brought upon us by God, are mostly the means by which God brings back His prodigal children; sorrow or fear without us, to grow by His grace into a godly fear and dread within us. And as we cannot make ourselves sorrow, so we should beware how of ourselves we cease to sorrow, or use the promises of the gospel to heal our pain rather than our sickness. St. Paul lay there where he was stricken, until God said to him, “Arise.” It is a fearful thing to see how people, on an imagined conversion, contrive to forget what they have been, or remember it only to thank God that they are not now such. Yet the sorrow is not to end in itself. St. Paul had to arise and do God’s bidding; and we must arise, and with him ask, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” With him too we must do it; keeping back nothing when we ask, and shrinking from nothing which is laid upon us. Such was St. Paul’s conversion. He freely offered up all, and took all. All he had been he gave up; what he was not he, in God’s hand, became. He was a ravening wolf, he became a lamb; the persecutor, he became persecuted. So was he in all things, and that exceedingly, transformed into the opposite of what he was before. And this is the most hopeful sign of a real healthful change wrought in us, when we become in life other than we were before; if we, like him, become blinded to the world, and see only in the world Him who was crucified for us, and “with Him” are ourselves “crucified to the world”; if for ambitious, we become lowly; for proud, humble; for angry, meek; for impatient, patient; for self-indulgent, self-denying; for covetous, liberal. Nor, again, are we to hope to have all our way plain before us, or to see His face equally clearly, as when He first by His merciful severity checked our wayward course, and recalled us to ourselves and to Him. By merciful interpositions, if we heed them, He sets us, from time to time, in a right course, but then He leaves us to the ordinary channels of His grace, and the guidance, which He has provided in His Church. Even to St. Paul He declared not at once, all He had in store for him. (E. B. Pusey.)
Saul of Tarsus converted
This event, which happened on the Damascus road about the year 37 A.D. was truly one of the most momentous of history. The meaning of this remarkable occurrence reaches out a long way. Indeed, since the New Testament is the final revelation for the Christian Church on earth, the power of Saul’s’ conversion must be felt to end of time.
I. Its meaning first, of course, concerned himself.
1. He was convinced of the truth of Christianity. By Christianity we mean the doctrine that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. By what sort of an argument was Saul convinced of the truth of Christianity? The reasons for his becoming a Christian were both external and internal. The miracle was double, and whatever any one of any school of thought might require as a sufficient ground for such a tremendous change as was brought about in Saul is actually supplied in his case. He became a Christian really and rationally.
2. By this change Saul was led into an entirely new kind of life, not only in his heart, but in his work. Christianity was not only his creed, it was his business. Saul was to abolish Judaism as a half-way step to Christianity; he was to preach salvation to the Gentiles as Gentiles. To this change, planned by God to be brought about through Saul, our conversion is due. This work was to be done through a life of unusual obedience to Christ. Its type is presented to us at the very opening of Saul’s Christian career in the question, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?”
3. And how was all this brought about? Wholly of the grace of God. Saul did not convert himself, did not designate his work to himself, did not characterise it With suffering, did not furnish his own spiritual equipment for it. All was from God.
II. Saul’s conversion had a great influence on the Christians of his day.
1. It showed them that God’s care was over them.
2. It showed that God’s power was behind His care. It is not enough to watch unless one is able to help. God knew and God was able. If He could make a man like Saul of Tarsus over into a follower of Jesus He could do anything; for this was the impossible, ordinarily speaking.
3. Saul’s conversion showed the early Christians that God would use means for their blessing and the furtherance of His work such as they had not expected.
III. To Christian truth always Saul’s conversion has especial value.
1. In the line of Christian doctrine it has force. Saul’s experience was not in a dream or in a vision. It was in broad daylight, under normal conditions. Thus he beheld Christ in glory. Christ then is alive, He is glorified, and His glory is not spiritual alone, but of such a kind that it can be apprehended by other ways than by thought upon His character. He can be present wherever He chooses in His glorified body, and can reveal Himself when He likes. The doctrine of the existence and work of the Holy Spirit is touched upon in the story of Saul’s conversion.
2. Saul’s conversion has immense value in the department of apologetics--the defence of Christianity. There is a problem here which mere naturalism has never been able to solve. Saul presumably was able to know either a stroke of lightning or a sunstroke if he had experienced it. An attempt has also been made to explain Saul’s conversion on psychological lines. Because at once (verse 5) he addresses Christ as Lord (Kyrie, which in this place is nothing more than the ordinary word of salutation to a superior), and because Christ (verse 5) says it is hard for him to kick against the pricks (which means only that opposition to Christ is useless), it has been thought that Saul’s conscience had been troubling him and making him wonder if perhaps Jesus were not the Christ, and so preparing him to be converted on a slight occasion. But the record gives not a hint of any such psychological preparation. Out of deliberate and bitter antagonism Saul was converted to Christ. The conditions were as unfavourable to his conversion as they could be made. No stronger evidence for the miraculous, supernatural character of Christianity could be offered. If Saul did not see Christ, then the strongest convictions of the clearest minds cannot be respected, and no thinking whatever is ever worth anything.
3. Saul’s conversion has an especial relation to Christian mission. There are some special notes worth making in addition to these, in connection with the conversion of Saul.
(1) All men need conversion. Saul was a good, moral, even godly man before he became a Christian.
(2) No one is too hard a subject for a possible future Christian.
(3) The outline of the soul’s progress in conversion is the same for all.
(4) Grace is the only means of our salvation. All is from God.
(5) There is a work for everyone who is made Christ’s. We are elected to work.
(6) Our work is accomplished through suffering. What we gain we pay for. Let us not grudge the cost. (D. J. Burrell, D. D.)
The conversion of Saul
I. The truth of Christianity.
II. The sovereignty of God in the conversion of men. What has he, in regard to his salvation, which he did not receive? It is needful, in this connection, that we should be cautioned in regard to two points.
1. The conversion of Paul, while it illustrates God’s sovereignty, does not exhibit any uniform plan as to the exercise of that sovereignty. He saves men by different ways.
2. We need to be reminded, by way of caution, that the sovereignty of God in the conversion of men gives no encouragement to continued impenitence. Therefore, harden not your heart. Reply not against God. Presume not on His forbearance.
III. The riches of Divine mercy towards the chief of sinners. (H. J. Van Dyke.)
Saul’s conversion God’s glorification
God is such an Artificer, that He has pleasure only in difficult masterpieces, and not in trifling pieces of work. Also He works with special pleasure from the block. Therefore He has from of old selected especially very hard wood and stones in order to show His skill in them. (M. Luther.)
The conversion of Saul
The three greatest facts in redemptive history in the order of time and importance are the advent of Christ, the outpouring of the Spirit, and the conversion of Saul. Consider Saul--
I. As an enemy to the cause of Christ. His enmity was--
1. Intense, as we gather both from the narrative (verse 1) and the man’s character. He was a man of--
(1) Strong intellect, which gave power to his passions.
(2) Strong impulses, which gave force to every purpose.
(3) Invincible conscientiousness, which led him to the greatest cruelty without flinching.
(1) He gets his persecuting plans legalised (verse 2).
(2) He prosecutes his commission.
(b) Thoroughly (Acts 8:3).
II. As conquered by the revelation of Christ.
1. The nature of this revelation.
(1) By symbol. “A light from heaven”--probably the Shekinah glory--not recognised as such by his companions, but seen by Saul to be the garment in which He clothed Himself whom Saul was persecuting.
(2) By words.
(a) In the same tongue in which He had conversed during His earthly ministry.
(b) Emphatic. Jesus often used such repetitions, to fix attention. “Martha, Martha.” “Simon, Simon.”
(c) Most exciting. “Why persecute Me? What injury have I done to thee?”
2. Its effects. It brought him--
(1) Into conscious contact with Christ.
(2) To a complete submission to the will of Christ.
III. As exhibited in the service of Christ (verse 20). What a change is this! The messenger engaged to enlist Saul is here introduced. Ananias was especially selected and especially directed. Note here--
1. The reason assigned for the message received. Paul’s prayer, which reached the heart of Christ, was answered in the mission of Ananias.
2. The manner in which the message was at first received. Reluctantly (verses 13, 14).
3. The Divine argument with which the message was again urged (verses 15, 16). Saul’s subsequent history realised all that is here stated (Acts 25:1-44.25.27; Acts 26:1-44.26.32; Acts 27:1-44.27.44; 2 Corinthians 11:23-47.11.28).
4. The manner in which the message was carried out.
(1) Affectionately. “Brother Saul.”
(2) Faithfully. Ananias does not go in his own name, but in Christ’s.
(3) Effectively. No remedies were applied, but the cure was perfect. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The conversion of Saul
Look at the conversion of Saul--
I. As illustrating the great moral change which is essential to the salvation of every sinner. Note--
1. The feelings developed in connection with it.
(1) A vivid consciousness of Christ.
(2) Anxious inquiry.
(3) Profound contrition.
(4) Earnest prayer.
2. The display of human and Divine in effecting it.
(1) There is the human in Saul. The Divine is not sufficient to account for Saul’s conversion; for it was as strikingly displayed in the eases of Pharaoh, Salaam, and the witnesses of the crucifixion. God created us without our consent, but cannot save us without it. There was something in Saul that made him susceptible to the Divine influence. He was conscientious, and reverenced the Divine will as far as he knew it.
(2) There is the human in Ananias. God usually converts man by man.
3. The thoroughness of the change. How vast the difference between the man of verse 1 and the man of verse 20.
II. As supplying a cogent argument in favour of the Divinity of the Christian faith. Lord Lyttleton has ably demonstrated this. The argument may be thus shaped:
1. If the testimony of Paul concerning Christ be true, Christianity is Divine. Jesus was the grand theme of his ministry--Jesus the promised Messiah, the Son of God, and the Saviour of the world. If you believe Paul, you must believe in Christ.
2. If the conversion of Saul is a reality, his testimony must be true. This conversion shows that he had all the qualifications necessary to bear a credible testimony.
(1) The necessary intelligence. He was no blind fanatic, but saw, heard, and felt Christ.
(2) The necessary candour. If a witness is prejudiced, his testimony is vitiated; but Paul’s prejudices were all against Christ.
(3) The necessary disinterestedness. He had everything to lose, and nothing to gain.
III. As affording hope of mercy to the greatest sinner (1 Timothy 1:16). (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The conversion of Saul
1. Philip was sent to the eunuch of Ethiopia, and he made excellent work in that direction. Why was not Philip sent to the next man? He also rode in a chariot, and he also was deeply interested in religious questions. As well have sent a lamb to a lion! Is there no method in these providences? Does success in one case mean success in another? Will one kind of preaching do for every kind of hearer? Who will go to Saul? Not a man. Saul must be struck with lightning Divine. The thunder must take him in charge!
2. Christianity wrought a marvellous change upon a man of conscience. Saul was in a singular sense a most conscientious man. He was not a ruffian. He was a Pharisaic saint. He was a sincere man. There is nothing in all human history so terrible in opposition as conscience that is not based on reason.
3. Every man is born into the family of God by what may be called a miraculous conception. The new birth is always a miracle. Saul was converted miraculously. You were converted miraculously. We approach some mountain heights so gradually, that we are hardly aware that we have been climbing until we find ourselves without any further height to ascend. So it may be with many conversions. The great question for us to settle is. Are we really in Christ?
4. Christianity always creates the most marked experience of the individual mind. In the eunuch the experience was one of joy. In Saul it was one of thoughtfulness and prayer. (J. Parker, D. D.)
The conversion of Saul
We have heard opinions about what we term sudden conversions. Some persons do not believe in them. But here is the first word that is objected to! It is an Old Testament word. Suddenness was approved by the Lord of the Jewish Church. “The Lord shall suddenly come to His temple.” Mark the harmony of that particular feature of the incident with the Divine purpose. A slow, deliberate, intellectual transformation would have been a moral violence under circumstances so peculiar. What could be more harmonious in all its particulars and relations than the conversion of the eunuch? A man quietly reading in his chariot and filled with wonder as to the meaning of the mysterious Word, what more seemly than that a teacher should sit beside him and show the meaning of the sacred mysteries? But here is a man “yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter” with such a man you cannot reason; God therefore suddenly strikes him to the ground. Let us admire this providence of arrangement and this inspiration of incident, as well as the stupendous conversion itself. Do not reprove the suddenness until you understand all the circumstances. The very suddenness may itself be part of the occasion. Now, look at the incident as showing--
I. Saul’s relation to Judaism--i.e., to his past life. Does Jesus Christ condemn Judaism? No. He Himself was a Jew. There is not a word of chiding in all the speech. The only thing that was being done was that Saul was hurting himself. “Why kick against the pricks?” The persecutor only hurts himself. The bad man digs a hell for himself. Christ did not condemn the personal attitude of Saul. Saul was a man of the Old Testament, which says “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” The heretic and blasphemer must be stoned. Saul was therefore keeping strictly within historic lines and constitutional proprieties when he said, in effect, “This novel heresy must be stamped out with force.” Christianity does not condemn Judaism; it supersedes it. Christianity takes it up, realises all its types, and symbols, and ceremonies. Judaism is the dawn, Christianity is the full noontide. Christianity brings to maturity and sweetness all the roots and fruits of the Judaism. The Jew is simply a man who has not come on to the next point in history. But for Judaism, there could have been no Christianity. We are debtors to the Jew. The Gentiles never converted themselves. The Jew was sent to the Gentile. The most stubborn prejudices were turned into the most anxious sympathies, and this is the crowning miracle of the grace of Christ.
II. His conversion as the greatest triumph which Christianity has accomplished. This was the master miracle. Who is this man? A Jew, of an ancient and honourable pedigree; a student, a scholar, a man of high and influential station. There lay within him capacity to do anything that mortals ever did. His hand once upon the prey, the prey was dead, unless the fingers be unloosed by Almightiness. Jesus Christ Himself directly undertakes his conversion, and works thus His supreme spiritual miracle. When Saul was converted, there was more than one man changed. There is a conversion of quality, as well as a conversion of quantity. Statistics cannot help you in this matter. Let a Saul of Tarsus be converted, and you convert an army. He will not let the world allow him to travel through incog. We can go through the house, the market, and the exchange, without anybody identifying us! Saul of Tarsus will never pass without recognition, and no town will he be in without setting up his holy testimony. Conclusion:
1. The Lord uses a remarkable expression in verse 11. “Behold, he prayeth.” Had he not been praying all his lifetime? In a certain sense, yes; but whilst saying prayers, punctilious in ritual, exemplary in all the outward observances of his Church, Saul had yet, in a Christian sense, never prayed. Prayer is a battering ram which only a Christian arm can work.
2. Another remarkable expression we find in verse 16. “I will show him how great things he must suffer for My name’s sake.” Mark the harmony of this arrangement. God knows what we are doing, and He pays to the uttermost. “Be not deceived, God is not mocked,” etc. Adonibezek said, “As I have done, so God hath requited me.” Samuel said to Agag, “As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women.” Saul was in this succession, a student in that school of compensation. Saul was now made to feel how exactly true these terms were (cf. Acts 8:3 with Acts 14:9; Acts 9:1 with chap. 23; Acts 26:10 with Acts 16:26)
. Do not suppose you can escape God. (J. Parker, D. D.)
The conversion of Saul
I. As illustrating moral contrasts. Saul, who went out to persecute, remained to pray (verses 1, 11).
1. He breathed hotly. How changed in a little time! for his face is turned upward to heaven, and its very look is a pleading supplication. What has occurred? These effects must be accounted for. Have they any counterpart in our own experience? Have any of us passed from fierceness to gentleness, from drunkenness to sobriety, from darkness to light, from blasphemy to worship? Then we understand what is meant by this most startling contrast. This is precisely the work which Christianity undertakes to do. It undertakes to cool your breath, to take the fire out of your blood, to subdue your rancour and your malignity, and to clasp your hands in childlike plea and prayer at your Father’s feet. Such is the continual miracle of Christianity. Jesus makes the lion lie down with the lamb, and He causes the child to hold the fierce beast, and to put its hand with impunity on the cockatrice den. Other miracles He has ceased to perform, but this continual and infinite surprise is the standing testimony of Christ.
2. When Saul was a Pharisee he persecuted; when Saul became a Christian (verse 22) he “proved.” As a Pharisee, he said, “Destroy Christianity by destroying Christians.” Having seen Jesus, and entered into His Spirit, does he now say, “The persecution must be turned in the other direction; I have been persecuting the wrong parties”? No! Standing with the scrolls open before him, he reasons, proving that this is the Christ. When he was not a converted man, he never thought of “proving” anything. Now he stands up with an argument as his only weapon; persuasion as his only iron; entreaty and supplication as the only chains with which he would bind his opponents. What has happened? Is there not a counterpart of all this in our own experience, and in civilised history? Do not men always begin vulgarly, and end with refinement? Is not the first rough argument a thrust with cold iron, or a blow with clenched fist? Does not history teach us that such methods are utterly unavailing in the extinction or the final arrest of erroneous teaching? Christianity is a moral plea. Wherein professing Christians have resorted to the block and the stake, they have proved disloyal to their Master, and they have forgotten the spirit of His Cross. You cannot make men pray by force of arms. You cannot drive your children to church, except in the narrowest and shallowest sense of the term. You may convince men of their error, and lead men to the sanctuary, and, through the confidence of their reason and the higher sentiments, you may conduct them to your own noblest conclusions. How far is it from persecuting to praying? From threatening and slaughter to proving? That distance Christ took Saul, who only meant to go from Jerusalem to Damascus, some hundred and thirty-six miles. Christ took him a longer journey; He swept him round the whole circle of possibility. It is thus that Jesus Christ makes us do more than we intended to do. He meets us on the way of our own choice, and graciously takes us on a way of His own.
3. In the opening of the narrative, Saul was a strong man, the chief, without whose presence the band would dissolve. And in this same narrative we read of the great persecutor that “they led him by the hand.” What has happened? We thought he would have gone into the city like a storm; and he went in like a blind beggar! We thought he would have been met at the city gate as the great destroyer of heresy; and he was led by the hand like a helpless cripple! Woe unto the strength that is not heaven-born! When we are weak, then are we strong. You are mightier when you pray than when you persecute. You are stronger men when you prove your argument than when you seek to smite your opponent. Saul led by the hand; then why need we be ashamed of the same process? Who will despise the day of small things? Presently he will increase in the right strength; not the power of transient fury, but the solid and tranquil strength of complete repose.
II. As giving us glimpses of Christ. He is--
1. Watchful. “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the age.” He left, yet did not leave. He is invisible, yet watchful; looking upon Saul every day, and looking at the same time upon His redeemed Church night and day. Events are not happening without His knowledge. He knows all your antagonistic plans. As for you Christians, He knows your sufferings, and oppositions, and through how much tribulation you are moving onward to the kingdom.
2. Compassionate. “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” He pitied the poor ox that struck its limbs against the sharp and piercing goads. This expostulation repeats the prayer of his dying breath. He does not bind Saul with his own chain; He throws upon him the happy spell of victorious love.
3. Consistent. “I will show him what great things he must suffer for My name’s sake.” When Jesus ordained the disciples to go out into the world, He laid before them a black picture, and told them that they would be persecuted; and now, when He comes to add another to the number, He repeats the ordination charge which He addressed to the first band.
III. As showing the nature and purposes of spiritual vision. All these things were seen in a vision. Say some of you, “We have no visions now.” How can we have? We may eat and drink all visions away. The glutton and the drunkard can have nothing but nightmare. A materialistic age can only have a materialistic religion. We may grieve the Spirit, quench the Spirit; we may so eat and drink and live as to divest the mind of its wings. It may be true that the vision has ceased within a narrow sense, but not in its true spiritual intent. Even now we speak about strong impressions, unaccountable impulses, uncontrollable desires, unexpected combinations of events. What if the religious mind should see in such realities the continued Presence and Vision which gladdened the early Church?
IV. As demonstrating that Christianity does not merely alter a man’s intellectual views or modify a man’s moral prejudices. Christianity never makes a little alteration in a man’s thinking and action. Christianity makes new hearts, new creatures. Other reformers may change a habit now and again, may modify a prejudice, a temper, a purpose with some benign and gracious intent; but this Redeemer wants us to be born again. “If any man be in Christ Jesus, he is a new creature; old things have passed away, and all things have become new.” There drop from his eyes “as it were scales,” and, with a pure heart, he sees a pure God. (J. Parker, D. D.)
Three distinct lines of thought appear in this lesson, each concentered in a person--Saul, Ananias, and Christ.
I. Let us notice the steps in Saul’s conversion, and find in them the story of every seeking soul.
1. Sin. We see in Saul an open, active, determined, and cruel enemy of Christ. We see a persistent enemy resisting the convictions of the Holy Spirit, kicking against the pricks of his own conscience, yet an honest, sincere enemy. “I did it ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:13).
2. Conviction, Saul’s conviction was sudden, yet gradual. Gradual, for he had been striving against the influences of the Spirit (verse 5) ever since he had seen the transfigured face of Stephen; sudden, when the culminating instant came. In a moment he awoke to the consciousness of his guilt.
3. Decision. “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” That sentence marked the crisis of a life, when Saul chose Jesus as his Master. What mighty results followed that instant’s decision!
4. Seeking. For three days Saul was in an agony of prayer, seeking the Christ whom he had persecuted. The delay was not because God was unwilling, but because Saul was not yet in the right condition to receive the blessing.
5. Salvation. At last the scales fell from his eyes, and Saul saw Christ, not as his enemy, but as his forgiving Saviour.
II. Another line of thought is suggested in Ananias, the helper in Saul’s conversion.
1. He was a man. God uses men, and not angels, to point souls to salvation. Even Saul of Tarsus, though called by Christ Himself, is taught the way of faith by a fellow man.
2. He was a believing man. Saved himself, he was able to show others the way of salvation. Only the man who has himself seen the Lord can show Him to others.
3. He was a man of character. Notice what is said of him in Acts 22:12. Those who win souls must be men of good report.
4. He was in close and complete communion with Christ, enjoying direct revelation and holding familiar converse with his Lord. “He who would have power with men must have power with God.”
5. He was an obedient worker, fulfilling the Divine command, even when it sent him into danger; for it seemed perilous to visit a persecutor with the message of the gospel.
III. There is also a suggestive subject in Christ as revealed in Saul’s conversion.
1. A living Christ. Only a little while ago Jesus died on the Cross, and was buried in the sepulchre. Yet now a living form stands forth, saying, “I am Jesus!”
2. A Christ with individual notice. He saw Saul’s journey, knew his purpose, and recognised his character. He knew how Saul had striven against the Spirit. He called Saul by name, and called Ananias by name also. Christ in heaven has knowledge of men and events on the earth.
3. A Christ of infinite sympathy with His people. “Why persecutest thou Me?” He felt the blow at His Church more keenly than the spear thrust into His own body. In all our afflictions as Christians Christ is afflicted.
4. A Christ who sees the best in every man. Ananias saw in Saul only the enemy and the persecutor. Christ saw in him “a chosen vessel” and an apostle. He sees in every soul infinite possibilities.
5. A Christ with transforming power. He can transform Saul into Paul, Stephen’s slayer into Stephen’s successor, an enemy into a champion. What Christ could do with Saul He can do with any man. The conversion of Saul:--Let us regard this--
I. As illustrative of the truth of Christianity. In the case of the apostle, nothing but evidence the most decisive could have effected such a change, in such a man, and at such a time.
1. He had the common prejudices of a Jew against Christianity and its Founder.
2. He was a Pharisee, and had the peculiarly inveterate prejudices of his sect.
3. He was a man of worldly ambition.
4. His very sincerity as a persecutor proves the power of that evidence which could convert such a man into a disciple.
5. The temper of his mind when the great event occurred which led to his immediate conversion, was only calculated to indispose him for conviction. On this we remark--
(1) That he could not be deceived, either in the light or in the voice; or, supposing that to have been barely possible with him, yet, surely, not with those who accompanied him, at the same time. Nor could he be deceived in the fact of his blindness, and of his supernatural healing by Ananias, who gave him instruction.
(2) Nor was he a deceiver. St. Paul was a good man; and that is our security that he would not deceive. If he were not a good man, where shall we look for one? But if he were a good man, then is the account true, for he could not have been deceived; and Jesus did meet him in the way, and the religion of Christ is from God.
II. As showing the power and grace of the Saviour. This was manifested--
1. As to the Church--
(1) By the conversion of its destroyer.
(2) By the revelation of its oneness with Christ, and His intense interest in it. “Why persecutest thou Me?”
2. As to Paul himself, we see it in the illumination of his mind, in the extinction of his worldly temper, the conquest of the love of applause, the moral strength that was communicated.
III. As furnishing important practical lessons. We are reminded--
1. That love is the test of religion.
2. That our salvation is of God.
3. That true religion implies conversion--the change of the whole character.
4. That the end of a thing is better than the beginning of it.
5. Let us be thankful that God raised up this great light for His Church. Let us study his writings, and imbibe their spirit. Let us glorify God in him. (R. Watson.)
The conversion of Paul
I. Its circumstances.
1. It was without any preliminary preparation or special instruction.
2. It was without human instrumentality.
3. It was attended with a miraculous display of light and sound of words.
4. The physical effect of these displays: blindness and prostration.
II. Its nature. A sudden and entire change in his views of Christ.
1. He had previously regarded Him as a mere man, as a bad man, unfaithful to His ancestral religion, and as an impostor, one falsely pretending to be the Messiah. Honestly, i.e., really entertaining these views, he thought it his duty to persecute the followers of Jesus, and to arrest the progress of the new religion.
2. This was very wicked because--
(1) His views of the Old Testament and its prophecies of the Messiah were due to a carnal state of mind.
(2) The evidence of Christ’s Divine mission was such that none but a wicked person could reject it. Hence Paul considered himself the chief of sinners--a clear proof that honesty of conviction does not exonerate.
3. These false views of Christ were instantly rejected.
(1) He saw Him to be the Lord, i.e., a Divine Person, the Son of God (Galatians 1:16).
(2) He saw Him to be God manifest in the flesh. He believed that Jesus, a man, was the Son of God.
(3) He saw that Christ was the promised Messiah. This was the truth that he at once preached (Acts 22:20).
III. Its agency.
1. Not by the outward circumstances.
2. Not by the revelation of Christ to his sense of vision. The wicked at the last day shall see Christ and flee from Him.
3. But by the immediate power of God (Galatians 1:16). So our Lord said to Peter, “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father.”
IV. Its effects.
1. Entire submission and devotion, a willingness to renounce anything, and to do anything that Christ required.
2. This supposes the recognition of Him as God. So Christ became at once the supreme object of worship, love, and zeal.
3. It made him one of the greatest, best, and happiest of men.
4. It secured for him a place among the redeemed in glory. (C. Hodge, D. D.)
Paul’s conversion a type of the Reformation
I. Before both. Christ was persecuted and believers afflicted.
II. At both.
1. The light from heaven.
2. Repentance of heart.
III. From both.
1. Evangelical preaching in the Church.
2. Evangelical missions in the world. (K. Gerok.)
The conversion of St. Paul
1. That blessed war of aggression which Jesus Christ wages upon the evil one is a war which is made to maintain itself. Christ’s soldiers are His captured enemies. Perhaps the most notable instance of this is the conversion of Saul. Jesus Christ never encountered a bitterer or an abler foe; never won a mightier captain for His army. This conversion brought to the Church immediate rest from persecution, and prepared for the ultimate extension of a free gospel to the world at large.
2. Now, the important fact, that such a man suddenly abandoned the Pharisaic theology and became the Church’s foremost preacher, amply justifies the detail with which the story is here related. The immediate occasion of Saul’s change of life was quite as exceptional as the change itself was eventful. It was no ordinary case of a man led to believe in Jesus Christ through the evidence of others, the testimony of the Church, or the force of spiritual need. It was quite unique--a case which has no parallel. The agent in this man’s conversion was not a mortal man, his fellow. It was the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, who called him personally. The apparition was not an inward vision such as appeared afterwards to Ananias. It was a veritable return of Him who went up from the Mount of Olives. And this personal manifestation of Him whom the heavens had received, is, I suppose, solitary in Christian history. The evidence is therefore exceptionally strong. Of course such a transaction cannot be compared with public events, like the death or resurrection of Jesus, to which many could testify. Here there could be no eye or ear witness but one. His evidence alone is to be had, and it is explicit. For it was upon the fact that he had personally seen his risen Master, as the other apostles saw Him, that Paul rested his claim to the privileges of apostleship. And the evidence of Paul was confirmed by the vision of Ananias, and was accepted as conclusive by the Church of Christ at the time.
3. Now, I suppose it may be due to the emphasis laid on this solitary appearance of Christ that so little has been told us of the internal history of the conversion. But who can tell the spiritual processes of any conversion? and why should we pry too curiously into the mysterious, secret place where, under cover of the darkness, the Spirit of God broods over the soul whom He will renew with His great grace into the likeness of the Eternal Son? The general nature of the change, however, which passed over Saul, is, I think, to be pretty well made out from what we know of the man before and after. Up to the moment when the glory smote him, this man was a Hebrew of the extremest type, and it needs no great insight to see that, to such a man, the preaching of repentance and faith in the Cross of a crucified deliverer from sin must have been simply gall and wormwood. So he flung himself into the work of stamping out this hateful heresy. Yet, all the while, I think it probable that Saul’s mind was not quite at ease. I gather from the first words Jesus spoke to him, as he lay upon the road, that all had not been quite serene in the soul of the persecutor. Jesus had, ere this, been trying to get him into the right way. Some words heard in controversy, some meek victim’s patience as he haled him to prison, some great craving of his own heart, some breath, in a quiet hour, from the Spirit of God--something must have stirred within this man, who looked, to other men, so resolute, and who told himself he was so right, a suspicion that, after all, the Nazarene might not be altogether wrong. And Saul had kicked against these pricks. Ah, which of us, from our own experience, cannot understand his case? To which of us has it never happened, that when we were well contented with our religious state, some ghastly doubt looked up all of a sudden and troubled us; some fear lest, after all, our standing might not turn out to be so very safe, and our religion so very real? But suddenly, in the glare of light that covered the scene at noon, a man appeared whom Saul believed to be a dead impostor. And the shock given to his whole being was as awful as it was sudden. Everything in the narrative speaks of instantaneous and utter collapse. We trace it in the few and timid words which he is able to stammer out. “Who art Thou, Lord? What shall I do?” If Jesus was the living God, then he, Saul, had always been rotten, hopelessly rotten. The old is shattered forever; it lives no more. Gamaliel’s pupil, the Sanhedrin inquisitor, the blameless Pharisee, the slayer of Stephen--this old man is dead.
4. What were the meditations which filled up these three days before he began to pray? We do not know. But I think we shall not err if we concede the grand discovery of these days to have been the discovery of a spiritual law which condemned his legal righteousness as being, in his own later words, loss and dung. He needed no man now to tell him that his way of pleasing God, as he thought, had been a hideous blunder, since he had absolutely laid persecuting hands on Christ, thinking he was doing God service. Back through all his past life, his memory must have gone, discovering, bit by bit, that what he had called righteousness became, to his astonished soul, pride, discharity, sin; what he had called gain became utter spiritual loss. And in the end, when the need of atoning blood to wash such sin away, and bring Divine forgiveness, grew up within his soul into clear consciousness, then, at last, indeed, he began to look up out of his prostration and collapse. God began to reveal His Son in him by giving him the first hint of the Spirit of adoption. His mind reverted for help, turned round about in his loneliness to the names of those very disciples down in his notebook that he had come to arrest, and now, in a sweet vision, he seemed to see one of these friends of Jesus come into the home where he lay helpless and in darkness, and give him light. See how Jesus Christ must smite down that He may lift up. He first came in person by the way and brought judgment, darkness, horror, and almost death. He came now, the second time, by the gentle words of His humble servant, came by the blessed sacrament of His Church, and so coming He brought light, peace, and the hope and desire of a new and better life.
Conclusion: St. Paul’s conversion substantially is repeated in the history of ten thousand souls.
1. The same appalling discovery that the exterior observance of piety which one took for righteousness is no righteousness, but dead works, because not animated by the spirit of love to God, has been made times upon times since Paul made it. And if it is not often that God’s disclosure of Himself bursts upon a man with such violent catastrophe as here, it will be your highest wisdom to see whether or not you have made the Pauline discovery, and learned the Pauline lesson.
2. One unexpected day has often revolutionised a life. We all live in the presence of spiritual forces, which may, at any moment, get unlooked-for access to us. A stray word, a new acquaintance, a book you open, some sudden disaster, may prove, before you know it, the very turning of your history. But let none be idle waiters on critical moments in Providence. “Seek the Lord while He may be found.” (J. O. Dykes, D. D.)
The conversion of St. Paul
I. Its circumstances.
1. In the Bible proper names frequently had meanings. Now this Saul, or Shaul in Hebrew, and especially in Arabic, means not only asked for, but to seek diligently or to be sought out. And here you have in the very name the history of every sinner who comes to God; he is not one who is seeking God first, but one who is sought for. Was it not the case even with Abraham? “And He said, Abraham, Abraham; and he answered, Here am I.” Did Moses call God first, or seek for God? Far from it; “Moses, Moses; and he said, Here am I.”
2. In what state was this Shaul at the moment he was sought out? “Yet breathing out threatenings, “etc. Such a man cannot have been in his sound senses. And you may see his own candid confession of that. (chap. 26.). I “compelled them to blaspheme.” I experienced something of this lately at Cairo. From eleven o’clock in the night till three o’clock I was with several Jews, who continually tried me to say “only once, only once, curse the name of Jesus.” And why did he do this? “Being exceedingly mad against them.” And it is said--“yet breathing out.” Why yet? Something must have gone on before, which might have changed his opinions and his conduct. And many such things went before, but without use to him. The Son of God nailed on the Cross had fulfilled every prophecy regarding His sufferings. Here is Stephen praying amidst the shower of stones, “Lay not this sin to their charge”; a thinking mind, like Paul’s, one should suppose would have been struck with this. And he “went unto the high priest.” He had the approbation of the ecclesiastical authorities. We can have the approbation of the world and the orthodox churchmen, and yet be still far from God. He desired of him letters that if he found any of this way. I was often struck with this expression, when I heard the Arabs speaking about religion; they do not say “the religion of Jesus,” but “I want to know your way.” “What is your way?” And do we not often find this the ease in England? Speak to men about vital conversion, and they answer, “Oh! I am not of that way.”
3. “And suddenly.” We find often that the grace of God comes suddenly. And so we find frequently that genius is awakened. An Italian forty years of age lived at Rome, and went every day to St. Peter’s, but he never was struck with the masterpieces of Raphael; but one day he went there, and suddenly struck with them his genius awakened, and he exclaimed, “I am also a painter”; and from that moment he became the great painter Correggio. So very often the grace of God comes. A man is journeying on and on carelessly towards eternity, when, suddenly struck by the grace of God, he exclaims, “I am also a sinner ransomed.” Paul saw a light--that described Isaiah--“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light”--“the Sun of Righteousness.” “And he fell to the earth.” I had an exact illustration of this when I was brought to Turkisthaun in slavery. After I was ransomed, the dungeons of hundreds of slaves were opened; these poor people had not seen the daylight for many months, and when they so suddenly were brought into it, they were so struck that several were as if they were going to fall down; they were overpowered. “Oh!” they said, “we cannot see the light, it is too powerful.” So it is with people, when they are so suddenly overpowered with this “light from heaven.” It makes such an impression upon them, that they cannot bear it. “And he heard a voice, saying unto him.” We see our Lord does not use much learning or much eloquence to put down a man, to bring him to Himself, but very few words. I read this chapter to a Persian several years ago, a man of great powers; and he said, “There is one thing I find in Christianity which I do not find in our religion; it is a religion of the heart, it speaks to the heart.” And this he found in these very words, in which here our Lord asks of Saul--“Saul, Saul!”--thou who art sought out, thou sought for, thou whom I am seeking like a mother her child, like a father his wayward child--“why persecutest thou Me?” What a striking contrast! In the first verse it is said, “Yet breathing out threatenings against the disciples”; bat here the Lord asks, “Why persecutest thou Me?” Persecute the mother, the child will feel it; persecute the child, the mother will feel it. And for this reason only the Christian religion deserves the name of religion. What is religion? To bind again together man to God. “And he said, Who art Thou, Lord?”--at once confessing his ignorance, as everyone struck by the grace of God will do. As long as we think ourselves wise we shall never come to the truth. But here--“who art Thou?” Very modest; he did not know Him, though he persecuted Him. But he felt His power, and therefore he called Him “Lord.” “And the Lord said, I am Jesus”--Jehoshua, God the Saviour. This is very affectionate. “I am not come here to destroy thee, though thou hast persecuted Me; I am still Jesus.” Whilst you may not yet believe in Him, it is Jesus, the Saviour, who came to seek those that were lost. “And he, trembling and astonished, said”--How natural this is! How little an infidel, however clever, knows or understands the Bible! Schiller says, “We are still in want of a kind of Linne for the human heart”--i.e., in want of a person to give us a development of the human heart, as that celebrated Linne did of the natural kingdom. Now if he had only studied the history of Paul, he would have found a development of the human heart. A man who had stood for many days near a precipice, and never knew that he was near it, but had his eyes suddenly opened and was instantly snatched away from it--he must “tremble.” But a real believer does not remain trembling. “And he, trembling and astonished, said”--not, “Now I will go and read the books of our Rabbis”; and a really awakened sinner would not say, I will go and read Paley, or Dr. Adam Clarke or other writers on the evidences; but like Paul, “Lord! what wilt Thou have me to do?” verifying those words of our Lord, “Except ye be converted and become as little children,” etc. A little child does not say, I must speculate to get a thing from my father; but it asks him for it. Now see how the Lord takes him by the hand. “And the Lord said unto him, Arise.”
4. Let us pursue this history. Here you will see how a real believer has to suffer, and from a quarter where he does not expect it--from believers. What has the Jew to expect when he once boldly confesses the name of Jesus? Mistrust from a quarter where he ought not to experience it--from believers. If Ananias had lived in our time, they would have called him a cautious and prudent man. Now let us hear the answer of the Lord: “Go thy way”--(for “His ways are not our ways, neither are His thoughts our thoughts”); that very Saul who was going about “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” is “a chosen vessel.” In Arabic, Paul means an instrument; he was a Shaul, a sought-out--he is now a Paul, an instrument, “a chosen vessel to bear My name.” And now Ananias at last was convinced.
II. Its result. “And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales.” At first he was like the blind man, who was receiving his sight; things were still indistinct to him, and he “saw men like trees walking”; but now that there fell upon him the Holy Ghost, he conceived what it is to be a Christian, was baptized, and joined the disciples. “And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues.” When the believer enters a beautiful garden he invites others to enter. “Straightway”--no round-aboutery. And a believer is not ashamed; he preaches Him who had been “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence.”
III. This history is a type (1 Timothy 1:16)--
1. Of the conversion of the Jewish nation. He was “one born out of due time.” And so in every century one has seen Jews “born out of due time.” In the middle ages there was Sixtus Senensis, a Jew at Rome, whose writings still exist, and from whom we may say that the most spiritual part of the Roman Catholic Church, the Jansenists, still derive all their Biblical knowledge. So De Lyra was the teacher of Luther. And so in our time.
2. Of the future conversion of the nation. He was a Saul, a sought-out; and to Jerusalem it is said, “Thou shalt be called sought-out, a city not forsaken.” The light “shone round about him from heaven”; and to Jerusalem it shall be said, “Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.” And as the Apostle Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, so my nation shall be the great national apostle to the Gentile world; “and Gentiles shall come to Thy light, and kings to the brightness of Thy rising.” And as there was peace in the Church at the time of the conversion of Saul, so “thy walls, O Jerusalem, shall be called Peace, and thy governors Righteousness.” (J. Wolff, LL. D.)
The conversion of St. Paul
I. The conversion itself.
1. It was an improbable event.
2. It was miraculous in its circumstances, and as such is a proof of the gospel. Because
(1) No rational solution other than that he gives can be given for it. It was not a delusion, nor a deception.
(2) It proves Christ’s resurrection, and therewith the whole gospel.
(3) It authenticates Paul’s doctrine as a supernatural revelation from Christ.
3. Though miraculous in its circumstances it was normal in its essentials.
(1) As to the nature of the change.
(2) As to the means by which it is effected.
(3) As to the evidences of its sincerity.
II. The state of mind expressed. It included--
1. Entire abnegation of self. He sought not his own
2. Absolute submission to Christ’s authority.
(1) Not his own will.
(2) Not that of friends, rulers, or the world.
(3) But Christ alone had authority to determine and direct his course.
3. Entire consecration to the service of Christ.
(1) Readiness to do His will.
(2) Willingness that He should determine not only the service, but the field and the circumstances.
III. The means by which it was produced.
1. The revelation of Christ. This was--
(1) External; but this was not all, for He was thus revealed to thousands.
(2) To the reason. A rational conviction was produced.
(3) Spiritual, effected by Christ’s Spirit, and consisting in spiritual manifestation.
2. The truth revealed was the Divinity of Christ. Because--
(1) He is called Lord.
(2) Because in Galatians 1:16 he says, “It pleased God to reveal His Son in me.”
(3) Because of the analogy between this revelation and that on the Mount of Transfiguration.
(4) Because Paul makes conversion consist in knowing Christ.
(5) From its effects. (C. Hodge, D. D.)
The progress of St. Paul’s conversion
I. The first impression. The deep feeling of his spiritual inability (verse 8).
II. The first signs of life (verse 11).
III. The first testimony (verse. 20).
IV. The first experience (verse 23). (Jaspis.)
Saul meets with Jesus
I. Spiritual crisis. Saul had now arrived at his spiritual crisis. Such a crisis has occurred in the lives of most great reformers, and at these moments they become absorbingly interesting. Buddha waiting for the final illumination under his wisdom tree; Mohammed in the caves of the desert; Luther in the monk’s cell; Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus--each in his own way was having that last desperate encounter with the past and its outworn traditions, which was to fit him to be the religious pioneer of the future. Such a passage from the old to the new may be fitly called conversion. Most of us may have known something like it. Not that everyone must pass through an intellectual or spiritual convulsion. Some souls seem to grow like flowers; some leap like cataracts. There are halcyon as well as earthquake natures; there are neutral tinted people who never seem to rise or fall very much; there are well-balanced people set in harmonious conditions who develop day by day, and never know the shocks of sudden change.
II. Hindrances to spiritual progress. In most of us there is a bar, and that bar has to be passed or the soul will languish.
1. Pleasure is one man’s bar. Till he recognises something above pleasure he will make no way. A noble cause or enthusiasm at last lays hold upon him, and he counts pleasure lost for the first time that he may compass the new ideal. He postpones appetite, he learns self-sacrifice. The bar is passed.
2. Another drifts. Indecision, want of purpose, is his bar. The love of a pure, strong, tender woman delivers him; or the companionship of a high-minded friend steadies and directs his aims.
3. Another is an idolater of self. His horizon is hopelessly narrowed in, and there is no progress until you get out of that dismal, vicious circle. Responsibility, interests, loves and lives of others, sense of a spiritual world--in one word, God and religion in some form awakening Divine echoes, sounding undreamed of depths within, such a revelation may come upon you with a shock. The expulsive power of a noble affection, the absorbing power of a good cause, the emancipating and illuminating power of a Divine sentiment may be the terms of your conversion.
4. Saul’s bar was intellectual pride and self-sufficiency. In politics this obstinate habit breeds the State despot, the man who would sacrifice party, principle, country. In religion it produces the fanatic. The Son of God may hang on a tree; Stephen with the angel face may be stoned; Savonarola and Huss may be stoned.
III. Divine leadings. There came a day when Paul wept to remember how Saul had persecuted the Church of Christ. But at present he breathes nothing but threatenings and slaughter, and is off to Damascus on his cruel purpose. But on that lonesome journey Saul thinks--
1. “Tis an odious business, this. Is it a duty? My duty! My Master Gamaliel used to say, ‘Let them alone,’ etc. Ah! he was too mild. One must not tolerate insult to the Holy Temple and the Law.” So Gamaliel was pushed aside.
2. Saul thinks; “This Jesus. Why did the people hear Him? A magician of words it seems, mistaken at first for an eloquent Rabbi--most cursed perversion of talent. That He who spoke the story of the prodigal, which the very children now prattle, should have uttered that hateful tale of the vineyard--that was aimed at our holy rules; a poisoned tongue, an insidious, treacherous Rabbi that Jesus: His viper brood of disciples must be stamped out; ‘tis the will of God.” And so Jesus was pushed aside.
3. Then once again Saul thinks as the face of the murdered Stephen rises before him: “Such an one with the makings of a good Haggadist, but hopelessly tainted. Is it not written, ‘The poison of asps is under their lips’? yet did not his looks belie his iniquity? We judged him, he seemed to be judging us. ‘Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears.’ Monstrous brazen-tongued heretic, or visionary--which? Yes, he saw a vision. I would that face had not been crushed in so bloody a death. But no, it was expedient that one man died for the people. We have stamped the thing out in Jerusalem by that stroke. Yet his smile, his prayer--last fraud of the tempter. Thou hadst Stephen in thy toils--thou shalt not take me so easily.” And with this did Saul smite his jaded steed, as Balaam did his, and for a like reason. On! on! he fiercely spurred, and again his poor beast kicked against the pricks, as he was himself kicking against the pricks of a Divine Master who sought to guide him whither he would not go. Suddenly his brain reels--like an over-bent bow gives in a moment--he staggers on horseback--the bolt seems to fall from the blue. Is it thunder? Is it a voice? Is it a light?--aye, “above the brightness of the sun,” but it leaves Saul in darkness. Jesus has met him by the way. (H. R. Haweis, M. A.)
Conversion by the vision of Christ
In the middle of July, 1719, Colonel Gardiner, who was then leading a most licentious life, had spent the evening of a Sunday in some gay company, and had an assignation with a married woman at midnight. The company broke up at eleven, and while he was waiting for the hour of twelve, he took up a book to pass away the time. As he was reading, he saw an unusual blaze of light fall on the page, and looking up he saw before him, as it were suspended in the air, a representation of our Blessed Lord on the Cross, surrounded by a glory. At the same instant he heard a voice saying, “O sinner, did I suffer this for thee, and are these the returns?” The vision filled him with unutterable astonishment and agony of heart; and pierced by a sense of his ingratitude to God, he from that moment forsook his evil life.
The completeness of St. Paul’s conversion
Is it not beautiful to see how Paul forgot all his old Pharisaism? All the hard words and bitter blasphemies that he had spoken against Christ, they have all gone in a moment. What strange changes will come over some beings in an instant! One of my students who has been a sailor has preached the gospel for some long time, but his English was far from grammatical. Having been in college some little time he began to speak correctly, but suddenly the old habit returned upon him. He was in the Princess Alice at the time of the lamentable catastrophe, and he escaped in an almost miraculous manner. I saw him some time after, and congratulated him on his escape, and he replied that he had saved his life but had lost all his grammar. He found himself for awhile using the language of two or three years ago; and even now he declares that he cannot get back what he had learnt. He seems to have drowned his grammar on that terrible occasion. Now, just as we may lose some good thing by a dreadful occurrence, which seems to sweep over the mind like a huge wave and wash away our treasures, so by a blessed catastrophe, if Christ should meet with any man tonight, much which he has valued will be swept away! You may write on wax, and may make the record fair. Take a hot iron and roll it across the wax, and it is all gone. That seems to me to be just what Jesus did with Paul’s heart. It was all written over with blasphemy and rebellion, and He rolled the hot iron of burning love over his soul, and the evil inscription was all gone. He ceased to blaspheme, and he began to praise. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
An inspired vision
A poor woman caught by a slave-raiding band in the far interior, and in a moment snatched with a few of her friends from home, from children, from hope, found herself on the march to the coast in the dreadful slave gang. Day after day, foot sore and heart sore, she wended her weary way, until one night in her sleep visions of God came to her. She dreamed she was in a larger room than she had ever seen; and at one end of it there was a man with a white face, whose words gave her great comfort. She rose the next morning with heart relieved, a pilgrim to a blessed destiny. She did not know what it was to be; she knew that she was a pilgrim to the sunrise. She reached the coast, was there sold, and embarked on board a slaver. The slaver was taken, and a large part, herself included, of the slave cargo was landed at Fernando Po. A little while after she was taken to our little chapel at Clarence in West Africa. It was the room of her dream. There was the man of her dream, and his message brought the light of immortality to her heart, which never left it. And my story is not ended. That was fifty years ago. She was living a few years since, for Wright Hay told me that whenever he was in any discouragement or difficulty he went to this noble old saint of God, and never left without finding wisdom and help from her saintly counsel. (S. Chapman.)
The conversion of Saul
Look at the mighty mountain lifting its head above the clouds that do but girdle it. How proud and defiant it stands! Far up above the dusty ways of man, clothed in robes of unsullied snow, it seems the very emblem of the unchangeable. Yet every day it is being levelled. The glacier grinds the rock; the frost frets and frays it; the torrents wear away the stones and hollow out the sides. Now rocks are rent from it and go sweeping far into valleys, in turn to be ground into soil, until in time the great mountain that stood bleak and bare is spread into the golden cornfields or into the pastures that are covered with flocks, and where the homesteads look forth from the midst of the trees that screen them, and the happy people laugh and sing. Now that is what the heavenly Father is seeking to do for us by the daily discipline of life, and by the ministry of His grace. He puts Himself within reach of us that He may bring down the pride and selfishness, that He may take away the coldness and hardness, and turn us into love and service and a thousand forms of blessedness. Have faith in God. Take hold of the power of God that is in Christ Jesus that in you the mountain may be made into cornfields. Look at Saul of Tarsus. How like a mountain did he stand! How proud, how defiant, how high he carried his head! And like the mountain, too, how the black storms gathered around him, and the lightnings blazed, how the thunders lowered and crashed, and the cruel torrents roared and raged in their fury! It is a volcano that rises before us whence flow the streams of fire. But lo! there comes the grace of God. He is broken, transformed. Listen how long after he writes to the little flock to whom he had ministered: “We were gentle among you even as a nurse cherisheth her own children, so being affectionately desirous of you we were willing to have imparted unto you not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were become very dear unto us.” The persecuting Saul is turned into an apostle of love. Faith has cast out the mountain and transformed it into the cornfields and pastures. Now we are to take hold of the grace of God to do like wonders within us. We have no business to talk about our nature, we have to think about the almighty power of God. (M. G. Pearse.)
God’s method of converting men
Etienne de Grellet says he required a reason for everything from a child. God, however, chose His own way in his conversion. He was walking in the fields, under no kind of religious concern, when he was suddenly arrested by what seemed to be an awful voice, crying, “Eternity! eternity I eternity!” It reached his very soul. His whole frame shook, and, like Saul, he fell to the ground. He cried out, “If there is a God, doubtless there is a hell.” For long he seemed to hear the thundering proclamation, and was eventually led to decision.
A sudden conversion
I knew a young woman who was brought to God very suddenly. She was busily engaged singing a profane song, when a flash of lightning seemed to pass through the room she occupied, illuminating the place with a sudden, supernatural light; then followed a deep, loud roll of thunder, and the young woman, feeling as if in the presence of God, fell upon her knees confessing her sins and crying for mercy. Sins, which hitherto she had not felt to be sins, seemed to stand up and condemn her; she felt that there was no safety for her except through the blood of Jesus; and Christ, the merciful Saviour, accepted her.
Conversions may be quite sudden in their beginnings
In December the days grow shorter till the twenty-first, the shortest day, when, at a precise moment, the sun pauses and begins to return towards the north. And then, though the days are constantly growing longer, and the sun coming nearer, yet for weeks there is no apparent change. The snow lies heavy upon the earth. There are neither leaves, nor blossoms, nor singing birds; nothing to mark the summer time which is surely advancing. But at length the ground begins to relax in the sunny places, and the snows melt, and warm winds blow from the south, and buds swell, and flowers spring, and ere long there is the bloom and glory of June. So there is a precise moment when the soul pauses in its departure from God, and begins to return towards Him. The fruits of that return may not be at once visible; there may be long interior conflicts before the coldness and deadness of the heart is overcome; but at length the good will triumph, and instead of winter and desolation, all the Christian graces will spring up in the summer of Divine love. (H. W. Beecher.)
The battle of Damascus
I. The enemies.
1. Saul breathing vengeance with his armed followers, and his weapons of human learning and carnal zeal.
2. Christ the Crucified and Exalted One, with the marks of His wounds and in His heavenly glory; behind Him crowds of angels, among whom is joy over one sinner that repenteth.
II. The fight.
1. Christ attacks.
2. Saul defends himself.
III. The victory.
1. Saul surrenders.
2. Christ triumphs.
IV. The spoil. “He shall have the strong for a prey.” Saul is led away a prisoner, not to death, but to life.
V. The joyful te deum of the church. (K. Gerok.)
The great day of Damascus
I. Its troubled and stormy morning.
II. Its hot and thundery noon.
III. Its quiet and blessed evening. (K. Gerok.)
The proud rider unhorsed
Damascus still stands with a population of 135,000. It was a gay city of white and glistering architecture; its domes playing with the light of the morning sun; embowered in groves of olive, and palm, and citron, and orange, and pomegranate; a famous river plunging its brightness into the scene--a city by the ancients styled “a pearl surrounded by emeralds.” A group of horsemen are advancing. Let the Christians of the place hide, for they are persecutors; their leader, as leaders sometimes are, insignificant in person--witness Napoleon and Dr. Archibald Alexander. But there is something very intent in the eye of the man, and the horse he rides is lathered with the foam of a long and quick travel of one hundred and thirty-five miles. He cries, “Go ‘long” to his steed, for those Christians must be captured and that religion annihilated. Suddenly the horses shy off and plunge, until the riders are precipitated. A new sun had been kindled, putting out the glare of the ordinary sun. Christ, with the glories of heaven wrapped about Him, looked out from a cloud, and the splendour was insufferable, and no wonder the horses sprang and the equestrians dropped. Struck stone blind, Saul cries out, “Who art Thou, Lord?” And Jesus answered him, “I am the One you have been chasing. He that scourges Christians scourges Me. I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest.” From that wild, exciting, and overwhelming scene there rises up the greatest preacher of all the ages--Paul, in whose behalf prisons were rocked down; before whom rulers turned pale; into whose hand Mediterranean sea captains put control of their ship wrecking craft, and whose epistles are the avant courier of a resurrection day. I learn from this scene--
I. That a worldly fall sometimes precedes a spiritual uplifting. A man does not get much sympathy by falling off a horse. People say he ought not to have got into the saddle if he could not ride. Here is Paul on horseback; a proud man riding on with government documents in his pocket; a graduate of a most famous school in which Doctor Gamaliel had been a professor; perhaps having already attained two of the three titles of the school--Rab and Rabbi, and on his way to Rabbak. I know, from his temperament, that his horse was ahead of the other horses. But without time to think of his dignity he is tumbled into the dust. And yet that was the best ride Paul ever took. Out of that violent fall he arose into the illustrious apostleship. So it has been in all the ages. You will never be worth anything for God and the Church until you are somehow thrown and humiliated. You must go down before you go up. Joseph finds his path to the Egyptian court through the pit into which his brothers threw him. Daniel would never have walked amid the bronzed lions that adorned the Babylonish throne if he had not first walked amid the real lions of the cave. Men who have been always prospered may be efficient servants of the world, but will be of no advantage to Christ.
II. That the religion or Christ is not a pusillanimous thing. People try to make us believe that Christianity is something for men of weak calibre, for women, for children. Look at this man. He was a logician, a metaphysician, an all-conquering orator, a poet of the highest type. I have never found anything in Carlyle, or Goethe, or Herbert Spencer that could compare in strength or beauty with Paul’s Epistles. I do not think there is anything in Sir William Hamilton that shows such mental discipline as you find in Paul’s argument about justification and resurrection. I have not found anything in Milton finer than Paul’s illustrations drawn from the amphitheatre. There was nothing in Emmet pleading for his life, or in Burke arraigning Warren Hastings, that compared with the scene before Agrippa. A religion that can capture a man like that must have some power in it. Where Paul leads, we can afford to follow. I am glad to know that Christ has had in His discipleship a Mozart and a Handel in music; a Raphael and a Reynolds in painting; an Angelo and a Canova in sculpture; a Rush and a Harvey in medicine; a Grotius and a Washington in statesmanship; a Blackstone, a Marshall, and a Kent in the law; and the time will come when the religion of Christ will conquer all the observatories and universities, and philosophy will, through her telescope, behold the morning star of Jesus, and in her laboratory see that “all things work together for good,” and with her geological hammer discern the “Rock of Ages.” Oh, instead of cowering when the sceptic talks of religion as though it were a pusillanimous thing, show him the picture of the intellectual giant of all the ages prostrate on the road to Damascus; then ask your sceptic who it was that threw him. Oh, no! it is no weak gospel. It is a glorious, an all-conquering gospel; the power of God unto salvation.
III. That a man cannot become a Christian until he is unhorsed. We want to ride into the kingdom of God just as the knight rode into castle gate, on palfrey beautifully caparisoned. We want to come into the kingdom of God in fine style. No crying over sin. No begging at the door of God’s mercy. No, we must dismount, go down in the dust, until Christ shall, by His grace, lift us up, as He lifted Paul.
IV. That the grace of God can overcome the persecutor. Paul was not going, as a sheriff goes, to arrest a man against whom he has no spite. He breathed out slaughter. Do you think that that proud man on horseback can ever become a Christian? Yes! There is a voice from heaven uttering two words, “Saul! Saul!” That man was saved; and so God can, by His grace, overcome any persecutor. The days of sword and fire for Christians seem to have gone by; but has the day of persecution ceased? No. That woman finds it hard to be a Christian while her husband talks and jeers while she is trying to say her prayers or read the Bible. That daughter finds it hard to be a Christian with the whole family arrayed against her. That young man finds it bard to be a Christian in the shop when his companions jeer at him because he will not go to the gambling hell or the house of shame. But, oh, you persecuted ones, is it not time that you began to pray for your persecutors? They are no prouder, no fiercer than was this persecutor. God can, by His grace, make a Renan believe in the Divinity of Jesus, and a Tyndall in the worth of prayer. John Newton stamped the ship’s deck in derisive indignation at Christianity only a little while before he became a Christian. “Out of my house,” said a father to his daughter, “if you will keep praying”; and, before many months passed, the father knelt at the same altar with the child.
V. That there is hope for the worst offenders. It was particularly outrageous that Saul should have gone to Damascus on that errand. The life and death of Jesus was not an old story as it is now. He heard parts of it recited every day by people who were acquainted with all the circumstances; and yet, in the fresh memory of that scene, he goes to persecute Christ’s disciples. Oh, he was the chief of sinners. No outburst of modesty when he said that. He was a murderer. And yet the grace of God saved him, and so it will you. There is mercy for you who say you are too bad to be saved. You say you have put off the matter so long. Paul had neglected it a great while. You say that the sin you have committed has been amid the most aggravating circumstances. That was so with Paul. You say you have exasperated Christ, and coaxed your own ruin. So did Paul; and yet he sits today on one of the highest of the heavenly thrones.
VI. That there is a tremendous reality in religion. If it had been a mere optical delusion over the road to Damascus, Paul was just the man to find it out. If it had been a sham and pretence, he would have pricked the bubble. And when I see him overwhelmed, I say there must have been something in it. And, my dear brother, you will find that there is something in religion in one of three places, either in earth, or in heaven, or in hell. (T. De Witt Talmage.)
The difficulties in the narrative
There are three accounts of the conversion of St. Paul, and they are all in this book. The first is the account of Luke here; the two others are by Paul himself--one to an infuriated mob in chap. 22, the other before Agrippa in chap. 26. Let us--
I. Examine the apparent discrepancies in detail.
1. In one account the companions of Saul fell to the ground; in the other they stood wondering and astonished. But--
(1) It is not at all unlikely that in the journey from Jerusalem some were on horseback and some on foot. This is the common way of making up companies in the East. I once saw a caravan, coming out of the desert into Cairo; some were upon camels, some on asses, many were walking. They had all been to Mecca and back. Those who fell, therefore, in one narrative would be those mounted; those who stood in the other would be the travellers on foot.
(2) But, again, at the first shock all might have fallen, and those who were the farthest from the centre might have sooner recovered themselves, and have been standing astonished even when Saul was still lying upon the earth.
2. In one account it is said the companions of Saul did not hear the voice that spake, and in another that they did hear. Now, do you think that twelve men of common honesty and common sense would find much difficulty if there was such a discrepancy as this between two witnesses who were giving their evidence before them? The slightest cross examination would bring out the fact that in the one case what was heard was a sound, something inarticulate, mysterious, and that in the other they did not hear the words, the distinct utterance that was given. And further, the difference in the word “voice” in the two passages involves this explanation. In the one case the import is that they heard (the sound) “of the voice”; in the other, that they did not hear “the voice” itself--what was said.
3. In one account Ananias is described as “a disciple,” and all that he says, and all that is said of him, is in harmony with that; in another account he is described as “a devout man according to the law,” and everything that is said of him, and that he says, is in harmony with that. Well, the one account is not contradictory to, but only supplementary of, the other. But besides that, there is beauty and propriety in the different way in which Ananias is spoken of in the two cases. In the first case, where he is spoken of as being “a disciple,” is in St. Luke’s history of him. St. Luke was a Christian writer, writing a Christian history for Christian people, and therefore he naturally put forward the Christian side of Ananias. In the other case St. Paul is addressing an infuriated Jewish mob, all zealous for the law. With admirable tact, therefore, he endeavours to conciliate them, and he naturally puts before them Ananias’ Jewish side.
4. In one case it is said that Jesus directed Paul to go into the city, and “it should be told him what he must do”; but when he is addressing Agrippa, Paul himself seems to speak as if Jesus had said to him a great deal more. Paul, I think, did not receive at the moment of his conversion, from the lips of Jesus, all that he says to Agrippa; but he did receive it all, either direct from Christ or through Ananias as commissioned by Him. In addressing Agrippa his one object was fully to set before him his apostolic commission. The substance and the source of the truth were what was important; and Paul, without attenuating his address by enumerating times and places and circumstances, exercises his common sense in so putting the matter before the king as to fix his attention on the authority and the scope of the ministry he exercised.
II. Some observations arising out of them. Note--
1. The nature and characteristics of human testimony. If two witnesses express themselves precisely in the same language, word for word, it is suspicious. What we look for is substantial agreement with circumstantial variations; such variations constitute, not the weakness, but the strength of the testimony. We have human testimony in this book. Inspiration in respect to some things was necessarily verbal, but, had it always been that, you could never have two accounts of anything. And, moreover, if the guiding inspiration had to be such that every word was to be exactly just that which was uttered, then you have no human agent, with his freedom and intelligence, giving his evidence, but exclusively the dictations of the presiding mind, and these mechanically conveyed. A mere automaton might have been set in motion to do that. On this hypothesis the Bible might have been photographed, and that, too, in human language, by a Divinely directed, material force. You have something better than that. You have Divine thought; but you have that communicated by conscious and active minds. Of course, if we had the witnesses before us, we should soon be able, by a little cross examination, to harmonise their statements.
2. These three different accounts were all written by the same hand. Though the first account only is in the words of Luke, the others being in the words of St. Paul, yet Luke wrote them all down; they lay before his eye; he could compare them as we do. Luke was a man of education and intelligence; of disciplined faculty and sound judgment. Now, if he had included what was inherently contradictory in a book written for the express purpose that those who read it should know the certainty of the things in which they had been instructed, do you suppose that he would not be conscious of the discrepancy? And do you not see that it was in his power to remove it? He could easily have made the accounts harmonise. But he did not think it worth while to do it. (T. Binney.)
He fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?
The Lord’s word
I. Consolation. This word is a two-edged sword; it carries comfort to those who are within, and reproof to those who are without. It is spoken to an adversary; but it is spoken for a friend. The first comfort given to fallen man was in a word spoken to his destroyer (Genesis 3:15). In the same way Israel was comforted, “Touch not Mine anointed,” etc. Here, too, the Head will sustain the members by a reproof addressed to the Master. I scarcely know a more comforting word than this. Nowhere is the oneness of Christ and His disciples more clearly expressed. The Speaker is not now the Man of Sorrows: all power has been given into His hands. As you experience pain when any member of your body is hurt, so Christ cries out when an enemy’s hand strikes some poor saint in Damascus. For this is the privilege of all Christians. Safety is secured, and therefore measured, by the power, not of the saved, but of the Saviour. The Queen’s flag is the aegis of the temper woman as well as the stalwart warrior, and woe to the man who strikes either. Let Saul venture to say, Lord, when did we persecute Thee? The King shall answer, “Inasmuch as ye did it,” etc. Here is my safety--I am His, part of Himself. We shall be able by and by to number up God’s mercies, and nothing will be sweeter than the discovery of those signal rescues which Christ has achieved for us while we, like an infant sleeping in a burning house, were aware neither of the flame that was already singeing our garments nor of the strong arm of that brother who bore us beyond its reach.
II. Reproof. While the word carries consolation to the disciples, it bears terrible reproof to adversaries. Mark here--
1. That although Saul is an enemy to Jesus, Jesus is no enemy to Saul, and the word is spoken not to cast him out, but to melt him down, and so win him near. In His glory, as in His humiliation, Jesus being reviled reviles not again. He draws a clear distinction between the converted and the unconverted, but it does not lie in that the first are received and the second rejected, but in this, that those who are already near are cherished as dear children, and the distant prodigals are invited to turn and live. Nor can we be surprised at this generosity. If, when we were His enemies, He won us, we cannot wonder that the door is still open for those who are without.
2. The form of the address betrays the tenderness of Jesus. The repetition of the name expresses sharp condemnation and tender pity. When you intend simple approval or disapproval you call the name only once; when you intend to condemn and win back you duplicate the call. “John” may be the prelude to either praise or blame, but “John, John,” always means that he is doing evil, and that you mean him good (see John 20:16; cf. Luke 10:41-42.10.42). It is the double call that Christ is addressing to the world today; at the great day it will be single--Depart ye cursed, or Come ye blessed.
3. In Saul’s case the redoubled stroke was effectual. He grieved for the sin that was rebuked, and accepted the mercy that was offered. (W. Arnot, D. D.)
I. It is the general character of unconverted men to be of a persecuting spirit. “Cain,” says Luther, “will kill Abel to the end of the world.” Speaking of Ishmael and Isaac, the apostle observes, “As then he that was born after the flesh, persecuted him that was born after the spirit, even so it is now.” The more zealous and holy believers are, so much the more will the malice of wicked men be levelled against them (Galatians 4:29; James 5:6 : 1 John 3:12-62.3.13). There are, however, different kinds and degrees of persecution. Though we are not in danger of bonds and imprisonments, yet the enmity of the wicked will show itself, either by injuries, unneighbourly treatment, vulgar abuse, or by one means or another. The Church of Christ has always been as a lily among thorns, or like a bush on fire, but not consumed (Psalms 55:21; Acts 22:4; Hebrews 11:35-58.11.39).
II. Christ has His eye upon persecutors and is acquainted with all their ways. He also views things in their proper light, and calls them by their proper names. What Saul called doing God’s service, He calls persecution. There is not a step which His enemies take but He marks it well, nor a pain His servants feel but He beholds it with an eye of pity. Saul is on his way to Damascus, unobserved by the disciples, who were now accounted as sheep for the slaughter: but the Shepherd of the flock sees the enemy coming to devour, and stops him in his wild career.
III. The kindness or injuries done to His people, Christ considers as done to Himself. Let persecutors think of this and tremble. The union between Christ and His people is intimate and endearing; it is like that between the vine and its branches, between the head and the members. If the branch be cut off, the vine will bleed; and when one member suffers, the members suffer with it, and also the head! The same love that induced the Redeemer to suffer for His people, constrains Him to suffer with them. Christ is more tender of His body mystical than He was of His body natural, and is more sensible of His members’ sufferings than He was of His own. Amidst all the cruel treatment He Himself met with, he never said, “Why scourge ye Me? why crucify ye Me?” But when Saul threatened destruction to His disciples, He calls to him from heaven, “Why persecutest thou Me?”
IV. Christ’s call to the persecutor was to convince him of sin and this is the first step towards conversion. This lays the foundation of repentance and faith; for we cannot repent of sin while insensible of its evil nature, nor do the whole need a physician, but they that are sick. Saul trembled at the voice which spake to him, and being astonished at the number and magnitude of his sins, as well as at the forbearance and compassion of the Saviour, cried out, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” He is now willing to be directed, and to obey Christ as his Lord.
V. The calls of Christ are earnest and particular. From among the rest of mankind He singles out the man towards whom He has designs of mercy. Thus He chose Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom, and Zaccheus, whom curiosity had led up into a sycamore tree. And of the company that were going to Damascus, one is distinguished from the rest, and addressed by name. Hence his companions heard a voice, but knew not what was said. Ministers speak to all their hearers, and not to one more than another: but Christ speaks to the individual, and does not speak in vain. They draw the bow at a venture; but He aims at a certain mark, and never misses. Farther: Christ’s call was earnest and pressing. There is something vehement and affectionate in the address: Saul, Saul! The Lord saw the danger he was in: He therefore warns him with a loud voice from heaven, and both pities and pardons his delusion. We see that all intercourse begins on Christ’s part. His is preventing mercy, and previous to any inclination or endeavours on our part to seek after Him.
VI. Persecution is a great sin and when brought home to the conscience of an awakened sinner, it is found to be so. It is so unreasonable as to admit of no defence, and none is made.
1. Is there any reason on My part? What injury have I done thee? For which of My good works dost thou persecute Me?
2. Is there any reason on the part of My people? Because they are My disciples, are they therefore worse parents or children, subjects or servants, friends or neighbours? Nay, are they not the salt of the earth, and the light of the world?
3. Is there any reason on thy part? Dost thou claim a right to judge for thyself: and have not they the same right? Who made thee thy brother’s judge? Thou thinkest that truth is on thy side, and it is natural for thy neighbour to think the same. Dost thou allege the commission from the chief priests? Who authorised them to grant such a commission? Dost thou plead the Divine glory? Can God be glorified by a conduct contrary to all the feelings of humanity?
4. Will such conduct answer the end proposed? Force and violence may make men hypocrites, but cannot produce conviction. Will reproaches and injuries be more effectual than kind treatment and persuasion?
1. Christ’s question to Saul should not only convince us of the evil of a persecuting spirit, but lead us to avoid and abhor it, as utterly contrary to the very genius of Christianity (Acts 26:10; 1 Corinthians 15:9).
2. From this example let not the most atrocious sinner, nor the bitterest persecutor despair, if brought to a sense of their evil conduct (1 Timothy 1:16). (B. Beddome, M. A.)
The case of St. Paul in persecuting the Church
It was about two years after our Lord was gone to heaven. Saul, for a year or two before, had behaved as blind zealots are used to do, with great warmth and fury. He was then in the heat of his youth, about thirty years old, very honest and sincere in his way, and exceedingly zealous for the law of his God. The prejudices of education were so strong, and his natural temper withal so impetuous, that he stayed not to examine into the merits of the Christian cause. But as he very well knew that his own religion was from God, he too hastily concluded that this other, now pretending to rival it, could not be Divine also.
I. Saul as a persecutor and the guilt he contracted in being such. However sincere he had been in doing it, however fully persuaded in his own mind that he was serving God in it; yet he never reflected upon it afterwards but with shame and regret, with a penitential sorrow and remorse for it (Acts 26:9; Acts 22:20; 1 Timothy 1:15; 1 Corinthians 15:9). Saul, considered as a persecutor of the Church of God, cannot be acquitted of prejudice, partiality, and precipitate judgment, in a cause which demanded cool deliberation and the most scrupulous care.
II. What may be pleaded to alleviate his guilt in it, on account of which he found mercy. He himself has intimated that, though he had been some time a blasphemer and a persecutor and injurious, yet he obtained mercy because he did it ignorantly, in unbelief. He did not know that the Christian religion was from God, and that the Jewish was to cease and give way to it. He meant and intended well while he was doing amiss: this is his excuse. It may be said in answer, that he might have known better, if he had been pleased to examine. Very true, he might, and therefore he is blameable; but still his heart was honest and good, and therefore his mistake was pitiable and pardonable. His ignorance was not altogether affected and wilful, but had a great mixture of natural temper and human frailty to alleviate and qualify it. Our Lord, knowing the integrity of his heart, was pleased to overlook his failings, and to receive him into His own more immediate service. He approved his upright zeal, which wanted nothing but clearer light and a better direction. He indulges him the favour of a heavenly vision, condescends to speak to him from above, and finds him as willing and ready upon correction to embrace and propagate the Christian religion as he had before been to persecute and destroy it.
III. The exceeding great goodness of our Lord, both to St. Paul and to the Church, in this affair. How gracious were the words which our Lord spake: Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me? Next, He gave the good man a seasonable and a very affecting caution. I am Jesus, the Saviour of the world; it is hard for thee to contend with. One so much mightier than thou art: step thy career, and retreat in time. These were moving arguments, and pierced to the very soul. But, what is still more considerable, was the exceeding goodness therein shown to the Church in general. It was not only taking off a very furious and dangerous enemy; but it was making of him one of the kindest and best of friends. There was no man better qualified to serve the Church, both by preaching and writing, than St. Paul. He had great natural abilities, improved by a liberal and polite education; to which also were superadded many extraordinary supernatural gifts.
IV. The proper use and application.
1. Let us learn from the instance of St. Paul how much it concerns every man to take care that he judges right in all matters of high consequence especially, and that his conscience be duly informed. Infinite mischiefs may arise from an erroneous conscience and a misguided zeal.
2. From the same instance of St. Paul learn we a ready submission and obedience to truth and godliness when sufficiently propounded to us. Lay we aside all inveterate prejudices and stubborn reluctances, as soon as ever we have light enough to see that we have been in an error, and that we ought to retract.
3. Learn we from the whole transaction, the truth and certainty of our Lord’s resurrection and ascension into heaven, His power and majesty there as Lord of all, and His exceeding goodness in looking down from thence to take care of His Church here below; and how dangerous a thing it will be, and how fatal to the undertakers, to persist in any attempts against Him. (D. Waterland, D. D.)
And he said, Who art Thou, Lord?
Pressing questions of an awakened mind
The manifestation of Jesus subdued the great man into a little child. He inquires, with sacred curiosity, “Who art Thou, Lord?” and then surrenders at discretion, crying, “What wilt Thou have me to do?”
I. The earnest inquirer seeking to know his Lord.
1. He is not only willing to learn, but he is eager to be taught. If men were but anxious to understand the truth, they would soon learn it and receive it.
2. The subject he wished to be taught. You have heard that Christ is the Saviour, let your ambition be to know all about Him. Saints on earth, and even saints in heaven, are always wanting to have this question more fully answered, “Who art Thou, Lord?”
(1) What is Thy person? Learn well that He is man, thy brother, touched with the feelings of thy infirmities, yet is He God eternal, infinite, full of all power and majesty.
(2) What are Thy offices? He is a Prophet; thou must be instructed by Him. He is a Priest; He has offered sacrifice, and thou must accept it as being for thee. He is a King, and thou must let Him govern thee.
(3) What are Thy relationships? The Son of the Highest, and yet the brother of the lowest. King of angels and of kings, and yet the friend of sinners.
3. What were the results of having this question answered?
(1) When Paul knew that He whose face had shone upon him brighter than the sun was Jesus of Nazareth, he was seized with contrition. When Christ is unknown we can go on refusing and even persecuting Him; but when we clearly perceive that it is the Son of God and the bleeding Lamb whom we have refused and persecuted, then our hearts melt; we beg His forgiveness, and cast ourselves at His feet.
(2) Hope was encouraged, for though Paul at the sight of the Lord Jesus must have been full of bitter anguish, it was by that same sight that he was afterwards comforted. Art Thou He who came to seek and to save that which was lost? Then is there hope for me. Oh, then, I will trust Him.
(3) It led him to complete submission. He said, “Is this Christ whom I have rejected Lord of all? Then it is indeed hard for me to kick against the pricks. If all power be in His hands, then to oppose Him is as hopeless as it is wicked. O Lord Jesus, be my king.” Some human leaders have had such extraordinary influence over their soldiery that they have been cheerfully obeyed, even at the cost of life. The Christ of God has a superlative power over all hearts that know Him. See how Paul felt His influence, and scoured the world to win Christ’s lost ones.
4. He sought instruction from the best possible Master; for who can tell us who Christ is but Christ Himself? Here is His book. It is the looking glass. Jesus is yonder, and He looks into it, and you may see His reflected image; darkly, however, at the best. So, too, when you hear His faithful servants preach you may see somewhat of Christ; but there is no sight of Christ like that which comes personally to your own soul by the Holy Spirit.
II. The obedient disciple requesting direction. “Whosoever believeth in Jesus has everlasting life” is the basis doctrine of the gospel; but you may not believe in Him and then live as you like. Hence the question, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” The apostle here puts himself into the position of a soldier waiting for orders. He will not stir till he has received his officer’s command. Before it used to be, “What will Moses have me to do?” And with some now present it has been, “What should I like to do?” Now take heed that Christ be your Master, and nobody else. It would never do to say, “What would the Church have me to do?” nor even “What would an apostle have me to do?” Paul said, “Be ye followers of me, even as I am also of Christ.” But if Paul does not follow Christ, we must not follow Paul. “Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel, let him be accursed.” “One is your Master, even Christ.” This obedience is--
1. Personal. I have little enough to do with my neighbours. They have their duty; but, Lord, what wouldst Thou have me to do? Other persons must follow the light they have; but, Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do? Let it separate the nearest ties, let it cause your past friends to give you the cold shoulder, let it subject you to persecution even unto death; you have nothing to do with these consequences, your business is to say, “Show me what Thou wouldst have me to do, and I will do it.” Note again--
2. Prompt. He does not ask to be allowed a little delay. If you would have salvation, you must be ready to follow Christ tonight. Tonight, it may be, is the time when the Spirit of God is struggling with you, and if resisted He never may return.
3. Unconditional. Saul little knew what the doing of his Master’s will would involve, but he was prepared for it. Oh, you that would be Christians, do not suppose that it is just believing something--an article of a creed, or undergoing a ceremony--that will save you; you must, if you are Christ’s, yield yourselves up to Him. Conclusion: It is by knowing Christ that you will learn to obey Him, and the more you obey Him the more easy it will be: and in obeying Him you will find your honour. Paul at this day stands in a most honourable place in the Church of God, simply because being called of God to do His will he did it faithfully even to the end. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.--
The ways of sin hard and difficult
You often hear of the narrow and rugged road which leadeth unto life; and some of you, I am afraid, have not courage enough to venture upon it. You rather choose the smooth, broad, downhill road, though it leads to death. It must be owned, that a religious life is a course of difficulties, and it is fit you should be honestly informed of it; but then it is fit you should also know that it is disagreeable and difficult only as a course of action is difficult to the sick, though it affords pleasure to those that are well. There are difficulties in the way of sin, as well as in that of holiness, though the depravity of mankind renders them insensible of it. It may be easy and pleasing to you to sin, just as it is easy to a dead body to rot, or pleasing to a leper to rub his sores. If it be hard, in one sense, to live a life of holiness, it is certainly hard, in another sense, to live a life of sin; namely, to run against conscience, reason, honour, interest, and all the strong and endearing obligations you are under to God, to mankind, and to yourselves.
I. Is it not a hard thing to be an unbeliever, while the light of the gospel shines around us with full blaze of evidence. Before a man can work up himself to the disbelief of a religion attended with such evidence, and inspiring such Divine dispositions and exalted hopes, what absurdities must he embrace! what strong convictions must he resist! what tremendous doubts must he struggle with! what glorious hopes must he resign! what violence must be offered to conscience! what care must be used to shut up all the avenues of serious thought, and harden the heart against the terrors of death and the supreme tribunal! How painful to reject the balm the gospel provides to heal a broken heart and a bleeding conscience, and the various helps and advantages it furnishes us with to obtain Divine favour and everlasting happiness! How hard to work up the mind to believe that Jesus was an impostor, or at best a moral philosopher! or that the religion of the Bible is the contrivance of artful and wicked men! These are no easy things. There are many sceptics and smatterers in infidelity, but few, very few, are able to make thorough work of it. Such men find the arms of their own reason often against them, and their own conscience forms violent insurrections in favour of religion; so that whatever they pretend, they believe and tremble too. They find it hard, even now, to kick against the goads: how much harder they will find it in the issue! Christianity will live when they are dead and damned, according to its sentence. Infidels may hurt themselves by opposing it; as an unruly stupid ox, their proper emblem, may hurt himself, but not the goads, by kicking against them.
II. Is it not hard foe men to profess themselves believers and assent to the truth of Christianity and “yet live as if they were infidels? If you believe Christianity--
1. You believe that there is a God of infinite excellency; the Maker, Preserver, Benefactor, and ruler of the world, and of you in particular. How, then, can you withhold your love from Him, and ungratefully refuse obedience? Is not this a hard thing? Does it not cost you some labour to reconcile your consciences to it? This would not be easy to the mightiest archangel. And if it be easy to you, it is in the same sense that it is easy to a dead body to rot. Your strength to do evil is your real weakness, or the strength of your disease.
2. You believe the doctrine of redemption through Jesus Christ. And is it no difficulty to neglect Him, to dishonour Him, to slight His love and disobey His commands? Does not at least a spark of gratitude sometimes kindle which you find it hard to quench entirely? Does not conscience often take up arms in the cause of its Lord, and do you not find it hard to quell the insurrection? Alas! if you find little or no difficulty in treating the blessed Jesus with neglect, it shows that you are giants in iniquity, and sin with the strength of a devil.
3. You must believe that holiness is essentially to constitute you a real Christian, and prepare you for everlasting happiness. And while you have this conviction, is it not a hard thing for you to be only Christians in name, or self-condemned hypocrites? Is it an easy thing to you to keep your eyes always shut against the light, which would show you to yourselves in your true colours?
4. You believe in a future state of rewards and punishments. And since you love yourselves, and have a strong desire of pleasure and horror of pain, how can you reconcile yourselves to the thoughts of giving up your portion in heaven, and being engulfed forever in the infernal pit?
III. Is it not hard for a man to live in a constant conflict with himself? I mean with his conscience. When the sinner would continue his career to hell, conscience, like the cherubim at the gates of paradise, or the angel in Balaam’s road, meets him with his flaming sword, and turns every way, to guard the dreadful entrance into the chambers of death. The life of the sinner is a warfare, as well as that of the Christian. Conscience is his enemy, always disturbing him; that is, he himself is an enemy to himself, while he continues an enemy to God. Some, indeed, by repeated violences, stun their conscience, and it seems to lie still. But this is a conquest fatal to the conquerors.
IV. Is it not hard for you to deprive yourselves of the exalted pleasures of religion? Is not this doing violence to the innate principle of self-love and desire of happiness? Can you be so stupid as to imagine that the world, or sin, or anything that can come in competition with religion, can be of equal or comparable advantage to you? Sure your own reason must give in its verdict in favour of religion. And is it not a hard thing for you to act against your own reason, against your highest and immortal interest, and against your own innate desire of happiness? (S. Davies, A. M.)
Kicking against the pricks
This expression is highly characteristic of the Saviour--
1. From its figurative form. While He was on earth, without a parable spake He not unto the people; and speaking out of heaven He still adopts the parabolic style, as He did in Patmos. He does not say to Saul, “It is injurious to thee to resist My appeals,” that would be mere abstract fact, but He puts it more pictorially, “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”
2. From the tenderness of the rebuke. It is not, “It is wicked of thee to resist Me.” The Saviour leaves Saul’s conscience to say that; nor “It is hard for My people to bear thy cruelties”; nor “It is very provoking to Me, and I shall ere long smite thee in My wrath.” No, it is not, “It is hard for Me,” but “It is hard for thee.” We have in the parable of the text--
I. An ox. No other beast is driven by a goad.
1. “How low is man fallen that he can be compared to a brute beast!” “Oh,” saith the proud heart, “cloth God compare me to a beast?” Ah! and it is the beast which hath cause to complain rather than you; for what beast is that who has rebelled against God? Do not be angry, for if you knew yourself you would cry with Asaph, “So foolish was I and ignorant, I was as a beast before Thee.” Penitent sinners have wished that they had been beasts rather than men, feeling as if sin had degraded their nature below the meanest reptile.
2. But courage! The ox is a valuable animal. The text does not liken a man to a wild beast without an owner, but to an ox for which its master careth, and for which he hath paid a price. “I,” says Jesus, “whom Thou persecutest, redeemed thee, with My own precious blood; thou art Mine, and I will break thee in. Why dost thou kick against Me? I have paid for thee too dearly to let thee be lost.”
3. The ox is dependent upon its master for the supply of its needs. “The ox knoweth its owner.” Thou, who art an enemy to God, dost thou not know that thou art the object of His daily providence? We have been worse than oxen. We have not known the hand that feeds us, but have kicked against the God from whom all our mercies have been flowing.
4. An ox is a creature of which service is rightly demanded. So does God expect of those creatures whose wants He supplies that they should do His bidding. Wherefore should God keep them, and they do Him no service? For if He gets nothing out of thee, He will not forever spare thee. The bullock which is not good for its master in the furrows shall soon be good for the butcher in the shambles.
5. The ox is a perverse creature, not easily made accustomed to the yoke. Hence the rough and cruel instrument used by the Eastern husbandman--a long stick with a sharp prong at the end. Ah, how perverse are our wills! We will not go in the right way; we choose the wrong naturally. We go to the fire of sin, and we put our finger in it, and we burn it; but we do not learn better; we then thrust our hands into it, and though we suffer for it we return and plunge our arm into the flame.
6. Yet the ox is a creature which can be of great service to its master. When it becomes docile, it is one of the most valuable possessions of the Oriental husbandman. And when once the brutish heart of man is conquered by Divine grace, of what use he is.
II. The ox goad. A cruel instrument, but one thought by the Oriental husbandman to be needful for the stubborn nature of the ox. God has many ways of goading us, but He does not use that where gentler means will avail. I should think that a kind man would speak to his ox, and might get it into such a condition that it would be obedient to his word. Now God does bring His people into such a state as that. God does not come to blows with men till He has first tried words with them. Before the tree is cut down there is a time of sparing, in which it is digged about if haply it may bring forth fruit. But when words are of no avail, then the Lord in tender mercy adopts sharper means, and comes from words to blows and wounds--that He may come in all His power to heal.
1. Some of us felt the ox goad when we were children. Under the government of our parents we were often very restive, and felt it hard to sin.
2. Since that time some of you have felt the irksome goad in the good advice of friends with whom you have been situated. You do not like to be talked to about religion.
3. The teachings of God’s Word acts like a goad to unconverted men. I have known people come in here, and the sermon has made them feel so angry that they could almost have knocked the preacher down, but yet they could not help coming again. They could not tell why, but they could not stop away; and yet they hated the truth they heard. When a man thinks enough about the truth to begin to fight against it, I am in hope that the truth will never let him go till it has fairly beaten him into better things.
4. At times the Lord will goad us by personal afflictions; a sickness, a failure in business, a loss of property, a disappointment in marriage, or the death of friends, or a gradual decay of the constitution, or the loss of a limb or an eye. Loud voices these, if men had ears to hear. Some of you have had so many afflictions that the Lord might well inquire, “Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more.”
5. Sometimes God stirs men with the common operations of the Holy Ghost in their consciences. Saul was being goaded at that very moment when Christ said, “Why persecutest thou Me?” And take care you do not resist these goadings. “See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh. For if they escaped not,” etc.
III. The kicks. The ox when wounded is so foolish as to dash its foot against the goad, and consequently drives it deeper into himself and hurts himself the more. This is the natural manner of men till God makes something more than beasts of them.
1. Even when we were children we rebelled against our teachers; prayer was distasteful, the Sabbath was dull, and the house of God wearisome, and therefore we kicked against them.
2. As some of you grow up, you took to sneering at those who kindly advised you. Many, the moment they get a word of counsel from any person, treat him at once as an enemy, and vow that they will take no further notice of such a “cant.” Many sinners when the Word of God is too hot for them, take to cavilling at it, or disputing over it. A man who is reproved by a sermon will perhaps feel that he must give up his drunkenness. “But,” say she, “I will not give up my drunkenness; I do not want to do that, and therefore I do not believe that the sermon is true.” Or another says, “If this is correct, I must shut up my shop on the Sunday, and so lose my Sunday’s profits. I cannot afford to lose money, and therefore I will abuse the preacher.” The guilty conscience cries, “I will pick a hole in the minister’s coat, because he has found one in mine.”
3. There are many who persecute God’s people. They cannot burn them, nor shut them up in prison; but they vex them with cruel mockings, they twist their innocent actions into something wrong, and then they throw it in their teeth.
4. Certain profane men have gone so far as to kick at God Himself. Mind that He does not answer you, blasphemer.
IV. The result. Christ says, “It is hard.” It has been very hard for your mother, for your families, for your neighbours and employers; Christ says it is hard for you. You know that sin does not make you happy. You have had your swing of it, and you are miserable. You are afraid to die. Do you know what will very likely be your history if you run into sin and persist in it? You will make your present afflictions grow worse, and cause your present losses to accumulate. You are kicking against the pricks, and are making the wounds already received ten times worse, and so it always will be so long as you keep on kicking. He that is converted to God finds it hard to have been a sinner so long. His repentance is bitter in proportion to the greatness of his sin. Those who are saved late in life feel that their sins will be their plague till they die. A man does not go and plunge into the ditch of sin without bearing the stench of its vileness in his memory all his life. An old song that you used to sing will come up and defile your closet prayers, and perhaps the recollection of some unholy scene will trouble you even when you are at the sacramental table. The apostle Paul always bore the memory of his sin. “God forgives me,” said one, “but I never can forgive myself.”
V. The good counsel.
1. Since it is hard for you to kick against the pricks, and there is nothing to be got by it, cease.
2. Yield thy heart to the goadings of Divine love. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The figure of speech is borrowed from a custom of Eastern countries: the ox driver wields a long pole, at the end of which is fixed a piece of sharpened iron, with which he urges the animal to go on or stand still or change its course; and, if it is refractory, it kicks against the goad, injuring and infuriating itself with the wounds it receives. This is a vivid picture of a man wounded and tortured by compunctions of conscience. There was something in him rebelling against the course of inhumanity on which he was embarked, and suggesting that he was fighting against God. It is not difficult to conceive when these doubts arose. He was the scholar of Gamaliel, the advocate of humanity and tolerance, who had counselled the Sanhedrin to leave the Christians alone. He was himself too young yet to have hardened his heart to all the disagreeables of such ghastly work. Highly strung as was his religious zeal, nature could not but speak out at last. But probably his compunctions were chiefly awakened by the character and behaviour of the Christians. He had heard the noble defence of Stephen, and seen his face in the council chamber shining like that of an angel. He had seen him kneeling on the field of execution and praying for his murderers. Doubtless, in the course of the persecution he had witnessed many similar scenes. Did these people look like enemies of God? As he entered their homes to drag them forth to prison, he got glimpses of their social life. Could such spectacles of purity and love be products of the powers of darkness? Did not the serenity with which his victims went to meet their fate look like the very peace which he had long been sighing for in vain? Their arguments, too, must have told on a mind like his. He had heard Stephen proving from the Scriptures that it behoved the Messiah to suffer; and the general tenor of the earliest Christian apologetic assures us that many of the accused must on their trial have appealed to passages like the fifty-third of Isaiah, where a career is predicted for the Messiah startlingly like that of Jesus of Nazareth. He heard incidents of Christ’s life from their lips which betokened a personage very different from the picture sketched for him by his Pharisaic informants; and the sayings of their Master which the Christians quoted did not sound like the utterances of the fanatic he conceived Jesus to have been! (J. Stalker, D. D.)
And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what will Thou have me to do?
Saul of Tarsus converted
I. Are illustrative of a singular transformation of mind. We would not forget the attendant miracles. There is the light, the voice; but we now would speak of the secret place of the spirit. There shines a more marvellous light; there resounds a voice, which “shakes not the earth only, but also heaven.” This is not the effect of surprise. Astonishment is mingled with it; but it was not the ordinary emotion; it was amazement, admiration--lofty, tender, profound, awestricken. It is not the working of self-righteousness. Belief but seeks its proof; submission but asks its test. It is the loosing of the rebel’s weapon from the rebel’s hand. It is not “going about to establish a righteousness of its own,” it is the incense of that sacrifice which God approves. This language is distinguished by--
1. Deep compunction. He feels that his sin is of no common aggravation. It is as though all the strokes he had ever dealt now rebounded on his spirit. It is not mortified pride, abortive ambition, lacerating remorse. It is a gentler and a more amiable humiliation of spirit. Still it is bitter. Here is self-reproach. Conscience has started from its sleep. It is a “godly sorrow working repentance, which needeth not to be repented of.” And until we are thus lowered we are strangers to that repentance which the apostle embodies as he describes.
2. Strange illumination. The “beam” is plucked out from his eye; the “veil” is torn away from his heart. What a world of new interests, realities, relationships, burst upon him! His right is wrong; his faith is unbelief; his earnestness is treason; his truth is error. All those “old things” must pass away. For the first time patriarchs and prophets are seen as frowning upon him; for the first time, “the hope of Israel” and its “consolation” condemns him; for the first time, the “lively oracles” ring alarms of danger in his ear. And then Jesus stands up to him, no longer a butt for ridicule, a stumbling stone for reproach, but “altogether lovely.” How could he have wronged that beauty that fills heaven with praise?
3. Earnest devotedness. It is not impulse--the relief of a mind bewildered and perplexed. There is an intentness upon all that is benevolent. The malignity is turned to love to Him whom he has till then hated, and to that people whom he has hitherto oppressed. And mark how this tendency of his soul, sudden as it was, was sustained. Enters he the polished city? Is he wrecked upon the savage isle? Is he dragged into the amphitheatre, where execution awaits him? Still as serenely he cries with unshrinking spirit, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?”
4. Entire revolution. Here is a new creature. He falls a sinner; he rises a saint. He falls an unbeliever; he rises a champion. He falls a hater of the gospel; he rises an apostle of it. He falls a blasphemer; he rises a martyr. He falls a hater of the Saviour; he rises, so that “for him to live” henceforth “is Christ.”
II. Suppose adequate causes for the production of such a change. The conversion of the apostle, though attended by prodigies, was no miracle itself, i.e., that which is opposed to the particular laws of the subject on which it is wrought. The change wrought upon the apostle’s mind is not contrary to the nature of that mind; it is contrary to its misdirection, enmity, darkness, but it is agreeable to its understanding, affections, and modes of volition. Yet at the same time it is all that is wonderful and there must be causes adequate for its production. It took place--
1. By the impress of power. This power is creative; it therefore acts immediately upon the mind. We have not access to each other’s mind, nor have angels; but at the same time there is a full access which God may claim. He knows the heart, and touches all its springs, and unlocks all its wards, and pursues all its avenues, and intricacies, “God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts.” Think, therefore, of this energy as direct; coming from the Father of light and from the fountain of power, reaching at once the heart which, however rebel it may be, is under His control and sway. Nor is it different as to ourselves. We may not know the hour, but if we have ever the heart opened, the Lord hath opened it; if we have ever a will at one with God, He worked within us first “to will and to do.”
2. By the revelation of truth, It is not improbable that there was some natural process at work. Saul would know the types and predictions, so that when the beam fell upon them he had but to read them at once, and to construe them concerning Him whom he had hitherto opposed and withstood. But it was far more than a natural process. There came a light from God, not only in the sense of power, but in the sense of “quick understanding in the fear of the Lord.” And what truth was disclosed? “The truth as it is in Jesus.” He seized it. It was not by an intuition--because that implies some power of his own; but it had all the rapidity of such an intuition. He saw it in its dimensions, in its proportions, in its harmony; the system arose before him in its symmetry, in its breadth, in its perfection. Everything connected with the Saviour. The same as to ourselves. Others may teach us; but unless we have the teaching of the Spirit, taking of the things of Christ, there may be light in us, but the light is darkness--and “how great is that darkness!”
3. By the sensibility of love. We may think of that soul as replete with all the most dire passions of enmity and of revenge. But now comes the strongest of all attractions, the most potent of all influences--love to God and love to man. Jesus to him is precious. What would he not do, what not endure to show how he loves that Saviour, and all who exhibit His image and promote His cause? It is this that causes us to relent and makes us yield. When this love is “shed abroad in our heart,” every thought is “brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.”
III. Furnish us with important lessons and rules for its investigation. Conversion may be considered a part of the gospel, as it is a doctrine always inculcated by it--and as it is a blessing accomplished wherever it is preached, and the effect of its being applied. And therefore we may take a view of Christianity beyond a mere theory of speculative truth; we may consider it as God’s constant doing in the earth. Now, as conversion amongst ourselves may be counterfeited, let us take this conversion and see how it will be to us a key to all.
1. Conversion is sovereign. For we cannot assign any reason why one man is converted and another is not. It is not of “him willing,” or “him running,” but of “God showing mercy.” You say, “that there is a predisposition.” But how came that predisposition? We do not mean to say that there are not reasons moving the Divine mind; but the reasons do not exist in the sinner himself. Think now of this man. You would have been surprised if Pilate had been the convert, or Caiaphas; why more surprised, then, that the convert is Saul of Tarsus? Have you any explanations to assign for it? There is one--one alone; “He quickeneth whom He will.”
2. Conversion is wrought by a power fully sufficient. It would have been easy to have dashed that “vessel of wrath” into pieces; but was it not difficult to make “a chosen vessel” of it, and “to prepare it to glory”? And yet there was no difficulty to that power which did it. “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” When we think of His power in conversion as equal to any power in the creation of a world or in the resurrection of the dead, then have we the right notion of that power; but not until then. It is power--but not mechanical, not physical--power expanding the powers, wielding the movements, brooding over the rudiments of the mind--the mind becoming supple, passive to that power; eager with all its energies still, with all its accountability and determinateness still--as the clay in the potter’s hand.
3. Conversion in itself must always be sudden; there can be no interval between an unconverted and a converted slate; we pass “from death unto life.” But then the consciousness of a change may not rest upon instantaneous evidence. But let us not argue against the suddenness of conversion.
4. Conversion may be accompanied with circumstances very uncommon and extreme. One heart shall open like the Philippian prison, battered by the earthquake and all its avenues and doors thrown open by the shock; another heart may open like the full-blown rose tremulous in the breeze, bathed with the dew, blushing to the sunbeam. If God takes the one method, or if He adopts the other, what is that to thee? Leave Him to work in His own way--according to His own pleasure.
5. We need not despair of the conversion of any. Have we any friends of whom we have said, There is no hope for them in God? Why? Because we have shaped our thoughts according to ourselves. But “His thoughts are not our thoughts,” etc. What if He have “thoughts of peace” after all? What if His ways are “mercy and truth” after all? “The prey” may still be “taken from the mighty.” Malefactor as he is, that day he may “be with Jesus in paradise.”
6. There must be a practical exhibition of our conversion. No matter what our reverie by day, or our vision by night, our conversion must be reduced to one standard; it speaks only one language--“Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” (R. W. Hamilton, D. D.)
The law of Christian life
He who had come from heaven, and had stooped to conquer the heart of the proud Pharisee, must have a purpose in all this. To know that purpose is Paul’s chief desire. It is only when the will is surrendered to the will of Christ, and Christ is taken as Saviour and Lord, that the life of God begins to grow in us. Viewing this subject broadly in relation to ourselves, let us learn first--
I. How desirable it is that we should all have from the beginning the plan of our life clearly before us. No work of any kind can be effectively done without a plan. The mind necessarily proceeds to action after processes of thought, prevision, anticipation of results and foreseen obstacles. Instinct acts from immediate impulse. The man who dispenses with purpose in action, and lives for the occasion, has no certainty, or consistency, is the slave of every passing impulse, and accomplishes little in the battle of life. If all nature were not bound together by a plan, it would be a chaos, in which kingdom would war against kingdom, and all would end in disaster. If the history of a country do not proceed upon a plan in which successive generations cooperate, there is no cumulative progress in its life. The Hebrew race followed a plan. Why was Carlyle able to accomplish so much and so well as a historian? Because in early days he selected his precise vocation as a historian, and settling down in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, he, year after year, with growing power and speciality, dealt with the events of those times in his lives of Cromwell and of Frederick, and his history of the French Revolution. Why was Darwin able to effect so much for science? Because he recognised early in life as his special destiny the study of living forms, and the conditions of their existence, and gave all his life to that branch of science. Such a habit saves us from the weakening effect of distracting aims. It raises us above the power of opposing circumstances. It stimulates activity. It produces dependence upon God. It develops energy.
II. The plan of our life is in the mind of Christ. He alone has the knowledge, power, all-embracing sympathy, patience, and perfection to make the plan blessed for us and for all.
III. Jesus Christ progressively unfolds to his disciples his life plan for them. He did so to Paul. But it was revealed through Ananias, a general outline--the details after. Christ’s plan is adapted to our capacity--as strength grows we grasp it more clearly.
IV. The will of Christ maybe certainly known by us. Paul in this case did. In most of his subsequent experiences he knew the mind of Christ in truth and conduct. May we know the will of Christ certainly in these days? Yes! We have the words of Christ. We have the Spirit of truth. We know certain facts in nature and laws in science. We may also have spiritual certainty.
V. Times when we should specially breathe this prayer.
1. When burdened by sin.
2. When seeking the blessedness of a higher life.
3. When our way is uncertain. Such prayer will be answered. God’s will be made plain by obedience. (J. Matthews.)
The question of an awakened sinner
I. This language is expressive of deep concern. We sometimes wonder that men are not more concerned about what they must do to be saved. By nature they are blind and dark (Isaiah 59:10). Saul felt his danger, etc. Concern as to the manner of salvation. “What wilt Thou have me to do?” How shall I escape the damnation of hell? What means must I employ? A man lost in the Australian bush is not only concerned about the fact of being lost, but as to the way out of the trackless wilderness.
II. It is the language of astonishment and terror. “He trembling and astonished said,” etc. We have seen men tremble under conviction.
III. This is the language of decision. Saul meant to do whatever God should tell him. Many persons profess to be seeking the Lord for years. Why is He not found of them? because it is painfully manifest that they are not decided.
IV. The gospel alone supplies a satisfactory answer to this question. Conclusion:
1. Have we asked this question?
2. This is a matter of paramount importance. (G. T. Hall.)
Man’s part in conversion
I. In men like Paul no sooner is there a vision of truth than there is a new resolution for duty. Saul had seen a new sight. One look at that majestic and tender countenance changed his anger to repentance. But he did not spend much time in gazing at the radiant spectacle. It purposely vanished from him. He did not call his fellow travellers to admire it as a wonder; he looked instantly for some new work. Such tremendous exercises and convictions are not meant to end in mere emotion. So the convicted jailer, “Sirs, what shall I do to be saved?” So the young man, “What good thing shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And so the people, the publicans, the soldiers to John the Baptist, “What shall we do then?” It is the sincere cry of every earnest nature with a new and Christian view of life.
2. There is a supernatural element and there is a natural one in St. Paul’s conversion; the one for our faith, the other for our imitation. After the first glow of religious interest there comes a period of suspended energy; sometimes of reaction; sometimes of miserable complacency--a looking back to see how far we have come; or sideways, to see who is coming with us. “Suffer me to go first and bury my father”: “What shall this man do?” The strained sinews are relaxed. Here is the test of a true renewing. Can you survive that point of peril? If not, it is not a genuine work of the Holy Spirit. Your will was not converted, only your feelings; and as they are the transient, variable part of us, they are easily converted back again to falsehood and selfishness. Hence, the very question that belongs just there is this, “What wilt Thou have me to do?” How shall the better feeling pass into a better character? In the history, notice--
I. A personal concern. “What wilt Thou have me to do?”--not “this man”; not people in general; not older or better people, but myself. To Saul it was no time for anything but personal feeling and acting. Conscience told him what the vision meant, and the voice confirmed the findings of conscience. No wonder that he cried out “trembling and astonished,” as if there were no moment to be lost, and as if there were no other soul in the universe but himself before the Judge. To those, then, who have begun to inquire what they shall do, the first counsel is, Keep it before you as a personal concern. Do not try to throw your uneasiness off by saying you are no worse than your neighbours. Make no cowardly attempt to shift your responsibility upon others--whether society, your education, employers, tempters, or unfaithful religionists. Remember how many souls have missed their salvation by halting between a general interest and a particular consecration.
II. Doing the first simple duty; and for Christ’s sake, because He has required it. Human judgments would, very likely, have expected something “comporting better with the dignity of the occasion.” After such a supernal manifestation, surely life will not have to settle down into its tame uniformity again? Curiosity would expect some remarkable mission at once. Pride would suggest a sudden elevation into grand undertakings. But no; the first step must be plain and practical. The vision over, St. Paul must march on as before--outwardly as before--only with a changed errand and another heart. Above all, there must be no pause of indolence. “Arise, and go into the city,” etc. After any spiritual excitement, or start forward, there is apt to come a contempt for familiar tasks. But see how the Scriptures rebuke this dangerous vanity; and how profoundly they interpret human nature. After that rapturous night when Jacob saw the splendour of heaven, and the angels of God, the next morning he arose, put together stones for a memorial, and went straight on his journey. Naaman expected some magnificent demonstration of miracle. But no; it was simply, “Go, bathe seven times in Jordan.” “Too simple, too common,” he said. Yet that was the way to health. At their first call, the fishermen that were to convert the world were not sent out with banners and trumpets. Drop your fishing nets and come after Me, in a quiet, obscure, daily doing of My hard work, and in due time you shall be kings and priests unto God! The healed leper was only to go home and tell what great things God had done for him. The “young man” was looking for some unprecedented sacrifice; but to go and increase his charity to those poor people he had seen so often was more than he could bear. No, the true self-sacrifice is not on high or in strange places. Back to the old scenes, the dull shop, the unsocial, unexciting day’s work, the tedious routine of the office; but if you take with you the new Spirit, which has beamed upon you in your blessed hour, then all the dull task work will be transfigured in that light. Go straight to the nearest, plainest duty, and “it shall be told thee” there, in the opening path of Providence, what thou shalt dc next.
III. Silent seclusion and meditation. Observe how effectually the apostle was shut up to himself. First, a blindness, then three days of absolute privacy, fasting, thinking, afterwards three years in Arabia. He needed this cooling air of stillness and loneliness. His passions had been fiery, terribly tempestuous. Not long before he had taken a ferocious delight in Stephen’s martyrdom; and now, sitting at the feet of that Jesus, he had that scene to remember. Food enough for meditation! Like the outward form of the Master, that old life must die, and lie “three days” hid in a sepulchre, before the new created man could be “risen with Christ.” There is a lesson for us of this bustling age in that strong, penitent man, fasting, repenting, shut in his dark room, thinking, praying. When the deepest springs of life are moved by any grand experience we cannot speak: we ought to be still. Even nature, whenever she discloses to us her grander scenery, shuts our lips. After that call from heaven the apostle longed for silence, and it came. Such seclusion is sometimes our salvation. Every real renewal is a winepress that must be trodden alone.
IV. Submission to a visible religious authority. Ananias, a representative of the Church, was sent to encourage him, and to introduce him to the Church. If Paul’s strong nature needed guidance and help, our weak ones need it no less. What Ananias and the miracle and the heavenly voice were to him, one Book and the ministry and the ordinances are to us. This sounds very commonplace, I know. Visions are more exciting, ecstasies more transporting, sentimentalists will say it is uninteresting; pseudo-spiritualists will say it is formal; novelty seekers will say it is old fashioned. But remember, the supposition now is that you are in earnest about making yourself a Christian man, and are willing to take the practical, sensible means. One of these, a chief one, is a study of the Bible--the textbook of the Christian knowledge. Whenever it is displaced, Christian character loses richness and depth. One reason why our modem religion is superficial, weak, irreverent, is that the intimacy with that nourishing inspiration declines. Nor can you separate the Bible from the Church. Our busy society has so little in its influence that is really spiritual--it offers so few helps to a weak soul struggling to maintain a Christian conversation--that we do all need to replenish our inner light and love and strength from supernatural and sacramental fountains.
V. The appeal to Christ by prayer. St. Paul spoke first, not to himself, not to Ananias, not to any friend on earth; it was, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” There is no such thing as growth in a holy life without communion between the heart and Him. For every perplexity and despondency, a fresh supplication: “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” and He will show us. He has promised that He will. “Ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find.” (Bp. Huntington.)
An eager inquiry
The words are--
I. An earnest appeal for Divine mercy. Saul was conscious of his great wickedness in persecuting Christ, and doubtless thought that he would have to “do” much to secure forgiveness. The reply, “Arise,” etc., must have given him hope. The period of three days was one of great anguish, but relief came through Ananias, and Saul received his sight and the gift of the Holy Ghost. Nothing is said about forgiveness, but this is surely included in the gift of the Spirit, for the one is of no use without the other. So Peter said to the penitents at Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized … and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Does anyone here inquire, “What shall I do?” The answer “is nigh thee even in thy heart,” etc.
II. A hearty desire for consecration to God’s service. The question means not only, “What must I do to be saved?” but, “What must I do to serve Thee?” God wills--
1. That we should hold communion with Him. This Saul did during the three days at Damascus. “Behold he prayeth.” He had prayed before, but only as a Pharisee--outwardly; now he came into actual contact with God, and poured out his soul before Him.
2. That we should exemplify the power of the gospel in our daily life. “As ye have received Christ as Lord, so walk in Him” in your personal capacity, in your domestic relations, in your secular employments, in your religious and Church duties.
3. That we should help to diminish human misery. Our Master went about doing good, not only to the souls, but to the bodies of men. His religion is not only one of faith and hope, but of charity. “Pure religion and undefiled,” etc. “Whoso hath this world’s good,” etc.
4. That we should seek to bring men to Christ. It was revealed to Paul that he should be a preacher, and right well did he fulfil his task. Although all Christians are not called upon to be preachers, yet all are expected to do something to save souls. In the family, Sunday school, workshop, by the sick bed, etc. We may all work for the Master.
1. This life is the only opportunity we have for working in reference to the world to come.
2. Our position in heaven will be determined by our activity on earth.
3. Our work and therefore our reward will be proportioned by the degree to which we yield to the constraint of Christ’s love. (J. Morris, D. D.)
The Christian’s life
Standing on a platform when the train, shooting out of some dark tunnel, dashes by with the rush of an eagle, and the roar of thunder; or, seated upon some lofty rock, when the mountain wave, driven on by the hurricane, and swelling, foaming, curling, bursts, and, passing on either side, rushes to roll along the beach--than these I know no situation, under heaven, where a man more feels his weakness. What hand could stop these flying wheels; or, seizing the billow by its snowy main, hold it back? Only one--God’s own right hand. Great miracle that! A greater is here, in the sudden omnipotent arrest of Saul. With what impetus he moves on his career, and, breathing flames and slaughter, he rushes on his prey; but in a moment he is arrested in mid career, changed into little child. The hand that bent the arch of heaven has bent his iron will; and, now yielding himself up to Christ, he lies at His feet. Let us now consider what is implied in this question of his.
I. That every true convert submits himself to the will of Christ. It is not, What will my minister, parents, friends, etc.; but what wilt Thou have me to do?
1. This submission to another’s will is the most difficult of things. It is easier to bend iron than a stubborn will. Does not every parent find it so? Happy are the children that have learned to say to a wise, good, Christian father, what Jesus said to His, “Not My will, but Thine be done.” This submission to the will of another, the first, best lesson, the battle of the nursery, trains us for the battle of the world, and also the Church. And thus are we to yield our wills to Christ, not saying what would I wish, or what will this or that one say? but Speak, Lord, Thy servant heareth. In the church, in the place of business, in the family, in the world, What wilt Thou have me to do? There is a passage in the history of St. Francis that may throw light on this subject. The rule of the order which he founded was implicit submission to the superior. One day a monk proved refractory. He must be subdued. By order of St. Francis, a grave was dug, and the monk was put into it. The brothers began to shovel in the earth. When the mould had reached the wretch’s knees, St. Francis bent down, and, fixing his eye on him, said, Are you dead yet--do you yield? There was no answer; down in that grave there seemed to stand a man with a will as iron as his own. The burial went on. When at length he was buried up to the neck, to the lips, St. Francis bent down once more, Are you dead yet? The monk lifted his eye to his superior to see in his cold, grey eyes no spark of feeling. Dead to all the weaknesses of humanity, St. Francis stood ready to give the signal that should finish the burial. It was not needed; the iron bent; the funeral was slopped; his will yielding to a stronger, the poor brother said, “I am dead.” Popery is not so much a contradiction as a caricature of the truth. I would not be dead as these monks to any man. The reason which I have got from God Almighty is to bend blindly before no human authority. But the submission I refuse to man, Jesus, I give to Thee--not wrung from me by terror, but won by love. I wish to be dead, not as that monk, but as he who said, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live.” Saul, the persecutor, was dead; but Paul, the great apostle, lived. “Yet not I,” he adds, “but Christ liveth in me,” etc.
2. Were it so with us, what happy, good, brave, devoted Christians we should be! I have seen a servant come in the morning to his master for orders, and leave to spend the day in executing them; and would that every one of us would go morning by morning to Christ, saying, with Saul, Lord what wilt Thou have me to do this day? There would be no difficulty in getting money for Christ’s cause, or people to do His work. I have read how a troop of cavalry, dashing at the roaring cannon, would rush on to death; and how the forlorn hope would throw themselves, with a bound and a cheer, into the fiery breach, knowing that they should leave their bodies there--it was the will of their commander. And shall Christians do less for Christ? Are you your own? We have one Master in heaven; and if it be true that He bought us with His blood, what right has a Christian to himself?
II. That every true convert feels his individual responsibility. It is not only, Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do? but What wilt Thou have me to do?
1. In looking over some vast assembly one reflection naturally suggests itself--What power is here! You may smile at him who, standing by the cataract of Niagara, instead of being filled with admiration, began to calculate how much machinery that water power would turn. But it is a serious, stirring thought to think how much moral machinery all this power now before me could turn for good, were every scheming brain and busy hand, and willing heart, engaged in the service of God. What honour would accrue to God! what a revenue of glory to Jesus Christ, and what invaluable service to religion! It is impossible to estimate the power that lies latent in our Churches. We talk of the power latent in steam till Watts evoked its spirit from the waters, and set the giant to turn the iron arms of machinery. We talk of the power latent in the skies till science, seizing the spirit of the thunder, chained it to our service--abolishing distance, and flashing our thoughts across rolling seas to distant Continents. Yet what are these to the moral power that lies asleep in our congregations?
2. And why latent? Because men and women neither appreciate their individual influence, nor estimate their individual responsibilities. They cannot do everything; therefore they do nothing. They cannot blaze like a star; and, therefore, they won’t shine like a glow worm; and so they are content that the few work, and that the many look on. Not thus are the woods clothed in green, but by every little leaf expanding its own form. Nor thus are fields covered with golden corn, but by every stalk of grain ripening its own head. You say, What can I do? oh, I have no power, nor influence, nor name, nor talents, nor money! Look at the coral reef yonder, which stretches its unbroken wall for a thousand leagues along the sea. How contemptible the architects; yet the aggregate of their labours, mocking our greatest breakwaters, how colossal! I know that all cannot be bright and burning lights; but see how that candle in a cottage window sends out its rays streaming far through the depths of night. Why should not we shine, though it should be to illumine only the narrow walls of our country’s humblest home?
3. Consider how the greatest things done on earth have ever been done by little and little--little agents, and little things. How was the wall restored around Jerusalem? By each man, whether his house was an old palace or the rudest cabin, building the breach before his own door. How was the soil of the New World redeemed from gloomy forests? By each sturdy emigrant cultivating the patch round his own log cabin? How have the greatest battles been won? By the rank and file--every man holding his own post, and ready to die on the battlefield. And if the world is ever to be conquered for our Lord, it is not by ministers, nor by office bearers, nor by the great, and noble, and mighty; but by every member of Christ’s body being a working member, and saying to Jesus, Lord what wilt Thou have me to do?
III. That the life of the true convert will be one of deeds. What wilt Thou have me not to believe or to profess, but to do.
1. I do not set deeds against doctrines, nor have I any sympathy with the fashion of setting small value on creeds; saying, It matters little what a man believes, if he does right. A man cannot do right unless he believes right, since every effect must have a cause. I know that doctrines are not deeds; that the foundation is not the superstructure. Yet that night when the rains descend, and the floods rise, and the winds blow, happy is the man whose storm-beaten house stands founded on a rock, and happier still the man, when the hour comes which shall sweep away all confidence in human merits, whose hopes of salvation stand on the Rock of Ages. Call creeds, as some do, but the bones, and not the living, lovely, breathing form of true religion; still, what were the body without the bones? Not less important the place that doctrines hold; and therefore I say, hold fast the profession of your faith.
2. Still, faith without works is dead. Useless the creeds that do not influence our conduct; the preaching that leads to no practice. Prayer meetings, sermons, are good; but they are not, as some make them, banquets where you are to enjoy yourselves. Would you see their proper use? Look at yon hardy and sun-burned man, sitting down in his cottage to a simple meal; and rising from the table to spend the strength it gives him at the labours of the field. So Sabbaths and religious services are to strengthen us for work--otherwise our religion is no less selfish than the lives of epicures. Our object should be to get strength to do God’s work in this world, and to follow Him who, as our pattern as well as propitiation, went about continually doing good. Christ is the propitiation of none of whom he is not also the pattern; and on the last day you will never be asked what was your denomination or creed. No! It is fruit, not leaves nor even flowers, that is the test of the tree. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be cut down, and east into the fire. Alive to this, what good we should do! how busy we should be! There would be no time for sin; little even for rest. Rest? What have we to do with that? From His cradle to the grave, did Christ ever rest? “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” Earth for work, heaven for wages. “There remaineth a rest for the people of God.” (T. Guthrie, D. D.)
The two-fold subjection of humanity to God--Pharaoh and Paul
(text, and Romans 14:11; Exodus 10:17):--The passage from Romans, taken from Isaiah 45:23, predicts the universal subjugation of mankind to the Divine will. This does not mean universal salvation, for the subjugation is two fold, the one represented by Pharaoh, the other by Paul.
I. The one is by a conviction of God’s terrible power, the other by a conviction of His love. Pharaoh felt that further rebellion would be ruin, and for a moment “bowed the knee.” Paul felt that further rebellion would be a crime against that tenderness that could plead, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.” So it is ever. Wicked men and devils are made to bow by a sense of God’s power. Good men and angels bow from a sense of His love.
II. The one involves anguish, the other happiness. In what a state of agony was Pharaoh when he said, “Intreat the Lord for me.” But what joy came to Paul as the voice of Mercy said, “Rise, stand upon thy feet,” etc. The one therefore involves heaven, the other hell.
1. In the one there is a sense of absolute slavery, in the other of perfect freedom.
2. In the one there is a sense of despair, in the other of hopefulness.
3. In the one there is a sense of Divine antagonism, in the other of Divine favour.
III. The one becomes a ministry of destruction, the other of salvation. Pharaoh, the moment the panic abated, rushes on and brings destruction to himself and his hosts; Paul begins a ministry which issues in the salvation of myriads. Conclusion: It is not for us to determine whether we shall bow the knee or not--we must--but how: by a sense of God’s power or of His love, by coercion or choice? (D. Thomas, D. D.)
I. Every man has his mission.
1. Life is awfully significant.
2. Duty renders it sublime.
II. Our mission may be ascertained--
1. By observing our position and circumstances.
2. By listening to the voice of God.
III. Our mission may be accomplished.
1. Impossibilities are not required.
2. God is pledged to give the needful strength. (W. W. Wythe.)
The Christian for the times
The great apostle was a man for the times in which he lived. “The Christian for the times” must be--
I. Spiritual. He must be “converted” on the conditions of repentance and faith.
II. He must be intelligent. Must know the Scriptures.
III. He must be tolerant in spirit. The age of intolerance is past.
IV. He must be progressive in his methods.
V. He must be aggressive in spirit. “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” To go is to be aggressive.
VI. He must be liberal with his possessions. VII. He must possess stability of character. (J. Robinette.)
And the men who Journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man (text, and Acts 22:9):
The sights and sounds of life
Here is a record of the supernatural in the life of Paul and his companions.
The fact that these phenomena were at midday, and that the apostle’s fellow travellers were also sensible of them demonstrates that both the voice and the light were objective realities. The slight discrepancy between the two accounts confirms their authenticity. Identity of statement by two different persons after an interval of twenty-five years would excite suspicion. But it may fairly be supposed that all that Paul means is that they heard not articulate voice but mere sound. The same sound that communicated no idea in the one case, conveyed a message from Christ in the other. And the same light which revealed nothing to “the men” revealed the Son of God to Paul. This extraordinary circumstance indicates what is common in human life. A voice fraught with deep meaning to some, is a mere empty sound to others; a light revealing the grandest realities to some, discloses nothing to others.
I. Men’s lives in relation to material nature show this.
1. The lights of nature reveal--
(1) To the thoughtless multitude nothing but mere sensuous forms--just what they reveal to the brute.
(2) To the superstitious, unearthly existences--dreaded as demons or worshipped as gods.
(3) To the sceptical philosopher, nothing but a grand system of well-organised forces working by its own inherent impulse resistless as fate.
(4) To the enlightened Christian, a wise and loving Father.
2. The voices of nature, too, which are boundlessly varied, and set in every key, convey different impressions to different minds.
(1) Nothing but mere sensation.
(2) Superstitious awe.
(3) Scientific intelligence.
(4) Thoughts from God.
II. Men’s lives in relation to human history show this. The lights and voices of history reveal varied and almost opposite things.
1. To some it is without any governing law. Its social, mercantile, political movements are ascribable only to blind impulse and capricious passions.
2. To others it has only the governing law of human might. Some explain all on the principle that the strong preys on the weak. The progress and decline of commerce, the rise and fall of empires, the fate of battles are all ascribable to superior might.
3. To others it is governed exclusively by evil. The devil is in the schemes of the trader, the thunders of the orator, the craft of the priest, and shapes the destiny of the race.
4. To others it is governed by the mediatorial plan of God. The restorative purpose of heaven is seen running through the ages. Even the bitterest sufferings are regarded as parturition throes giving birth to a higher order of things.
III. Men’s lives in relation to the inspired oracle show this. The Bible has wonderful lights and sounds, but nothing is more true than that they differently affect different men. Ecclesiastical history, theological polemics, as well as the religious life of our own age, are fraught with illustrations of this. The sceptic and the believer, the Papist and the Protestant, the Socinian and the Trinitarian, the Churchman and the Nonconformist are striking examples.
IV. Men’s lives in relation to the gospel ministry show this. How differently the same sermon is regarded by various members of the congregation. The sermon which as a Divine voice speaks to the conscience of some, has no meaning to others; or which, as a Divine light, flashes moral conviction and reveals Christ to some, is either not seen at all, or regarded as a mere glare of human genius or enthusiasm. Conclusion: This subject--
1. Reveals a distinguishing attribute of human nature. Men have the power of hearing and seeing with the soul. All that the brutes see and hear terminates in the region of sensation. Ezekiel, Isaiah, John, our own Milton show what men can see and hear with the organs of their soul. The pure in heart see God. Man, in one word, has the power or receiving, modifying, and interpreting the impression the outward makes upon him.
2. Explains the great difference between spiritually and carnally minded men. Men are divided into two classes, those who live to and for the flesh, and those who live to and for the Spirit. Why is this? The one hears and sees in the sounds and sights of life what the other does not. The spiritual realises the spiritual even here.
3. Presents an object in life after which all should strive--viz., to get the eyes and ears of his soul so quickened as to see and hear the Divine everywhere, as the Lord did for Elisha’s servant. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
And Saul arose, and … they led him by the hand.
A wonderful change in the soul of which this was the symbol.
I. The hand yielded.
1. Confession of futile character of past opposition. Sense of helplessness.
2. Trust in a newly discovered guide.
II. The hand grasped. Soldiers accompany Saul, or strangers to him; they yet represented Divine guidance given in weakness. The responsibility of those who offer to guide.
III. The hand kept--a type of soul attitude. Continue with Christ. True progress was the outcome of being led. We shall be brought to the great ends of life by being led. We shall attain rest. We need to gain that submissiveness embodied in “Lead, kindly light.” (A. F. Muir, M. A.)
And was three days without sight.--
What Saul felt in his seclusion and saw in his blindness
Only one other space of three days’ duration can be mentioned of equal importance. The conflict of Saul’s feelings was so great and his remorse so piercing that he could neither eat nor drink. He could have no communication with the Christians, for they had been terrified by the news of his approach, and the Jews could have no sympathy with his present state of mind. He fasted and prayed in silence. The recollections of his early years--the passages of Scripture which he had never understood--the thoughts of his own cruelty--the memory of the last looks of Stephen--all these crowded into his mind, and made the three days equal to long years of repentance. And if there was one feeling which above all others kept possession of his heart it was that suggested by Christ’s expostulation, and this feeling would be attended with thoughts of peace, with hope and faith. He waited on God; and in his blindness a vision was granted unto him. (Dean Howson.)
Saul at Damascus
Just as an eagle which has been drenched and battered by some fierce storm will alight to plume its ruffled wings, so when a great soul has passed “through fire and water,” it needs some quiet place in which to rest. Like Moses, like Elijah, like our Lord Himself, like almost every great soul in ancient or modern times to whom has been entrusted the task of swaying the destinies by moulding the convictions of mankind--like Sakya Mount, like Mohammed in the cave at Hira, like St. Francis of Assist in his sickness, like Luther in the monastery of Erfurt, Paul would need a quiet period in which to elaborate his thoughts, to still the tumult of his emotions, to commune in secrecy and silence with his own soul. (Archdeacon Farrar.)
The three days’ sepulture for the inward man
I. The old must pass away.
1. The old light is gone.
2. The old enjoyments are no longer palatable.
3. The old activity is paralysed.
4. The old friends are away.
II. The new is quietly preparing.
1. A new light is kindling within.
2. A new salvation is rising up in the soul.
3. Strength is collecting for a new calling.
4. New friends are standing at the door. (K. Gerok.)
And there was a certain disciple at Damascus called Ananias.
Ananias of Damascus
1. Most people have watched a little steam tug busily towing some great ship down stream or out into the sea. The tug is almost extinguished by the giant hull that floats behind, and returns unnoticed into port, while, observed of all observers, the big ship spreads her white sails to the breeze, and, like a noble bird upon the wing, speeds her silent but majestic flight across the waves. The conversion of Saul, and the glorious work which he achieved, are household words in our Christian communities, and evidences of our Christian faith. Every one is familiar with the start of that goodly vessel, with the voyages it made, and the precious cargoes which it carried. But that ship also had its steam tug, who appears at the crisis, does the work appointed to Him and then vanishes.
2. How a Christian Church had grown together at Damascus we know not; but some of the scattered disciples, doubtless, fled thither after Stephen’s death, and converts were added from among the native Jews. Thus far Jews and Christians seem to have lived on peaceable and even friendly terms, far removed from the controversies of Jerusalem. Ananias himself was universally respected. He was known as “a devout man according to the law,” and “had a good report of all the Jews which dwelt in Damascus.” Such are the men whom our Lord loves to employ, men of unblemished character, “sanctified and meet for the Master’s use,” etc.
3. It does not follow that Ananias held any official position in the Church. We have a perfect right to consider him a private Christian, with no special gift of public speech or pastoral authority, but holding the warrant which belongs to all disciples, to preach the gospel. Ananias’s commission is only what may come to any one of us, and for which we should be prepared. True, the Lord spoke to him “in a vision”; but He may speak with equal emphasis by the whisper of His Spirit, or the indication of His providence; and our attitude, like his, must be that of the girded loins and watchful eye--“Behold, I am here, Lord.”
4. The work prepared for Ananias is now unfolded to him. In the “street called Straight” stood a house, belonging to a well-known citizen, Judas; and there lies a blind man, wanting help, which Ananias is to give. The man is expecting him: for he too has had a vision of such an one coming. And mark the motive for going. “Behold, he prayeth”; that is the sight which attracts the eye of the Lord, and ought to kindle the zeal of the disciples. Are you beginning to pray? The ear of Christ has caught the sound. It comes floating up to the high heavens, through all the thunder of the angels’ adoration, and the ceaseless murmur of the universe, heard as surely as an infant’s cry reaches the mother’s ear amidst the bustle of the house. He sees you; and He will stir up some Ananias to come to you.
5. The street is called Straight, the house is the house of Judas, and so far all is plain; but the man in the house--what is his name? The sound of his name fell like a thunderbolt; “inquire for one called Saul of Tarsus.” Shall Ananias put his head into the tiger’s mouth? Shall he carry the pearl of the gospel and east it down at the feet of its bitterest calumniator? “Lord, I have heard by many of this man,” and I had rather have nothing to do with him! How often has the same answer started to our lips at some distasteful call of duty. But these difficult errands are really our noblest opportunities. “Go thy way,” Ananias; thou art to have part in a work with the fame of which the world shall ring! That persecutor is “a chosen vessel unto Me.” To that devout disciple it is granted to take Saul of Tarsus by the hand, to introduce him into the Church, and to send him forth upon his mission of self-sacrifice. May there be no such honours waiting for us? John Bunyan was first enlightened by the simple Christian talk of some poor women, spinning on the summer’s evening at their cottage doors. Sir Hope Grant is said to have been brought out of utter indifference by overhearing a group of private soldiers at prayer. The mouse lets loose the lion. Only let us cultivate simplicity and faith, and yield a prompt obedience to the call of duty, and to us too may fail some glorious trophy of Divine favour.
6. Brave believer as he was, Ananias reached the house, and found the man. He seems like some skilful and friendly physician in his treatment of the difficult case, and shows us how to deal with the inquiring.
(1) Before him lies the man whose hands have been imbrued in Christian blood. He would have had Ananias himself in prison before now, if he had not been hindered. But it is all forgotten and forgiven. Friendly hands are laid on those blind eyes, and a voice, full of pathos and pity, says, “Brother Saul!” The salutation with which one Christian was wont to salute another--breathing so different a spirit from rigid Pharisaism. It seemed to take in the poor forlorn sinner to a family fireside, with its warmth and light. If we want to do men good, they must be our “brothers.” Never stand, like some old pillar saint, on your high pedestal of virtue and talk down to the people at your feet. Go and sit at their side; put your hands on them; make them feel at home with you; and even if you have to do with the most wicked, speak to him as man to man, on the common footing of the love of God.
(2) There, is moreover, a cheerful assurance in the tone which Ananias takes. He might have come to that chief of sinners with stern words of condemnation. He comes with words of hope and with acts of blessing. The falling of the scales from Saul’s eyes was but a symbol of the spiritual enlightenment which Ananias was permitted to bring to his benighted soul.
7. What a commission we Christians have and with what alacrity should it be done l Happy must be the surgeon who with delicate skill can give sight back to the blinded eye, and bid it look out once more on sky and earth, and springing flowers, and human faces. But higher and happier still the calling of the disciple, who may send forth a brother man rejoicing on his pilgrimage to the eternal sunshine of heaven.
8. Nor does Ananias reckon his task yet complete. We preach the gospel to men, and then too often let them go. It matters much to a young disciple that he should be clearly told what to do next. And now to Saul’s eager inquiry, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” comes the appropriate answer, “Arise and be baptized,” and then, “join thyself to the disciples.” Was it not a joyful day when Ananias entered the Christian assembly, leading by the hand that changed and humbled man, and witnessed the good profession which he made? And have you been the means of guiding a soul to Christ? That is good; but now complete your work. Bring your friend into the Church, among fellow Christians, whose experience may instruct and edify him, and with whom he may find a spiritual home. (W. Brock, jun.)
The good Ananias: a lesson for believers
I. The man.
1. He was simply a private person. He is not described as pastor, or evangelist, or deacon: yet he was the channel for communicating the Holy Ghost to the great apostle. The Lord did not send to Paul an apostle, lest any should have said that Paul received his commission at second hand from those already in office. I see in many of you special qualifications for certain uses, which your being church officers or preachers might take from you.
2. He was a disciple. He sat at Jesus’ feet and learned of Him, and therefore was ready to instruct Saul. How can you teach others that which Christ does not teach you?
3. He was “a devout man” (Acts 22:12). Nowadays we greatly need more devout men, men of prayer, devoted men: for the strength of the spirit of man lies in fellowship with the Spirit of God. And he that has power with God will not fail to have power with men.
4. He had “a good report of all the Jews which dwell in Damascus.” They hated Christians, but they could not help respecting this devout man. The world had then, as it still has, a respect for those who walk with God. If we are to be useful to our fellow men we must deserve their esteem.
5. He was thoughtful for the Church of God. He was grieved at the afflictions of the saints in Jerusalem, and he feared for his brethren in Damascus. He is the first to call Christians “saints,” or holy ones. He had evidently noticed with delight this point of their character. All the servants of God should take an interest in the condition of the Church. It is one mark that a man is right towards God when he is right towards the family of God.
II. His posture. He was familiar with the Old Testament, and remembered how the Lord said, “Abraham,” and the patriarch answered, “Here am I,” and how Samuel and Isaiah said the same. Did not this indicate that--
1. His heart was responsive to the Divine voice? God speaks to us many times and gets no answer. Happy is he who can say with David, “When Thou saidst, Seek ye My face,” etc. If there be a call to duty, or a prompting to sacrifice, does your spirit say at once, “Here am I”?
2. He was ready. He did not ask, “What for?” but “Here am I,” ready for anything. Are we free from reservations? Whatsoever the Lord saith to us, are we prepared to do it? What drawbacks there often are! But blessed is that man who says “Ready, aye ready!”
3. He was all there. “Ananias.” “Here am I.” In prayer, in singing, how often it happens that the mind is wandering--we are not there. There is such a thing as preaching, and doing service for God with a portion of yourself. I often see upon a sunny wall a chrysalis, and when I go to take it down, I find that the summer’s sun has shone upon it and the insect has developed, and left nothing but an empty case behind. How often in the pew we find the chrysalis of a man, but where is the man? Wait till tomorrow morning, and see him in his shop; there is the man; or, to follow up the figure, there is the butterfly. But if ever a man ought to be all there, it is when he is called to the service of God. He should marshal all his faculties, and every faculty should reply, “Here am I.” The whole of a living man is something worth having, but a fragment is only fit to be buried.
III. His direction. When he had thus said, “Here am I!” the Lord gave him his orders in detail. I do not say that the Lord will give us orders verbally, and I would have you not mistake your own whims for God’s voice; but I do say believe that God’s voice is calling you to that service which providence places in your way. God still guides His servants when they are willing to be guided. Ananias had his orders as to--
1. Where he should go. The Lord knows the street and house where the sinner lives who is to be blessed by you. Only wait upon Him, and if you go in His name He will take care that you are not sent to the wrong person.
2. To whom he was to go. The Lord knows the individual whom you are to bless, and all about him. Though you have no verbal directions, yet the person who falls in your way, if you will but seek to do God’s work to him, will turn out to be the person whom God intends you to bless.
3. When to go. Perhaps he had not yet left his bed, for it was a vision of the night; but he was to “Arise and go.” God’s errands are so important that we must not delay their performance. Why he was to go. Because the Master was there already. God had inspired the prayer of the blinded persecutor, and now he was about to answer it by Ananias. Where God has ploughed we are to sow. Of that preparation you know but little, but your own duty is clear enough.
5. What he was to do when he found Saul; he was to lay his hand on him. There is a great deal in the touch of an earnest man. If you stand half a mile off from a man, and throw the gospel at him, you will miss him; but if you go close to him, and lay hold upon him, and show that you have an affection for him, you will, by God’s blessing, lead him in the right way.
IV. His difficulties. These were--
1. Very natural. There is a promise that the leopard shall lie down with the kid, but it is not surprising that the kid should at first shrink from the monster; and so this simple-minded man was startled at the idea that he was to visit the malicious man who had sought the lives, of Christians.
2. Were such that he could tell the Lord about them; and whenever you feel any difficulty, if you can lay it before the Lord in prayer, there may be unbelief in it, but there will be no wilful sin in it.
3. Unfounded. If he had thought for a minute he would have concluded that if Saul prayed he must have ceased to persecute. Do we not lose opportunities of doing good by dwelling too much upon the past characters of those to whom we are sent? Utterly hopeless people are often the most hopeful when we have faith enough to approach them. Be hopeful that He who placed this sinner in your way and you in the sinner’s way has designs of love which are about to be accomplished.
V. His comfort. The Lord reassured His servant by reminding him--
1. Of the doctrine of election. “He is a chosen vessel unto Me.” Here was one whom God had chosen to bless, though Ananias knew it not.
2. That He had chosen this man to a great purpose. “To bear My name among the Gentiles.” A great sinner is to be made a great saint. A great opposer is to become a great labourer. Who knows how largely God may use the sinner whom we seek to save? You teachers may be teaching Luthers or Melancthons, holy men and women who shall serve the Lord abundantly.
3. That He would go with him--“For I will show him,” etc. You are bidden to teach an individual and you fear that you have no strength, and, therefore, you cry, “Lord, I cannot show this man the truth.” The Lord replies, “I will show him.”
VI. His obedience. It was--
1. Prompt. He went his way with all speed.
2. Exact: he entered into the house, and, putting his hands on him, said, “Brother Saul.” He did as he had been bidden. And if I deliver my Lord’s message just as He gave it to me, then my Lord is responsible for the success of it, and not myself.
3. Loving. “Brother Saul.” You cannot win souls by putting on a morose countenance. Do not be afraid to call the individual “Brother”; but take care that you mean it. Ananias did not use the term as a cant expression, but his spirit and feeling were brotherly.
4. Wise. He did not pompously say, “I am an ordained official, and therefore speak with authority”; but “The Lord, even Jesus, that appeared,” etc. When he alludes to Paul’s former course, he only gives a hint of it--“the Lord that appeared to thee.” He does not say, “as thou camest to persecute us,” but he allowed conscience to do its own work. He gives the items of his errand--“that thou mightest receive thy sight and be filled with the Holy Ghost.”
5. Faithful. “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins.” The tendency with many is to say nothing upon that point.
VII. The results. They were--
1. Immediate; for Paul received his sight, was comforted and baptized at once.
2. Extensive; for this Paul became a preacher of the gospel to every land. Go ye, then, wherever God sends you. Everybody is not a Paul, but yet you may find a Paul among your converts. The pearl fisher plunges into the sea; he does not know whether or no he shall bring up a pearl that will decorate an emperor’s diadem, but he searches the deeps in that hope. No matter though the fisherman himself may be coarse and rugged, yet he may light upon a priceless pearl. And you, whoever you may be, plunge into your work with whole-hearted devotion, and you shall yet discover some hidden jewel which shall adorn Immanuel’s diadem. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight.
I. As the temporary abode of a remarkable stranger. “One Saul of Tarsus.”
1. Remarkable for intellectual ability.
2. For prodigious force of character.
3. For undivided concentration of purpose.
4. For conscientious religious conviction.
5. For tragic success in persecution.
6. For startling change of career.
II. As a locality visited by a Divine messenger. “And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go,” etc. That Heaven--
1. Is intimately acquainted with the homes of the good.
2. Sometimes utilises the homes of the good for its own purpose.
3. Invariably immortalises such occasions by the Divine presence.
III. As the scene of the greatest conversion. “Behold, he prayeth.” The conversion was--
1. Unexpected in its occurrence.
2. Miraculous in its agency.
3. Bitter in its experience.
4. Prolonged in its process.
5. Unique in its purpose.
6. Worldwide in its results. This one conversion was a universal revival. (B. D. Johns.)
The dwellers in “the street called Straight”
I am afraid that if Ananias had been sent to that street to inquire for some of us he would not have found us living there. This street is a very interesting one, because--
1. The people who live in it are honest, and would not do a dishonourable thing for all that you could give them. Thus there are many people who do not think it worth their while to live in that street; still less do they think that anyone can succeed in business there, as they will have to compete with people who live in other streets, and who will do very unworthy things for the sake of gain. Thus they think they are bound to do some crooked things or they will be driven out of house and home by competition. And so there are many people who refuse to live in “the street called Straight,” because it has no “Lying Corner” or “Cheating Alley.” But we must remember that the only sense in which we can be rich is not having a lot of money to our credit in the bank. The richest man after all is the man who has got a good name, which cannot be bought for money; so that if a man loses occasionally in pounds, shillings, and pence by living in “the street called Straight,” he gains in having a nobler spirit, a finer character, and a more beautiful life.
2. The people who live in “the street called Straight” are truthful. They will not tell a lie on any account, even if it gets them out of a difficulty. Now, I wonder how many of you children live in this street?
3. Those who live in “the street called Straight” are self-denying. They will gladly do a kindness, if by so doing they can help their neighbour. Ah, there is wonderful neighbourliness in this street.
4. Those who live in this street keep everything very clean. They sometimes may be mistaken, but they are very pure in their motives. (D. Davies.)
Enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth.--
Behold he prayeth
These words are the hallmark of genuine conversion. “Behold, he prayeth” is a surer witness of a man’s conversion than, “Behold, he singeth, or, readeth the Scripture, or, preacheth.” These things may be admirably done by men who are not regenerate; but if a man really prays, we may know that he has passed from death unto life. Prayer is the autograph of the Holy Ghost upon the renewed heart. Hence the Lord gave to Ananias his sure indication that Saul of Tarsus was a converted man, by saying to him, “Behold, he prayeth.” In Saul’s case, this indication was very specially remarkable: “Behold, he prayeth” had a peculiar meaning in relation to this converted Pharisee. I shall have to show you this at length. It was thought a great wonder that King Saul, of the Old Testament, prophesied. So unexpected and singular was the event that it became a proverb: “Is Saul also among the prophets?” But it was an equal marvel when this more modern Saul was seen to pray. Is Saul of Tarsus among those who pray to Jesus for mercy? The Lord from heaven Himself mentions it as a prodigy, he points to it as a thing to be beheld and wondered at, for He says to His servant Ananias, “Behold, he prayeth.” This expression concerning Saul of Tarsus is remarkable, for--
I. It implies that he had never prayed before. This is very striking, for Saul was a Pharisee, and therefore a man who habitually repeated prayers; but He who searcheth the hearts, and knew what prayer is, here declares that now at length he begins to pray. What his friends would have put down as a great mass of prayer, the Lord makes nothing of. I want to push this fact home upon those who in a formal manner have always prayed and yet have never spiritually prayed.
1. Real prayer must be spiritual; and Saul’s prayers had not been such before. Words are but the body of devotion: the confession of sin, the longing for mercy, these are the spirit of prayer. A man may have repeated the choicest words, and yet not have prayed at all. A man may utter no word whatever, and he may be praying most effectually, as Moses and Hannah. Anyhow, that prayer which is not spiritual is not prayer; for “God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” If the spirit does not commune with God, there may have been music and oratory, but there has been no prayer.
2. Saul had never offered prayer of the kind which the Lord can accept. He knew the letter of the truth according to the ceremonial law; but he did not know the spirit of it as it is embodied in Jesus. He had been going about to establish his own righteousness, but he had not submitted himself to the righteousness of Christ; and therefore in his prayer he had not been traversing the road which led to the heart of God. If you employ a servant to do a work, and he persists in doing another thing, however industriously he works, he will receive nothing at your hands. So if you pray in a way which God has never ordained, you will not receive anything of the Lord.
3. Saul had never made mention of the name of Jesus. There is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved; there is none other name by which we can hopefully approach the mercy seat. Saul had rejected that name, and had come in his own.
4. Real prayer cannot come from men whose characters are contrary to the mind of God. Their lives have effectually pleaded against their lips. Saul of Tarsus was opposed to the Son of God; how could he be in favour with God Himself? If we set ourselves in opposition to His gospel, while we pretend to be knocking at heaven’s gate we are turning the key against ourselves. Saul had been a persecutor, and how can a persecutor pray? If you have the spirit of hate in you, it nullifies your devotions; for prayer ought to be the flower and crown of love. Friend, if you are living an ungodly life, I do not care how regularly you bend your knee in seeming devotion, there is nothing in it.
5. Saul with all his prayers had never truly prayed, because humility was absent from his devotions. His prayer was the expression of thankfulness that Saul of Tarsus was a Hebrew of the Hebrews, as touching the law blameless. In the courts above, where outward appearances are nothing, and God looketh at the heart, his pious harangues were not reckoned to be prayers at all.
II. It is implied that it was a remarkable thing for such a person now to pray. “Behold, he prayeth!” It is a very difficult and marvellous thing for a man truly to pray who has been all his lifetime praying in a false way. It is a miracle of grace to bring a proud Pharisee to plead for mercy like a penitent publican. It is not half so wonderful that an irreligious man should begin to pray as that a vainglorious professor should begin to pray; because--
1. He has been a formalist for so long, and so rooted in the habit of formal devotion, and so contented with it. It is easier to attend a thousand masses, or to go to church every day in the week, than to offer one true prayer.
2. Of self-righteousness. In Christ’s day, the publicans and harlots entered the kingdom before the Pharisees. It is a great thing to conquer sinful self, but it is a greater thing to overcome righteous self. The man who is downright bad and feels it, asks for mercy; but these people are bad at heart, and do not feel it: therefore they will not seek the Lord.
3. Of prejudice. He has made up his mind that he will not see the light of God, because he believes in his own light.
4. Even religious fervour may become a hindrance when that ardour is for a false faith. The earnest formalist is cased in steel, and the arrows of the gospel glance from him.
III. It is Divinely declared that he did pray. One would have liked to have heard him. See him now! This fine, good man! How humble he is!
1. His prayers began with a full and grievous confession of sin. He offered neither excuse nor extenuation, except “I did it ignorantly, in unbelief.”
2. Now you will find him acknowledging his great need--a new heart and a right spirit.
3. I think I can see mingled with that prayer the lowliest adoration. How he would worship Jesus of Nazareth as his God now that he was conquered by Him!
4. Consider what pleas he had. Pleading is the truest and strongest part of prayer. Assuredly he urged the promises, “Let the wicked forsake his way,” etc., “Come, now, and let us reason together,” etc. “Deliver me from blood guiltiness, O God.” How the fifty-third of Isaiah must have flashed in on his mind!
5. And all this must have been steeped in a wonderful fervour. Before, you might have said to yourself, “He is saying his prayers,” but this time it was as when a man wrestleth for his life.
IV. It is evident that the Lord accepted my prayer. I know it from the text, because--
1. God bore witness that he did pray.
2. He was about to answer the prayer. He had Ananias in readiness to go and comfort the poor blinded penitent. God is about to answer your prayer if you have cried to Him. Perhaps the man is present who will speak to you.
3. He called attention to it by a “Behold.” We have heard of many marvels concerning which men cry, “Behold”; but that which strikes God most is a sinner praying. God does not say, “Behold Herod on his throne,” or “Behold Caesar in his palace.” Conclusion: I am afraid there are many of whom it would have to be said, “Behold, he never prays!” What a sight--a man created by his Maker, and daily fed by His bounty, who never worships Him! And yet when he does pray, God makes a wonder of it. It is his first prayer this morning. He has reached home and is kneeling by the side of that bed on which he has slept so often without prayer, and he cries, “O God, I do not know what to say, but be merciful to me a stoner, and forgive my sins.” I hear the rustling wings of angels as they gather around the sacred spot. Anon they fly upward, crying, “Behold he prayeth.” Years pass on, young man, and you come to middle life and are exposed to sharp temptation. Good spirits watch you. You remember that day when you first prayed; and you go upstairs, and say, “Lord, many days have passed since, and I have not ceased to cry; but now I am in special trouble. I beseech Thee, deliver me!” And angels sing and the devils mutter, “Behold, he prayeth.” The young man has grown old, and has gone up to the same room for the last time. “Behold, he prayeth.” Prayer, which has long been his vital breath and native air, is now “His watchword at the gates of death,” etc. The shining ones gladly meet the soul that is on Jordan’s bank when they hear the voice, “Behold, he prayeth.” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
I. The person who speaks--“The Lord.”
1. He whom Peter preached.
2. He whom Stephen saw.
3. He whom Saul heard.
4. He whom Ananias served.
II. The person spoken of--“Saul.”
1. A native of Tarsus.
2. A persecutor of the Church.
3. A sinner arrested.
4. A penitent converted.
III. The act described--“Prayeth.”
1. It was becoming.
2. It was necessary.
3. It was beneficial.
4. It was exemplary.
IV. The attention demanded--“Behold.”
1. What grace has done.
2. What grace can do.
3. What grace must do.
4. What grace leads to. (A. Macfarlane.)
Prayer the evidence of Paul’s conversion
I. The circumstances which led Paul to pray. His understanding was convinced, his will was subdued, his heart was converted, and his soul was saved.
II. The character of Paul’s prayers. What was there in them which rendered them acceptable?
1. The prayers of a sinner thus humbled, we may feel assured, were offered up in humility. From the proud and self-sufficient Pharisee he is transformed into the humble and self-denying penitent, “striking on his breast and saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.”
2. And not only were his prayers offered up in humility, but we cannot doubt of their earnestness also. Convinced of sin, and deeply anxious for the salvation of his soul, he “utters strong cries” in the hope that they may enter into the ears of the Lord of Hosts, and meet with an answer of pardon and peace.
3. We may naturally conclude that Paul also prayed in faith, after the recent wonderful revelation made to him. Our Lord Himself, indeed, acknowledged and accepted his prayer, when He said, “Behold, he prayeth!” Then did that new light break in upon his soul, which “shone more and more unto the perfect day,” and which so wonderfully displayed itself in his arduous work of the ministry.
III. The light in which God regarded the prayers of Paul, and in which He regards the prayers of all who offer them up in the same spirit that he did. God regarded them as a mark of his real conversion, and as such approved of and accepted them. (J. L. F. Russell, M. A.)
Saul of Tarsus praying
We live in a world of changes. Seedtime and harvest, summer and winter, etc. Human affairs are as variable as the seasons. But no changes are so important and interesting as those of a moral nature. It is painful to see a fellow creature proceeding from evil to evil; but how pleasing is it to see a sinner plucked as a brand from the burning! To one of these remarkable changes we are referred in the text, from which we are led to remark--
I. That the Lord knows where we are and how we are engaged. What was this house of Judas? An inn? If so, it was a sad situation for a man in spiritual distress; and never did an inn before or since accommodate such a passenger. Perhaps it was a private dwelling belonging to one of his acquaintances. If so, what would be the emotions of the family as he entered! But however this may be, the Lord knew--the street--the very house in which he was; and what he was doing there. It would be easy to multiply similar instances, e.g., that of Cornelius and Peter, Nathanael, Zacchaeus. He knew how to guide Cornelius in sending to Joppa for Peter. “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good.” Let sinners think of it; and never dream of secresy in their guilt. Let hearers think of it; and remember that God is privy to all the workings of their minds while in His worship. Let the righteous believe this; and remember that though they are poor and needy, yet the Lord thinketh upon them. And, oh! thou dejected penitent, think of this and be comforted. “To this man will I look,” etc.
II. However the Lord may try them, He will not suffer praying souls to call upon Him in vain. Saul was deprived of sight; and thus all his gloomy thoughts were turned inward upon himself, and the anguish of his mind was such, that he probably could eat nothing. All that he had heard was this, “It shall be told thee what thou must do”: but this was general, and capable of various explanations. But says the Church, “Come, and let us return to the Lord … in the third day He will raise us up, and we shall live in His sight.” And here this was literally accomplished. “I never said to the seed of Jacob, Seek ye Me, in vain.” Joseph was a type of the Redeemer. His behaviour to his brethren was for a time apparently very unkind. But the trial was necessary: and at length giving way to the compassion which his prudence had restrained before, he said, “I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt--but be not grieved.” Thus Christ leaves Saul three days without comfort; but it was in order to lay deep the foundation of a superstructure that was to rise so high. And all the time Saul was praying, He was hearing; and longing to succour and relieve Him. What is the use you ought to make of this? To persevere. God’s delays are not denials. He has reasons for what we deem severity, founded in a regard to our welfare. You cannot be in a worse condition than David was: but hear him. “I waited patiently for the Lord,” etc. Say not, therefore, “My hope is perished from the Lord--why should I wait for Him any longer?” If you draw back, you are sure of destruction; but if you go forward, you are certain of success. Ask, and it shall be given you, etc. Perhaps some messenger of mercy is now on his way.
III. Though the Lord can accomplish His work without human instrumentality, He is pleased to make use of it. The voice from heaven could have told Saul at once what he must do--but a messenger shall be employed. He could have sent an angel--but he shall learn it from the lips of a man of like passions with himself. His terror would not make him afraid. With him he could hold free intercourse and familiar conversation. He could speak to him from his own experience; and therefore sympathise with him. It would be also useful to Ananias as well as to Saul. By doing good to others we benefit ourselves. It certainly was designed to prevent our undervaluing means, under a notion of depending on Divine agency. Here let us however beware of two extremes. Let us not, on the one hand, overlook instruments in relying on God; nor, on the other, overlook God in using instruments. It is not the sun that warms us, but He by the sun: it is not food that sustains us, but He by food. “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos,” etc.
IV. Things done in our own apprehension, and in the opinion of others, are frequently nothing in the judgment of God. “Behold, he prayeth!” And what was there strange or new in this? Was he not of the straitest sect of the Pharisees? And were they not more distinguished by their prayers than by anything else? Yes. Yet Saul had never prayed till now. See the difference drawn by an unerring Judge in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican.
V. Prayer is a good evidence of conversion. “Go, Ananias; he is ready to receive you. Go, and be not afraid of him--the man is changed--he is become a new creature--‘for, behold, he prayeth.’“ “The spirit of grace” is always a spirit “of supplications.” Be it remembered, however, that this mark is better applied exclusively than inclusively. A man may pray, and not be in a state of salvation; but he that does not pray, cannot be in a state of salvation. No man can be a partaker of Divine grace that lives without prayer. What then is the condition of many! (W. Jay.)
Paul’s first prayer
I. An announcement. “Behold, he prayeth.” It was the announcement of a fact which was--
1. Noticed in heaven. Saul had been led to cry for mercy, and the moment he began to pray God began to hear. See what attention God paid to Saul. He knew the street where he lived, the house where he resided; his name; the place where he came from, and that he had prayed. God may not regard battles, nor care for the pomp and pageantry of kings; but wherever there is a heart big with sorrow, the ear of Jehovah is wide open. Poor sinner, thy prayers are heard. Where was it--in a barn? At thy bedside, or in this hall? There is one thing which outstrips the telegraph. “Before they call I will answer, and while they are speaking I will hear.”
2. Joyous to heaven.
(1) Our Saviour regarded it with joy. The Shepherd rejoices more over that lost sheep than over ninety and nine that went not astray.
(2) Angels rejoiced too. Why, when one of God’s elect runs into sin, angels gaze with sorrow. Presently the man is brought under the sound of the gospel. The angels say, “Behold, he begins to hear.” At last he cries from his inmost soul, “God have mercy upon me!” The angels say, “Behold, he prayeth.” Then they set heaven’s bells ringing; “there is joy among the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.”
(3) There are others that rejoice, besides the angels, our friends who have gone before us, and our ministers most of all.
3. Most astonishing to men. Ananias lifted up both his hands in amazement. Sometimes I look upon such-and-such individuals and say, “Well, they are very hopeful; I trust there is a work going on.” Soon, perhaps, I miss them altogether; but instead thereof my good Master sends me one of whom I had no hope--an outcast. Then I am astonished, “I should have thought of anybody rather than you.” There was an old sailor, one of the worst men in the village. He came into the chapel, however, when one was preaching from Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. And the poor man thought, “What! did Christ ever weep over such a wretch as I am?” He came to the minister, and said, “Sir, sixty years have I been sailing under the colours of the devil; it is time I should have a new owner; I want to scuttle the old ship; then I shall have a new one, and I shall sail under the colours of Immanuel.” Ever since that moment that man has been a praying character. Yet he was the very last man you would have thought of. Somehow God does choose the last men. God is more wise than the chemist; He not only refines gold, but He transmutes base metals into precious jewels. The conversion of Saul was a strange thing; but was it not stranger that you and I should have been Christians?
4. A novelty to Saul himself. All he had ever done before went for nothing. I have heard of an old gentleman who was taught, when a child, to pray, “Pray God bless my father and mother,” and he kept on praying the same thing for seventy years, when his parents were both dead. After that it pleased God to touch his heart, and he was led to see that, notwithstanding that he had often said his prayers, he had never prayed. So it was with Saul. Now comes a true petition, and it is said, “Behold, he prayeth.” There is a man trying to obtain a hearing from His Maker. He speaks Latin; but God pays no attention. Then the man tries a different style; procures a book, and prays the best old prayer that could ever be put together; but the Most High disregards his empty formalities. At last the poor creature throws the book away, and says, “O Lord, hear, for Christ’s sake.” One hearty prayer is better than ten thousand forms.
II. An argument. “For, behold, he prayeth.”
1. For Ananias’ safety. Ananias was afraid to go to Saul; he thought it was very much like stepping into a lion’s den. God says, “Behold, he prayeth.” “Well,” says Ananias, “that is enough.” You may always trust a praying man. A master likes to have a praying servant, if he does not regard religion himself. He who communes with God in secret, may be trusted in public. Two gentlemen were travelling together in Switzerland. Presently they came into the forests; and you know the gloomy tales the people tell about the inns there. One of them, an infidel, said to the other, a Christian, “I don’t like stopping here, it is dangerous.” But they went into the house, and presently the landlord said, “Gentlemen, I always read and pray with my family before going to bed; will you allow me to do so tonight?” “Yes,” they said, “with the greatest pleasure.” When they went upstairs, the infidel said, “I am not at all afraid now.” “Why?” said the Christian. “Because our host has prayed.” “Oh!” said the other, “then it seems, after all, that you think something of religion; because a man prays you can go to sleep in his house.”
2. For Paul’s sincerity. Secret prayer is one of the best tests of sincere religion. If Jesus had said, “Behold, he preacheth,” Ananias would have said, “that he may do, and yet be a deceiver.” If He had said, “he has gone to a meeting of the church,” Ananias would have said, “He may enter there as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But when He said, “Behold, he prayeth,” that was argument enough. A young person comes and tells me about what he has felt and what he has been doing. At last I say, “kneel down and pray.” Then I am a little more satisfied, and I say, “I did not mind all your talk, I wanted your prayers.” But if I could see him pray alone then I should feel sure.
3. Of Saul’s election, for you read directly afterwards, “Behold, he is a chosen vessel.” Some say, “How can I discover whether I am God’s elect?” Do you pray? If so, never be afraid of non-election.
III. An application.
1. To the children of God. The best mark of our being sons of God is to be found in our devotion, and as a natural consequence the more we are found in prayer the brighter will our evidences be. Perhaps you have lost your evidence, and I will tell you where, in your closet. Prayer is the ship which bringeth home the richest freight--the soil which yields the most abundant harvest.
2. To the ungodly. A prayerless soul is a Christless soul. I beseech you, as you love yourselves, contemplate what will become of you if you should at last die without prayer. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Prayer in not being able to pray
I went home from my church one Sabbath evening, and a few days after a man and his wife who had not been accustomed to pray met me, and said, “We had a wonderful time at our house last Sabbath night.” I said, “What was it?” “We went home from church, and though we had never had prayer in our house, yet I called my family together, and after I had read a verse or two (I am a pretty good reader) I could read no further. My voice broke, and then I stopped, and we knelt down and I began my prayer, and I said, ‘O God,’ but the thought that we had never had prayer in our house so overwhelmed me that I could get on no further with my prayer; and then my wife, who is a Christian woman, began to pray, but the thought that Christ had at last come to our house had so overwhelmed her too, that she only advanced with one or two sentences, and we could not pray, and there we lay on the floor, and cried and cried, but we could not pray.” “Oh,” I said to him, “my brother you did pray. You don’t know what prayer is. Prayer is the sigh of the heart, for before even your first tear touched the earth, God, I think, despatched an angel from the throne, and he thrust his wing under the falling tear and caught it, and sped with it backward towards the throne of grace; and as that tear glittered in the light of the celestial throne, all heaven broke forth into full chant, crying, ‘Behold, he prayeth.’” (T. De Witt Talmage.)
Unlikely men praying
In a well-known seminary in New England, a notice was placed on the outside of the door of a room occupied by a student. “No admittance” was the legend inscribed in bold letters on the notice. The occupant of the room was not the kind of a man who would be likely to be so busy with his studies as to dread interruption, and he was, besides, a young man fond of society. His motive for affixing the notice was a mystery to most of the students. A few, however, understood it. A revival of religion was in progress in the seminary, and some young men interested in it had agreed together to visit every non-Christian member of the institution and plead for Christ personally with the individual soul. This young man had heard of the arrangement, and put up the notice to warn off his expected visitors. The little band of praying students resolved to test the virtue of prayer in opening the bolted door. Fervently they committed the case to God, entreating Him not only to unbar the door, but also and especially to unlock and take possession of the stubborn heart within the door. And never can they forget the thrill of wonder and joy which they felt when the message, “Behold, he prayeth!” was announced to them. While they were appealing to God one of their number knocked at the bolted door, and to his great surprise, as he listened for a response, heard the most earnest cries and sobs within. The Holy Spirit had evidently gained “admittance” not only into the room, but into the far more strongly bolted heart, and the bitter enemy of the revival was pleading for mercy. In a short time the door was opened, the “Notice” was removed, the praying student was welcomed; and the result was, that in a day or two the enemy joined the ranks of the friends of Christ.
Then Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard by many of this man.
An encouraging lesson from Paul’s conversion
The conversion of Saul was one of the most remarkable facts in Christian history. It was important as a testimony to the power and truth of the gospel; as securing for the Church its ablest advocate, as giving a mighty impetus to Christian missions, and as securing for Christianity the master mind who formulated its theology and shaped its mode of thought and action. The Pauline mark will never be erased from the page of Church history. That, however, is not my business at present. I would rather remind you of the conversion of Paul as teaching the fact of the Divine interposition in the Church. God has been pleased by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe; and it is by the communication of one earnest heart to another that men are usually converted. Such, however, was not the way by which Paul was converted. The Church has reason to believe that while she uses all the power committed to her, there will be interpositions of a power far higher than her own, which will work for her great successes. While Barak fights below, the stars in heaven shall also fight against Sisera.
I. There are other productive forces at work for the Church besides her teaching.
1. The work of the Spirit. All the success of the Church comes through Him, but have we not reason to expect that the Holy Ghost will occasionally display His power, by working apart from the ordinary agencies of the Church? We have heard of persons who have not been accustomed to attend the house of God, who have not been reading religious books, and yet in the middle of their work they have been filled with penitent and devout thoughts, and have known cases of persons intending to perpetrate vice, who have, nevertheless, been struck with certain reflections which they had never recognised before, and have been led to become men of holy lives. Why should not the Holy Spirit do so still?
2. The intercession of our Lord. Our Lord prays for those we never thought of praying for: and shall there not come to them grace in due season?
3. The incessant intercession of the faithful. Of course, this brings success to instrumentality, but there are prayers which are offered in connection with no particular agency. They are like the clouds which ascend from the sea, as the sun shines on the waves; they fall on the fields which have been sown by man, but they also drop upon the pastures of the wilderness, and the little hills rejoice on every side. Who shall say that Saul’s conversion was not traceable to the prayer of Stephen? Yet there was no distinct connection such as could be defined. Who shall say that the gatherings in Jerusalem for prayer, may not have had about them power with God for the conversion of the persecutors? Yet we do not see the same connecting link as between the prayer meeting in the house of John Mark’s mother, and the escape of Peter from prison. Pray on, for though there should seem to be no connection between your prayers and the salvation of the sons of men, yet this shall be one of the forces in operation which shall not spend itself in vain.
4. The aroma of the truth in the world. The truth is mainly spread by plain earnest statements of it, but there is also a savour in truth, whereby even in our silence it spreads itself. Where the gospel of Jesus Christ comes, it impregnates the social atmosphere, it permeates society, it has an effect far beyond its local habitation. Many men who have not yet bowed before the deity of Christ, have unconsciously learnt much from Him, and what they think to be their own is but a blessed plagiarism from Jesus. Even the philosophies of men have been all the soberer, and the laws of men all the gentler, because of the existence of the gospel. Men cannot live in the midst of Christians, and yet altogether shut out the influence of Christianity.
5. The influence of Christian life and of Christian death. Wherever the Christian acts up to his profession, those who observe him take knowledge of him that he has been with Jesus; and as example speaks more loudly than precept, we may look for very marked results. The eloquence of Christian holiness is more potent for conversion than all the speaking of Christian orators. So, too, when the ungodly sees a Christian die, that happy death will be a potent agency to arouse, to win the heart for Christ.
6. All the work of God in providence. I might truly say of the Church that the stones of the field are in league with her, and the beasts of the field are at peace with her, for all things work her good. Sickness, when it stalketh through the land, is a powerful preacher to the unthinking masses. When death has come into the house, it has frequently happened that hearts were impressed that were hard as iron before. As God sent the hornet before His conquering Israel to overthrow the Canaanites, so doth He send providences to work together, for our help, that the truth may prevail.
7. Conscience, which though sadly impaired leans to the right side.
II. From these sources we may expect remarkable conversions.
1. Those who were formerly violently opposed to the truth through prejudice. Paul was opposed to Christ not because he was opposed to truth, but because he thought that Jesus was not the Messiah. Once convinced that he was wrong, he followed the right at once; and we may hope that interpositions will occur in which the Holy Spirit will enlighten the darkness of men who are honest in their darkness, and that they, seeing the light, will embrace the gospel.
2. Those who have been doing much mischief to the good cause, and who are resolved to do still more (verses 13, 14). Do not despair of a man because he is industriously opposed. Anything is better than indifference.
3. Those who are beyond the reach of ordinary ministries. We sometimes regret that the voice of a thoroughly faithful ministry is seldom heard in the courts of kings; but for all that the Lord can reach those whom we cannot reach; He can, in life or in the dying hour, come to the hearts of men whose ears were never reached by any testifier to the truth. Paul would not have heard a preacher of Christ; but the Lord hath a way where we have none.
4. Those who will be most earnest. A man who feels that God has had singular mercy upon him, feels that being much loved, and having had much forgiven, he must render much service.
5. Those who will become profoundly evangelical. I trace Paul’s evangelism to the fact that he was so remarkably converted. He saw in himself the boundless power, the infinite mercy, the absolute sovereignty, of God; and therefore he bare witness more clearly than any other to these Divine attributes. Courage, then, the noblest minds will yet he engaged in the service of our Master. The leaders on the enemy’s side shall yet be champions in our Master’s army.
III. This occasional sinking of instrumentality answers admirable ends. This might be thought to be a dangerous thing for the industry of the Church, for some are always ready enough to clutch at excuses for leaving God’s work alone. But there are admirable reasons for the Lord’s sole working; for these interpositions--
1. Disclose the presence of the living Christ. We too often forget this, and yet the power of the Church lies in Christ. In the Romish church its power over devout minds lies in no small degree in the fact that the person of Christ is much loved and reverenced; but you seldom see Christ in any but two attitudes--as a babe in His mother’s arms, or else dead; scarcely ever is He set forth as the living Lord. That Church which, not forgetting His birth, nor His sacrifice, yet most clearly recognises that He still liveth, is the Church that shall win the day.
2. Remind us of the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit. The tendency nowadays is to expunge the supernatural; but for all that there is a Holy Spirit. In proportion as that truth is made clear to the Church by her personal experience, the Church will be girt with power from on high.
3. Unveils many of the Divine attributes. Men so remarkably converted are sure to display the sovereignty, power, grace, and long-suffering of God.
4. Aids very much the faith of the Church. When she is beginning to droop and to sink, then it is that these remarkable conversions come in and inspirit the whole band.
5. Startles and impresses the world. What knows the world of the conversion of those who have sat in these pews ever since they were children? But let some gross blasphemer or persecutor preach the faith which once he sought to destroy, and the whole land is astonished.
IV. All this by no means lowers the value of instrumentality. For--
1. Such cases are rare. One Saul is struck to the earth; but Peter preaches at Pentecost, and three thousand are pricked in their hearts. One Colonel Gardner, on the night he was about to commit a great sin, saw, or fancied he saw, the appearance of our Lord, and heard the words, “I have done all this for thee, what hast thou done for Me?” but there were fifty thousand perhaps in Scotland and in England at that time who were brought to a knowledge of the truth by the ordinary methods of mercy.
2. These cases involve human agency somewhere. Saul struck down, but how does he get comfort? Does that come by another voice from heaven? It might have done; but the Lord takes care that the very instrumentality which is put aside in one place shall be honoured in another, and so Ananias must be sent forth to bless the penitent. Conviction may be wrought by the Holy Spirit without means, but in the full decision somewhere or other Go& will use you.
3. These conversions are a provision of a most remarkable instrumentality. “I have called him”--not to be a singular article for exhibition--but “to be a chosen vessel unto Me to bear My name among the Gentiles.” Remarkable converts become themselves the most indefatigable servants of God. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Undue alarm at evils
I. We live in a day of bold, aggressive wickedness, as personal, public, palpable as that of Saul, e.g., Sabbath breaking, licentiousness, intemperance, infidelity, gambling, corrupt literature, etc.
II. The civil authorities sanction and uphold or fail to suppress these curses, as in the case of Saul.
III. Like Ananias, Christians and moral reformers are unduly alarmed at the power and civil authority of these evils. Right is mighty and will prevail (Ephesians 6:10-49.6.20).
IV. Like Ananias we should lay aside our fears and timidity, and, seeing the right, go out and meet these foes face to face.
V. How shall we do this great work.
1. By earnest personal effort rebuking sin.
2. By combined and consecrated Christian effort.
3. By invoking civil as well as Divine power. Prohibition of wrong is God’s law, and professedly man’s also. Politicians cannot or will not save us. (T. S. Love.)
He is a chosen vessel unto Me.
A chosen vessel
I. Its material. All the vessels in your house--the strong bowls, the fine vases, and the china tea cups--are made of earth, though some soils suit the potter better than others. And so the whole world is the Great Potter’s field, and Christ’s “chosen vessels” were all at first of the earth, earthy. The apostle tells us that he was the chief of sinners, and that he owes all to the grace of God. What hope for all! Splendid vessels are now made from mere rubbish, broken glass, and old bones, and so the Divine Potter’s art can triumph over the rudeness of the most unpromising materials.
II. Its maker.
1. That beautiful cup is not self-made. The potter took the clay, tempered, moulded, baked, painted, and fired it, and then put his mark upon it. And Christians “are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus.” I have known a boy saying to his minister, “Please will you convert me too.” “I am one of your converts,” a man smelling of whisky once said to Rowland Hill. “I can believe it,” replied Mr. Hill, “you look very like my bungling work.”
2. In making chosen vessels, the potter attends to the chief parts of the work himself; for all depends on the skill of the workman. With his own hand he mixes the materials, and trims the fire.
3. The potter must also have complete power over the clay, and travellers in the East notice how thoroughly it is in his hands. Many vessels are made partly of flint or granite, but these rocks have first been ground into the softest powder. And Christ’s chosen vessels are all fashioned in contrite hearts. Contrite means rubbed together and made soft, exactly as stones are ground into the softest clay in our potteries. And youth is the yielding and moulding time in life. The world has a strange power of hardening the soul into an unbending frame.
III. Its use.
1. None of Christ’s vessels are for ornament only, they are all “meet for the Master’s use.” A great house has some choice vessels, preferred for their size, strength, or beauty. Such a vessel was the apostle. Christ’s name was the water for the thirsty and balm for the wounded, and Paul was the vessel in which that heavenly treasure was carried round and offered to all. But the humblest vessel has its use. A poor broken cup may hold the water that saves the life of a dying man, and the humblest Christian may carry Christ’s name to a perishing sinner.
2. The vessel of the heart is already full, and must be emptied ere it can be filled with this heavenly treasure. The Rev. Narayan Sheshadri tells us that as a young Brahmin he was full of pride and self-righteousness. But as he began to think for himself he was emptied of one thing after another, till he was left with nothing in which he could trust. Then the name of Christ filled his soul, and he longed to bear it to the heathen around him (comp. Philippians 3:4-50.3.9).
3. Again, an emptied vessel cannot be filled unless it be rightly set and open a-top. It is a Chinese saying that “the light of heaven cannot shine into an inverted bowl.” Let your soul be opened heavenwards widely and hopefully, and then the abundance of grace will fill and warm your whole being.
IV. Its beauty.
1. Our makers of vessels strive to unite the useful and the beautiful. Our text may mean that Christ’s name was to be carried on as well as in the vessel, just as the costly vases in palaces bear the name and fame of the maker before kings. Bernard Palissy once saw a white enamelled cup, and resolved to discover the secret of so beautifying vessels. He spent all his money and sixteen years of his life in making the discovery. He was often at death’s door, had burnt all his furniture for fuel, and his body was lean and dried up from hard work. At last he made some of the chosen vessels, and these have borne his name among nations and kings even to this day. Thus Paul bore his Creator’s name far and wide, and multitudes “glorified God in him.”
2. Christ’s vessels are not all made in one mould. Every Christian should have a beauty of his own, and the charm of that beauty lies in its individuality. Some of the most beautiful of Christ’s vessels are found among day labourers and cottagers. Many a face deformed by lifelong hardship and disease has been brightened outwardly from inward joy and goodness. The coarsest features have often been adorned by the beauty of the soul within. Such was the case of Joan of Arc, who, the historian says, grew beautiful when the great idea entered her.
3. You can hardly believe what efforts great potters have made to add beauty to their vessels. A Duke of Florence spent ten years in discovering the way to make porcelain. Louis XIV was so interested in this work that, greatest monarch in Europe as he was, he seriously proposed becoming a potter himself. Many have reached perfection in this field, and have ennobled clay as if by miracle. Their masterpieces have an incorruptible beauty; no liquid can stain them, no fire can blacken them, no knife can scratch them. Yet they are as smooth to the touch as an infant’s flesh. Place a candle behind them and they resemble a fine face lighted up with the best emotions. If potters have done so much for clay, shall they not condemn us if we do not earnestly seek to have the beauty of the Lord our God upon us? If a heathen philosopher reproached a rich man with having silver plate and earthenware principles, should we not reproach ourselves that we are so eager to possess every sort of beauty, except the beauty of the soul? When shall the “beauty of holiness” find as passionate admirers as the beauty of art has in all our cities? Piety is the finest art under heaven. Many there be who say, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” yes, this chosen vessel is a joy forever to its possessor and to all beholders who know its worth.
4. The secret of making some choice vessels has been lost because it died with the man who had it; but the secret of spiritual beauty is open to all. God is the Great Beautifier, and He will perfect what He begins. He will give the finishing touch to His chosen vessel--perhaps in the sacred fires of affliction--and, having thus perfected its comeliness, He will place it in His mansions above. (J. Wells, M. A.)
Vessels chosen, charged, and used
I. A vessel.
1. The world is full of the instruments which God employs. Every flower, leaf, tendril is designed and fitted for carrying on some process in the vegetable economy.
2. In animals every member of the body is a tool with which Creator and creature alike work. The eye, ear, tongue, foot hang at hand in the workshop ready for the worker’s use.
3. Each separate part of creation, again, is an instrument of God. The internal fires of the globe are His instruments for heaving up the mountains and making the valleys. The clouds are vessels carrying water from the ocean to every portion of the thirsty land. The rivers are waste pipes for carrying back the soiled water that it may be purified for subsequent use. The sun is an instrument for lighting and warming a troop of revolving worlds, and the earth’s huge bulk a curtain for screening off the sunlight at stated intervals, and so affording to weary workers a grateful night of rest.
4. Chief of all implements is man--made last, made best for his Author’s service; broken, disfigured, and defiled by sin, but, capable of working wondrously yet, when redeemed. God has not cast away the best of all His instruments because it was marred and polluted. A soul won is the best instrument for winning souls.
II. A chosen vessel. God can employ the evil as His unconscious instruments, or make them willing in the day of His power. When He had chastised Israel by the King of Babylon, he broke the rod and threw it away. In other cases He turns the king’s heart as a river of water, and then accepts the willing homage of a converted man. It was a polished and capacious vessel that the Great King wrenched from the grasp of the arch-enemy near the gate of Damascus. He was Christ’s chief enemy in the world. God looks down from heaven on this man, not as an adversary whose assaults are formidable, but as an instrument which may be turned to another use. Arrested at the crisis of its course by a hand unseen, it is turned upside down, emptied, and then filled from heaven’s pure treasures, and used to water the world with the Word of life. Saul of Tarsus, called to be an apostle, is a conspicuous example of Divine sovereignty. He did not first choose Christ, but Christ chose him.
III. A vessel unto me. Two things lie in every conversion; the man gets an Almighty Saviour, and God gets a willing servant. The true instinct of the new creature burst forth from Paul’s breast--“Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” The answer, sent through Ananias, indicated what he should be, rather than what he should do: “He is a chosen vessel unto Me.” We get a glimpse here of the two tendencies, the human and the Divine. I shall do, says the disciple in the ardour of a first love; thou shalt be, answers that wise and kind Master, who knows that the spirit is willing, but the flesh weak. I shall bear the vessels of the Lord, volunteers the ransomed sinner; the reply is, Thou shalt be the vessel of the Lord. It is a great thing that I should take up instruments and do a work for Christ in the world, but it is a greater that Christ should work out His purposes with me. This is our security alike for safety and usefulness. The star that is in His right hand is held up so that it cannot fall, and held out so that it shines afar.
IV. A vessel to bear My name. Paul was a vessel firmly put together, and filled to overflowing, before Jesus met him. At that meeting he was emptied of his miscellaneous vanities, and filled with the name of Christ. See an account of the whole process by his own pen (Philippians 3:4-50.3.8). Nature abhors a vacuum; and in nature, whether its material or spiritual department, a vacuum is never found. Each man is full either of his own things, or of Christ’s. The name of Christ is the precious thing wherewith the vessel is charged. So full was Paul of this treasure that he determined to know none other.
V. To bear My name before Gentiles, and kings, and the people of Israel. This bread of life, like the manna which fell in the wilderness, is given to be used, not to be hoarded. To be ever getting, ever giving, is the only way of keeping both the vessel and its treasure sweet.
1. The form of the expression indicates that in this ministry self-denying courage is required. Perhaps the series, in this respect, constitutes a climax. It is easier to speak of Christ to the Gentiles than to kings, and to kings than to His own chosen people. In our day, too, there are various classes who need the testimony of Jesus. Those who possess it should be prepared to bear it about in every place, and hold it forth in any company. If we quail where the majority profess to be on our side, what would have become of us if our lot had been cast when its disciples were obliged to comfort an adverse world? But perhaps we should not speak of more courage being required to maintain a good confession in one place, and less in another: for with God it is as easy to keep the ocean within its bed, as to balance a dewdrop on a blade of grass; and the same principle rules in the distribution of grace to disciples of Christ. Without it the strongest is not sufficient for anything, with it the feeblest is sufficient for all. Our martyr forefathers who were enabled to make good confession at the stake would, if left to themselves, have denied their Lord under the blandishments of a godless drawing room. Not before Gentiles and kings, etc., are we summoned to bear witness for Christ; but in a place and presence where the temptation to deny Him is equally strong. A Christian young man in a great workshop, a Christian young lady in a gay and fashionable family, is either carried away like chaff before the wind, or stands fast by a modern miracle of grace.
2. We are so many vessels labelled on the outside with the name of Christ, what we are really charged with may not be seen at a distance, or discovered in a day. Those, however, who stand near these vessels will by degrees find out what they contain. By its occasional overflowings, especially when violently shaken, the secret will be revealed. Some are looking on who do not believe that the Spirit which fills us is the Spirit of Christ; and they lie in wait for evidence to prove their opinion true. For their own sakes let them find it false.
3. But an indolent, earthly selfishness, under pretence of humility, cunningly suggests the distinction between a common ungifted man and the great apostle of the Gentiles. He was a worthy witness, but what could we do, although we did our best? If you are a sinner forgiven through the blood of Christ, in the greatest things Paul and you are equal, unequal only in the least. In the economy of grace a shallower vessel serves nearly every purpose as well as a deeper, if both are full of Christ. In nature the shallowest lake, provided it be full, sends up as many clouds as the deepest, for the same sunlight beams equally on both their bosoms. Nay, more; as a lake within the tropics, though shallow, gives more incense to the sky than a polar ocean of unfathomable depth, so a Christian of few gifts, whose heart lies open fair and long to the Sun of Righteousness, is a more effectual witness than a man of greater capacity who lies not so near, and looks not so constantly to Jesus. Conclusion: In the coarser work of breaking up His own way at first, God freely uses the powers of nature and the passions of wicked men; but for the nicer touches near the finishing, He employs more sensitive instruments. A work of righteousness is about to be done upon a jailer at Philippi. Mark the method of the omniscient Worker. The earthquake rent the outer searing of the jailer’s conscience, and made an open path into his soul. But what an earthquake could not do, God did by a renewed human heart and loving human lips. From the same chosen vessel that Ananias had visited at Damascus, the ointment was poured forth which healed the jailer’s wound. Thus God works today both in individual conversions and in widespread revivals. Bankruptcies, storms, diseases, wars, are charged to batter down the defences, and then living disciples go in by the breach to convert a kingdom or win a soul. (W. Arnot, D. D.)
Saul and Luther chosen vessels
I. How he prepared them.
1. He selected the right materials--a Pharisee for the destruction of Pharisaism, a monk for the overthrow of Popery, yet in both cases the right man.
2. He laid hold of them at the right time--
(1) When the enemies of the faith were at their strongest.
(2) When the need of the Church was deepest.
3. He forged them in the right fire. The fire was the flame of repentance kindled by the Holy Ghost, the hammer was God’s Word. By these means was Paul, as the noblest Damascus blade, forged at Damascus, and Luther in the cloister cell at Erfurt.
II. How he used them.
1. To the confusion of His enemies; Paul and Luther both warriors of the Lord, cutting swords, different from a John and Melancthon.
2. To the protection of His friends: the faithful pastorate of Paul, the loving zeal of Luther.
3. To the use of all: not by attaching ourselves to human means and swearing to human words, but by being directed to Him, whose servants and instruments Paul and Luther were. (K. Gerok.)
The character of St. Paul
I. He is a vessel. The word means either an “instrument” in the hands of the Divine Agent to carry out His purposes, or a “vessel” into which the Lord Jesus poured abundantly of His mind and His love. We are not fountains which give forth. “All our springs are in Thee.” God is an infinite Spring giving inexhaustibly forth; men are empty vessels receiving everlastingly of His fulness. The difference between men is not in their power to originate, but in their power to take in.
II. A vessel unto me, i.e., Paul was now the actual possession of Christ. Heretofore he was in the service of the great enemy, and was the ablest and the most dangerous opponent the young Church had yet encountered. But the vessel was wrested from the enemy, and henceforth is a vessel separated unto and honoured in the service of Christ.
III. A chosen vessel.
1. A choice vessel; “earthen,” it is true; but there is a great difference in the quality of even earthen vessels. Chemical analysis, it is said, discovers considerable difference in the quality of human brains. The brain of the rustic is coarse and gritty, whereas that of the man of genius is fine, smooth, silky, and sensitive. Be that as it may, Paul was a vessel manufactured with the greatest care out of the finest materials. He was “separated unto God from his mother’s womb.” God even then thought of the purpose to Which he was to be devoted, and proceeded to fashion him accordingly. The same law runs through grace as through nature--the perfect adaptation of means to ends. If God has any special design to accomplish, He always seeks to bring it about by the most suitable means. Saul would have been a public man if he had never been an apostle. He would have been an orator if he had never been a preacher. The raw material of an apostle was wrought into his original make.
2. He was chosen or ordained of God unto the work of the apostleship. “He is a vessel of election unto Me.” The doctrine of election has been wrongly taught and falsely apprehended. The Scriptural doctrine is that God chooses man before man chooses God, and the latter is only the faint echo of the former. The Divine election should be viewed in much the same light as the Divine love. “We love Him because He first loved us.” “Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you.” The fundamental principle of all false religions is that man chooses his God.
IV. To bear my name. Paul bore the name of Jesus--
1. In his intellect. His capacious mind had no room for anything else. “I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge,” etc. The glorified Form appearing unto him on the way to Damascus photographed itself so deeply upon his mind that it could never afterwards be effaced. “To me to live is Christ.” Sir David Brewster says that Sir Isaac Newton once gazed so steadfastly on the sun that for days after, turn which way he would, he constantly beheld the image of the sun. And Jesus impressed Himself so deeply in the “great light” on the mind of Paul that ever afterwards, whichever way the apostle looked, he always perceived the reflection of Christ.
2. In his heart. Paul may be compared to an “alabaster box of precious ointment”--the box is valuable, but the ointment is more precious. “The name of Christ is like ointment poured forth.” Paul was possessed of much genius. But only when he received the unction from the Holy One did he fill the world with his perfume. You can quote other ancient authors of surpassing beauty, but I defy you to quote any where the fragrance is so sweet and so abundant. Carry the rose about you and you will scatter scent wherever you go. And Paul’s writings are sweetly scented with leaves from the Rose of Sharon. Christ is an “offering of sweet smelling savour” to men as well as to God. A lump of clay has been made fragrant by being thrown into the midst of a bed of flowers. And although Christians in their original state are not a whir better than other men, yet by holding fellowship with Him whose “garments smell of myrrh and aloes and cassia,” they catch the fragrance.
3. In his ministry. He “shall bear My name before Gentiles,” etc. And in verse 28 we see him beginning to fulfil the prediction. What then prompted him so powerfully to bear the name of Christ to perishing millions? To return an adequate answer, two factors must be taken into consideration. The first was a vivid, heartfelt conviction of the exceeding sinfulness of sin. Where the sense of sin is weak the sense of ministerial responsibility is shallow. But the second and more powerful element was his intense love to the Saviour (2 Corinthians 5:11; 2 Corinthians 5:14). The terror moved, the love constrained. The mill wheel may be turned either by a current of water flowing underneath or else by a stream falling upon it from above. But of the two the latter is the more efficient. In Paul the two currents worked together--the terror from beneath and the love from above; and as a consequence imparted unusual impetuosity and rapidity to his revolutions.
V. Before Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel. The wide scope of his ministry required--
1. Certain social qualifications which the other apostles did not possess. Paul enjoyed all the privileges and exemptions of a Roman citizen. Born at Tarsus, he became master of the Greek tongue and sensible to all that was refined in classic life. A pupil of Gamaliel, he was deeply versed in Scriptural and rabbinical lore. Thus in him all that was best in the three dominant types of civilisation met--the freedom of the Roman, the language of the Greek, and the theology of the Jew.
2. Great intellectual culture. The sphere of his labour embraced all classes and ranks of men. Moses, the founder of Judaism, was “learned in all the learning of Egypt.” Paul, too, the foremost apostle of Gentile Christianity, was learned in all the learning of his own and other nations. We are here introduced to a grand evangelistic principle--the Saviour ordained the most accomplished of the apostles to be His missionary among the heathen. The greatest knowledge is always the best instructor of ignorance.
3. Much moral courage. Before, literally in the face of, Gentiles and kings. Paul would have to encounter innumerable obstacles which only the greatest courage could surmount. And perhaps true courage never towered more sublimely than in his life. Conscience was keen and strong in him, and scrupulous fidelity to its voice marks his whole career. Indomitable strength of his will is nowhere seen to better advantage than in the presence of difficulties. The eagle never soars so high as he does on the day of tempest--the wilder the gale the loftier his flight. Lord Chatham, it is said, made his crutches add to the grandeur of his oratory; and Paul, dangling his chains in the face of his judge, made the most impressive peroration in the literature of eloquence. (J. Cynddylan Jones, D. D.)
For I will show him how great things he must suffer for My name’s sake.
The service of suffering
I. Suffering is one of the ways in which we may serve God.
1. The remarkable feature here is, that though it is a part of St. Paul’s call to his mission, God does not say, “I will show him how great things he must do,” but “how great things he must suffer.” The service of work is subordinated to the service of suffering. And whenever St. Paul makes a retrospect of his own life he always takes the same view. As, for instance, in that catalogue in 2 Corinthians 11:1-47.11.33, the hardships and sorrows far outstripped the actions--the active being literally only two--“journeyings often,” “the care of all the churches,”--the passive at least twenty-seven.
2. And no wonder that St. Paul accounted more of the service of suffering than of the service of work. Was not it so with his Master and ours? What makes the Saviour what He is to us, is not what He wrought, but what He encountered; not what He did for the Father, but what the Father did to Him.
3. And in a world like this it must be so always. Every man being witness, it is a harder thing to suffer than to work. Much greater is the number of them that work well, than of them that suffer well. In the fruits of the Spirit the passive grow the highest. For four thousand years, the service of God was the service of sacrifice; and the service of sacrifice was essentially the service of suffering. And living, as we do, in a dispensation in which still “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now,” etc., it would be sad indeed if we could not believe that there is a way in which every suffering thing does service to God.
4. Or take the same thought a step higher. What makes any word, or any work, or any thought which man ever offers to God, service? Is not it the Cross of Christ, the gathering point where the suffering of the whole universe meets? Is not, then, all service ultimately the service of suffering? The worship of a world of sin must be, to a very great extent, the service of pain. And we cannot thank God too much that the service of suffering which sin has made may, through Christ, go up the best of all service to Almighty God.
5. But if any man be tempted for a moment to think that his sufferings can add ought to the efficacy of the death of Christ, or that anything he can ever bear will give the slightest degree of merit to the kingdom of heaven, let that man carefully study that account of the saints in Revelation 7:1-66.7.17.
II. How may we, by God’s grace, make suffering service? Have faith that your suffering, in some way, known or unknown, is service, and by that faith it is. And indeed, if you accept your suffering from Christ, and bear it in and consecrate it to Christ, it will have such a savour of Christ in it, that it cannot help to go up and to be service in heaven. The service of suffering may be divided thus--
1. The direct service of suffering to God is to accept it from a Father’s hand. Ask no questions, but look up trustingly. Say if it be but “Amen,” and as soon as you can, “Hallelujah.” Think, “This suffering of mine is Christ suffering in me. It makes me more one than I ever was before with Jesus Christ.”
2. The service of suffering in sanctification. Whenever you pass into it, let your first prayer be, “Lord, for whatever end Thou hast sent this trial, let that end be fulfilled to me, in me, by me, to Thy glory.” The purposes of suffering for sanctification are--
(1) Humiliation. To that end you must connect your sorrow with what? Sin? Not most. With the pardon of sin, with the love of God.
(2) Purity. Sorrow, passing through the heart, acts like a moral chemistry--the sin precipitates to the bottom; and so it leaves the water of the cup of life pure. Or rather, it is fire, to destroy the nature and self which, thank God, are consumable; and to leave the gold of grace, which, thank God, is not consumable. The best service which ever goes up to God is His own image. And God’s image is purity.
(3) Consecration. The Christian, passing through suffering, is a servant gone into his Master’s presence to receive orders.
3. The service of suffering to man, or more strictly, to God through man.
(1) Intercession. You are sent up to your room, to a lonely place on the mount, to pray for others who fight in the plain. Therefore you cannot work that you may pray.
(2) Testimony. Bear your witness--by silence, by looks, by speech, by a sweeter smile than when all was bright, by a kinder accent to the faithfulness of God, and the sufficiency of His grace. David was very great in the service of testimony. “It is good for me that I have been in trouble,” “In the multitude of the sorrows which I have in my heart, Thy comforts have refreshed my soul.”
(3) Sympathy. We never truly sympathise with what we have not felt. Therefore Christ sympathises with all, because He felt all. (J. Vaughan, M. A.)
Suffering for Christ’s name’s sake
When Dr. Mason, a missionary in India, asked his converted boatman whether he was willing to go to the Bghais, a neighbouring tribe, to tell them of a Saviour’s love, he reminded him that, instead of twelve rupees a month, he would receive but four rupees. “Can you go to the Bghais for four rupees?” asked the missionary. The heathen convert went by himself and thought and prayed, and came hack to Dr. Mason. “Well, Chapon, what is your decision?” “My father, I cannot go to the Bghais for four rupees a month, but I can go for Jesus.” And for Jesus he went.
And Ananias,…putting his hands on him said, brother Saul.
I. The ministry which helps to complete the great change. If the appearance of the Lord to the persecutor was miraculous, the work was not completed without ordinary instrumentalities. “There was a certain disciple named Ananias.” This indicates--
1. The Lord’s interest in the prayer, confession, and sadder experiences of the contrite heart. He heeds the sighing of the imperfect, even while receiving the adoration of the perfect. “Behold, he prayeth!”
2. The Lord’s wisdom in His dealing with the penitent. He dealt with him in the way of revelation. He inspired the vision of human help coming to aid the convicted man in his extremity. After great marvels, Christ leads Saul on by means of common Church agencies. The pride of Pharisaism was here directly attacked. This man’s religion was not to rest on any mere human authority. In Christianity the ordinary is more essential and valuable than the special and extraordinary.
3. The characteristics of the ministry of Ananias.
(1) It was conceived and performed in the spirit of true brotherhood. “One is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren.” Brotherhood is a note of valid Christianity.
(2) Its authority was found in the commission of the Lord. This humble man felt the dignity of his Divine office, but he knew that he had only fulfilled it when Christ alone was exalted.
(3) It was one of enlightenment. “There fell from his eyes as it had been scales.” The physical change was only the type and symbol of the change perfected within. “The entrance of Thy Word giveth light.” Here, then, is intelligence, devotion, brotherhood, the common ministry of the faithful; these present the conditions of healthful Christian life.
II. Forgiven, but disciplined. One tendency of Christian society just now is towards a neglect of due and careful Christian culture. Men want a gospel which confers a boon, but does not demand a duty, which secures forgiveness, but does not provide for holiness. Saul’s early Christian history supplies important lessons concerning Christian culture. “Then was Saul certain days with the disciples.” Here is--
1. Believing fellowship. Saul became a disciple and was baptized. He was designated as a learner in the school of Christ. When a man feels the throb and impulse of the Divine life within him he is moved to seek Christian fellowship. To stand aloof is contrary to the spirit and genius of Christianity. A fitful attendance at the Table of the Lord does not satisfy the requirements of Christian obligation.
2. Special culture and training for the life work. Although Saul had been constituted a disciple, and had received spiritual gifts, he was not therefore equipped for lifelong ministries. Spontaneous fellowship does not imply spontaneous readiness for Church ministers. The quiet life of brotherly fellowship was followed by a season of silent, sedulous, earnest, secret preparation for the appointed task. Between the “certain days” of fellowship of verse 19th, and the “straightway he preached Christ” of the 20th, you have interposed the time of retirement spent by him in study, meditation, and prayers in Arabia. A scholar among the most learned of his age and country, he must commune with his own heart and God before he can calmly and fully, with that marvellous wisdom which all the ages have admired, preach the gospel to the people. A sacred reticence is becoming and healthful. There is no encouragement here to the presumption of a glib ignorance, which waits neither for the Divine calling, nor the Church’s sending. Silence in the desert prepares for the usefulness of thirty years.
3. The life-long spiritual and moral discipline. Forgiven, there were yet consequences of the old life to be borne and endured. He went to Damascus to persecute. At Damascus he was persecuted. He took part in the stoning of Stephen. At Lystra he was stoned. He imprisoned many; he was himself a prisoner. He went about to establish his own righteousness, and the Judaizing teachers of his own old doctrine poisoned the founts of his joy in the churches he founded, and tried to turn away from him the grateful love of his converts. (W. H. Davison.)
I. The brotherly movement. As soon as his difficulties were removed Ananias “went his way,” etc.
1. Many who are required for beneficent ministries to the sick, poor, or sinful never hear the call of duty.
2. Others hear it, but do not go. Either they do not care to go, or regard it the duty of the object to come. Saul was not sent to Ananias, but Ananias to Saul. The nations were not told to go to the apostles to be discipled, but the apostles to go and disciple the world. Some cannot come, many will not. Hence the example of Him who “went about doing good.”
3. True brotherliness goes--
(1) Promptly. Ananias questions no more.
(2) Courageously. “Went into the house.” Many who are brave enough to meet a certain class of people in the street, hesitate when they come to the house. Street preaching requires less courage than house-to-house visitation in the slums.
(3) Without ceremony. It mattered not whether Judas’ house was a palace or a cottage, Ananias was on business that must not be hampered by social etiquette, so he entered into the house. The Christian worker must not be rude, but he need not be servile. The business of the King of kings should give His servant an entree anywhere, and that business often requires haste.
II. The brotherly touch. “Putting his hands upon him.” Many good and kind people go, but they are at a loss what to do when they arrive. This is due sometimes to clumsiness or sheer nervousness. Owing to this often the very thing is done which should be left undone, and needless embarrassment and pain is often innocently given. But the spirit of brotherliness should be educated, and then there will be no difficulty about brotherly contact. A brother of low degree should have no hesitation at shaking hands with a brother of high degree; nor should a wealthy or cultured Christian withhold his hand from a poor or ignorant brother. Saul’s social status, gifts, etc., were altogether beyond those of Ananias, yet Ananias “put his hands upon him.” A touch will sometimes go farther than a word or even a gift, or when it accompanies them will double their worth.
III. The brotherly word. “Brother Saul.” There is nothing, perhaps, more pathetic in all sacred literature than this utterance under these circumstances. The word has become vulgarised, and in certain lips is a mere official or cant expression; but there is life and power in it yet. And may the time be far distant when in our Church gatherings “Mr.” shall supplant “Brother,” and “Gentlemen” “Brethren.” The term is significant of--
1. Common relationship to a common Father.
2. Common rights to the same privileges.
3. Common duties.
4. Common hopes.
IV. The brotherly service.
1. Ananias was the means of restoring Saul’s sight, and thus symbolises the work of all those who, having light themselves from “the Father of lights,” impart it to the mentally, morally, or circumstantially blind.
2. Ananias was the means of communicating the Rely Ghost, as are all those who strive for the conversion, holiness, or consecration of others.
3. Ananias was the means of introducing Saul to the society of the believers. Without arguing the vexed question whether Ananias was a layman, and by baptizing Saul vindicated the validity of lay baptism, we may assuredly trace the good man’s influence in Acts 9:19.
1. “Sirs, ye are brethren.”
2. Act as brothers. (J. W. Burn.)
I. A brother received by Christ, though not acknowledged by Christians.
1. We ought to reject none. Those “far off” may be “made nigh.”
2. We should not look too closely at a man’s past. Change is possible in any case when grace works.
II. A brother suddenly adopted.
1. God’s grace is mighty and sudden, so do not gauge another’s condition by your own experience. Do not construct rules for the Holy Spirit’s working.
2. Do not judge of another’s conversion by your own.
III. A brother through the appointed means.
1. He submitted to Christ.
2. He prayed.
3. He believed. All who desire to join the brotherhood must submit to these conditions. Otherwise he is an alien.
IV. A brother in suffering and labour (2Co 2:23-28). (J. W. Munday.)
Then was Saul certain days with the disciples … And straightway he preached Christ.
The society of the good
I. The tendency to Christian intercourse is generated by the love of Christ. The love of Jesus in the heart is the magnet. Dr. Doddridge asked his little daughter how it was that everybody loved her. She answered, “I know not, unless it is that I love everybody.” It is a great task to reconcile sinners to each other. We love the brethren because He loves us all.
II. Christian social intercourse preserves the best associations. The tabernacle of Moses, the harp of David, the cross of Jesus, the faith of Abraham, the experience of Paul, are all heirlooms which preserve the family history. Bring all the drops of water together and you have an ocean; so the experiences of the Church when gathered form a great store.
III. Christian social intercourse points to the lasting fellowship of heaven. Christians never say, “Good-bye.” The last petition in the upper room before the crucifixion was, “Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am.” (Weekly Pulpit.)
Damascus to Caesarea
I. The events intervening between Damascus and Caesarea.
1. As soon as Saul was baptized he joined the Christian brotherhood, and publicly declared his new conviction that Jesus was the Christ. I do not think that that continued long. Either through the force of external persecution, or by Divine intimation and guidance, probably by both, he was led to leave Damascus. And in Galatians 1:1-48.1.24 he tells us that he left Damascus and went into Arabia. Arabia lay round about Damascus and my own expression is, that he did not go further from Damascus than would secure safety and solitude. He was not employed in preaching, but in receiving those communications from Christ which were to perfect his knowledge of the gospel. There he studied the Old Testament under a new teacher; reading it by a different light from that which had been held in the hand of Gamaliel.
2. Then, when fully prepared for all that he had to do, he returned to Damascus, and there, with greater boldness and vigour, proclaimed that Jesus was the Son of God. But the Jews could not stand this, and determined to kill him. And we learn from a passing allusion in 1Co 11:23; 1 Corinthians 15:3, that in their plans against his life they got the cooperation of the political and military powers. But in a basket, let down from the window of one of the houses, which in Eastern cities very often overhang the wall, Saul was placed by his friends, and, descending, so escaped his enemies’ hands.
3. He then put into execution what he had cherished as a purpose. He determined to go to Jerusalem to see Peter (Galatians 1:18-48.1.19). It is probable that he had seen Peter before the Sanhedrim He knew that he was one of the foremost men amongst the apostles, and therefore he wished to visit him--not to acknowledge his supremacy, nor to get from him any authority, but as an intimate friend and disciple of Jesus. On his arrival Saul very naturally wished to join himself to the disciples. But they were in doubt and fear about him. But Saul met with Barnabas, who believed Saul, and believed in him, and who introduced him to Peter and James, who were probably the only apostles who happened to be then at Jerusalem. Saul was then received with cordiality and confidence, and had at once accorded to him fraternal recognition.
4. The apostle was only at Jerusalem for a fortnight (Galatians 1:18-48.1.19). He lodged with Peter, who, as a married man, could perhaps best accommodate him. It is rather odd that he should have become representatively the head of a priesthood who are not allowed to marry! It was very natural that Saul should suppose himself peculiarly fitted for preaching in Jerusalem that faith which, a little time before, he sought to destroy. He made the attempt, and, Grecian as he was, did the very thing that Stephen had done before, and perhaps in the very same synagogue using probably many of the martyr’s arguments. His hearers were not subdued by his appeals. It was not his work; Christ had something else for him to do. There was a conspiracy, too, against him in Jerusalem, as there had been at Damascus; and, in addition, there was a concurrent Divine intimation urging his departure (Acts 22:17-44.22.21.) The apostle was at once “obedient to the heavenly vision,” and his friends got him safely out of Jerusalem and “brought him down to Caesarea.”
II. The points which require explanation.
1. In the history there is no mention of the journey into Arabia, a very important event in the life of St. Paul. But note--
(1) An omission is not a contradiction. When two writers, referring to the same time, are found to differ only in that the one omits what the other records; the one may he only the supplement to the other.
(2) The history in the Acts is so constructed that an actual journey somewhere may possibly underlie it. There are two periods mentioned. “Then was Saul certain days with the disciples at Damascus,” giving the idea of a limit to the period. He was “certain days” there with the disciples--well, what then? Why, at the end he was not with them. Then he had left them. Then afterwards--though this is not mentioned, it is implied--he was with them in Damascus again; and this time, after “many days” there occurs the conspiracy. Between the “certain days” and the “many days” a journey, because an absence from Damascus, may come in, which might be into Arabia as well as to anywhere else.
(3) Then, again, the Epistle to the Galatians and the history in the Acts are perfectly independent productions. Neither was written from the suggestions of the other and made to harmonise with it. If the historian had invented this story from reading the letter he would have put in the journey to Arabia; if the letter writer had invented the letter from reading the history he would not have put in the journey. This independence being admitted, all the coincidences rise into strength as evidences of the perfect truth and trustworthiness of both.
(4) There can be no doubt that Galatians was written previously to the Acts. Now Paul and Luke were very often “companions in travel,” and there is every probability that the historian wrote under the eye of the letter writer, and yet neither of them sees the inconsistency between the account given by the one and the known contents of the letter of the other. Neither of them thinks it worth while with a stroke of the pen to put it all right. It is perfectly evident that they who knew all about it did not see any difficulty in what perplexes us so much.
2. The difficulty of accounting for the way in which Paul was received by the disciples at Jerusalem. Surely they might have had such full information of all that had occurred, as to receive with acclamation the illustrious convert. But observe--
(1) That the Jewish way of talking about time is worth recollecting. Fourteen months would be three years, if the first month was the last in one year, and the last month was the first in another, with one whole year lying between. But three years, even thus reckoned, is a long time. Yet the possible compression of the period, in the way indicated, is worth being referred to.
(2) But will it not be curious if the visit into Arabia--which is itself a difficulty--should be just the very thing which enables us to explain the more difficult point before us? I will not say that Paul was running before he was sent; but he might be trying to speak before he was fully equipped for his work. Hence it was, that his Master told him to go into seclusion that he might fully learn all that was necessary for him to know. In consequence of this, he disappeared from Damascus. It is quite possible that none of the disciples knew what had become of him. His companions would go back with some story or other of a strange occurrence which had happened on the road. Whatever it was, it had led him seemingly to recant his opinions. But he was gone off. It was impossible to say what it all meant, or in what character he might next appear. Of course the enemies of the truth would know how to make the most of this, and to frighten the faithful by dark insinuations of what their emissary might yet do. Supposing, therefore, that he was not very long in Damascus, even the second time, he might preach in the synagogues, and yet, in the confusion and disorganisation of the period, intelligence of this might not reach Jerusalem in any authentic or reliable form. The disciples would thus necessarily be in the state in which we find them. Fears, which simple ignorance might engender, would be strengthened if their unscrupulous enemies were known to insinuate that Saul was only playing a deep game.
3. The difference between the statement in the text of the circumstances under which Paul left Jerusalem, and the account which Paul gives of it in chap. 22. Luke attributes it to a conspiracy, Paul to a vision. But this is only the two sides of the same event--the Divine and the human. There is the historian naturally confining himself to the outward fact. But Paul is letting you into the interior. In the complete view we get the united action of Divine authority with human love. It is nothing, after all, but the old story over again of the gold and silver shield.
4. Paul told Agrippa that he “showed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God.” But in the text he went up to Jerusalem, was taken down to Caesarea, and sent forth to Tarsus. In Galatians, he says, that after going up to Jerusalem, he went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and was unknown by face unto the churches of Judaea which were in Christ. How is this to be reconciled?
(1) When Paul is writing to the Galatians he is confining himself to the period which transpired before his going to Tarsus. Well, the letter and the history perfectly coincide. We find here that he had gone up to Jerusalem, had been there a short time, had gone hurriedly down to Caesarea, and went thence into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. Of course he was unknown to the churches of Judaea, and all that they knew about him would be what they might happen to hear.
(2) But when he stands before Agrippa and says, “And then to the Gentiles,” he refers to his great distant missions. Now, previous to his doing that, you will find afterwards that he came up from Antioch through Judaea to Jerusalem, and then went back again, perhaps a different way. On this journey he would have an opportunity of preaching in the villages and towns of Judaea, of which, we may be sure, he would fully avail himself, Thus both accounts are perfectly true and consistent, only they refer to different times. (T. Binney.)
I. The importance and duty of promptitude in religious matters. This quality standing at the beginning of the new course, and for the carrying out of the new convictions, has much instruction for us.
1. There are many beginnings in the world which stand alone, or which shine out in mocking contrast to all that comes after. Many a rosy morning becomes a cloudy noon, precursor of a stormy night! Many a man who starts in life well, swerves and wavers as he goes on. The divine life has to our eyes the same uncertainties about it. We have to wait for proof, for fruits, and for patient continuance to the end. Yet in some beginnings we can see conditions which, continued, lead to a triumphant issue. One of these, very prominent in the history, of St. Paul, is promptitude.
2. Promptitude is a prerequisite of success. A beginning is only a beginning, and yet much depends on how it is made. Some beginnings are like the spring on the mountainside, gushing into life and flowing clearly; some are like waters from a mossy soil, trickling, oozing, so little visible and so uncertain, that you cannot tell where they begin. But here is a vigorous, clear beginning. As soon as Paul saw his duty he did it. “What wilt Thou have me to do?” had been his prayer. The answer is, “You know Me now. You have persecuted--now preach”; and he did so “straightway.” In giving the history of this very time, Paul himself tells us in the Epistle to the Galatians that “immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood.” If he had so conferred, it is almost certain that his whole course would have been different. Some would have said: “Stay awhile until the memory of your career as persecutor has died away.” Others would have said: “Be cautious. Do not commit yourself thus early. Your present convictions may be only transient. It can do no harm to wait.” Had he gone to Jerusalem, Peter, who said to the Master, “Not so, Lord,” would have been quite as ready to say “Not so” to the servant. And probably all the apostles would have advised caution and delay. But Paul was right, and his promptitude saved him from many difficulties which else would have beset his course. It raised his conversion above suspicion. It opened his way. It confirmed his faith. It enlarged his knowledge. It gave him an advantage against any who might be his enemies. It put him in possession of the ground. It made retreat more difficult. It made him a fit example for all who are beginning the Christian course to the end of time. The first sign of a rectified condition will always be the prayer, “What wilt Thou have me to do?” The next wilt be to do it “straightway.”
3. The thing to be done will, of course, be different in different cases. In a sense, everyone who receives the gospel must preach it. There are some who favour reserve in regard to religious feeling and conviction. It is said that such things ought to be felt rather than expressed. That is not the teaching of the Bible. “We believe and therefore speak.” “We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” “Ye shall be witnesses,” etc.
not silent witnesses surely. Such was the original law, and there is no reason to believe that it has ever been changed. Are, then, men who can now speak best on such a subject to speak least? Because thoughtless people sometimes talk not wisely and not well on religion, must thoughtful people seal their tongues in silence and keep all dark till the day of death? Each man ought, in his own measure and way, to preach. For a quiet man to speak in conversation, is as much as for a public man to write. For one man to offer prayer in a house, would be more than for another to preach in a pulpit. Or with some, a change of habit and life may be the most expressive thing they can say or do. The question as to the form which the duty of the new state shall take is a question which one can never settle for another. But the principle is this--that there is to everyone something to be done, by look, or speech, or action, or habit--or all of these together--to be done for Christ as soon as you believe in Him; and that that thing ought to be done without delay.
II. Its advantages.
1. “Straightway!” And your new consciousness will become clear, as it never will do by repression. Doubts gather around the inactive mind, over the slumbering reluctant will, as mists above the stagnant pool. Work in spite of them; work through them on to duty--and they are gone.
2. “Straightway!” And the outer difficulties will be dispersed, and you will see them no more. He who begins on the yielding system will find that the difficulties that hinder the soul’s first alacrity will hinder it more and more. There are some animals which will not molest you if you face them, but they will follow you if you flee.
3. “Straightway!” And you will give to your soul one of the first and most indispensable conditions of growth. Children would sicken and die if they were kept in a state of inactivity.
4. “Straightway!” And you will lay the first stones in the great edifice of habit. We are in a large measure the creatures of habit; but would it be better if we were all impulse and emotion? No. It is no small part of our greatness that we can build our life into strength as well as beauty by the stones of habit.
5. “Straightway!” And you will end no small part of the lesser miseries of life. For, not a little is the result of duty undone--a word unspoken, an action postponed.
6. “Straightway!” And the enemies of our true life and of the gospel of Christ are taken at advantage. All their plans are broken, their prophecies of evil are set at nought--by the simple yet sublime plan of going, without hesitation, right on to duty or endeavour.
7. “Straightway!” And timorous friends--the discouraged, the weak, the halting--receive, as it were, a new inspiration. (A. Raleigh, D. D.)
The new convert
History is made up of epochs and eras. An epoch is a pause in the sequence of events; a marked moment, at which the reckoning of time rests and begins anew. An era is the interval between two epochs; the period which intervenes between two of those milestones of history, by which the memory assists itself in keeping count of time. In all good histories the epochs are strongly marked. Give the great turning points of a life, and we can almost fill up the era for ourselves. The conversion of St. Paul is a pause and a signal memorable for all time: the years that follow, while he is a learner even more than a teacher in Christ’s school, need but briefer notice, though one full of instruction for us who ponder it thoughtfully. St. Paul himself adds some particulars in Galatians 1:17-48.1.24.
1. He states that three years elapsed between his conversion and his first visit to Jerusalem as a Christian. The history in the Acts speaks only of “many days.” But this is no contradiction. In 1 Kings 2:1-11.2.46 we read that Shimei “dwelt in Jerusalem many days”; and then the next verse opens thus, “And it came to pass at the end of three years.” The expression “many days” is large enough to cover a period of three years. So it is here.
2. In the same passage St. Paul mentions a journey into Arabia, of which we have here no notice. The region intended is differently understood: it may have been that Arabia which borders very closely upon Damascus itself. And the purpose of his journey is not mentioned--whether it was undertaken as a first missionary enterprise, or whether to afford him a season of secluded meditation. St. Luke’s account of St. Paul’s life is full of omissions, except during that part of it in which he was with him. We are thankful for what he tells, and we are glad to supplement it from the Epistles of St. Paul himself.
3. The same passage tells us the length of his stay at Jerusalem, and with which of the apostles he then became acquainted (Galatians 1:18-48.1.20). Why this earnestness of expression? Because St. Paul is vindicating the independence of his own apostleship. He did not receive his gospel at second hand. It was three years before he saw one of the apostles; when he at length visited Jerusalem it was but for fifteen days, and during the whole of that visit he saw but Peter and James the Lord’s brother. Thus was verified Galatians 1:1; Galatians 1:11-48.1.12. Notice in the text--
I. Paul preaching (verse 20). “We preach not ourselves,” he said some years afterwards, “but Christ Jesus the Lord.” St. Paul never found it necessary to change his subject. It lasted him for his life. But what was it? The dry monotonous repetition of one doctrine? Need I ask this of any reader of his Epistles? Well may he speak there of “the unsearchable riches of Christ”; of “all the fulness of the Godhead dwelling in Christ bodily.” He found in Christ an inexhaustible wealth of comfort, of sympathy, of help, an unlimited supply of grace. And this was what he sought to communicate. That is true preaching; the endeavour to unfold a reality and a happiness first felt within. And he could do this at once--“straightway.” He could tell, as a matter of plain proof, that he who had come out to persecute had been arrested by a stronger hand, and constrained to confess that One whom he had scouted as a crucified and dead man was indeed living in the fulness of strength at the right hand of God.
II. Paul in seclusion. We are not to suppose that St. Paul’s knowledge was at once complete, or his spiritual life perfected. Doubtless it was during this interval of three years that he learned many of those things of which he has left the record in his Epistles--many of those “revelations of the Lord,” e.g. And may it not have been that that deep experience of the conflict with indwelling sin, which he details so strikingly in Romans 7:1-45.7.25, was then especially gained? It is a great error to suppose that an apostle, because he was specially called and equipped, was therefore raised out of the ordinary experiences of the Christian life within, was exempted from the trials which other men endure in rising from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. And the same error runs on into a province in which it is not a mere loss of comfort, but a grave and sometimes fatal deception. Men talk as if conversion were the whole of a Christian life. Conversion is a great thing, but conversion must be tried by these tests--first, is it the commencement of a change? and secondly, is it the commencement of a progress? A conversion which begins and ends with itself lacks every sign of that which Scripture so designates. A conversion trusted in as a security for salvation, usurps the very place of the Saviour Himself, and becomes at once a delusion and a snare.
III. Paul mistrusted. How lifelike are the lessons of Scripture. Which of us cannot understand the shrinking of verse 26. St. Paul felt heart and soul with the disciples, and longed to exchange with them that sympathy which only Christians know, and which it is misery to them to be constrained to hide. “But they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple.” It was natural: the memory of their beloved Stephen, and of many others, hunted down by his relentless rage, could not but rise within them at the sight of him, and make it difficult to believe that the professed change was real. But these things turn to the gospel for a testimony: the thought of what Saul was only increases the miracle of what he is; such a change, so thorough, so astounding, is one of the standing evidences of Jesus and the resurrection. But at the time it was hard to credit. This was the punishment of long hostility to the Saviour. Doubtless he bore it meekly and confessed that it was his due. But ought not the record make us all fearful of discouraging the nascent faith of others? Take heed not to quench the smoking flax.
IV. Paul encouraged. How well does Barnabas justify the appellation “Son of Consolation.” He knew the whole history of the new disciple, and therefore he lost no time in mediating between him and those who doubted him. He brought him to the apostles, and declared to them his history. Thus, like Andrew, he acted as the encourager and helper of another in coming to Jesus. It is a blessed office this of the peacemaker; more especially when the peace made is not of earth only; when it affects the soul also; whether in its dealings with Christ Himself, or in its relations to Christ’s servants. What is the aim of a visitor of the poor, in its highest aspect? Is it not this--to bring to the apostles--in other words, to bring to Christ Himself--those who, but for such aid, might be lost sight of, and be left in disregard, in suspicion, in darkness? How often has the work of Christian charity been privileged to perform this highest office! A Christian care for the body may be made available to save the soul. (Dean Vaughan.)
The marks of true conversion
I. Joyful confession of Christ (verse 20).
II. Willing endurance of the enmity of the world (verse 23).
III. Humble intercourse with believers (verse 26).
IV. Godly conduct in the service of the Lord (verse 28). (J. P. Lange, D. D.)
Evidences of conversion
When Saul, in answer to his inquiry, “What wilt Thou have me to do?” was told that he was to go as best he could into the city and seek for further advice there, it was a trial of his faith which ranks alongside of that of Abraham. For where in the great town of Damascus was there a place or a comrade to receive a lonely blind man into shelter? Who would tell him his duty? But hope begins with any Christian the moment he follows up the light he has.
I. What was there in this story specially belonging to Saul and hence of no essential value in ordinary use now?
1. It arrests the imagination to think of such a reception for one who had reasonably supposed he would come in triumph as the Inquisitor-general from Jerusalem. But it is not necessary for anyone now to pass through those personal trials.
2. His intense fright and prostration. The words “trembling and astonished” do not belong to the Bible. Indeed, much more than this is left out of verses 5 and 6 (see R.V.). In his own accounts of his conversion, given before Agrippa, and before the mob, he did use the expression, “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks,” and he did ask, “What shall I do?” but he never in any instance said he trembled, for he was not that sort of man. He was contrite and submissive, but he was not scared.
3. His vision. We must carefully discriminate between what belonged to this man’s commission as an apostle, and what belonged to his conversion as a man. If the Lord ever makes a new apostle, it is possible He may deal with another man in the same way; but it is not necessary to see a luminous sign, nor to hear a supernatural voice, in order to be a faithful, honest, and even an assured follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.
4. His physical catastrophes. The circumstances of any conversion are quite separate from the conversion itself. It cannot be a necessity now to be violently thrown on the ground. Suffering is not necessarily repentance.
II. What was there which was essential and exemplary for permanent use?
1. His entire intellectual acceptance of the doctrine of Jesus Christ as the Saviour of men. And that carried the whole Christian creed with it. Jesus Himself pressed this necessity in His name (Luke 6:46). He admitted it to be His own rightful designation (John 13:13). And the apostles made it to be the form of doctrinal confession of Christianity (Acts 2:36). When Saul saw Jesus, he suspected his terrible error, and asked, “Who art Thou, Lord?” And when the answer came, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest,” then he knew the truth, and took it to his heart as he called that Being, knowing Him to be Jesus--Jehovah.
2. His immediate commencement of first Christian duty (verse 9). The earliest low cry of an infant is the definite evidence of life: it breathes. So we sing, “Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath.” Paul knew the importance of an evidence like this; for he wrote afterwards about it (1 Timothy 2:8).
3. His change of purpose. Saul’s life swung around instantly and entirely both in feeling and in fact. He had loved to persecute Christians: now he loved to love them. He had hated and derided Jesus of Nazareth; now he accepted Him heartily as the promised Messiah. He had been “exceedingly mad”; now he was commensurately humble and penitent. He had been under commission from the chiefs of his bigoted nation; now be said simply enough, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?”
4. His one ambition. He had been thinking that he verily did God service by his laborious and passionate zeal in persecution; now he kept at work for the mere joy of doing some loving thing for God. He rested by faith in the merits of a Redeemer crucified (Galatians 2:20). He put off the old man, he put on the new (Colossians 3:9-51.3.10). He now desired only to be found in Christ, and to be found like Christ. In one lengthy passage of an epistle, he discloses his clear purpose, his passionate wish, all condensed into a single paragraph which really is worth studying word by word (Philippians 3:7-50.3.14).
5. He gave himself at once by public committal to the friends of the Lord Jesus. He told over and over again the story of his conversion (Galatians 1:20-48.1.24). At Damascus he was “with the disciples” (verse 19). Even under cold prejudice at Jerusalem, he “assayed to join himself to the disciples” (verse 26). (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
I. The preacher as evidencing the truth of Christianity.
1. What were the moral antecedents of this man? In general terms he was what we all are by nature--the children of wrath, even as others. But in addition to that there was a strong development of the carnal mind which brought out his enmity against God in a most striking light. He was a virulent enemy of Christ and of His Church. Such a sworn foe must have been the last man the Church had supposed would have become not only a convert, but a preacher. One could almost as soon have expected Caiaphas or Pilate. By no previous process of training was this wonderful work accomplished; but in a moment when his heart was bound with enmity against Jesus and the truth, the proud heart and the rebellious will were broken and subdued. To what can you ascribe it but to the power of God? The hand that had just grasped the weapon that was to slay was now clasped in prayer. The knees that never trembled when he stood by Stephen were now smiting for fear. The eyes that had gloated on the agonies of martyr were now overflowing with tears of penitence. I pause to ask you if this is not a fact in evidence which must carry to every ingenuous mind the conviction that the religion that could change such a heart as that of Saul of Tarsus must be Divine?
2. What was his subsequent course? Follow his career from the moment that he said, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” till he closed it by a martyr’s death, and there is not in the annals of the Christian Church a character so evidencing the truth of the gospel as that shown in Saul.
3. It is of little consequence what may have been our antecedents--whether we have been persecutors of Churches, or Pharisees, wrapping ourselves up in our own righteousness--we must all pass through the same spiritual change that he did.
II. The preaching as illustrating the nature of Christianity.
1. “Straightway.” He asked no authority from man. He applied for no orders. He passed through no theological training. From the moment of the discovery of Christ he became His preacher. I would not have you infer that a man may devote himself to the ministry apart from a previous training; for the conversion of the apostle was miraculous, and he had been trained in one of the first schools of the times; so that when by the power of Christ his heart was changed, he had all the intellectual discipline that was essentially necessary to become an able minister of the New Testament. And yet, if it please God to convert a man of intelligence, I see no reason why that man, now his heart is glowing with the love of Christ, should not straightway preach Christ. The authority that we receive is not from man. Ordination is but a recognition of the Church; a pledge on the part of our brethren of their prayers, sympathies, and confidence.
2. But what did Saul preach? “Jesus.” There may be much preaching so denominated that claims no title to the character. Man may preach theology without God, Churchianity without Christianity, Christianity without Christ, the Bible without revelation, the Cross without atonement. Man may do all this, and not preach Jesus. The theme of this newly awakened convert was all summed up in one precious and Divine name--Jesus Christ.
III. The place of preaching as manifesting the power and triumphs of Christianity.
1. He had to cope with
(1) the pharisaical Jews. There was much that the Jew had to allege in favour of his religion. He could claim the oracles of God’s Word as sustaining him. And yet the apostle adapted not his subject to meet the prejudices or objections of the Jews, but he met them by a simple uplifting of Christ and unfolding of the gospel.
(2) The Greek philosophers. It was here that his learning came to his help. If God gives a man intellect and furnishes his mind with learning, God intends that he shall employ these powers in the advancement of His truth. But mark, although his reasoning was logical and profound when he confronted the philosophers of Athens, his theme still was Christ.
(3) And thus this man, wherever he went, whoever were his audience--whether he confronted the Jews in the synagogue, the sceptics of Athens, or the jailor at Philippi, Christ Jesus was his grand, his only theme; and no theme but this will ever meet and overcome the enemies, the false religions, and the oppositions of the world. Let men go forth, making Christ their great theme, and such is the voice of that, accompanied with the power of the Spirit, that it would silence all the enemies of the Church.
2. What is it so to preach Christ?
(1) Saul preached Christ as the Son of God, and we cannot properly preach Christ without in the very foreground placing this grand article of our creed--that Christ is essentially Divine. The whole fabric of Christianity rests upon this. Cut this from under us, and on what do we stand--in what is the sacrifice for sinners? in what our hope for eternity? But if my Saviour is God, then my hope is resting on Deity, and I know Whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I commit unto Him until that day.
(2) We must preach the sacrifice, the atonement of Christ, without qualification or reserve. This is a day of much reserve in the statement of those great cardinals of our faith. But the work of Christ is what it ever has been. No change in modern modes of thought or of opinion has altered the essential doctrines of Christianity. We are not to adapt our preaching to the education or the politics of the times. We are to preach the same glorious gospel which Paul preached when he uplifted the Cross of Christ as the only hope of a lost and ruined world. What a grand feature was that in his ministry--Christ the Saviour of sinners! “This is a faithful saying,” etc. (O. Winslow, D. D.)
Saul preaching Christ
I. There is an unofficial preaching of Christ incumbent upon every one who is converted by His grace. As soon as one experiences the renewing power of the Spirit, he is brought under the most powerful constraint to make known the benefits he has received, and to commend ¢o others his Saviour. Saul is a noble example of this generous testimony for Christ.
1. It was prompt. “Immediately.” There was no dalliance with duty, no waiting upon frames and feelings. Love, gratitude, joy, a desire to retrieve the wrongs of the past, a yearning to direct others, above all a desire to honour Christ, led him at once to herald forth the name of Jesus.
2. It was brave. He did not simply enter his name upon the roll of the disciples, nor content himself with speaking privately to his former acquaintances, nor open some private apartment where the Jews might hear his testimony; but on the Sabbath day, when the synagogues were thronged, Saul, in the face of friend and foe, made public confession of Jesus.
3. It was uncompromising. He did not undertake to strike a balance between his own convictions and the prejudices of his hearers. He did not confess Jesus as a good man, or as an inspired prophet, or as a supernatural being above angel. He “proclaimed Jesus that He is the Son of God.”
II. A higher and official preaching of Christ is incumbent upon those, and those only, who are duly called and qualified to enter upon it. This is the preaching which Saul did after his return from Arabia. A study of his course throws much light upon the prerequisites to the gospel ministry. It must be preceded--
1. By a Divine call. The call of Saul was extraordinary in its method (Acts 26:16), but in essence the same that every minister must have. There must be an impression deeply wrought by the Spirit that it is our duty to serve God in the ministry--a conviction that grows stronger as it is prayerfully deliberated upon, and does not yield in prospect of the sacrifices which such a life entails.
2. By thorough preparation. One would have supposed that Saul, graduate of the school of Gamaliel, a man of broad literary culture, a master of the law, an acute theologian, a ready debater, an eloquent orator, might receive his commission at once. But there were schools for the ancient prophets. The twelve were for three years under the personal tuition of our Lord. Saul must first go into Arabia, and, like Moses and the Baptist, come under the immediate tuition of Heaven. There he received what he so expressively calls “my gospel” (Galatians 1:11). If such tuition were needful for one so thoroughly furnished, what shall we say of those who would have young converts rush into the vows and responsibilities of the ministry?
3. By orderly commission. The usual method then, as now, was through the Church authorities. But with the ordinary office of the preacher Saul was to unite the extraordinary office of the apostle. His commission, therefore, was made an extraordinary one. Instead of going up to Jerusalem to receive ordination from the apostles, he went into Arabia, and there received it immediately from the hands of the Lord (Galatians 1:1). A Divine commission is as necessary now as it was then.
III. The matter, manner, and effects of preaching Christ are the same in all ages. They are strikingly illustrated in the passage.
1. The matter is the same. Saul sounds here the keynote of his whole after-ministry. He preaches “Jesus, that He is the Son of God.” Upon His Deity he bases the whole system of doctrines that he proclaims. To this he adds the evidence of His Messiahship. He establishes His claim as the anointed Prophet, revealing the Father; the anointed Priest, making atonement; the anointed King, reigning until all enemies are subdued. This is the gospel which every minister is commissioned to preach, which every layman is under obligation unofficially to teach. Nothing can supersede it. It will bear no admixture of human philosophy, it will submit to no arraignment at the bar of human reason. It, and it alone, goes down to the deep necessities of the human heart, and has power to lift man up into the life of holiness and into the light of hope.
2. The manner is the same. Saul’s preaching was
(1) Scriptural. He confounded the Jews by proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was Christ. He who does this stands upon high vantage-ground. It is the men who are “mighty in the Scriptures” whose teaching is crowned with success.
(2) Fearless. “Boldly.” He did not hesitate through fear of prejudice or opposition. He did not consult the partialities or caprices of his hearers. Never was such preaching needed more than now. It requires courage to deal faithfully with the consciences of impenitent sinners and worldly-minded church members.
(3) Humble. “In the name of the Lord Jesus.” He assumed no authority or superiority of his own. He was but the mouthpiece through whom Christ spake. He relied upon the power of Christ to make his message effectual.
3. The effects are the same.
(1) The apostle found in Damascus and at Jerusalem what he did everywhere else, “To the one we are the savour of death,” etc. In every community two classes will appear--enemies and friends.
(a) With the former the enmity of the carnal heart will be aroused, and will lead on to persecution. If the Jews in Damascus and Jerusalem cannot gainsay Saul’s arguments, they can at least “lay wait to kill him.”
(b) But very different are the effects upon another. Saul soon found himself surrounded by a body of disciples--“his disciples,” as the R.V. teaches us in verse 25. Faithful work for Christ will not be left without result.
(2) The fruits of faithful teaching are gathered after the teacher is gone. Saul has been “brought down to Caesarea, and sent away to Tarsus,” but the Church of God remains, and “has peace, being edified,” etc. (T. D. Witherspoon, D. D.)
The testimony of Christ
I. The source from which it must proceed. A heart apprehended of Christ and converted.
II. Its contents. Christ the Son of God and the Saviour of men.
III. Its success.
2. Blessed fruits. (K. Gerok.)
Paul’s ministry at Damascus
I. The character of his Spiritual change.
1. It was radical. He preached Christ as the Son of God, what he had previously given his whole being to deny. Saul the persecutor becomes Paul the apostle.
2. It was genuine. He preached in the synagogues, where he was well known as the High Priest’s commissioner--the worst place for an impostor, but the best place for one who wished to make some atonement for his past life.
3. It was startling. The people were “amazed,” as well they might be.
II. The nature of his new faith (verse 22). It was--
1. Growable--“he increased.” The more he examined Christ’s claims, and reflected on His truths, the stronger grew his confidence and affection. Christianity is not a dry notion, but a living germ. Once planted, every earnest thought about it will only serve to strike its roots deeper.
2. Discussable. It was a thing Paul felt he could take into the synagogues and submit to competent critics. Christianity is no mystic sentiment that admits of no explanation, nor a musty sentiment that totters on scrutiny; it is intelligible in its facts, and rational in its theories.
3. Demonstrable. “Proving.” By manifestation of the truth he commended himself to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.
III. The spirit of his first auditors (verse 23). Their malignity was--
1. Deadly. They sought to kill him. Violence has always been the argument of bigotry, which no man knew better than Saul; but truth ever seeks to kill error by saving the advocate.
2. Deliberate evil as well as good has its plans.
3. Frustrated (verse 25). In his deliverance we see--
(1) The way in which Providence delivers the good. God could have launched a thunderbolt and crushed Saul’s enemies; but as is usually the case God saved him by his own caution and the assistance of the disciples.
(2) The inevitable doom of evil. God “taketh the wise in their own craftiness.” (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The first essay of a warrior of Christ
I. Inviolably swear allegiance to the banner (verses 20, 23).
II. Diligently employ his weapons (verse 22).
III. Modestly take his place in the ranks (verses 26, 28).
IV. Courageously look the enemy in the face (verses 22, 29).
V. Obediently retire at the signal. (K. Gerok.)
The probation years in the ministerial office
Note here the first official--
3. Sufferings. (K. Gerok.)
Conversion leads to Christian activity
Sir James Young Simpson, Bart., M.D., is a name that will shine in the annals of Scotland, and as a star of the first magnitude among her numerous eminent men. The son of a poor baker in Bathgate, who had much ado to keep his head above water, he rose to receive the honour of a baronetcy from the Queen, “in recognition of his professional merits, especially the introduction of chloroform.” His public life was always marked by outward consistency, and by an observance of the externals of religion, numbering among his friends some of the leading divines of Edinburgh, where he lived and laboured. But he was unacquainted with the power of religion until 1861, and the person who was most instrumental in the marked change which was wrought was an invalid lady, one of his patients, whose quiet words spoken, and whose letters of grateful Christian interest written to him, took hold of his heart, by the power of the Holy Spirit. In one of her letters she said, having written in the kindest possible way concerning him and his household: “What is to fill this heart to all eternity? When benevolence shall have run its course, when there shall be no sick to heal, no disease to cure: when all I have been engaged about comes to a dead stop, what is to fill this heart, and thought, and these powers of mind? Only the God-Man! If then, why not now?” In this way he was led to Christ, and soon began to undertake active and public Christian work. The grass was scarcely green on the grave of his long-afflicted son Jamie, when we find him giving a public address to medical students, speaking of himself as “one of the oldest sinners and one of the youngest believers in the room,” and earnestly entreating them to open the doors of their heart and receive the Saviour. “In Christ,” said he, “you will find a Saviour, a Companion, a Counsellor, a Friend, a Brother, who loves you with a love greater than human heart can conceive.” (The Quiver.)
And straightway he preached Christ
Henry Ward Beecher left college with no thought of the Church, was rather a wild youth, and, with two companions, followed the pioneers to the backwoods to shoot, hunt, and fish. In the midst of this wild life he happened to hear a Methodist minister, and the truth struck home to his heart. The effect was instantaneous. Like Saul, when he was struck down on his way to Damascus, his first question was, “What wilt Thou have me to do?” Beecher’s enthusiastic nature admitted of nothing else. He sold his rod and gun for a horse, and began to move from place to place, preaching to the backwoodsmen. This was the beginning of Beecher’s ministry.
And after many days were fulfilled, the Jews took counsel to kill him … Then the disciples took him by night, and let him down by the wall in a basket.
Paul’s deliverance by the basket
I. God wages war with pride in every form.
1. There is, perhaps, no greater wonder than that man should be proud. Turn where we will, everything seems to teach humility. The grass whispers, “You are dependent on us for food.” The beasts say, “You have to borrow our strength.” The clouds drop down a voice: “If we descend not upon you, you die.”
2. And God, from time to time, makes man learn this lesson, whether he be His friend or foe. Frogs, flies, lice, locusts--all petty in themselves, become terrible to proud Pharaoh; and worms become fatal beneath the royal purple, when the proud Herod is to be destroyed.
3. To none does God more unmistakably teach the folly of pride than to His own people. A great part of life’s discipline is just a self-emptying in this respect--that man may learn that God is all-in-all. The greatest of God’s servants are, from time to time, reduced to be dependent upon the poorest earthly instrumentality--Elijah upon a handful of meal; Jeremiah upon old rags and clouts, as he is drawn up out of the pit; Paul upon a basket. God so often uses poor instrumentalities for accomplishing the deliverance of His people, because the tendency of man is to glorify the instrument (Habakkuk 1:16).
4. God will fix man’s eye upon Himself.
5. God would show His lordship in energising them.
II. The good effects of a knowledge of this. If we see plainly that God often uses very poor earthly instrumentality--
1. We shall not despair in great troubles, because great ways of deliverance are not opened up before us. Goliath, armed in his panoply of brass, must surely be met with something in proportion; but God teaches the secret of the smooth stones of the brook--the proportion that He knows of, though we knew it not. Many a child of God is like the lion entangled in the meshes of the net, that found deliverance by the nibbling of the mouse.
2. We shall be very cheerful in our times of trial, feeling that there are possibilities of deliverance all around us. “With God all things are possible.” The man of God is taught that he has resources in everything.
3. We shall be in a very humble frame of mind, ready to receive help from any direction. Sometimes God has to make His people ready. The spirit of Naaman is too much in them; they have Abanas and Pharpars of their own, which they think better than anything else, unless it be something very striking and grand. And, sometimes, our blessing comes by a very humble hand. During one of his severe illnesses, Bengel, the great commentator, sent for a student, and requested him to impart a word of consolation. The youth replied, “Sir, I am but a pupil; I don’t know what to say to a teacher like you.” “What,” said Bengel, “a divinity student! and not able to communicate a word of Scriptural comfort!” The student, abashed, contrived to utter the text, “The blood of Christ, the Son of God, cleanseth us from all sin.” “That is the very word I want,” said Bengel; “it is quite enough”; and, taking him affectionately by the hand, dismissed him. The great commentator was ready to receive the blessing from the hand of the humble student; and God was ready to give it.
4. We shall be hearty to use the means we have at hand. We never know what such means will do until we try. There is a wonderful elasticity in little means, when God is giving them His blessing. In taking down the scaffolding of a huge mill chimney, the men forgot to affix the rope by which the foreman, directing their operations from the top, was to descend. Amid the frantic cries of the poor fellow above, and of the crowd below, the shrill voice of his wife was heard exclaiming, “Tak’ off thy stocking, lad, and unravel it, and let down the thread with a piece of mortar.” Presently the little thread came waving down the chimney, and reached the outstretched hands waiting for it; then it was attached to a ball of string, which Jem was asked to pull gently up. To the end of the string was attached the forgotten rope, which was drawn up in turn, and amidst cries of “Thank God!” was fastened to the iron, and bore the man safely to the ground. That is as good an instance as we could find anywhere of making good use of little means, and let us follow it ourselves.
5. The circle of possible aids will be enlarged. We are very apt in time of trouble to take very contracted views of the circle in which God is likely to work. We shut out all the little ways of help, and then the great ones are reduced to very few indeed; and as a necessary consequence, down sinks our heart in distress. We need continually to be reminded that even the stones can be made bread.
6. We shall be kept humble in the day of prosperity, not knowing when, and for how much, we may be indebted to little things. (P. B. Power, M. A.)
(Cf. 2 Corinthians 11:32-47.11.33)
. Saul had returned from his Arabian retirement, and his powerful preaching aroused the animosity of the Jews. The Ethnarch, under the king of the Nabothaean Arabs, sided with them, and watched the gates of the city to take Saul. It was a close investment, and with such powerful enemies the chances were all against him. At this juncture a device occurred to his friends, recalling that of Rahab (Joshua 2:15), and David (1 Samuel 19:12). It was a humiliating circumstance, and is placid by Paul amongst “the things that concern my infirmities.” Most men would have banished it from their thoughts and concealed it. Of such odd and inconvenient things the religion of Christ can make splendid use. This was--
I. An instance of peculiar discipline.
1. That there was something in Paul’s mental constitution requiring to be so dealt with we may be certain--over-sensitiveness, a sense of personal dignity, pride of race. In such ways we get the starch taken out of us.
2. There was need for the most contradictory qualities in an apostle. He had to be strictly upright, yet “all things to all men”; firm and stern in rebuking sin, yet gentle and forgiving the penitent; keenly sensitive to the claims of the Master and His representatives, but oblivious to mere personal consideration. Whilst he had to confess that he was less than the least of all saints; he had to withstand “pillars,” and those who “seemed to be somewhat to the face” (Galatians 2:1-48.2.21). Of the stiff Pharisee God was making a keen and flexible weapon.
3. This circumstance was in a line with his confusion on the highway, when he was “led by the hand.” That it made a deep impression on his mind we learn from the minuteness of the description after so many years. He uses the specific word for “rope work hamper,” while Luke employs the more general “basket.”
4. Many would have hesitated to avail themselves of such a means of escape as making them ridiculous, and thus detrimental to authority and usefulness.
II. A test of the faith of the disciples. There are many who cannot receive the truth for its own worth. Moral influence is with them bound up with personal position and external dignity. Yet a humble exterior is no proof of real lowering. Splendour may cloak corruption and spiritual death. The appearance of an apostle dangling in a rope basket was therefore a trial to the new converts. One might fancy themselves exclaiming, “Where is the miracle, the Sign?” So Paul banters the Corinthians--I am a fool! “bear with me.” With men God ever pursues this reparative process, dissolving the temporal and accidental from the essential and eternal.
III. A specimen of the irony of providence. In certain historical events one seems to detect such a mood, especially in the cries of nations and churches. The O.T., e.g., in the stories of Moses, Jacob, Gideon, is full of them. The means of checkmating the enemy of souls is reduced to a minimum--a ridiculous, preposterous circumstance, but it is sufficient. And when one compares the huge preparations and complex machinery of Satan with the simplicity of the Divine instrumentalities, the power and wisdom of God are thrown into relief. There are traces of a contempt for Satan in the Bible. Let us take heart, then, as we think of the grim laughter of the angels over abortive schemes and transparent blunders of the prince of darkness. (A. F. Muir, M. A.)
The methods of Divine providence
I. Never involve an unnecessary miracle. Had occasion required it, all the forces of the universe would have been at Paul’s disposal. The circumstances were apparently desperate, but not beyond the God-directed ingenuity of brotherly hearts. God helps those who help themselves--and God’s ministers. A chariot of fire is not harnessed when a rope basket will do. In trouble or work expect deliverance or help, not from some striking supernatural interposition, but rather from some humble source overlooked because so commonplace and seemingly inadequate.
II. Often involve curious expedients. An ambassador of Christ making his escape in a rope basket! Yet spies, defeated warriors, and kings have been glad of the even more ridiculous disguises. And God’s people in escaping persecution or seeking truth must not be, and have not been, particular as to what people think. Carey posed as an Indigo planter, Zacchaeus perched himself in a sycamore tree, and the Bible had to be smuggled into Italy under a lady’s crinoline.
III. Are frequently the simplest and the easiest of adoption. There would be no trouble in getting a basket. Saul would have had no difficulty in making one if necessary. And when hit upon, how much more effective this plan must have seemed than a score of others that possibly may have been entertained--bribing the governor, dodging the guard, etc. How often God rebukes us by setting aside our apparently clever but really cumbrous contrivances, and using the humblest instruments. Shamgar’s ox goad, Samson’s jaw bone, David’s sling and stone, wrought wonders at times impossible to the whole might of Israel.
IV. Are always the best under the circumstances. The question for Saul is the question for this practical age--not “How does it look?” but “How will it do?” And the rope basket did admirably. It was soft, light, strong, and no one would dream of looking for an apostle in it. Do not then criticise the form which a given method of providence may take? Whatever it may be, it is the best because God employs it.
V. Differ according to various requirements. Paul was often afterwards in peril, but never had occasion to use the rope basket again. This would have been useless in a similar crisis (chap. 23), where a band of soldiers was required. Because God delivers us in a given fashion, or blesses us in a certain way at one time, it does not follow that the specific acts will be repeated. There is as much variety in the methods of providence as in the methods of nature; both deal with needs as they arise. (J. W. Burn.)
Providence: its methods strange only to us
I looked upon the wrong or back side of a piece of arras (or tapestry): it seemed to me as a continued nonsense. There was neither head nor foot therein, confusion itself had as much method in it--a company of thrums and threads, with many pieces and patches of several sorts, sizes, and colours; all which signified nothing to my understanding. But then, looking on the reverse, or right side thereof, all put together did spell excellent proportions, and figures of men and cities; so that, indeed, it was a history, not wrote with a pen, but wrought with a needle. If men look upon some of God’s providential dealings with a mere eye of reason, they will hardly find any sense therein, such their muddle and disorder. But, alas! the wrong side is objected to our eyes, while the right side is presented to the high God of heaven, who knoweth that an admirable order doth result out of this confusion: and what is presented to Him at present may, hereafter, be so showed to us as to convince our judgments in the truth thereof. (T. Fuller, D. D.)
Providence, interposition of
A story is related--in connection with the ejectment of the two thousand ministers from the Church of England--of Henry Havers, of Catherine Hall, Cambridge. Being pursued by enemies who sought to apprehend him, he sought refuge in a malt house and crept into the kiln. Immediately afterward he observed a spider fixing the first line of a large and beautiful web across the narrow entrance. The web being placed directly between him and the light, he was so much struck with the skill of the insect weaver, that for a while he forgot his own imminent danger; but by the time the network had crossed and recrossed the mouth of the kiln in every direction the pursuers came to search for him. He listened as they approached, and distinctly overheard one of them say, “It’s of no use to look in there; the old villain can never be there. Look at that spider’s web; he could never have got in there without breaking it.”
And when Saul was come to Jerusalem he essayed to Join himself to the disciples.
Saul’s emotions on returning to Jerusalem
He was returning to it from a spiritual as Ezra had from a bodily captivity, and to his renewed mind all things appeared new. What an emotion smote his heart at the first distant view of the Temple, that house of sacrifice, that edifice of prophecy. Its sacrifices had been realised, the Lamb of God had been offered; its prophecies had been fulfilled, the Lord had come unto it. As he approached the gates, he might have trodden the very spot where he had so exultingly assisted in the death of Stephen, and he entered them perfectly content, were it God’s will, to be dragged out through them to the same fate. He would feel a peculiar tie of brotherhood to that martyr, for he could not now be ignorant that the same Jesus who in such glory had called him, had but a little time before appeared in the same glory to assure the expiring Stephen. The ecstatic look and words of the dying saint now came fresh upon his memory with their real meaning. When he entered into the city, what deep thoughts were suggested by the haunts of his youth, and by the sight of the spots where he had go eagerly sought that knowledge which he had so eagerly abandoned. What an intolerable burden had he cast off! He felt as a glorified spirit may be supposed to feel on revisiting the scenes of its fleshly concern. (J. S. Howson, D. D.)
Saul’s first visit after his conversion to Jerusalem
I. His admission to Church membership.
1. Sought. “He essayed,” i.e., endeavoured to join himself to the disciples. Amongst them was Peter--an object of special attraction (Galatians 1:18). He had heard, doubtless, of his wonderful sermon at Pentecost, and otherwise from the Christians at Damascus. James was there, too, the Lord’s brother. This endeavour to get into the new fellowship indicated--
(1) A wonderful change in his social character. Three years before, the disciples were the object of his indignation.
(2) The law of social life. There is a craving for intercourse with those of kindred thoughts, sympathies, and alms.
2. Obstructed. “They were all afraid of him.” It would seem that he had no letters of commendation from Damascus, owing to the hurried manner of his escape. So that we are not surprised at the panic here. This obstruction, however, must have been--
(1) Painful to him. He had been a Christian three years, had held fellowship with the disciples at Damascus, had preached boldly there, and had studied the Christian faith and cultivated the Christian life in the Solitudes of Arabia. So he must have felt it hard, though just, to have been now suspected.
(2) Natural. Purity and peace required caution, and the apostle’s case was a suspicious one, with the persecution fresh upon the memory.
3. Attained. This was through the kind offices of Barnabas, a man known and honoured by them, and possibly an acquaintance of Saul’s. As Cyprus was only a few hours’ sail from Cilicia, Barnabas, in introducing Saul, pleads on his behalf the only sufficient qualification for Church membership (verse 27).
4. Enjoyed (verse 28). He would--
(1) “Come in” to them with some new thought, new impressions, new deeds wrought for Christ, which would stimulate and cheer the brethren.
(2) “Go out” with their prayers, counsel, love, bracing him for heroic work. Blessed the man who has a spiritual home. Such homes are where moral giants are trained.
II. His proclamation of the gospel (verse 29).
1. The subject of his ministry. “In the name of the Lord Jesus”--a subject he once hated, and which he preferred to many subjects which, as a man of genius and learning, he might have taken. He viewed everything through it, and judged the world by it.
2. Its sphere--“Grecians”--Hellenistic Jews. The same zeal which had combated Stephen now defended the cause for which he died.
3. Its style.
(1) “Boldly.” Nothing but an invincible courage could have enabled him to appear before such an audience on such a theme.
(2) He “disputed.” He did not, as a fanatic would, declaim, but submitted theses for discussion.
4. Its results.
(1) Persecution to himself.
(2) Increased sympathy of the Church (verse 30). (D. Thomas, D. D.)
Saul at Jerusalem
1. It was in blindness that he had first entered Damascus, and now he is forced to flee from it under the friendly cover of darkness. As he proceeded to Jerusalem, he could not pass the scene of his conversion without a holy shudder. Every turn of the road must have reminded him of his eastward journey. But he hurries westward a changed man. And he must have wondered how he should meet his instigators, and have surmised how they would curse him. And if he passed the place of Stephen’s martyrdom, his soul must have trembled in its gratitude to sovereign mercy.
2. His arrival created as much doubt among the Christians as it had done at Damascus. He did not attempt to take them by storm, and parade the glory of his conversion, but humbly sought admission, but his veracity was questioned, and they deemed him to be a wolf in lamb’s clothing--no small trial for one who had done and suffered so much under his new convictions. But Barnabas kindly interfered and vouched for his sincerity, and then was he admitted to fellowship.
3. The apostle of the circumcision and the apostle of the Gentiles dwelt for “fifteen days” under one roof. What conversations, discussions, and projected enterprises from two minds so unlike in structure and discipline, and yet so very like in zeal and courage! Peter loved Palestine, yet Paul loved it none the less that his heart embraced the world. The former felt at home in the sphere of the Old Testament, the other stretched beyond it while he did not forsake it. Peter did what he knew to be his duty in repairing to the house of Cornelius, but he did not feel at perfect liberty to repeat such deeds; while the untrammelled Paul exclaims, “Inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles I magnify mine office.” In a word, Peter was like the Jordan, the stream that belonged exclusively to his fatherland, though a foreigner, like Naaman, might once be healed in it; but Paul resembled the “great sea,” which washes the shores of the three continents. Saul stayed only a fortnight in Jerusalem, but he was not and could not be idle. Four features of his preaching come into view.
I. The class to whom he addressed himself were the hellenists. The Jews born in Judaea were victims of narrowness and prejudice: the “genius of the place” held them in bondage. But the Jews born and brought up in other countries had mingled with other races, and their minds were expanded with literary and commercial intercourse. As one of them, Saul specially appealed to them. For there are certain ties of blood, education, and language which are to be recognised even in the advocacy of the truth. Saul did not fling the gospel in the face of the high priest, nor go to the temple and harangue the fanatical crowds. He was no unreasoning fanatic, unable to hold his tongue or control his temper; no agitator, reckless as to circumstances. He was, indeed, a man of one idea, but it did not so overmaster him that he knew not when, how, and where to develop it.
II. His preaching took the form of disputation. He did not come forth simply with a “set speech,” but after he spoke he allowed the free criticism of all his statements. He met his opponents openly and fully, prepared to reply to their questions and to respond to their challenge. One opponent might question his interpretation of the law or the prophets; or another would affirm some base thing about our Lord’s life, or some stupid and malignant thing about his religion, while to the one and the other Saul would speak with loving soul, reasoning out the validity of his interpretation and teaching the truth as to the facts of the Master’s career and death. And though another disputant, with a leer and a frown, should refer to his conversion, the allusion could neither shame nor intimidate one who “had seen that Just One, and heard the voice of His mouth.”
III. His preaching was bold, for his convictions were thorough. He believed, therefore he spake. Had there been any suspicions that possibly after all he might be in error--then his preaching might have been faltering. But Saul’s mind could not admit the possibility of a doubt; and the glorified Jesus being his shield, he was not alarmed at “what man shall do.” He could not modify, and he would not recant. Pressed on every side by the Grecians, he was impervious alike to execration and ridicule--a mighty man of valour, clad in “the whole armour of God.”
IV. He was bold in the name of the Lord Jesus, i.e., he not only preached Christ, but he claimed His express authority for so preaching Him. Timidity would be treachery to his Master, cruelty to the world, and unfaithfulness to his own convictions. And all this brave outspokenness was not the arrogance of a “novice,” but the courage which one feels who has vowed fidelity both to God and to man, and who is supported by the grace which never fails. Conclusion: That Saul’s appearance should impress some needs not be doubted, but the multitude refused to believe. Nay, they went about to slay him. In the meantime he had enjoyed a remarkable vision in the Temple, in which he saw Christ and heard Him say, “Get thee quickly out of Jerusalem, for they will not receive thy testimony concerning Me.” As Saul had been only two weeks there, he wished to remain a little longer, and, probably with the advice of Peter, thought of selecting Jerusalem as a field of labour. Another scene like Pentecost might be anticipated, and Peter might be hoping much from the ardour, erudition, and eloquence of his junior colleague. Man proposes, but God disposes. But as Saul did nothing without a reason, he honestly tells the Lord why he had come to labour in Jerusalem (Acts 22:19-44.22.20). The ground taken by Saul is very intelligible. The population of Jerusalem had known what he was, and he wished them to know what he had become. Therefore he thought that on the spot where such points were notorious, he had a special claim to be heard against himself and in favour of that system which he had adopted from the best of all reasons. Moses, when summoned to go to Egypt, pleaded want of eloquence; Gideon would not march till the fleece had been wetted, nay, till the omen had been reversed; Jeremiah urged his youth and inexperience when called to the prophetic office; Jonah set sail for Tarshish, instead of proceeding to Nineveh; Ananias, when bidden to seek out a stranger who had recently arrived at Damascus, demurred; and Saul, thinking himself possessed of special qualifications for a sphere of labour which he preferred, was backward toward that very work for which he had been born and called, and in which he so soon achieved signal success, and won imperishable renown. “Who art thou, O man, that repliest against God?” “The right man in the right place,” has become a popular expression for mutual adaptation. Saul did not verify the saying either in Damascus or Jerusalem, but it might be truly predicted of him through his whole subsequent career, when he spoke, travelled, toiled, and suffered, as one “appointed a preacher, and an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity.” (J. Eadie, D. D.)
I. The character of the persons on whom the duty of Church membership devolves.
1. It is the duty of all who call themselves Christians to separate themselves from the world and to unite themselves with a particular Church; yet, before they can do this in a scriptural manner, they must exercise repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ; they must “first give themselves to the Lord, and then to His people according to His will.” Personal must precede social religion. “A Christian is the highest style of man”--he is a disciple of Christ; he believes His gospel; he loves Him; he imitates His example; he yields obedience to His commands; and he lives, not unto himself, but unto Him who died for him and rose again.
2. That none but such persons are qualified for Church membership is evident from the New Testament. In the case before us, when “Saul essayed to join himself to the disciples,” they did not receive him till they had ascertained from Barnabas that he was a disciple indeed. And when the apostle wrote to the Churches he had formed he addressed them to “the saints”--to the “beloved of God”--to the “faithful in Christ Jesus,” etc. And if persons of another character gained admission, they were “to put away that wicked person,” and to “withdraw from every brother that walked disorderly.”
3. Besides this direct evidence that personal piety is an essential prerequisite for Church communion, there are other considerations to show its necessity. Without personal piety--
(1) A man can have no spiritual communion with the Church--“for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?”
(2) He is morally unable to promote the great objects for which the Church of Christ was established.
(3) His Church membership may only serve to confirm his self-righteousness and self-deception.
4. The Church would soon lose its distinctive character, and possess nothing of religion but the name.
II. The indispensable duty of all such persons to unite themselves in membership with a Church of Christ. This appears--
1. From the fact that the Christian Church is instituted by the authority of Christ. He is “the head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.” “Upon this rock,” says He, “I will build My Church.” “The Lord added to the Church daily such as should be saved.” Besides, when Christians are addressed, it is not only in their personal, but also in their social capacity. They are described not as scattered stones, but as a spiritual temple--not as a house only, but as a city--not as distinct and separated individuals, but as “fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.” And the will of Christ, in this respect, is quite in accordance with the social character of man, and with the natural tendency and influence of personal piety. Not to unite with His Church, therefore, is to disregard His authority, to impeach His wisdom, and to set an example of spiritual celibacy, which, if followed by all, would subvert his institutions, and render a Church of Christ entirely unknown.
2. The uniform conduct of the primitive Christians. In the pure and primitive ages of Christianity, the several Churches contained the whole number of the faithful. Then everyone who acknowledged himself a Christian felt it to be a duty to join himself to the disciples of Christ, though he thereby risked his property, his liberty, and his life.
3. The command of Christ, relative to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, “Do this in remembrance of Me,” was a command given, not to an individual, but to a society. It was to be celebrated by “those who came together in the Church.” The same authority which commands, “Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is,” also commands this, and you act in defiance of that authority, whether you forsake the public worship of God, or neglect communion with the Church of Christ.
III. The advantages which a prompt performance of this duty will secure. Your communion with the Church of Christ--
1. Will warrant the exercise of confidence in prayer, and authorise you to expect the blessing of God. Whilst you live in the neglect of this duty, I do not see how you can consistently exercise the one, or expect the other. When we reverence the Redeemer as our Lawgiver, we may consistently expect Him to become our Intercessor, and when we ascend the hill where His blessing is promised, we may confidently expect that there it will be commanded.
2. Will furnish you with additional means and motives for perseverance in holiness. You will be brought under the immediate charge and care of the pastor, and become associated with brethren who will watch over you with charity, and sympathise with you in your sorrows and your joys, and pray for you. Besides which, you will be surrounded with obligations to circumspection, arising from the sacredness of your relationship. You will then be no longer an isolated individual, like a flower in a wilderness, wasting its sweetness in the desert air, dimmed in its beauties, and stunted in its growth; but, being planted in the house of the Lord, you will flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon, still bringing forth fruit even in old age.
3. Will be a source of much holy peace and joy. There is a sweet and sacred pleasure which springs from the conviction of having acted according to the Divine command.
IV. The objections and apologies by which those who neglect this duty attempt to justify or to excuse their conduct.
1. “I am not yet qualified for Church membership.” If by this you intimate that you are not Christians, then your fear is just; or if you refer to the righteousness which is of the law, you have not yet attained it, and you never will. But perhaps you mean a more mature and perfect character. If so, you have mistaken the design of the institution. The Church is formed expressly for the reception of all who repent and believe the gospel; and they are commanded to enter it, not when their Christian graces are matured, but in order that they may be matured. It is at once a nursery for the babe in Christ, a school for the education of the young man, and a sanctuary for the refuge and repose of “such an one as Paul the aged.”
2. “I can go to heaven without being a member of a Church.” Does not the ingratitude and presumption which this objection manifests, render it unworthy of a reply? Is there not a degree of haughtiness and flippancy in such a sentiment, which betrays a heart which is not right in the sight of God? Suppose you do go to heaven without it--will the recollection of your neglect and disobedience be any source of pleasure to you when you get there? Go to heaven without it! Shame on the man who professes to follow the Lamb, and yet tells us that he can travel to heaven by trampling on His institutions, and enter there, not by the door, like an honest man, but by some other way, like a thief and a robber.
3. “I have a relative or friend who is not willing that I should become a member of the Church.” Now, if you were to state this apology fully, you would add, “and therefore I have determined to consult his will rather than the will of Christ.” But further, if your relative or friend be not pious, is your present conduct likely to make him so? Will he not suspect your loyalty and love to the Redeemer, and learn by your example to be negligent and disobedient? If your relative or friend will not accompany you to the Cross and to the Church, you must go alone.
4. “I fear that the Church will not receive me.” No Church constituted according to the New Testament will refuse to receive you if you profess and manifest repentance and faith. If you are a Christian, however young and feeble, Christ has received you, and it would be at our peril to reject you, for the Church is not ours.
5. “I fear that, at some future time, I may bring dishonour on the cause of Christ.” But is there nothing dishonourable in your present conduct? Besides, are you more likely to be safe in the world than in the Church? And is Christ less likely to preserve you when you are keeping His commandments? (J. Alexander.)
Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles.--
Barnabas and Saul
The first association of two names, afterwards linked together for good or evil, is fraught with interest. How much more the earliest combination of Barnabas and Saul--to issue in widespread blessing for the Church and the world. It is significant, however, that Barnabas alone had the genius to detect the genuineness of Saul’s conversion, and his latent possibilities. How many splendid lives have been gained for the Church, in the teeth of the Church’s opposition, by the kindness and sagacity of some one man.
I. What Barnabas did; as exhibiting the conduct of a true brother.
1. “He took him.”
(1) Sympathised with his painful position.
(2) Relieved him from his embarrassing isolation.
(3) Identified himself with him by taking his stand on the same platform. And thus--
(4) Effectually helped him in circumstances, where from his previous record he was powerless.
2. He “brought him to the apostles.” He was not satisfied with sending a letter of recommendation, or with telling Saul to “mention his name”--a cheap and easy method often adopted nowadays--but went with him to vouch for his character, and to accept all responsibility for him. How many good Christians today are outside the fold because of the unjust suspicions of their fellow Christians! And how much room there is for a Barnabas in those Churches where mere orthodoxy or respectability rule instead of the Spirit of Christ.
II. What barnabas said: as defining the character of a true convert.
1. “How that he had seen the Lord.” The vision of Christ as Saviour and Lord essential to true conversion. Paul himself confesses as much (Galatians 1:15-48.1.16).
2. “That he had spoken to Him.” “Behold he prayeth” was the assurance Christ gave to Ananias of Paul’s conversion.
3. “That he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus.” Paul tells us that when a man believes, he will speak. “With the heart man believeth unto righteousness.” (J. W. Burn.)
Sympathy: its practical value
To the generosity and clear-sightedness of Joseph of Cyprus, on this and on a later occasion, the apostle owed a vast debt of gratitude. Next only to the man who achieves the greatest and most blessed deeds is he who, perhaps himself wholly incapable of such high work, is yet the first to help and encourage the genius of others. We often do more good by our sympathy than by our labours, and render to the world a more lasting service by absence of jealousy, and recognition of merit, than we could ever render by the straining efforts of personal ambition. (Archdeacon Farrar.)
Then had the Churches rest.
The right use of quiet times is a great secret of Christian living. Human life is made up of alternations of storm and calm, of trouble and rest. It is so with the life of an individual, a nation, or a Church. The earlier part of this chapter indicated a time of trouble. But now the chief persecutor has himself felt the force of truth. Then again the Emperor Caligula was making an impious attempt to place his own image in the Temple, and so the attention of the Jews was wholly occupied with plans for frustrating his design. They had no time to persecute. So the Churches had peace: how did they use it? Did it make them indolent, unfruitful, unfaithful, quarrelsome? Two things are said of them: they were--
1. The whole Church is one building, planned by one Architect, carried on by one Builder, designed for one end, to be the habitation of God. This thought is full of comfort. It shows us that however small the place of each one, yet each one has his place, and that, if it be not filled, there is a blank, be it ever so small. Is not that honour enough? Does it not say to each, See that thy place be not a blank, or worse?
2. The Church of each land, age, town, is a building. It may be but a fragment, a buttress, or a pinnacle of the universal Church; but you all know how any building would look if one buttress fell; and therefore you will not count it a small thing if some such position belongs to our community. This congregation of ours is a building. Is it then being built up? is it rising, in solidity, unity, beauty? is it giving signs, more and more, of its destination as a habitation of God?
3. Each human soul is a building. What a question is it, for each one, How is that building which is I myself, getting on? Are the foundations deeply and soundly laid in the faith of Christ? Is the superstructure rising day by day gradually, regularly, quietly, yet consciously, perceptibly, visibly? Am I growing in grace? more and more prevailing over sinful passions? better able to do the work which He has given me? Times of tranquillity ought to be times of edifying: alas I too often they are times of suspended energy.
II. Multiplied. A time of peace ought to be a time of outward as well as inward progress. It was so of old. How is it now? Is there zeal in founding or reinforcing missionary institutions? Alas! you know that with much philanthropy there is little gospel zeal amongst us; that, where a thousand pounds can be gathered for a work of charity, it is hard to collect ten for a work of piety. And is the Church at all multiplying at home? Can we point, by tens, or fives, or units, to new persons brought to be worshippers by agencies now working amongst us? We are not left in the dark as to how this may be done. The Church multiplies, by its own progress, in two things: walking in--
(1) The fear of the Lord, etc. Christ deserves not only our love but our fear. Does that seem strange? Is He not our “merciful and faithful High Priest,” “the Propitiation for our sins.” Yes! The words are written for our comfort, but not to make us careless about our sin. There is nothing which so solemnises the mind as the thought of an absolutely disinterested and unbounded love. It says of itself, “How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?” To “trample under foot the Son of God,” to “count the blood of the covenant, wherewith we are sanctified, an unholy thing,” must indeed be of all crimes the blackest and the most fatal. And that is what men do every day for want of this very fear of which the text speaks. To walk in the fear of Christ is one-half of Christianity.
(2) And then, so walking, there is room for “the comfort of the Holy Ghost.” This is not a mere soothing influence within; it is a cheering power without also. The same word is rendered exhortation. God comforts by cheering on; by encouraging to action. We may try the reality of our comfort by this one test: Does it stir me up and spur me on to action? Does it say not, Rest from work, but, Rest in working? (Dean Vaughan.)
I. The different parts of the description here given.
1. The Churches “were edified.” A Church may be edified by the addition of new members. The Church is a building, and those added to it are living stones; and by the addition of such stones the spiritual temple advances to completion. Such, however, cannot be the meaning of the word here; it means rather, “Growth in grace”; advancement in the principles and fruits of Divine love. The Churches were composed of individuals, and as the wealth of a country consists in the aggregate wealth of the individual inhabitants, and the national wealth increases in proportion as the wealth of individuals increases, so with the Church. If we desire the edification of our own Christian society or the Church of God generally, the first requisite is our seeking personal advancement in knowledge, faith, and holiness; and the second is our using all the appointed means for promoting the same among our brethren. Edification includes--
(1) Growth in knowledge. All other growth arises from this. There is a kind of knowledge which hinders edification. “Knowledge puffeth up, but love edifieth.” Knowledge that engenders self-conceit tends to the destruction of love; and whatever opposes love is a foe to all genuine spirituality and improvement. Yet there can be no edification without growth in the spiritual discoveries of the mind. The Bible contains the inexhaustible resources of wisdom, and the study of it is indispensable to edification.
(2) Increase in faith. This is the natural effect of growth in spiritual knowledge. The Word of God, like His other works, contains in it the marks of its Divine origin, and the more it is known the more its source will be perceived and felt.
(3) And connected with growth in faith there is a corresponding growth in all the graces and virtues of the Christian character. All the ingredients in the composition of inward, vital godliness, arise from the influence of Divine grace upon the heart and life, and must be in proportion to the growth of faith.
2. They walked “in the fear of the Lord.” This--
(1) Imparted a becoming solemnity to all their social meetings for worship, and a corresponding dignity and propriety to all who were present.
(2) Implies a sacred conscientious regard in all things to His authority.
(3) Suggests that this was the superior dominant principle, and that the fear of man was suppressed and kept in control.
3. They walked “in the comfort of the Holy Ghost.” Edification and practical godliness were associated with spiritual enjoyment. The comfort of the Holy Ghost is comfort of which the Spirit of God is the great Author. To walk in this comfort is to enjoy harmony within, and to display it externally to have the powers of the mind and the affections of the heart engaged in duty. This comfort, then, is not an indolent, inactive enjoyment. It is only to be found in active service, not in a life of ascetic seclusion, or in feelings of spiritual epicurism. There is an intimate connection between walking in the fear of the Lord and walking in the comfort of the Holy Ghost. All pretensions to the latter without the former are vain. There is no true legitimate comfort from the truths of God except to those that walk in the ways of God.
II. The connection subsisting between them and especially between the character of the churches with their multiplication. An undue regard to members has often done incalculable mischief. Increase is desirable, but it must be increase of those whose hearts are right with God. With Him respectability consists not in numbers but in character. He had a few names in Sardis who had not defiled their garments. But, as a corrupt body, the Church of Sardis is admonished, and “there is joy before the angels of God.” We rejoice more in an addition to than in the continued safety of the sheep. We delight in seeing all the jewels of the Saviour’s crown continuing to shine with pure lustre; but our delight is still more elevated when a new jewel is added to it. It is in this respect that missions to the heathen are so supremely interesting. Notice, then, a connection between--
1. Rest and edification. In the Church as well as in the state, times of difficulty and trial often call forth latent powers, and produce remarkable men where they were least expected; but it too generally happens that to the members of a persecuted body such seasons are not times of steady thought, and deliberate and persevering study of Divine truth, and consequently of general improvement. A state of rest, on the contrary, affords opportunities for much study of the Divine oracles; for private and social meetings for conversation, and prayer, and mutual excitement. Let it be a serious question whether the rest which we enjoy is duly improved by us for the purposes of edification?
2. Rest and increase.
(1) A state of rest affords opportunities and leisure to attend to the interests of others: for preaching and using without restraint all the means for the conversion of sinners.
(2) Rest sets others free from the fear of attending at the proscribed places where the obnoxious doctrine is taught. Good cannot be done to the souls of men unless they are brought under the sound of the gospel.
3. The state of the Church as described--increase. Where these characteristics obtain--
(1) The influence of the character of Churches upon the augmentation. In illustrating this we may observe--there is an augmentation of holy and active zeal for the glory of the Redeemer and for the salvation of souls, which God blesses with success.
(2) There is combined with the effort to promote the truth the practical exemplification of its influence. When the truth is recommended, not merely in words, but by the exhibition of its power--then, under the blessing of God, it makes a successful appeal to the consciences of men, and finds its way with efficacy to the heart.
(3) There must be a most spiritual, strengthening effect on those who minister in holy things, to preach the gospel. The sight of a listless, lukewarm, divided Church, will act like a heavy drag on the spirit of the pastor. But when the Church prospers, when the members become edified, and walk in the fear of the Lord, and when they are united, affectionate, zealous, steady, constant, prayerful--this is the very zest of a pastor’s life.
(4) The Church will be mighty in prayer. Prayer is a means of edification and a measure of its progressive amount. If believers are not growing in the spirit and exercise of prayer, they are not growing in grace. It is a common observation, and the principles of the Word of God lead us to believe it, namely, that revivals of religion have been preceded by more than an ordinary predominance of prayer among the people of God for the success of His cause in all lands.
(5) There is secured an increase of the blessing of the Redeemer, and of supply of His grace. “Every branch in him that beareth not fruit He taketh away; and every branch that beareth fruit, He purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.” And this proceeds upon a general principle, elsewhere laid down by Him. “Whosoever hath, to him shall be given,” etc. (R. Wardlaw, D. D.)
The characteristics and multiplication of Christian Churches
I. The grand characteristics by which Christian Churches ought to be distinguished. We observe here--
1. The Church is governed by the practical influence of religion. “The fear of the Lord” is the scriptural equivalent for the whole of practical religion, and involves devout reverence of the Divine attributes, and continued obedience to the Divine commandments. Churches are places where impenitence and unbelief should never come; where the depravity of the human heart should be expelled by the energy of redeeming grace; where every heart should be imbued with the love, and should be devoted to the service of God, and where every individual soul should be growing and meetening for the possession of holiness in heaven! True it is that, from time to time, there come among our communities those who have not the fear of the Lord, but “these are spots in our feasts of charity.” They have no part and no lot in the matter.
2. Churches enjoying the consolations of religion. “The comfort of the Holy Ghost” signifies, of course, the comfort which the Holy Ghost, in His character of Comforter, is intended to bestow upon those who are truly walking in the fear of the Lord; and that comfort must be regarded as consisting in feeling that they are possessors of vital piety: of a personal sense of their interest in the work of redemption; taking away from them the spirit of fear, and implanting within them the Spirit of adoption, administering to them sufficient strength for all circumstances, and filling them with emotions of joy and gratitude. But the enjoyment of the consolations of religion must be regarded as arising from practical devotedness and eminence in piety. The inspired historian mentions one characteristic as a cause and the other as an effect. The Spirit administers comfort where the Spirit receives honour; and where the Spirit is grieved there the Spirit is restrained. His awakening influences precede, His consoling influences follow.
II. The blessings which Christian Churches, as thus distinguished, may anticipate. These Churches were multiplied.
1. There are two principles connected with this multiplication of Christian Churches. It is intimately connected--
(1) With the state of religion amongst those persons who belong to them. They were multiplied because they were walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost. The connection between the holiness of Christians and the conversion of sinners is in Scripture most distinctly stated. “Let your light so shine before men,” etc. (see also Philippians 2:14-50.2.16; 1 Peter 2:11-60.2.12). If the unconverted world see you inconsistent they will be disgusted, but let them see you walk in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Ghost, and then the very meanest of you will be himself a powerful minister of religion, will become “a living epistle of Christ, known and read of all men.” Your communities will increase in reputation, and in augmenting numbers, and your spiritual privileges will be enjoyed by men, who but for your holiness would yet have remained in “the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity,” but whom you shall have to present, finally, as your glory, as your joy, and as the crown of your rejoicing in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ at His coming.
(2) With their exertions. Every believer is set apart, not only for holiness, but for exertion; and if Christians be idle, in whatever class of life they may be found, they are guilty of the most shameful breach of trust. The Church at Jerusalem was one mighty mass of activity (Acts 2:42, etc.). And when they were scattered abroad by persecution, every man was transformed into a preacher of the gospel (Acts 8:4). Now this is the legitimate consequence of walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost; but it is too much undervalued and forgotten. Are ministers expected to be arduous and incessant, while their Churches are to remain indolent and torpid, just to coolly receive their message, or else to criticise their defects, and to be discontented at their want of success? There wants to be sent another Pentecostal fire, which shall touch all ranks and classes, kindling in their bosom the flame of that zeal which shall never be quenched till death.
2. This multiplication is a most desirable and happy event. There appears to be, in the language of the historian, an element of pleasure, but there are nominal Christians in modern times to whom it produces no pleasure at all to hear of the multiplication of Churches. There are two reasons, however, why this event is so desirable and so happy. Its intimate connection--
(1) With the promotion of the glory of God.
(2) With the present and final blessedness of man. (J. Parsons.)
Rest and prosperity of Churches
I. Describes the Churches of the Holy Land.
1. Their nature.
(1) They were congregations, or assemblies, of good people. And they are described as being more than one in the same country.
(2) They were not material edifices; although I do not object to, but prefer, that application of the word.
(3) They were not promiscuous associations, constituted by chance, nominal profession, outward and involuntary rites; they were real Christians.
(4) They were not national communities, for we read not of “a Church,” but “Churches.”
2. Their quiet. “Then had the Churches rest.”
(1) This denotes the commencement, not the continuance, of a state of peace. “Then”--after the persecution of chap. 8:1-4. It was the calm after the storm, the joy coming in the morning, after the weeping that endured through the night, and therefore the more precious.
(2) The causes of this return of quiet.
(a) The conversion of Saul. “The grace of God was exceeding abundant towards him.” His opposition was destroyed, not by his punishment as a foe, but by his transformation into a friend. Is there no encouragement to us in this? His conversion is set forth by himself as a “pattern” of the power and the mercy of the gospel. Then let Christians pray.
(b) The solicitude and alarm of the Jews. At Alexandria the Jews suffered dreadfully from the Egyptians, and in Judea and elsewhere were in imminent peril of ruin. An attempt was made to bring the statue of Caligula unto the Holy of Holies, in consequence of some offence he had taken at the conduct of the Jews. Nothing could produce greater consternation. So they were too concerned about their own affairs to meddle with those of others. God can “restrain the wrath of man,” as well as make it “praise Him.” He can control the circumstances as well as change the character of our foes. “Saul returned from pursuing after David” when the “Philistines invaded the land.”
3. Their experience and conduct.
(1) “They were edified”--built up “as lively stones, a spiritual house.”
(a) When the storm ceased they set earnestly about the completing of their moral temple. Persecution is unfavourable to religious, as war is to secular, commerce. It dispirits, diverts attention, employs resources, and intercepts communication. Peace, however, permits the full and unfettered employment of the Church’s gifts and graces for their appropriate and appointed purposes. The Churches before us were edified when they had rest. Their principles became broader in their base, and more perfect in their symmetry. Their faith increased in intelligence and earnestness. As a natural result of this, they cherished and expressed that filial reverence for God which is called for by His majesty and mercy; and they sought and submitted to all the intimations and the influences of the Spirit of Christ.
(b) This was their course. They “walked” according to this rule. It was not an occasional, but a constant thing. It described them in their relations as men of the Church and as men of the world. And what was the result?
4. Their increase. “Were multiplied.” They received large accessions from the world. There was more Christianity, and so there were more Christians. Saints were sanctified, and sinners became saints. These are the two elements of Church prosperity, the two ends of Church association. Christians are thus connected that they may promote each other’s spirituality, and that, by the union of their graces and the combination of their energies, they may be as light to a dark, and salt to a corrupt world. And these two things are inseparably connected. The Church cannot grow in grace without diffusing grace.
II. Sets them before us for imitation. The text was written for our use. Consider--
1. The connection between the rest and the edification of these Churches. “They had rest, and were edified.” They made spiritual advancement while they enjoyed civil repose. They did not spend the season of calm in luxury and sinfulness.
(1) Often quiet deteriorates the Church. The favour of the world has been often far more injurious to her than its hatred and opposition. When the civil sword has been turned against the Church, she has often “lived more abundantly”; when that sword has been turned against the enemies of the Church, she has often as miserably died.
(2) Our text, however, says that rest is not ruin, of necessity. And all Churches in their condition may have this character. It is quite a mistake to regard affliction as indispensable to spirituality. And yet how familiar is the language, “The Church is got into a bad state: it wants the fire of persecution to purge it from its dross.” And if nothing but persecution would bring the Church into a good state, let it come, and the sooner the better. But Christians should not be dependent on the malice of their enemies for the welfare of their souls; nor can it be imagined that the wicked are the “salt” of the Church, without which it would speedily go into utter corruption.
(3) On the contrary, the “rest” of the Churches is both a motive and a means of their prosperity. We should be stimulated by gratitude to a devout and diligent employment of the privileges so peacefully possessed. And then it affords the occasion for devotedness. The attention is not diverted by danger. There is the power of a regular and undistracted attendance on all the institutions of Christianity. The mind is left free from a dispiriting anxiety to study “the great things of God’s law,” and the machinery of means can play away without injury or interruption. See you not how all this applies to us? We have rest in a fuller measure than the Churches of Palestine. What is, what ought to be, the effect? Alas! they are not the same thing.
2. The connection between the edification of these Churches and their increase.
(1) The piety of a people is necessary to the safe and profitable enjoyment of their increase. A Church not eminently holy may suffer from great multiplication. Enlargement will tend to vanity and self-sufficiency. Perhaps we may find in this the reason why some Churches remain so stationary. It would hurt them to be otherwise.
(2) It is for the benefit of those who are added to a Church that it should be greatly good. Who can think without concern and pity of a multitude of souls being joined to a worldly Church?
(3) The godliness of a Church is a prime means of its increase. God blesses an eminently spiritual Church. For there will be prayers with labours, not instead of them--the only prayers that God will hear. And those labours will possess a character of earnestness and uniformity. The spirit of self-denying love and zeal will pervade the entire body; “he that heareth will say, Come”; each individual, like his Master, will “seek” in order to “save.” Nor is this all. The holy character of a Church in itself has no mean influence in “winning souls.” The exhibition of holiness is calculated to arrest attention by its singularity, and to produce impression by its force. The religion of Christ has suffered more from the inconsistencies of its friends than the opposition of its foes; its professors have created more objections than they have answered; and the proof of its divinity may be drawn from its preservation in spite of its adherents. Had all Christians been like Jesus Christ, or anything like Him, the world would have become Christian. And the holiness of Christians is especially important in an so practical as our own. The question is being asked of everything, “For what good?” Christianity must stand the test--it has always claimed to be tried by it. It depends on Christians, however, what shall be the actual and immediate results of such a trial. For all these reasons, the sanctification of Churches is necessary to their proper spiritual extension. There is an extension which Christ does not approve, and which men do not profit by--an increase of dimensions which resembles that premature growth which issues in consumption, if not rather that extension of the body which takes place at death. But the legitimate enlargement of Churches must come of their internal prosperity. Would you, as Churches, be increased? You must be quickened. A revival of religion must commence with the religious. (A. J. Morris.)
I. Their external circumstances. “Rest.” The hurricane of persecution was now hushed, and under the genial influence of peace they grew. Peace in the nation is the time to build houses and develop resources. Peace in nature is the time for sowing and cultivation. Persecution, like storms, may deepen the roots of piety when it exists, but is unfavourable to the dissemination of seed and the growth of fragile plants.
1. This external condition Churches in England now have. We can sit under our own vine, etc. Once our Churches were very differently circumstanced--e.g., under Mary and the Stuarts.
2. This condition we are bound to improve. Great is our responsibility. All the waste land should be cultivated. Every spot brown with barrenness should be made emerald with life.
II. Their mutual relation. There was--
1. Organic independence. These Churches are spoken of as distinct; they were doubtless distinct organisations, each having its own laws, managing its own affairs, and knowing no head but Christ.
2. Spiritual unity. They are all spoken of as belonging to one generic class, subject to one general condition, and pursuing the same order of life. And there is vital unity between all true Churches--the unity of spirit, aim, headship. They were “all members of one body.” That which really unites Churches is not “unions,” “conferences,” etc., but Christ’s spirit of truth, love, and goodness.
III. Their internal condition.
1. Living in godly reverence.
2. Receiving sacred influences.
IV. Their leading signs. Increase--
1. Of strength.
2. Of numbers. Strong Churches, like strong nations, will colonise. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The Churches increased
I. What is meant by walking in the fear of God?
1. A habitual and profound veneration for His character and institutions.
2. A humble and unreserved submission to His authority. The influence of this fear will extend to all the powers and faculties of the soul. It will--
(1) Constrain the understanding to submit implicitly to the authority of God’s revealed will.
(2) Influence the will, rendering it pliable and submissive, and conforming it to the will of God.
(3) Control and regulate the affections.
(4) Guide and govern the imagination.
3. A holy jealousy of ourselves, end a watchful care to avoid everything which may grieve, displease, or provoke Him to forsake us. Now, as Churches are composed of individuals, it follows that when all or nearly all the members of a Church live under the habitual influence of this principle, the Church will walk in the fear of God; and all the duties which are incumbent on it will be diligently and faithfully performed. These duties are--
(1) To provide the means of grace and of religious instruction for itself, its children, and those who are immediately connected with it:
(2) To faithfully maintain the discipline of Christ in His house.
(3) To assemble at proper seasons for social worship.
(4) To take care of the religious education of its children.
(5) To assist feeble and destitute sister Churches with pecuniary aid according to their ability.
II. What is meant by walking in the comforts of the holy ghost? Having--
1. Peace of conscience, or peace with God, arising from a persuasion wrought in the soul by the Holy Spirit that we are pardoned and accepted in the Beloved.
2. A strong and well-grounded hope, arising at times to a full assurance, that we are adopted into God’s family, and that consequently we have a title to all the privileges of His children.
3. Foretastes of the joys of heaven.
III. When the members of Churches habitually walk in this manner, great additions will be made to them. This is probable when we consider--
1. That such a life and temper will naturally and most powerfully tend to convince all around them of the reality and happy effects of religion, to remove their prejudices against it, and to show them that its possession is highly desirable.
2. That this state of things is exceedingly pleasing to God, and naturally tends to draw down His blessing. Them that honour Him He will honour.
3. That, when Churches walk in this manner, it proves that God is pouring out His Spirit upon them, and that a revival of religion is already begun. (E. Payson, D. D.)
Complementary forces in the Christian life
I. We are apt to regard these two forces--fear and consolation--as contradictory.
1. “The fear of the Lord” marks an abiding characteristic of the Christian life--i.e., the fear which dwelt in our Lord Himself must dwell in His disciples. Christ “was heard in that He feared.” He was penetrated by a sense of religious awe and conscientiousness, and was delicately alive to the will of His Father; and thus He had power with God and prevailed. “The fear of the Lord,” like the love or the glory of the Lord, is to be participated in by His disciples, and is altogether a noble thing. It is an anxious state of mind lest we should wound the love of God, violate the law of righteousness, or fail to reach the highest sanctification of character (1 Peter 1:16-60.1.17).
2. “The comfort of the Holy Ghost” is also an indispensable element. As the name of “Comforter” as applied to the Spirit of God means also “Helper,” “Advocate,” so the idea of comfort implies that of efficient succour, and the idea of efficient succour that of comfort--the deep satisfaction imparted to the soul by the energy of the Spirit of God--“strong consolation,” as we have it in Hebrews. The primitive Christians felt this, and walked in its power. Some praise ancient heathenism because, amid all its absurdities, it was a cheerful religion. Now, it must be acknowledged that Christianity is not a “cheerful religion” in the sense in which they were. Christ brought out the deeper meaning of life, and we have far deeper reasons for seriousness than men could possibly feel prior to the Advent. The superficial hilariousness of pagan worship was an impossibility to those who knew the Holy One of Israel, who had seen the awful beauty of Christ, and who were expecting the manifestation of that perfect universe into which nothing can enter that defileth. But, on the other hand, Christ has given us such reasons for bravery and hope in the moral life as men never knew before. Do we fear lest we fail to realise the wondrous love of God? “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost.” Do we tremble lest we fail to recognise the mind of God? “When He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth.” Do we shrink to contemplate the wide gulf which comes between us and the perfection of our Father in heaven? The Spirit assures us of sonship, and gives us the earnest of the promised inheritance, and urges us forward to share in God’s everlasting glory and blessedness.
II. So far from these two phases being, incompatible, they are complementary. In nature apparently contradictory forces blend, and in blending produce the grandest results. Widely as oxygen and nitrogen differ, they are complementary gases, and combined make the sweet and vital atmosphere. Attraction and repulsion are also complementary forces whose combined action preserves the universe in harmonic movement. So the resultant of the double action of the heart is life and health. Thus is it in Christian experience.
1. Fear is not inconsistent with--
(1) Peace. “Then had the Churches rest,…walking in the fear of the Lord.”
(2) Love. The disciple of love fell at his Master’s feet as dead.
(3) Hope. Peter, who has so much to say about the terrible day of the Lord, is full of hope.
(4) The highest world and the fullest felicity. Those who stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of gold, sing, “Who shall not fear Thee, O Lord, and glorify Thy name? for Thou only art holy.”
2. And so “comfort” is not inconsistent with any grace of the Spirit. Thoughtfulness and a full assurance; a constant eye to the imperative ideal which is so far above us, and to the glorious grace dwelling so richly in us; a vivid sense of our high and holy calling, and of the dangerous path of pilgrimage which leads up to it; the recollection of “the jealous God,” and of the God “keeping mercy for thousands”; the anticipation of judgment and glory, are coordinate and cooperative moods in the working out of our salvation.
3. The danger lies in the omission of either.
(1) How faulty the piety in which fear has no place! in which there is no trembling before the holiness of God, no overwhelming sense of the gravity of our position, no gazing with awe into the dread eternity how surely mine! The brighter the star, the more it trembles; and the purest saints, the bravest heroes of all times, have stood “in fear and in much trembling.”
(2) Not less faulty is the piety in which comfort has no place--legal, tormenting, morbid religiousness! Pale sorrow must consort with blooming joy; weakness must lean on strength; sweet comfort must soothe awesome fear. Only in the equilibrium of these opposite forces do we attain the fulness of life and the fulness of its blessing. Our grandest moments arise in the union of two opposing emotions (Genesis 28:16-1.28.17; Matthew 28:8).
III. Whilst we cultivate both sentiments, we must maintain both in due proportions. Most of us are under temptation to yield this or that undue preeminence, and the reason is found both in our constitution and our circumstances.
1. To exaggerate the sentiment of fear is the peril of some. An old writer tells us of a strange tribe which dwelt in caves because they were afraid of the sunshine; many devout people are afraid of the sunshine of the mind. Such are burdened with a sense of imperfection, condemnation, peril, and are slow to consider the gracious aspects of the Divine character, the inspiriting and mighty aid of the Comforter. Let those of a certain temperament watch against this danger. Let God lead you into green pastures. “Abound in hope,” and you shall find yourself more than conqueror.
2. The peril of others lies in exaggerating the element of comfort. These chiefly ponder the element phases of religion, and remember that “like as a father pitieth his children,” etc. They dwell more on the promises of Christ than on His requirements. Those need to be reminded of the sterner side of things. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” etc. All our austere thinking must be relieved by gracious hope, and our bounding joy chastened by the hallowed fear. “Rejoice with trembling.”
IV. The text exhibits fear and comfort, not as alternative, but as co-existent and concurrent moods of the soul. At one and the same time they walked “in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost.”
1. The two streams ought to mingle in one full tide of feeling. “Happy is the man that feareth alway,” and blessed is he also who rejoices evermore, and in everything gives thanks. In the geologic world, for distinct and protracted periods, different gases prevailed; now you have the Carboniferous epoch, and then some other element predominates: but in the perfected earth the various gases mingle in due proportions, and the life and beauty of the whole orb are secured and perpetuated. In the cruder and more imperfect stages of our religious history, periods of anxiety are succeeded by periods of jubilation; but in the higher and riper development of the soul there is more simultaneousness in our moods, and they happily mingle in one deep and rich experience. In the Psalms we frequently find the most rapid transitions of thought, the mingling of most diverse emotion--gladness suddenly becoming thoughtful, and again, sorrow smiling through her tears. And the same comprehensive experience finds expression in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 4:8-47.4.10; 2 Corinthians 6:9-47.6.10). So far from deprecating this, we must regard it as God’s wonder-working order, and direct our self-culture accordingly. The artist ranges over the whole chromatic scale, and makes his picture so grand because the colours are so skilfully mixed; the musician rapidly passes from key to key, from stop to stop, and because he does so creates commanding music; thus in the believer’s life it is the constant concurrent appeal to law and grace, to responsibility and privilege, to the God of righteousness and the God of love, to heaven near and heaven distant, that finally gives to the character that full and finished beauty of which all artistic perfection is but the coarse figure.
2. The concurrence of these two habits of feeling secures the highest welfare of the soul. It was whilst the first Churches walked in this fear and comfort that they were “edified” and “multiplied.” The truest condition of Christian life is not found in the comparative absence of feeling. The text represents the soul as full of force and movement. A uniform experience is thought by some a satisfactory sign. The truth is far otherwise. How much grandeur would be lost to the world if the mountains were levelled; how much fruitfulness, and history, and poetry, and art! Somewhat thus is it with the soul. The true soul is full of great contending emotions, the upheavals and subsidences caused by the Spirit which worketh in us mightily; and in the exaltations and humiliations, the soaring hopes and lowly fears, the confidence which touches the heights and the apprehensions which reach the depths, lies the perfecting of the soul. The more life the more feeling, the more feeling the more life.
3. In an experience which contains the full measure and compass of feeling we secure the stability of the soul. The perfect lighthouse is a mighty column rising out of the rock, the very ideal of strength; yet it is a reed shaken with the wind, and because it bends it stands. It is thus with the highest and safest characters. There must be strength of mind, of principle, of faith, or it is impossible that we should bear the strain of life. And yet with all this there must be that sensitiveness which is ever the sign of sublimest strength. “Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall.” (W. L. Watkinson.)
There is a filial fear. There is nothing more solicitous than love. A mother knows fear in connection with those children that she loves, but it is not degrading fear. The child, anxious to please, looks with waiting expectancy to see if its task has pleased father or mother. The child that is learning to write, or that is studying art, and, making sketches, brings them to the teacher or to the parent, comes with a kind of trembling apprehension lest they shall not be approved. That is honourable. That has the approval of affection itself, and it is ennobling. But the fear of anger, the fear of penalty, the fear of our own suffering and loss, is admirable only in very remote degrees, and occasionally, when other motives fail. And yet there is a filial fear, a love fear, which not only is permissible, but is honouring and uplifting. (H. W. Beecher.)
The Church at rest
Some men seem to think that the glory of the Church consists in being let alone. What they esteem above all other things is peace. A green mantling pool of what they call orthodoxy, with a minister croaking like a frog solitary--that is their conception of a Christian Church in a state of prosperity. But, according to the Bible, we are warriors. The battles we fight, however, are not battles of blood, but battles of love and mercy. We are sent to carry, not the sword and the spear, not rude violence, but conceptions of higher justice, nobler purity, wiser laws, and more beneficent customs. The weapons of our warfare are not carnal. With these we contest, and we will contest, against rage and wrath and bitterness, knowing that He that called us and sent us is the God of battles, and will guide us and give us that victory which, if worth anything, is worth achieving in the severest conflict. For victories that are cheap, are cheap. Those only are worth having which come as the result of hard fighting. (H. W. Beecher.)
And it came to pass, as Peter passed throughout all quarters, he came down also to the saints which dwelt at Lydda.
The Lud of the Old Testament (1 Chronicles 8:12; Ezra 2:33; Nehemiah 7:37; Nehemiah 11:35), was a town in the rich plain of Sharon, one day’s journey from Jerusalem, founded originally by settlers from the tribe of Benjamin, and retaining to the present day its old name as “Ludd.” It is mentioned by Josephus (“Wars,” 3:3, sec. 5) as transferred by Demetrius Soter, at the request of Judas Maccabeus, to the estate of the temple at Jerusalem (1Ma 10:30; 1Ma 01:38; 1Ma 11:34). Under the grasping rule of Cassius, the inhabitants were sold as slaves (Jos., “Ant.” 14:11, sec. 2). It had, however, recovered its former prosperity, and appears at this time to have been the seat of a flourishing Christian community. In the wars that preceded the destruction of Jerusalem it was partially burned by Cestius Gallus, A.D. 66 (Jos., “Wars,” 2:19, sec. 1), all but fifty of the inhabitants having gone up to the Feast of Tabernacles at Jerusalem, and was again occupied by Vespasian, A.D. 68 (Jos., “Wars,” 2:8, sec. 1). When it was rebuilt, probably under Hadrian, when Jerusalem received the new name of AElla Capitolina, it also was renamed as Diospolis (= city of Zeus), and as such was the seat of one of the chief bishoprics of the Syrian Church. It was, at the time when Peter came to it, the seat of a Rabbinic school. Gamaliel, son of the great rabbi who was St. Paul’s master, and himself honoured with the title of Rabban, presided over it, and was succeeded by the great Tarphon. The question which we naturally ask, who had planted the faith of Christ there, carries us once more on the track of Philip the Evangelist. Lying as it did on the road from Azotus to Caesarea, it would lie in his way on the journey recorded in Acts 8:40, as he passed “through all the cities”; and we may believe, without much risk, that he was Luke’s informant as to what passed in the Church with which he was so closely connected. (Dean Plumptre.)
I. How did there happen to be any saints at Lydda? That place does not appear before. There are saints in unexpected places. Yet not unexpected to the attentive reader. Lydda lay between Azotus and Caesarea (Acts 8:40), and Philip no doubt had founded a Church there. How summarily our work is occasionally mentioned: In many a hurried phrase there are service and suffering, trial and triumph, which only God can recognise. We hear it said of the minister, that he called and offered prayer. By the clock it was but a few minutes, but into those minutes he condensed the experience of a lifetime, and spared not the blood of his very heart. Suspect any epitome which counts but as small dust the details which make up the service and suffering of the Christian toiler.
II. Peter found his way to the saints. How? Do we not all find out our otherselves in every city to which we go? When the surveyor would find out metallic strata, he takes the, magnet, and sees how it dips, and says, “Here you will find what you are in quest of.” We pine for our own, and fall with second naturalness into the ways of the company of which we form a part. It would do some of us good if we could be shut up with savages for a few days. How we should then yearn for the most defective Christian we ever knew!
III. The saints are nameless. There is something better than a name. There is character. There you find no personal renown, but you find a solid quantity of spiritual being. It is towards that estate we should constantly be moving, to the great republic of common holiness.
IV. Peter found the man who is to be found in every city. Locally called AEneas, but everywhere called the sick man. The genus remains unhealed--a continual appeal to the Petrine spirit. We are not all in the front rank of the ministry; because we cannot do the first and supreme class of work, it does not follow that we are to sit idle. You can bring to AEneas the Christian friend, and there is no grief but one that cannot be mitigated by Christian love. We hear nothing of Peter’s doings here except this miracle; but as Philip had done much at Lydda without any record, so Peter may have done much beside this miracle. The miracle itself was a sermon. For “all that dwelt at Lydda and Saron saw him, and turned to the Lord.”
V. Now we come to Joppa, where there dwelt a woman who “was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did.”
1. She died! How is that? There are some people whom we almost wish would die, and die they will not; and others whom we want to live always wither and die. There seems to be such a waste of nobility and service in this mysterious Providence. But we may be wrong in that outlook as we are in others. Why should not the good ship land? Why should we shed tears when the noble life vessel touches the shore? It is so that God trains us, prunes us, and prepares us for the wider revelation and the higher service.
2. Peter was sent for. He came the nine miles to see what could be done. How natural was this. There are times when the strong man is sent for, and these are times of darkness, trouble, personal and social despair. But there is always a strong man to send for. In that sense we must have “all things common,” and none must say that ought that he has belongs to himself alone. It is in this spirit of Christian communism that we must keep society from putrefaction and souls from despair. There is a hint of the One who “sticketh closer than a brother.” When your house is very dark, send for Jesus. But you are not to wait for such crises. Send for Him today, when the table is laden with flowers and every corner of the dwelling is ablaze with His own sunlight. Beautiful was the scene in that house at Joppa (verse. 39).
3. How did these widows come to be thus associated? Who took any interest in their welfare? If you read again chap. 6. you will find arrangements made for needy widows, and to the name of Philip. So this man lives in his works. At Lydda he founded a Christian society; at Joppa he organised help for widows. Philip does not appear before us in name; but he leaves behind him memorials of his wisdom and beneficence.
4. How is it that we like the garments better when the seamstress is dead than when she was making them? That is a fact everywhere. The little child’s toy becomes infinitely precious when the tiny player can no longer handle it. And the two little shoes are the most precious property in the house when the little feet that wore them are set away in God’s acre. Let us love one another whilst we live! Not a word do I say against the sentiment which enlarges the actions of the dead, but I would speak a word for those who are sitting next you and making your own house glad by their deft fingers and loving hearts.
5. Now we come to the first miracle of the kind to which apostolic strength was summoned. Up to this time the apostles had been healing divers diseases; but now the apostles grapple without the visible Christ with actual death. We may well pause here in the excitement of a great anxiety. “Peter put them all forth.” That was what Christ did! Some battles may be fought in public, others have to be fought in solitude; so “Peter put them all forth.” “Thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet,” etc. Have you ever prayed in the death chamber with none there but the dead friend? How eloquent has been your dumbness! When you were weak, then were you strong. “And”--oh, conjunctive that makes one tremble!--“turning to the body,” now is the critical moment, “said, Tabitha, arise.” “And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up.” Let your miracles come through your prayers. Let your prayers always end in the amen of a miracle. What is the use of your solitude and your prayer, if when you turn round you cannot work some miracle of love? (J. Parker, D. D.)
Peter at Lydda
Look at this miracle--
I. As expressing the genius of Christianity. AEneas, a wretched sufferer for eight long years, Peter restored to health, thus expressing the benign spirit of the new religion. Christianity is--
1. The offspring of mercy. It is a stream from the eternal fountain of love.
2. The revealer of mercy. “Herein is love,” etc.
3. The organ of mercy. Through it humanity is to be redeemed from all evil.
II. As symbolising the mission of Christianity. It was a restorative miracle. The mission of Christianity is restorative. Christ came to seek and to save. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. It does not create new faculties; but it restores the soul--
1. To God’s knowledge.
2. To God’s fellowship.
3. To God’s image.
III. As indicating the power of Christianity. “Jesus Christ maketh thee whole,” etc.
1. The restorative power is derived from Christ.
2. It is derived from Christ by faith.
IV. As representing the influence of Christianity. Men “turned to the Lord.” This is to turn--
1. From the creature to the Creator.
2. From the destroyer to the Restorer.
3. From the wrong and miserable to the holy and happy. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
I. Was truly sick.
1. Had he not been really sick, the incident would have been a piece of imposture; but he was hopelessly infirm. Now, as there is no room for a great cure unless there is a great sickness, so there is no room for God’s great grace unless there is great sin. Jesus Christ did not come into the world to save sham, but real sinners.
2. The man had been paralysed eight years. The length of its endurance is a terrible element in a disease. Perhaps yours is no eight years’ malady, but twenty-eight, or forty-eight, or, perhaps, eighty-eight years have you been in bondage under it. Well, the number of years cannot prevent the mercy of God from making us whole. You have a very long bill to discharge, while another friend has but a short one; but it is just as easy for the creditor to write “paid” at the bottom of the large bill as the smaller one.
3. His disease was incurable, AEneas could not restore himself, and no human physician could do anything for him. Your soul’s wound is incurable. There is no soul physician except at Calvary; no balm but in the Saviour’s wounds.
II. Knew something about Jesus; because, otherwise, when Peter said, “Jesus Christ maketh thee whole,” AEneas would have inquired what he meant. Now, lest there should be one here who does not know Jesus Christ, and how it is that He is able to heal sin-sick souls, let us briefly tell the old, old story over again.
III. Believed on the Lord Jesus.
1. He did not believe in Peter as the healer. Peter does not say, “As the head of the Church, I, by power delegated to me, make thee whole.” Peter preached too clear a gospel for that. That is the purest gospel which has the least of man in it, and the most of Christ.
2. Much less had he any faith in himself. He did not say to Peter, “But I do not feel strength enough to get well”; nor “I think I do feel power enough to shake off this palsy.” Peter’s message took him off from himself. “Jesus Christ maketh thee whole.” That was what the man had to believe; and it is what you also must believe.
3. With his faith AEneas had the desires which showed that it was not mere speculation, but solid practical believing; he anxiously wished to be made whole. Oh, that sinners anxiously wished to be saved! I never heard of men reckoning a cancer to be a jewel; but there are many who look upon their sins as if they were gems, so that they will sooner lose heaven than part with their lustful pleasures.
4. And what did AEneas believe?
(1) That Jesus could heal him, AEneas. John Brown, do you believe that Jesus Christ can cure you? I do not care what your faith is about your wife’s ease. Can you grip that, and reply, “Yes, He is able to save me”?
(2) That Jesus Christ was able to save him there and then, just as he was. He had not taken a course of physic, nor been under galvanism to strengthen his nerves and sinews, and prepare him to be cured, but he believed that Jesus Christ could save him without any preparation. When you think what Christ is, and what He has done, it ought not to be difficult to believe this.
IV. Was made whole. Just fancy, for a minute, what would have been the result if he had not been made whole.
1. What dishonour it would have been to Peter! Peter said, “AEneas, Jesus Christ maketh thee whole”; but there lies AEneas as palsied as before. Everybody would say, “Peter is a false witness.”
2. What dishonour would have been brought upon the name of Jesus! Suppose you were to believe in Jesus, and yet were not saved. Then He has broken His word, or lost His power to save, either of which we are unwilling to tolerate for a minute. If thou believest in Jesus Christ, as surely as thou livest Jesus Christ has saved thee.
3. Then the gospel would not be true. Shut up those churches, banish those ministers, burn those Bibles; there is no truth in any of them if a soul can believe in Jesus and yet not be saved.
V. After he was healed, acted conformably. “Peter said unto him … Arise, and make thy bed”; and he did so directly, Now, if any of you say tonight, “I have believed in Jesus,” remember you are bound to prove it. You are to go home and show people how whole you are. This man had been lying there eight years, and could never make his bed; but he proved he was healed by making his bed for himself. You will have to prove this by--
1. A consistent, holy life.
2. An unselfish life. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Peter working miracles
I. At lydda.
1. Peter came to the saints at Lydda--an early and favourite title for the disciples of Christ. It has no official application, but belongs equally to all believers, and no disciple should shrink from it. Its primary and principal sense is one set apart as sacred. Believers are called saints, not because they are of eminent sanctity, but because they are set apart as sacred to God. This primary meaning, however, implies the secondary, subjective sense of moral holiness. It is to be regretted that the abuse of this inspired name should have led the Reformed Church into neglect of its apostolic use.
2. In the Church at Lydda, Peter found a case of incurable paralysis. Christianity, by removing causes and supplying antidotes, reduces the area and violence of physical diseases. But the gospel is designed chiefly for the more terrible moral diseases of mankind. Would it impugn the fair name of AEneas if we regard him as the type of a paralysed believer or Church?
3. The profit of faithful pastoral visitation is seen in the discovery of paralysing conditions. This palsy may be any evil quality of character or life sufficient to prevent spiritual activity and growth. There is but one relief--in a miracle of grace, a revival stirring all the depths of the soul.
4. “AEneas, Jesus Christ maketh thee whole; arise, upright, make use of the power Jesus gives thee; prove thyself sound by the activities of a healthy life; show to all the saving power of Jesus Christ by acting as one whom He has saved.” Peter does not mention himself, but acts in the meekness of a true servant. He thus presents an admirable example of that combination of modesty and power so characteristic of real greatness.
5. The faith of Peter in the power of Jesus is manifest, not only in the positive declaration of what Jesus was doing for AEneas, but also in the imperative “arise” given to one hitherto paralytic. The faith which works miracles on the bodies of men no longer remains with the ministry; but that is of small account to the faith that works miracles on the souls of men.
6. Though no mention is made of the faith of AEneas, it appears in its fruit. The human source of that faith was the faith of Peter. Did all who undertake to speak in the name of Jesus Christ do it with firm conviction in the presence and power of Jesus to save, their faith would never fail to be fruitful in the faith and conversion of others.
7. There was no concealment on the part of AEneas of the Christian work effected in him. The fame of his healing spread through all the region. The multitude thronged to see the paralytic, now whole; and when they learned the Divine name in which it was effected, they were converted, and openly took their stand with the Church of Christ. This result, so natural and logical, is a reason why a converted man should make known Christ’s work within him.
II. At Joppa.
1. The apostolic visitation of Peter was an upward as well as onward progress, a rising from one great work to a greater, until its sublime culmination in the house of Cornelius. In the Church at Joppa was a prominent disciple. Among her Syrian friends she was known as Tabitha, her Greek acquaintances called her Dorcas, while we would have spoken of her as “the Gazelle.” The graceful form and pliant movement, and large, gentle, loving eyes of the gazelle, after all, do not express such attractive beauty as the portrait of Dorcas: “a woman full of good works and almsdeeds”; nor does the rarest physical beauty ever gain such a hold on human affection as is portrayed in the pathetic grief of this Church of Joppa over her untimely death.
2. New Testament biography is brief, but comprehensive. Two pen strokes describe the supernatural workmanship in Dorcas--she was a disciple and a saint. She was Mary and Martha in one--as a disciple, she sat at Jesus’ feet; as a saint, she served Jesus in ministrations of charity. A disciple, she confessed Jesus; a saint, she consecrated herself, in all her possessions and capabilities, to Christ. She did not aspire to the place of teacher or ruler, but took a natural sphere in the abundant and varied womanly work of the Church. Dorcas presents a model worthy the study of every Christian woman.
3. “She was sick and died.” This chamber of death is to witness what has been often witnessed since--a natural side, the gloom and grief and agony of bereaved affection; and the supernatural side--the wrestling prayer and submissive comfort of faith in the assured rest and resurrection of the dead.
4. And then the stricken Church sent for Peter. They were expecting no miracle. It was too late for the exertion of the power of a healing like that of AEneas. They were in sore need of light and comfort, and they turned to one on whom Jesus had bestowed other and greater gifts than physical healing. The apostle left a happy and rejoicing Church at Lydda; it was a sad and tearful congregation that greeted him at Joppa. It was said her loss was irreparable. But we know better: Providence is not limited to one Dorcas, or two. The fruit of the Spirit is ever ripening. We do daily meet sisters of charity--not, indeed, flaunting a pharisaic zeal in the garb of a religious order, but dressed as women ought to be--who consecrate their means and time in sacrifices of beneficence.
4. Peter desired to be alone with the dead. Was it the instinct of Christian meekness, or recalling the example of Jesus in the house of Jairus? The crowded presence of this weeping company was not in harmony with the great emotion now surging in the apostle’s heart. Alone, he would be more free in prayer for the guidance of Jesus in this crisis. The thoughtful minister, when preparing for Christian work--all the more if it be unusual or critical--prays in the closet, and not before men. Nor does Peter appeal to Jesus in vain.
5. How natural is the story of this resurrection! The eyes of “the Gazelle” once more open. He presented her to the Church alive, her old life of love, sympathy, and beneficence. She would not be less a Christian for having been in Paradise. A few hours of heaven, as was the case with Paul, and John, and Tennent, gives new motives and fresh impulses to Christian consecration.
6. The news thrilled the Church with joy, and all Joppa with wonder. This is not recorded to meet the demands of scepticism, but because of the effect of the miracle on the activity of the Church, and on the many who believed and were added to the saints; to conduct and confirm which work “Peter tarried many days in Joppa.”
7. If the life of Dorcas was a blessing to the Church and world, even more fruitful of good was her death. It roused the Church through grief and surprise to tears of repentance, gratitude, and love. It led them to confession and prayer in seeking heavenly sympathy and comfort. The awakening of her body was the awakening of many sleeping souls to life in Jesus Christ. Let the Church hear the cry, “Arise! awake at the word to the work of Jesus.” (G. C. Heckman, D. D.)
Peter working miracles
We are told that faith in miracles is passing away. No doubt in some quarters it is; and unhappily the same is to be said of much else that is good and true. It does not follow, however, that such faith is opposed to human reason, nor that it is likely ever to lose its hold on the human heart. It is certain that, if there be a personal God, He can reveal His presence by signs and wonders; and equally certain that, if occasion requires, He will.
I. The time was a season of rest. Saul of Tarsus had been converted; the storm of persecution had subsided; and Peter, with unresting activity, was on a round of Church inspection, imparting courage, and working miracles of convincing and persuasive power.
II. The scene was northwest from Jerusalem. Lydda was from Jerusalem about a day’s journey. Joppa, nine miles beyond. At both these places there were Churches. So rapid had been the progress of the faith in Jesus!
III. The subjects were both alike and unlike. The one was a paralytic; the other, a dead disciple greatly beloved for her good works. Both were well known, and known to be beyond human help. Again, while one was a beloved disciple, there is no evidence that the other was a disciple at all. For aught that appears, AEneas was a common sinner, who had heard of Jesus, but had never attached himself to the company of His followers. Thus the miracle was not only an unmistakable work of Divine power, but also the outgoing of Christian love.
IV. The manner. These wonders were wrought by Peter indeed, but in the name and power of another. Never did the apostles claim to work by any other power than that of Jesus.
V. The purpose was two fold. In part it was the simple relief of suffering and cure of sorrow. But Peter had a deeper purpose. If miracles were immediately beneficial, they were also and specially “signs.” And, with the apostles, they were signs not only of God’s approval of their teachings and work, but also of the continued presence and power of Jesus.
VI. The result. Their two-fold purpose was accomplished. Not only was suffering relieved and sorrow turned to joy, but far and near it was seen and owned that Jesus was still at hand and mighty to save.
VII. Practical considerations.
1. Jesus is still a living and acting Presence with His people. The continued nearness of Christ is the hope and strength of the individual believer, the warrant of the Church in its aggressive work, and the pledge of its final victory.
2. The breadth of our Christian work. Our Saviour had it as a part of His mission to relieve physical distress. He commissioned His disciples to do the same. More than this, by precept and example He planted the spirit of human kindness in the hearts of His followers. Straightway it began to show itself in them. It did not more truly appear in the miracles of Peter than it did in the good works and almsdeeds of Dorcas. Already this has wrought great changes in the face of society; but by no means has all been accomplished which needs to be done. This, then, is a part of the service which the Master expects of His present followers. The redemption He proposes is for the whole man--body, soul, and spirit.
3. One important way to promote religious conversions and revivals. It was the love, as well as the Divine power, which shone in the miracles of Peter, which won the hearts of so many at Lydda and Joppa. Often does the missionary first win his way to Pagan hearts by ministries of bodily healing.
4. The crowning aim in all Christian service. With the Saviour, this was never the mere relief of physical suffering or trouble. He would have them know that He had power to forgive sins, and raise the spiritually dead to life eternal. So it was Peter’s supreme purpose to multiply and confirm Christian converts. (Sermons by the Monday Club.)
Working like Christ
These two miracles are both evidently moulded upon Christ’s miracles; are distinct imitations of what Peter had seen Him do. And their likenesses to and differences from our Lord’s manner of working are equally noteworthy.
I. First, notice the similarities and the lesson they teach. The two cases before us are alike in that both of them find parallels in our Lord’s miracles. The one is the cure of a paralytic. The raising of Dorcas corresponds with the three resurrections of the dead people which are recorded in the Gospels. And now, note the likenesses. Jesus Christ said to the paralysed man, “Arise, take up thy bed.” Peter said to AEneas, “Arise, and make thy bed.” The one command was appropriate to the circumstances of a man who was not in his own house; the other a man bed-ridden in his own house. And then, if we turn to the other narrative, the intentional moulding of the manner of the miracle, consecrated in the eyes of the loving disciple, because it was Christ’s manner, is still more obvious. Well now, although we are no miracle workers, the very same principle which underlay these two works of supernatural power is to be applied to all our work, and to our lives as Christian people. I do not know whether Peter meant to do like Jesus Christ or not; I rather think that he was unconsciously dropping into the fashion that to him was so sacred. Love always delights in imitation; and the disciples of a great teacher will unconsciously catch the trick of his intonation, the peculiarities of his way of looking at things--only, unfortunately, outsides are a good deal more easily imitated than insides. Get near Jesus Christ, and you will catch His manner. Love Him, and love will do to you what it does to many a wedded pair, and to many kindred hearts, it will transfuse into you something of the characteristics of the object of your love. It is impossible to trust Christ, to obey Christ, to hold communion with Him, and to live beside Him, without becoming like Him. And if such be our inward experience, so will be our outward appearance. Jesus Christ, when He went through the wards of the hospital of the world, was overflowing with quick sympathy for every sorrow that met His eye. If you or I are living near Him we shall never steel our hearts nor lock up our sensibilities against any suffering that it is within our power to stanch or to alleviate. Jesus Christ never grudged trouble, never thought of Himself, newer was impatient of interruption, never repelled importunity, never sent away empty any outstretched hand.
II. Further, note the differences and the lessons from them. Take the first of the two miracles. “AEneas, Jesus Christ maketh thee whole: arise, and make thy bed.” That first clause points to the great difference. Take the second of the two, “Jesus Christ put them all forth, and stretched out His hand, and said, Damsel, arise!” “Peter put them all forth,…and said, “Damsel (Tabitha), arise!” But between the putting forth and the miracle he did something which Christ did not do, and he did not do something which Christ did do. “He kneeled down and prayed.” And Jesus Christ did not do that. And Peter put forth his hand after the miracle was wrought; not to communicate life, but to help the living woman. Christ works miracles by His inherent power; His servants do their works only as His instruments and organs. The lesson, then, of the difference is that Christian men, in all their work for the Master, and for the world, are ever to keep clear before themselves, and to make very obvious to other people, that they are nothing more than channels and instruments. The less the preacher, the teacher, the Christian benefactor of any sort puts himself in the foreground, or in evidence at all, the more likely are his words and works to be successful. And then, further, another lesson is, be very sure of the power that will work in you. What a piece of audacity it was for Peter to go and stand by the paralytic man’s couch and say, “AEneas, Jesus Christ maketh thee whole”! Yes, audacity; unless he had been in such constant and close touch with his Master that he was sure that the Master was working through him. And is it not beautiful to see how absolutely confident he is that Jesus Christ’s work was not done when He went up into heaven; but that there, in that little stuffy room, where the man had laid motionless for eight long years, Jesus Christ is present, and working? But do we believe that He is verily putting forth His power, in no metaphor, but in simple reality, at present and here, and, if we will, through us? We are here for the very purpose for which Peter was in Lydda and Joppa--to carry on and copy the healing and the quickening work of Christ by His present power, and after His blessed example. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Now there was at Joppa.
Joppa or Yafa means beauty
The modern name is Jaffa or Yafa. It is a seaport town of Palestine, about forty miles northwest of Jerusalem, of which city it was the port in the days of Solomon, and has so remained down to the present day. At Joppa was landed the timber from Lebanon used in the first building of the temple (2 Chronicles 2:16), and in its rebuilding after the captivity (Ezra 3:7). At Joppa, Jonah took ship for Tarshish (John 1:3). Here lived “Simon the tanner,” by the seaside, upon whose housetop Peter had his “vision of tolerance” (Acts 10:9-44.10.16). During the Crusades, Joppa was taken and re-taken several times by the opposing forces. It has been sacked three times since coming under the rule of the Turks--once by the Arabs in 1722, by the Mamelukes in 1775, and by Napoleon I in 1799. The modern town is increasing in numbers, its population now being estimated at above eight thousand. (S. S. Times.)
A certain disciple named Tabitha.--
I. Tabitha, which by interpretation is called dorcas.”
1. The historian bestows considerable care on the name. “Tabitha, Dorcas, Gazelle”--they are the Aramaic, Greek, and English equivalents. Whereas we in the present day go to the flowers for names, the ancients went to animals. A bold man would be compared to a lion; a beautiful woman to a “gazelle.”
2. That St. Luke directs special attention to the name is a presumptive proof that it was expressive of the rare beauty of the maid who bore it. She was comparable to the gazelle--the most exquisite figure in poetry to set forth high physical attractions. Read the Canticles, and the poet has no apter figure to set forth the glory of Solomon or the beauty of his bride than roe, hart, hind, gazelle. In Dorcas, then, we behold beauty allied to Christianity; and beauty is recommended to us, not because it is beautiful, but because it is good. The classic theory of life exalts beauty above all things; but the gospel theory makes goodness paramount, and makes beauty itself pay homage to goodness.
II. Tabitha was a disciple. From the sphere of beauty we pass to the sphere of knowledge.
1. She was a disciple. Discipleship is common to all believers. The apostles in their relation to Christ were on a level with ordinary believers.
2. She was a female disciple. The word here used is not found anywhere else. The masculine form is used often enough, but not the feminine. In ancient Greek the word was not used because the thing was not known.
(1) Christianity has given woman what Plato and Aristotle never did--the rank of discipleship. The schools of the philosophers were made up exclusively of men, but “honourable women, not a few,” sit at the feet of Jesus and learn of Him. Judaism truly had its “court of the women,” but that was more like a sheep pen. The genius of Judaism was separation, not communion. But “in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female, but a new creature.”
(2) But though the gospel has lifted woman to the rank of discipleship, it has not raised her to the rank of apostleship. Dorcas also did much good; but she still continued in the privacy of discipleship. The moral rather than the intellectual is the true sphere of womanhood. The “rights of women” have been much pushed to the front lately; and women are not without danger of forgetting their “duties” in the more exciting question of their “rights.” Considerable tact is necessary delicately to balance the two. In the text the Church accords to Dorcas her rights--she was a disciple; but Dorcas only thought of her duties, and right faithfully did she fulfil them.
III. Tabitha was a disciple full of good works. We now ascend from the region of beauty and faith to the region of character.
1. Mention is specially made of Dorcas’s works. In her are perceived the true development of the Christian life. Her natural powers are hallowed in discipleship; her discipleship is perfected in beneficence. When the Christian life stops short in discipleship, it remains in the embryo stage, and is in danger of dying of inanition. Knowledge gets refined, chastened in work. Water is filtered as it flows onward in its channel. Water stagnant breeds miasma. In like manner knowledge, as long as it remains mere theory, becomes morbid and unhealthy; but let it run out in good works, and it will grow healthful and clear.
2. Dorcas’s works are said to be good. Upon what then does the goodness of an action depend?
(1) Upon the manner of doing it. Dorcas did not undertake to accomplish a thing and then leave it in disorder and confusion. No; she finished her task neatly and pleasingly, A slovenly life cannot be said to be a good life; its negligence seriously detracts from its goodness. Quality is of greater importance in the kingdom of God than quantity. “Well done,” not much done, “thou good and faithful servant.” In creation “God saw,” not that it was great, but “that it was good.” “Be ye imitators of God like dear children.” Every night review the work of the day to see if it is good.
(2) Upon the character of the doer. “Every good tree bringeth forth good fruit.” A bad man--bad works; a good man--good works; that is the established law of the moral world. Dorcas was first a disciple, next full of good works; she was first made good, then she did good. Herein consists the vital difference between Christianity and Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism proposes to improve the surroundings of men--to secure them better houses, wages, food, etc. Christianity proposes to improve the men themselves, being fully persuaded that if it can better the men, the men will soon better their circumstances.
3. Dorcas not only did good works, but was “full” of them, implying that her heart was the source of her works--the faith of her discipleship flowed out in deeds of benevolence. Look at the natural and the artificial tree. The fruit adorning the one is the ripe unfolding of the inward vitality; but the fruit suspended to the other has no union of life with the tree. No one can be inwardly full unless there be a spontaneous overflow in the daily life. And Dorcas’s faith in the Saviour gushed out in works of beneficence to man. There was no spasmodic strain, no painful effort--doing good seemed to be natural to her. Christ’s “meat was to do the will of Him that sent Him.” The birds in May are so full of life that they feel inwardly constrained to give it free vent in song. And there are men and women, too, who find it their chiefest pleasure to do good. It is as easy for them to bless their fellows as it is for the sun to shine. And then every attempt to do good, whether it succeed or whether it fail, returns back upon the soul in an increase of solid strength. The leaves, which in spring come out of the life of the tree, in autumn fall thick around its roots and enrich the soil for it to draw nourishment therefrom the ensuing year. “Mercy is twice blessed--it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” Faith and good works, discipleship and usefulness, represent the receptive and the transitive sides of religion. One without the other is dead.
IV. “Tabitha was a disciple full of almsdeeds which she did.” Here we come to the sphere of action.
1. “Almsdeeds,” not almsgifts. “When thou doest,” not givest, “alms.” Throughout the Saviour lays stress not on giving but on doing alms. “Blessed is he that considereth the poor.” The charity must come, not merely from the treasury, but from a tender and sympathetic heart.
2. They were not almsdeeds which she purposed or of which she talked, but almsdeeds which she “did.” No mention is made of parents or husband; she was probably a maid leading a solitary life. Will she then spend her days in idleness or vain sentiment? No; she will adopt the orphans for her family, and serve Christ in the persons of the poor. She will translate sentiment into practice. In the ironworks steam is not blown off at once into the air; it must first do work, and it is worth nothing except it work. And in our public services it is good to have our emotions well boiled at times. But we are not to let the steam blow off into the air, but to utilise it for the practical purposes of life. Sterne could weep over a dead ass, and yet allow his mother to starve for want of bread; but John Howard was never seen to shed a tear.
3. These almsdeeds consisted principally in coats and garments for the poor. The primary meaning of “spinster” is one who spins, and if need be, sews for the benefit of the family and society. The imperfect tense “was making” shows that Dorcas made sewing for the poor the main business of her life, and thus redeemed dressmaking from the degraded service of the world. St. Paul exhorts women to be “stayers at home”; on the margin, “workers at home.” It is not enough that they stay at home; they should also work at home, and save themselves from the cankerous miseries of ennui. Some people possess genius for goodness--they create and invent, whereas others can only travel in the beaten paths. Robert Raikes, the founder of Sunday Schools; Charles of Bala, the founder of the Bible Society; William Wilberforce, the liberator of the slave--they all had a marvellous genius for striking boldly out in new directions. To the same class of benefactors belongs Dorcas--she invented a new method of doing good; and her method has been perpetuated and her name immortalised in the annals of the Christian Church. “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might.” You should endeavour to find work for yourselves, and the work for which you are best adapted. But if you possess not the genius to find work, follow diligently in the paths already marked out. Dorcas was only a sweet violet blooming in the shade; but her fragrance has filled all the churches of Europe. And Christian charity is quite competent to deal with honest poverty; but no efforts of the Church can ever overtake guilty pauperism. Our duty, then, is to dry up the fountain. You may give coats and garments, food and fuel; but the evil will remain unabated till the traffic in intoxicating drinks is restrained.
V. Tabitha became sick and died.
1. In the prime of life. The words leave the impression upon one that her sickness was short and violent. Probably she caught a fever on one of her visits to the poor, and suddenly died. But mark--nothing is said of the frame of her mind in her sickness; indeed, the Scriptures are generally reticent about the deaths of the saints. Men who live piously and devoutly must die in the peace of God.
2. In the midst of usefulness. Why, we cannot tell. Theology and philosophy have faced the question, but cannot solve it. But if theology cannot solve it, it can help to bring the heart to acquiesce in it. “Why were you born deaf and dumb?” asked a gentleman of a young lad. A strange light flashed in the boy’s eyes, and he wrote quickly, “Even so, Father, for so it seemeth good in Thy sight.”
3. Dying in the midst of life and usefulness, she was naturally much lamented. The Church hurriedly sent a deputation to Peter; and when he arrived the “widows wept, and showed him the coats and garments which Dorcas made while she was with them.” They could not speak much for their tears; but they could exhibit the work; and the widows’ tears and garments were more eloquent than any panegyric. The poor have no grand way of manifesting their sorrow; but they can weep genuine tears, and point to the coats and garments graciously given them by the hand of Charity.
VI. Dorcas was raised to life again. The Church at Joppa sent to Peter. They did not tell the apostle in words what they wanted; but their acts showed it, and he understood it. Thereupon Peter turned them all out, and turned himself to the Lord in prayer; he afterwards “turned to the body, and said, Tabitha, arise.” The miracle of resuscitation was performed: “and when he bad called the saints and widows, he presented her to them alive,” and doubtless she continued the same good work as before--she finished the coats and garments she had only begun. The thread that was broken was mended--the good work still went on. This incident reduces the vast drama of the world to a scale we can grasp. Men and women die; the work of life remains incomplete. Reason staggers. Is there a time of restitution coming? Yes; they that are in their “graves shall be raised up”; the thread of life will be mended--the work begun will be finished. “We spend our years as a tale that is told.” But alas! many die in the midst of telling their tale, they die before fully disclosing the rich meaning of their existence. Shall it never be continued? Oh, yes; “the voice that is dumb shall again speak, the hands that are cold shall again serve. We can write on the tombstones of our friends--“to be continued.” (J. Cynddylan Jones, D. D.)
I. Her character: “a certain disciple.” But in her case, discipleship included not only the belief and profession of Christ’s doctrine, but also a conformity to His example. Her religion was not only real, but eminent. She “was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did.” There are many whose life is filled up with vanity and vice, but is entirely void of godliness. And there are others who are satisfied with low and common attainments. Dorcas “was full”--not full of pretences, words, hearing sermons, and public assemblies, all of which are often the mere “form of godliness.” Hers was the religion of the heart and life.
1. The particular objects of her beneficence. “Widows”--a class of claimants upon kindness and charity more often mentioned in the Book of God than any other, unless it be “the fatherless,” who are commonly noticed along with them. And, surely, none have greater demands upon our tenderness and compassion, and none have richer promises. It would seem that Dorcas peculiarly selected this class of characters for her beneficence. And as the charity of an individual cannot be universal in its efforts, would it not be well for those who wish to do good to have some definite plan of usefulness to pursue? Only, here two cautions are necessary. The one is, not to bind ourselves down so exclusively to anyone class of beneficiaries as to be unable or unwilling to aid other claimants. The other is, not to lay such stress upon our own objects of charity as to think slightly or meanly of those which may be preferred by others.
2. The nature of her charity. Furnishing the poor widows with clothing. There are many cases in which it will be found much more useful to supply the poor with necessaries than to give them the value of these things in money. Many poor persons have a wish to appear decently clad; and upon this ground they excuse themselves from the house of God. How desirable is it to meet their wants in this respect!
3. The manner in which she supplied the relief. The benefits were of her own manufacture. She did not get them made; her alms were not only her gifts, but her deeds. There are some who are ready enough to give who never do anything. Others there are who can do nothing in a way of pecuniary assistance. But there are innumerable ways of being useful; and if you are compelled to say, “Silver and gold have I none,” it becomes you to add, “Such as I have I give; my prayers: my tears; my attentions; my exertions.”
4. The promptitude of her beneficence. It was immediate, not deferred or delayed; but “while she was with them.” Some are future benefactors. They do not refuse, they only procrastinate. “Say not unto thy neighbour, Go, and come again, and tomorrow I will give,” for in the meanwhile he may be no more, and you may be no more. Some are benevolent when they leave us. But dying alms are commonly suspicious: they arise from necessity rather than choice. There is little merit in distributing what you can hold no longer. Be, therefore, your own executors.
II. Her death. Religion does not exempt us from the common calamities of life. This peculiar consideration, indeed, attends the death of the godly, that they are disposed of infinitely to their advantage. But this very consideration also aggravates our grief. In proportion to their gain is our loss. There is nothing, perhaps, in Providence more mysterious than this: that the useful should be snatched away in the midst of their days, while the unprofitable and mischievous are suffered to continue; that a Voltaire should live upwards of fourscore and ten years, while a nation prematurely mourns over a Josiah, the poor widows over Dorcas, their friend and helper. But God has a right to do what He will with His own; and very often these dark dispensations are enlightened and relieved by some effects which serve to discover their design. At this season Peter was sent for and came. It seemed useless, but he knew it was well to be “ready to every good work,” and he knew that “the things which are impossible with men are possible with God.” No sooner was Peter arrived than a scene was presented that was sufficient to melt a heart much less tender than Peter’s (verse 39). Here we may remark that the value of persons is sometimes not known till they are gone. This is the case, indeed, with all our mercies. The praise of this good woman was like her alms, real and sincere. Here are no hired mourners, no verses, no eulogy; but garments which her own hands had made; and widows with their tears. The best posthumous fame you can acquire is derived from the commendation of facts; from a child you instructed, a sinner you reclaimed. The best proofs of your importance are to be found in the affections and benedictions of your fellow creatures while you live, and in their regrets and lamentations when you die. I hate dry-eyed funerals. Though it is distressing, it is also satisfactory to see genuine grief. Do all thus die? Do oppressive masters? Do the hard-hearted, and the close-fisted? Peter happily can do more than “weep with them that weep”; and he applies himself to his work. He “put them all forth.” First, from a principle of humility; he did not wish to be seen. And, secondly, from a principle of importunity; company might have hindered the intenseness of his devotion.
III. Her resurrection. Peter prayed and Dorcas arose; and then Peter “gave her his hand, and lifted her up, and presented her alive.” Oh! for the painter’s pencil! Oh! to see him giving, and them receiving this present! “There, take your benefactress, and dry up your tears.” This is very instructive. It shows us that kindness was the principle of the miracle; not self applause. Then Peter would have required her to follow him as a standing proof of his supernatural powers: but he resigns her to those who stood in need of her services. And does not this show us the importance of beneficence? Were we left to judge, we, perhaps, should have thought it better for Stephen to have been raised up than Dorcas. But God revives the one and leaves the other in the grave, perhaps, to teach us that our thoughts are not His thoughts; that persons whose excellencies are of a retiring character may be more important in the eye of Heaven than those who are more brilliant and marvellous; and that, in some cases, a good life may be as valuable as good preaching. Whom does He, by a miracle, bring back from the arrest of death? A hero? a politician? a philosopher? No! One who made garments for the poor! And does He not hereby show us that He takes pleasure in those who, like Himself, delight in mercy; and that “He is not unrighteous to forget their work and labour of love, in ministering to the saints”? In a word, does He not say, “Them that honour Me, I will honour”? But you ask, was this a privilege to Dorcas?--to be brought back into a vale of tears, and again to have to “walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” after she had happily passed it?--I answer, Yes! It was a marvellous distinction conferred upon her; and it added to her usefulness, and to her reward. The saints on earth have one privilege above the saints in heaven. It is in the means and opportunities of doing good. (W. Jay.)
Dorcas raised to life
The faith of this woman was of the highest type; her belief was more than a theological assent to the truth; her faith worked by love and purified the heart. “This woman was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did.” Notwithstanding the faith of Dorcas “It came to pass in those days, that she was sick, and died.” There are several considerations that press upon us in view of these facts. Sickness is not necessarily an indication of sin on the part of the individual attacked by disease; neither is illness to be attributed to a lack of faith. It is God’s purpose to let the physical forces of the universe take, in most instances, the natural courses He has made; He has good reasons why diseases should be allowed, in the majority of cases, to develop through the various stages of their natural history. Sometimes we can see the good that comes to us from illness; not unfrequently it brings forth the fruit of a new purpose. There are times, however, when for His glory God interferes with the natural order of things, and brings to pass supernatural results. As the Church members turned their faces heavenward, God put it into their hearts to send for Peter, a dozen miles away at Lydda. Perhaps Peter had not the slightest idea what he would be called upon to do, but he started out. By the time he had reached the city he had received Divine illumination as to the course that ought to be pursued. Entering into the house, “Peter put them all forth,” that his mind might not be distracted from any suggestion that the Spirit might make to him, and he “kneeled down and prayed.” Others equally deserving a resurrection had died and were buried without a word of prayer for their resurrection. Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost,” was not called back from the spirit world. It was for the glory of God that the first martyr was taken by “devout men” from the bloody stones that had been hurled at and upon him, and carried “to his burial.” It was for the good of the kingdom of God that Peter was inspired to ask for the return of Dorcas to her work, and Christ heard the petition He had Himself put into His servant’s heart. The results. There was joy in the household of Dorcas; the night of weeping had passed, and the morning of joy had come. The results abundantly justified the exhibition of miraculous power in the cities of Lydda, Joppa, and Caesarea. The inferences drawn from the healing of AEneas and the raising of Dorcas, so far as the topic in hand is concerned, may now be stated.
1. Holiness is not a bar to disease, although a Christian life tends to health and longevity.
2. Remedies are to be used under the advice of skilled physicians.
3. God usually permits diseases to run through the varied stages of their natural history.
4. There are times, however, when it is for the glory of God’s kingdom that the Head of the Church should arrest disease by the direct action of His own Spirit.
5. When it is the purpose of Christ to “bear our sicknesses,” He illuminates the minds of certain faithful disciples, impressing them with the belief that petition offered for healing will be granted.
6. Faith exercised upon the gift of especial illumination will be honoured.
7. No person has been raised from the dead since apostolic times; therefore no illumination has been given for this purpose; supposed illuminations have been hallucinations.
8. The highest type of faith expresses its needs according to the best knowledge at the time, and trustfully leaves the outcome to Him who has said, “Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask Him.” (J. M. Durrell.)
I. The life of dorcas. The brief biography is exceedingly full, though it is comprised in a single verse (verse 36).
1. Her appearance. It is a most absurd notion that useful women must be commonplace in their looks. The name given to this excellent Christian worker suggests that she was attractive and graceful.
2. Her character. One word is here employed, nowhere else to be discovered, that some assert it was here invented for this occasion--“a disciple”; in its ordinary application this means a learner, but the term here is new, and signifies a female learner. Those were days of degradation for the weaker sex until Christianity came.
3. Her activity. She could not have merited the name of the agile denizen of the desert, if she had not been as brisk as she was affectionate.
(1) “Handsome is that handsome does.” When a Christian lady gives herself to real work for those who are in trouble, there springs up a rare, new, unconscious beauty even in her features, which spreads over her whole life like sweet, bright sunshine.
(2) Dorcas was “full of good works,” and not of good wishes alone. So her needle was as noble as Moses’ rod, or David’s sling, or Shamgar’s ox goad; for it was her answer to the Lord’s question (Exodus 4:2).
(3) All these works were done by, not the “Dorcas Society of Joppa,” but by Dorcas. Evidently this was not a woman who bought off from labour by a contribution. Perhaps she was so busy in making “coats and garments,” that she had no time to make an association. Some people lose a great deal of force in running around to get machines, and then lose more yet in running the machines they get. Organisation sometimes helps; but too much is apt to hinder. It has been known that the election of one secretary has taken more of zeal than would have fitted out three missionary boxes.
II. The death of Dorcas.
1. Even the best of people may die early.
2. Even Christian people may mourn sometimes.
3. We are bound to weep with those that weep. Very fine example is this of the oneness of sympathy among the primitive believers; they sent up to Lydda for Peter to come and aid them with counsel in their sore distress.
III. The resurrection of Dorcas. Peter’s action must be laid alongside of Elisha’s (2 Kings 4:33). Also with Christ’s (Mark 5:40-41.5.41).
1. It was done by the sovereign and miraculous power of God. All talk about collusion, trick, animal magnetism, is not worth discussing.
2. But Simon’s faith shines more illustriously than ever. When the rationalists point to his close imitation of the “Talitha” of Jesus in his “Tabitha” we may thank them for a beautiful suggestion; it is likely he did think of his Master then.
3. Imagine Dorcas’s surprise when she first opened her eyes. How strange it is that no one of those persons who were raised from the dead ever attempted to tell the story of what they saw or heard. As one of the ancient Christian poets said of Lazarus, she was superstes sibi--her own survivor.
4. Still she did not set up for a saint, and go on exhibition. She simply went to work once more among the widows. All Joppa heard of it, and many believed in the Lord. (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
Dorcas: the lessons of her life and death
I. The good are the really rich. Those who are full of good works and of almsdeeds are better off than those with full bank accounts.
II. Good works are the test of Christian life. If one is not fruitful in good works, he is not joined to Christ.
III. The good are not spared by death because of their good works. His sickle cuts down the fairest flowers as well as the obnoxious weeds.
IV. Death shows how much the good are appreciated, as it shows, also, the little value of a money popularity.
V. The deeds of the good remain to testify for them after death has taken them away. (S. S. Times.)
The Christian needlewoman
There is in Joppa a woman with her needle, embroidering her name ineffaceably into the charities of the world. In the room where she sits are the pale faces of the poor. She listens to their plaint, and with gifts she mingles prayers and Christian encouragement. Then she goes out, and all through the street the cry runs: “Dorcas is coming.” That night a half-paid shipwright reaches home; sees his little boy well clad, and they tell him: “Dorcas has been here.” But there is a sudden pause in that woman’s ministry. All through the haunts of wretchedness the news comes: “Dorcas is sick!” And now, alas, for Joppa! there is wailing. That voice which had uttered so many cheerful words is hushed; that hand, which had made so many garments for the poor, is cold and still. In every place in that town, where there is sickness, or hunger, or guilt, or sorrow, there are despairing looks and streaming eyes as they cry: “Dorcas is dead!” They send for Peter. He urges his way through the crowd, kindly orders that the room be cleared, prays, and in the strength of Him who is the resurrection, exclaims: “Tabitha, arise!” We see in this subject Dorcas--
I. The disciple. If I had not seen the word “disciple,” I would have known this woman was a Christian. Such music as that never came from a harp which is not stringed by Divine grace. I wish that the wives, and mother, and daughters of this congregation would imitate Dorcas in her discipleship. Before you sit with the Sabbath class, or cross the threshold of the hospital, etc., attend to the first, last, and greatest duty--the seeking for God and being at peace with Him.
II. The benefactress.
1. History has told the story of the crown and of the sword; the poet has sung the praises of nature; I tell you the praises of the needle. From the fig-leaf robe prepared in Eden, to the last stitch taken last night, the needle has wrought wonders of kindness. It has preached the gospel, it has overcome want with the war cry of “stitch, stitch, stitch.” Amid the mightiest triumphs in all ages and lands, I set down the conquests of the needle.
2. I admit its crimes. It has butchered more souls than the “Inquisition”; it has punctured the eye; it has pierced the side; it has struck weakness into the lungs; it has sent madness into the brain; it has pitched whole armies of the suffering into crime and wretchedness.
3. But now I am talking of Dorcas, I shall speak only of the charities of the needle. This woman was a representative of all those women who make garments for the destitute, knit socks for the barefooted, prepare bandages for the lacerated, who make up bales of clothing for missionaries.
4. What a contrast between the benevolence of this woman and a great deal of the charity of this day! Dorcas did not spend her time planning how the poor of Joppa were to be relieved; she took her needle and relieved them. She was not like those who sympathise with imaginary sorrows, and then laugh at the boy who has upset his basket of victuals, or like that charity which makes a rousing speech on the benevolent platform and goes out to kick the beggar from the step. The sufferers of the world want not so much tears as dollars, not so much smiles as shoes, not so much “God bless you’s” as jackets and frocks. There are women who talk beautifully about the suffering of the world, who never, like Dorcas, take the needle and assault it.
5. I am glad that there is not a page of history which is not a record of female beneficence. The Princess of Conti sold all her jewels that she might help the famine struck. “Maud, the wife of Henry I, went down amid the poor, and washed their sores and administered to them cordials. But why go so far back or so far away? Before the smoke had gone up from Gettysburg the women of the North met the women of the South on the battlefield, forgetting all their animosities while they bound up the wounded and closed the eyes of the slain!
III. The lamented. There may have been women there with larger fortunes and handsomer faces; but there was no grief at their departure like this at the death of Dorcas. There are a great many who go out of life and are unmissed. There may be a large funeral, high-sounding eulogiums, a marble tomb, but the whole thing may be a sham. The Church has lost nothing; the world has lost nothing. It is only a nuisance abated, or a grumbler ceasing to find fault; or an idler stopped yawning, or a dissipated fashionable parted from his wine cellar. While, on the other hand, no useful Christian leaves this world without being missed. When Josephine was carried out to her grave, there were a great many women of pride and position that went out after her; but I am most affected by the story that two thousand of the poor of France followed her coffin, wailing until the air rang again, because they lost their last earthly friend. “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord; they rest from their labours, and their works do follow them!”
IV. The resurrected. In what a short compass the great writer put that, “she sat up!” What a time there must have been when the apostle brought her out among her old friends! How the tears of joy must have started! You and I have seen the same thing--not a dead body resuscitated, but the deceased coming up again after death in the good accomplished. If a man labours up to fifty years of age serving God, and then dies, we are apt to think that his earthly work is done. No! Services rendered for Christ never stop. A Christian woman toils for the upbuilding of a Church through many self-denials and prayers, and then she dies. Now hundreds of souls stand up and confess the faith of Christ. Has that Christian woman who went away fifteen years ago nothing to do with these things? The good that seemed to be buried has come up again. Dorcas is resurrected. After a while all these womanly friends of Christ will put down their needle forever. After making garments for others, someone will make the last robe for them. Then, one day there will be sky rending, and that Christian woman will rise from the dust, and will be surrounded by the wanderers whom she reclaimed, by the wounded souls to whom she administered. The reward has come. Dorcas is resurrected! (T. De Witt Talmage, D. D.)
The appropriate duty and ornament of the female sex
1. I shall not inquire whether the female mind is, in all respects, the same with that of the other sex. Whatever opinion may be formed on this subject, we shall all agree that women ought not to be considered as destined to the same employments with men; and, of course, that there is a species of education, and a sphere of action, which more particularly belong to them. There was a time when a very different doctrine was growing popular: viz., that in education and employments all distinctions of sex ought to be forgotten and confounded. This delusion, however, is now generally discarded. But an error of an opposite kind has gained a lamentable currency. This is, that the station of females is so humble, and their sphere of duty so limited, that they neither can nor ought to aspire to extensive usefulness. This is the mistake of indolence or of false humility, and is plainly contradicted by reason, Scripture, and experience.
2. The contrast between the representations of Scripture and the sentiments of the world seldom appears in a stronger light than it does on the subject of which we are now speaking. In the codes of modern infidelity and licentiousness, as well as among uncivilised nations, woman is exhibited as the mere servile instrument of convenience or pleasure. In the Bible she is represented as the equal, the companion, and the help-meet of man. In the language of worldly taste, a fine woman is one who is distinguished for her personal charms and polite accomplishments. In the language of Scripture, she is the enlightened and virtuous mistress of a family, and the useful member of society. The woman who is formed on the principles of the world, finds no enjoyment but in the circles of affluence, gaiety, and fashion. The woman who is formed on the principles of the Bible, “goeth about doing good.” The business of the one is pleasure; the pleasure of the other is business. The one is admired abroad; the other is beloved and honoured at home. From the representations of sacred writ it is manifest that the ornament and the duty of the female sex are as appropriate as they are important, and that they pertain especially to the relations which they bear as--
I. Wives. On their temper and deportment, more than those of any other individuals, it depends whether peace, affection, order, and plenty reign in their dwellings, or waste, confusion, discord, and alienation disgrace them.
II. Mothers. Children, during the first years of their lives, are necessarily committed almost entirely to their care. And the impressions which are then made generally decide their character and destiny for this life and for that which is to come.
III. Domestic relations.
1. How much may every daughter, by dutiful and affectionate conduct towards her parents, promote the happiness of the whole household, and by her example contribute to the improvement of all around her!
2. How much solid good may every sister daily accomplish by assisting to educate her younger brothers and sisters, in promoting the regularity, order, and comfort of the family, and in recommending, by her whole deportment, the wisdom of economy, the sweetness of benevolence, and the purity of holiness!
3. How much may every female servant contribute to the advantage of the family! It was a little maid in the house of Naaman, the Syrian, that directed her master to the prophet of the Lord.
IV. As members of society. Let no woman imagine that she has nothing to do beyond the sphere of her own household.
1. In every walk and hour of life she may be contributing something to the purity, the order, and the happiness of the community. The influence of the female character in forming public taste and public manners is incalculable. No false sentiments can have much prevalence against which they resolutely set their faces. No corrupt practices can be general or popular which they are willing to expel from society.
2. To the female sex also properly appertains a large portion of those offices of charity to which we are constantly called. They are best acquainted with domestic wants, and are the best judges of domestic character. They have more sympathy, tenderness, leisure, and patience than men.
Let me apply this subject--
1. By inferring from what has been said, the unspeakable importance of female education. If the female character be so important, then the formation of that character must be equally so.
2. By recommending the character which has been drawn especially to the young. It is a character which involves the highest honour, and which embraces its own reward. It ought to be your ambition to possess and to evince a sound understanding, and a respectable portion of literary knowledge. But it ought to be more especially your ambition to cultivate your hearts. To be so many Tabithas, adorning the doctrine of God your Saviour, and diffusing happiness among all around you, would be infinitely more to your honour, as well as your comfort, than to stand in the list of those masculine females who, while they gain a proud civil preeminence, really disgrace their sex.
3. By encouraging those who are engaged in female charitable associations. “Be not weary in well-doing.” Your task is arduous; but it is still more delightful, and shall “in no wise lose its reward.”
4. In conclusion, “the time is short, and the fashion of this world passeth away.” Like Dorcas, we all must soon sicken and die. Do we resemble this excellent woman, in our character and hopes, as well as in our mortality? We cannot resemble her unless we are disciples indeed. We may “give all our goods to feed the poor,” and “our bodies to be burned,” and yet be nothing more than “a sounding brass, and a tinkling cymbal.” But those deeds of charity which spring from a living faith in a living Redeemer; those works of obedience which are performed from a principle of love for His name--these are “the good works and the almsdeeds” which shed a lustre around the bed of death. (S. Miller, D. D.)
The useful are sometimes snatched unexpectedly away
(verse 37):--With many it is ebb water before the tide be at full. The lamps of their lives are wasted almost as soon as they are lighted. The sand of their hourglass is run out when they think it is but newly turned. But success before God depends not on the duration of one’s life. The husbandman may pluck his roses and gather his lilies at midsummer, and he may transplant young trees out of the lower ground to the higher, where they have more of the sun. The goods are his own. The heavenly Husbandman makes no mistakes. (S. Rutherford.)
The poor should be cared for
(verse 36):--Charity should be warmest when the season is coldest. That is the time for coals and blankets. It will warm your heart to warm poor people’s bodies. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Power in the gospel
Here is a lesson which shows the power of the gospel in two directions--the elements of gospel power and the effects of gospel power.
I. The elements of power in the gospel. What forces are disclosed in these verses?
1. We see the power which dwells in organisation. This is hinted in Peter’s journey “throughout all quarters.” The bands of disciples throughout Judaea were united under a central head and with a form of discipline. Unity gives power.
2. We see the power in sympathy. Peter found the palsied AEneas; Dorcas sought out the needy and sorrowing; and in the Church we note the interest which prompted the sending for Peter. This care for others has ever been an element of power in Christianity.
3. We note also the power in character. A character like that of Dorcas could not remain concealed. One who lived to do good could not help exerting an influence. The character and influence of God’s people are most potent factors in the spread of the gospel.
4. But mightier than all human elements is the Divine power of the gospel. AEneas arose to health, and Dorcas was called back from death through the supernatural power of a living Christ. These were the tokens of a power for which no human philosophy can account in the history of the Church. Miracles more wonderful in the conversion of souls are of daily occurrence.
II. What effects of gospel power do we see in this story?
1. Holiness; expressed in the name “saints” applied to the followers of Christ. Christianity has given to the world a new ideal of character.
2. Practical works of usefulness. Christians have been at work feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, relieving the needy, ever since the days of Dorcas. Every hospital and asylum and charitable institution on the earth is a tribute to the power of the gospel.
3. Growth. Verses 35 and 42 call attention to the growing numbers of the Christian Church. The gospel is a seed reproducing itself by the million. This is another result of its inward power.
4. Victory over death. The restoration of Dorcas to life was only a feeble type of the more wonderful triumph of the Christian over the grave. Hers was a few hours after death; ours may be a few centuries. Both her restoration and our resurrection are wrought by the same power. (Monday Club Sermon.)
A devoted woman
An American paper tells the story of a woman who, because tired of a life mainly employed in dressing and eating, resolved to devote herself and her money to a nobler purpose. At the close of the war she went to a sandy island off the Atlantic coast, where about two hundred persons were living in poverty and ignorance, and established her home there, with the intention of benefiting the inhabitants. She began with teaching, by example, how to cultivate the land lucratively, and was soon imitated. Next she established a school for the children, and afterwards a church. Now the island is a thriving region, with an industrious and moral population, the change being the work of one woman.
Noble womanly service
When even the old coloured woman Katy, who earned her own livelihood; who sold cakes from day to day; who in her lifetime took forty children out of the poor house, and taught them trades, and bound them out in places of prosperity; who took no airs upon herself; who lived on the abundance of her poverty--when she died out of her sphere nobody thought to ask, “What has become of her?” She was buried, perhaps, so obscurely that no person could say, “I am sure here is where her old rattle-bones lie.” But there went up heavenward a radiant procession, amidst an outburst of song, heralding the approach of some bold conqueror, crownless and sceptreless. It was the resurrected spirit of this servant of God. She lived at the bottom here, but there she lives in eternal fame. At last she broke into her crown of light, and ascended her throne, and took her sceptre. Thou that art doing noble things and asking no praise; thou that art living to do good because it is sweet to do good, and be like Christ, and bear His cross, and walk with Him in sorrow, go up, thy Christ waits for thee. And come down, thou hoary head of power that on earth art despoiling God’s fair creation as food for thy lowest appetites, and living in selfishness for thyself alone; there is no road between thee and God that does not break short on the gulf between earth and heaven. The last shall be first, and the first shall be last. Seek for glory, but be careful what kind of glory you seek. Work for fame, but look out that you work for the fame that addresses itself to the top of the brain, instead of that which addresses itself to the bottom. (H. W. Beecher.)
Traits of a noble woman
We have seen many beautiful tributes to lovely woman, but the following is the finest we ever read: Place her among the flowers, foster her as a tender plant, and she is a thing of fancy, waywardness, and folly--annoyed by a dewdrop, fretted by the touch of a butterfly’s wing, ready to faint at the sound of a beetle or the rattling of a window pane at night, and she is overpowered by the perfume of a rosebud. But let real calamity come, rouse her affections, enkindle the fires of her heart, and mark her then! How strong is her heart! Place her in the heart of the battle; give her a child, a bird, or anything to protect, and see her in a relative instance, lifting her white arms as a shield, as her own blood crimsons her upturned forehead, praying for her life to protect the helpless. Transplant her in the dark places of the earth, call forth the energies to action, and her breath becomes a healing value, her presence a blessing. She disputes, inch by inch, the stride of stalking pestilence, when man--the strong and brave--pale and affrighted, shrinks away. Misfortune haunts her not. She wears away a life of silent endurance, and goes forward with less timidity than to her bridal. In prosperity she is a bud full of odours, waiting but for the winds of adversity to scatter them abroad--pure gold, valuable, but untried in the furnace. In short, woman is a miracle, a mystery, the centre from which radiates the charm of existence. (Great Thoughts.)
Caring for others
You have heard it said, and I believe there is more than fancy in the saying, that flowers only flourish rightly in the garden of someone who loves them. I know you would like that to be true; you would think it a pleasant magic if you could flush your flowers into brighter bloom by a kind look upon them; nay, more, if your look had the power, not only to cheer, but to guard them. And do you think it not a greater thing than all this you can do for fairer flowers than these--flowers that could bless you for having blessed them, and will love you for having loved them, flowers that have eyes like yours, and lives like yours, which once saved you save forever. Is this only a little power? Far among the moorlands, far in the darkness of the terrible streets, these feeble florets are lying with all their fresh leaves torn, and their stems broken--will you never go down to them, nor set them in order, nor protect them from the fierce wind? (J. Ruskin.)
The work for Christian women
A Christian lady, who was engaged in work for the poor and degraded, was once spoken to by one who was well acquainted with both the worker and those whom she sought to reach, and remonstrated with for going among such a class of people. “It does seem wonderful to me that you can do such work,” her friend said. “You sit beside these people, and talk with them in a way that I do not think you would do if you knew all about them, just what they are, and from what places they come.” Her answer was, “Well, I suppose they are dreadful people; but if the Lord Jesus were now on earth, are they not the very sort of people that He would strive to teach? And am I better than my Master? Would He feel Himself too good to go among them?” A poor, illiterate person, who stood listening to this conversation, said with great earnestness and simplicity, “Why, I always thought that was what Christians were for.” The objector was silenced, and what wonder? Is not that what Christians are for? If not, then what in the name of all that is good are they for? (Christian Herald.)
The resurrection of Dorcas--a type
I. There precedes--
1. Sorrow and sympathy of a mourning Church: the weeping widows.
2. Prayer of God’s believing servants: the praying Peter.
3. The awakening call of the Divine Word: Tabitha, arise.
II. There follows--
1. The first signs of life in an awakened soul: she opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up.
2. Friendly assistance for the life yet weak: he gave her his hand and lifted her up.
3. Loving reception into the Church: he presented her alive.
4. A blessed impression upon many. (K. Gerok.)
The home mission, a call to our time
I. To whom addressed. Arise, spirit of love. Hear its evangelical Christianity. And if men will not hear it, then shame them, ye women, who from the days of Tabitha have always been foremost in works of love and heroic deeds.
II. Wherefore addressed. Great is the need of the time, and great the obligation of rescuing love.
III. Whence addressed. Not from without. The work of home mission is no mere matter of fashion; the arm of the world can be of no use in it; the Lord Himself must be present, Peter must come; God’s Word with its strength, the Church with its blessing, the spiritual office with its love. (K. Gerok.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Acts 9". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent